THE BOOK PAN, 1968 pp 186
This book is a bit of a mish-mash of short stories: some tragic, some very light-hearted. PAN’s photographic cover includes the eponymous Pearl of Great Price, a sock used to bludgeon a man to death (once filled with sand!) and a note from a murderer. I am not sure what the rest refers to – not a particularly successful cover.
Tom Adams’ cover for Fontana shows the ‘Order of St Stanislaus’, tenth class with laurels, which ends up draped around the neck of the City Clerk.
J. Parker Pyne advertises his services in The Times: ‘Are you happy? If not, consult Mr Parker Pyne’. This collection features eleven cases in which he is consulted, and one, the final one, where he is not (but for good reasons decides to become involved).
Parker Pyne has an office in London and staff who have been trained in the art of spicing up the lives of others. They are employed to do so in the first six cases.Those stories were published in various magazines from 1932. They are reminiscent of some in The Listerdale Mystery, which was published the same year: light-hearted and romantic, with just a touch of humour.
The remaining six stories find Parker Pyne on the Mallowan trail: firstly on the Orient Express, and then to Syria, Egypt and Greece. Each time he finds himself interrupting his tour to investigate local crimes. This change of tack was presumably occasioned by Agatha Christie’s increasing fascination with the Middle East following her marriage to the archaeologist Max Mallowan in 1930.
It is in the nature of these types of stories that, short though they are, they each need a cast of characters, and there is not much room to describe all of them. Agatha Christie is brilliant at evoking in one sentence a character that the reader can easily visualise. To do so, she plays to her readers’ imagined prejudices.
For example, in one story (The Pearl of Price), we are introduced to the following seven people in the space of eleven lines: a stout and prosperous American magnate; his dark and good-looking, if somewhat taciturn secretary; a tired-looking English politician; a world-renowned elderly archaeologist; a gallant Frenchman on leave; Parker Pyne, ‘not perhaps so plainly labelled with his profession’, and a pretty, spoiled young woman who is extremely sure of herself. The twist, of course, will come when one of them belies their description.
Parker Pyne, however, appears in every story, so there is space to portray him in more depth. Unfortunately, we know no more about him by the end than we did at the beginning. The same could be said for his go-to team – the vamp Miss de Sara and the gigolo Claude Luttrell.
ATTITUDES AND QUOTES
The world is introduced to Miss Lemon (The Case of the Middle-Aged Wife):
When she had gone he pressed a buzzer on his desk. A forbidding-looking young woman with spectacles answered it. ‘A file, please, Miss Lemon …’
… and the world is introduced to Mrs Oliver (The Case of the Discontented Soldier):
Mr Parker Pyne tapped on the door and entered. Miss Oliver sat at a table on which were a typewriter, several notebooks, a general confusion of loose manuscripts and a large bag of apples.
Unfortunately the world was also introduced to Parker Pyne. Here, he ladles out advice on a matrimonial washout (The Case of the Discontented Husband):
‘Never adopt an apologetic attitude with a woman. She will take you at your own valuation – and you deserve it.’
Parker Pyne doles out some more advice about what constitutes a happy marriage (Have You Got Everything You Want?). Was he himself married? We are not told.
‘It is a fundamental axiom of married life that you must lie to a woman. She likes it! Go and be forgiven, my boy. And live happily ever afterwards.’
Now for some genuine insight (from The Case of the City Clerk):
‘I’ve a great deal to be thankful for.’
‘We all have,’ said Mr Parker Pyne. ‘But when we have to remind ourselves of the fact it is a bad sign.’
An unusually long introduction to this character sets up the twist at the end of The Case of the Rich Woman:
Mrs Rymer was a tall woman, big-boned. Her figure was ungainly and the velvet dress and the heavy fur coat she wore did not disguise the fact. The knuckles of her large hands were pronounced. Her face was big and broad and highly coloured. Her black hair was fashionably dressed, and there were many tips of curled ostrich in her hat.
Parker Pyne / Agatha Christie seems to foresee the crisis of capitalism during the 21st Century in The Pearl of Price:
‘A man who makes money benefits mankind,’ said Mr Blundell sententiously.
‘Mankind,’ murmured Mr Parker Pyne, ‘is so ungrateful.’
SWIGATHA RATING 3/10
Having read the book on a Saturday, I struggled to remember much of it on the Sunday. Only two stories stuck in my mind: The Case of the Rich Woman, and The Oracle at Delphos. Unusually for Agatha Christie, the main protagonist has no character at all.
My feeling is that Parker Pyne was a try-out for a new character to replace Hercule Poirot, of whom Agatha Christie was getting heartily sick. She then realised that the character didn’t work, or was dissuaded from continuing with him. The characters of Miss Lemon and Mrs Oliver, introduced in these stories, did work, and so they were swiftly transferred into Poirot’s world.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
J. Parker Pyne re-appeared in two posthumously-published stories in the collection Problem at Pollensa Bay (The Regatta Mystery and the title story). He had by then changed the initial of his first name to ‘C’. Both of those stories had originally been published in the UK with Poirot as the protagonist.
Miss Lemon made her debut alongside Poirot in the short story ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’. This was written in 1932, the same year that the Parker Pyne stories were first published in magazines in the US and UK. It was included in the 1974 collection Poirot’s Early Cases.
Mrs Oliver next appeared, alongside Poirot, in Cards on the Table (1936).
As far as Agatha Christie is concerned, she abandoned the romantic short story style prevalent in Parker Pyne Investigates and The Listerdale Mystery at the start of the 1930s, instead devoting her talents to producing full-length romantic novels under the name of Mary Westmacott. The first of these had appeared in 1930.
The first two stories in the Parker Pyne collection appeared as episodes in the series The Agatha Christie Hour on ITV in 1982, with Maurice Denham in the title role. The rest of that series was made up of stories from The Listerdale Mystery; Parker Pyne was abandoned.
Maurice Denham, however, returned to wonderful effect as Luther Crackenthorpe in the BBC’s 4.50 from Paddington.