POSTERN OF FATE (1973) by Agatha Christie

Christie_Postern-of-FateThis was Agatha Christie’s farewell to Tommy and Tuppence, the fun-loving Jazz Age adventurers currently back on TV in the shape of David Walliams and Jessica Raine. This was their fifth and final volume and sees the couple now in their 70s. It was Christie’s last novel and has a pretty poor reputation – but after Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings trumpeted its values, I have been goaded into giving it another go …

I submit this review for Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge; Friday’s Forgotten Books meme at Patti Abbott’s fab Pattinase blog; and Kerrie’s Agatha Christie Reading Challenge monthly Blog Carnival.

Young Adventurers Limited – willing to do anything, go anywhere – no unreasonable offer refused”

Summarising this book is both easy and maddeningly difficult. The basic plot is chid’s play: Tommy and Tuppence move to an old house in the country and in the process inherit a stack of books, one of which includes the message:

“Mary Jordan did not die naturally. It was one of us, I think I know which one”

This refers to events from before the First World War and an au-pair who died in the house and who some thought was an enemy agent. The spry septuagenarian duo decide to investigate just for the fun of it – then their gardener is murdered and someone fires a gun at Tuppence. It would seem that despite the passage of time, there may still be those trying to keep the events surrounding the decades-old murder a secret …

“But all that’s in the past Mrs Beresford, long, long in the past”

Christie_Postern_fontanaThis plot summary (and there is not a lot more to it actually) in no way conveys the tone and approach of this book, which depending on how you look at it, is either utterly wretched or sad, fascinating and moving all at the same time. Tommy and Tuppence constantly rehash things over and over between themselves and all the people they meet, all of whom are constantly vague about absolutely everything. Very quickly one senses that to some degree it’s not just the characters but that even the author has forgotten what she just wrote and so keeps having to start over, time and time again. There are endless vague conversations about the past that regurgitate the few plot points already established (that Mary Jordan may have been a spy about to expose high-ranking men in British intelligence and was probably poisoned and that a young boy in the household where she was staying found out about it). Thus this becomes, very quickly, a truly exasperating read in any traditional sense, taking the reader to a place of confusion from which it soon becomes apparent there will be no possibility of escape. And let’s try and forget the chapter narrated from the point of view of the couple’s dog … And yet, and yet, in its striving for something it can’t grasp any longer, it is hard not to be just a bit impressed by the attempt.

“You make me feel horrible confused,” said Tuppence …

This book was dictated into a machine and so may have suffered in the transcription process, as Curt Evans of The Passing Tramp pointed out to me recently. It certainly should have been edited much more judiciously. It is undeniable that the book is very repetitive and one senses, with increasing desolation, that the author is fighting a losing battle to keep it together as sentences go on and on without a break, trying to reach a point that disappears in a puff of smoke, as events are forgotten and re-stated in an effort to briefly find them again. Having said that though, it is a book that can also be unexpectedly moving in its depiction of our heroes coming to terms with old age. One senses that Tommy’s worries about Tuppence’s tendency to be a bit scatty hides a deeper concern, one that many of us will find it all too easy to recognise with aged relatives.

By any objective standard, the plotting and narration of Postern of Fate is disastrous –  but it does have a somnambulist fascination to it. It undoubtedly represents a massive falling off from the books that had preceded it only a few years earlier, speaking to Christie’s declining health in fer final years. Certainly the contrast with Christie’s late peaks Endless Night (1967), By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968) and Hallowe’en Party (1969) is very stark indeed. So, to enjoy Postern even a little bit does require treating it as a special case, though I can imagine that many readers, even most, won’t have the patience. I did just about manage to muddle through, so thank you Karen for suggesting I go back to it. As frustrating and sad as the process was, I’m glad I did.

I submit this review in Bev’s 2015 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo in the ‘country house’ category:

010-Vintage-Silver-Postern

***** (1.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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64 Responses to POSTERN OF FATE (1973) by Agatha Christie

  1. No doubt about it, Sergio, this is far from Christie’s best. There are some scenes in it that worked for me, but you’re absolutely right that it’s far off the quality of some of her other later novels. That said though, I don’t feel in a position to judge too harshly. She’d been writing, and having phenomenal success, since the early 1920s… Thanks as ever for the fine review and for your comments about it. It may not be a good example of her work, but it’s still worth it (at least for me) to put it into the overall Christie picture, so to speak.

    • Thanks Margot – I feel that was you say is true, but in reverse (sic) – I can’t really imagine anyone wanting to read this were it not for the 50 years of activity that preceded it, but it is interesting in its own weird way.

  2. richmcd says:

    A very sensitive analysis, Sergio. I remember reading somewhere that Postern of Fate and some of Christie’s other late books were being used as part of analysis into language decline as a result of Alzheimer’s, but I don’t know to what extent it was sound science. (I think they looked at word choice, repetition, etc.)

  3. Colin says:

    Haven’t read this as its reputation put me off – her last few books were patchy anyway as i recall.

    • Along with Passenger to Frankfurt and Elephants Can Remember, which i think are her last 3 written novels, these are the ones that I remember finding the least satisfactory, lets put it that way …

      • Colin says:

        Haven’t read “Elephants”, though I have a copy, but I remember “Passenger” was extraordinarily poor.

        • Yes, it really is the one that I don’t have any interest in revisiting – but then, not that keen on her thrillers as opposed to her mysteries at the best of the times

          • Colin says:

            Personally, I still have plenty of her mysteries from her best years to get through so I’m not worried about revisiting lesser material right now anyway. Actually, it’s been a while since I read any Christie so I should make an effort to dig into the to-be-read pile some time soon.

          • Very wise my friend. I may need to top myself up with say A Murder is Announced (which just happens to be on the TBR) just to get refreshed on top notch Christie …

          • Colin says:

            It’s been a long time now but I recall that as a good one. I have a copy on the shelves right in front of me – this one http://i.imgur.com/0CMvusf.jpg – just looking at it gives me another excuse to indulge in my Pan books obsession.

          • Never come across that copy! very nice and way better than mine. I originally read it in one of those hardback omnibus books that used to be so popular in the 70s and I have a very modern paperback now – if I review it, I’ll have to borrow somebody else’s covers!

  4. patrickohl says:

    You are much, much kinder to this book than I ever could be. To call it “unreadable” would be charitable. It’s plot is a shambles from start to finish, and the ending comes right out of nowhere. It is, however, much better than PASSENGER TO FRANKFURT.

    • richmcd says:

      Passenger to Frankfurt is one of the few Christies I know nothing about, beyond its reputation. I read enough of Postern of Fate to be sad and realise that I didn’t want to read any more. It feels like an unkindess to even have published it. I don’t really see how Passenger to Frankfurt can be worse, but then I guess there are so many criteria against which mysteries can be judged compared to other books.

      (Having said all that, I remember someone commenting on the Detective Club forum that Postern was their favourite! Different strokes and all, but that’s always baffled me.)

      • To consider it their favourite is to take a very eccentric reading of a book’s merits. However, I have long sung the praises of By The Pricking of My Thumbs which I think is, in its own way, a really rich and fascinating read in its mixture of fable, detection, old age and Christie’s own childhood memories

    • Thanks Patrick (and welcome back old friend – glad they let you out of the seminary occasionally). Believe it or not, Frankfurt was the first book of hers I ever got, probably because it was more or less new when I got it (yup, I’m that old). I still have that paperback at my parents’ place in Italy but I agree, it’s a book I have never, ever tried to go back to!

  5. Santosh Iyer says:

    Yes, this is just rubbish, the worst novel of Agatha Christie. Filled with meandering, pointless, repetitive conversations that have nothing to do with the story.
    I noted a discrepancy here. In chapter 4, there is a reference to Deborah’s twins. But in chapter 16, when Deborah visits her parents with her children, the children’s ages are mentioned as 15, 11, and 7. No twins !

  6. tracybham says:

    Well, I haven’t anywhere close to reading this book yet, since I am reading in order … but only per series, so I could get through all the Tommy and Tuppence quickly if I wanted to. Did not know any of her books had such a poor reputation. Oh well, I don’t have to decide right now whether I will read it or not.

    • It seems that the great lady was very unwell and so by the time she wrote her last three books, the decline is quality is very marked. The final novels by Chandler and John Dickson Carr are pretty feeble too, but nothing like this …

      • Todd Mason says:

        Even more prolific than Carr, Christie was working out of pure professionalism and life-habit, presumably. And even the title ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER says something.

        • Well, if you want to get technical, and it depends how you count, she didn;t necessarily write more than the great JDC. Carr wrote more detective novels than she did (she wrote 66 mysteries, he wrote 70; on the other hand, she wrote 6 romances too; he wrote maybe fewer short stories, though not by much, but also wrote about 150 radio plays, so …). She did write for much longer (a decade more in fact), I’ll give you that! 🙂

  7. mikeripley says:

    In his excellent study of Christie,A Talent To Deceive, the late Robert Barnard said simply “Best (and easily) forgotten” when summing up Postern of Fate. My first editor was Christie’s last and she always said that in her later years Agatha had been “difficult” when editorial changes were suggested; “difficult” as in “refused to accept any”. I have yet to find anyone (and I include two Christie biographers) who can explain the plot of Passenger To Frankfurt to me.

  8. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Fascinating review, and there’s a lot here I hadn’t taken on board about Postern and Christie’s failing powers. Perhaps I need to revisit it with a slightly more critical eye!

    • It is hard, after 50 years of loyal service, not to feel indulgent towards Christie and truly Karen I’m glad ti tried again – but to me it was, while academically interesting, also pretty saddening. It really was like listening to a person whom you love and realising they are really not able to communicate properly any more and chances are that both of both are not ever going to get through to each other ever again. So sad and even though you are grateful for the remnants that remain, they also remind you of that has been lost too.

  9. It’s much harder to review this book fairly and interestingly than it is to review most books, and I’m tempted to say yours is the most balanced and assessment of Postern in Fate that I’ve ever read.

    • Well, that’s really generous! Thanks Martin. It was certainly a very interesting experience looking at it again after such a long time, now that I’m so much older.

  10. Like you, I’ve found the later Agatha Christies to be “weak.” It may have been the affect of Alzheimer’s or dementia. Her best work was written in the 1940s.

    • You may well be right George – certainly in the 40s the characterisation seems very strong, though must say, the plots that I remember best seem to pretty much all come from the 1930s (ABC, Nile, Orient Express, And The There Was None).

  11. richmonde says:

    “the author has forgotten what she just wrote and so keeps having to start over” – yes, I accept that diagnosis. But to me this is the author’s farewell, even if it’s not on a level with The Tempest, or Michelangelo’s last drawings. If you’ve read her Autobiography (and if not, do), you’ll know that the house T&T buy is her childhood home, Ashfield. In it are all the things she remembers: the crazy go-kart (that Tuppence careers downhill on), the rocking horse, the blue-and-white stool. Her own memory may be going, but she gets in many reflections about memory itself. The idea that puzzles from the distant past could be solved by the passage of time was a constant – see the Mr Quin stories. In both this book and Passage to Frankfurt, the villain or villains are setting in train long-term plans for the destruction of democracy and the control of the world. Their chief weapon is a seductive vision that they sell to the vulnerable young. Can such things be? Did Christie predict Al-Q**** and Is*s? (How devastated she would be at the destruction of the archaeological treasures of the Middle East that she helped to excavate.)

    • Thanks Lucy. The autobiographical elements are what make it fascinating, I quite agree, and it is that sense of the bric-a-brac from one own childhood being made tangible and re-purposed that makes this so interesting a read. But I think By The Pricking of My Thumbs does something very similar and without the obvious impairment, resulting in something that is infinitely superior and still very undervalued. And it is certainly very sobering to realise that those fears of the 20s, 40, and 50s just seem to keep being re-shaped

  12. Noah Stewart says:

    I have an occasional feature in my blog where I take apart a bad mystery that you should “die before you read”, but I’ve always felt hesitant about taking on this fairly obvious candidate. As our host says, it is hard not to feel indulgent after 50 years of loyal service and the deficiencies of this novel are sufficiently well-known so as to not need my … tuppence.
    Mike Ripley makes an interesting point about Christie resisting editorial changes. As an editor, there is little point in quarrelling with the world’s best-selling author about structural problems in her latest book when you can simply put anything she writes between covers and sell a few million of them anyway. It’s easy to see what happened here; not even cowardice, just going along to get along.
    Someday I’d like to take the time to do a really thorough analysis to find out if there are any concealed treasures in this book, but … it’s safe from me for the moment. There are many more pleasant experiences left to be had in GAD; I don’t need to dig through Christie’s wastepaper baskets. I’m glad to know that someone finds merit and pleasure in this novel!

    • Thanks Noah. I agree, this might leave rather a bad taste in being picked apart if we accept that this is a work by someone who is simply not well. Picking apart the best that someone could do at the time might just be cruel – there are academically interesting things here, but getting there is saddening, no question about it.

  13. Yvette says:

    I’ve read PASSENGER TO FRANKFURT a couple of times over the years, didn’t think it was horrible. I liked the beginning in the airport. Reminded me of a scene in her very early THEY CAME TO BAGHDAD – the man in the cloak at the airport. Similar impersonation happens later in the Baghdad book as well as the death of the original person in the cloak which does not happen in the Frankfurt book, but still similar. I don’t mind that sort of thing happening at all. Though the ending never made any sense to me – the bad guy unveiled, I mean. If he was there all the time and knew what was happening all the time how did such and such a thing still manage to happen? Know what I mean? But still, the book worked for me on the level of far-fetched adventure. I think Christie didn’t like what she saw happening in her country and this was a way of writing about it without preaching. I was always intrigued by the corruption of youth theme which seemed to course through her later books.

    I’ve read every single Christie book including the short stories (of which I remember nothing) – I began when I was in my teens in ancient times of long ago. 🙂 I do remember my favorites of course and POSTERN OF FATE is NOT among them. Thanks for another thoughtful and incisive review, kiddo.

    PS I refuse to watch the new Tommy and Tuppence shows – the casting is dreadful. I’d rather watch the original shows with James Warwick and Francesca Annis. I always ask this: did any of the latest adapters even bother to read the source material?

    • Thanks for that Yvette – like you, i tried watching the new TV adaptation and gave up after 2 minutes (literally). The scriptwriters have been attacked for adapting the books so loosely – their defence is that they want to make ti relevant to modern audiences and that it was all done with the full consent of the Christie estate … I think that is probably true but also a bunch of baloney (as it were) – they just used the Christie name to sell it. They should have just called it something else, there is just too little of the original left. They really don;t care about the novels at all, that is abundantly clear. The real problem is that the series doesn’t seem to work on its own terms, which is the only flaw that I really consider fatal.

      • curtis evans says:

        “their defence is that they want to make ti relevant to modern audiences and that it was all done with the full consent of the Christie estate”

        Is there anything to which the Christie estate won’t consent?

        • To me what was interesting was the sense that this was the party line to take in terms of PR – not really getting into why the changes were made, just noting that the the brand owners consented to it. It wouldn’t have to matter either way, to me, if only they’d done a better job! The Marple version of By the Pricking of My Thumbs, a book I really like and which changed a lot as well as adding St Mary Mead’s favourite knitter, was to my mind a success as they made it work on their own terms.

  14. That’s a sensitive and thoughtful review Sergio. I agree with Martin, above, and am glad Lucy found more in it than most people would. I think I have read everything she wrote, and often re-read, but would always pick up another one rather than Postern of Fate.

  15. steve says:

    It’s strange, I have been re-reading some Christie recently A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED (great). CLOCKS (disappointing). And currently THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD (which I am enjoying all the more now I know the murderer’s identity). But POSTERN OF FATE still sits on the shelf unread. Obviously I know of the books reputation but maybe I have subconsciously not read it because I don’t want to witness Christie’s fading powers. A thoughtful review thank you.

    • Thanks Steve – I think one should only come to this last. I agree with your assessment of the Christies you mention and there are probably at least two dozen top notch ones like Death on the Nile, Towards Zero, And Then There Were None, Murder on the Links, 4.50 from Paddington et al, just no point reading Postern out of chronological sequence. And yes, I say that as someone who has pretty much read them all and enjoyed most of them (I agree, The Clocks is disappointing).

  16. Sergio, I always enjoy reading reviews of Agatha Christie’s novels and this was a very fine review. I’m not much of a fan of Tommy and Tuppence though I’ll be reading this book eventually, in spite of the issues with editing, plotting, and narration, which came as a surprise to me. I’ll have to ask my wife about it as she is a huge Christie fan, having read most of her books multiple times.

  17. Santosh Iyer says:

    It is best to avoid the last 4 novels written by Christie: Passenger To Frankfurt, Nemesis, Elephants Can Remember and Postern Of Fate. The decline in quality is evident in these 4 novels.

  18. richmonde says:

    There are good things about Nemesis and the TV version with Joan Hickson was excellent. The story was expanded to good effect.

    • Thanks Lucy. I think, on the whole, that this was a case where I preferred that TV version with Joan Hickson (the more recent adaptation with Geraldine McEwan was utterly bonkers however).

  19. Yeah I would agree, Postern of Fate is not a good outing for Tommy and Tuppence. The first three novels (The Secret Adversary, Partners in Crime and N or M?) are much stronger (and thankfully are nothing like the BBC’s recent adaptation). Still I don’t think Postern of Fate is the poorest Christie as I think Passenger to Frankfurt is much worse and makes even less sense.

    • Thanks for that, though of all the comparisons I don’t really want to have to make mtoo much room in my mind for too long, Postern of Fate vs Passenger to Frankfurt is right up there 🙂

  20. ichbinmeisterin says:

    The dialogue was so excruciating, I was actually glad when someone else reserved my copy. Really dull- which was disappointing, given that the plot was initially exciting. I also enjoyed N or M. But I despise Tuppence Beresford. I’d a mind to shoot her myself whilst reading this. Her dialogue was the main bone of contention I had and much of it bored me to tears.

  21. haaskalbaas says:

    Thanks for this! I was so sorry that neither Mr Robinson nor the Colonel turned out to be the bad guy. I thought there were enough clues for the latter to be it, didn’t you?

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