#600: Murderers Make Mistakes – Poirot’s Early Cases [ss] (1974) by Agatha Christie

Poirot's Early Cases

The majority of Agatha Christie referred to on this blog has been from her later, less popular phase while I work through her canon chronologically.  So it’s lovely to be able to refer to some of her early work with this collection of 18 stories originally published between 1923 and 1936.

Christie and the short story usually make for uneasy bedfellows — she’s written some belters, but the majority would fall into the category of Er, Yeah, I Don’t Really Remember That — and so it’ll be interesting to contrast these, the majority written over a compact period near the start of her career, with the less powerful force she had diminished to by the end.  Especially as the trappings and limits of GAD were a long way from being established when a lot of these were written.

And so, with that in mind…

It seems unfair to judge ‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ (1923) by the standards of later GAD, but given that it concerns a murder having taken place at a costume ball — and that Lord Cronshaw and his party were dressed looking like characters from the Commedia dell Arte — well, how complicated can it be?  A nice touch sees the character called Coco addicted to cocaine, and there’s a strong purpose behind the motive when it emerges, but it’s difficult to feel that the outcome here is much of a surprise after 100 years of this sort of thing.  Two notable aspects: the naiveté with which the key misdirection is handled by a supposedly professional man, and the sheer bewildering, bizarro nature of Poirot’s reconstruction for the collected suspects at the end.  I’ll be honest, I do sort of wish Christie had leaned more into this sort of weirdness throughout her career.

‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’ (1923) is a good, quick example of the “this is more than it initially seems…” plot: Mrs. Todd visits Poirot, uncertain at first whether he “[paid] for the bit in the paper that said what a clever detective you were” and asks him to find her absentee cook, Eliza Dunn.  It’s nice to see Poirot learning the lesson of not just being able to dismiss the case as beneath his abilities with impunity — “Too proud, eh?  Only deal with Government secrets and countesses’ jewels?” — and the puzzle which spins from here, never really one of Christie’s truest aims, is neatly and pleasingly achieved.  An interesting piece of contemporary detail see Mrs. Todd laying the blame for vanishing servants at the feet of the burgeoning Welfare State (“It’s all this wicked dole.  Putting ideas into servants’ heads, wanting to be typists and what nots.”), but the answer is thankfully more interesting.

It’s only after “a full recital more suited to the ears of her medical attendant” that Mrs. Pengelley reveals her concerns in  ‘The Cornish Mystery’ (1923): she believes her dentist husband is poisoning her.  The idea of motive is intriguing here — “Your husband, he would not poison you just pour passer le temps!” — and comes from Christie’s common store of Reasons to Want Someone Out of the Way.  However, it’s neatly handled in so few pages, and enlivened by Poirot’s treatment of the guilty party once unmasked.  Most interesting, however, is how much of Poirot’s character Christie has been able to get into these brief pieces — his horror at having to spend a night “upon one of your English provincial beds”, and care taken to smooth his moustaches after disarranging them running for a train…you can understand Christie getting bored of all this, but to see him so fully-formed so early is instructive.

By way of contrast, ‘The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly’, a.k.a. ‘At the Stroke of Twelve’ (1923) is one of those early GAD stories where cleverness and intricacy get confused.  The wealthy Waverlys consult Poirot after threats of kidnapping were made against their baby son Johnnie and, the kidnappers apparently foiled, everything goes off at the time promised.  I like to think that Poirot’s reflections on why so many warnings were given is Christie adjuring future authors in this genre to guard against sensation for the sake of sensation, since it’s on account of the drama created that the culprit leaves a positive trail of damned clues right to their own feet.  The most arresting part, however, is Hasting and Poirot being visited at the latter’s rooms and then, before heading out to speak to a concerned party, “completing an elaborate outdoor toilet”…now, what in hell is that?!

The sole interest provided by ‘The Double Clue’ (1923) is the debut of the Countess Vera Rossakoff, since the theft of valuable stones from Marcus Hardman’s collection is obviously either a setup or perpetrated by the most careless idiot alive.  I’m still not entirely sure how one drops a cigarette case while stealing precious stones — surely the hands would need to be free of such items, or am I doing my jewellery thefts all wrong?  Anyway, there’s a nice piece of conclusion-vaulting that’s really rather easy to predict even without the necessary specialist knowledge, but the sharpest thrust goes to the line “Any woman can call herself a Russian countess; anyone can buy a house in Park Lane and call himself a South African millionaire”.  I mean, not anyone, not in this economy, but it’s one of the two core precepts of GAD and neatly dropped in here.

‘The King of Clubs’ (1923) feels on slightly firmer ground even if, yet again, clue declaration is a bit of a struggle.  When famous dancer Valerie Saintclair stumbles into a suburban living room, cries “Murder!” and faints dead away, discovery is made of the wealthy Mr. Reedburn in his nearby villa with his skull cleaved open.  A tapestry of events is woven together, a foreign prince turns up, it’s all a little ridiculous and yet somehow shows the way GAD can spin a simple problem into some quite elaborate patterns.  You have to laugh at the mixed signals of  the prince thumbing his nose at tradition by making a morganatic marriage…yet also going to the trouble to establish that his affianced might be related to a Russian duchess (see above), however.  Oh, and that for her “solid middle-class English family” at the centre of it all Christie picks that most solid, middle-class name of Oglander…

Poirot's Early Cases 1

‘The Lemesurier Inheritance’ (1923) demonstrates just how strongly Victorian sensation fiction had its tendrils around the concept of crime, with a family curse — albeit one that appears to have “gone rusty — unable to stand the strain of modern life” — claiming Lemesurier men before they can inherit from their fathers.  Additionally, when it turns out not to be the result of a vengeful malediction (er, spoilers?), it turns out instead that our killer has gone mad, maaaad, MAAAAAADDD!!!  So it’s not a good story, but it’s interesting to consider how GAD would shake these tight shackles off pretty competently in the next couple of years, and contains possibly my favourite piece of direction from Poirot to Hastings when they wish to go nighttime a-prowlin’: “Wait a sufficient time, extinguish your light, and join me here”; given how dim Hastings can be, I’m surprised Poirot wasn’t stood waiting for six hours…

Interesting to note how the framing of ‘The Lost Mine’, a.k.a. ‘Poirot Makes an Investment’ (1923) is a device that, again, feels borrowed from an older time, and is something Christie rarely used: the old “Ah, did I ever tell you about the time when…?” ruse.  Poirot regales Hastings with a story about, er, something something missing papers something, has a pop at Sherlock Holmes by lambasting the notion of a detective in disguise while also doing that most Poirot of things: hanging out undercover in an opium den.  I had no idea what was going on by the end, and the steady descent into the Sinister Chinese Idiom is the sort of thing Ronald Knox was guarding against a few years from now.  But there’s a nice piece of reasoning regarding the trustworthiness of witnesses and, er…yeah, that’s it.  Feels like more of a swipe at Doyle than a story in its own right.

The discovery of a chloroformed, stabbed heiress on ‘The Plymouth Express’ (1923) sees Poirot and Hastings summoned before American steel magnate Ebenezer Halliday, who will allow himself no respite until his daughter’s murderer is found.  This is almost one of Roy Vickers’ Department of Dead Ends stories told from the wrong perspective, and while the apparent psychology that leads to Poirot suspecting a short man is as lackadaisical as usual there’s still some enjoyment to be gleaned from yet another classic trope being dusted off and dropped into its setting with apparent ease.  Christie doesn’t quite have Edmund Crispin’s talent for building a story around a single, core idea — nor does she have his ability with affecting clarity in the shorter form — but at times like this you do appreciate how her mind constructed, and it would have been a fascinating thing to see her put the pieces in place.

There’s an element of ‘The Chocolate Box’, a.k.a. ‘The Time Hercule Poirot Failed’ (1923) which I’ll have to trust is historically accurate given Christie wrote these contemporary to their setting, but which I have never come across before (and, alas, spoilers do not permit me to name it here).  Another ‘murder in retrospect’ with Poirot telling Hastings the story of his time in the Beglian police force and the possibly-suspicious death of a prominent politician.  Essentially a poisoning tale with no real sting and the easiest possible choice of scapegoat — Poirot tells us early on that the case was a ‘failure’, so, c’mon, who else was gonna be the killer? — its of no note despite that weird element I mention above.  Okay, I’ll ROT13 it for the curious: qvq gurl ernyyl rzorq zrqvpvar va pubpbyngr? Naq jbhyqa’g lbh abgvpr gur qvssrerapr va dhnyvgl vs fjnccrq bhg sbe npghny pubpbyngr?  Most bizarre.

I’ve read ‘The Submarine Plans’ (1923) before and thought it was from Poirot Investigates (1924), but it turns out not.  So maybe I read it in an impossible crime anthology somewhere, but it’s not quite an impossible crime.  Meh, either way, the essence of the idea behind the super-secret submarine plans that vanish from the desk of a Ministry of Defence bigwig while he’s hosting a weekend shindig is a good one, and the manner in which the investigation is constructed and carried out, given the eventual result, is very neat.  It’s at times like this that I wish Christie’s stories had a bit more oomph to them, though, because it’s all a bit wishy-washy until you get to the intelligent design at the end.  Reminds me of ‘The Queer Feet’ (1911) by G.K. Chesterton in that regard: a superb idea wasted on a story that needs to be better written to have the intended impact.

I see in ‘The Third Floor Flat’ (1929) the first indications of Christie’s brilliance, no doubt a consequence of it being written at the end of her nonage.  A lost key leads to an accidental entry into the wrong flat, the discovery of a murder, and the intrusion of the funny little Belgian man who lives on the top floor to help clarify matters.  All told, this makes a notable contrast with the others thus far included in the collection, evincing the increased confidence and skill Christie has picked up in the intervening years.  Works inside the short story format much more efficiently — there’s a knowing bit of herring-ing which had me fooled, but then I’m an idiot for that sort of thing — with the only unsatisfying aspect being how a man walking through a dark room can possibly be caught in the ribs by the corner of a table…

Poirot's Early Cases 2

‘Double Sin’ (1928) sees Poirot and Hastings taking a tour bus to a remote part of Devon and making the acquaintance of ingenue Mary Durrant along the way…only for the valuable antiques she is taking to a buyer to be stolen.  It does some interesting things with the production of evidence and resulting assumptions of guilt, though modern readers will see through it almost immediately (I especially liked one element of it, I just admit), and again we get an unusual gender-based generality — that it would be a “most unfeminine choice” for a woman to choose a seat in a cafe that faces a window.  But the key point of intrigue here is the appearance of the character Norton Kane: surely this is the provenance of the name Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page gave their detective when they started writing as Roger Scarlett only two years later….

Don’t be drawn in by the promise of a body in a locked room (and the story being listed in Adey): ‘The Market Basing Mystery’ (1923) has nothing of the impossible crime about it, since following the discovery of said corpse it’s established almost immediately that the door was locked from the ouside and the key taken away.  The murder of Walter Protheroe is full of contradictory evidence which doesn’t even make sense once you know the answers, and this is the first time you feel Christie was writing to a deadline and had to get a gosh-darned story done double-quick.  The whole thing reeks of half-formed ideas that wouldn’t quite join up, with clues like Poirot’s constant sniffing being terribly overdone (we get it, there’s no odour in the room, so the window was open the whole time…) and the rest adding up to not even a mound of beans.

Overlook the sheer domino-tidy falling of coincidence required to make the plot happen, and ‘Wasps’ Nest’, a.k.a. ‘Worst of All’ (1928) is rather magnificent.  Poirot, in the throes of “investigating a crime that has not yet taken place”, is at his most oratorical and impressive here:

“The English, they are very stupid.  They think that they can deceive anyone but that no one can deceived them.  The sportsman — the good fellow — never will they believe evil of him.  And because they are brave, but stupid, sometimes they die when they need not die”.

And the analogy of the wasps’ nest is just chef’s-kiss perfect:

“See you, the wasps returning home, placid at the end of the day?  In a little hour there will be destruction, and they know it not.  There is no one to tell them.  They have not, it seems, a Hercule Poirot.”

Wonderful stuff; wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.

‘The Veiled Lady’ (1923) is a Holmes homage in more than just title, being as it is Christie’s reimagining of ‘The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton’ (1904): a titled lady, a repulsive blackmailer holding compromising letters over her, a burglarious sortie following a visit to the house of the criminal in question, and an urgent search for the hiding place. Christie, of course, mixes things up by shying away from such obvious considerations as the safe in the study (giving the story its other title, ‘The Chinese Puzzle Box’) and adds a coda of sorts which shows how the genre grew from Doyle’s day into something altogether more nuanced and devious.  While the moral compass of Christie’s take is altogether more fixed (and perhaps therefore less interesting), it’s a great experience to read this with the Doyle story in the back of your mind.  It’s fine on its own, but fascinating in comparison.

Another locked door, another body, another ostensible impossible crime that doesn’t quite fit the bill to my mind: ‘Problem at Sea’, a.k.a. ‘Poirot and the Crime in Cabin 66’ a.k.a. ‘The Quickness of the Hand’ (1936) is the latest story in this collection, and demonstrates far more interest in character than elsewhere, with the majority of its length being given over to the interactions of people on a cruise before the stabbed body insinuates itself with 10 pages left and Poirot pulls a solution out of thin air.  One or two very good clues go undeclared — a shame, since they are very good indeed — but there’s some great, catty writing…

From a distance she had looked a possible twenty-eight.  Now, in spite of her exquisitely made-up face, her delicately plucked eyebrows, she looked not her actual forty-nine years, but a possible fifty-five.

…which almost makes up for the improbability of what you’re expected to swallow by way of the crime and explanation.

Finally, ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ (1935), which is most notable for the early characterisation of the ever-efficient Miss Lemon whose “general effect was that of a lot of bones thrown together at random … and though capable of thinking, she never thought unless told to do so”.  Poirot responds to a vague entreaty for help from an elderly spinster only to discover that she died the very day she wrote to him, and that her sullen, suspiciously-Russian maid is the only person who could have poisoned her and benefits under the old lady’s will.  The small matter of how to feed someone a lethal dose of a bitter poison when everyone ate the same food and the only liquid the deceased consumed at the meal was plain water is an interesting one, and the answer feels like one of those Edmund Crispin stories I referenced above…though this time done well.  A neat finish.

~

A mixed bag, then, which is perhaps not unexpected given how these stories cover such a range of topics and years.  With any collection, the tempting thing is to highlight one’s favourites for the curious, and I suppose if I were to pick my top 5 I’d rank them accordingly:

1. ‘Wasps’ Nest’, a.k.a. ‘Worst of All’
2. ‘The Third-Floor Flat’
3. ‘The King of Clubs’
4. ‘The Cornish Mystery’
5. ‘The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton’/’The Veiled Lady’ Double Bill

All told, however, this collection served its purpose of reminding you what Christie could do when at the top of her game — even if we rarely find her there herein, it still pays to be reminded of her power after years of watching her steady decline.  Consider the appetite whetted for one final case with Papa Poirot.

34 thoughts on “#600: Murderers Make Mistakes – Poirot’s Early Cases [ss] (1974) by Agatha Christie

    • Not gonna lie, I did wonder about that; there was a website on classic detective fiction (now disappeared) run by a “Douglas Sewell” — who is the narrator of Anthony Berkeley’s Not to Be Taken/A Puzzle in Poison…so you wouldn’t be without precedent (whether that was an affected name or a coincidence)…

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  1. The American publishers put together totally different collections, of course. Most of these stories appeared in something called Double Sin, and Other Stories, which I read fairly late and thus thought were later tales. It’s all very confusing! “The Plymouth Express” is the shorter, better origin for Mystery of the Blue Train, of course. I’m not a huge fan of these, except for their sentimental value, and you will get no argument from me that the short story was not Dame Agatha’s forte. My favorite collection, The Thirteen Problems has some good tales, but the great pleasure is in its framing story and characters. I totally agree with you that the most important thing about them is that they must be fun to read; if they’re not fun, what’s the point? That said, I always thought “The Lemesurier Inheritance” was a fun one, though I laughed out loud reading your “mad, maaad, MAAAAADD!!!” line! It’s too true!

    Go see Knives Out!!! I know you don’t run to movies, but I want to hear your take on it!

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    • Yikes! I didn’t mean all the italics!!! And why do I keep saying “Of course?” It reminds me of a funny story from when I was in The Three Sisters in university. I must tell you sometime . . .

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    • I remember getting into Christie for the first tme and sitting down with the story lists fro the various UK and US collections to confirm that everything was available over here (like, as if there would be a Christie short story withheld, y’know?). I have a feeling some of the alternative titles caught me out — that had not occurred to me — and so I spent a long time wondering if I was going to need to be The Underdog and Other Stories, etc. God, the time I spent on that makes me shiver now.

      Anyway, this is interesting in light of her later, less popular work, and the very best here are genuinely great tales. Two novels and one collection left, and I’m done. Except for the stories Tony Medawar is going to keep uncovering for the next however many years…maybe I should just wait for them to make up their own collection, eh 😛

      And, yes, Knives Out is very much on my radar. Had intended to see it this weekend, but things changed. Expect a hot take in, like, three or four years.

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      • As I’ve pointed out before, there is one short story that is not available in any UK collections, only in US ones (and elsewhere around the world, of course).

        Maybe it wasn’t “The Submarine Plans” you read, maybe it was “The Incredible Theft” instead? As you probably know, a couple of the stories in this one were later re-written and published in other collections. Brad mentioned “Plymouth Express”, and there’s also “Market Basing” which turned into “Murder in the Mews” (which I seem to recall handles the impossible element better).

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  2. There is a three story overlap with the Poirot Investigates editions I have (The Chocolates Box, The Lost Mine, and The Veiled Lady), and I’m going to assume that the 1923 stories are all of similar quality. If you’re putting The Veiled Lady in your top five then that doesn’t exactly make me that excited for this collection. I’m interested in the later-year stories that you listed to see if they’re any better than the 1923 material (fyi, you accidentally listed The Veiled Lady as 1932, it is 1923).

    I’m impressed that you mustered the spirit to actually put down thoughts for each of these stories. As I said in my recent review of Poirot Investigates, the stories are all forgettable, but it’s interesting enough read nonetheless. It’s fine enough material to peck from when you have twenty minutes and not enough time to get into a novel.

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    • A glimpse behind the (ahem) Curtain, then: I read about three or four in a row, and then write about those before reading any more. However many words I write for the first story in the collection, I try to write about the same for each one thereafter. Sometimes the reviews happen quickly, sometimes I need to delay because of any number of reasons, but either way no more are read until the most recent bunch are dealt with.

      I stand by ‘Veiled Lady’ being a response to the Holmes story, and fascinating in that regard. However, no, it’s not a terribly exciting collection. After the other four picked out above, the drop off is quite quick. Do read these, but, like, not in any rush. Thanks for spotting that error, too. Shall correct in due course

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      • I tried a similar approach with Poirot Investigates – jotting down notes on the first two stories, with the plan to work them into little blurbs. By the time I hit the third story it dawned on me that I wasn’t really going to have much to say about any of them.

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        • Sometimes that happens, yeah. This time around I almost found myself with too much to say each time, so I’ve ended up with a 3,000 word behemoth of a post that only about six people will actually read…

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  3. One of my favourite movies – The Game (1997), directed by David Fincher, starring Michael Douglas, Sean Penn & Deborah Unger is a modern thriller based on dual reality.
    What appears to be happening is not quite what it seems.
    Several years later I came across a Parker Pyne short story – The Case of the Discontented Soldier (1934?). To my surprise, Agatha Christie had got there first! She had already experimented with a similar dual reality technique.

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    • Guess there’s really nothing new under the sun. Just when you think something has not been done before, you look throughout the annals of time and discover it’s already been thought of.

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      • Just to reinforce the truth of that, the same plot device of The Game and “The Case of the Discontented Soldier” was used by Chesterton 30 years before Christie, in one of the short stories included in the collection The Club of Queer Trades.

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      • I wouldn’t mind this so much, if modern publishing wasn’t so built on hyperbole to sell books. Fine, I get that they’re not gonna go “Hey, here’s a new novel with a plot idea recycled from something published in 1943”, but it does feel as if so much modern crime fiction is ignorant of what came before it and honestly believes it’s original and shocking and new.

        The only objection I can raise with your comment, Brian, is that these authors and publishers don’t bother to “look through the annals of time” at all. The narrator’s the killer? Amazing, how original!? The killer is a child? Staggering! That’s almost certainly never been done before! The apparent object of a killer is actually the killer? OMFGSJDKIE:NPIHWWS:KNN**&!!

        That said, I’m excited about my debut novel out next year in which a cat detects the truth about a series of baffling murders in the yarn shops of a small town in, oh, Vermont? Let’s say Vermont. Finally, I’ve found the one original piece of real estate in the whole genre…

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  4. Well, you’d be surprised to know there are a hefty amount of novels (35) about a cat who solves crimes by helping a somewhat clueless detective. The Calico Cat Holmes series by Jiro Akagawa 😆 The first three novels were released in spanish, I might end up reading them.

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    • This series was mentioned in one of the Locked Room International shin honkaku translations — I want to say it was The Moai Island Puzzle by Alice Arisugawa — and I’m still waiting for and English translation, because it sounds like a lot of fun 🙂

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  5. I was all ready to complain how no one seems to like Christie’s shorts except for me, but Xavier’s recent post made my points better. Alas, now what will I gripe about? Maybe the fact that I keep getting “The Third Floor Flat” with “The Adventure of the Cheap Flat.”

    I’m familiar with a few of these though, and I agree that Christie at this stage isn’t firing at full potential. She’s aping (and parodying in some of these) Holmes and Watson at this point, and there’s more focus on the “Surprise!” factor than you see in later stories. I mean to comment on The Green Capsule that he might like The Labors of Hercules, since it’s a more confident Christie who’s being more experimental in her storytelling. But there aren’t a whole lot of classical detection stories in it (from what I recall) so maybe that’ll be a bust too!

    In all seriousness, I do like Christie’s short fiction, perhaps more than I should! But like Christian, I enjoy short stories and my first exposure to Christie was the Miss Marple stories. I admit the Poirot’s don’t always stick in the memory as well…seeing as how I completely forget “The Cornish Mystery” and “The King of Clubs” and I forgot most of “The Adventure of the Clapham Cook,” barring one twist that I found out on a re-read I didn’t even remember correctly! So much for my point.

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    • Yeah, I think a lot of us were possibly spoiled by our first exposure to Christie’s shorter fiction being The Thirteen Problems/The Tuesday Club Murders — it’s such an awesome collection that most of what followed in that format is going to feel a little pale by comparison.

      No doubt there are some great tales in Christie’s shorter oeuvre — ‘Idol House of Astarte’, ‘The Dream’, ‘Wasps’ Nest’, solidly half of the Quin/Satterthwaite stuff, plus the creativity and diversity brought to Partners in Crime — but the majority feel like little touchpapers of imagination that would be filled out far, far better with the space she used for proper misdirection in her novels. For someone who managed to lead you astray by allowing you to provide the necessary leap in logic, there was always going to be a tailing-off in the effectiveness of such a device when the number of words gets cut by a factor of, like, 20.

      When she gets it right, though, man is she great. Labours of Hercules actually contains some pretty neat ideas, perhaps helped by each story being shaped around a theme. None of them remain in my mind as classics, as you say, but equally my memory is as unreliable as all getup.

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