As already mentioned in a previous entry, books were a large part of our lives growing up; they still are. And along with the heavy tomes of history that we slogged through, there were the pleasant diversions; the summer reads, if you will. And the all-time favorite of both my Mom and I was the work of Agatha Christie, the Queen of Crime. They were in a class by themselves; not revered or as sensual as the Sherlock Holmes stories, or as frightening as the works of Poe, but just as entertaining, and quite clearly enduring. Just recently, there was another big picture release of her Murder on the Orient Express (It is great fun), with yet another all-star cast. Television constantly does adaptations of her work, and there isn’t a crime novelist alive today that wasn’t influenced by her, whether they would admit it or not. Hers were not stories dependent on the filling out of the background, the minutia of the setting, the crassness of the potboiler. No, hers were the epitome of the English Who Done It. And in keeping with the agreed upon rules of the society of Mystery Writers, she never cheated. The idea was that through the course of the story, she would provide all the clues you needed to solve the crime, if indeed as Poirot would say if you used your “little grey cells”, you could figure out the solution to the mystery. The worst of the genre were the writers who in the last chapter would introduce a character, a long lost cousin with a motive for murder, or the long-forgotten caretaker of the manor, whomever it was, there was no way you could see it coming. Where the hell were they the whole time I have been reading this, I would ask; that’s not fair! And indeed it wasn’t, thus the establishment of some “rules of the game”.
Ok, now the memory part. During those hazy warm summer afternoons in Hopatcong, when the lunch dishes were done, and it was that special part of the day that is given over to relaxation, invariably Mom would sit on a lawn chair and read a Christie paperback. I would sit nearby, reading another one. When we would take a break, we played the fun game of exchanging plotlines and clues from our own respective books. We each would then ponder, ask questions, and pose possible solutions. Back and forth this would go, the deeper into the books we went. We were careful after we had finished the stories, never to reveal the solution; the Who of the Who Done It. Then we would exchange books and do it all over again. Interestingly enough, this improvised method allowed us to utilized those little grey cells, and see if, as we were now reading the book the other person had finished, we could piece it all together based on both the written words and our previous back and forth discussions. It was great fun and after a few summers of it, we got pretty good at nailing the bad guy before the final reveal. Dad would walk by every once in a while, a can of paint or a bucket of rocks in his hand, and shake his head; he had little patience for this kind of thing, and honestly wouldn’t have been able to name the murderer if the culprit was standing next to him with a bleeding dagger in his hand. He truly did have more important things to be doing, though truth be told when I think back on those times, it isn’t the fresh coat of paint or the new walkway that I remember as important, it’s those idyllic hours with Mom reading, discussing and sharing ideas that I remember best and most fondly.
Years later in the 70’s, there was the first big screen production of Murder on the Orient Express released. Mom and I made sure we avoided that book, as we wanted to see if our deductive powers were as good as we thought they were. I won’t spoil the ending, in the rare chance you haven’t read it or seen it (it is considered one of Agatha’s classics), but needless to say, Mom and I sat there in the darkened theatre whispering to each other throughout the movie. Dad was lost, as I am sure most were in the audience, and indeed when the solution was revealed, and the lights went up, Mom and I looked at each other, stunned. Hadn’t seen that coming. The Grand Dame of the British Murder Mystery had done it again. Of course we talked about the film for days, rehashing all the clues we had missed, and only then allowed ourselves to read the book. We learned our lesson – just when you think you are the master of the plate, a really good pitcher can throw you a curve ball that makes you look like an amateur in the bush leagues. Agatha could throw some pretty damn good curveballs.
Even more years later, when I had fulfilled a dream and made a trip to London, I, of course, had to go see The Mousetrap in the theatre it had been playing in nonstop for over fifty years. I know it was a touristy thing to do, but I enjoyed the hell out of it (even though I had read this one so knew how it would come out), and have gone back to see it in the same theater every time we have gone back to that beautiful glorious, stunning city. I was amazed that at intermission on the first occasion of seeing it, as we stood in line for a refreshing gin and tonic, a guy started talking to us, asking if we knew who had done it. I had thought everyone in the world knew this story by now, but that is how us Agatha fans think. I assured him we had no idea and we shared our thoughts, enjoying our drinks, But the most affecting thing about the experience was the feeling I had as I sat in the dark, with Les on one side of me, that Mom was sitting on the other, enjoying the ride as much as we were. I just knew she would never have forgiven me if I didn’t go see the play on my first time to London; it was a shared dream of ours to see it in Agatha’s home country. Mom never made it there, at least in the flesh, but I can assure you she was there with me for every twist and turn of the plot. And when the curtain came down I turned to her next to me and nodded and she nodded back. Got it that time. The old grey cells had worked, and this time we hit that curveball out of the park.
So, thank you, Dame Agatha, for countless hours of pure enjoyment, and thank you, Mom, for turning me on to what has become one of the real joys of my reading life.