I have been a lover of Agatha Christie for a long time but I’ve never read any of the novels that she published under her pseudonym, Mary Westmacott. Mostly because of the way they’ve been labelled. If there’s anything more likely to get me to avoid a book it’s referring to it as a romance novel. It’s not that I think romance novels are bad but it’s just not my thing. Love is a fact of life but that doesn’t mean I need to read about it for 200-300 pages. I will read the odd romance every now and them but I prefer something a bit darker. Give me a love story full of grisly murder and maybe we can talk. Otherwise, I’ll probably look elsewhere. Although, I decided that I couldn’t really call myself a true Christie fan if I didn’t at least try to read her other books. Why pick this one? It was the first one I saw and it crossed off a letter on my monthly reading challenge.
One of the things that made Agatha Christie such a great writer was her understanding of human psychology. Her ability to write realistic characters gave her mystery novels more depth. Christie had great insights into human behaviour and motivations. This is what made her killers and suspects come to life. However, her crime novels didn’t give her a lot of time to explore certain aspects of humanity. This is why she took up the pseudonym Mary Westmacott, created from her middle name and the surname of some distant relatives. The 6 Westmacott novels were moderately successful and tended to get better reviews than her mysteries. The novels mostly dealt with romance and relationships. However, they aren’t simple romance novels.
The Rose and the Yew Tree is a story of social circles and the desire to rise above your station. It is narrated by Hugh Norreys, a man who was left in a bad way after a car crash. As he recuperates at his brother’s home, Hugh becomes the sounding board for a variety of different people. They tell him their secrets and he gets to find out a lot about the people around him. When a working-class man becomes the Conservative candidate it causes quite a stir but he sees it as the first step on the social ladder. John Gabriel is a pretty unscrupulous man who has a major chip on his shoulder. He has memories of being looked down upon by the upper classes and is ready to get his revenge.
This revenge is linked to Isabella Charteris, a mysterious, beautiful aristocratic woman. Isabella and Hugh have become good friends and he eventually falls in love with her. So, when Isabella runs out on her wedding for someone as awful as John Gabriel, Hugh can’t understand why. After all, Gabriel isn’t a good looking man and shows his dislike of Isabella in the awful way he treats her. What exactly is it about this man that causes so many people to fall for him? And what does he have in store for the innocent Isabella?
This might not be the Agatha Christie that most readers are used to but this has an unmistakably Christie vibe. The dialogue is very familiar and the characters are as well written as they are in her crime novels. It’s a very well-written novel and is pleasant to read. I’d been concerned that it would focus too heavily on the romance aspect but that wasn’t the case. Yes, this a book about love and relationships but there is much more at play. This is about politics and class warfare. The character of John Gabriel is irresistible in his villainy. He’s awful but not over-written. Reading this book during the current political climate certainly brings it a new edge. Had Gabriel been a current Tory MP, he would no doubt be flourishing in Boris Johnson’s cabinet.
So, The Rose and the Yew Tree is as well written as any of the books published under Christie’s real name but it does have some issues. I will say that pacing is something of a problem but that’s something that can be seen throughout Christie’s writing. It takes a bit of time to get to the point and the ending is a bit of a rush. It just doesn’t really flow perfectly but it’s not unreadable. It just takes a bit of effort to get through it but that can be said of some of her mysteries. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. I’d definitely be willing to explore more of the Mary Westmacott novels in the future.