Well, it’s Sunday. And it’s been raining heavily for twenty-four hours. And I have to go back to work tomorrow after a two-week vacation. And Moira over at Clothes in Books posted a lovely report about one of my favorite Christie females, Dr. Sarah King from Appointment with Death, which inspired me to run over Agatha Christie’s bibliography and see if I could come up with a list of my favorite women in the canon.
It’s hard, believe me, because the author was especially good at creating women who were spunky and wise, complex and troubled, darling and dangerous. I came up with a list of fifteen, and I’m already regretting some of the omissions. The pair I’m most sorry about are the Otterbournes, Salome and Rosalie, and I only excluded them because I made up a rule that I could only choose one per novel. Ladies, I vow to include you in some future treatise on mothers and daughters in Christie, okay?
At first, I divided the list into “heroines” and “suspects,” but I realized that it’s important here not to give away spoilers. Some of these characters are favorites because they are murderers, but I will only identify one of them as such. I also refuse to list them in order of preference because . . . hey, I gotta work tomorrow. I think the varied nature of this list bespeaks a talent for characterization that those of us in the know have always credited Christie with. And so, I present them in order of chronological appearance.
Prudence “Tuppence” Cowley Beresford (first appearance in 1922’s The Secret Adversary)
I have a complex relationship with the Tommy and Tuppence arc, but the highlight of their saga are the characters themselves, especially Tuppence. She is Nora Charles (if Nora was a teetotaler) or Mrs. North with a British veneer: the ultimate snoop who you would like in your corner (as long as her husband was right behind her to set things right.) My favorite Tuppence Beresford book: Partners in Crime
Katherine Grey (1928’s The Mystery of the Blue Train)
Katherine deserves a much better book because she is sharp and clever and has to do all the dangerous work of making love to several undesirable cads while Poirot gets all the credit at the end. I especially love her in the beginning when she takes on a small town and earns an inheritance for it then grapples with various unsavory relations as well as a jewel thief/murderer and wins the day. (Honorable mention: I’m rather fond of poor Lenox Tamplin! She and her mother will have to figure in that parent/child post!)
Miss Jane Marple (first appearance in 1930’s The Murder at the Vicarage – and yes, my favorite Miss Marple is Joan Hickson!)
Perhaps in some ways she is Christie’s greatest creation, or one could argue she is second only to Poirot. She’s not the first spinster sleuth, but she is the best. Her pessimism about human nature is shocking to some and refreshing to her readers. She is kind when it comes to orphaned servant girls or insufferably smug nephews and ruthless when it comes to killers. Everyone wants a great-aunt like her. My favorite Miss Marple novel: A Murder Is Announced
Griselda Clements (1930’s The Murder at the Vicarage)
No, this doesn’t break my rule since Miss Marple is a multi-novel experience. Griselda is the best vicar’s wife in Christie (Bunch Harmon would be a great friend to her!). Even before she becomes a suspect, you want to read a series of comic novels about her marriage to the much older and stuffier Len Clements. Her brazen teasing of the elderly Women’s League, her brazen defiance of what it means to be a model religious spouse, and her deep love for Len despite the fact that she is very much “a catch” all add up to a delightful woman. The fact that Vicarage is a little long means that Griselda’s appearances tend to liven things up!
Emily Trefusis (1931’s The Sittaford Mystery)
I’ll just say it! I put Emily down because when I think of this novel, I think about the murderer’s plot – which is one of the few that this teenaged Christie fan figured out – and Emily. And yet, I don’t remember much about her. That means that Sittaford is definitely due for a re-read! I seem to recall that she’s trying to save a totally unsuitable beau from the gallows, much like Maude Williams attempts to do in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. Along the way, Emily meets Mr. Right. Did anyone see the abominable TV adaptation where Mr. Right was changed to Mr. Murderer???? Good grief! Emily deserved better!
Mrs. Hubbard (1934’s Murder on the Orient Express)
I can’t say that Agatha Christie had a brilliant way with Americans, but there are a lot of U.S. citizens in this novel, and Mrs. Hubbard epitomizes a “type”- the loudmouthed housewife with enough money to throw her weight around on vacation. As the facts emerge in this case, things get pretty tense, and Mrs. Hubbard provides some much needed comic relief, as well as a couple of clues that help lead Poirot to the solution. You couldn’t ask for more from a character.
I thought Lauren Bacall did a pretty good job in the film, but it wasn’t what I pictured. And now, Kenneth Branagh seems to be taking this typical American housewife even further afield with Michelle Pfeiffer. (Hey, the role was offered to Angelina Jolie. No, really!)
Mrs. Ariadne Oliver (first appearance in 1934’s collection Mr. Parker Pyne Investigates: first novel is 1934’s Cards on the Table)
Maybe Christie didn’t funnel her feelings about writing into Mrs. Oliver, the mystery author who created a quirky Finn named Sven Hjerson, who liked apples, feared autograph hounds and hated publicity. Oh yeah, Mrs. Oliver was her own woman. She started out as something of a caricature of the zany authoress into female empowerment (“Now if a woman ran Scotland Yard . . . “), but as of Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, she became the new Hastings – and a much more interesting companion in detection to Poirot. She livened up considerably most of the mediocre final novels. She really is the only one worth reading about in Elephants Can Remember. And one can’t help but feeling that Mrs. Oliver was Christie’s chance to offer us some cloudy insight on what it felt like to be Agatha Christie.
Dolly Bantry (first appearance in 1932’s story collection The Thirteen Problems)
I absolutely adore this woman (who is nothing like Joanna Lumley, what were they thinking???). The unfolding of Dolly’s life is one of the few ways Christie shows the passing of time and its effect on our lives. We see her as a loving wife to that curmudgeon, Colonel Arthur, willing to go a-sleuthing in A Body in the Library to save her husband’s good name. And we see her as a widow who has lost her beloved Gossington Hall to an American movie star in A Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side. But it is in the storytelling group of The Tuesday Night Club that Dolly shines. Her inability to tell a story illustrates how funny Christie could be.
Jacqueline de Bellefort (1937’s Death on the Nile)
If this book were not a murder mystery, Jacquie would still be a compelling character. Christie tries to force us to identify her by her “hot Latin blood,” when really Jacquie is the smartest tool in any room. Her story of impoverishment, leading her to depend for happiness on a faithless old friend, is the stuff of classic literature. Like Poirot, we want Jacquie to let it go, to give her great love Simon to Linnet, stop the stalking and move on. Even at the end, when we realize how impossible it would have been for Jacquie to make that decision, we still wish she had found some happiness. She might be Christie’s most heartbreaking character.
Vera Claythorne (1939’s And Then There Were None)
To me, the greatest gift of the recent BBC adaptation of And Then There Were None is that we finally got to see the real Vera. It’s no spoiler to tell you that she is a murderer because she lives in a house full of murderers. But is she the murderer? It’s no accident that Vera’s fate is saved for last. Her torment and guilt are the most interesting in that bunch. What an unlucky day when Christie was persuaded to change her ending for the play and make Vera a pure heroine. It robbed us of one of the darkest endings of any classic mystery.
Honoria Waynflete (1939’s Murder Is Easy)
Both 1939 novels are about serial killers, and Miss Waynflete, a small town librarian, serves for much of the novel as a sort of replacement to Miss Marple, helping Luke Fitzwilliam with his inquiries into the death of eight villagers. She is also the temporary repository for Wonkie Poo, a very important clue to the murders who happens to be shaped like a cat. Miss Waynflete knows more than she seems and helps provide a stunning climax to the goings-on in Wychwood under Ashe, proving that nobody wrote spinsters like Agatha Christie.
Henrietta Savernake (1946’s The Hollow)
A lot of people don’t like The Hollow, but they like Henrietta. Although she doesn’t resemble him, in many ways she is the female equivalent of Amyas Crale, the artist victim of Five Little Pigs. Although she is carrying on a long term affair with a married man, there is something so inherently good and right and moral about Henrietta that makes her the person you want to turn to when anything goes wrong. There is also an inherent selfishness about her – something Christie found, or placed in most of her artist characters – that leads us to a startling yet completely satisfying final page.
Miss Gilchrist (1953’s After the Funeral)
I don’t need to go into any detail as to why this is my favorite Poirot and one of my very favorite Christie novels. It’s the one thing Sophie Hannah and I agree about: there’s no motive like the one you will find in Funeral! People who have read Christie through will understand why I love Miss Gilchrist. For everyone else, I suggest you read this book and remember what I said earlier: “Nobody writes spinsters like Agatha Christie.”
Lucy Eyelesbarrow (1957’s 4:50 From Paddington)
Frankly, the most intriguing thing to me about Lucy is that Christie only used her once. I think she would have made a brilliant series sleuth. Miss Marple (and the author) wisely give Lucy center stage through most of the novel. Her interactions with the children at Rutherford Hall are absolutely delightful, which leads us to believe that despite her brilliance as a working woman, Lucy will make a fabulous wife and mother. Now, if only we could come to some agreement at the end as to who her intended will be. (I plump for Craddock.)
Julia Upjohn (1959’s Cat Among the Pigeons)
It’s late, I have to go to bed, and I have to go back to school tomorrow. So it’s only fitting that I end this list with a schoolgirl. Julia is the most attractive child character in all of Christie. Her relationship with her mother is thought to have been modeled after that of Christie and her daughter Rosalind. In a novel that is slightly unsure of what it wants to be – a spy adventure or a whodunit – the scenes at the girls’ school shine and those featuring Julia shine brighter. She is lovely in her ordinariness, and it’s gratifying that she gets the spotlight by bringing Poirot into the case. He comes in awfully late, and one could argue how much more fun it would have been if Julia had solved the case herself!
So there you have it: my top fifteen Christie females. I couldn’t do this with the men. With the exception of Poirot, they do not rise to the same levels. And that, to me, is perfectly okay!