KRIMES FOR KIDS (WITH A CHRISTIE TWIST): Aggie Morton, Mystery Queen

As the sages are fond of saying: good things come to those who read Christie. 

Had I not picked up my first Agatha Christie novel (And Then There Were None) at the tender age of eleven, I might not have devoured the author’s entire canon by my twenties, re-read her voraciously, and set myself up as a devotee and scholar. I might not have started this blog, Dear Readers, were it not for my life-long compulsion to write about mysteries and engage with other fans of the genre. And then I might not have had the good fortune to engage with Kemper Donovan and Catherine Brobeck, the creators of my favorite podcast, All About Agatha – and ultimately sat down with Kemper himself for a thoroughly delightful discussion about Marple, the collection of “new” Miss Marple stories by a dozen of our most successful modern women authors. (You can listen to that episode wherever you find your podcasts; I find mine here.)

If I hadn’t talked to Kemper, I might have not received this lovely message from Marthe Jocelyn, the noted childrens’ author from Canada, giving me a gentle nudge in the direction of her latest series of books about Aggie Morton, Victorian girl detective. It was a fortuitous reminder because, thanks to my pal JJ (who always seems to be ahead of me in these matters over at The Invisible Event), I already had the first two of four books in my possession.  In fact, if you check my New Year’s resolutions for 2021 (more about those in a couple of weeks), I clearly stated my goal of checking out the Aggie Morton series!

Well . . . better late than never, my friends! So here I go, tackling Aggie’s very first murder case, The Body Under the Piano

The cover clearly states that the book is “inspired by the real-life Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie,” but this story is, of course, fictional. Agatha Christie wrote about murders but never solved them (at least, not publicly); in fact, given her credentials, she seems more qualified to commit a murder, and a darn near perfect one! Of course, it was her ability to imagine the mind of a killer that supplied Christie with dozens of clever plots, and it’s a skill that may just help Aggie Morton when murder rears its ugly head: 

The villains trounced by Sherlock Holmes were not given much to say for themselves. No book I’ve ever read it was narrated by a murderer. But killers, I imagine, carried more than their share of sorrow. Why else would they be so reckless with the hearts of others?

Jocelyn cleverly takes elements of Christie’s childhood – and we super-fans know how much Agatha herself cherished that time of her life – to create a charming fictional stand-in for the budding author. It is 1902 and, like Agatha Miller, Agatha Morton lives in a fine house in Torquay with her mother (Cora, not Clara) and Grannie Jane (not Mary, but then Jane has a distinct appeal here, as Grannie may remind you of another wise old lady from the Christie canon.) The house is in a woebegone state because, like Agatha, Aggie’s father died the previous year and has left the family in a financially precarious state. Similar to her real-life counterpart, Aggie has received most of her education at home: 

I learned history and literature from Mummy and from books in Papa’s library. For natural science, I explored the garden. Going to All Saints Church every Sunday was for Bible stories and religious studies. I practiced dance with Miss Marianne, in the Mermaid Room, and played the piano and mandolin with other lady teachers. Papa had been the one to teach me mathematics, but my skills in that area had faltered since last November when he died.

Most appealing is Aggie’s voracious imagination, and Jocelyn clearly believes that, like Christie, young Aggie is destined to become a writer. As events unfold with Aggie having a front row seat to them, she can’t help but step back and rewrite what she sees in the context of one of the sensational novels she adores. Still, she is determined to keep her head in the game because, like her beloved Sherlock Holmes, Aggie fancies herself a budding detective, and a shocking case is about to present itself at the Mermaid Dance Room. 

Aggie is taking part in a recital for the benefit of Belgian refugees, who have come to England to escape the rule of a tyrannical king. (This diverges from Christie herself, who was inspired to create Poirot by the influx of Belgians to Torquay at the end of World War I.) Aggie has written a poem to welcome these strangers, but she dreads having to deliver it. (Like Christie, Aggie is shy around people.) Her fears are only slightly assuaged on the morning of the recital when she meets one of her new neighbors at Dillon’s Sweets & Sundries: 

He had an accent that chopped his words with precision. His skin was near as pale as milk. Black hair was slicked flat on a head that seemed a bit large for his skinny body. He was tidily dressed in a navy-blue sailor suit with an impeccably clean white collar . . . (His) eyes were very green and very bright, bringing to mind a glass of lime cordial.” 

This is Aggie’s (and our) introduction to Hector Perot, who is about to become both her friend and Partner in Crime (the detecting of it, that is.) The real action begins at the recital, where Aggie, nervous about delivering her poem, can’t help but notice the tensions among those around her, most of them centering on Miss Marianne’s horrid sister Irma, whose daughter Rose is the shining star of the evening. Nobody likes Irma: not her daughter or her sister, or the other students, like resident mean girl, Florence Fusswell, or the sardonic Lavinia Paine. All these characters, along with the various boys who hover around them, are brought to life in a charming portrait gallery illustrated by Isabelle Follath. 

It’s no surprise when, soon afterwards, Irma Eversham is found dead, under the titular piano in the dance studio, and Aggie is the one to find her. Inflicted with what her mother calls her Morbid Preoccupation, Aggie is determined to solve the murder before stodgy Inspector Locke can frame the wrong suspect. Fortunately, she has a keen-eyed, logic-minded Belgian ami to help her out. 

If the solution to this mystery seemed, not obvious, but inevitable to this reader, remember that I’m several decades older than the targeted audience. Younger readers might very well be surprised by the unmasking of this villain. What Jocelyn does especially well here is to recreate the world of 1902 England, especially through the eyes and experience of some of its most disenfranchised inhabitants: women, children, and foreigners. The charm and coziness of Aggie’s life and town are mitigated by the fact that, as both a female and a child, she is rendered pretty much invisible by all the males and less enlightened females of the town. One of the main suspects is a feminist and another . . . well, I’ll leave some twists for you to discover. The book is chock full of wonderful illuminations of a woman’s lot in late-Victorian England: 

The best thing about men’s clothing . . . is no corsets. In my opinion, that small particularity explains a good deal about society itself. It’s extraordinary how different the world looks when a person can breathe.

Aggie’s burgeoning friendship with Hector is as much a matter of sympathy for his similar circumstance as for their shared interest in the crimes that take place – and the difficulty they both have in being taken seriously. In this first book in the series, at least, Hector is used sparingly but he forgest an interesting symbiotic relationship with Aggie. Neither child is the Watson here; instead, they mesh into the Perfect Detective, with Hector’s logical mind elevating Aggie’s own intelligence and her impulsive heroism stirring the fussy little boy to greater physical heights – even if it risks ruining his favorite pair of patent leather shoes! 

Jocelyn’s love for Agatha Christie shines throughout (and is explained in an afterword), warming this super-fan’s heart. Thus, it was especially lovely when, at the end, Aggie’s beloved older sister invites the two young sleuths to celebrate Christmas as the grand estate she shares with her new husband and firmly promises “there will be no dead bodies.” 

Even Aggie knows what a foolish promise that is!

9 thoughts on “KRIMES FOR KIDS (WITH A CHRISTIE TWIST): Aggie Morton, Mystery Queen

      • I’ve been trying to find a non-public way of making a correction in your review – but you can read this & then delete, I guess. The books are set in 1902 & 1903 – NOT post-Great War when the flood of Belgian refugees came to the UK. There were immigrants earlier, of course, especially in protest or to escape the rule of Leopold III, and also imagining that school and life might be better in England. Hector has come, ahead of his family, as one of these. (In real life, Christie’s town of Torquay was home to many of the refugees during the first World War, which is why she gave Poirot that backstory…)

        Liked by 1 person

  1. I read the first two so far, and IMO the second one is even better. And it takes place at Christmas, so now might be the perfect time to read it. And speaking of some great references gur obql va guvf ybfrf zhpu zber oybbq guna ur fubhyq unir.

    The episode with you on the podcast was great. And by the way gur fgbel, va juvpu Zvff Znecyr zrrgf n xvyyre, jub qerffrf nf n punzoreznvq, vf “Zvff Znecyr gryyf n fgbel”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I will have to re-read that short story. I had completely forgotten it! Many thanks. And yes, I had thought of looking for a good Christmas read – when Hanukkah is over!!!!

      Like

  2. In fact, if you check my New Year’s resolutions for 2021 (more about those in a couple of weeks), I clearly stated my goal of checking out the Aggie Morton series!

    You also promised a review of Nicholas Wilde’s Death Knell. It’s almost like you’re avoiding Paul Halter, Jr.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know what happened. I remember starting it: two boys, an old village house, mysterious meetings . . . and then I got distracted. It doesn’t take much to distract me these days!

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s