At last – Christmas! And I’m only a month behind schedule in my write-ups.
Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceedingly small;
Though with patience he stands waiting, with exactness grinds he all.
The first book of the day was Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. As always, the problem with a mystery story is writing about it effectively without giving it away, but I’ll try to give the general idea. (It was published a long time ago, too, so I won’t feel too guilty if I slip up.)
Old Mr (Simeon) Lee made his fortune in African diamonds as a young man. He now lives (but not for long) in a country house (never change, Agatha) with his son, Mr Alfred Lee, and Alfred’s wife, Lydia. They are joined for Christmas by Mr Lee’s three other sons – George, David and Harry – as well as Magdalene and Hilda, George and David’s respective wives. Harry is unmarried, and a bit of a family scandal. Their sister, Jennifer, who married a Spaniard, is dead; her daughter, Pilar, is present, as is Stephen Farr, son of Simeon’s old business partner.
As I definitely just gave away, Simeon is murdered. The quotation above is from Longfellow (though the notion dates back to the Romans, at least) – it and Macbeth are referred to in hushed tones when the body is discovered. The question is, as it always is, who can have done it, and why. Simeon Lee was not a nice man, but he was rich; he was unkind to his family and unfaithful to his wife; he left behind him huge sums of money. There could be any number of motives.
A murder mystery is, as Christie well knew, an excellent thing to curl up with in an armchair on a cold, wintry day. It’s the spiritual equivalent of the same thing – the sense that “out there” things might be cruel and unforgiving, but “in here” we’re safe. It’s why we tell ghost stories. They’re the literary equivalent of the wind and rain rattling our window-panes. Hercule Poirot has his Christmas, solving a gristly murder; and we have ours, sipping hot tea and nibbling cake.
Shaving requires attention, even when you don’t dance while you are at it.
Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is the best Christmas story ever written. And that’s coming from me, who’s far from a Dickens fanatic. There couldn’t be any other book for the main event of the day itself (and book #100, to boot). It’s short. Some people would call it a novella, but I will not, because I wanted to read it. Being short primarily means that it’s not protracted; Dickens is telling the single story, the self-contained narrative arc, of one man. And because there’s no clever-dickery to bog it down, the story practically sparkles. It makes you smile and laugh and grimace; the characters are absurd and delightful. Structurally, it’s divided into staves, being, as it promises, “A Christmas Carol in Prose”. It’s interesting to take note of this, and to read it with a genuine consciousness of the title sort of simmering in the back of your mind.
I don’t imagine anyone is unfamiliar with the basic storyline. You’ll have seen adaptations and parodies and homages. It’s so much a part of our common cultural consciousness, indeed, that, in some ways like Gulliver’s Travels, we think we’re familiar with it when all we really know is the outline. There’s no substitute for actually reading works like that. I first read A Christmas Carol about a year ago, having decided that it was the sort of thing I really ought to be able to say I’d read, and the actual original work was a revelation. There’s no other term. Homage and parody and adaptation are all wonderful things, and enliven our lives and our arts, but in this case at least, the difference between them and the original is like the difference Plato imagined between the world of the senses and the world of the Forms. Not only are the originals better, more real, in their own right, but knowledge of them enriches our experience of, and the pleasure we can take in, their reflections.
You should have seen him in his dwelling about twilight, in the dead winter time.
The Haunted Man is a pretty odd book. I more or less devoured it, but I freely accept that it might not be for everyone. Professor Redlaw is the titular haunted man, offered a chance to forget the painful memories that pollute his psyche. But, as in pretty much every single “bargain” story (cf. “The Monkey’s Paw”), there’s a catch and it doesn’t just turn out to be a miraculous panacea for everything (if you’ll forgive the pleonasm).
If you like A Christmas Carol, you’ll probably like this. It gives Dickens’s undoubted wit and flair a chance to play without getting too suffocating. I was a particular fan of the two solid pages of sentences beginning with “when”, but I’m weird like that. All in all, stupendously evocative.
Hercule Poirot’s Christmas
Author Agatha Christie
Best character Colonel Johnson, who loves a wood fire.
A Christmas Carol
Author Charles Dickens
Best character The Ghost of Christmas Present, who begins as a vibrant young man and ages and dies in the course of the day.
The Haunted Man
Author Charles Dickens
Best character Milly.