THE BOOK PAN 1969 pp 219
The PAN edition which I read has a beautiful cover, with items traditionally that are stirred into a Christmas pudding (the ring, the sixpence) or placed on top of it (the holly) lying alongside a ruby, which most certainly isn’t. In the background is a watercolour of a wintry English landscape. The book is still in great condition, nearly fifty years (and many re-reads) later. Even the blurb on the back is enticing.
There are six of Agatha Christie’s longer short stories in this collection. All of them had either been published before, or were based on stories that had.
The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding
Something of a self-indulgence, based on Agatha Christie’s deliriously happy memories of Christmases spent at Abney Hall when she was a child. A shorter version of this story (The Theft of the Royal Ruby) had been published in The Strand 37 years previously.
Be careful when you swallow a spoonful of Christmas Pudding at Kings Lacey …
The Mystery of the Spanish Chest
This is a story in which Poirot ‘considers he was at his best’, but it is another one based on a shorter version (The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest), originally published in 1932. The ‘Spanish’ version features Miss Lemon, at her stolid and uncommunicative best, and Poirot laments the absence of the wild speculation and enthusiasm of his vieux ami Hastings:
‘It is indeed the irony,’ he said to himself, ‘that after my dear friend Hastings I should have Miss Lemon. What greater contrast can one imagine? Ce cher Hastings, how he would have enjoyed himself.’ 1
In the ‘Baghdad’ version, Poirot is indeed accompanied by Hastings, who narrates.
The Under Dog
One of her longest ‘short’ stories, sixty pages in this edition. It is unusual for a swigatha in that one of the characters proclaims from the start who the guilty person must be, based on her ‘feminine intuition’; she never changes her mind, and is proved to be right. Compare and contrast with Mrs Oliver!
Four and Twenty Blackbirds
The third title taken by Agatha Christie from the nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence. It is not obvious what the connection is, although blackberries in a pudding are a key feature of the plot.
A typical Poirot yarn, first published in 1938. It shares the same plot device as the story before it and the one after it.
This unremarkable Miss Marple story was written as a fund-raiser for a new stained-glass window at Agatha Christie’s local church. She had originally offered a longer Poirot story with a remarkably similar title – Greenshore’s Folly – but could not find a publisher for it at the time (!?).
SWIGATHA RATING 5/10
The title story is a great one to read in the late afternoon of Christmas Day, with a glass of port and in front of a blazing fire.
The other stories are ok, but this collection has been flung together somewhat messily, with the last three sharing the same plot device (the murderer impersonating someone else). All of these stories had already been published, so this would have been quite disappointing as an eagerly awaited ‘Christie for Christmas’, justified only by the title story.
WHERE IT LED
When Agatha Christie became interested in writing for the theatre in the 1950s, she reduced her novel output to one a year, and that became hailed by the publishers as ‘A Christie for Christmas’. After the disappointment of this one, all the remaining Christies for Christmas (1961 – 1973) featured full-length, original novels.
The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest was eventually published in the posthumous collection While the Light Lasts.
Greenshore’s Folly had been already been expanded by her into Dead Man’s Folly in 1956. The original was eventually published in its own right by the Agatha Christie Foundation, re-titled Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly, in 2014.
The ITV Poirot series adapted each of the Poirot stories in this collection, but two of them are based on the original stories. So, even though one episode was entitled The Mystery of the Spanish Chest, it is actually based on the Baghdad version. In that episode, adapted by Anthony Horowitz2, Hastings is standing in for Miss Lemon, tying to make sense of her filing system.
ITV’s Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series had a bash at Greenshaw’s Folly. To pad it out, they introduced elements of one of the Thirteen Problems, The Thumb Mark of St Peter.
Let’s just leave it at that.
1 Miss Lemon and Captain Hastings never actually met in any of the original Poirot stories; in the much-lauded ITV adaptations, played by Pauline Moran and Hugh Fraser, they appear regularly together.
2 Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders is an interestingly constructed book that has many, many references to Agatha Christie; the detective’s side-kick is even named Fraser, after the actor who played Hastings in this series.