THE BOOK Fontana 1976 pp 221
‘First time in paperback – 60p’: The Fontana paperbacks I have from 1969 cost 3/6 (18p), so decimalisation seems to have coincided with a massive hike in inflation: 330% in 7 years seems a lot, especially for a book that, like many from this period, comes apart very easily.
Tom Adams’ cover references the decaying conservatory, a rocking-horse (Mathilde) found within it and the Edwardian era children who used it. French editions of this book are named after the rocking horse (Le Cheval à Bascule), which seems more appropriate than an irrelevant quote from James Flecker.
The original painting is quite impressive but is misused here: the cover of a later edition works better.
Just before the First World War, a boy, Alexander Parkinson, leaves a coded message in his copy of RL Stevenson’s The Black Arrow: Mary Jordan did not die naturally. It was one of us. I think I know which.
About 60 years later, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford move to their new home and discover the book and the message. They also discover that Mary Jordan did indeed die young, as did Alexander (at the age of fourteen). They decide to investigate further, and come across plenty of people who were around at the time and pleased to reminisce about it …
Tommy and Tuppence Beresford have moved house. They are now 50 years into their career (having begun it as Bright Young Things) and at least it shows. Their usual jolly banter is toned down somewhat, mainly because Tuppence assumes the character of the author herself.
As she investigates her new home, like a child exploring, Tuppence comes across many items of Agatha Christie’s own childhood at Ashfield, such as an old greenhouse named “KK” containing Mathilde, a clapped-out rocking horse; Truelove, a horse and cart that had belonged to Agatha’s brother Monty, and a croquet set1. On the upstairs bedroom bookshelves are favourites of the young Agatha such as Mrs Molesworth’s The Cuckoo Farm, plus Four Winds Farm, The Prisoner of Zenda and The Black Arrow. Mrs Molesworth has nothing to do with the plot but gets mentioned at least as often as some of the characters who are.
An exasperated Tommy retreats into the smoke-filled rooms of power that house the by-then ubiquitous Colonel Pikeaway and ‘Mr Robinson’.2 The latter is simply described as ‘yellow’, and no explanation is proffered as to who he is or what he does, but he seems to know everything. This is Swigatha’s equivalent of M: in this case, M stands for Money. All we get to know about Pikeaway is that he smokes a lot.
Tuppence’s investigations lead to interminable conversations with groups of very elderly people, who appear to have very contradictory memories about events of 60 years before – a touch of verismo, at least! There are over twenty of these people, and it is very difficult to differentiate between any of them.There are also a group of 10-year-old children who seem to know as much about the events of 60 years before as their great-grand-parents.Neither the old nor the young ever come up with anything concrete; instead there are 150 pages of hints, repetition and contradiction. Tuppence’s investigation is one massive shaggy dog story, and indeed it is a dog, based on one of the author’s Manchester terriers, who points the way to the culprit.
ATTITUDES AND QUOTES
Here is a sample of the text that reflects its inconsistencies. At the end of Chapter XI, Pikeaway tells Thomas he ‘knows all about it’ (an attempt on Tuppence’s life) and advises him to stay where he is. On the following page, Chapter XII, Pikeaway has apparently sent for Thomas urgently. The following few lines completely contradict the interchange of the previous page.
You could not really blame an author in her 80s for these contradictions, but surely Collins’ editor could have spotted this (and many other examples).
Elsewhere, there are plenty of (usually approving) references to the ‘Common Market’ – the UK had joined what was then the EEC at the beginning of 1973, the year the book was written. The sub-plot involves the re-awakening of some kind of fascist youth conspiracy (again – see Passenger to Frankfurt) and a properly-run pan-European state is seen by Colonel Pikeaway as the strongest bulwark against it:3
“It’s a good thing, the Common Market. It’s what we always needed, always wanted. But it’s got to be a real Common Market. That’s got to be understood very clearly. It’s got to be a united Europe.”
The Europhile Mr Robinson surprises Tommy with a near-quote from Voltaire:
“Il faut cultiver son jardin.”
The garden is almost the main character in the book.
The title quote comes from The Gates of Damascus, by James Ellroy Flecker:
Four great gates hath the city of Damascus … Postern of Fate, the Desert Gate, Disaster’s Cavern, Fort of Fear …
The same four lines are quoted again and again in the book, but this reader was left at a loss as to their relevance.
SWIGATHA RATING 2/10
Postern of Fate was the last book that Agatha Christie wrote and it shows: there is far too much rambling on, non-sequitur and repetition in the scenes featuring Tommy and Tuppence. This bespeaks a lack of reading and editing prior to publication, but in fact a Collins editor did preview it. Perhaps they didn’t want to bother the old lady.
For fans of Agatha Christie, the story has a certain charm and interest, because she has put so many of her memories into it: some pages could have come directly from the early pages of her Autobiography.
As a swigatha, however, it is a dead loss: we never find out who killed Alexander Parkinson, the murderer of Mary Jordan is not given a name, and the latter-day villain only turns up with about twenty pages to go, having not been previously mentioned.The original idea is a great variation on the ‘old-sins-have-long-shadows’ groove that she had become stuck in, but by the end it would take a Bletchley Park super-brain to provide a fluent solution to this puzzle.
WHERE IT SHOULD LEAD / ADAPTATION
The book was a best-seller for Christmas 1973, but by then people would buy anything by her (I know, I did!). I think that it would be worth trying to create a version of this story that has been properly edited and proof-read; it would lose many pages but could lead to something interesting, such as a different type of adaptation to those to which we have become accustomed.
I am not aware of any versions of this story on screen, TV or radio so far, and maybe the Christie estate is happy to leave it at that. All the same, there is an opportunity for a talented writer to strip away all the fluff and nonsense from the original and create a genuinely nostalgic mystery out of what remains. It would not make a gripping film or serial, but it could provide a very interesting play for voices-only on the radio, exploiting some of the ramblings of characters both young and old, incorporating extracts from the author’s Autobiography and maybe from the recordings that she made for BBC Radio.
My suggestion for the cast would involve a reunion of the now-ageing members of the old ITV Poirot series, with Hugh Fraser as Tommy, Pauline Moran as Tuppence, Philip Jackson as Colonel Pikeaway, David Suchet as Mr Robinson (he would be perfect for it) and Zoe Wanamaker as the voice of the author …… while there’s still time!
1 Agatha Christie, An Autobiography. Although completed in 1965, the book was not published until 1977, after she had died (and after Postern of Fate, so no original reader would have got the autobiographical references).
2 Both of these shady characters also appear in Passenger to Frankfurt. Prior to that, they had the pleasure of encountering Hercule Poirot (Cat Among the Pigeons), and the thrice-blessed Mr Robinson appears in a case for Miss Marple (At Bertram’s Hotel).
3 One wonders what the Pikeaway would have made of Brexit; I suspect he would have hired Mr Robinson to ‘follow the money’ to some very interesting places.