Three Grand Dames of Mystery : “Postern of Fate”

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Postern of FateTommy and Tuppence have grown up, and now in their 70s, they settle in the house formerly known as The Swallows’ Nest and now The Laurels in the area of Hollow Key in Postern of Fate, the last book Agatha Christie wrote in 1973 before dying in 1976. While enjoying the books she and Tommy bought from the previous owners, Tuppence finds a secret message entered in code by Alexander Parkinson many years earlier in a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Black Arrow: “Mary Jordan did not die naturally. It must have been one of us. I think I know which.” So Tuppence gets involved in the final detective case of both her and Agatha Christie’s lives, dragging Tommy into the “problem” as well.

Tuppence gets involved in the community, asking questions of everyone around her, where she learns that Mary Jordan was an au pair girl shortly before the First World War. At this time their community was scandalized by the arrest of a German spy who stole submarine secrets. Rumors suggested that Mary Jordan might have been a spy as well. She died while at the home of the Parkinsons, who were a prominent family in the community, when one night someone “accidentally” mixed in some foxglove leaves with the spinach, giving everyone food poisoning, with just one person, Mary Jordan, dying. Foxglove is the basis of an old heart medication, digitalis, that would kill with a minor overdose, providing an easy method of murdering someone while looking like an accident. In addition to Tuppence’s doing local research, Tommy does his own form of research with records and in talking with people in the intelligence services and other positions of knowledge.

This book has a delightful flavor to it, but it is very evident that Christie was failing mentally when she wrote it. In fact, this article in The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/apr/03/agatha-christie-alzheimers-research
discusses a study performed by academics that included the fields of English and computer science at the University of Toronto. They compared the use of vocabulary choices, repetition of words and phrases, and the use of indefinite terms such as something or someone between Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and her last few books. She actually lost 15 to 30% of her vocabulary and increased repetitions dramatically. These researchers came to a conclusion: “These language effects are recognised as symptoms of memory difficulties associated with Alzheimer’s disease.” Though Christie was never diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, researchers now think it a strong likelihood, and that is something that Postern of Fate bears out. There are many repeated conversations and confusion about how things fit together, and Christie didn’t really lay out the clues for us readers to be able to solve the mystery if we are clever enough (I usually am not). But the most noticeable confusion relates to the time frame of everything. Mary Jordan would have died during the days of, or a little before, the first Tommy and Tuppence book, The Secret Adversary. They recognize this at certain points of the book, while in other parts, they think she died long before they were born. In fact, at one point Tuppence goes to the pensioners club to talk to the most senior of the senior citizens, and one woman knew about Mary Jordan because her great-aunt told her that her own aunt gave her the story. This makes the story of Mary Jordan seem ever so much older than it could possibly have taken place.

But despite these frustrations, if you approach the book as an unreliable text, a subgenre that seems to be becoming more popular lately, you can appreciate the humor of the book and the enjoyable flavor of the whole story. The pair have a lot of fun bantering back and forth, and it is fun to see Tuppence deal with the community. She comes across China menu cards that came from a fancy meal held at the house on the very night of Mary Jordan’s death and also the night of the census, which gives Tommy access to finding out who lived in the house that night. Tuppence’s friends get excited to see the cards because this was a special meal at which they tried all sorts of new foods, including lobster salad, an exotic treat. She also finds a birthday book, where friends all wrote their birthdays in it and personal comments that made me think of our messages written in our annual school yearbooks.

The true star of Postern of Fate, however, is Hannibal, the Manchester terrier who belongs, er, owns Tommy and Tuppence. It is so obvious that Christie not only must have had dogs but adored them and got into their mindset. Sometimes we hear Hannibal talking, while other times we hear others speaking his thoughts. In one place, Hannibal makes it clear to Tuppence that contrary to wanting to hurt her, he wanted to eat her up because he loved her so much. He also yells at the vacuum cleaner, the Hoover, “I’ll tear you limb from limb!” He keeps going on with his yelling, er, barking, at the Hoover about how much he hates it and is determined to attack it. And in the end, Hannibal saves the day. This may be the first book in which a dog solves the murder!

Bill Wallis performs the audiobook version I listened to, though Hugh Fraser has recorded a version now too. I really like the job Wallis does in this because he has the voice of an older man that so ably suits this book about a senior citizen couple. I really picture him as Tommy’s position as a senior man who is still active mentally and physically.

Though Postern of Fate has very obvious weak points, I still enjoy it a lot and have listened to it many times. If for no other reason, people should read this book just to get to know Hannibal, who is genuinely my favorite dog in literature! But readers must be alert to the fact that Christie likely had Alzheimer’s while writing this book, so you read this book for the flavor and not for the same ingenuity you will find in Christie’s earlier works. With this caveat, I give this book four stars.

To purchase this book for yourself, click here on Amazon.

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