The Murderer's Apprentice

Baltimore, 1966

A twelve-year-old girl and a Baltimore City patrolman are about to discover that some monsters are real.

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The Once-and-Future Queen

Over the summer of 1916, with most of the world at war, a young Englishwoman decided to write a detective novel. 

Of course it wouldn’t be published, but the writing would be a welcome diversion from worrying about her aviator husband fighting overseas. And her job at the hospital dispensary had set her mind aflame with all its pretty poisons—why not write a mystery?

When the young wife mentioned her plan to her older sister, the sister said, “Well, I bet you couldn’t write it.”

“Still, I should like to try,” the young woman replied. 

Thank goodness for murder-mystery lovers everywhere, the young Englishwoman did indeed try, and a few short months later, the book was finished.

The woman was Agatha Christie and the book The Mysterious Affair at Styles, her first novel.

It is a remarkable achievement. In this debut novel, her particular talents are on full display, talents she would hone to near-perfection in the coming years.

In Styles she piles suspicion on the most likely suspect even though he seemingly has an airtight alibi. It’s a technique she uses again and again—of course X has a reason to kill Y, but he was ten miles away at the inn when Y was murdered! The reader accepts the deception until the truth is revealed.

Agatha’s fascination and knowledge of poisons are on full display. At the dispensary where she worked, the poisons sat in lovely bottles, to be dispensed only with exquisite care. A grain or two over the proper dosage results in utter catastrophe, as it did for elderly Emily Inglethorp at Styles.

Then there’s Agatha’s ability to structure a plot as intricate and precise as any mathematical equation. But often overlooked is how plot functions as character, as intertwined as any Gordian knot. As Laura Thompson wrote in Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life, the solution to the murder at Styles resides in the character of the killer.

Or as Poirot so aptly observes: “Human nature. That, I think, is perhaps the real answer as to why I am interested in this case.”

It’s also the reason readers are still interested in Christie’s fiction. For Agatha, it was always about human nature.

Though it would take several years for The Mysterious Affair at Styles to be published, the completion of this remarkable debut novel marked the beginning of an era.

Thus was born the Once and Future Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie.

Paris Dreams

With the fantastic win by the U.S. women in the World Cup and the start of the Tour de France, my thoughts turn to Paris, that most beautiful of cities.

The Champs Elysees at Twilight, glistening like a magic carpet
The architecture of Paris is justly admired, and none more so than the Eiffel Tower, Paris's most iconic symbol, the brightest beacon in the city of light.

The magnificent Arc de Triomphe was commissioned in 1807 after Napoleon's victory at Austerlitz, when the Emperor rode the crest of fortune's wheel.On this day, the massive Arc was a bit of foreground to the Paris Marathon.

Whenever I see that massive structure, I think of of War and Peace, Ozymandias and the Russian winter that would soon destroy Napoleon's Grande Armée.
A detail from the Arc de Triomphe
I'm going to wind up this little tour with a visit to the exquisite basilica of Sacre Coeur, which stands on a hill in Montmarte. When I first saw Sacre Coeur in the early nineties, I wasn't familiar with its history. At that time I saw a gleaming edifice in white stone that was both elegant and imposing, a product of  La Belle époque.
Sacre Coeur
First a little history: During the final decades of the nineteenth century Paris experienced an explosion of art and literature. Renoir painted, Gide brooded, and Stravinsky wrote music so revolutionary it provoked listeners to riot. Yet this golden age was rooted in blood, which brings me back to Sacre Coeur.

The Franco-Prussian War was an unmitigated disaster for France. After the surrender of Napoleon III in 1871, a revolutionary uprising called the Paris Commune seized power in Paris. They held on for two brutal months before being obliterated by the regular French army and were buried on a hilltop in Montmarte.

In the humiliating aftermath of defeat, the people of Paris erected a grand basilica where the martyrs lay buried. After all, the Communards were secular and had no love of priests.  So this was a way of doing penance and erasing the past that had caused such pain.

The history of Sacre Coeur reads like a metaphor, but I'm not sure what it means. I only know that there is something eternal in that white stone and something horrible as well. There are many places like Sacre Coeur in Paris, places where the past and present collide.

So what makes Paris great?

The answer is everything. Architecture, art, open spaces, history, culture--all conspire to form the city of light. I don't think I'd want to live in a world without Paris, and even though it may be years before I see her again, I keep her in my heart.

As Ernest Hemingway observed:
“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast."