Saturday, 11 June 2016

Poirot Project: The Further Adventures of Miss Lemon

This post is part of my 2016 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’.

I’ve said a few times that this project is going to be rather completist – I can’t watch ‘Curtain’ until I’ve rewatched all the other episodes and reread all the stories and novels. But as I approached ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’, it occurred to me that, to be truly completist, I might have to dip into some of Agatha Christie’s other writing as well. You see, there are some characters in the Poirot stories who appear in non-Poirot stories as well. To do justice to the project, shouldn’t I be looking at the full careers of these characters?

As far as I remember, there are five significant characters who appear in both Poirot and non-Poirot stories: Miss Lemon, Ariadne Oliver, Mr Satterthwaite, Colonel Race and Superintendent Battle. (And there’s also Mr Robinson and Colonel Pikeaway from Cat Among the Pigeons – but I must confess I’d completely forgotten about these characters until I started writing this post, so I’ll have to decide what to do about them later.) My plan is to write about the ‘further adventures’ of each of these characters just before I reach the first Poirot story/novel in which they appear. In some cases (like Miss Lemon), that means writing about a character who has already appeared in the TV series; in other cases (like Superintendent Battle), it means writing about a character who doesn’t appear in the TV series at all. Interestingly, all five characters made their debuts in non-Poirot stories (either standalone novels or less well-known detective series) before entering the world of the famous Belgian sleuth, so their earlier appearances (possibly) act as backstory to their roles in the Poirot stories.

So… the first character with a backstory is Poirot’s efficient secretary Miss Lemon.

Miss Lemon (and it’s just ‘Miss’ Lemon for now – she won’t get a first name until 1955 and Hickory Dickory Dock) made her first appearance as Poirot’s secretary in ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’, which was first published in 1935. I’m going to talk more about that story in my next post, so for now I want to look at a couple of stories featuring Miss Lemon from 1932.

Parker Pyne Investigates was first published by William Collins in 1934. (For info, I’m using the 1968 Pan Books edition, which I apparently bought for 29p in an Oxfam shop. As I’m sure I’ll mention in some future posts, I worked full-time in an Oxfam shop after finishing my A-Levels, and I read a lot of Christie during this time. Most of the older paperback editions I own have Oxfam prices pencilled on the first page, so I assume most of them were bought at that time.)

Parker Pyne appears in fourteen short stories by Agatha Christie – the twelve that are collected in Parker Pyne Investigates, ‘Problem at Pollensa Bay’ (published in 1935) and ‘The Regatta Mystery’ (more on that one in a later post). As a detective, he is quite a different kettle of fish to Hercule Poirot. In fact, in the first six stories in which he appears, he is hardly a ‘detective’ at all.

Parker Pyne advertises his services with a cryptic – but enticing – announcement in newspapers:
‘Are you happy? If not, consult Mr Parker Pyne, 17 Richmond Street.’
The cases he takes on in the first six stories are, then, cases of (usually domestic) unhappiness, as is clear from the titles: ‘The Case of the Middle-Aged Wife’, ‘The Case of the Discontented Soldier’, ‘The Case of the Distressed Lady’, ‘The Case of the Discontented Husband’, ‘The Case of the City Clerk’ and ‘The Case of the Rich Woman’ (all first published in 1932). In each of these stories, a client comes to Pyne with a tale of unhappiness, discontent or boredom, and the consultant agrees to rectify the situation in exchange for cash (which appears to be simply to cover expenses).

Pyne’s expertise derives from a background in the civil service:
‘You see, for thirty-five years of my life I have been engaged in the compiling of statistics in a government office. Now I have retired, and it has occurred to me to use the experience I have gained in a novel fashion. It is all so simple. Unhappiness can be classified under five main heads – no more, I assure you. Once you know the cause of the malady, the remedy should not be impossible.’
Some people, including whoever wrote the ‘Parker Pyne’ entry on Wikipedia (this article has multiple issues), seem to think that Pyne’s government work might have been along the same lines as that of Mycroft Holmes. I don’t see it myself. I see Pyne more as a somewhat mundane statistician, who is logical enough to be convinced of the predictability of human nature but romantic enough to meddle in domestic affairs. The first six Parker Pyne cases are quite charming, in their own way, but could hardly be called ‘mysteries’. The main appeal of these tales is the quirky consultant and, possibly more importantly, his unusual staff, rather than the cases they work on.

As an aside, the second half of Parker Pyne Investigates collects six stories published in 1933. In these stories, Pyne is travelling (without his staff) and investigates a series of more traditional ‘mysteries’. I’ll be returning to some of these stories in a (much) later blog post.

Back to the 1932 stories, obviously the most important person for the purposes of the current post is Parker Pyne’s secretary. She is introduced to us in ‘The Case of the Middle-Aged Wife’:
‘When she had gone he pressed a buzzer on his desk. A forbidding-looking young woman with spectacles answered it.
“A file, please, Miss Lemon. And you might tell Claude that I am likely to want him shortly.”
“A new client?”
“A new client. At the moment she has jibbed, but she will come back. Probably this afternoon about four. Enter her.”
“Schedule A?”
“Schedule A, of course.”’
And that’s all we get. Pyne’s Miss Lemon is young but stern, and she wears glasses. From her brief exchange with Pyne, we can see she’s brisk and efficient – and, perhaps, we can also discern a little hint of the mutual unspoken understanding that develops between Poirot and his Miss Lemon later on.

There are only two other mentions of Pyne’s secretary in any of the short stories. In ‘The Case of the Distressed Lady’, she’s again mentioned by name. At the story’s opening, she buzzes Pyne to inform him that a young lady wishes to see him, but that the visitor hasn’t got an appointment (Pyne agrees to see her anyway). And at the beginning of ‘The Case of the Discontented Soldier’, when the eponymous client enters the office ‘[a] plain young woman looked up from her typewriter and glanced at him inquiringly’. I assume that this is also Miss Lemon, though she isn’t mentioned by name.

I like these two mentions of the character because, although they are very brief, we get a sense of the ‘Miss Lemon’ who’ll become more familiar in Christie’s Poirot stories. But, in addition to this, there are some nice little echoes of the ‘Miss Lemon’ who appears in the ITV adaptations. Although Miss Lemon didn’t appear in either of the source stories, the TV Miss Lemon also expresses consternation about clients who don’t have appointments or give their full names (‘The Incredible Theft’, ‘The Veiled Lady’), and she is frequently seen behind her typewriter, even when it doesn’t work properly (‘The Dream’). There are just enough points of similarity between Pyne’s secretary, Poirot’s secretary and the TV character for us to imagine that these are all versions of the same character.

But are they the same character? I’ll talk about the relationship between Christie’s Miss Lemon and the TV character in the next post, but how sure can we be that Pyne’s ‘Miss Lemon’ and Poirot’s ‘Miss Lemon’ are meant to be the same person?

At the beginning of ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’, Poirot’s confidential secretary is described for the first time:
‘Miss Lemon was forty-eight and of unprepossessing appearance. Her general effect was that of a lot of bones flung together at random. She had a passion for order almost equalling that of Poirot himself; and though capable of thinking, she never thought unless told to do so. […] Her real passion in life was the perfection of a filing system beside which all other filing systems should sink into oblivion. She dreamed of such a system at night.’
There are definitely some similarities between this character and the one who appears in the Parker Pyne stories. Neither of them are particularly attractive – one is ‘plain’ and ‘forbidding-looking’, the other is ‘unprepossessing’ and like ‘a lot of bones flung together’. Both are efficient and, when we see them for the first time, immersed in filing. Poirot’s secretary is described as a ‘machine’; Pyne’s secretary is professional to the point of being brusque.

But I can’t ignore the discrepancy in their ages. Pyne’s Miss Lemon is young, but Poirot’s secretary is 48. The stories were only published three years apart, so can this really be the same person? (And I’ll just add that there’s no suggestion the Parker Pyne stories are set much earlier than their publication dates. In addition to all the cars, office equipment and slang that allow us to roughly date them, there’s a cute little giveaway in ‘The Case of the Distressed Lady’: at the end of the story, Pyne observes a ‘gentleman selling Dismal Desmonds’ on the street. Dismal Desmond, a bizarrely popular stuffed toy of (from what I can ascertain) a bereaved dog, was created in 1926 and continued in popularity throughout the 1930s.)

Postcard of Dismal Desmond posing with Louise Brooks, c. 1928. Thanks to Carrie Lewis for this providing this image.

This is something that some Christie fans have pondered over. The ‘Parker Pyne’ Wikipedia page (this article has multiple issues) insists that we are meant to understand that it’s the same person, but that her work with Parker Pyne happened a number of years prior to her employment with Poirot. Personally, I think that’s looking for more consistency than is actually present. It’s really tempting to see Christie’s work as a ‘fictional universe’, in which we can discern a chronology of events and a continuity of character, but it really doesn’t work like that (unless you’re happy with the idea that Poirot doesn’t age substantially between WWI and the 1960s, while Miss Lemon ages a couple of decades in the space of two or three years).

Instead of thinking of Pyne’s Miss Lemon as a younger version of the same character, I prefer to think of her as a prototype for the character that appears in the Poirot novels. Clearly something about the ‘forbidding-looking young woman’ stuck in Christie’s imagination and led her to give the character another outing (albeit in a somewhat different guise) – and one in which the character is more developed and fleshed out (even, twenty years later, acquiring a first name and a sister). Of course, this also suggests that Christie thought the character worked better as an older woman, as it’s as a middle-aged spinster that Miss Lemon really takes form. I find this very interesting, as it seems to imply that Christie saw more scope for developing an interesting older female character (and a spinster too... quelle surprise).

Significantly, this is not the only minor or incidental female character from a Parker Pyne novel who is revisited and developed further in the Poirot stories. Of course, there’s Ariadne Oliver (who actually got her own novel before entering the world of the great Belgian detective). However, there is another, less sympathetic woman (who I actually quite like) from a Poirot story who has her prototype in a Parker Pyne story… but that, mon ami, is a post for another day.

This post has been about Miss Lemon’s background. In the next post, I’m going to look at the first Poirot story in which she appears, but also write a bit more about the relationship between Christie’s character and the character portrayed by Pauline Moran in the ITV series.

On to ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’ then. And would the real Felicity Lemon please stand up?

1 comment:

  1. Hello -

    Happened to stumble across The Agatha Christie Hour on YouTube. There are two Parker Pyne/Miss Lemon episodes in this 10 episode series.
    Mrs. Oliver also appears in the first episode as the writer of the scenario into which Mr. Parker Pyne drops his client.
    This could have been a very satisfying show. A kind of Fantasy Island for unfulfilled persons run by an absolute master of human emotions and probability.

    Season 1 Episode 1
    The Case of the Middle-Aged Wife:

    Season 1 Episode 5
    The Case of the Discontented Soldier:

    - Toby Flenderson