“It’s a crime we’ve got to solve. Go back to the past to solve it—to where it happened and why it happened. That’s a thing we’ve never tried to do before.”
Tommy and Tuppence Beresford may be over seventy, but it’s never too late for adventure. Much to Tuppence’s delight, their new house comes complete with a collection of vintage children’s books. More than nostalgia lurks within these pages, however. One of these seemingly innocent volumes contains a hidden message: “Mary Jordan did not die naturally. It was one of us. I think I know which.”
Who is Mary Jordan? How did she really die? The solution to this decades-old mystery may be very close to home. Yet, even after all these years, someone wants the fate of Mary Jordan to remain a secret.
Postern of Fate is not only about childhood memories, it essentially is a children’s book, which explains why I responded to it so strongly at a young age. This was a cherished cornerstone of my small personal library. I read it over and over, and still own that childhood copy. I have only fond memories of this book as the jolly story of a family who moves into a rambling old house, full of antique junk and fat shabby books, and finds that it contains a mystery. Mrs. Molesworth! Catriona! The monkey puzzle tree! K. K.! Oxford and Cambridge! As time passed, however, I could not help becoming aware that Postern of Fate is not considered one of Agatha Christie’s crowning achievements. In fact, the only real debate surrounding this title is whether it is Christie’s worst book, or merely her second worst.
So when J. J. at The Invisible Event announced that his next Spoiler Warning would feature Postern of Fate, I knew my day of reckoning had come. Would this old favorite stand up to adult judgment?
Well, no. The parts that I remembered so fondly—the old mystery being revealed through a message in a book, the greenhouse full of potential clues, the nostalgia of a last visit with Tommy and Tuppence—are actually the only parts that work. The rest is a rather confused swirl of rambling conversations and interviews that endlessly repeat the same vague information we already know. This would be a disappointment from any author, but from Christie it’s heartbreaking. There’s a genuinely intriguing mystery buried in here. It only needed a sharp eye to bring it out. The fact that this never happened shows just how much Christie was struggling at the end of her life.
The past is everywhere in Postern of Fate, yet it always remains just out of reach as Tommy and Tuppence try to snatch at imperfect memories, including their own. Their investigation into the fate of Mary Jordan captures the way that all memories seem to jumble together, different eras coexisting simultaneously within the same brain just like the houseful of old books. Still, a number of villagers seem to agree that there was a Mary Jordan once—or at least that there was a foreign woman at The Laurels who was mixed up in some kind of spy scandal during World War I. This naturally reminds the Beresfords of their first case, The Secret Adversary, which took place around the same time. The book is full of references to their past cases, including major spoilers for N or M?, and Tommy calls in some old contacts at the foreign office who warn them against pursuing the matter. The one-time Young Adventurers scoff at that. Surely there’s no danger left in a sixty-year-old crime.
For that matter, there seems to be no danger of Tommy and Tuppence solving the case. Tuppence makes the round of village tea parties and rummage sales, chatting up the dotty old gardener Isaac. Tommy hires a professional researcher to comb through public records. (He spends an excruciating five or six pages explaining to Tuppence what a professional researcher is.) The researcher, Miss Collodon, provides a few brief moments of delight. Since she views life entirely through the lens of her research topics, which tend toward the darker side, Tommy is dismayed to realize that he has inadvertently left her “with the idea that my wife drinks and our marriage is breaking up because of it.”
There is also the charm of Tommy and Tuppence as a long-married couple dealing with the everyday difficulties of aging and moving house alongside the murder investigation. The house and garden call up long-ago memories for Tuppence, which effortlessly evoke the magic of childhood. A hidden path in the garden leads to a summerhouse containing a statue of a boy with a basket on his head. When Tuppence was a child, she rode imaginary horses to a similar summerhouse, leaving a ritual offering there.
Tuppence, when riding her winning horses here, had taken a gift always, a gift you put in the basket on top of the boy’s head; at the same time you said it was an offering and you made a wish. The wish, Tuppence remembered, was nearly always to come true.
“But that,” said Tuppence, sitting down suddenly on the top step of the flight she had been climbing, “that, of course, was because I cheated really. I mean, I wished for something that I knew was almost sure to happen, and then I could feel my wish had come true and it really was a magic. It was a proper offering to a real god from the past. Though it wasn’t a god really, it was just a podgy-looking little boy. Ah well—what fun it is, all the things one used to invent and believe in and play at.”
Such bright moments are too far between, sadly. Even the biggest fan of Tommy and Tuppence must watch with dismay as they go through the same paces over and over again, learning nothing. The exposition is especially painful. For instance, Tommy casually informs Tuppence, more than once in these exact words, “Betty, our adopted daughter, went to East Africa.” Tommy, if your wife doesn’t know your daughter’s name or where she lives, then you have bigger problems than who killed Mary Jordan! That’s not even touching the “adopted daughter” issue, which can only remind me of one thing:
When violence finally strikes in the present day, it’s almost as if the killer has grown impatient waiting for them to solve the crime and decided to help them out a little. The way the denouement plays out is great fun, but the villain and their motivations remain frustratingly opaque.
Nobody wanted to love Postern of Fate more than I did. Touches of the old joy remain, but it’s quite a slog overall. This is a bittersweet farewell to Tommy and Tuppence. While it is not their finest hour, at least they leave us exactly as they were when we first met them: hand in hand, in search of adventure.
Yes it’s a bloody mess, but it’s a charming one. If you can analyse why it’s so adorable and compellingly readable then you’re doing better than me. All I know is that I sat up night after night entranced by it, kids books, hearty stews, dog walks and all. There was an actual sigh of disappointment when something as vin ordinaire as a murder occurred. There’s a great atmosphere here – similar to the magic of By The Pricking Of My Thumbs, that lovely feeling of Village Sinister, in which a discussion of magnolias can turn lethal at any moment.
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.
I know Christie used her later novels as a way of exploring old age, but never has this theme hampered the characters, the plot and the writing style so much. I was in a for bumpy ride with this book from the very first pages. Tommy and Tuppence’s increase in age is definitely felt and shown explicitly and implicitly. Of course, there are comments about getting stiff and finding it hard to bend down etc., but the dialogue this couple share is also decidedly less sharp. It meanders in an unpleasant way and I am genuinely convinced that at various points these two are not even sure what they’re talking about, let alone the reader.
Postern of Fate is available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook formats from HarperCollins.