Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Good Short Fiction: Three Tales from The Thirteen Problems

Collection: The Thirteen Problems
Author: Agatha Christie

In The Thirteen Problems, all of the stories, except for the last one, emerge in the following way. A group of people meet at someone's home and take turns sharing real-life mysteries. The story-teller knows the solution to the mystery, and the others have to guess it based on the clues provided.

Miss Jane Marple is present in each group, and because she's an old-fashioned, unprepossessing spinster who's lived in a small village all her life, nobody thinks to include her at first. They don't know that living in a village has given her many opportunities to study human nature, and behind her gentle demeanor is a steeltrap mind that misses little. Unsurprisingly, she amazes them all.

What I liked about the collection as a whole was that it shows some of Christie's strengths as a writer. Each tale is a puzzle that the reader can try to solve before Miss Marple presents the solution; the reader feels like one of the participating guests. In each tale, Christie does a number of things efficiently. She carefully lays out each mystery, using well-sketched characters and clever misdirection. She also highlights the personality of each story-teller based on what he or she chooses to share with the guests, who often rib each other and make amusing or interesting remarks as the tale unfolds. As such, she's sustaining two levels of story, one with the circle of guests, and the other with the tales they share.

Three of the tales stood out for me enough to write about them here.

The Blood-Stained Pavement
Joyce Lemprière, an artist, shares this tale of murder, deceit and dripping blood.
"All the time he was talking to me I went on painting, and suddenly I realised that in the excitement of listening to his story I had painted something that was not there. On that white square of pavement where the sun fell before the door of The Polharwith Arms, I had painted in blood-stains."
The scene is a small Cornish fishing village, where Joyce sits outdoors to paint and gets into a conversation with a man who tells her about some bloody local history; centuries ago, a former landlord of the inn she's staying at was slain by a Spanish captain. At first, Joyce thinks that the story of the captain has led her to imagine drops of blood on the ground, but as it turns out, the inn is now hosting a murderer.

Several dramatic twists and multiple changes of clothing later, Miss Marple correctly identifies the culprit(s). She also tells us that life in a quiet, peaceful village is never as quiet and peaceful as we think:
"There is a great deal of wickedness in village life. I hope you dear young people will never realise how very wicked the world is."
The Blue Geranium
This one tells the tale of Mrs. Pritchard, an invalid who liked to meet with psychics and fortune-tellers. One of them warns her that blue flowers will spell her doom:
'I have seen the Future. Be warned before it is too late. Beware of the Full moon. The Blue Primrose means Warning; the Blue Hollyhock means Danger; the Blue Geranium means Death...'
Portentous flowers and some basic chemistry form the basis of the murder.

Motive v. Opportunity
This isn't a tale of murder, but of a man, Simon Clode, who's fallen under the spell of an unscrupulous charlatan (Christie has fun with all sorts of charlatans in her stories). After the death of his beloved granddaughter, Christobel, Simon starts to consult with an American medium, Eurydice Spragg, about contacting Christobel's departed spirit. His nephew and nieces fear that he'll include Mrs. Spragg and her husband in his will. Who stops him from making this foolish mistake?