02 April, 2010

Book 50 - "...all the secret agents following each other round and round Geneva, all knowing each other by sight, and often ending up at the same bar"

Title: Cat Among the Pigeons (1959)

Author: Agatha Christie

Why this book:
I, um, accidentally tripped into a second-hand bookshop, and then I bumped into a bookshelf and this book just happened to fall into my hands, and then as I was trying to get rid of it I dislodged my cash and it just flew onto the counter, and for some reason the bookseller thought I was trying to buy it, and I was too flustered to explain that that wasn't what I had intended to do at all. Honestly.

What's it about?
Murder most foul, of course!

In the fictional Middle Eastern country of Ramat, a revolution is about to take place. Warned ahead of time, Prince Ali Yusuf entrusts a very important package to his friend and pilot, Bob Rawlinson. Bob hides it away for safekeeping, then does his best to fly Ali to safety. But the plane is lost...

...and some months later, at his niece's school, a gymteacher is shot dead in the brand new Sport Pavilion. She won't exactly be missed, since she's very new and she's not very likeable, but for a school like Meadowbank reputation is everything, and having a murdered teacher in one's sport pavilion does not exactly increase the school roll. What exactly was Grace Springer doing there that night, and who would have a reason to kill her?

The school headmistress, the successful Miss Bulstrode, has felt since the beginning of term that something is wrong - but what? It's not just that one of her new staff members is a government spy, or that the Prince Ali Yusuf's former fiancee may get kidnapped at any time. Luckily, one of the school's best and brightest pupils, Julie Upjohn, knows just who to ask for help - a certain Belgian detective...

The Good and the Bad
I was always going to love a book which melded my two favourite genres - detective fiction and girls' boarding school stories - and Cat Among the Pigeons was everything I had wanted. Thrills! Murder! Tennis! I think I read the entire thing with a goofy grin on my face. The plotting, the insight into the characters, the twists and turns and red herrings, everything about this book screams that this is Christie at her best.

But - and this is a big but - this should never have been a Poirot novel. He only turns up more than halfway through the book, and feels like an interloper, an uncomfortable presence. He solves the mystery - of course - but the book simply feel imbalanced after he appears. I can't exactly blame Christie for Poirot's appearance. She was constantly being hounded to write more about him; she got to the point where she came to loathe her own creation (and even invented a fictional detective writer, who obviously represented herself, who similarly hated her most famous detective, obviously an outlet for Christie's frustration.) But she could have worked him more naturally into the story, if she had to have him, rather than have him appear at the end like a thunderstorm raining down the denouement on the unprepared reader.

Other issues? Well, there's some dodgy racial opinions going on - Ramat will never be a democracy because, it's implied, the people of Ramat aren't capable of understanding the benefits of it. Prince Ali Yusuf, of course, has the benefit of a superior Western education, which is why he wants to reform his country. A Middle Eastern country rejecting Western values could almost be a contemporary storyline - but the suggestion in Cat Among the Pigeons is that the prince's subjects simply aren't enlightened enough to want to change. Completely usual thinking for someone of Christie's age and era, I guess, but that doesn't make it grate any less.

I loved the melding of thriller and detective yarn, though - and, given that I also enjoyed Destination Unknown I'm definitely keen to read a few more of Christie's thrillers, however far-fetched they may be.

So should I read it or what?
The day I find a Christie I wouldn't recommend will be a traumatic day indeed.

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