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Category: Classic Crime

Review: Not to disturb by Muriel Spark

Reviewed by Joelene Pynnonen

It is an awful, stormy night when the Baron and Baroness arrive home to meet their mutual secretary in the library. From the moment that the Baron tells his butler, Lister, that they are not to be disturbed, their fate is sealed. None of the three will leave the house alive.

Meanwhile the servants are busy as ever, making sure that this monumental event goes down as smoothly as all the other events that they have overseen. All the while outside forces threaten to disrupt the process. Two of the secretary’s friends attempt to get to him before it is too late, a prince arrives for an unexpected visit and him in the attic is setting off enough noise to rival the storm outside.

Muriel Spark is best known for her wit and satire. Not to Disturb is both of those things. The humour is dark and somewhat bitter, and the satire is perhaps a little too sharp. The novel is an analysis of an unscrupulous world so fuelled by scandal that it ignores the loss of human life for a sensational story.

Highly experimental in structure, Not to Disturb, is a cleverly crafted piece. The wordplay in the dialogue, especially Lister’s, requires special attention. And, true to the best scandalous stories, insinuation takes the place of concrete explanation.

In many ways Not to Disturb reads like a play rather than a novel. There is little exploration of emotion, almost no description of the characters aside from through the dialogue, and the action is only described as needed. It adds to the feeling of the show that the servants are putting on for the media, making the reader a spectator to the event that they are orchestrating.

Not to Disturb is set up in an unusual way. Though the Baron, Baroness and secretary are alive for much of the novel, the servants already act and speak as though they were dead. Their ingrained sense of the preordained nature of their employees’ deaths is that strong. The fact that the servants have such insight into the nature of their employers that they know how the night will end is reminiscent of Wodehouse’s Jeeves character; but a much more sinister version.

Though murder by inaction is the crime in this novel, the themes explored go much deeper. It’s the kind of novel that would have to be read multiple times to understand the nuances of what Spark is saying. As such, it’s an interesting and singularly unique reading experience, though it lacks some humanity.

Not to Disturb – Muriel Spark

New Directions (1971)


ISBN: 9780811218672

Spotlight On: Agatha Christie Re-imaginings

By Damian Magee

Over the past four decades there have been many adaptions of Agatha Christie’s works for television.  During her lifetime Agatha Christie refused to allow any of her works to be adapted for the small screen.  She had a bad impression of television from a live 1949 version of And Then There Were None, where one of the corpses started walking off stage in front of the camera.

When Christie died in 1976 her estate went to her daughter Rosalind Hicks, who relaxed this rule.  After long discussions with London Weekend Television, they got the rights to film Why Didn’t They Ask Evans in 1980, with great success.  This was followed in 1982 by The Seven Dials Mystery, and The Agatha Christie Hour, based on selected short stories, which included the character, Parker Pyne.

1983 saw the first version of The Secret Adversary.  This was followed by a 10 part series Partners in Crime, based on the book of short stories about Tommy & Tuppence Beresford. This series was set in the 1920s with James Warwick and Francesca Annis as the newly married couple starting their private detective business, and young Albert as their servant/apprentice. This was a beautiful production with high production values, excellent cast & scripts: very faithful to the original text.

The final LWT production was a TV film based on the novel The Pale Horse. Aired in 1996, this was the first time the setting was updated to the present day, which did not work as well as their previous productions.

By 1984, the first Miss Marple series appeared on the BBC. Miss Marple was played by Joan Hickson.  All twelve novels were adapted with the series ending in 1992. These were set according to the books in the late 1940s to the early 1950s.  Joan Hickson was the quintessential Miss Marple: a gossipy old lady from a small English village, still active, and with an unerring skill in judging people’s characters and motivations, spurred to action by a strong sense of justice. This series proved to be very popular.

ITV got the rights to the Hercule Poirot stories. From 1989 to 2013, David Suchet played Hercule Poirot in the adaptation of 70 short and long stories, all set in the proper era. Only three short stories from Poirot’s early cases weren’t filmed. Some of the earlier episodes saw changes to the original stories, which did nothing to enhance them.  David Suchet became an executive producer of the series because of this, and the series became much more faithful to the original texts, to everyone’s delight.  Rosalind Hicks and Mathew Prichard, Agatha’s grandson who took over the estate on the death of his mother in 2004, completely approved of both David Suchet’s M. Poirot and Joan Hickson’s Miss Marple.

During the 1980s Rosalind also gave permission for CBS, the USA television network, to make a series of TV films based on some of the novels.  One of the first was 1982’s Witness for the Prosecution. At this time the US TV networks were filming TV versions of major films – these TV films had scripts, direction and scenes that were mirror images of the original movies.  The stars of this production were Ralph Richardson, Deborah Kerr, Diana Rigg and Beau Bridges. This TV film follows the 1957 version very closely. Other US adaptations followed – the settings were always updated to the present day and usually somewhere in the United States, including Murder is Easy (1982) with Helen Hayes as Lavinia Fullerton, Sparking Cyanide in 1983.

Due to the success of Helen Hayes in the role of Lavinia, she was offered the role of Miss Marple and she starred in two films, A Caribbean Mystery (1983), and Murder with Mirrors (1985).  Although the setting was present day, Hayes’s Miss Marple was a delight, much as Joan Hickson has been. The last US version based on a standalone novel was The Man in the Brown Suit (1989) which started Edward Woodward.  Peter Ustinov played Poirot in three US adaptions: Thirteen at Dinner (1985), Dead Man’s Folly (1986), and Murder in Three Acts (1986).

The biggest problems with these US adaptions was that they were poorly written and directed.  They had casts full of quality British actors who had vile dialogue and the directors insisted that they act in a manner perceived to be English by the US audiences, but that was nothing like reality.  David Suchet, who played Inspector Japp in Thirteen at Dinner, has said this was the worst performance of his career.  Even Peter Ustinov was just plain bad.  I caught up with one of these on TV recently, and these films really do not stand up to the test of time.

The most interesting reimagining of Agatha Christie’s stories is a Japanese Anime called Agatha Christie’s Great Detectives Poirot and Marple made in 2004 with 39 episodes. Most of the episodes deal with Poirot and are set in the 1930s. There are two characters added in these stories and one renamed: Mable West, daughter of Raymond West the author and nephew of Miss Marple, Mable’s pet duck Oliver, and the Scotland Yard Inspector is called Sharp (as Japp sounds too close to the derogatory term).

The episodes were thirty minutes long: the short stories were told in one episode and the novels in four parts.  Mable wants to become a detective and joins Poirot and Hastings, (portrayed as a younger 20-something).  Mable visits her great aunt, Jane Marple, at St. Mary Mead or writes her letters which lead into the story, so some are a Miss Marple story, and the rest are Poirot. The two Christie detectives are linked by Mable, although they never meet in the series. These adaptations are spot on with the clues and the outcomes of the crimes.

2001 saw a TV film of Murder on the Orient Express, with the British actor Alfred Molina as Poirot.  This is dreadful –it is set in the present day, Poirot uses a laptop to help to solve the case, and goes on a romantic holiday with a woman at the end.  Although the plot is the same as the book, Molina’s Poirot is far from Christie’s Poirot, complete with a mid-Atlantic accent.

With the success of the ITV Poirot series, and the BBC losing the rights to the Miss Marple stories, ITV began their version of Marple in 2004.  It was in production until 2013, first with Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple, and later Julia McKenzie.  Geraldine McEwan retired from acting in 2008. This series was set in the late 1950s; using all the twelve Miss Marple novels, a couple of her short stories combined, and the rest of the series were made from other Agatha Christie titles, including one of the Tommy & Tuppence novels.

Geraldine McEwan’s Miss Marple was highly acclaimed, and I believe as close to the character as Joan Hickson.  However, I thought Julia McKenzie was miscast in the role, she did not look or sound like Miss Marple, still had a younger voice, and it felt like watching another detective pretend to be Miss Marple.

Most of the Marple episodes have major differences to the novels or short stories they are based on. The first episode, The Body in Library, changed one of the killers & introduced a lesbian relationship. Many other episodes have different killers and/or motives and even plots from the original, episode two fabricates Miss Marple’s life as a young woman, and there were many episodes which inserted Miss Marple into someone else’s story.  Good examples are 4:50 from Paddington, At Bertram’s Hotel, and Nemesis for sweeping changes, and Towards Zero, Why Didn’t They Ask Evans and The Secret of Chimmeys were all non Miss Marple books.

The adaptation of By the Pricking of My Thumbs presented Anthony Andrews and Greta Scacchi as the older Tommy & Tuppence, and they gave wonderful performances.  However, again Miss Marple was included in the story, and this meant Tommy was left out of much of the detective work and the story.  An annoying episode for Agatha Christie fans.  Surprisingly, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, A Caribbean Mystery, and A Pocketful of Rye were all filmed faithfully to the books.  The series did have excellent casts, high production values, and was commercially successful.

By the end of 2013, the BBC had regained the rights to all of Christie’s works.  To celebrate the 125th anniversary of Agatha Christie’s birth, the BBC began adaptations of three novels: two from Tommy & Tuppence to be called Partners in Crime (2015); and, Then There Were None (2015-6) with Charles Dance and Sam Neill, which was filmed with the original ending, and the first part going to air Boxing Day 2015. No more can be said of this at the moment, as we are still waiting for it to come to Australian screens.

The new version of Tommy & Tuppence was a disaster, changing the setting, the characters and the plots. The new series consists of 6 episodes, the first three adapting The Secret Adversary and episodes 4-6 adapting N or M?  David Walliams and Jessica Raine starred as Tommy & Tuppence Beresford, and were totally miscast.  In the original stories Tommy & Tuppence were in their early twenties, fresh out of WWI, well born & bred, but with little money.  Tuppence was a bright, intelligent young woman, addicted to buying hats, and solving crime with intuitive flashes.  Tommy was steady and a little slow with new ideas, but could always see the truth, and was desperately in love with Tuppence.  Partners in Crime was set after WWII, in the Cold War, losing all the brightness and fashion of the 1920s, and David Walliams is just too old to be portraying Tommy.  Walliam’s Tommy is very unsuccessful in business and as a soldier, and he plays him as a fool, and very arrogant towards Tuppence.  Watching this with friends, the comment was made, ‘Why would you marry such a man?’ Raine’s Tuppence is very subservient and even dowdy, and there is no chemistry between Walliams and Raine.

Partners in Crime looked like a bad copy of Foyle’s War.  Even Albert was changed from a teenager to a disabled veteran of the war, a science teacher also working for British Intelligence!  Audiences in Britain started at 8 million, but quickly declined to only half that. Some of the British press called it Scooby Doo stuff.

Agatha Christie wrote works of such quality that she is still topping best seller lists. Her stories are tightly plotted with strong dialogue and characterisation.  There is no need to change them, and changes usually result in a lesser product.  It seems too many modern script writers, directors, and producers want to make “their own version/vision” of Agatha Christie, rather than delighting in enhancing the original.  Those that have got it right, have given us productions that will last as long as the books have.

Damian Magee is a West Australian writer and reviewer and a member of the Sherlock Holmes Society. He’s a life long fan of crime, sci-fi, anime, literature, history, biography, TV & films who has been writing reviews, non-fiction, & presenting seminars on these genres for the past 30 years.



Classic Crime: Send for Paul Temple by F. Durbridge and John Thews

send-for-paul-temple-dvd_500Reviewed by Damian Magee

This is the first Paul Temple book, which was based on the first radio serial broadcast in 1938.  It was published within a few months of the broadcast date. It introduces Paul Temple, author of crime fiction and amateur private detective, and a young lady reporter, Louise Harvey. These two would marry later in the series.

A series of jewel robberies that have baffled Scotland Yard indicate that a well organised jewellery gang is at large, controlled by the Master Criminal Max Lorraine, Knave of Diamonds: real identity unknown. The Commissioner of Police sends for Paul Temple for fresh ideas on the case.  A night watchman is murdered and, with his last breath, calls out ‘The Green Finger’. Temple works out it is the name of an inn.

During the course of the case Temple meets a woman reporter working as ‘Steve Trent’.  Steve helps out with the case along with her brother Superintendent Harvey and Inspector Dale of Scotland Yard.  As the clues start to make things clearer to Temple, he and Superintendent Harvey discover someone on the force has given information to Max Lorraine. Temple meets various suspects during the case: Dr.Milton, Diana Thornley, and Mrs Parchment, a retired schoolmistress who is interested in the history of English Inns.  Could one of them be the mysterious Max Lorraine, Knave of Diamonds?

I had been a fan of the radio serial and the TV series, but this was the first Paul Temple story I’d read in print, and I found the novel an easy read.  The characters come alive, the voices were clear and the descriptions were excellently fleshed out. The book can be read just like the radio serial, chapter by chapter building tension as all the clues come together into the solution of the case. There were plenty of twists and turns before the final reveal, which was not easily worked out. This is Britain’s crime-solving couple who compare with America’s Nick & Nora Charles of the Thin Man book (and several films) by Dashiell Hammett.  Although both were written in the 1930s, the language used by Durbridge is easy to understand. You can identify with the characters and could be using the same words today, unlike the language used by Hammett, which is the language of its time and location–very steeped in the gangster films of 1930s.

Both books were republished by Penguin books in 2013 as part of their crime section.

Damian MageeDamian Magee is a West Australian writer and reviewer and a member of the Sherlock Holmes Society. He’s a life long fan of crime, sci-fi, anime, literature, history, biography, TV & films who has been writing reviews, non-fiction, & presenting seminars on these genres for the past 30 years.


Classic Crime: Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

doyle_HoundReviewed by Damian Magee

Of the four Sherlock Holmes long stories, ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ is the best known.  First published in The Strand magazine between 1901-1902, and then as a novel in 1902, it’s a tale of revenge and murder.

The story is set in 1889, a few years before the events of ‘The Final Problem’, published in 1893. The case begins when Doctor Mortimer arrives at Baker Street to consult Holmes on the Baskerville’s family curse, the legend of the Hellhound, which may have caused the death of Sir Charles Baskerville.

Mortimer describes the scene to Holmes:



“A man’s or a woman’s?”

Dr. Mortimer looked strangely at us for an instant, and his voice sank almost to whisper as he answered:-

“Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!”

From this beginning, danger abounds for the new heir, Sir Henry Baskerville, recently arrived from Canada. Holmes sends Watson to Baskerville Hall with Dr. Mortimer and Sir Henry. The story is told from Watson’s point of view, through his diary and letters to Holmes.  Watson sets the scene against the eerie backdrop of Dartmoor. Present are an entomologist, Stapleton, and his sister, Beryl, Barrymore, the Baskerville’s butler and his wife, the housekeeper. Also Frankland the crank, Laura Lyon, and an escaped convict are all connected to the Hound of the Baskervilles.

From Watson’s letters Holmes builds his case, and sets in motion events that conclude in an horrific ending.

The story behind this famous tale is as interesting as the fiction. Conan Doyle and a friend were on holidays in Devon, where his friend told him tales of ghostly hellhounds and family curses. Their coachman’s name was Harry Baskerville and he took them on a short tour of Dartmoor, the bogs where dogs and ponies would get trapped, old tin mines, and Dartmoor prison. Apparently, those who escaped the prison were likely to fall prey to the bogs.

Doyle envisioned the story as a supernatural and Gothic romance, not as a Holmes mystery. But as the writing took shape, the character of Holmes became the strong central figure. At the time, Doyle wanted the public to believe that Holmes was dead, so the adventure was set in an earlier period for Holmes and Watson.

‘The Hound’ was the first Holmes story I read, aged 11, and is a book I continue to read again and again, finding something new each time. I had my own imagined voice for Holmes and Watson, at first, but today I hear the voices of actors Jeremy Brett as Holmes and Edward Hardwicke as Watson.

Timeless fiction!

Damian MageeDamian Magee is a West Australian writer and reviewer and a member of the Sherlock Holmes Society. He’s a life long fan of crime, sci-fi, anime, literature, history, biography, TV & films who has been writing reviews, non-fiction, & presenting seminars on these genres for the past 30 years.


Classic Crime Review: Crooked House by Agatha Christie

christie_crooked houseReviewed by Joelene Pynnonen

The Leonides family are a ruthless lot as Charles Hayward is about to find out. The only member of the family he has met is Sophia, whom he had hoped to marry after the war ended. But when he gets back to England he finds that someone in the house has murdered her beloved but domineering grandfather, Aristide. Knowing that Charles’s future career will suffer if there is any hint of a scandal against her, she will not marry until she knows who the murderer is.

The likely suspect is the one that it would most suit the family to be rid of, Aristide’s young wife, Brenda. She had both the means and motive. Unfortunately for the Leonides family, she was not the only one who did. Now Charles must look into the matter if he has any hope of wedding Sophia.

As always, Christie has crafted a superb cosy mystery with Crooked House. As I’ve mentioned before, the most compelling aspect of Christie’s writing is the way in which she can give readers all of the clues and still leave them clueless as to the real murderer. This novel is no exception. Charles is an unlikely amateur detective relying on advice from his police commissioner father. With the help of Sophia’s intelligent 12-year-old sister, Josephine, Charles lays the facts out for the reader as he tries to puzzle through them. Between them they uncover many motives and a generous dash of red herrings.

The Leonides family is the second most fascinating feature of Crooked House. Despite the novel only being 160 pages long, Christie manages to fully develop all of the characters. They are diverse but each of them has a trait that ties them to the family. They’re all interesting in that almost none of their motives boil down to the obvious one; money. Like any family they simmer under a myriad of slights, or have motives based on their individual temperaments rather than greed.

As you read about the Leonides family you find yourself hoping along with them that the ‘right’ person committed the murder, despite knowing that Brenda is too obvious a choice. It’s impossible to wish any of the rest of the family guilty. They’re too likable, though each of them is ruthless in their own way. It’s easy to see why this was one of Christie’s favourite books to write; it’s also a pleasure to read.

Crooked House – Agatha Christie

Fontana Books (1949)


ISBN: 9780006137986