Ah, yes. I’ve finally got to this portion of my mostly-chronological Agatha Christie readthrough. Postern of Fate was the final novel Christie wrote – there were a couple of others published later, but they had both been written during WWII and locked away for a few decades. I’ve heard many times that it is her worst novel. By this point, it’s suggested that she had developed Alzheimer’s, and although her characterisation stayed pretty strong throughout her final novels, it’s true that the plots are difficult to follow and chaotic. Postern of Fate is a Tommy and Tuppence novel – Christie’s married detective duo – who are quite unique among the Christie canon, in that they are allowed to age over the course of their four novels and one short story collection. In their first novel, The Secret Adversary (published 1922), they’re around twenty, both recently demobbed post-WWI and broke as a result, looking for money and adventure. In N or M?, which was written during WWII, they’re in their forties and have two grown-up children; in By the Pricking of my Thumbs, they seem to be around sixty, and by the time we get to Postern of Fate, they are well over seventy.
I actually don’t agree that this is the worst Christie. I’ll be doing a wrap-up of this project in a few months, where I’ll talk about both favourite and least favourite novels, but for my money there’s another novel that takes that doubtful honour. Still, there’s no denying that this is among her weakest works plotwise. The premise, such as it is: Tommy and Tuppence have recently moved into a big country home with a lot of history, which they are not aware of when they buy the place. They only realise when Tuppence is going through a lot of old children’s books that were left in the house one afternoon. She picks up a Robert Louis Stevenson novel (The Black Arrow?) and finds, underlined throughout the book, assorted letters. When spelled out, they read “Mary Jordan did not die naturally”. This is, of course, intriguing – Christie could always write a fantastic opening hook – but Tommy and Tuppence are in two minds about whether or not they should pursue it. They are both torn between their desire to investigate and the fact that they are tired and want to be left in peace. The somewhat halfhearted investigation that ensues takes the form of conversations with assorted villagers and miscellanous “research” carried out by other characters off-page.
Despite the largely absent plot, though, I still liked Postern of Fate a lot. For reference, I will be talking about aspects of the “plot” throughout (though I won’t reveal the solution). I don’t think it’s actually possible to spoil this novel. It is not sufficiently coherent for spoilers. If you read it, it will be because you already love Tommy and Tuppence, and it’s their relationship that I enjoyed. They have always been among my favourite Christie characters, and that was unchanged here. In the world of fiction, where romantic relationships are often either sickeningly sweet or disconcertingly dark, reading about a couple who love and like each other, but still get on each other’s nerves from time to time, is a pleasure. Christie often resolves her novels with a couple getting together, and some really do not work for me, but Tommy and Tuppence are charming from their first appearance to their very last. It’s such a shame that the only recent T&T adaptation is the execrable David Walliams/Jessica Raine one, because they are ripe for a fun, silly film or miniseries. You could even do it like The Crown and have four series, each with actors of different ages. (This review nearly got sidetracked into a discussion of how I would cast each novel but I have restrained myself).
Most probably this is me reading things into the text that aren’t meant to be there, but it felt like there was a very touching subplot about Tuppence’s relationship with age lying underneath all the hollowed-out rocking horses and suspicious foxglove leaves. Especially at the start of the novel, Tuppence seems quite vague and forgetful. She has vivid memories of her childhood and early years with Tommy, but is sometimes flustered and confused about the present day. (I note that she’s sometimes described as “almost incoherent” – a phrase often used in Miss Marple novels when she wants to be mistaken for a doddery old woman, but which in Tuppence’s case does not seem to be an act). Tommy, in turn, is more solicitious and concerned for Tuppence’s health and wellbeing than in previous novels*. It’s always part of their dynamic that Tuppence is impulsive and occasionally reckless, with Tommy steadier and less chaotic – there’s a lot of fun had out of the fact that her given name is Prudence – but in this novel, both qualities seemed to be amplified. I wondered to what extent that was conscious commentary on Tuppence really starting to feel like she’s old, and rebelling against it. She calls herself an old lady on a few occasions, and is grey-haired with an arthritic limp – but at the same time she does things like spontaneously riding a go-cart down a steep hill. Her characterisation reminded me of the little I remember about my grandmother in the very early days of Alzheimer’s – and I wonder if there was a little of that there, consciously or unconsciously on the part of the author. It adds a kind of bittersweet feeling to the novel that improves it tremendously.
So, can I in good conscience recommend this as an entry point into Christie’s body of work? No, absolutely not. Is it worth reading if you already love Tommy and Tuppence but have been put off by Postern of Fate’s reputation? Definitely. There is plenty here for you if you’re in the latter camp – just don’t expect it to have a plot!
*Except for at the very end, when he is remarkably relaxed about Tuppence being shot. (She gets better).
These are the Christie characters I’m probably least familiar with but your description of their relationship does sound lovely. And following characters into old age is still a rare thing in media.
Oh, Tommy and Tuppence are just lovely! Their books tend towards to thriller rather than the puzzle side and Christie’s thrillers are all a little silly, but I love them anyway. N or M? is probably my favourite but they are all a tonne of fun.
I feel like I’ve seen a movie version of N or M…does such a thing exist? I’ll have to look for it in book form?
I don’t think an N or M movie exists – it was adapted into an episode of Miss Marple, strangely, and it was also one of the episodes in the terrible Tommy and Tuppence miniseries of a few years ago. Strange that it hasn’t become a film, as it is wonderful film material!
Maybe it’s the Miss Marple I’m thinking of. I used to watch that with my parents!
I have picked up Agatha Christie’s off and on over my life (which is as long as Tuppence’s but I won’t be getting in any damned go-karts anytime soon) but have always found her a bit formulaic – and anyway I don’t like mysteries. This one sounds a bit different, and perhaps Christie was able at that time to write a bit of herself into Tuppence. I’ll look in the Christie section in the library and see if they have it.
If you’re curious about Tommy and Tuppence and the themes of ageing and memory touched on here, I think By the Pricking of my Thumbs addresses them as well and in a slightly more coherent way – a lot of this book, honestly, is just going over their previous adventures.
I have to disagree on Christie being formulaic though – a few of her earliest and latest mysteries were, for sure, but there was about a thirty year period where it was banger after banger, and different every time. Maybe you’ve not met her at her best before?
Since this was part of a project, maybe you could do a whole separate post on which you cast all the Tommy and Tuppence movies! I’ve done that in the past with some of the Valdemar books, and it was loads of fun.
That’s a very tempting thought! And it would give me a couple of months to finalise my choices.
Tommy & Tuppence are my favourite Christie sleuths, but I haven’t read this one. One day I hope to read their stories in order, so I’m glad their final story is worthwhile for the fans.
I think Miss Marple is my favourite, but Tommy and Tuppence are very close seconds. Reading their whole arc in order is definitely a rewarding experience – I hope you enjoy it when you get to it.
Thanks – it’s a one day in the future sometime project 😊