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Pastimes: Bodies in libraries

10 January 2007

by Michael Tickner

AS A CHILD, I was fascinated by the contents of the family bookshelves, and spent hours looking through them. What particularly captured my imagination were well-thumbed paperbacks by Agatha Christie. They had luridly coloured covers — usually a close-up of a terrified blonde, wide-eyed and red-lipped, with a creepy old house or a trench-coated man in the background.

Some had titles that seemed familiar: Hickory Dickory Dock; One, Two, Buckle My Shoe; A Pocket Full of Rye. But I guessed that these were no mere books of innocent nursery rhymes, and that something deliciously sinister lurked within.

When I finally read them, I wasn’t disappointed. I started with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. What a treat: suicide, blackmail, murder — it had it all. The novel has the mother and father of all twists, and I couldn’t wait to get my teeth into another. They were glamorous and thrilling: stylish cocktail-sipping sophisticates in evening wear, harbouring motives for murder.

I loved the whole trains-boats- and-planes-ness of the Poirot novels. He travelled the world in style, happening upon evil doings. The characters enthralled me, especially the rich-old-dragon women. Christie did a good line in imperious hags. These harridans are never above suspicion: their claw-like hands are perfectly capable of gripping a dagger or aiming a pistol.

If it’s dangerous to go trotting around the globe to exotic places, it can also be hazardous to stay at home. The idyllic English country village may not be as safe as it seems. Mysterious shadows lurk behind the chintz curtains. Vicars, doctors, lawyers, spinsters — all people you trust and respect — take on a new aura when murder occurs.

The cosy rural landscape belongs to another Christie creation: Miss Marple. No wool could be pulled over her china-blue eyes. While the local police went round in circles, she would be gathering clues like wild flowers, and working it all out. All she needed was a call from Dolly Bantry saying “Jane? There’s a body in the library!” and off she would go. I can honestly say that not once did I correctly identify the culprit.

If you think you know the stories through film and tv, think again. The adaptations twist things, leave out characters, merge two characters together, even change their sex.

I don’t try to find a moral aspect. If you look hard enough, there might be one, but that misses the point. Someone, usually unpleasant, gets killed. But, more often than not, most of the suspects are pretty nasty anyway. No, for me, these stories are purely escapist delights to savour like a lovely box of chocolates.

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