Where does Inspiration stop and Creativity, or its bastard twin Plagiarism, begin? This question is too deep for a review of a book aimed at 12 year-olds — and, indeed, for this blog in general — but it lingers around the edge of a lot of fiction simply because of the number of times recognisable real life events have been folded into entertainment (or, indeed, vice versa).
Of late there has been an upturn in instances of authors writing novels which cast famous authors of detective stories as sleuths in their own right. It’s not a literary practice I have a lot of time for, since it feels more respectful to honour (say) Agatha Christie for the reams of entertaining stories she wrote and the immeasurable influence she actually had on a nascent genre which is still felt today rather than also pretending that she tracked down a blackmailer while processing her first husband’s infidelity and dealing with a cabal of spies intent on disrupting the passage of coffee through the Balearic Islands. The need to erect a conservatory of fiction on the garden of someone’s actual life seems to somewhat undercut their genuine achievements — Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is a detective in his own right, not simply a series of fictions created around Dr. Joseph Bell juggling his academic commitments while also solving crimes for Scotland Yard on the side — but I’m getting off the point again.
Buckle in, everyone, this may take a while.
This is on my mind today because the volubly-titled Aggie Morton, Mystery Queen: The Body Under the Piano (2020) by Marthe Jocelyn makes clear on its front cover that inspiration is again at work: “Inspired by the real-life Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie” we’re told — and how! Set in 1902, we find 12 year-old Aggie in mourning for her recently-deceased father (Christie’s father Frederick died in 1901) and making the acquaintance of Hector Perot, a Belgian refugee of about her age (“A number of Belgians were here to avoid brewing turmoil under the dastardly King Leopold”) who abjures dirt in all its forms, dresses immaculately, and seems to have an uncommon interest in the solving of crimes.
What Jocelyn has done is no different to what is seen in other series “starring” the likes of Christie: take a mix of fact to inform events and retro-fit fiction into them so that it can be the seed of the books Christie went on to write — Grannie Jane has more than a little of Miss Marple about her — and then outfit her heroine with certain qualities that Christie is understood to have had (I shall not list them, it would be tedious) and…voila. And, I dunno, maybe it’s because Jocelyn isn’t attempting ventriloquism by making out that this is actually the young Agatha, but somehow it really works.
More than that: it’s actually rather charming.
I’ll admit that Jocelyn stumbles a little in setting up Aggie’s interest in sleuthing, as well as the instant connection she seems to form with Hector over said activity — both rather come out of nowhere — but, if given the option, I’d rather these things were established quickly in a manner that’s very slightly hard to swallow than they be worked in with miniscule psychological precision so that no detection takes place until the last 15 pages. You didn’t buy Aggie Morton, Mystery Queen for there to be no mystery. Did you?
The body of the title belongs to Old Mrs. Eversham (I didn’t realise until quite late that the leading adjective applies to a 44 year-old woman), ascerbic mother of Aggie’s dance teacher, who is found poisoned in the dance studio the morning after a fundraising event for the refugees of Torquay who count Hector among their number. And, given “Old” Mrs. Eversham’s tendency to put noses out of joint, the suspect list is long and, thanks to the method employed, seems to get longer with every revelation.
“Poison is so conveniently domestic,” said Grannie Jane. “Suitable for use by ladies.”
“Our delicate constitutions,” I said, “are not so fond of blood.”
Aggie and Hector fall — a little unconvincingly, as I’ve said — into the mutually agreed purpose of solving this murder, and must contend with the displeasure of Aggie’s mother, the encouraging displeasure of Grannie Jane, the suspicion of a well-drawn cast of townsfolk who look askance at children involving themselves in murder, and the irritation of the really rather wonderful Inspector Locke who has to contend with two 12 year-olds popping up at every turn. Along the way, Jocelyn delights in playfully borderline-Dickensian names (Florence Fusswell, Lavinia Paine, the reporter Augustus Fibbley) and a tone from Aggie-as-narrator that retains an air of tartness to its childish candour…
[The vicar] did not deliver one of his better sermons… He’d had to write this one quickly, I realized. If a person were murdered on a Saturday, he was obliged to soothe his flock the very next morning, which must put dreadful pressure on his pious creativity
… of character to its manipulative sweetness…
Grannie Jane made a harrumphing noise. “You’ve been listening to gossip, have you?”
“No, Grannie, I’ve been gathering evidence.”
…and of the real sense of grief that lies behind the actions of a child on the edge of developing emotional maturity:
His distress was mere hiccups compared with Mummy’s, or with Marjorie’s and mine, and yet his sorrow should not be disregarded.
There are also wonderful moments of pure, juvenile abandon and wonder, such as when Aggie is moved to consider how the corpse could possibly have been carried down the narrow staircase from the dance studio, and her delight at being interviewed by Gus Fibbley turning to confusion, dismay, and then anger as she finds her words misquoted and sees the effect this has on the people around her.
As for Hector…well, Hector is more or less Hercule Poirot: divested of moustache, prone to making the sorts of miscalculations a young boy would (see the agonise he undergoes when tailing a suspect), and yet keen enough to use his foreignness to put people at their ease (“His accent had become thicker, part of his disguise. Most people imagined that a boy who could not speak English was likely short of brain friction.”). I don’t want to appear to denigrate the achievement of Jocelyn’s creation and realisation of Hector, but I really don’t know what else to say: he is exactly what you think a 12 year-old Hercule Poirot would be, and it’s rather magnificent to see him so well-realised.
The mystery overall is well-judged for its audience, which is to say that many adult readers might find it a little slow, but there are some pleasing solution indicators come the end (one in particular is deployed very well indeed) and the reversal that confronts our central duo about two-thirds of the way through was as much a surprise to me as to them. Pleasingly, this really does feel like something from before the Golden Age — not ingenious as the best detection titles are, but possessed of a clear direction and purpose, and full of the sedate majesty of someone going about what they know brimful of confidence. We even get the Golden Age staple of “mention a real-life case to illustrate a point about the fictional one” with the brief discussion of Mary Ann Cotton’s series of murders…honestly, what’s not to love?
If mixed in not quite perfect proportions, the ingredients are all here, and that bodes well for the future of this series. The sprinkling of Christie book titles throughout the text was a nice, surprisingly well-used, touch, too — long may that continue. Now that the groundwork has been done by this opening salvo, I’m eager to see what awaits Aggie and Hector, and Jocelyn is to be congratulated on taking an idea that could have fallen into the trap of pure lip service and putting it to such energising use. For once, inspiration has been used in the right way; others should take note.
The Aggie Morton, Mystery Queen series by Marthe Jocelyn:
1. The Body Under the Piano (2020)
2. Peril at Owl Park (2020)
3. The Dead Man in the Garden (2021)
4. The Seaside Corpse (2022)