Giant’s Bread, by Agatha Christie writing as Mary Westmacott
I knew that I couldn’t write a blog post every day for a month to celebrate CRM without including something about Agatha Christie, the Queen of crime fiction herself. It’s some time since I read any of her books and I’m not familiar with all of them: of the ones I know, like other people I’ve interviewed, I like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd best.
However, although I have long been aware of them – and, indeed, as a library supplier used to sell them – I was unfamiliar with all the Mary Westmacott novels. I remember reading once that Christie’s publisher encouraged her to write under several pseudonyms – there is at least one other besides Westmacott – because she was so prolific, to avoid flooding the market with Christies. This may have been part of the reason: it is also true that the Westmacotts are not billed as crime, but as mysteries. Despite this, I hope that my readers will indulge me by allowing me to review one of them here, instead of a more traditional Christie murder story. The one I have chosen is Giant’s Bread – mainly because I saw a dramatisation for radio advertised recently.
It is one of the most puzzling novels I have ever read. Christie is famous for her lack of interest in character development, but she gives her protagonists – particularly the women – some very individual attributes in this book. It could not, however, be described as conventional character development: rather the twists and turns of the characterisation seem to be adapted – and in fact are subservient to – the demands of the plot.
This is not all that is unusual. The book was first published in 1930 and is set before, during and in the years that follow the First World War. Yet the character of Nell Vereker – and the choice of a first name that is reminiscent of Dickens’s saintly Little Nell may not be accidental – in the first chapters seems to hark back to the weak and dependent but ensnaringly pretty female characters beloved of nineteenth century novelists. Nell is Dickens’ Dora Spenlow or Wilkie Collins’ Laura Fairlie, spiced up just a little with a sprinkling of George Eliot’s selfish Rosamond Vincy.
Having been tempted by the offer of marriage from a rich American, Nell decides to marry her true love, Vernon Deyre, an impoverished aristocrat who knows he will not be able to afford the upkeep of Abbots Puissants, his ancestral home, when he inherits it. In young manhood, Vernon has ‘discovered’ music and yearns to be an avant garde composer. He knows that marriage to Nell is likely to jeopardise this ambition. Then the war intervenes and Nell is suddenly transformed into Marion Halcombe: she becomes a dependable, serious, hard-working nurse. Vernon, sent to the front, deplores her wish to play a useful part in the conflict and thinks she should be socialising in London instead. It is an interesting feature of the book that men repeatedly cast Nell as a priceless ornament who should not be expected to sully her pretty hands: yet she is at her best, and only truly comes alive as a character, when she defies such stereotyping.
Jane Harding, the other main female character in the novel and a rival for Vernon’s attentions, is a different type entirely. She epitomises the ‘new woman’ that other early twentieth century novelists have described. She is a Cassandra-like figure who sees everything clearly and always speaks her mind, often quite brutally. Yet, like Nell, she also has roots in nineteenth century literature. Like Trollope’s Mrs Winifred Hurtle in The Way We Live Now, she is a ‘fallen woman’. She has lived, firstly, with a theatrical impresario who treats her cruelly, and then with Vernon himself. Vernon ditches her without a second thought when the ‘pure’ Nell re-enters his life.
I won’t give away any more of the plot – which bears the authentic Christie hallmark of being tortuous but credible. What I have described so far indicates that this novel tackles some very serious themes: infidelity, domestic violence, the artistic imperative that demands selfishness to succeed, the confused and often demeaning roles occupied by women in early twentieth century society and the unequal – with either gender sometimes prevailing – relationship between the sexes. It also touches on themes that seem very contemporary: PTSD (although of course the name is not used) as it afflicts returning soldiers, antisemitism and the impossibility of ‘having it all’.
What’s not to like? Well, the jejune upper crust slang grates on the modern reader. Dialogue is peppered with “I say”, ‘beastly’, ‘frightful’, ‘horrid’ and so on, which sometimes makes it hard for readers to take seriously some of the more profound comments made by the characters. The plot, despite the ingenious tergiversations, is a bit disappointing – though perhaps that’s because I was waiting for a murder that never materialised, unless you count the murder of the soul. And those sudden character changes I have noted, especially in Nell and Vernon (though his are triggered by illness), can be hard to swallow. However, I think that Westmacott is breaking new ground here: if it doesn’t seem too fanciful, I think she is taking the reader on a tour of nineteenth and early twentieth century society as represented by the novels of those eras and sending it up. In other words, I think that Giant’s Bread works on several levels; and at one level it is a social satire.
The writing often shines. Here is Vernon’s mother, making the most of his funeral:
“She stared ahead of her through blood-suffused eyes in a kind of ecstasy of bereavement.”
Whereas this is how Nell, the (truly grieving) young widow, reacts to the occasion:
“Again Nell felt that wild desire to giggle. She didn’t want to cry. She wanted to laugh and laugh and laugh… Awful to feel like that.”
Which reader would not sympathise with Nell?
Giant’s Bread is an experimental novel, unlike The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which, although ingenious, sits firmly within the traditional crime fiction genre. Does it work? I would give it 8 out of 10, whereas Roger would always score 10.
Richard Reynolds: the pure genius
As John Aubrey, the seventeenth century polymath, bibliophile – and bookseller – observed, “to read a book is demanding, for one must stay awake; to write a book is more demanding, for one must stay awake and think; but to sell a book – ah, that is a work of pure genius!”
I’m starting this series of celebratory posts with a piece about Richard Reynolds, the undisputed doyen of crime booksellers. Why begin with a bookseller? Because without the services of the bookseller, the entire creative process that concludes with the finished book would be pointless. Bookselling is an art under-rated by everyone who has not practised it.
Richard began his working life in September 1976 as a ‘classical music consultant’ at Hardman Radio in Manchester. He loved reading and would trawl new and secondhand bookshops and market stalls in the city. In early 1980 he spotted a job advert in Jardine’s bookshop, applied for it and began his bookselling career a few months later. In 1981, he was appointed buyer for the sports section at the famous Heffer’s bookshop in Cambridge, progressing to travel and biography and then to the literature department, which boasted an impressive twenty-five standard book ‘drops’ (book cases).
Richard’s manager knew he was a crime fiction buff and encouraged him to use a small space under the ledge near to the stairs to develop a crime fiction section. As sales took off, crime was promoted to more prestigious areas in the shop.
Heffer’s is famous for its crime fiction events. Richard explains that these began in a small way in 1990 with Bodies in the Bookshop. Heffer’s put on “a wonderful display of crime fiction titles and ephemera on the platform halfway down the central staircase. Penguin Crime Classics sponsored a competition: the winner to supply the scream in Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. I still have the poster! Heffer’s first crime fiction catalogue was produced at the same time. Five authors came to sign books on the last Saturday of the month: Colin Dexter, Lindsay Davis, Reginald Hill, Minette Walters and Michael Dibdin.”
Sixty authors took part in the last of these events, for which, for seventeen years, Richard compiled the catalogues. He still receives ‘heartening’ requests for copies from readers trying to fill gaps in their collections. As the numbers of authors increased, what had been a single annual event became three separate ones: What’s Your Poison, Murder under the Mistletoe and Murder Will Out, now organised by events manager Kate Fleet.
Since the COVID restrictions were lifted, events have resumed but been smaller: a launch party for After Agatha, by Sally Cline, Kate Rhodes in conversation with Sarah Vaughan about her book Reputation, and a launch party (with jazz quartet!) for Peter Morfoot’s Essence of Murder. On June 23rd, Financial Times reviewer Barry Forshaw and Kate Rhodes will discuss Simenon: The Man, The Books, The Films and The Devil’s Table, the fifth of Kate’s Scilly Islands series.
Richard finds it very difficult to name an individual crime writer as his favourite. During lockdown, he re-read the whole Scilly Isles series, as well as books by Nicola Upson, Rennie Airth, Barry Maitland and Charles Todd. In 2019, as he approached his fortieth year as a bookseller, he compiled his personal list of 100 Favourite Crime Novels. If pushed to choose he says his favourite book would be The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and his favourite author Agatha Christie.
Richard is still a bookseller, but he now combines this with editorial and publishing activities. This began when he suggested to Penguin Random House which authors they should reissue under the Vintage Crime imprint. He has acted in a similar capacity for Ostara Books, Oleander Press and Clerical Crime and assisted with the publication of six Gold Age titles under Oleander Press’s Oreon imprint. More reissues are planned in the coming months.
He says he is grateful to his wife, Sally, for tolerating a house full of books! His small attic study is stacked high with collections of Penguin Green Crime, Gollancz yellow jackets, Golden Age titles, Cambridgeshire crime fiction, translated crime fiction, historical whodunnits, much recent detective fiction, a substantial collection of crime reference books and… and… and..!
Musing on his career, he says, “I suppose specialising in crime fiction is like being paid to pursue a hobby. Badgering publishers to re-publish good authors is a privilege. I enjoy working out the best fit between the author and the publisher. I serve as chairman of the CWA Gold Dagger Award for best crime novel of the year, for which there have been 260 submissions this year, making it hard to create the long list. The winner will be announced on 29th June.”
For aspiring booksellers, he offers the following message: “The late John Cheshire, a chatty, encouraging and supportive Heffer’s shop manager, told me not to spend my small salary on books but instead ask reps for proof/reading copies so that I could help publicise them. I have kept to that advice – and I’d like to thank all the reps and publishers who’ve kindly kept me supplied with reading material. And it’s important for booksellers to keep on reading ephemera about books: articles, reviews, blogs, information on publishers’ and authors’ websites.”
Asked what his advice to someone just starting out on a crime fiction writing career would be, he says that as writing is a solitary occupation it is important to chat to local booksellers and meet other authors, especially at events or festivals such as Crimefest and the Harrogate International Festival or one of the many good smaller festivals that now exist. It’s also a good idea to attend other writers’ launch parties, read widely – and try not to overwrite! Having some bookmarks printed is an inexpensive way of getting noticed – it’s easy to underestimate how useful they can be.
As an author, I am inexpressibly grateful to Richard and all the booksellers who make it their life’s work to support writing and reading. He is a man who practises sheer genius every day! If he were still alive, I know John Aubrey would be the first to agree.
Tomorrow’s post will be about an aspiring crime fiction writer, Fraser Massey, who is already a distinguished journalist.
A fascinating period piece…
New Lease of Death is a relatively early Ruth Rendell novel, although Chief Inspector Wexford is already middle-aged and jowly. First published in 1967 and reprinted many times since, it is a fascinating period piece. It vividly describes a post-war England that is familiar to many – class-ridden, hidebound and generous only to those who obey the rules; still crime-writing territory for some authors, it has long since vanished. I’m not just talking about the topography, the clothes or the vehicles, but the outlook and mores of the characters. Without giving too much away, the plot hinges on the covering-up of an indiscretion which today would be regarded as neither shameful nor indiscreet.
All the later Rendell hallmarks are there: the cynicism yet essential decency of Wexford and Burden; the intricately-created family relationships; the credible twists of plot, the unspoken secrets. With hindsight, I’d say that one or two elements of the novel lack the sureness of touch that the author develops in her later work. What I found hardest to swallow was why Irene Painter’s second husband, Tom Kershaw, the delightful amateur polymath and full-time optimist, would ever have wanted to marry such a dreary, desiccated, sexless woman in the first place. More credible, but still jarring to the modern reader, is the busybodying intervention of the pious Reverend Archery. Nowadays he would be regarded as a prurient hypocrite whose son would have laughed him to scorn, but it is just possible that, when Rendell was writing in 1967, she intended the reader to take him at face value.
New Lease of Death is a period piece, but none the less enchanting for that. It is an undemanding good read, to be kept for cold nights on the same shelf as Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh.
Cake, coffee and crime, a killer combination in The British Library
Yesterday, London was in the grip of one of those gloomy, fog-bound days of which Dickens wrote so eloquently. The streets were grey and obscured by swirling mists so heavy that they fell like grubby rain on clothes and hair. People were scurrying about, heads down, doing damage with their umbrellas.
The British Library shone, as always, an oasis of light, heat, calm and coffee… and, importantly, cakes. I went to the café there to meet a colleague and, our business done in ten minutes, we had a wonderful time drinking in the power of George III’s magnificent book collection (which is displayed behind glass and occupies the full height of the building) while eating chocolate pastries.
My colleague had to leave at midday, which gave me an hour to kill before my next meeting. This was just as I had planned, because I had picked up from Twitter that a Crime Writing exhibition is currently on display there.
Sponsored by the Folio Society (which has apparently published quite a lot in the genre, a point to remember when trawling secondhand bookshops for old Folio Society titles), the exhibition takes an alphabetical approach to crime writing. It consists of twenty-six glass showcases, one for each letter of the alphabet, each one showing or explaining some aspect of the crime writer’s craft. Unsurprisingly, ‘A’ is for Agatha Christie; ‘Z’, less obviously, for ‘Zodiac’ – i.e. for crime writing based on the occult.
It is an inspired way of celebrating the genre. My favourite letters included ‘L’ for lady crime writers – I had not realised that until P.D. James published her debut crime novel, Cover her Face, in 1962, the fictional lady sleuth had pretty much dropped out of sight since Victorian times – and, of course, ‘B’ for Baker Street. The Holmes showcase included some specimens of Conan Doyle’s manuscripts (which I photographed before I was told to put away my camera by a security guard – I honestly had not realised that photography was not allowed!). I revisited many crime-related topics that I’ve researched myself, often presented in ways that made me regard them anew, and discovered some fascinating facts; for example, that Wilkie Collins’ estimated annual income from The Woman in White (published in 1860) was £60,000 p.a.
This equates to about £4.5m today. It and many of the other exhibits served to prove that, right from the start of its inception as a genre, crime writing could be made to pay. The exhibition, which is free, takes about half an hour to absorb. I highly recommend a visit if you get the opportunity – especially if it is raining and you are struck down by a pressing need for coffee… and cake.
Murder on the Grand Central Express
Yesterday, making my first real foray from home since the snow came, I travelled by train to London.
I boarded at Wakefield Kirkgate, once a proud Victorian station of almost Downton Abbey proportions, now a sad and sinister derelict shell. It is quite a frightening place, especially after dark, and has been the scene of various robberies and at least one violent rape. However, it is also the station at which the magnificent Grand Central trains halt on their way to London King’s Cross. It is therefore well worth press-ganging my husband into temporary service as bodyguard. He waits on the platform with me so that, later, I can enjoy the luxury of the first class carriage, with coffee, biscuits, newspapers and wifi included, for the modest price of £60.
Perhaps because these trains are so luxurious, I began to think of Murder on the Orient Express, in which Agatha Christie skilfully shows that any of the passengers could have been capable of murder, before inviting the reader to identify who dunnit. I had to invent both a victim and also a motive for each suspect when I began to scrutinise my fellow passengers to guess what their favoured modus operandi for murder might be. Like Agatha Christie, I assumed that every one of them would be capable of the deed.
The man sitting diagonally opposite me was a businessman from Halifax. I know this, because, in a loud voice, he was telling the man sitting directly opposite (evidently a very new buddy) about his various boardroom coups and how he spent the money that he made: Mr. Conspicuous Consumption with a county veneer; he’d kill, to prove that he could do it, and want to ensure that both murder and weapon were as ostentatious as possible; and he’d wriggle out of punishment afterwards. An antique Purdey shotgun and a faked hunting accident would be his choice.
The new buddy, when he could get a word in, proved to be a genial and mellifluous Irishman: short cropped hair, John Lennon spec.s, shabby grey suit; one of the original sleeve buttons had evidently been lost and incongruously replaced with a bright pink one, slightly larger than the others. Conspicuous Consumption should be wary of him if they leave the train together. Mellifluous Irishman’d be capable of taking CC to a deserted spot, withdrawing a long, slender stiletto from one of the baggy inner pockets of that suit and thrusting it into CC’s heart, all the time keeping up the cheerful chatter about dead cert horses and racing greyhounds. Money would be his motive. Afterwards, MI would slip away through the wet and silent streets and fling his stiletto into the canal. The police would never track him down.
What about the Chinese Yummy Mummy, glamorously dressed to keep out the cold in champagne-coloured Rab jacket, fur-lined hood and aubergine leggings, her small feet shod in tiny suede boots? She was accompanied by a little girl of five or six, a mini-version of herself. Her immaculately made-up face had a wary, shut-in look. Once married to a rich man, perhaps; now a single mum determined to preserve their former lifestyle for herself and the child. If the rich man didn’t play ball, he would cop it before the divorce came through, while she was still legally the main beneficiary of his will. She’d have to be careful, though; she wouldn’t want to upset the child and, for her, there would be a double imperative to avoid prison. Poison would be CYM’s agent of choice, administered through some item of food delivered to defaulting rich husband when she was many miles from the scene. The police would suspect her, but they’d never find the proof.
Several seats behind me, an elderly woman wearing a long red coat (which she had not removed, though the carriage was well-heated) lay alternately dozing and looking round her with shrewd blue eyes. She had a mannish face and thick grey hair cut in a cropped, no-nonsense hairstyle; it was relieved from being a short-back-and-sides only by the crimped quiff swept back from her forehead. Mrs. Well-Upholstered Lady. She was a past mistress at her art. She’d had a long and eventful life: plotting her murders carefully; moving all obstacles as she continued on her relentless journey. She would have brooked no opposition along the way, whether it had come from troublesome lovers in her youth, her timid but irritating husband in middle age, or, more recently, the ancient aunt of whom she had been quite fond, but who’d already lived far too long when she’d begun to dissipate Mrs. W-UL’s inheritance on nursing home fees. A different MO every time for her: one of the lovers had been dispatched after she’d tampered with the brakes on his car; the husband had died from carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty gas fire – she’d happened to be away at the time; she’d visited the aunt in the nursing-home every day, tenderly administering food and medicine, increasing the dose just a little bit on each occasion. Hers were all ‘perfect’ crimes: never suspected; never investigated.
According to my imaginings so far, every one of my train murderers would have got off scot free. Although in my novels not all the perpetrators pay the penalty, some are always caught. Otherwise, that all’s-right-with-the-world denouement of which I’ve previously written could not be achieved; so, I’ll have to re-visit. Which of the train murderers might be apprehended, and by whom? I’d put my money on CC and CYM: he, because he wouldn’t be able to resist boasting of his plans; she, because she’s a nervous novice who’s never committed a crime before (she is overheard on her mobile, spilling her heart out to a friend). MI and Mrs. W-UL? Too fly by far.
And who would catch CC and CYM? The guy serving the free coffees, of course: a detective in disguise all along. They made a fatal mistake: they should have travelled standard class.
My journey to London with Grand Central passed very quickly…