Thursday, November 16, 2017

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS – Agatha Christie

I should point out first off that until I began reading Murder on the Orient Express last week I had no idea Hercule Poirot was such a “ridiculous-looking little man. The sort of little man one could never take seriously.” This from the mouth of Mary Debenham, one of the eponymous train’s passengers who, along with me and other first-time readers of Agatha Christie’s most popular fictional detective series, soon will come to see Poirot in a more dangerous light.

Also, as Murder on the Orient Express was first published some 83 years ago, I must assume most if not all readers here know how it ends—either from having read the novel or seen one of its various film adaptations, including the one just released starring Kenneth Branagh as the “ridiculous-looking little man.” Yet, for the theoretical one or two of you who might look forward to being kept in suspense along with everyone on the train, including Poirot, I shall do my damnedest to keep even the slightest potential spoiler from your eyes. Truth be told, although I’d seen one of the film adaptations—the 1974 version starring Albert Finney as Poirot—seen it a couple of times in fact, I had forgotten most of the plot, including the whodunnit part, until I started reading the novel. That’s no reflection on Christie’s plot, which is ingenious if a tad gimmicky, but on my own shortcoming in not retaining as much passively as when written words engage my imagination.
What I offer here is a brief synopsis of the plot and some observations of Christie’s style and characters, quirks and anything else of note that comes to mind.

First the synopsis: heavy snow blocks train miles from nowhere; a man whose sinister eyes give everyone the impression he’s dangerous, or even evil, turns up stabbed to death in his compartment; Poirot investigates, learns the killer had to be someone in this particular car because it was locked on either end and no footprints made by a possible killer were seen in the snow; because there is no way to reach the outside world Poirot cannot confirm any of the background stories the passengers give him, leaving it up to his world-renowned detective’s brain to deduce which of them is the murderer.
Sounds like a parlor game, and in all likelihood there is one, or more, based on this scenario. But the skillful way Christie presents it, giving us character-studies that start on the surface and incrementally penetrate the layers, Murder on the Orient Express has—or had for me
Albert Finney
, anyway—the effect of a plausible real-life event. Then again, I’m relatively new to the classic
puzzle plot style, unfamiliar with what I presume are the genre’s standard tropes, and with a perhaps unusually suggestive imagination. In more conventional terms, this one “worked for me”--despite finding myself quickly remembering how the thing ended. I had as much fun knowing where the story led and how Christie and Poirot got there than I’ve had ordinarily trying to follow or outwit a fictional detective when I was unsure who the killer was or what was his or her motive for the killing.
At least one surprise for me could not have been intentional. Right off the bat, Christie slapped me awake with the novel’s first two sentences: “It was five o’clock on a winter’s morning in Syria. Alongside the platform at Aleppo stood the train grandly designated in railway guides as the Taurus Express."
David Suchet
Aleppo. Yikes. Had Christie only known the heartbreak that city’s name would connote in years to come. Fortunately for us she mentions it only the once before jettisoning it from the story. But by then she had me absolutely aboard the snowbound train, locked inside the Stamboul-Calais coach with Hercule Poirot, a dozen murder suspects, and the corpse of a man neither Poirot nor any of the suspects had found at all likable.
Three suspects I recognized right away as perhaps Christie’s ensemble types. As this was only the second of her canon I’ve read, I’d be surprised if there were not more. In Orient the types are represented by the anonymous, tall, red-headed woman, the jabbering American woman “Caroline Hubbard,” and the yellow-complected, elderly, ugly Princess Dragomiroff. In the first Christie I read, Destination Unknown, these three types appeared as Hilary Craven, the tall, red-headed woman protagonist, Mrs. Calvin Baker as the jabbering American, and the elderly, ugly, yellow-complected Monsieur Aristides. In both novels these elderly fossils made up for their withered, yellow ugliness by intelligent, forceful eyes.
Robert Powell
Christie really gets into describing uglies. Here’s her take on Princess Dragomiroff: her “small toad-like face looked even yellower than the day before. She was certainly ugly, and yet, like the toad, she had eyes like jewels, dark and imperious, revealing latent energy and an intellectual force that could be felt at once.” I could substitute Monsieur Aristides for the princess in that description without missing a beat. I haven’t come across a Peter Lorre or Sydney Greenstreet type yet, but I have many more Christies ahead in which to find them. Come to think of it, Lorre, with his smarmy voice and his leering eyes complemented by bat-wing mustaches (Christie prefers the plural, presumably considering each wing a separate ‘stache), might have made a perfect Poirot—in fact, so many have played the brilliant “ridiculous-looking little man” on film, he might actually have done so. Can you believe Tony Randall in the role? See photo.
Oh yes, Tony Randall
It’s apparent from just these two novels that Christie, besides being a masterful plot-maker, has loads of fun describing her characters, and not just for her own amusement. Take the villain, for example, please. Hahaha. Christie sets us up nicely to loathe the dude by indirection. He never speaks, that I recall, except to other characters who report what he said. But here’s Poirot’s first impression of the fellow known as Ratchett (the name itself is our first clue, sort of rhyming as it does with “wretched”): “He was a man of between sixty and seventy. From a little distance he had the bland aspect of a philanthropist. His slightly bald head, his domed forehead, the smiling mouth that displayed a very white set of false teeth, all seemed to speak of a benevolent personality. Only the eyes belied this assumption. They were small, deep set and crafty. Not only that. As the man, making some remark to his young companion, glanced across the room, his gaze stopped on Poirot for a moment, and just for that second there was a strange malevolence, and unnatural tensity in the glance.” Need we know more? I don’t. Where’s the knife? Let me at the scoundrel!
Not that Murder on the Orient Express is a forgotten book, far from it. More like unforgettable. Yet, it’s joining the others on Patti Abbott’s Friday’sForgottenBooks feature, which,this week is hosted by the inimitable Todd Mason.


Sunday, November 12, 2017

CRASHBACK – Michael Fabey

The story of David and Goliath in a kinder, gentler Old Testament translation would have young David, instead of killing Goliath with his slingshot, chasing him off the field of battle while hurling nothing more than angry words at the fearsome giant. Had that been the case, the word philistine today, instead of a curse, would be a joke. Likewise the U.S. Navy in some minds suffered similar ignominy when a peewee Chinese amphibian, firing no more than angry words on its radio, chased a fearsome guided missile cruiser three times its size from the South China Sea.

Military journalist Michael Fabey uses this Dec. 5, 2013 embarrassing incident involving the USS Cowpens to underline his wake-up call for sleeping politicians that despite China’s official posture of civility on the world stage it’s quietly conducting a crash program to build a navy that can supplant U.S. dominance in the Western Pacific. And the Chinese are not waiting until they have more than their one aircraft carrier. They’re already pushing into places long claimed by their Western Pacific neighbors, including the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Vietnam. The most obvious and egregious Chinese incursion has been the building up a string of coral deposits into man-made islands and claiming them as Chinese territory. Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. forces in the Pacific, calls this buildup a “Great Wall of Sand,” on which the Chinese will locate forward military bases.

Fabey’s just-released book, Crashback, explores the political, economic, and military history of this region as background to his examining the implications of more recent events and policies. His own background includes decades of award-winning reporting on military and naval affairs for such publications as Defense News, Aviation Week, and Jane’s. His integrity as a journalist gained him access to the upper command levels of both the Chinese and U.S. navies as well as sailors in the enlisted ranks. Bringing sourcing and research of this caliber to Crashback gives a sobering credibility to Fabey’s conclusion that we are already at war with China, albeit what the Chinese themselves are calling a “warm war.” But it’s a war that could quickly go hot. And if it does, no one who’s read Crashback can say they were not warned.

As Fabey argues in his prologue: “It’s a war over tiny specks of land and vast reaches of sea and sky, a warm war of dangerous confrontations and small escalations, a war over military hegemony and the diplomatic and economic influence that naturally follows that hegemony. It’s a war that pits a diminished U.S. Navy, which sailed the Pacific virtually unchallenged for decades, against a burgeoning Chinese navy that is evolving with astonishing speed from a coastal defense force to a “blue-water” fleet capable of projecting power throughout the region. It’s a warm war in which China is trying to gain ownership and military control of some of the world’s most economically vital waters.

And it is a war that the United States has been losing.”

Michael Fabey

If Crashback becomes the handbook that spurs U.S. leaders—civilian and military—into turning the situation around, Fabey says the Chinese have their own book that’s spurring them on to challenge U.S. dominance: The “widely influential 2010 book The China Dream: Great Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in the Post-American Era. It was written by a retired People’s Liberation Army colonel named Liu Mingfu, one of China’s most respected military writers and international strategists…

In the book, Colonel Liu posits that America’s historically brief time of worldwide hegemony is passing, and that it is China’s manifest destiny to take America’s place as the leader among the world’s nations—starting in the Western Pacific. America will resist, the colonel says, the U.S. and China will initially fight a “warm war”—he uses that very phrase—for military and geopolitical hegemony in the region. There will be confrontations, shows of force, periodic crises. But in the end, the colonel says, China will prevail. And one reason it will prevail is this: Although it wants peace, China is not afraid of war. And America is.”

Fabey describes in moment-to-moment detail several recent examples of China’s thumbing its nose at international rules of the sea to confront with hostility U.S. intelligence-gathering maneuvers in international waters over which China claims territorial privilege. His flagship example is the Cowpens incident from which he’s titled the book. It began with the guided-missile cruiser steaming near China’s first and only aircraft carrier to gather electronic signals from the ship and its amphibian escorts. When spotted, the Cowpens’s radio crackles with demands from the Chinese carrier to leave the area. The Cowpens answers that what it is doing is legal. This exchange continues until two of the carrier’s amphibian escorts move toward the Cowpens in a threatening manner. The cruiser continues on its course, about ten miles away and heading toward the carrier, until one of the amphibians “suddenly turns and cuts across the Cowpens’s bow at an oblique angle, so close that it’s in the Cowpens’s ‘forward shadow zone,’ part of it disappearing from...sight under the front end of the cruiser.
USS Cowpens
It’s crunch time. Several things are in play at this point. It’s the first time China has openly challenged a U.S. warship in international waters. If the Cowpens continues ahead it will hit the amphibian, crushing it and sending it and its crew to the bottom of the sea. The Cowpens’s captain has been given conflicting orders—perhaps impossible, Catch-22 orders. As Fabey puts it: “to boldly take his ship and his crew into harm’s way—but for God’s sake, don’t let anything unpleasant happen out there.”

Fabey describes Captain Greg Gombert as “tall (six-foot-six) and lean, with blue eyes and a shock of brown hair, dressed in the navy’s new working uniform of one-piece blue coveralls. Intense, driven, supremely self-confident, he pushes his ship and his crew—and himself—hard. The product of a strict midwestern Catholic upbringing, steeped in the concepts of duty and hard work, at age forty-four Gombert is a man who has never failed at anything— and he doesn’t intend to fail in this mission.”

A Goliath of a man, perhaps, commanding most certainly a Goliath of a ship with “an astonishing amount of firepower.” It’s a Ticonderoga-class cruiser of a design “to be the most powerful surface warships ever to put to sea, under any flag, in any century.”

Let’s let Fabey describe what happens now: “Radios squawk out angry English—“ Leave the area! Leave the area!” On the decks, sailors who can see what’s going on are giving each other “Holy shit!” looks. On the bridge, the junior officers are looking desperately at Captain Gombert, who stares out at the rapidly nearing amphib, knowing he has to make a decision— and that there’s no good decision to make. In the end, he has no choice. “ALL BACK EMERGENCY FULL! BRACE! BRACE! BRACE!” In an instant the massive gears deep in the ship go from full ahead to neutral to full reverse, while the cruiser’s four twenty-thousand-horsepower-each engines are screaming to provide full power. The effect is like a jumbo jet landing on a too-short runway; the bow pushes down, the stern rises up. Throughout the ship, sailors and officers have to grab the nearest handholds to keep from being tumbled forward. The collision warning alarm bounces off metal bulkheads throughout the ship, like the flailing of a gong. It’s not at all certain that the ship will be able to stop in time.

Finally, after it’s traveled two ship lengths, about twelve hundred feet, the Cowpens’s reversing screws generate enough counterforce to slow the cruiser’s forward momentum and bring it to a full stop, a mere one hundred yards short of the amphib. And in that moment, just before the screws start pulling the ship backward, the mighty USS Cowpens is DIW, lying dead in the water in the South China Sea.
peewee Chinese amphibian

Old navy surface warfare sailors have a word for this kind of unusual emergency at-sea stopping maneuver. They call it a “crashback”— and for a U.S. Navy warship, and its captain, having to execute a crashback is never a good thing.” Not even when Gombert was following orders from his superiors as well as observing a law of the sea that “you do everything you can to avoid a collision, no matter who’s at fault.”

Gombert turns the Cowpens around and heads away, with one of the little amphibians in pursuit “like a yapping dog chasing a car."

The Cowpens’s—and the U.S. Navy’s—embarrassment had a lasting ripple effect Fabey sees as bringing a more realistic outlook among this country’s leadership. He’s cautiously optimistic:

America of 2017 is not the America of 2013. And the next time the Chinese navy dangerously confronts a U.S. Navy warship on the high seas, it seems unlikely that it will be the American commander who orders the engine room to execute an ‘all back emergency full.’

For America, and for the U.S. Navy, the era of crashbacks seems to be over.”


Tuesday, November 7, 2017

DESTINATION UNKNOWN – Agatha Christie

[Disclaimer: Agatha Christie fans hoping to read another fan's take on Destination Unknown are advised this report has been produced by a first-time Christie reader, and, as such, might better be read just for laughs. To find insight from a true aficionado please click HERE for Yvette Banek's splendid review. Hers is the one, in fact, that finally sold me on sticking a virgin toe into the Christie waters after a lifetime of avoiding what I had always assumed…]


I really don't know that I assumed anything. I just never felt quite able to pick up a book by Agatha Christie and give it a shot. My dad had some Christies in his little paperback bookcase, but in those prepubescent days I was inclined more to the Spillanes and Erle Stanley Gardners. I recall learning somehow, probably from my dad, that Christie liked to write, or at least to work out her ideas, while lounging in a bathtub, an image I carried henceforth—though oddly not with the slightest erotic connotations. Over the years I enjoyed film adaptations of her novels, although perhaps working against my reading her was the notion I've picked up along the way her mysteries were of the Jessica Fletcher gimmicky puzzler types, and while I tried never to miss an episode of the Murder She Wrote TV series, I'm not good myself at working out mystery puzzles.

All that baggage keeping me at a distance has now been cast aside. Thanks to Yvette Banek's persistent nudges I have discovered finally the mesmerizing writer who may or may not have dreamed up her intricate plots while soaking in a bathtub, and I regret not having made the acquaintance much, much sooner.
Now then, on to her debut (for me) novel, the 1954-published Destination Unknown, truly an apt title for a reading experience launched with more than the usual curiosity. The first chapter alone removed all doubt, providing an auspicious liftoff that lulled to oblivion whatever critical faculties might have been poised to flag me down with an urgent message that time was a'wasting and I had better turn to something else before this trip thoroughly bummed me out. Yvette will give you a better idea of the plot than I can, considering she's read this novel multiple times and probably knows it by heart. I will say this much: a British nuclear physicist has gone missing. A secret service officer known only as "Mr. Jessop" believes the scientist has joined others who have disappeared of late and that they've all fled to the Soviet Union. Jessop orders his operatives to follow the scientist's wife who insists her husband has been abducted and says she's going to Morocco to get away from the publicity. Jessop believes she’s going there to meet her husband.
The plot quickly thickens when the wife's plane crashes, and she is one of only two survivors. Meanwhile another British woman—same age and physical appearance as the wife—is about to kill herself in a Paris hotel room. She’s despondent over the death of her young daughter and her husband’s abandoning her. Of course you’ve guessed by now Mr. Jessop happens upon the woman—Hilary Craven—before she can swallow the lethal dose of sleeping pills, and persuades her to impersonate the scientist’s wife and see what she can find out.
Gimmicky and barely believable for sure—hell, it’s completely unbelievable. Yet, our bathtub conjuror by now has completely persuaded me to go along for the ride despite its fantastic premise. Talk about your suspension of disbelief, mine was not only suspended it went up in smoke, perhaps in one of the two airplane crashes—one of them fake—either that or I found plausibility to be an annoying distraction from a plot that had me hopping gleefully from soap bubble to soap bubble with nary a worry one of them might pop and leave me floundering in Dame Agatha’s tepid bathwater. At some point I found myself thinking of scenes in James Hilton’s haunting fantasy Lost Horizon (even the covers are similar) and recalling the absurd, strident premise of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

Review snippets on Wikipedia include this from The Times Literary Supplement:While it must be admitted that the secret, when disclosed, smacks rather of The Thousand and One Nights than of modern international rivalry for scientific talents, it may surely be excused on the ground that it provides Mrs. Christie with a story-tellers holiday from the rigours of detective fiction.”
And this, from The Observer: "The thriller is not Agatha Christie's forte; it makes her go all breathless and naïve...Needs to be read indulgently in a very comfortable railway carriage. She probably had a delicious busman's holiday writing it." Maybe while trying out a new bubblebath. She also seemed to have her tongue planted firmly in a cheek, as evidenced by lines like this one:You can’t lose a tame scientist every month or so and have no idea how they go or why they go or where!” I nodded a vigorous affirmative as I snickered.
And this exchange between Mr. Jessop and one of his operatives:
“‘Nobody’s so gullible as the scientist,’ he said. ‘All the phony mediums say so. Can’t quite see why.’
“The other smiled, a very tired smile.
“‘Oh, yes,’ he said, ‘it would be so. They think they know, you see. That’s always dangerous.’”
Some wisdom’s in there, too. And more wisdom’s here, albeit presented in The Observer’s “breathless and naive” mode via the would-be suicide Hilary Craven: “‘Escape, escape!’ That was the refrain that had hummed incessantly in her mind ever since she left England. ‘Escape. Escape.’ And now she knew— knew with a horrible, stricken coldness, that there was no escape. 
Agatha
Everything was just the same here as it had been in London. She herself, Hilary Craven, was the same. It was from Hilary Craven that she was trying to escape, and Hilary Craven was Hilary Craven in Morocco just as much as she had been Hilary Craven in London. She said very softly to herself:
“‘What a fool I’ve been— what a fool I am. Why did I think that I’d feel differently if I got away from England?’”
Soon, of course, she is no longer Hilary Craven, but “Olive Betterton,” wife of the missing scientist, playing the dangerously thrilling role of Mr. Jessop’s deep-cover operative. (The real spitting image Olive Betterton died soon after her rescue from the crashed airliner Hilary Craven was supposed to be on except for the heavy fog that diverted her to an alternate flight—oh, those coincidences, gotta love ‘em! I can just about hear Dame Agatha Christie chortling in her sea of bubbles as she thought that one up.
Is this the tub?
And here I’ll bet she actually let out an unladylike guffaw, maybe while typing this little scene in Hilary’s Paris hotel. It involves a French woman lounging in a formal salon of the Hôtel St. Louis,
Her thoughts are in French, obviously, which our dear Dame neglects to translate. Here’s the best part of the scene, short and sweet. Be sure to stay for the ending. It’s priceless:
Mademoiselle Jeanne Maricot was sitting gracefully in an upright chair looking out of the window and yawning. Mademoiselle Maricot was a brunette dyed blonde, with a plain but excitingly made-up face. She was wearing chic clothes and had no interest whatsoever in the other occupants of the room whom she dismissed contemptuously in her mind as being exactly what they were! She was contemplating an important change in her sex life and had no interest to spare for these animals of tourists!”
Mademoiselle Jeanne Maricot observes the three chattering tourists, including Hilary Craven-cum-Olive Betterton. After eavesdropping with us on their chattering interaction, she, and those of us who know French, revert back to her thoughts:
“‘Tant pis pour Pierre,’ Mademoiselle Maricot said to herself. ‘Il est vraiment insupportable! Mais le petit Jules, lui il est bien gentil. Et son père est très bien placé dans les affairs. Enfin, je me décide!’”
And with long graceful steps Mademoiselle Maricot walked out of the small salon and out of the story.”
Guffawing, Agatha Christie did. I’ve no doubt of it. Admittedly I expected the mysterious Mademoiselle Maricot to show up later, perhaps as a surprise Interpol operative near the end, but I should have known our impeccable Dame would keep her word.



[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]