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Dust-jacket illustration of the first UK edition

Postern of Fate is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie that was first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club in October 1973 and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in the same year. The UK edition retailed at £2.00 and the US edition at $6.95.

The book features her detectives Tommy and Tuppence Beresford and is the detectives' last appearance. It is the last novel Christie wrote, but not the last to be published.

Synopsis

Now in their seventies (though the authoress never states their age clearly), Tommy and Tuppence move to a quiet English village, looking forward to a peaceful retirement. But, as they soon discover, their rambling old house holds secrets. Who is Mary Jordan? And why has someone left a code message in an old book about her 'unnatural' death? Once more, ingenuity and insight are called for as they are drawn into old mysteries and new dangers.

Plot summary

(may contain spoilers - click on expand to read)

Tommy and Tuppence move out of their old house at Bartons Acre into the Laurels near the seaside town of Hollowquay. Albert, their manservant also comes along with them. The house also comes with some of the furniture and contents, including a quantity of old books. Tuppence is delighted to find many of her favourite childhood books and spends most of the time reading them instead of unpacking and tidying. Looking at "The Black Arrow" by Stevenson, she is curious to find that someone has underlined some words in red ink. By noting the first letter of each word, she decodes a message: "Mary Jordan did not die naturally. It was one of us. I think I know which." The book looks like it belonged to a child named Alexander Parkinson. Immediately Tuppence is taken up with the mystery. Who is Mary Jordan and who is Alexander Parkinson? They must find out.

Tommy and Tuppence make slow but steady progress. Hannibal, out on a walk, leads to the grave of Alexander in a churchyard. He had died at the age of fourteen. Meanwhile Tuppence circulates and sifts through local gossip and memories, the most useful from Gwenda, at the post office shop and Mrs Griffin, probably the oldest resident. She learns that the Parkinsons were from before World War 1, there was some matter involving naval secrets and plans of a new submarine, there was a governess Mary Jordan which may not be her real name. She was foreign, perhaps German and there was talk that she was a German spy.

From Gwenda, Tuppence picks up the name of Isaac Bodlicott, an old garrulous gardener who once worked at the Laurels. He shows Tuppence the old greenhouse, called KK inside which are various old children's toys, a rocking horse "Mathilde", a cart "Truelove" and two blue porcelain stools “Oxford” and “Cambridge”.

Tommy looks up an old contact, Colonel Atkinson. He is intrigued that Tommy and Tuppence are staying at the Laurels--he says they must be still acting for the secret service! Atkinson says the house was once the centre of some scandal. The security people went through it hoping to find some letters or papers but failed. These papers could still embarass people today who are high up. Ominously, he urges Tommy and Tuppence to take care of themselves. Another contact "Mutton Chops" corroborates the facts about a submarine. Finally, a "sad, grizzled man" links Tommy up with Mr Robinson. Robinson encourages Tommy to continue his investigation--what he uncovers from so long ago might still be relevant today. Robinson cannot reveal more but does tell Tommy that Mary Jordan was not a German spy but a British agent. Tommy later gets the same encouragement from Colonel Pikeaway who tells him to go through the "Postern of Fate".

Tuppence jogs Mrs Griffin's memory with a birthday book. Mrs Griffin sends Tuppence to various old age pensioners at retirement homes. She returns having had her fill of vague recollections of "some story about a will that was hidden in a Chinese vase. Something about Oxford and Cambridge...." It seemed to Tuppence unlikely that these old ladies would know about things hidden in Oxford or Cambridge. Later Mrs Griffin also sends an old photo album with relevant old photos including some of Mary Jordan.

Tuppence follows up by calling at Durrence's photo shop--they might keep their old photos. There are no useful leads here, but on returning home, Tuppence finds Isaac Bodlicott murdered.

After the inquest, Mrs Bodlicott comes to thank the Beresfords. She offers to send her son Henry to help with the garden. Henry is full of admiration for the Berefords and believes they are investigating another mystery at the Laurels. He offers this help and those of his friends. Tuppence believes Isaac knew something and was killed for it. He may have told stories and Henry and his friends might have heard them. She forms them into a junior brigade. There is a tentative idea from them there there was a goldfish pond in the Laurels garden that was filled in. The junior brigade suggest the place to hear such stories is the PPC (Pensioners' Palace Club) where old folks gather to chat.

The trip to the PPC is disappointing. The old folks do chat and there is much talk about buried treasure and Oxford and Cambridge. Nothing very coherent.

Coming home Tuppence reviews the clues she has scribbled in her notebook. There are lots of names like Mrs Griffin, and even one Dodo. But there's census, Oxford, Cambridge and some words she found on a scrap of paper in a story book: Grin-hen-lo. Tommy and Tuppence play around with what this means until Tuppence realises they can be rearranged to form Lohengrin. Swans! The Oxford and Cambridge stools in the KK greenhouse had swan motifs!

The next day, they open up the Cambridge stool and retrieve a packet wrapped in tarpaulin. This is it! But Hannibal is alarmed by something outside. There are two shots from someone hiding in the grass outside and Tuppence is hit in the shoulder. Hannibal pursues and manages to bite the assailant but he gets away.

The wound is slight and Tuppence is sent home to rest. Inspector Norris assures Tommy they will find the culprit. As an aside, he tells Tommy something strange--people may come to his house offering to work as a gardener. Anyone claiming to have worked for one Mr Solomon can be trusted. Tommy makes a trip to London to hand over the packet to Colonel Pikeaway. Pikeaway, who knows the endgame is approaching, asks if the Beresfords prefer to move out of the Laurels but Tommy tells him obviously Tuppence will never hear of it. Pikeaway also tells him that if he goes by whatever Norris says, he is going the right way.

A Miss Mullins comes to the house saying Miss Griffin sent her because she heard Tuppence needed help in the garden. Then shortly after, another person comes, Mr Crispin, who once worked for Mr Solomon. The Beresfords accept the offers of both. Mullins pays another visit, wanting to discuss garden plans with Tuppence. She is laid up in bed but Albert reluctantly brings Miss Mullins up to her room. Hannibal is not happy about the visitor and has to be shut up in the bathroom. Albert brings up some coffee but has to go down to answer a phone. Miss Mullins proceeds to pour out the coffee and offers one to Tuppence but Hannibal has had enough and unlatches the door and lunges out at Miss Mullins. Simultaneously, Albert, Crispin and Tommy rush in. It had been a trap! Albert has observed Miss Mullins poisoning Tuppence's coffee. She is arrested and taken away.

Over dinner Mr Robinson and Colonel Pikeaway explain the background (or some of it). Mary Jordan was a British agent who uncovered a secret fascist subversive network in Hollowquay before the First World War. She found incriminating documents which she hid but she was killed before completing the mission. The fascist network was disrupted but started up again under a man named Jonathan Kane in the 1930s. Crispin is revealed to be Henry Horsham, a security officer, who recognised Miss Mullins (codenamed Dodo) as one of Kane's followers. In the time of the Beresfords, it seems the fascists were trying to start up again, and this explains why Miss Mullins coming back to Hollowquay. With the help of the Beresfords, this new network has now been rolled up. The census returns obtained by Tommy showed who was staying with the Parkinsons at the time. One was the daughter of a local doctor, also known to be part of the fascist network. Pikeaway believed the doctor and his daughter poisoned Mary Jordon. The dinner concludes with Hannibal being commended for his signal service and made a "Count of the Realm".

Characters

The Laurels

Helpful neighbours and parishioners of Hollowquay

Help from further afield

From the past

Others

  • Andrew - Tommy and Tuppence’s grandson
  • Deborah - The Beresfords’s daughter
  • Janet - Tommy and Tuppence’s granddaughter
  • Miss Iris Mullins - a.k.a. ‘Dodo’ by Mr. Crispin, a fascist
  • Rosalie - Tommy and Tuppence’s granddaughter
  • A grizzled man - Tommy’s friend and old contact

Explanation of the novel's title

The title comes from the poem Gates of Damascus by James Elroy Flecker. The poem is also referenced in the short story The Gate of Baghdad in the 1934 collection Parker Pyne Investigates.

Dedication

The book is dedicated:

    "For Hannibal and his master"

The back cover of the first edition shows a photo of Bingo, Christie's pet Manchester Terrier who is the inspiration for Hannibal.

Tropes and themes

  • "Old sins cast long shadows"
  • Tommy and Tuppence's books - Christie expected this to be among her last works. In it she seemed to have a romp through her favourite things: her childhood house at Ashfield, her toys, her pet dogs, and books. Many children's book titles are mentioned in the text, likely to be Christie's favourite books as a child.

Cultural references and references to other works

  • As the last Tommy and Tuppence novel, there are many references to their previous exploits.
  • A swallow is a term in espionage circles used to describe a woman who cultivates men by using her sexual attributes. This describes Mary Jordan who lived at "Swallow's Nest". A coincidence?

Literary significance and reception

Most critics remarked how noticeable Agatha Christie's old age is in this book. For example the main characters Tommy and Tuppence seem to have completely forgotten in one chapter what they discussed just a chapter before. Some conversations seem to be repeated again and again, before any action takes place. Some puzzles which are obvious and easy to solve for the reader take various chapter to be tackled by the main characters. Nevertheless, the reader is able to follow the main story line.

Maurice Richardson in The Observer of November 11, 1973 was positive in his review: "Now in their seventies, the Beresfords, that amateur detective couple of hers whom some of us found too sprightly for comfort, have acquired a Proustian complexity. A code message in an Edwardian children's book puts them on to the murder of a governess involved in a pre-1914 German spy case. Past and present go on interlocking impressively. Despite political naivety; this is a genuine tour de force with a star part for Hannibal, the Manchester Terrier."

Robert Barnard: "The last book Christie wrote. Best (and easily) forgotten."

Postern of Fate has been criticized as of lower quality than the bulk of Christie's output. According to The Cambridge Guide to Women's Writing in English, this novel is one of the "execrable last novels" where Christie "loses her grip altogether".

Publication history

  • 1973, Collins Crime Club (London), October 1973, Hardcover, 254 pp
  • 1973, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), Hardcover, 310 pp
  • 1974 Bantam Books, Paperback, 276 pp
  • 1974 GK Hall & Company Large-print Edition, Hardcover, 471 pp ISBN 0-8161-6197-6
  • 1976, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 221 pp
  • 1992, Ulverscroft large-print Edition, Hardcover, ISBN 0-7089-2708-4

References to other works

The book has many references to other Tommy and Tuppence books as well as cultural references. We learn that Tuppence and Tommy's twin daughter Deborah is now mother of twins herself, that the adopted daughter Betty lives in Kenya and that the wife of Albert, the loyal valet, has recently died. Mr Robinson, the "yellow, big man" from Passenger to Frankfurt, appears here, as do Colonel Pikeaway and Horsham, posing undercover as a gardener.

International titles

  • French: Le Cheval à bascule (The Rocking Horse)
  • German: Alter schützt vor Scharfsinn nicht (Old age doesn't prevent from sharp wit)
  • Hungarian: Sors-rejtekajtó (Postern of Fate)
  • Turkish: Kader kapısı (Postern of Fate)
  • Italian: Le Porte di Damasco (Damacus' Gate)
  • Swedish: Ödets port (The Gate of Fate)


Novels
Hercule Poirot novels The Mysterious Affair at Styles - The Murder on the Links - The Murder of Roger Ackroyd - The Big Four - The Mystery of the Blue Train -Peril at End House - Lord Edgware Dies - Murder on the Orient Express - Three Act Tragedy - Death in the Clouds - The A.B.C. Murders - Murder in Mesopotamia - Cards on the Table - Dumb Witness - Death on the Nile - Appointment with Death - Hercule Poirot's Christmas - Sad Cypress - One, Two, Buckle My Shoe - Evil Under the Sun - Five Little Pigs - The Hollow - Taken at the Flood - Mrs McGinty's Dead - After the Funeral - Hickory Dickory Dock - Dead Man's Folly - Cat Among the Pigeons - The Clocks - Third Girl - Hallowe'en Party - Elephants Can Remember - Curtain
Miss Marple novels The Murder at the Vicarage - The Body in the Library - The Moving Finger - A Murder is Announced - They do it with Mirrors - A Pocket Full of Rye - 4.50 from Paddington - The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side - A Caribbean Mystery - At Bertram's Hotel - Nemesis - Sleeping Murder
Tommy and Tuppence novels The Secret Adversary - N or M? - By the Pricking of My Thumbs - Postern of Fate
Superintendent Battle novels The Secret of Chimneys - The Seven Dials Mystery - Cards on the Table - Murder is Easy - Towards Zero
Colonel Race novels The Man in the Brown Suit - Cards on the Table - Death on the Nile - Sparkling Cyanide
Other novels The Sittaford Mystery - Why Didn't They Ask Evans? - And Then There Were None - Death Comes as the End - Sparkling Cyanide - Crooked House - They Came to Baghdad - Destination Unknown - The Pale Horse - Endless Night - Passenger to Frankfurt
Published as Mary Westmacott Giant's Bread - Unfinished Portrait - Absent in the Spring - The Rose and the Yew Tree - A Daughter's a Daughter - The Burden
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