Happy 126th birthday to you, Happy 126th birthday to you! Happy 126th birthday, Dame Agatha . . .
I can’t believe it has been a year since all the fuss occurred in Torquay over Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday! The panels, the performances, the men and women dressed up as Countess Vera Russakoff . . .
Okay, maybe that’s not how it was. I wouldn’t know, stuck as I was in America and enviously fuming. So when Kate over at Cross Examining Crime invited me – heck, she invited everyone, but I think I was one of the first – to celebrate the birthday by sharing my thoughts on which Christie novels a new reader should start with, I jumped at the chance to be included in this year’s festivities. Here’s the link to her post in case you want to join in by posting a link to your own blog or just offering your choices in the comments section. I welcome all comments below as well!
I love this idea of Kate’s because too often when I write about Christie in the blogosphere or on Facebook, someone invariably bursts in with a diatribe against the author, based on having gotten their first taste with At Bertram’s Hotel or Passenger to Frankfurt! Really?!? This is like saying Dickens was not compelling based solely on reading Barnaby Rudge! Maybe I was just lucky in my choices because, believe me, they weren’t planned. I was twelve! So, here goes:
First Poirot: Death on the Nile
This is one of my favorite Poirots, as well as one of Christie’s best! The first Poirot I actually read was Murder on the Orient Express, which I loved. But the presence of Poirot in that one is a bit overshadowed by, on the plus side, one of the most extraordinary solutions in all of mystery fiction and, on the minus side, a preponderance of suspect interviews.
Nile is a great first choice for a number of reasons: it has just the right amount of Poirot, balancing his presence with a lot of attention paid to a ship full of colorful suspects; the setting is exotic, revealing Christie’s love for travel and for the Middle East; it would be a fabulous Golden Age mystery no matter who the detective was; and – and this is a technical point – it contains the very best example of a solution similar to others Poirot would encounter before and afterward in his long and varied career.
First Marple: A Murder Is Announced
If I am to assume that a reader is intelligent enough to read all of Christie, then I would say read the Marples in chronological order because, more than Poirot, she does change as she ages from about 78 to 147! But here I just had to choose the best Miss Marple mystery because it’s so good. Christie’s 50th novel is not only a wonderful dissertation on how World War II affected British village life, but that effect turns out to have a major part to play in the unraveling of the crime. It showcases Miss Marple’s skills as a more intuitive sleuth than Poirot, and it is one of the most fairly clued cases for a detective who didn’t always play fair with the reader. The things that Christie was best at – an extraordinary opening hook, subtle uses of language to misdirect, finding depths of color in a seemingly ordinary group of people, the interplay between Miss Marple and the best of her policemen (Dermot Craddock) – all combine to make this a must-read novel.
First Superintendent Battle: Cards on the Table
Is this cheating that I’m picking another Poirot novel that happens to feature Battle? This one is as Golden Age as they get! Poirot and Battle team up (along with Mrs. Oliver and Colonel Race) to solve the murder of a man who collected murderers! I also think that this is the perfect way to meet Battle before you read his best case, Toward Zero! In that later Christie, we get a brilliant depiction of the emotional life of a houseful of murder suspects. We even get more of a sense of Battle as a rounded person, dealing with family issues (that actually help him solve the crime he’s working on), but first you should see what a stolid investigator he is, and Cards on the Table is just the place to do it! (I love the cover below because it has absolutely nothing to do with the plot of this novel!!!)
First Tommy and Tuppence: Partners in Crime
The Beresfords are a matter of taste. If you like married couple sleuths, you must start at the beginning, especially since each of Tommy and Tuppence’s cases finds them at an important crossroads in their lives: meeting, marriage, baby, empty nesters, old folks. But as much as I love the characters, there’s always something a little disappointing for me about the novels in which they are featured. Therefore, I suggest first reading their one collection of short stories. There is a through-line to the tales – something about tracking down an organization spies, which plays out by the end – but the stories are outright pastiches of great detectives of the early years, including Hercule Poirot himself. The stories are as light as air yet great fun, and if you enjoy this fey quality about the Beresfords, you will want to graduate to the novels, beginning with The Secret Adversary.
First Thriller: The Pale Horse
As far as I’m concerned, this is the only thriller that the casual reader needs to pick up, if by “thriller” Kate means those self-indulgent novels that Christie loved to write about international conspiracies and Bright Young Things in jeopardy from a Master Criminal!!!!!!! The Pale Horse is actually quite wonderful, with the added bonus that it features characters from earlier books. (Be sure and read it after you read Cards on the Table.) I’ve been getting back into John Dickson Carr, which I mention here only because The Pale Horse is a great contrast to Carr in its use of the trappings of the supernatural. Christie was fond of inserting witchcraft and spiritualism into her stories, as did Carr, but the contrast in the way both authors went about it is fascinating.
And it has the added thrill that it was responsible for the capture of several real life criminals who tried this plan on for size because someone had read this book!!!!!
First Standalone: And Then There Were None
I count nine, maybe ten, novels by Christie that 1) do not feature any of her sleuths and 2) are pure murder mysteries, not thrillers. They are all very much worth reading! So why not start with the best: the best Christie standalone, the best Christie novel, and to many minds, the best mystery ever written. That’s saying a lot, so I won’t argue the point. I will admit that this is the first Agatha Christie novel I ever read, and it started a relationship with the author that is entering its sixth decade. Even if you don’t particularly love mysteries, even if you think getting caught up in Christie is not worth your time (what’s wrong with you?), I would insist that you should try at least one Agatha Christie novel, and this is the one you should try.