19 July 2009

Review: THE THIRTEEN PROBLEMS, Agatha Christie

First published in 1932 by William Collins. My copy was published by Fontana Books in 1971 (before ISBNs), 192 pages. The collection is also known as The Tuesday Club Murders in the US.

THE THIRTEEN PROBLEMS consists of 13 short stories, all dedicated to demonstrating the cleverness of Miss Marple, who mainly solves the mysteries by comparing them to her observations of life in St. Mary Mead. The stories marked the debut of Miss Marple. The first set were published in 1927-28, and therefore preceded her debut novel THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE which was published in 1930.

The first story is The Tuesday Night Club and it sets the scene for the next 5 stories.
The author Raymond West is staying with his aunt, Jane Marple in the village of St. Mary Mead.
Apart from Raymond and Miss Marple, there are four other people in the room, the occasion simply an evening in Miss Marple's house. Other people might play charades but Raymond West suggests they think about unsolved mysteries. One of the guests suggests they form a club, call it the Tuesday Night Club, to meet every week, and each member has to propound a problem. It seems at first that Miss Marple will be left out but the others courteously include her.
As the evening progresses, each of the guests tells a story, and then the others each attempt a solution. Invariably the story teller knows the answer and only Miss Marple guesses correctly.

The stories generated are
  • The Tuesday Night Club - Sir Henry Clithering, until recently Commissioner of Scotland Yard, tells a tale about tinned lobster that caused a fatal case of food poisoning. December 1927.
  • The Idol House of Astarte - Dr. Pender is an elderly clergyman. He tells the story of paganism and the time when he saw a man "stricken to death by apparently no mortal agency". January 1928.
  • Ingots of Gold - this story is recounted by Raymond West and is about a Cornish village called Rathole (a sly dig at the real village of Mousehole?) and treasure from the Spanish Armada. February 1928.
  • The Bloodstained Pavement - Joyce Lempriere, the artist, also tells a tale from the village of Rathole, of a husband and wife playing the cruellest trick of all, the duping and eventual murder of another woman. March 1928.
  • Motive & Opportunity - Mr Petherick is a solicitor, "a dried-up little man with eyeglasses which he looked over and not through." His tale is of spiritualism and of a will that is eventually found to be a blank sheet of paper. April 1928.
  • The Thumb Mark of St. Peter - this is Miss Marple's story, about her niece Mabel who married a man with a violent temper, and who is suspected by the locals of causing his death. May 1928.
The proposed Tuesday Night Club doesn't seem to have met again, or at least not regularly as was first proposed.

Some months later, Sir Henry Clithering goes to stay with friends, Colonel and Mrs Bantry who live near St. Mary Mead. Mrs Bantry is arranging a dinner party and Sir Henry suggests Miss Marple as the sixth person for the party. He mentions the memorable evening the year before in Miss Marple's house. Mrs Bantry adds Miss Marple to the invitations and suggests they try her out on "Arthur's ghost story" after dinner. There are 6 people at the dinner table and after dinner the stories are told.
  • The Blue Geranium - This is Colonel Arthur Bantry's tale. He is a red-faced, broad shouldered man who tells his "ghost story" at his wife Dolly's prompting. It is about a "dreadful" woman who had a weakness for fortune tellers, palmists and clairvoyantes, until the latest warns her against blue flowers, and the flowers on her bedroom wallpaper begin to change colour. December 1929.
  • The Companion - Dr. Lloyd is the grizzled elderly doctor who for the past 5 years has administered to the ailments of the village of St. Mary Mead. His tale is from time he spent practsing on the Canary Islands. Tragedy struck when two English ladies, one the paid companion of the other, came to stay, went swimming, and the companion drowned. February 1930.
  • The Four Suspects - Sir Henry Clithering tells the story of a marked man, hiding from a secret society, to whom he assigns a protector. Unfortunately the man is still killed, in an apparent accident falling down the stairs, but Clithering suspects the very man he sent in as the protector. January 1930.
  • A Christmas Tragedy - Mrs Bantry, Dolly, protests she doesn't have a tale to tell, so Miss Marple tells the story of the murder of a young wife, she had been convinced would happen, and failed to prevent. January 1930.
  • The Herb of Death - Mrs Bantry can't get out of telling a tale, and so she tells a tale of what had appeared to be a case of accidental poisoning when foxglove leaves were picked with sage, and roast duck stuffed with the mixture. But even she doesn't see what really happened, but Miss Marple works it out. March 1930.
  • The Affair of the Bungalow - Jane Helier, a beautiful young actress, tells the story of a "close friend" but Miss Marple sees through it and gives her some timely advice. May 1930.
The final story does not come from either of the preceding occasions, but is a collaboration between Sir Henry Clithering, again staying with the Bantrys, and consulted by Miss Marple, who says she knows who has committed a local murder.
  • Death by Drowning - a local St. Mary Mead girl has been drowned. At first it is thought to be suicide but Miss Marple is convinced it is murder. She asks Sir Henry to intervene in the local investigation to ensure that the true murderer is apprehended. She gives Sir Henry a slip of paper with the name of the murderer on it. November 1931.
As BooksPlease says, this set of stories is "an easy read and the short stories are ideal for reading quickly and in isolation."

All but one of the stories (the exception being The Four Suspects) first appeared in the UK in monthly fiction magazines. You'll see at the end of each description above I have included the first date of publication.

For more information see Wikipedia and the Agatha Christie site.

My rating: 4.5

I've read this as part of the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge.
I've now read 12 Agatha Christie novels, and 4 sets of short stories.


Margot said...

I love your review of this one. I can't wait to get to it. Miss Marple is my favorite but I have many months to go before I get to her.

Kerrie said...

This one was an interesting read Margot. I have a post schdeuledthis week about Miss Marple - whether Agatha Christie changed her mind about her age and appearance.

Unknown said...

Hi there. Great review!

Just dropping by as the host of the Aug 2nd edition of the Book Reviews Blog Carnival, to let you know I've added you to the post.

Thanks for submitting your review. :o)

Kerrie said...

Thanks Bart. And thank you for hosting the Blog Carnival next time. It is a great idea isn't it?

Carl V. Anderson said...

I've thought often about reading Christie but never have. I love Miss Marple and this looks like a wonderful place to start. Great review!

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