“Are you happy? If not, consult Mr. Parker Pyne.”
This eye-catching advertisement brings countless troubles, both large and small, to Parker Pyne’s doorstep. The retired statistician claims to have a scientific solution to any kind of unhappiness. The cases collected in this volume certainly run the gamut, from simple boredom all the way to murder. The first six stories are more lightweight and do not typically involve crime, though it is interesting over the course of the stories to learn more about Pyne’s methods and his unorthodox office procedures. The rest are more unified, following Pyne as he journeys throughout Europe and the Middle East, encountering serious crimes as he goes. These last six stories are uniformly high in quality and double as a fascinating vintage travelogue.
Parker Pyne purports to apply the scientific method to that most subjective substance, happiness. He describes himself, not as a detective, but as a “heart-specialist.” What makes these stories so intriguing is that, while Pyne’s own happiness certainly depends on solving the crime or learning the truth about a situation, he doesn’t always feel this information is in his clients’ best interest. He will cheerfully lie or withhold information if he believes the truth would damage their peace of mind. Early on, especially, Pyne mucks around with strangers’ lives to a shocking degree, using science as a justification. He claims that statistics show five causes of unhappiness; like a doctor, once he has identified the cause of the unhappiness, it’s a simple matter to prescribe a cure. As his adventures show, however, human nature does not conform so neatly to these classifications.
The Case of the Middle-Aged Wife (6/10)
Mr. Packingham insists that his friendship with a young flapper is purely platonic, but that doesn’t stop Mrs. Packingham from resenting her husband’s late nights out with his new friend. Parker Pyne arranges a simple yet effective solution that leads to surprising results. This case introduces two of Pyne’s most loyal employees, femme fatale Madeleine de Sara and Claude Luttrell, a gigolo with unexpected depths. Mild, predictable bit of wish fulfillment that still manages to be quite enjoyable. Also worth noting here is Pyne’s terribly efficient secretary Miss Lemon, presumably the same one who would go on to work for Hercule Poirot.
The Case of the Discontented Soldier (4/10)
Back in England after years abroad, Major Wilbraham misses the danger and excitement of his previous career, so Pyne sets up a little adventure for him. The highlight of this story is the debut of Ariadne Oliver, arguing in favor of the hackneyed plot that has just played out.
“You don’t think, on a future occasion, that something more original – perhaps?” He made the suggestion with proper diffidence.
Mrs. Oliver shook her head and took an apple from the bag. “I think not Mr. Pyne. You see, people are used to reading about such things. Water rising in a cellar, poison gas, et cetera. Knowing about it beforehand gives it an extra thrill when it happens to oneself. The public is conservative, Mr. Pyne; it likes the old well-worn gadgets.”
The glimpses behind the scenes of Pyne’s operation prove to be more interesting than the events of the story itself.
The Case of the Distressed Lady (7/10)
Desperate to hide gambling debts from her husband, Daphne St. John has stolen a valuable ring from a friend, replacing it with a paste replica. She now wishes to return the real diamond, a commission Mr. Pyne is pleased to accept. Entertaining reverse heist with a sting in the tail.
The Case of the Discontented Husband (6/10)
It’s an ordinary assignment for Pyne’s go-to vamp Madeleine de Sara. To prevent Reginald Wade’s wife from divorcing him for being too dull, Madeleine will flirt with him to make Mrs. Wade jealous. She has never had a more difficult client, however—Wade is too devoted to his wife to stage a convincing affair. But when Mrs. Wade’s paramour joins the party, the stage is set for unanticipated events. Pleasant, if not earth-shaking.
The Case of the City Clerk (5/10)
Unlike many clients, Mr. Roberts isn’t unhappy. Not exactly. He is mostly content with his modest existence, it’s just that sometimes he wistfully dreams of a more exciting life. Unfortunately, the excitement Parker Pyne supplies is rather dull for the reader. Once again, the logistics of providing the adventure prove more interesting than the caper itself, and it’s rather horrifying to see Pyne put his client’s life in real danger for purposes of his own.
The Case of the Rich Woman (4/10)
Wealthy widow Mrs. Rymer’s problem is that she has no problems. “I’ve got three fur coats, a lot of Paris dresses and such like. I’ve got a car and a house in Park Lane. I’ve had a yacht but I don’t like the sea. I’ve got a lot of those high-class servants that look down their nose at you. I’ve traveled a bit and seen foreign parts. And I’m blessed if I can think of anything more to buy or do.” Another rather obvious plot, and also another case of Pyne being amazingly callous with the health and safety of his clients.
Have You Got Everything You Want? (7/10)
While traveling on the Orient Express, Parker Pyne meets a young wife who is worried by a message suggesting that something may happen to her on the train. Pyne warns, “I am not a detective. Theft and crime are not in my line at all. The human heart is my province.” As it turns out, however, what unfolds on the train will have just as much to do with love as with crime. Not very mysterious, but a lot of fun, and nothing beats a trip on the Orient Express.
The Gate of Baghdad (7/10)
Pyne, along with an ill-assorted group of travelers, undertakes the long overnight journey across the desert from Damascus to Baghdad. One of his companions will not reach Baghdad alive. Yet it seems impossible that someone could have murdered Captain Smethurst while twelve people were all jammed into the same crowded vehicle. A pleasing variation on one of Christie’s favorite themes, the impossibility of really knowing who one is meeting while traveling. (In a nice little Easter egg, Pyne opens this story by quoting the lines from which Postern of Fate will later take its name.)
The House at Shiraz (6/10)
Three years ago, Lady Esther Carr flew to Shiraz, Iran, with her companion Muriel King, for reasons known only to herself. Now, Lady Esther is reported to be mad, “gone native.” Miss King is dead after tumbling off a balcony. Parker Pyne has heard stories of these two tragic Englishwomen, even before feeling strangely drawn to Lady Esther’s house, “a house all tiled in blue and rose and yellow, set in a green garden with water and orange trees and roses. It was, he felt, the house of a dream.” The more he learns about what happened in that house, however, the more nightmarish the story becomes. A simple yet satisfying solution.
The Pearl of Price (6/10)
On a tour to Petra, Pyne becomes interested in the dynamic between the Blundells, a wealthy American father and daughter, and the rest of the group. When Carol Blundell loses a valuable pearl earring among the ruins, it sparks distrust among the others—after all, what’s to prevent any of her poorer companions from finding and pocketing the jewel? Carol has a very personal reason for needing the earring found, a dilemma that only Parker Pyne can solve. An interesting problem despite its too-abrupt ending.
Death on the Nile (7/10)
Lady Grayle “had suffered since she was sixteen from the complaint of having too much money.” The spoiled Lady Grayle is outraged to learn that her party’s Nile cruise will be shared with another passenger, Parker Pyne. She changes her mind, however, when she discovers Mr. Pyne’s profession. Lady Grayle believes her life is in danger, from someone very close to her. It isn’t long before Pyne has a murder on his hands. He clears it up almost instantly, before the reader has gotten full enjoyment out of an extremely promising situation. The setup is so perfect that I wish it had been given a little more room to play out. Happily, Christie would soon repurpose this title, and the setting of a cruise down the Nile, for one of her greatest novels.
The Oracle at Delphi (10/10)
So far, Greece has not lived up to expectations. Mrs. Willard Peters would prefer a more luxurious holiday, perhaps with statues that have all their arms and legs, but her son, Willard Junior, is captivated by ruins. His devoted mother is left to console herself as best she can.
In the afternoon Mrs. Peters enjoyed a quiet nap in a shady spot. The book she took with her to read was not the excellent one on Grecian Art recommended to her by her son, but was, on the contrary, entitled “The River Launch Mystery.” It had four murders in it, three abductions, and a large and varied gang of dangerous criminals. Mrs. Peters found herself both invigorated and soothed by the perusal of it.
One afternoon, Willard goes out to look at Byzantine mosaics. He never returns. Mrs. Peters is beside herself—it’s one thing to read about kidnappings, another to experience one in real life. The despairing mother turns to fellow hotel guest Parker Pyne. Mrs. Peters is a wonderful character to anchor this story, which ends with an astonishing twist.
When people praise Agatha Christie short story collections, Parker Pyne Investigates (1934) doesn’t normally get a lot of mention, in my experience, but I think the book is both an entertaining collection in its own right and of interest for its relationship to Christie’s vastly more famous Hercule Poirot canon.
So all in all a very interesting collection of stories, which certainly raise a lot of questions. They are also quite clever stories with a number of instances of effective misdirection. It was refreshing to read some mysteries which didn’t have criminal elements. Christie is also very adept in this collection at wrong footing the reader as she sets up a number of structures in the earlier stories and then in later stories she initially appears to be repeating them, thus luring the reader into a false sense of security, as she then twists or changes the structure/pattern at the end. This is definitely a story collection I would recommend trying.
Parker Pyne Investigates (also published as Mr. Parker Pyne, Detective) is available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook versions from HarperCollins.