Ah, the holidays! A time when families come together to decorate the tree, light the candles, exchange gifts, and spike the eggnog with just enough cyanide to ensure the reading of the will by New Year’s Eve! Well, that’s the way it is if your clan is featured in an Agatha Christie novel. Actually, out of sixty-six novels, only an even dozen are essentially family mysteries. Still, there’s no better way to celebrate the season than to call our families to mind. So, here is a celebration of the twelve families of Christie-mas, along with my rating the murder-worthiness of each victim and of each book as a gift. The Grinch in me may throw out a spoiler or two, so stand warned!
On the first day of Christie-mas my true love sent to me: A rich old lady brimming with strychnine!
In 1920’sThe Mysterious Affair at Styles, Emily Cavendish Inglethorpe has the great honor to be the first person killed off by Agatha Christie. Suspicion quickly falls on her new husband, Alfred Inglethorp, with whom she had argued violently the afternoon of her death, and on her two sons. After not one, but two murder trials, the police are at something of a loss as to who murdered Mrs. Inglethorpe. Fortunately, for justice’s sake, down the road is an encampment of Belgian refugees, and one of them has the most luxuriant moustache!
How murder-worthy is the victim? Emily is an interesting character. She’s not a bad sort: she has shown great love and support for both her stepsons and the women in their lives. Then she makes an unsuitable marriage, and peace within the family falls apart. There is a depth to the Cavendishes that adds to the fascination of the story. The tensions between them are partly a result of the war and partly what happens when rich people don’t have enough to do! The female characters come across as more dynamic than the men: Emily holds the purse strings, her cousin and companion Evelyn Howard speaks her mind with no qualms, and John’s wife Mary gets up before dawn to support the war effort. Mary’s relationship to her husband strikes a modern note: she wants a deeper commitment from him than he seems capable of expressing; as a result, she may or may not be stepping out with the Jewish toxicologist. The idea of the indecisive male is carried even further with the younger son Lawrence, who vacillates about careers (he could have been a doctor but gave up medical school to write poetry) and about whether or not he should declare his feelings to Emily’s ward, Cynthia Murdoch.
My rating: Four and a half bells! You can’t go wrong with starting at the beginning. Maybe it’s not the most thrilling of her books, but the characters are sharply delineated, and all the elements of what will make Christie great are here. Best of all, here is the debut of the fabulous Hercule Poirot! There are perhaps too many physical clues strewn about, and two murder trials feels like padding. Christie makes great use of her knowledge of poisons, gleaned from her work in a hospital dispensary during the first World War. The central conceit of the solution is one that Christie would use again and again with subtle variations throughout her career and proves from the start that she was a trickster to be reckoned with.
On the second day of Christie-mas my true love sent to me: Two psychic ladies and a dog!
Another Emily falls victim in 1937’s Dumb Witness – Emily Arundell, a kindly spinster, writes a letter to Hercule Poirot. She can’t believe her beloved fox terrier Bob would try to kill her by leaving his ball at the top of the stairs. She fears for her life. But when Poirot responds to the letter, he discovers that Miss Arundell has already died. Someone has been trying to frame Bob, and the dog does his best to assist Poirot in solving his mistress’ murder. Two greedy nieces and a nephew hope to cash in on Emily’s death, but all the money goes to her companion! And what does all this have to do with the Tripp Sisters and their séances, which seem to have caused Miss Emily to suffer a slight case of psychic possession? Another death will ensue before Bob – with Poirot in attendance – solves this crime!
How murder-worthy is the victim? Emily is a sweet old thing, so I have to say that her death must be due to her name, just as all maids named Gladys come to a bad end in Christie. Don’t believe me? Check out my friend Moira Redmond’s blog here.
Seriously, though, there is not a lot of complexity to the family relationships here. Emily is old and not her relations’ true mother. The elder niece, Bella, is totally consumed with her husband and children, while Charles and Teresa are young and frivolous enough to discount the importance of their aunt in their lives except as a source of funds. No wonder Emily turns to her companion for emotional sustenance, starting a chain of events that will lead to a battle over inheritance.
My rating: Three bells, just barely. This is relatively minor Christie, almost more a short story stretched out to novel length. (In fact, the unpublished short story uncovered by John Curran and found in Agatha Christie’s Notebooks, “The Affair of the Dog’s Ball,” is exactly that!) The incorporation of psychic phenomena is marginal but fun. The characters are not much more than types, (except for the dog, who is adorable), and the damning clue is far too obvious, making this book the perfect gift for that friend who likes to guess the ending – and always has to be right!
On the third day of Christie-mas my true love sent to me: A nasty murdered woman in a cave!
1938 brings us Appointment with Death and the Boynton family, one of the most dysfunctional clans in the canon. Mrs. Boynton (she is given no first name here, but rather tellingly in the movie, her first name is Emily!), a former prison warden and a genuine sadist, has taken her family on a tour of the Middle East. They end up at a camp in Petra where, ensconced like a Buddha in a cave, Mrs. Boynton is dispatched with an overdose of digitalis. Hercule Poirot himself has overheard one of the dead woman’s children say to another, “You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed!” (a perfect opening line for any mystery!), and he vows to solve the murder within twenty-four hours!
How murder-worthy is the victim? It is a wonder that Mrs. Boynton did not meet her maker years ago. Unlike Mrs. Inglethorpe, who took on the care of her stepchildren with kindness, Mrs. Boynton takes positive delight in emasculating the males and ordering the young women about. The most fascinating relationship is between the victim and her natural daughter, Ginevra. This is no Cinderella story, where the true daughter receives preferential treatment, and the moments where we see how Mrs. B’s psychological abuse has affected Ginny are quite chilling. In addition, it is suggested that her decision to take the family around the world was prompted by Mrs. Boynton’s sick need to find even more victims over whom she could wield her power. She says to one character, “I never forget! Not an action, not a name, not a face!” She is always on the lookout for a chance to inflict more pain.
My rating: Three and a half bells. The opening scene with Poirot overhearing that damning line makes for a great hook. The Middle Eastern setting is well rendered, and the characters that orbit around the victim are quite likable and sympathetic, made even more so as seen through the eyes of Dr. Sarah King, a charming outsider who falls in love with one of the Boyntons. The main problem here is that the novel suffers from the kind of Act II lag that you find in a Ngaio Marsh novel, with Poirot conducting one lengthy interview after another. (There! I mentioned Marsh, fulfilling to the tiniest degree my obligation to the Tuesday Night bloggers, who are dedicating December as Ngaio Marsh Month!) However, the novel rights itself with a satisfying conclusion.
On the fourth day of Christie-mas my true love sent to me: Four sons who hate their father so!
1938 also brought Hercule Poirot’s Christmas and the first of many loathsome patriarchs crying out to be dispatched. The many – many – relations of Simeon Lee have gathered together for the holidays to pay their respects to the old man, but he will have none of it. The shriveled old tyrant takes almost as much delight terrorizing his family and servants as he does crowing about the many conquests, both economic and sexual, he has made during his life. The murder, when it comes, is both expected and gory enough to prompt one daughter-in-law to quote Macbeth: “Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?” Leave it to Poirot to sort out a myriad of family secrets and come up with the killer!
How murder-worthy is the victim? If Mrs. Boynton’s sadism comes from the fact that she craves power often denied women of her time (but which, as a prison warden, she had enjoyed), Simeon Lee’s vicious attacks on his family are a result of age and infirmity denying him the immoral life of pleasure he had once enjoyed. He lusts after the young and beautiful Pilar, he covets his bag of diamonds, and he snorts with contempt at those sons who have trod the straight and narrow in honor of their late mother. There is a moral center missing in Simeon. He has easily brought his fate upon himself, and we could almost pity his murderer if it weren’t for the suffering that this person’s act has inflicted on the innocent.
My rating: Four bells. The Lee family is simply too big, and with the servants there are more than a dozen people to keep track of, none of whom stand out particularly well. All the sons are types: the hearty wastrel, the dubious politico, the dutiful son, the one who loved Mother more – and the wives are even harder to tell apart. But Christie more than makes up for this with a solution that is as surprising as it is fairly clued. Plus, this is one of her very few locked room mysteries, and while it pales in comparison with the imagination of the great John Dickson Carr, it’s interesting to see how Christie fares with this sub-genre. Finally, it’s fun seeing how Christie addressed the criticism that her murders were not suitably bloody. Even though she adds on the gore this time, it isn’t merely set dressing. There is a method to this killer’s madness!
On the fifth day of Christie-mas my true love sent to me: Five murdered mummies in a tomb!
Well, not exactly, but I got your attention, right? 1944’s Death Comes as the End is a unique tour de force from Christie, the story of the clan of Imhotep, a mortuary priest in ancient Egypt, and what happens when the fussy old patriarch brings home a voluptuous concubine named Emily (I’m kidding! Her name is Nofret). When Nofret is killed, the family breathes a sigh of relief . . . until her vengeful ghost apparently returns and begins to wipe out the household members, one by one. The story is seen through the eyes of Imhotep’s only daughter, Renisenb, a young widow who divides her time between trying to stop the murders and deciding which hot young scribe she should choose for her next husband. There’s more than a touch of Mary Westmacott in Renisenb’s character!
How murder-worthy is the victim? Well, this one’s hard because most of the characters are killed off. Focusing on Nofret, she is pretty nasty to the family, but there’s an interesting scene between her and Renisenb, where the daughter tries to reach out to the concubine. We get the sense that, in her position, Nofret has suffered many indignities and has lost the capacity for true affection. It’s a telling moment in a novel that is not brimming with psychological depth.
My rating: Three and a half bells. Christie was rightfully praised for her attention to period detail, but you can’t help likening this to one of those S.S. Van Dine novels where nearly everybody dies. And despite the setting, there is something distinctly modern about these characters’ sensibilities. Still, the family is a lively one (until they all begin dying), and with all those murders, the plot moves along at a quick pace. As a mystery, it isn’t terribly complex, given the lack of a detective or detection methods, and the murderer is a little more obvious this time around. Still, that doesn’t lessen one’s enjoyment of the story and our appreciation of the intensive labor Christie must have put into putting it together.
On the sixth day of Christmas my true love sent to me: A doctor dying by the swimming pool!
In 1946’s The Hollow, the daffy Lady Lucy Angkatell has invited friends and relations down to the country for the weekend. Guests include Dr. John Cristow, his vague wife, Gerda, his artistic mistress Henrietta, and assorted family members with varying opinions about the good doctor. The nearby bungalows are also full, one with a glamorous and self-centered actress who used to be John’s lover, and the other with a certain Belgian detective who really has no reason to be in this part of the country – or in this novel! The stage is set for murder! In fact, it is Hercule Poirot who, coming upon the murder scene immediately after the deed has been done, who is struck with the immense theatricality of the tableau before him.
How murder-worthy is the victim? John Cristow is one of the most interesting and complex murder victims in all of Christie. There is much that is good about him: he is an excellent doctor who pours his knowledge and determination into the extermination of a terrible disease. He is soft and tender with Henrietta, whom he sees as a true partner in intellect and feeling. He has genuine love for his children and for the idea of family, but he has married a woman for whom the most he can muster is a mixture of pity and irritation. In short, he embodies the best and worst of what a man can be. Even his dying word points to that fact! The circumstances of his death prove somewhat ironic in the end, and one can’t deny his part in what happens. Ultimately, though, his murder is more about the character of the killer, something that I see as a big plus.
My rating: Five bells. I confess to a real liking for this novel, despite Poirot’s presence. I admit from reading other fans’ reviews that the Lucy Angkatell may not be to everyone’s taste, but the central conflict between John, the various women in his life, and the men whose lives are complicated by John is beautifully rendered. John and Henrietta are especially complex characters. The plot includes one of Christie’s few uses of a dying message, one that unlike those crazy ones you find in Ellery Queen, makes total sense in the end. And the finale really is one of the most poignant of Christie’s career. This is a gift to give the more experienced Christie reader, one who savors character as much as puzzle.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at Christie’s six other murderous families!