Continuing my investigation of the twelve family tales one finds scattered throughout Agatha Christie’s novels, today I examine the second half dozen:
On the seventh day of Christie-mas my true love sent to me: Seven family members strapped for cash.
1948’s Taken at the Flood introduces us to the Cloade Family, whose patriarch Gordon’s financial largesse has had the unfortunate effect of making his relations totally dependent on him. When he dies during the Blitz, his surprise widow turns up to claim his fortune and his home. Before the family’s affairs can be sorted out, three mysterious deaths occur, requiring the little grey cells of Hercule Poirot to unravel a very complex plot.
How murder-worthy is the victim? Honestly – and this is a problem with this novel – it is really impossible to answer this question without giving away the plot. (This doesn’t speak that well of the plot, in my opinion.) Three people die. At least one of them does not deserve this fate.
My rating: Three bells. The background of this novel deserves a star: it is one of the more fascinating portraits of a strata of British society during a specific historical period that we find in Christie, intimating the devastating effect that the war had on the upper classes and farmers.The first act setting up Gordon’s death and the subsequent plight of his family is a fine introduction to a group of adults embarrassed by their inability to cope financially on their own during the war. Frances Cloade is an especially subtle and interesting character. I also very much like Lynn Marchmont and her mother. The idea of Lynn having to choose between a solid but dull marriage and a probably disastrous one based on sexual attraction makes a nice center to the novel. But once the mystery gets underway, it’s not very compelling or believable, and the solution is, in my opinion, a great big mess. Poirot’s entry into this one always feels forced to me, a combination of coincidence and being called into the case by the one character who would seem completely oblivious to the existence of private detectives.
On the eighth day of Christie-mas my true love sent to me: A big family picnic gone awry!
In 1949’s Crooked House, we never meet Aristide Leonides, but the victim’s personality dominates throughout the novel. A crude but kindly self-made millionaire who married into a genteel family, Aristide is not your typical monstrous patriarch, and yet someone poisons him with his own eye medicine. His family is a fascinating group: two sons who never measured up to their father, two daughters-in-law – one a flamboyant stage actress, the other a cold-blooded scientist – a much younger second wife and the handsome childrens’ tutor who may or may not be her lover, an old aunt who came to care for the late first wife and never left, and three grandchildren. Sophia, the eldest granddaughter refuses to marry as long as the stench of suspicion hovers over her family. How lucky for her that the man she loves is the son of the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard!
How murder-worthy is the victim? I’m not going to say anything here for fear of ruining your pleasure in reading this book and discovering why Aristide had to die!
My rating: Five bells! This is one of those special titles about which I must not say much more. The strapping Charles Hayward makes for a fine narrator who detects for love. People tend to focus on the ending of this novel, which is classic, but it’s one of the best rendered of Christie’s families – Magda alone is worth the effort – and we find ourselves rooting as much for Charles to be able to marry Sophia as for him to solve the mystery.
On the ninth day of Christie-mas my true love sent to me: A shocker at the reading of the will!
The Abernethie family of 1953’s After the Funeral gather after the death of clan leader Richard Abernethie to hear the disposition of his fortune. All goes well until Cora Lansquenet, Richard’s black sheep sister, opens her mouth and says something that turns the whole family upside down. From this fabulous opening springs a plot that runs like clockwork. Why is Hercule Poirot masquerading as a representative from UNARCO? Is there a killer nun on the loose? The family is almost too busy bickering over the Spode service and the malachite table to worry about murder, but worry they must as a crazed killer attacks one after another of them.
How murder-worthy is the victim? I would say, without going into too much detail, that the victim here did not deserve to die. I hope this doesn’t give too much away!
My rating: five bells easy! This is my favorite Poirot novel and with good reason. It has one of my favorite set-ups. The family is brimming with characters who are funny and fascinating but not so eccentric as to be unbelievable. The killer and the motive are among my favorites in all of Christie! And the book is beautifully clued throughout but likely to fool most folks! This is a must-read, and, in my opinion, the last great novel Agatha Christie wrote.
On the tenth day of Christie-mas my true love sent to me: Three murders wrapped inside a rhyme.
1953’s A Pocket Full of Rye is the first of only two family mysteries featuring Miss Marple. The Fortescue family is full of truly horrible people, both upstairs and downstairs, and the tone from the start is almost satirical of mystery conventions. Here we have another horrible tycoon who has married a much younger woman with a wandering eye, two sons – a good one who’s not so good, and a black sheep who is more than deserving of the title – and various spouses, daughters, maiden aunts and servants, most of whom don’t amount to much. The police are at a loss as an apparent serial killer attacks one member of the family after another, lining up each murder to the old rhyme, “Sing a song of sixpence.” Miss Marple happens along when a former servant trainee of hers, now a maid for the Fortescues, becomes the latest victim. The elderly sleuth becomes an avenger for the poor girl and figures out whether the murders were motivated by greed, revenge, or plain madness.
How murder-worthy is the victim? Rex Fortescue calls to mind a younger version of Simeon Lee from Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, both for the terrible things he did in the past and for his self-absorbed nature. But honestly, there are very few people at Yewtree Lodge worthy of our respect or sympathy, so we feel very little sorrow at the death of the second victim. It is with the third victim, Gladys the maid, that we might share Miss Marple’s outrage. This is where any true emotional reaction to this novel lies.
My rating: three and a half bells. The story is fun but too full of recycled characters and old ideas to amount to much, and the puzzle suffers from the lack of true evidence typical of a Miss Marple mystery. However, the old lady’s determination to seek justice for her former maid, Gladys, is powerfully rendered and leads, in the final lines of the book, to a most bittersweet ending, raising the quality of this book in my estimation.
On the eleventh day of Christie-mas my true love sent to me: A dastardly murder on a train!
The set-up for 1957’s 4.50 from Paddington is delicious: Elspeth McGillicuddy, a friend of Jane Marple’s, peers out of her train window into that of a passing train and sees a man strangle a woman to death. Of course, no one will believe her except for Miss Marple, who is determined to find the body and solve the murder. This leads us to the eccentric Crackenthorpe family, to more murders, and to the capture of a very cunning and cold-blooded killer.
How murder-worthy is the victim? To reveal that might spoil too much of the mystery surrounding the identity of the victim. I will leave it at this: this is a truly wicked murderer, one for whom Miss Marple mourns the abolishment of the death penalty!
My rating: I’ll give it four bells because it really is a lark and because Lucy Eyelesbarrow, the young woman hired by the elderly Miss Marple to be her eyes, ears and legs at Rutherford Hall, is one of the best heroines in all of Christie and someone you want to spend time with. It has its problems, primarily in a solution that comes out of nowhere! There really is no way Miss Marple could have figured out who the killer was, and all he had to do was say, “Lady, you’re nuts,” and we’d have a different ending altogether. But getting to the end is great fun, largely due to the characters. Old Luther Crackenthorpe might be the victim in another novel, but he gets to stick around and wreak havoc on his children. The three sons (and one son-in-law) who make up the prime suspect list are all nicely delineated, and their sister Emma is a sweetheart. The search for the identity of the victim actually makes for a better mystery than who killed her, with some nice twists tossed out at the right moment. And this is Christie’s best rendering of children, with two young boys who are home for the holidays and who provide some sparkling moments with their shenanigans.
On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me: A really, really, REALLY depressing story.
1958’s Ordeal by Innocence is a stand-alone novel with an intriguing set-up. Rachel and Leo Argyle are a wealthy couple who have adopted five orphans from the war. After they have grown, Rachel is brutally murdered, and one of her adopted children, the sociopathic Jacko, is arrested, tried and convicted and dies in jail. He had provided an alibi in the form of a stranger who picked him up hitchhiking, but who has subsequently disappeared. A couple of years later, that alibi turns up, in the form of Dr. Arthur Calgary, an explorer, who arrives at the Argyle home with “good” news: Jacko is innocent. But if Jacko did not kill him mother, who did? More deaths follow before the truth is unveiled.
How murder-worthy is the victim? Rachel Argyle is an interesting psychological study, a woman with a desperate need to be a mother but not necessarily possessing the empathy or understanding to be a good one. There is also a lot of babble about class upbringing, the sort of stuff that I fear Christie got wrong all too much of the time. The most interesting case to me is that of Mickey, who never wanted to leave his real mother, despite her drug problems, and who cannot forgive Rachel for not respecting the strong bond between a natural mother and her son. Suffice it to say, Rachel’s children do not all warm up to her, and her neglect of her husband during all this leads to enough marital discord to provide a further motive.
My rating: Three and a half bells. The mood is very somber here, and once Dr. Calgary delivers his news, his presence in the rest of the story is problematical and feels a little forced. He’s not really the detective; the police are more than capable here. It’s more about the effect on him of being the catalyst for so much trouble in the family when all he was trying to do was make things right. There’s a lot of interesting psychology going on here, but there’s some spark lacking for me. I can appreciate the book, but I don’t really enjoy it.
Well, there you have it! The families of Agatha Christie. Happy holidays, everyone!