And I’m back with a quick review of Peter Duck and 4:50 From Paddington, the latter being the ‘Number in the title’ selection. This ‘reading more’ thing is really paying off now, my headspace is much better. You might have seen in my newsletter that I was 70% through (on the kindle) of The Lincoln Highway. I’ve finished it now, and I loved it, it was both sad and wonderfully uplifting.
Peter Duck is often listed as the third Swallows & Amazons book in the series, as it was published after Swallowdale in 1932, however, it was written and set before the summer holidays of Swallowdale. For reasons now lost; the preface pages explaining that the story was made up by the children in a wherry and written down by Mr Ransome was removed by the publisher. This would have gone a long way to explain the hifalutin story; replete with pirates (real life ones), skeletons, treasure hunting, waterspouts, fist fights and gunshots leaving people injured, and that six children with only one adult known to them and another adult who arrives and decides to join the crew on a whim, were able to sail from Lowestoft to the Caribbean and back again.
If you take it as an adventure story, spun out over winter nights, it works – kinda. If you take it as read, without knowing the children made it up, it doesn’t. Removing the preface also completely negates the explanation about Peter Duck being an imaginary friend to Titty in Swallowdale.
I think Arthur Ransome wanted a big, rollicking adventure, but it’s a pity he did a rewrite of parts of RL Stevenson’s Treasure Island and his own Racundra’s First Cruise to get it. (Yes. I have read everything he’s ever written, including the draft of the Death & Glory boys coming up to the Lakes in a boat by mistake). The Swallows & Amazons series works best when the books are in smaller locations. While you can’t get much smaller than a two masted schooner; using a sailing distance calculator online, it’s around 4,270 nautical miles from Lowestoft to the north east of Trinidad and Tobago. So we’re talking about a journey of around 42 days, (with the large assumption of clean sailing a 100 nM every day), and that is only one way!
Another reason why this book doesn’t work for me, is the inclusion of Bill the Ship’s Boy from the Viper. Bill’s treatment at the hands of Black Jake onboard the Viper is reprehensible. Bill describes how he sleeps in a sail locker as he’s so desperate to get to sea, and how he’s all ‘one big bruise’ from a beating he received, and as a child, chews tobacco. He is rescued from a rowing boat in the English Channel, in thick fog by the Wild Cat, joining their crew to sail to the Caribbean, but is never mentioned again in the series. I know we’re told that he goes off to Beccles to live with one of Peter Duck’s daughters, but using a child as a plot point to get shoved off a ship into a harbour, beaten two or three times, then shot at the climax of the book, was too far fetched for me to cope with as a child. It’s downright ludicrous now.
You can see why I didn’t really want to re-read this book now can’t you? Still, I’ve got one of my favourites as a palate cleanser now, Winter Holiday.
By complete contrast, choosing the 4:50 from Paddington was easy, I wanted to include an Agatha Christie (AC) in the challenge and it has a number in the title; two birds, one stone. It’s a favourite AC of mine, if you don’t know the story and “whodunnit”, it’s a really good, fun read as you hurtle through it until you get to the denouement. When you re-read it, the clues are there, but she does keep you guessing right to the end.
First published in 1957, it’s set closer to the end of the World War II than when it was written, it was initially released in installments, which probably accounts for the faster pace of this book than some of AC’s others. You’ve got to keep the tension up for people to come back for more. According to Wikipedia, it received mixed reviews on publication, Miss Marple isn’t really in it, but on the periphery of the action. Miss Marple’s age is never really arrived on across the books she features in; a mixture of novels, novellas and short stories, but she’s always described as a fluffy old lady. As she first appeared in print in 1930, in The Murder at the Vicarage, AC could be forgiven for keeping her in the background somewhat in the later books.
The BBC adaptation (with Joan Hickson, there can be only one), is slightly different from the book, but still takes you on the journey at a rate of knots. The characters are faithful to the book, albeit slightly more rounded out in the screenplay, they also don’t introduce too many for (Basil) Exposition either. I loved watching Lucy Eyelesbarrow cleaning the big kitchen table and dresser in Rutherford Hall, probably to show how ‘capable’ she was. It’s always good to get a peep at Joanna David and Jean Boht.
As with all books written in the 1930s-1950s, some of the language used can be jarring now, but they were of their time and should be recognised as such. The attitudes towards some of the smaller characters in both Agatha Christie and Arthur Ransome’s worlds are wince-inducing, but on the whole, (and IMO) they’ve aged far better than Enid Blyton.
What’s your favourite Agatha Christie? I’m looking forward to the upcoming release of Death on the Nile, that’s always been one of my favourite Poirot stories. I think my favourite Marple is a close call between A Murder Is Announced and The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side.