Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Agatha Christie's Final Literary Effort

I'm quite certain you could not say that "Postern of Fate" — Agatha Christie's novel that was published 40 years ago this month — was the best thing that Christie ever wrote.

Nor was it the last book she published.

But it was the last book she ever wrote.

She lived a few more years after the publication of "Postern of Fate," and one more book was published in her lifetime ("Curtain," Hercule Poirot's last case), but it was written decades earlier (as was the last Christie book, "Sleeping Murder," Miss Marple's last case, which was published posthumously).

The story didn't deal with either Poirot or Marple, Christie's two most popular — and most frequently used — detectives. Instead, it was something of a return to her roots — to Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, early but seldom used detectives who, unlike Poirot and Marple, had aged along with Christie. That may have been her way of addressing the stages of her life.

Anyway, in "Postern of Fate," Tommy and Tuppence had purchased a property they intended to renovate into a retirement home. While they were unpacking, Tuppence happened onto a collection of children's books; it was when she was looking at a book by Robert Louis Stevenson that she noticed that portions of the text had been underlined.

This had been done in an apparently random manner — until Tuppence noticed that it wasn't words but letters that had been underlined. On closer inspection, Tuppence found that the letters formed a series of sentences that said that someone named Mary Jordan did not die of accidental causes and that the author of the sentences knew who was responsible.

Although retired, Tuppence still had a taste for intrigue and began investigating. She was convinced that the coded message was not a prank.

Turned out there had been a Mary Jordan on the property many years before, and she had died by what was considered an accident. Apparently, the cook had picked some herbs that were poisonous and put them in the salad.

The more Tuppence looked into the matter, the more she discovered. Even after many years, the gossips in the town remembered Mary Jordan and that she had been involved in something that had to do with secrets of some kind. There was even a suspicion that Mary Jordan hadn't been her real name.

Tuppence's seemingly harmless investigation took on more sinister overtones when the elderly gardener (who remembered a lot of what had happened in those earlier days) turned up dead himself.

I first read the book when I was a teenager. It wasn't until I was an adult that I began to think about certain things that had always bothered me.

For example, Tommy and Tuppence at times seemed to be suffering the kinds of effects of aging from which Christie herself probably suffered. Conversations were repeated frequently before Tommy and Tuppence seemed to grasp their significance. As a result, readers were inclined to reach some conclusions long before the detectives did.

Christie was 83 when "Postern of Fate" was published. I don't know a lot of the background of her manuscript. Perhaps she had been writing it for years and was imagining, as writers do, what things would be like for her characters, given the conditions and limitations she had imposed on them in the story. Perhaps not.

Most reviews I have read of "Postern of Fate" suggest that it was possibly the worst book she ever wrote, that she should have stopped before she did.

Maybe so.