Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Death Wears a Mask

A new month and a new theme. We are coming up to Hallowe'en (which I tend to ignore as my house is protected by my black cat who sits on the window sill and glares at all potential trick-or-treaters) so it was decided to deal with murder in costume. As before Kate Jackson is collecting all the contributions on her blog. They are very well worth reading.

Several people wrote about Agatha Christie in the first week. It is, in fact, almost impossible to produce a clutch of blogs about classic detective stories (let us not get into an argument as to what is and what is not Golden Age) without mentioning that lady and her output. Despite the fact that it is fashionable to dismiss her work (a trend that, I am sorry to say, the Baroness James strongly contributed to) the truth is that it was often of the first order on many more levels than just clever plots, Several aspects of crime and detective fiction were pioneered by her.

My colleagues among the Tuesday Night Bloggers  covered a number of Christie's novels and short stories in which people wear masks in the sense of masquerading as someone else. Off the top of my head I can refer to A Murder Is Announced (in which only about two members of a household are what they say they are), After The Funeral (in which we see the same person in two guises without realizing it) and One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (about which I cannot say anything without giving away the plot). There are others but I want to look at a slight adventure, one of the Beresfords' about whom I have written before here and here.

One of their adventures in Partners in Crime, which spreads over two stories, Finessing the King and The Gentleman Dressed in Newspaper, deals with murder committed by a masked man with the victim also being masked. The crime is committed in a private room of a rather shady cafe, called The Ace of Spades, to which the Beresfords go at midnight, having attended (in Tommy's case reluctantly) The Three Arts Ball. They hear a cry and sinister laughter in the room next to theirs and go in to find a dying lady dressed as the Queen of Hearts, who manages to whisper that Bingo did it. Nothing is exactly straightforward and Tuppence manages to work out the truth because she remembers something Tommy had told her about differences in newsprint from day to day in what must be their favourite newspaper, The Daily Leader. That and the killer's sinister laughter.

Masquerading as another person or wearing a mask to hide the real personality is a frequent Christie device. In this story, the mask is physical - the killer assumes another's outfit in order to confuse both victim and police.

Like most of the stories in Partners in Crime this is clever but skight. As so often with Christie's work, it gives a delightful picture of life in London of a particular period, in this case, the mid-twenties - the fancy dress balls and the caffs one can go to for bacon and eggs or Welsh rabbit [that is the original spelling, by the way] afterwards; the ladies and gentlemen who manage to live on private income, which causes criminal problems and the ease with which one can acquire just the right fancy dress costume.

This is a McCarty Incog. story with Tuppence managing to get the right clothes for them to wear at the ball, pointing out that it is time they studied and imitated some American detective methods. (Their original plan or, rather, Tuppence's original plan is to work out what a particular personal ad means as a kind of practice as business is none too brisk. Actually, business for Blunt's Brilliant Detectives is never too brisk, which is surprising in the light of their success.) Tuppence is McCarty the former cop who usually solves the problem because of some simple comment by his friend Dennis Riordan, the fireman. That is what happens here.

The 1983 - 1984 TV series with Francesca Annis, James Warwick and Reece Dinsdale, a more successful version than the 2015 one abandoned several aspects of the original. There was no question of Soviet espionage, which made some of the introductory comments by Inspector Marriott (Mr Carter, the Chief, was dropped completely) somewhat incomprehensible and it was clearly decided that the audiences will not manage to understand the references to classic detective stories. No mention of McCarty and Riordan and Tuppence's costume is a rather poor version of somebody's idea of Sherlock Holmes while Tommy swelters away as Dr Watson. To be fair, none of the other detectives are mentioned either, which makes the Beresfords' lunch at the ABC Corner House (The Sunningdale Mystery) also incomprehensible. One can hear a subtext but there is no explanation.

I can't help feeling that is rather a pity. In the first place, one or two of the references would be comprehensible and, secondly, even if they are not, the idea of imitating great fictional detectives is a highly amusing one. You never know, some viewers might try to find out more.

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