I am honored to be included by Curtis Evans, along with Noah, Bev Hankins, Moira Redmond, Helen Szamuely, and Jeffrey Marks, all bloggers par excellence, as a member of the Tuesday Night Bloggers, in honor of that Mistress of Mystery, Agatha Christie. For those of you new or new-ish to Christie’s work, The Thirteen Problems (1932, a.k.a. The Tuesday Club Murders) is perhaps Christie’s best compilation of short stories, most notable in that it introduced Miss Marple to the world. For the next six weeks or so, we will be discussing various aspects of Christie as our fancy takes us.
In the spirit of that most excellent blogger, Noah Stewart, I issue this warning: although I do not intend to reveal by name the identity of any of Christie’s killers, in discussing plot points and motivations, certain spoilers may arise that could affect a first-time readers’ enjoyment of the books under discussion. Proceed at your own risk.
I turned to the table of contents of The Thirteen Problems for inspiration and quickly zeroed in on the title “The Bloodstained Pavement.” It got me to thinking of Dame Agatha’s critics, who all too frequently accuse her of being formulaic, a creator of cardboard characters, bloodless – in other words, (gasp!) cozy!
It’s true that Christie wasn’t known for heaping buckets of blood on her victims. She herself acknowledged this “shortcoming” in a letter to her brother-in-law as part of her dedication of the novel Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938 a.k.a A Holiday for Murder): “You complained that my murders were getting too refined – anemic, in fact! You yearned for ‘a good violent murder with lots of blood.’ A murder where there was no doubt about its being murder!” Sure enough, the book’s victim is found drenched in blood, although, in true Christie fashion, that fact may have a different significance than at first appears.
Nor was Christie absorbed by the CSI of a crime scene, unlike many of our modern authors who describe their murders with gory gusto. The proliferation of modern serial killer novels lining our bookstore shelves, with their lovingly rendered descriptions of rooms bathed in blood and the cutting of flesh – usually while the victim still lives – is a far cry from the more tempered descriptions of crime generally rendered by Christie and her Golden Age colleagues.
Christie rarely visited the world of the serial killer. I can think of only six instances where she tackled the idea of a series of murders, but of these six, three rank among her very best work, one is a personal favorite of mine, one has been running as a play in London for over sixty years – the longest run of a play in history – and the last actually motivated a real life killer into action. I think they are worth a look. Again, I warn you that spoilers lie ahead.
While a typical murder mystery focuses on deducing the identity of a killer, the serial killer mystery has two added pluses: it adds another layer to the mystery – what links these murders together? – and it often increases the sense of aching tension and fear as the number of dead bodies multiplies. In her own collection of such novels, Christie excels at the first element yet, with two exceptions, spends little time on heaping on the tension and fear (although that really depends on what you expect such a feeling to look and feel like in a Golden Age mystery novel. I myself am always in suspense when I’m reading Christie!)
The exceptions are And Then There Were None (1939, a.k.a., well….so many different titles) and The Mousetrap (1952, a.k.a. Scott Ratner’s Favorite Play, based on a 1950 novella which is, in turn, based on a 1947 radio play in honor of the Queen’s Jubilee).
Both stories take place in isolated houses: one, a modern mansion on a deserted island and the other a rather dilapidated snowbound inn. In both, ironically, the motivation behind the deaths in explained pretty early on. In fact, the victims in ATTWN are told why they’re being bumped off before the killings even start. In both works, the killer is mad, and frankly, the madness of the culprit in The Mousetrap can appear a little silly if not expertly performed by a fine actor. But the psychology of the villain in ATTWN is brilliantly rendered, so much so that Christie allows the murderer, rather than any sort of detective, to explain the whole case at the end. One has to admire the killer’s plan, since ultimately, no matter how well conceived it was, it has to rely a great deal on improvisation. And yet it works out well because the killer knows how to work on the weaknesses of his victims.
Ten people die in ATTWN. Of these, three are poisoned, three are bludgeoned to death (one with an axe!), two are shot, one is drowned, and one is hanged. I think that we can agree that Christie serves up a healthy share of violence here. She may skip some of the gruesome detail, but she makes it clear that the piling up of the bodies here is most unpleasant. It all happens over a very short space of days, and while the characters try to keep up a very British stiff upper lip – opening tins of tongue and having tea at the proper time – the suspense is palpable. Much of this is accomplished by Christie entering into the minds of her characters, observing how the events are effecting them all – even the killer! She does this remarkably without giving anything away, and the ending is not only a surprise but a true tour de force!
The Mousetrap is based on a real life case of child abuse, which, in Christie’s hands, inspires a story of a madman’s revenge. I had the good fortune to direct this play a few years ago, and we had great fun shifting the suspicion from one houseguest to another. Most of the killings have happened before the play begins, but we do get to see one unpleasant character bite the dust before our eyes. Unfortunately, it all goes down a little too easy and swiftly in the end, and the revelation – quite a surprise to many theatregoers, as I discovered both as a director and as an audience member in London – has been done better, even by Christie herself.
An even more insidious series of killings with a similar motivation can be found in a personal favorite non-series book: Murder Is Easy (also written in 1939, just before ATTWN, a.k.a. Easy to Kill)
The set-up is a strong one, as is usually the case in a Christie novel: Luke Fitzwilliam, a young man, meets Lavinia Fullerton, an old woman, on a train heading to London. Miss Fullerton is anxious to report to Scotland Yard that a series of seemingly natural deaths in her village are actually the work of a serial murderer. Of course, Luke dismisses her suspicions as fancy. And of course, Miss Fullerton is killed before she can get to Scotland Yard.
It is to Christie’s credit that the one character trait Lavinia has revealed about this killer – that he or she is beyond suspicion – does not serve as a spoiler when Luke enters the village and encounters one suspicious character after another. And despite his best efforts, the killings continue under the sunlit skies of this cozy village, right up to one of the most chilling denouements of Christie’s career. Christie does such an expert job of weaving the killer’s motivation in plain sight throughout the narrative that, when at last it is revealed, it is almost as surprising as the murderer’s identity.
And Then There Were None has rightfully become a mystery classic. It is her darkest and, perhaps, most violent book and, arguably, her best. The Mousetrap may not be anywhere close to Christie’s best, but you can’t argue with box office success. The tale of a serial killer at Monkswell Manor has earned its place in the record books. And Murder is Easy is seldom found on anyone’s ten best list, but in some ways it’s the most typical “serial killer” novel of the three, and its startling solution makes it deserving of more attention, in my opinion.
The last three examples of Christie’s foray into the world of the serial killer are so striking that they merit a second chapter. See you next Tuesday!