Crime Fiction Alphabet: F is for Five Little Pigs

I love Agatha Christie, but I have always been a little bit wary of the nursery rhyme books:

  • A Pocket Full of Rye
  • Hickory Dickory Dock
  • Five Little Pigs
  • Crooked House
  • One Two Buckle My Shoe

The concepts just seemed a little bit too contrived, a little bit forced.

But then a lovely facsimile edition of Five Little Pigs appeared in the library. I had to pick it up and look at it more closely. I was intrigued. I brought the book home. I read it. And now I have to admit that it really is rather good.

Hercule Poirot is prevailed upon to reinvestigate a murder that happened some sixteen years earlier.

A young woman, soon to be married, had learned that her mother had been convicted for the murder of her father. But, before her death, her mother had a left a letter to be given to her daughter on her twenty-first birthday. A letter that, clearly and simply, said that she was not guilty.

But the case against her seemed clear. Amyas Crale had a string of mistresses and affairs, and his latest flame had told his long-suffering wife, Caroline , that she was to be divorced so that Amyas could marry her.

The next day Amyas was dead, poisoned by the beer that his wife brought to him while he was painting his young mistress in the garden.

Caroline didn’t fight, she accepted her fate …

Poirot begins by questioning the key players in the prosecution of Caroline Crale.

Each has different memories, each paints a different picture of the woman accused of her husband’s murder.

And then he moves on to the alternative suspects, the five little pigs of the title.

This little piggy went to market.

Phillip Blake: Amyas’s closest friend. A second som who would not inherit the family estate and so he went to the city and forged a successful career

This little piggy stayed home

Meredith Blake: Phillips elder brother. He inherited the family estate and was every inch the country gentleman.

This little piggy had roast beef

Elsa Greer, now Lady Dittisham: Amyas’s young mistress. She had money, status and power, but she was still bitter at what she had lost.

This little piggy had none

Cecilia Williams: The governess, who had been devoted to her mistress but knew that she must be guilty.

And this little piggy went wee wee wee, all the way home

Angela Warren: Caroline’s young sister. Angela was horribly scarred by Caroline in a freak accident, but she had risen above it to become a huge success in the world of academia.

Poirot’s charm – and his cleverness – come to the fore as he meets the quintet and persuades each to write their own account of the events leading up to the murder.

Wonderful portraits are painted of five very different characters, and the psychology is very clever.

I have to say that the women are particularly good. The cold society woman who becomes passionate when she recalls the woman who, she says, destroyed her life. The meek governess who is so pleased to hear of her former pupil’s success. And the successful professional woman who so clearly loved the sister who hurt her.

The mystery is baffling. Caroline must be innocent. Caroline must be guilty. I was confounded.

She was the most intriguing character of them all.

Poirot pulls together little details from the five stories, to build a new conclusion that is both elegant and credible. Everything falls into place perfectly.

The final scene is simple and striking.

Job done, done very well.

And now I must ponder those other nursery rhyme mysteries …


The Crime Fiction Alphabet is hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.

“Each week, beginning Monday 10 January 2011, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”

So next week, G is for … ?

Ups and Downs on a Bookish Jaunt

After a difficult couple of weeks at work my fiance recognised that I needed a spot of bibliotherapy. And so yesterday morning he suggested a trip to Redruth, home of Cornwall’s largest secondhand bookshop which has proved to be a very happy hunting ground for me in the past.

I readily agreed, and off we went.

But when we arrived the shop was shut. We were in normal opening hours, there were no notices except the one that shows opening hours, and yet there was no sign of life.  peering through the window, we could see that inside some books were still on shelves but others had been boxed up.

I’ve sent an email, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed. We have already lost one shop in my home town, one in Helston, and two in Falmouth over the last few years. I’m doing my best to keep Cornwall’s secondhand bookshops in business, but I can’t do it alone!

We were disappointed, but we pressed on, seeking out lost gems in the market and the charity shops. We found lots of books, but nothing that either of us wanted.

But eventually I struck gold, in what I can only describe and a dark and dusty emporium, selling all kinds of everything.

On the right hand wall were bookshelves, full of tatty, aged books. And among them I found some gems.

Anne Morrison by Richmal Crompton

“Although unconsciously his character had its effect on hers, consciously he made no effort to mould her. She was the joy, comfort and relaxation of his life. He took her as she was – perfection.”

I have heard much praise for Richmal Crompton’s novels for adults. Sadly though, with the honourable exception of Family Roundabout, which has been reissued by Persephone Books, they seem to be as rare as hens’ teeth. So when I saw this little volume from the 1920s I pounced, even though I know nothing about it.

Unfinished Portrait by Mary Westmacott

“It was many years later that Celia realised exactly what her mother’s feelings were at the time. She had had a dull girlhood herself – she was passionately eager that her darling should have all the gaieties and excitements that a young girl’s life could hold.”

After I read Laura Thompson’s autobiography of Agatha Christie a couple of years ago I was very curious to read the romantic novels that Mrs Christie published under the name Mary Westmacott. They were out of print, the library couldn’t help, and so is I let it go – but when I found a 1960s paperback for a mere 85p I had to pick it up.

A Village in Italy by Beverley Nichols

“”Ooh, ye ice and snow, bless ye the Lord!” cries the vicar, with such boyish exultation that one feels he would like to run out and  make a snowball, here and now, and throw it up with a shout of glee, to the grey sky … up and up till a white hand fluttered out, far above, and caught it, and turned it into a star.”

The lettering on the spine had nearly disappeared, but there was just enough left for me to spot that this was a book by Beverley Nichols that wasn’t in my collection. And when I opened it I found beautiful illustrations by Rex Whistler that would have been worth the asking price even without the writing of a beloved author.

Three wonderful books and a spot of lunch saved the day!

We returned to the car park in good spirits, and in good time to be home for low tide and take Briar down to the beach.

And then the car wouldn’t start. Fortunately we had plenty of reading material while we waited for the man from the RAC. He saved the day, Briar had her walk before the tide came in too far, and then I retired to the sofa to contemplate my books.

Not quite the day we had planned, but a lovely day nonetheless.

Bibliotherapy works!

Crime Fiction Alphabet: A is for Agatha

I picked up my first Agatha Christie novel – I think it was Murder at the Vicarage – when I was still at school, and I’ve read, and often re-read every book I could find since then.

I’ve watched many film and television adaptations too.

I find that the first time around I’m bedazzled by the mystery, second or third time around I’m recalling details that slipped my mind the first time and admiring plot mechanics, and after that I am simply enjoying the company of an old friend and appreciating just what makes that particular book special.

The ABC Murders definitely had old friend status when I picked it up for a re-read last month. I’ve read it several times over the years, and I have watched the excellent ITV adaptation with David Suchet more than once.

As I read this time I was able to stand a little further back than I had before and survey the proceedings, and that allowed me to see just how this particular book weaves its spell.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot – if you don’t know it already, you should discover it with as little foreknowledge as possible. So I shall simply share the words that appeared the dust jacket of the first edition back in 1926.

“Agatha Christie, “the best of all crime novelists,” has, as one critic truly says, “set herself such a standard that even she will scarcely excel it.” Yet year by year, book by book, her ingenuity increases, her power as a novelist develops, and her wit becomes keener. Now with The ABC Murders, her own greatest triumph and a classic of crime fiction, she sets a new high-water mark in the history of the detective story.

The idea of the story is as brilliant as its execution. The murderer in this case is evidently a maniac, for he seems bent on working his way through a whole alphabet of victims. Beginning with A, he murders a Mrs Ascher at Andover. Proceeding to B, he strangles Betty Barnard on the beach at Bexhill. For C, he chooses as his victim Sir Carmichael Clarke of Churston. And as a sign of his method he leaves beside the corpse on each occasion a railway ABC open at the name of the place where the murder has taken place. ABC….. how far through the alphabet will he get. It seemed that nobody would be able to catch him. But he made the mistake – the one that every murderer makes – when, out of sheer vanity, he challenged Poirot to frustrate his plans.”

And so to what I noticed this time around – it’s time, I think, for a list!

  • The story is one that could only ever be fiction, but it is as the jacket says: “The idea of the story is as brilliant as its execution.” That I still firmly agree with that statement after re-reading a story that I already knew inside out is, I think, testimony to the quality of this book.
  •  Hastings returns! After appearing in the first few Poirot novels he was despatched to the Argentine, returning for just a few more appearances in later novels. His appearance in this book was very well judged. It needs him as narrator, and Poirot needs him as a foil. I noticed this time around that  friendship rang true, and I understood its dynamic!
  • Unusually, Poirot finds himself working alongside the police trying to catch a serial killer. Elements typical of more modern police procedurals are present, and reports of incidents that the narrator has not seen but has had reported to him when he puts together his final account after the case is closed. None of this is the norm for Mrs Christie, but she handles these strands well, and they make the ABC Murders seem more modern than many of her works.
  • The story holds its grip to the very ending with the plot ticking over nicely and key characters simply but effectively drawn. It’s an ending that has many of the traditional Christie elements – a gathering of interested parties, a single, seemingly obtuse question to each – and yet there is something different too, and a very different feel ….

And now, I think, I cannot say more without saying too much as I am heeding the more words from the original dust jacket.

“In recommending this story to your friends, please do not hint at anything that might spoil their pleasure in reading it.”

My most recent re-read was definitely a pleasure.


The Crime Fiction Alphabet is hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.

“Each week, beginning Monday 10 January 2011, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”

So next week, B is for … ?

Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks by John Curran

“In August 1948 Penguin Books made publishing history when they issued one million Agatha Christie novels on the same day – 100,000 copies of each. This venture was such a success that it was repeated five years later.”

That’s an awful lot of books. And how many more have been sold – and borrowed – since then? How many films? How many television dramatisations? Amazing numbers!

You would think that everything to be said had been said by now. But no! This lovely book offers something new.

A few years ago Agatha Christie’s heirs decided to pass The Greenaway, her riverside home in south Devon, to the National Trust. When the Trust started to renovate the property its former owners notebooks came to light. Seventy three of them!

Not orderly notebooks but notebooks that were grabbed when the need to write anything down arose. Shopping lists. Character lists. Story ideas. Random thoughts. There’s an awful lot there, but not everything. Many works are unmentioned. So presumably Mrs Christie lost notebooks and wrote things on the backs of envelopes like the rest of us.

John Curran has done a wonderful job of organising the material to give a picture of how many well-loved books developed. They grew in all sorts of ways. From a character. From a setting. From and object. All sorts of things changed along the way, and very often the murderer and their motive wasn’t settled on until the very last moment.

He is clearly very knowledgable and, while he clearly loves Mrs Christie’s work, he is quite prepared to step back a little and be objective.

There are so many wonderful little facts. Gems are scattered throughout the book. Cases transferred between Poirot, Miss Marple and Parker Pyne (I’d forgotten him). Ideas picked up, dropped, and then sometimes picked up again for another story. Characters changing names and evolving. It really is fascinating.

(Of course plot points and killers’ identities are given away, but titles discussed are listed at the start of each themed section and at the start of each piece about a specific book. Which seems reasonable to me.)

And so I find myself reminded of books I’d quite forgotten. Happily recalling others. noting a few that I don’t think I’ve read yet. I want to read and re-read every single one. And then I want to look again at what this book had to say – I’m definitely going to need a copy of my own!

Library Loot


Library Loot is a weekly event hosted by Eva and Alessandra to share the library books we find each week.

i’ve taken out three books this week:


A House to Let by Charles Dickens

Another Hesperus Classic. I loved The Haunted House so I ordered a couple more of Dickens’ portmanteau novels. This was the first to arrive and it looks very promising.




In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden

I loved Rumer Godden’s books for children but I forgot until quite recently, when I noticed her name on the credits of the film “Black Narcissus” that she wrote for adults too.




The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

I read Laura Thompson’s excellent biography of Agatha Christie last year and it inspired me to reread a few of her books. When I saw a nice facsimile edition of Mrs Christie’s first novel on the library shelf it seemed like a good place to start!