Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to discuss Postern of Fate (1973), the final novel written by Agatha Christie, and will be doing so in full, spoiler-rich detail. Read no further unless you’re willing to be spoiled on this, probably the most-disregarded book in Dame Agatha’s oeuvre.
If you’re going to discuss Agatha Christie, and with this being something of a bittersweet farewell to Christie and worth putting in the wider context of her career and life, you go to the blogosphere’s resident Christie expert, Bradley Aloysius Friedman. Having lived with Christie’s books for longer than Christie herself lived with Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, Brad’s the perfect choice to steer us through this…and so, with a quick reminder of the plot:
A poisoning many years ago may not have been accidental after all…
Tommy and Tuppence Beresford have just become the proud owners of an old house in an English village. Along with the property, they have inherited some worthless bric-a-brac, including a collection of antique books. While rustling through a copy of The Black Arrow, Tuppence comes upon a series of apparently random underlinings.
However, when she writes down the letters, they spell out a very disturbing message:
M a r y – J o r d a n – d i d – n o t – d i e – n a t u r a l l y…
And sixty years after their first murder, Mary Jordan’s enemies are still ready to kill…
…let’s get into it.
Jim: Rather famously, this was the final book Christie wrote, but is there any evidence that she knew it was going to be her last hurrah? Curtain (1975) and Sleeping Murder (1976) were waiting in the wings, but did she decided that Postern of Fate would be the final one, or did it just work out like that?
Brad: It depends on what we surmise about her mental health at the time — and we can only guess since the family has been so protective of her history. I want to remain as positive as is possible in discussing this final novel, so let me say this about Tommy and Tuppence. I feel a great deal of love for them — always have, even if their adventures gave me less joy on re-reading. They amounted to an experiment for Christie: the novels and tales encompassing a larger story in (relatively) real time of a couple of young adventurers who saved the world time and again, solved a few mysteries and, most importantly, fell in love and grew old together. None of these books are particularly cleverly clued or surprising, but that’s not really the point of Tommy and Tuppence. What’s interesting to me is that we get to see them age and we get to see them react/respond to real world events. In contrast, Poirot and Miss Marple seem unaware of the wars around them (well, Poirot was involved in WWI), and yet we do get — especially from Miss Marple — commentary which we can only suppose is authorial about the changes in the social milieu around them. It’s like T&T give Christie a chance to be biographical (to a degree), while Marple is the medium for Christie’s social commentary.
Jim: Nicely put.
Brad: We know Christie had written Poirot’s final adventure during WWII, and while I know you haven’t read Curtain yet, you must be aware that Christie alters Poirot’s physical abilities quite drastically. It appears that scholars are arguing to this day about the exact time Miss Marple’s final adventure, Sleeping Murder, was written, but it doesn’t matter: that novel in no way feels like a final book! You have to look to Nemesis (1971) to get that sense of completion. Nemesis suggests to me that Christie was thinking towards her own end. But it’s — well, it’s weird that she knew where she was taking her sleuths to at the end, but she did nothing in her earlier books to prepare the reader for that. And yet that is exactly what she did do with Tommy and Tuppence.
Look at how she spaced apart the Beresfords: young friends in 1922, young marrieds in 1929, on the cusp of middle age in 1941, (we have to fudge here in the temporal vortex because their kids, who couldn’t be more than 10 and 11, are now doing important war work). We don’t meet up with them again for twenty-seven years, and it feels like they’ve lived every one of those years. Five years after that, we get Postern of Fate, and I can’t help thinking that Christie must have felt that she was saying goodbye to “the old dears” by giving them a case that harkened back to their first WWI spy adventure.
Jim: I’ve always thought of Postern of Fate as The First and Last Goodbye: first because it was the Goodbye Novel the reading public encountered first, and last because, well, it was the final one she wrote. There was obviously something about how T&T related to Christie’s own ageing — and you can find references throughout the books, I maintain — that she wanted to reflect on, a final hurrah for characters she obviously invested with a certain personal meaning. After all, we didn’t get a Goodbye to Superintendent Battle or a Goodbye to Johnnie Race (unless, of course, they crop up in Curtain or Sleeping Murder and ruin my thesis…).
Brad: They do not.
Jim: The way Christie leaves Miss Marple in Nemesis really feels like she, Christie, knows she’s not coming back to that character, and the final scene with Poirot and Mrs. Oliver in Elephants Can Remember (1972) has a deliberately maudlin feel to it, ending on something of a bittersweet note. Here, the Beresfords are left congratulating their dog on becoming a Count of the Realm…now, I love Hannibal as a character, but I wonder whether Christie knew she wasn’t coming back and wanted it to be an inconsequential ending of upbeat proportions, or whether she just wanted the thing to end and didn’t really care how. The contrast with those others is stark, to say the least.
Brad: If I understand it correctly, Max and the beloved secretary never wanted this to be published, but what control did they have over a publishing house that wanted its filthy lucre by publishing anything as a “Christie for Christmas”? One has to wonder why some editor didn’t get on this — not to create a clearer sense of Things Ending, but to create a clearer ending period! And while they were at it, maybe a clearer, cleaner beginning and middle. Is there a point where an author is editor-proof? (Make note to ask that about Elizabeth George’s doorstop novels . . . )
Jim: The key difficulty would be that past the discovery of the message, the true allegiance of Mary Jordan, and the murder of poor Isaac Bodlicott there’s really not much of a plot. Why go to the effort of trying to make it into something it wasn’t, when it would probably sell just as many copies as is? Sad, but true — though I for one am pleased nothing was done (as far as we know…) to tidy it up. The joins would surely have been far too obvious, and it would have felt like bad mimesis.
Brad: These are all good questions. Wasn’t Dorothy Sayers’ final sojourn into the Land of Wimsey much more, er, whimsical than mysterious (Busman’s Honeymoon)?
Plot-wise it is something of a mess, but there’s a sort of beguiling element to it for me. Tommy and Tuppence aren’t at the stage where they’re looking for mysteries, and by happening across the message about Mary Jordan’s death they’re not just going to jump feet first into a possibly fruitless investigation.
“Look here, Tuppence,” said Tommy, “you’re not going to get a thing about this, are you?”
“What do you mean, a thing, about this?”
“Well, I mean working up a sort of mystery.”
“Well, it’s a mystery to me…Oh, Tommy, you must say that it is very intriguing.”
I know it doesn’t make for gripping reading, but there’s a gentleness to their gradual involvement that feels very much like a couple of old dears who aren’t really sure what they’re doing…and I found it charming.
There’s no doubt that it’s a pleasure to see them again. When I first read this, I was something of an “old soul” even though I was only starting university, and I could appreciate the sentiment of what we were getting here. And, dithery as they get throughout the book, there were some great little exchanges:
“You don’t appreciate a faithful husband when you’ve got one,” said Tommy.
“All my friends tell me you never know with husbands,” said Tuppence.
“You have the wrong kind of friends,” said Tommy.
It’s always better when they talk things out because their inner thoughts tend to spiral down a dark hole like the final shot in the shower scene in Psycho (1960). But you know something? T&T’s conversations were always a high point of their books, from the very first “Tommy, old thing!”/“Tuppence, old bean!” exchange. In this instance, I believe that Christie was channeling back to all the houses she had obsessed over through her life. She had a really hard time packing up her childhood home Ashfield after her mother died, and remodelling Greenaway, her dream house, was also a challenge. She pours her memories of messy rooms in one and bad electricians in another into this. The idea of mixing up the two houses is a great metaphor for the state of confusion in which we often find ourselves while reading.
It’s thoroughly unintended, but I also like how apt the end of the epigram is:
Have you heard
That silence where the birds are dead, yet something pipeth like a bird?
If the ‘birds’ here are Christie’s own powers of plot and inspiration, they’re unarguably dead with regards the content of the novel, but the likes of Mary Jordan being unveiled as “one of our lot” has about it the piping of Christie’s earlier, better efforts.
Nobody was inspired by the saying “Old sins cast long shadows” like Christie, and I think her loving fans, raised on Five Little Pigs (1943), the ultimate murder in retrospect, and the much loved but weird Nemesis, as well as those great titles where past crimes inspire present ones, like Murder on the Orient Express (1934), And Then There Were None (1939), and Mrs. McGinty’s Dead (1952) got excited when she went in that direction — even if the results turned out to be like Elephants Can Remember.
I retained a faint hope that Mr. Crispin would turn out to be dodgy come the end…not that I’m sure what difference that would have made. To be honest, beyond the notion of “a sexy letter that you could blackmail someone about, about sixty years ago” which this more or less turns out to be, I don’t think really anything of the plot will be with me in a fortnight.
It does make you wonder if we would all have been perfectly happy with one less Christie. Does By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968) serve as an adequate ending? My guess is – it does. And yet you weren’t around when she was alive, and the excitement for me every December was akin to the Harry Potter craze. No midnight parties at Waterstones, I’ll bet, but I imagine the stores were well-stocked come Christmastime, and my Aunt Rosalie never disappointed!
For all the — not unfairly made — assumptions about Christie’s failing mental state when writing this, there are still some great turns of phrase:
Mr. Bodlicott was not one to shirk giving himself the pleasure of retailing some really good story of past days. These flights of fancy, claimed usually as flights of memory, were usually ushered in with the same type of statement.
Or Tommy visiting Colonel Pikeaway, who “lives in a kind of permanent atmosphere of smoke”, and trying in vain to open a window to alleviate the haze:
[O]bviously it was his not to reason why, his but to inhale and in due course die.
It goes to show, there’s always something worth your time in a Christie novel, even right here at the end, even if you do need to wander down a lot of gently-curving, diverging paths to find it.
Christie had her own way of beginning a book. It wasn’t melodramatic like Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr, or formulaic (but delightful) like Christianna Brand. Christie always had the right blend of daily middle-class life and inciting incident, weaving the important stuff right into the trivial. Think of the folks at breakfast in A Murder Is Announced (1950) or Mrs. McGillicuddy thinking of Christmas on the train in 4:50 from Paddington (1957). In the 70’s, however, Christie lost that balance, and her characters start each novel pretty woolly-headed. Miss Marple seems to spend forever in that garden at the top of Nemesis, reading the paper and trying to remember things. I mean, it’s been only six years since she last met Mr. Rafiel, and it was quite a contretemps — surely she wouldn’t have so much trouble remembering him!
Nemesis is a good counter-point to this one, since there’s that extended section where it seems that the plot will focus on the people on the tour…and then it doesn’t. Here, so much effort is put into the domesticity of Beatrice’s concerns over buying the coat at the wrong price, or of all the Parkinsons who have lived in the village over the years, that I felt sure some of it would come back and be relevant (it had about it the old “scanning over the stories in a newspaper” trope…). And then you realise that, no, she’s just very happy having a happy time with people she likes.
Part of the advantage of this is that you’re left in a certain suspense not knowing which events — the window breaking, the wheels coming off the horse-and-cart she rides down the hill — are deliberate action against Tuppence and her snooping, and which are simply old things falling apart. The disadvantage is that, frankly, I’m not entirely sure Christie herself could have told you.
One of the least attractive tropes of hers was the idea that evil lives on and pretty much stays the same, only with a new but pleasing shape. Nearly all her thrillers touched on this idea. The Siegfried motif in They Came to Baghdad (1951) comes back in Passenger to Frankfurt (1970). I found it well nigh unbelievable that some sinister old conspiracy from the turn of the century was still going strong or that they gave a damn about what a 75+ year-old dotty lady would find in a book. But Christie had a very conservative outlook about pacifism and the evil that men (and women) could do in the name of Peace Forever.
I always think back to the number of times Robert Ludlum — bear with me — would have villains who were essentially a Fourth Reich, as if there’s really no need to go to the effort of coming up with a tangible and original bad guys, since it’s just as easy to write “…and it’s Nazis”. When the villain’s intentions are as vague as they tend to be in They Came to Baghdad or Passenger to Frankfurt, I feel that a nebulously-realised antagonist is the best kind — no need to waste time getting into subtleties, disappear some scientists and get on with things. Same here: since there’s no real scheme, there’s no real villain.
That’s why one of my favorite Ludlums is The Osterman Weekend (1972), which a lot of fans despise. I love how it turns out to be something quite different.
The other “cheat” for me is what you mention above about the Parkinsons: the message in the book ends with “It was one of us,” which clearly promises a whodunit and then completely fails to deliver. We should have known that, this being a Tommy and Tuppence book, it would most likely be a thriller, except that N or M (1941) was a who-is-it, and By the Pricking of My Thumbs, for all its plodding middle, gave us a lovely twist ending, very much reminiscent of the one in Murder Is Easy (1939). Here, the whole thing just dribbles off in the end…
We never find out what happened to Alexander Parkinson, do we? The census that tells us who is in the house that specific night — and, jeepers, the coincidence! — also comes to nothing. I suppose this is where evidence of Christie’s failing mental state is strongest: it could be seen as an indicator that she intended to write that sort of whodunnit (despite, as you say, T&T never really featuring in such a plot) but kept getting sidetracked by more sparkly gew-gaws. I guess it’s difficult to get a couple of octogenarians into an international thriller milieu…
And yet it would have been great fun to see these octogenarians at play – if the plot had been good. Again, I think it works better in their previous novel. Oh dear! All the missed opportunities here…I’ve had enough, Jim…I’m going to let you bring us home on this one, with my deepest thanks for you holding my hand while I gave this its second — and probably last — read of my lifetime.
Some people may feel we’ve gone a little easy on this one, and while I can understand the joy of jumping in an kicking something for its failures, in fairness this doesn’t fail due to a cynical attempt to cash in on an overcrowded market, or for any other reason so many modern cash-grabs crash and burn. Having a pop at an old woman with (possible) dementia — especially one who spent 50-some years creating plots and characters so iconic they’ll probably live forever — seems rather petty.
Put against her 1930s output this doesn’t even stand up long enough to fall over, and had she written it in the 1930s we’d be justified in sledging it hard. As it is, it’s a sad look at the decline of the genre’s arguably most important figure (discuss that in the comments…!), but it’s not without merit and charm, and surely Christie earned a bit of patience on the back of her earlier, ground-breaking works. I can’t say I’ll rush to reread it — like you, I’ll probably get through life giving it just one more quick look over — but I’m glad I read it, and I really appreciate the time you’ve taken to talk it through so affectionately.
The past is everywhere in Postern of Fate, yet it always remains just out of reach as Tommy and Tuppence try to snatch at imperfect memories, including their own. Their investigation into the fate of Mary Jordan captures the way that all memories seem to jumble together, different eras coexisting simultaneously within the same brain just like the houseful of old books.
So, where do you stand? Is this an elegiac look at the final fading light of the genre’s brightest luminary, or should it never have seen the light of day? How much of Christie’s inability to follow through on expected plot-lines is a sign of her losing her grip, and how much of it is one final playful take on the tropes of mystery novels? Full spoilers in the comments, so be warned if you’ve not read this one…but, if that’s the case, what are you doing down here?