I have received threefold inspiration to write the following post. First, as part of the 1930 celebration going on over at Past Offenses, I re-read The Murder at the Vicarage, which contains a prime example of a favorite murder motif of Agatha Christie’s that I have dubbed “the deadly duo.” Her variations on this theme form a topic I have long wanted to examine. As Vicarage contains a rather unique variation (for Christie) on this motif, I will discuss it in more detail in my next post.
Secondly, my buddy Kate at Cross Examining Crime compiled an entertaining list of her favorite Christie victims and murderers, spoilers be damned. Frankly, this is the kind of conversation about mysteries that I love, but we don’t like to ruin things for neophytes! So, at the risk of halving my regular readership to about six, I am going for it, full speed ahead, and I think the newcomers to Christie should just pass this one by.
Finally, I recently had the great pleasure of reading a post penned by my friend Noah Stewart at Noah’s Archives. He titled it, “Intertexuality and Detective Fiction”. I include a link to it here because it’s must reading for mystery fans, and because its points stuck with me while re-reading Vicarage.
I was especially struck by Noah’s third point: “Every solution to a puzzle mystery shapes every other solution to every other puzzle mystery.” It occurred to me that the way I read mysteries today has been shaped in powerful ways by my fateful choosing of Christie as my first “grown-up” mystery author, especially considering the fact that she employed nearly every trick in the book to surprise her readers at the denouement of her mysteries.
Just think: my second Christie experience was Murder on the Orient Express. Now, even as a twelve-year-old, I was pretty sure I understood that, in a murder mystery, the author introduces a group of people as suspects, and one of them is ultimately revealed to be the killer. Orient Express blasted that “truth” out of the water. After a few more plunges into Christie – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, Crooked House – it became clear that anyone and everyone is fair game to be the murderer in a Christie novel! Furthermore, as Noah’s argument will attest, reading Christie (or any mystery writer for that matter), causes our relationship to the mystery novel to evolve, particularly in the way we approach the solution to each subsequent crime story that we read.
Christie naysayers accuse her of being formulaic. (In fact, this is a blanket defamatory remark against all of Golden Age mystery fiction.) Shame on them! Christie’s solutions span sixty-six novels and fourteen collections of short stories. Of course, a writer this prolific will return to similar tricks time and again. The key to success is to rework and vary basic scenarios to make them seem fresh. Some of this is accomplished with narrative structure. Ngaio Marsh employed a structure that makes each of her novels appear virtually identical; only the setting seems to revolve between village, country home, London manse and theatre. Christie is far too clever for this. But we’re really talking about the tricks of the trade that an author employs: the wide variety of murder methods that John Rhode found, the extraordinary variety of locked room puzzles employed by Carr, Ellery Queen’s many experiments in detection and his reinvention of the detective. Christie may have recognized that there are only so many ways she could misdirect her readers, yet even when she recycled old tricks, she managed to make (most of) them seem like new.
Nowhere is this more evident than in her use of the concept of the deadly duo. Loosely defined, the solutions to these cases hinge on the partnership between a romantic couple. The success of the couple’s complex plot centers on how it deflects the guilt off of them even as they accomplish their aims. The details around these plots, the motives behind the murder(s), the circumstances surrounding the couple’s relationship are where Christie works her varietal magic. I’d like to examine this technique in more detail, and I remind you again that spoilers will prevail. I will put titles in bold face below, in case you want to skip around.
Christie burst right out of the starting gate with her first deadly duo in her premiere novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920). In a mystery, when a wealthy person dies, suspicion always falls first on the spouse or likely heir. Psychologically, mystery readers tend to rebuff the “obvious” choice, and mystery after mystery is patterned on the piling on of evidence against one expected suspect, only to provide a complete reversal in the end. If an author then zig-zags back to the original suspect, we call that a “double bluff.” As long as the journey surprises us, most readers are satisfied.
Even before Emily Cavendish Inglethorp succumbs to a terrible death by poison, Christie begins to create an aura of suspicion around her husband. A perfectly innocuous seeming man, Alfred Inglethorp nevertheless is dismissed by the family as a fortune hunter. The most rancorous opinion comes from Emily’s companion, Evelyn Howard, who regrets ever introducing her cousin Alfred to her beloved friend. Evelyn even quits her post, muttering that if anything happens to Emily, it will be Alfred’s fault. When Emily indeed dies, it sure looks like her husband did it! He was even seen purchasing strychnine. Yet, before he can be arrested, Hercule Poirot proves that Alfred could not have been the one to buy the poison by showing that he was somewhere else at the time.
Even from the start, Christie is laying traps for the reader, and we are more than willing to fall into them. We believe Evelyn Howard when she says Alfred is a bad egg, because Evelyn is a big, hearty woman who cares deeply for her friend. And Alfred is a soft-spoken, bearded fellow who doesn’t have any legitimate source of employment. Yet, why should we believe Evelyn over Alfred? Isn’t it because, having fallen into the supposition that new husbands of rich wives must be bad guys, we tend to trust those who voice this opinion? And Christie has given us a family of sons and hangers-on who all seem so pleasant in contrast to this emotionless man. Later when Poirot is adamant in his command that Inglethorp not be arrested, we may or may not be surprised but we are certainly relieved. As the most likely suspect, making Inglethorp the culprit would have been too simple. Mind you, Poirot never says Inglethorp is not the murderer. He merely rejects the idea that Inglethorp bought the poison, and he is right: Evelyn bought the poison. This big hearty cousin of Emily’s husband disguised herself as Alfred, bought the poison, and thereby established an alibi for her lover!!! And thus we are presented with:
Variation Number One: The duo pretends to hate each other.
Christie’s next use of the deadly duo employs this very same variation. “The Witness for the Prosecution” (first published in 1925 under the title “Traitor’s Hands”), chronicles the murder trial of Leonard Vole for another wealthy old lady named Emily. He offers up an alibi: he was with his wife, Romaine, who backs up his story. But when Vole’s solicitor suggests that a wife’s testimony means little to a jury, especially when the defendant is handsome and slick and stands to inherit the victim’s money, her story takes a different turn. Romaine reneges on the alibi and claims that Leonard had begged her to lie for him. It all looks black for the young man until a series of circumstances cast doubt on Romaine’s veracity. Here, one partner allows her good name to be smeared in order to rescue her lover. This ending was changed for the play and the film due to censorship rules that stated a criminal must never get away with his crime. Frankly, I think the story’s ending is the best and most original of the bunch. When Christie rewrites the ending by having Romaine, betrayed after the trial by her unfaithful husband, exact justice by killing him in court, the reader is asked to forget how willing the wife was to play the accomplice in this brutal murder. In a twisted sense, Romaine comes off as more noble when she acts out of love; making her the wronged wife and, therefore, the instrument of justice against Vole, is asking a little too much of the reader. (But it makes for great theatre!)
Variation Number Two: The true nature of a love triangle is misread.
We first see this technique in the 1928 story, “The Bloodstained Pavement,” which was part of The Thirteen Problems, the first collection of Miss Marple tales. It returns in the 1936 story “Triangle at Rhodes” and in two novels: Death on the Nile (1937) and Evil Under the Sun (1941). There are certain similarities to the scenarios here:
- They take place on vacation (although the destinations vary)
- They involve a love triangle or quadrangle where Christie expertly manipulates our perception of who stands at the apex of the triangle, who is the roué or the femme fatale, and who is/are the injured party/ies.
Evil under the Sun actually stems from elements in both stories, the idea of a couple who are, in essence, serial killers, the romantic intrigues surrounding a vain, beautiful woman, and the employment of disguise. The identity of the man and woman involved shifts around, but the similarities between the three plots are easily apparent. Death on the Nile plays with this a little differently and is, to my mind, the best example of this variation. In terms of its complexity, it fits right in with the best Golden Age murder plots, yet some readers are of the opinion that the machinations surrounding Linnet Doyle’s murder are too clever. I think those complaints fall by the wayside when stacked up against Christie’s brilliant deployment of the deadly duo here.
No, what makes Nile stand out for me is the depth of love that Jacqueline De Bellefort feels for Simon Doyle, to the point that she would put all her scruples aside and craft this deadly plot against her best friend. Notice how Christie works her magic throughout the book. She lets us see scenes of Jacquie in love. Even Poirot witnesses the depths of her passion, and his fear that “she loves too much, this little one” feeds our misperception that Simon has betrayed her with Linnet, (and is therefore in love with his wife), that Jacquie is following them through Europe and Asia bent on revenge, and that therefore she cannot be the actual killer. It’s way too obvious a solution. Poirot himself does not want Jacquie to be the killer. Meanwhile, the entire plot is created to make sure that the person most likely to have killed Linnet – her husband and heir – could not possibly have done so. Really, the plan, outrageous as it is, should have worked . . . except for that pesky French maid. Christie delivers her coup de grace at the end by actually making Poirot and the reader sympathize with Jacquie. Most of us dislike Linnet even more for “stealing” her friend’s man. In this case, the purest feelings of love belong, ironically, to the killer.
Variation Number Three: The hidden love affair.
This is probably the technique we find the most throughout mystery fiction, the idea that a hidden spouse or lover exists whom we know nothing about, or that two characters have a completely different relationship than we were given to understand. Frankly, it’s also, to my mind, the least satisfying variation, for it is rarely clued in a fair way.
In its simplest form, the gist of the plot is a secret love affair between two people. Yet how are we to know that Mark Gaskell and Josie Turner are carrying on in The Body in the Library (1942)? There are no clues to this state of affairs. In fact, the most recent televised adaptation switched Josie’s lover to be Mark’s sister-in-law, Adelaide Jefferson, with virtually no real change to the plot. It’s the least acceptable aspect of this murder scheme for me because it isn’t woven into the plot in the same way other examples are. The same is true for Rowena Drake and Michael Garfield in Hallowe’en Party (1969), but at least there is one intriguing variation (ironic since this book is so vastly inferior to Library): Garfield is essentially a sociopath, so the focus is on how he cuts a swath through rich women like Rowena in order to finance his magnificent gardens. (Poirot suggests at the end that Rowena’s life would probably have been cut short when Michael no longer had any use for her.) But that’s about all that is intriguing about this book, save its atmospheric opening. Michael himself is but a shadow of a character who appeared a mere two years earlier: Michael Rogers, the protagonist of Endless Night (1967).
A fleshed out version of the 1942 short story, “The Case of the Caretaker,” the novel is a tragic love story between Ellie, a poor little rich girl, and Michael, a lower class boy who is incapable of loving another person. We discover at the end that Michael’s accomplice in the murder of his wife is her best friend, a woman whom Michael has only shown antipathy toward throughout the book. In the final scenes, it appears that Michael and Greta have been passionate lovers throughout, and yet he kills her, too, and several other people besides, all so he can gain the house of his dreams. Maybe Hallowe’en Party and Endless Night belong in a separate category, that of the love affair that trumps the marriage but is actually a ruse by one partner to seize all for himself.
Perhaps the best example of the hidden love affair occurs in Sparkling Cyanide (1945). We are presented with six people who shared a restaurant table on the night Rosemary Barton died: her cuckolded husband, two lovers, the wife of one lover, the secretary who loves the husband, and the younger sister who inherits all of Rosemary’s money. The first, and strongest, part of the novel, chronicles the events of that murder and the aftermath from the point of view of each of these six people, and the most naïve of readers accepts each character’s depiction as the truth. Why shouldn’t we believe Ruth Lessing when she tells us that she loved her boss enough to want his wife to die? Her description of being asked to pay off Rosemary’s unscrupulous cousin Victor seems like a minor detail in the scheme of things. So why include this event – or even the character of Victor who ostensibly is shipped off to South America – unless there is some importance to be attached here? And, sure enough, the relationship between these two people is highly significant — although there really is no clue given that would allow a reader to find his way to this crucial fact.
A similar situation exists in highly different circumstances in A Pocketful of Rye (1953). If Sparkling Cyanide is the sophisticated London version of the plot, Rye is the country house alternative. And while Ruth Lessing might argue that Victor’s seduction was what led to her moral ruin, her name is apt as she proves “ruth-less” in the end. Yet the female half of Rye’s deadly duo is really an innocent dupe who engenders feelings of pathos in the reader and inspires Miss Marple to play avenging angel. Poor Gladys, the maid, is a victim of love, willing to do anything to please her man Bert. Once again, we are not given enough information to put two and two together and find out Bert’s real identity, but the unmasking of this killer is almost secondary to the emotional effect his plan has on the innocent women in his life, his wife and his “girlfriend.”
In both of these last two novels, the element of disguise is added to the idea of a secret love affair. Disguise is taken to greater extremes, bordering on the ludicrous, in quite a few novels, enough to give them their own variation:
Variation Number Four: The chameleon lover.
It begins in 1940 with One, Two, Buckle My Shoe. The motive for multiple murders is one of both gain and self-protection: a powerful politician concealed one marriage in order to marry a wealthy woman. Oddly enough, the murder is not of the wealthy woman, who enjoyed a fine life with her loving husband and then died, leaving him her fortune. Now, someone has come forward who knows the man was never legally married to the heiress and is not entitled to said fortune. What to do? The answer results in one of Christie’s most complicated plots, so involved that it takes two people to plan and carry it out. I like the novel, but I’m not crazy about the reveal of the accomplice since she is, to all intents and purposes, a minor character until her role in the plot is revealed. Most of the time we see her, she is unrecognizable because, as an actress, she is capable of playing a variety of roles. It’s another example where Christie doesn’t really play fair, but it’s enormously entertaining nevertheless.
The same cannot be said for the subsequent examples, which all center on the cover-up of a death and all require two lovers to carry it out. Dead Man’s Folly (1956) begins well, and in this instance both lovers are playing a false role. But the whole plot begins to break down halfway through until this reader is filled, like Lady Hattie Stubbs, with a lingering sense of ennui, amid the question of why the killers bothered with this whole affair.
It goes downhill from there: The Clocks (1963) rehashes the idea of a man covering up a marriage in order to inherit money. This time he needs two women to help him out, and quite frankly I couldn’t be sure if his heart lay with his wife or with her sister. At any rate, this triple threat is not enough to cover the thinness or dullness of the plot. Finally, there’s Third Girl (1966). Criticism of this novel may usually center on Christie’s arthritic take on the younger generation, but let’s examine the plot! There’s a nice reversal on which of the deadly duo is an impersonator, but the amount of hopping from one disguise to another that must go on for this couple to achieve their goals of running an international art forgery ring, driving a girl insane and killing all who stand in the way of their very bourgeois dreams defies belief.
If you have stayed with me this far, I think we can agree that Agatha Christie did not allow the dictum found in Ecclesiastes – “there is nothing new under the sun” – to get her down as a plotter. She developed certain basic patterns of solution and then remolded them until they were nearly unrecognizable from the ones before. And yet, as Noah points out in his article, the frequent reader of mysteries can’t help but record and note these similarities, to file them for future reference, and to draw upon that knowledge with each subsequent mystery novel that one picks up. One could play this same game with the concepts of “most –“ or “least likely suspect,” and Christie’s gifts as a writer would be evident. Even though some of these examples of the deadly duo outshine others, an examination of Christie’s use of the pattern throughout her career adds up to a master class in mystery writing.