Parker Pyne Investigates by Agatha Christie – Book Review

An enjoyable stand-alone collection of short stories featuring one of Christie’s lesser known detectives.

Are you happy? If not, consult Mr. Parker Pyne, 17 Richmond Street.

Parker Pyne’s ad in the personal column of the newspaper certainly doesn’t waste a word and goes straight to its confident sales pitch. These days, one could assume that he’s offering life coaching or counselling, but in truth it’s neither, nor is he a conventional investigator in the style of Hercule Poirot. A former civil servant specialising in statistics, Mr Pyne believes that all of life’s unhappiness can be classified under five categories at most, and that solutions to most problems can be found after a proper diagnosis (and a reasonable fee).

In the author’s foreword, Christie describes how Parker Pyne came to her one day fully formed during a lunch, when she suddenly found herself enraptured by a passionate discussion of statistics at a table behind her. The unique premise for a new series was born there and then, resulting in fourteen short stories about Mr Pyne and his unorthodox approach to human problems.

The stories are organised into distinct halves than can be loosely described as At Home and Abroad. In the first half, the sceptical yet hopeful clients visit Mr Pyne’s private London office with problems of a personal nature: a wife distraught over her straying husband, a retired soldier bored with his life back home, a man whose wife wants a divorce, a mousy city clerk yearning for a bit of excitement. Mr Pyne’s imaginative solutions usually involve sending his unsuspecting clients on carefully orchestrated adventures that end up giving them what they want – or, as in my favourite story, The Case of the Rich Woman, what they never knew they really wanted.

There might inevitably be a formulaic feel to these stories which all essentially have the same structure, but they do manage to keep the reader on their toes with an unexpected ending or two. Mr Pyne never promises a hundred percent success rate, and is occasionally faced with a failure that he’s careful to analyse and learn from. There’s also a couple of fun cameo appearances by Christie’s regular supporting characters from the Poirot series: Mrs Ariadne Oliver, the mystery novelist employed by Mr Pyne to script an adventure for one of his clients, and Poirot’s no-nonsense secretary, Miss Lemon.

In the remainder of the stories, Mr Pyne is off to enjoy a holiday in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Greece among other places, where he ends up an accidental detective solving murders, thefts and even kidnappings. There’s a short story named Death on the Nile, which of course shares a title with one of Christie’s best-known novels, though the plot here is entirely different. These stories lean more towards conventional mysteries rather than finding a happy outcome for a client, but my personal favourite, The House at Shiraz, is a neat blend of both and relies once again on Mr Pyne’s knowledge of statistics.

Mr Pyne himself is never fully characterised, probably on purpose as his reassuring, impersonal blandness is partly what makes his clients trust him. Though he never took off as a popular character alongside Poirot, Miss Marple, or even Tommy and Tuppence, the quality of Parker Pyne stories remains fairly high throughout, and the series as a whole is an interesting experiment.

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