Monday, October 2, 2017

Mr. Parker Pyne, Detective by Agatha Christie (1934)

My cool vintage copy
It is obvious after reading nearly fifteen Agatha Christie novels published between her first novel in 1920 and this book of connected short stories in 1934 that while the good dame wanted to stick to detective fiction as a genre, she had no intention of writing the same book over and over again. In fourteen (or so) years, Christie had already written books featuring a variety of detectives:  Mr. Quin, Tommy and Tuppence, Miss Marple, and (of course) Hercule Poirot.  She also experimented with different kinds of form, expertly taking the genre and shaking it up in various ways.  I’m not a voracious reader of golden age detective novelists; I’m aware of Marsh, Sayers and so on, but really I’ve only read Christie; I imagine though that all of them were doing the same sort of thing, so I don’t know how original Christie was being.  I would guess she was being VERY original - after all, they did name an award after her.  It is clear that no publisher or editor, particularly after 14 years of success, was going to force her write anything she didn't want to write..  She wasn’t going to only write about Hercule Poirot, at least at this stage in her career.

So here comes Mr. Parker Pyne, detective, into this mix of detectives and forms.  He’s the least clearly drawn of Christie’s detectives - Tommy and Tuppence have the madcap bright young things attitude of the 1920s; Mr. Harley Quin had a strange, supernatural bent; Poirot and Marple are, well, Poirot and Marple.  But Mr. Parker Pyne doesn’t jump off the page in such a strong way.  He is a bit like Harley Quin, without the supernatural; he shares a secretary and Mrs. Ariadne Oliver with Hercule Poirot, and also a penchant for using the powers of the mind, the little grey cells, only in a different, less subtle way (and frankly, less convincing).  Mr. Parker Pyne seems to be some sort of brilliant but retired government worker of some sort, a civil servant, but we never really find out much about him or why he should be considered so brilliant. The short stories at the beginning of the book feel redundant of one another; they aren’t really mysteries (another playing around with form), as Mr. Parker Pyne (always referred to as such) works to make unhappy people happy.  Several of these stories involve unhappy wives or husbands, and the solutions (no spoilers) are often sort of sexist.  
First UK edition

Mr. Parker Pyne does not really succeed as a character; it does not appear that Agatha Christie ever really considered writing a complete novel with him as a main character; he appears in two more short stories and that is it for him.   (There are only 14 total short stories featuring Mr. Parker Pyne, and most appeared somewhere else before being collected in one volume; that shows).  There just isn’t enough there, I think.  It’s interesting that Christie liked Miss Lemon and Ariadne Oliver so much that she used them again in the future, but with Hercule Poirot.  She may have ended up hating Hercule Poirot (I don’t know this to be true, but I suspect she tired of him after so many years) but he was a far more interesting character, and giving Poirot two of her most interesting supporting characters makes literary sense.  

In addition to the characters, Christie recycles a title - there is a short story called “Death on the Nile” in this collection; she goes on to write another Death on the Nile as a Hercule Poirot novel; this time far more successfully.  There wasn’t any punch to the whodunnit of her short story, while the longer, different novel is far more exciting.  

Mr. Parker Pyne, DetectiveMr. Parker Pyne, Detective by Agatha Christie
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Agatha Christie only published 14 total short stories featuring Mr. Parker Pyne, and ten of them are found here. These ten were published in pulp and mystery magazines first, then gathered in one volume, unstitched. That "unstitching" shows; Mr. Parker Pyne is the least developed of all Christie characters, without any identifying characteristics; he's certainly no Marple or Poirot. Even at her worst, Christie is writer who likes experimentation with the form, and Mr. Parker Pyne is definitely an experiment in setting (if not plot or character). In most of these short stories, he's not really even a detective or an investigator, but rather an instigator and fixer. He advertises in The Times with "Are you happy? If not, consult Mr. Parker Pyne" and his clients all come to him seeking cures for their unhappiness (sort of a grown up Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, actually). His secretary is Miss Lemon, who apparently quits Mr. Parker Pyne to go work for Hercule Poirot; another character who makes an appearance is Ariadne Oliver, the renowned mystery writer. Christie liked these two characters enough that she later made use of them in more flushed out and interesting ways; but poor Mr. Parker Pyne is literarily doomed to only these ten stories plus four more and that was all. If Christie thought he was uninteresting as a character, not worth building upon - well, I have to agree.

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