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From the light-hearted and straightforward, through to the significantly more complicated, Christie's collection of six reasonably short stories, headed by the eponymous "The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding" sees both Poirot's and Miss Marple's investigative capabilities put to the test, though never together. Gathering and extending some earlier works together in this compendium in 1960, this group of tales reveals to us the scope of Christie's most famous detective's ability to eradicate the falsehoods and uncover the realities of some perplexing situations. As a diversion from the more intricate full-scale novels, this set of narratives bears further scrutiny, the adaptations that have been placed upon the earlier pieces often placing them firmly within the decade they were reissued, whilst retaining the body of those stories they were derived from. Through examining each one in turn, this review shall determine whether this book deserves to be compiled, or whether it amounts to little more than the regurgitation of some purely average works in order to increase Christie's publications.
Commencing with the initial story, "The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding", this is a reasonably simplistic novella which sees Poirot ensconced in the grand house of Kings Lacey's a guest of its owners and their relations in order to recover a great ruby which has disappeared under the most suspicious of circumstances. Drawing strongly from Christie's own recollections of her childhood Christmases - she states in the foreword that it is "an indulgence of my own, since it recalls to me, very pleasurably, the Christmases of my youth", this title piece is a celebration not merely of Poirot's talents, but also of various festive traditions, some of which exist only sparsely, if at all, nowadays. Although it should not be taken in any way to be an in-depth work, since it is fairly clear from the start that the guilty party is and Poirot need scarcely do any work, it can be enjoyed for the sheer relaxation and amusement it brings. Moreover, the dynamics between the various relations and the other guests presents us with some interesting insights into human nature. The gradual realisation by Sarah that her new boyfriend Desmond is not really as interesting or suitable as she believes him to be is heightened not merely by the subtle ploys undertaken by her grandmother, but by the behaviour of Desmond himself. Christie emphasises the stark differences between the perceived glamour of Sarah's city setting and the more sedate atmosphere of Kings Lacey and thus allows us to observe how Desmond's sneering and condescending nature is heightened. Remarkably similar to David Baker from "Third Girl", in many ways Desmond Lee- Wortley is a caricature of the "unsuitable boyfriends" that are mentioned fleetingly by both Poirot and Miss Marple in numerous stories. The contrast between him and the placid character of David Welwyn is undertaken in a minor way, but one which does not fail to make the point, particularly with the brief scene in which David and Diana Middleton go for a walk and Desmond persuades Sarah that to do so is tedious. When she admits later that the overall atmosphere of Kings Lacey is something she secretly enjoys, it is evident that the gaps in the burgeoning relationship are beginning to become apparent.
The characters of Mrs and Colonel Lacy are interesting, though not strongly relevant to the investigative part of the narrative. Mrs Lacey is similar in temperament, though not detective ability, to Miss Marple, her gentle nature not quite concealing a very astute mind. Colonel Lacy exists more as a contrast to his wife, more bluff than bluster and someone who could almost certainly have been written out of the story without too much effort. The three teenage cousins who concoct another mystery for Poirot to solve are noticeable more for the fact they appear much younger than fifteen year olds in the twenty-first century appear to be. Reminding us more of, perhaps, 11 or 12 year olds, it is difficult to ascertain whether Colin, Bridget and Michael really were meant to be representative of their age at the time, or whether Christie had younger children in mind when she wrote the story.
In many ways an anachronism, more closely linked with the earlier times, in which it was originally written, "The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding" is, nevertheless, a narrative which entertains us. Whilst danger is strongly hinted at, there isn't really the impression that it is serious and so simple is the case that it is more of a diversion to Poirot than anything else. Rather patronising in places - particularly with its account of some of the servants, if these parts are either overlooked, or placed in the context of the time they were written, the overall narrative is quite pleasing.
Within "The Mystery of the Spanish Chest", we are witness to a strong change of pace and, therefore, observe Poirot in one of his most baffling deductions. With a seemingly cast iron case against one Major Rich, the story commences with the information that the body of an Arnold Clayton has been discovered, stabbed, in the large chest which resided in the flat of Major Rich. Faced with such overwhelming odds, the task placed before the detective from Belgium is seemingly insurmountable, since even Major Rich's defence lawyers believe him to be guilty. As a consequence, when the solution is laid before us, Christie has ensured that it is both intriguing and - as far as a fictional work can be - somewhat believable. Again as much a study of human nature - and inferring forcefully upon the play of Othello - "The Mystery of the Spanish Chest" indicates Poirot's abilities at some of their strongest. Able to determine the complexities of the situation, the investigator establishes a powerful case against the guilty party.
It is, in fact, this second story in the collection that perhaps comes most closely to the stereotypical image of a Poirot mystery. With a small group of closely connected suspects and witnesses, of a somewhat privileged background and with Poirot himself interrogating various characters in turn, before coming to his conclusions, this is indeed a condensed version, in psychological means, of such pieces as "The Mysterious Affair at Styles", "The Murder of Roger Acroyd" or "Lord Edgware Dies". Whilst it is doubtful the narrative could be extended beyond its relatively brief length, it is, nonetheless, interesting for being one of Poirot's greatest challenges.
Closely associated, in terms of it being apparently clear who the guilty party is, yet with Poirot not automatically assuming the apparent status quo, "The Underdog" is an interesting novella that observes the detective placed within the enclosed environs of the household of the late Reuben Astwell, a character who reminds us, through the descriptions of him given by the other people in the story, of such personalities as Rex Fortescue from "A Pocketful of Rye" and Simeon Lee from "Hercule Poirot's Christmas". Via his usual methodical logic, the detective ascertains from a plethora of confusing information, which the murderer of Reuben is. That he should do so is never in any doubt, where the strength of this tale lies is in Christie's ability to concoct not only a motive but also a plausible means for the killing to be accomplished in a way that ensures the truth is not fully uncovered until the end. Although parts of it do stretch the imagination somewhat, particularly the final means that Poirot uses to entrap the perpetrator, it does show him in a fairly strong light and presents to the reader an interesting conundrum. Relying once more upon the country house restricted environment, Christie reveals her abilities to weave together various personalities and situations in a closeted situation without detracting from the narrative. Sometimes amusing - the character of Lady Astwell reminds us somewhat of that of Lady Coote from "The Seven Dials Mystery" - and at other points rather intense, "The Underdog" is one of those pieces in which, in retrospect, it appears very clear who the murderer is, yet this does not detract from our enjoyment of it.
It is; perhaps, best to consider the fourth story in the collection - "Four and Twenty Blackbirds" in the same guise as one of those "locked room" mysteries, since it appears - on the surface - to be a rather complicated affair. After observing the peculiar eating habits of an elderly man at a restaurant, Poirot then discovers that this person has died shortly afterwards, in somewhat suspicious circumstances. Never particularly in-depth and, moreover, being one of the shortest narratives in the book, it serves primarily to show Poirot's abilities to use his reasoning. Unfortunately it does appear to be somewhat clichéd; though Christie has ensured that there is a strong enough twist to lift it above the mediocre rating it might otherwise have been rated with.
Poirot's investigations within "The Dream" provide us with, if not the strongest work within this collection, with perhaps the most puzzling one. After being informed by the wealthy business magnate Benedict Farley that that man has recurring nightmares of shooting himself at a set time, it comes as somewhat of a surprise when this incident actually occurs. Placed with the difficult task of determining whether the death is down to some deep seated desire for suicide, or whether more sinister reasons are behind it, Poirot's deductions are put to the test in this short story. Again, it appears - in hindsight - blindingly evident how the case could have been undertaken - yet until it is revealed Christie manages to give us enough of a mystery to make it worth reading. As with the title of the tale, there is a sense of unreality which runs throughout it, yet this serves to heighten the rather dark atmosphere which is hinted at within it. Moving away from the usual haunts of large houses to a purely business setting, "The Dream" is a case taken from a slightly unusual angle, appearing more of a personal challenge to Christie to see if such a situation could be credible than anything else.
Christie's decision to include the final story - "Greenshaw's Folly", is, in all probability, an error on her part, since it is the weakest in the group. The sole Miss Marple mystery within the book, it is both unbelievable and half-hearted in its approach. The death of the elderly Miss Greenshaw - and the motives surrounding it - are solved so rapidly by Miss Marple, that we scarcely feel as though there has been any investigation. We are expected to believe that a seemingly random humorous comment on the part of Miss Greenshaw is worthy of intrigue and, although it indicates Miss Marple's constant paralleling of human natures and awareness of the microcosms of interactions, it does require a stretch of the imagination to accept that the murder can be solved partly because of it. Too brief to really have a chance of establishing itself, "Greenshaw's Folly" could have been safely removed from the final publication without any real loss.
In conclusion, whilst "The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding" (by which is meant the book as a whole) is not an appalling work - and indeed has one or two rather strong stories - it is difficult to see what could be gained from its publication other than gathering some of Christie's earlier works together and increasing them slightly. Certainly it does have, for the most part, the ability to entertain and amuse and Poirot's character and detection is as noteworthy as ever. However, there is little truly original within this collection and it is thus one which serves as very light reading.
Agatha Christie's seasonal Poirot and Marple short story collection, reissued with a striking new cover designed to appeal to the latest generation of Agatha Christie fans and book lovers. First came a sinister warning to Poirot not to eat any plum pudding! then the discovery of a corpse in a chest! next, an overheard quarrel that led to murder! the strange case of the dead man who altered his eating habits! and the puzzle of the victim who dreamt his own suicide. What links these five baffling cases? The little grey cells of Monsieur Hercule Poirot!