Agatha Christie’s ‘Dead Man’s Folly:’ Moaning Myrtle and The Silkworm

Dolores Gordon-Smith spotted three Agatha Christie mysteries on J. K. Rowling’s bookshelf in the photo taken for the back cover of the Bloomsbury adult edition of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Mrs. Gordon-Smith is a mystery writer herself (check out her brilliant Jack Haldean novels if you haven’t already!), a Potter pundit, and a great fan and close reader of Dame Agatha. She noted that Rowling had almost certainly decided to name the Hogwarts Saga’s Weasley daughter Ginny with the proper name Ginevra after the red headed teen girl in Christie’s Appointment with Death who is also a spirited Ginny/Ginevra.

Appointment with Death, however, was only one of the three Christie’s on Rowling’s shelf that Mrs Gordon-Smith spotted. With it are Dead Man’s Folly and Murder in Three Acts. David Llewellyn Dodds has found four more Christie paperbacks on a different part of the bookshelf in the same picture. Based on the Ginny/Ginevra find in Appointment, I have read and posted about other links with Harry and Cormoran in that book, in another Christie mystery with obvious correspondences to a Rowling title (cf., The Pale Horse with Lethal White), those Christie mysteries which Rowling has said she enjoyed (The Moving Finger, Murder at the Vicarage) or just collections I have read at random (The Complete Miss Marple Short Stories, Murder at the Manor).

Today I read Dead Man’s Folly, a Hercule Poirot classic first published in 1956. It is a delight both with respect to the great twist at the finale set-up by the Queen of Crime and the wonderful resonance with Rowling’s writing that her serious readers will revel in. And maybe, just maybe, we have Moaning Myrtle’s mother and a template for the novel-within-the-novel of Galbraith’s The Silkworm. Join me after the jump for all that!

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Christie’s Miss Marple Short Stories: Another Treasury of Rowling Sources?

Agatha Christie wrote a small library of one hundred and sixty five short stories in addition to her seventy-two novels. They appeared in newspapers, popular magazines, and journals in England and America because they were a great way for Christie to make money without having to give back 90% of her earnings in taxes to the government; all the money she made in the US at the time was not subject to UK proletariat-despotism. According to the Miss Marple: The Complete Short Stories collection I purchased in my pursuit of Rowling’s roots in Christie-dom, only twenty of the short stories featured the humble spinstress, the Sherlock Holmes of St Mary Mead, Jane Marple.

But there are some jewels in the set for Potter-philes, trust me. Take this passage from ‘Ingots of Gold,’ in which a novelist reviews his meeting with a deep sea treasure hunter in Cornwall:

It occurred to me as I listened to him how often things happen that way. A rich man such as Newman succeeds almost without effort, and yet in all probability the actual money in value of his find would mean little to him. I must say that his ardour infected me. I saw galleons drifting up the coast, flying before the storm, beaten and broken on the black rocks. The mere word galleon has a romantic sound. The phrase ‘Spanish Gold’ thrills the schoolboy — and the grown-up man also. Moreover, I was working at the time upon a novel, some scenes of which were laid in the sixteenth century, and I saw the prospect of getting valuable local colour from my host.

Forgive me for thinking this as likely a source as any for Rowling’s decision to make the principal unit of money in the Wizarding World a galleon.

How about this from the last page of ‘The Four Suspects,’ a short story whose twist turns on a knowledge of flower symbolism?

“I was, I think, well educated for the standard of my day. My sister and I had a German governess — a Fraulein. A very sentimental creature. She taught us the language of flowers — a forgotten study nowadays, but most charming. A yellow tulip, for instance, means ‘Hopeless Love,’ while a China aster means ‘I Die of Jealousy at Your Feet.’ That letter was signed Georgina, which I seem to remember as dahlia in German.”…

“A man used to send me purple orchids every night to the theater,” said Jane [Helier, the Elizabeth Taylor sort of beauty and star of stage and screen] dreamily.

” ‘I Await Your Favours’ — that’s what that means,” said Miss Marple brightly.

Sir Henry gave a peculiar sort of cough and turned away.

Besides the adverbs at the end of each sentence and the humor, this passage from Christie seems a probable source for Rowling’s discovery of Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and the language of flowers. If you’re not familiar with Rowling’s literary herbology beyond ‘Lily’ and ‘Petunia,’ check out Beatrice Grove’s ‘We Can Talk If There’s Anyone Worth Talking To: The Language of Flowers’ in her series on Plant Lore in the Hogwarts Saga.

There are more, of course. We meet an Emma Gaunt in ‘Motive v. Opportunity,’ the title of which will cause a Cormoran Strike reader to smile (I much prefer the Vanity Fair origins of the Gaunt family name, but it’s in Christie, too). In ‘Tape Measure Murder’ we’re given an aside about ‘Crippen’ which leads to the Rattenbury-esque moment when you see the parallels between that story’s death and the notorious Hawley Harvey Crippen.

The point? Rowling has read all of Christie closely, at least as closely as she did Austen, Nabokov, and Colette, and she took notes for future reference. Lots of notes.

Let me know what you think in the comment boxes below!

Agatha Christie’s Last Marple Mystery: ‘Sleeping Murder’ and ‘Duchess of Malfi’

The edition of Agatha Christie’s Murder at the Vicarage I purchased online in order to read and review because of Val McDermid’s conversation with Robert Galbraith about it is a curious book. Murder at the Vicarage is the second book in this edition; the first is Sleeping Murder. I read Sleeping last night — I’m still waiting for the arrival of Christie novels visible on Rowling’s 2000 bookshelf which I have ordered — and rather enjoyed it. This morning I learned why this edition exists and a wonderful connection between Agatha Christie, P. D. James, and Rowling/Galbraith, namely, John Webster’s Jacobean Revenge Drama, The Duchess of Malfi.

Agatha Christie wrote and published at least a book a year for decades (Rowling in the McDermid conversation describes Christie’s work as being “patchy” in consequence to her writing feverishly to “escape the taxman;” for more on that, see ‘Hustle and Prose: Agatha Christie‘). She lived in London during WWII, naturally was concerned about the possibility that she might die during an air raid, and took steps to provide income after her death to her only child and her second husband. She wrote two books to be published after her death, novels that were to be the last Poirot and Marple adventures, the profits from which books were given directly to her heirs, thus escaping death duties. Curtain, Poirot’s swan song, was published finally in 1975, the year before Christie died, and Sleeping Murder, Miss Marple’s finale (she unlike Hercule survives her curtain call), came out in 1976 just a few months after the author’s death.

Sleeping Murder, though was the book’s third title. Originally it was Murder in Retrospect, which, frankly, is the best of the lot for this mystery both with respect to the action within the story and the curious quality of its writing and publication. In the book, a newly married woman from New Zealand recalls a murder she witnessed as a toddler and decides to investigate despite the pointed advice of Miss Marple that she should let ‘sleeping murders lie.’ It also, of course, is an odd ‘looking back’ or retrospect because, published as it was so long after its writing, it recalls a different age and quality of writing from Dame Agatha.

That first title had to be dropped, however, because Christie’s American publishers chose to use Murder in Retrospect as the title for the Poirot novel that was Five Little Pigs in the UK. The Retrospect manuscript, which Christie had locked away in a bank vault, was consequently re-titled Cover Her Face, an allusion to the exact line from Webster’s Duchess of Malfi that triggers the heroine’s recall of her step-mother’s murder (incredibly, the murderer recited the lines after strangling the woman to death). “Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle; she died young.” She hears the line at a performance of Webster’s gore-fest of a play in London which she attends with her husband and with Miss Marple’s risibly literary nephew, Raymond West.

The book was published as Sleeping Murder, though, because — let me say “incredibly” again — P. D. James had in 1962 given her first Adam Dagleish mystery the title Cover Her Face, an allusion to the same play and the same line. But this gets better. Sleeping Murder comes out in October 1976. James writes The Skull Beneath the Skin in 1982, her second and last Cordelia Gray novel, which thriller and murder mystery turns around the performance of, you guessed it, The Duchess of Malfi. I’ll leave it to the serious readers of P. D. James to re-read Skull and Sleeping Murder to see how much of the Cordelia Gray piece is a Marple parody or hat-tip from the author so often cited as Christie’s heir, ‘The New Queen of Crime.”

For serious readers of J. K. Rowling and Robert Galbraith, though, this presents an answer to a question perhaps no one but me is asking. “How did J. K. Rowling become so interested in Early Modern Drama and specifically Jacobean Revenge Drama that she makes the genre the heart of her most literary novel to date, The Silkworm?” Oxford’s Beatrice Groves, a scholar specializing in Early Modern Drama and long-time reader of P. D. James, has explained this connection wonderfully in“Didst Thou Not Mark the Jest of the Silkworm?”: Literary Clues in “The Silkworm”.’ But the mystery remains. How did Rowling become fascinated by and relatively expert in recreating Jacobean Revenge Drama?

Having James as her model is one answer to the question, obviously; Rowling has been quite open about her admiration for James and as Prof Groves has explained there are several similarities between Robin Ellacott and Cordelia Gray. That both Agatha Christie and P. D. James, two authors Rowling has read closely and models her work after in several respects, embed performances of Duchess of Malfi in their novels around which the story turns suggests that the Classical Studies major and student of Austen, Nabokov, and Colette took a serious interest in the relatively archaic and anachronistic work of John Webster because her mentors in mystery clearly loved Duchess and used it successfully. Silkworm was the first of the Cormoran Strike novels Rowling wrote; in it, I think, you can see the art and soul of what she thinks great detective fiction is and does.

And a lot of that is the genius of Agatha Christie. If you’re a Serious Striker, you are all but obliged to read Sleeping Murder,  as well as James’ Cover Her Face and The Skull Beneath the Skin.

A Parthian shot to bring this post back to its beginning: the 1976 edition of Sleeping Murder I own, as I noted above, concludes with Murder at the Vicarage. I do not know if this was done at Christie’s direction but it is a wonderful bracketing. Just as her last Poirot novel, Curtain, returns to the scene and atmosphere of that detective’s first appearance, A Mysterious Affair at Styles, so Sleeping Murder includes a pointed reference to Murder at the Vicarage and both books repeatedly mention the Lizzie Borden murders. The 1976 edition of the book with Sleeping first and Vicarage last, in reverse order of their publication, points to this intentional bracketing as a kind of A-B-B’-A’ Murder in Retrospect looking back chiasmus. 

And perhaps a clue about Galbraith writing a seven part series in retrospect, i.e., looking back in parallel at Rowling’s seven part Hogwarts Saga?

Let me know what you think in the comment boxes below!

Agatha Christie: Murder at the Manor

I’ve been reading Agatha Christie novels that Rowling has said she has read, that we see on her bookshelf, or which have an obvious connection to her work. I’ve reviewed, consequently, Christie’s The Moving Finger, Appointment with Death, Murder at the Vicarage, and The Pale Horse with an eye on names, plot points, and literariness, the formalist’s literaturnost.  If you’ve been reading these posts, I think you’ve been struck as I have at the number and quality of the connections that can be called ‘influence,’ ‘hat-tips,’ or ‘allusion.’ Rowling is much more vocal about her admiration for Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, even P. D. James, frankly, than she has been in her comments about the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie, whose sixty-six novels have outsold any author other than perhaps Enid Blyton. Christie, though, seems to be her mentor much more than these others.

As an experiment, then, to gauge the breadth and depth of this influence, I pulled down a Christie anthology from my bookshelf, Murder at the Manor. It has three relatively obscure novels by the Master, hence the subtitle, ‘A Lost Classics Omnibus.’ The Mystery Guild edition on my shelf includes The Seven Dials Mystery (1929), Crooked House (1949), and Ordeal by Innocence (1958). The books written across three decades are gathered together because (a) none of them include Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple so they do not sell as well from the publisher’s backlist as the famous detectives novels do and (b) they all feature a mystery set in an oversized house or country estate in which the manor is as important as most of the characters. My thought in reading these back shelf titles, besides filling time before the Christie novels visible on Rowling’s 2000 bookshelf I have ordered arrive, was to see if Rowling had read all the books by Christie, each and every one, even these ‘Lost Classics,’ and taken notes for names, plot points, and embedded literary notes.

My tentative findings are posted after the jump!

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Christie’s ‘Murder at the Vicarage’ Bellatrix Lestrange’s Debut in Fiction?

In the interview Rowling did with Val McDermid, the interviewer asked ‘Robert Galbraith’ what his favorite Agatha Christie novel was. S/he said it was Christie’s The Moving Finger (1942), which I read and wrote about here. McDermid, though, offered up a different title, Murder at the Vicarage (1930), and Galbraith said he thought that was great as well:

V:  It’s hard to pick a favorite of Christie. I cleave to the one that made me fall in love with her and ultimately with the crime genre, The Murder at the Vicarage.

JK: Oh, God, that’s so good.

V:  What I love about The Murder at the Vicarage is the humor.

JK: Yeah, she is. She’s very funny.

V: There’s a wonderful bit right at the beginning when she’s introducing the four spinster women of the parish, and she says, “Miss Harknell, who was much feared by the poor.” You just know exactly what kind of woman this person was…

JK: … instantly…

V: …  And I think Christie is never really given credit for her humor…

JK:  …that’s so right…

V: …I think we pick up on that and we understand that you can use humor inside the crime format.

So I bought a copy of Murder at the Vicarage, read it, and, y’know, it really is very good. And funny. 

More important, I think Rowling really has read it. For the links of it with the works of Rowling and Galbraith, make the jump!

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