“Taking stock of what I have and what I haven’t: What do I find?” (Irving Berlin)
It’s Saturday night, and I’m kicking back in front of the ol’ blog site. I checked out my stats a minute ago: twenty posts shy of two hundred and a little less than two months away from my second anniversary. Why, I’m a babe in the woods . . . at least in blog years.
Over at The Green Capsule, my friend Ben was extolling this lovely community that has blossomed around a shared love of classic mysteries. In size and geography, we’re stretched pretty thinly around the globe. You probably didn’t find a group like us hanging together in your high school cafeteria. (Although I am proud to say that I was part of a club at my high school called The Sherlock Holmes Society, where we wrote and collected mystery stories and watched old movies. And I’m especially proud to say that I never wore a deerstalker cap to meetings, unlike some members I could mention.) Some folks might dismiss us as niche fans, as geeky boys and girls wasting their time on a tiny segment of literature that is no longer relevant. Too bad for you, folks! When I imagine what our online discussions would look like if conducted in real life, I envision something like a yeshiva where we argue back and forth around esoteric points, all of us dressed in black. And yes . . . a few might be wearing a deerstalker cap.
Ben goes on to point out how fraught with danger our blogs can be, especially to the neophyte mystery reader. (And why are we doing this except to expand the readership of this fabulous sub-genre?) Most of the crew I hang with not satisfied to merely churn out reviews. They are scholars, passionate students of an art form, who love nothing more than to delve into the very essence of the GAD novel: it’s structure, it’s cultural significance, and, perhaps most of all, the technical tricks of the trade. Such a pleasurable pastime comes with a dangerous risk – of spoilers!! One of my favorite pastimes is to engage with other fans in a discussion of every element of a novel we all read, including – gasp! – the solution!
I told you this blogging business was not for the faint of heart, baby!
To aid new readers of his favorite author (John Dickson Carr), Ben posted five Carr titles he strongly encourages a new reader to read before the plot or solution gets spoiled for them. This requires a careful vetting of any possible sources, like – oops! – this blog, where spoilers might run rampant. Not to be outdone by someone providing such a valuable service, I have decided to return the favor for my favorite author, Agatha Christie. This is frankly tougher to attempt with Christie because she is more famous than Carr, and most of her titles have been filmed. But I’m willing to give it the old college try.
Like Carr, Christie created her own bag of tricks which she utilized over and over again. One of the proofs of her greatness is the vast number of variations she found on the same theme. Still, the thoughtful reader who decides to tackle the entire Christie canon – whether they read the books in order or hop back and forth (as I did when I first read her) – will start to notice certain patterns emerging from one book to another. And if you are scholastically inclined and decide, like Ben and me, that it gives you pleasure to read what others have to say about certain books, you may find yourself coming across references to other Christie titles where the reviewer/blogger/devil says something like, “This is a wonderful reverse of the trick Christie uses in The Affair of the Goldfish.” Later on, you pick up Goldfish and almost immediately glom onto the solution, thanks to that careless comment by this person whom you would now like to see swimming with the fishes.
In approaching this list, I made one rule for myself here, and that was to stick with five, and only five, titles. This isn’t a list of “Ten you should read” or a “best of” list (although a few of these titles are included on my list of favorites. No, the fact of the matter is that each of these books should be read by a newcomer to Christie before it’s too late and somebody spoils things for you or you happen upon an inferior adaptation on late night TV (which might not spoil the original for you after all if the screenwriters have seen fit to “improve” upon the source material, as some idjits did, by giving the story a different murder or even a whole new plot in a specious effort to make Christie more “fit for modern audiences.”)
A couple of other points: by making a commitment to read these titles, the reader new to Christie might consider it preferable not to read the books in order. The reason for this is that I’ve chosen amongst the titles some that employ devices Christie used more than a few times, and I am choosing what I believe to be the best example of that device. To give as vague an example as I can, Christie employs a certain trick in her premiere novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, that is essentially repeated at least half a dozen times throughout her career. Almost all of those “reruns” are better than the first example. That doesn’t mean you can’t read the books in order, since you can rest assured that Christie was an expert at cloaking her devices in different garb. You might not recognize a certain pattern as you read. But then again, you might. It’s up to you.
One final caveat: Arguably the most famous title Christie produced will not be found on the list below since I maintain that every human being should read And Then There Were None (a.k.a. Ten Little What-have-yous) before they die. ATTWN is part of our cultural literacy, and it is simply one of the finest crime novels ever written. It also is not your typical GAD novel, and its brilliance isn’t based on particular tricks of the trade. The list below contains solid detective novels, whose structure and solution deserve to be approached with no previous knowledge.
What I propose to do is threefold: 1) I will name the book and provide a brief description; 2) I will give you an argument as to why you should read it; and 3) I will provide a section about why I think this book deserves its place upon this list. WARNING: Part 3 could be construed as analytical, and although no real aspects of the solution will be mentioned or discussed, even the briefest allusion of this aspect of a murder mystery has the power to spoil. Those of you who want not even an oblique hint about what makes this book worthy of reading before someone spoils it for you might want to avoid this section until after they have read the book.
For want of a better method, I list the books chronologically.
- The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926)
What it’s about: This is the third novel Christie wrote featuring Hercule Poirot. In the first, he had just retired from the Belgian police force and emigrated to Great Britain. Now here he is, having decided to retire from the pursuit of criminals for good and instead turning to his newfound passion of creating a truly delicious vegetable marrow from his new home in the charming village of Kings Abbot. Such pursuits never work out for a famous detective, and sure enough Poirot soon finds himself investigating the murder of a neighbor, local industrialist Roger Ackroyd.
Why you should read it: With its village setting and suspect list that reads like it’s from Classic Mystery Central Casting –the greedy sister-in-law, the bluff major, the over-efficient secretary, the soldier at odds with civilian life, the sexy maid, the dour housekeeper with a secret – I imagine that Ackroyd is a pure representation of what it felt like to pick up a British whodunit in the 1920’s . . . and this “typical” mystery is written by one of the best!
Why you should read it fast: Ackroyd is one of a very short list of mystery novels whose endings are a spectacular surprise. (Note: several of the titles on that list are by Agatha Christie.) It is not the first or the last time this device has been used, and I have to warn you that the device is so famous that when mystery bloggers come across another author’s work that utilizes the same basic trick, they often say something to the effect that the novel they’re reviewing can’t help but remind you of another much more famous novel by a much more famous author —-and everyone knows they’re talking about Ackroyd! I will say this: if, by chance, the ending is spoiled for you, read the book anyway just to observe and admire how Christie pulls the wool over your eyes.
- Death on the Nile (1937)
What it’s about: It begins in the smallest of ways, with a sordid romantic triangle like you’d find in both classic literature and a romantic potboiler. Linnet Ridgeway is a rich and beautiful young lady. Jacqueline de Bellefort is her oldest friend, the daughter of an impoverished nobleman. Simon Doyle is Jacquie’s handsome, simple fiancé who needs a job. Linnet ends up marrying Simon, and Jacquie becomes obsessed with destroying their happiness. The novel moves to the Doyles’ honeymoon in Egypt, and there it expands to include a vast and varied assortment of passengers on the steamship Karnak. Murder rears its ugly head not once but three times. Unluckily for the culprit, Hercule Poirot is traveling down the Nile, too.
Why you should read it: Particularly in the first half of her career, Christie interspersed her more intimate domestic mysteries with epics like this: large casts, exotic settings, and slightly more complex entanglements. Many of these titles can be lumped under the category of Christie’s “travel” books: Murder on the Orient Express, Murder in Mesopotamia, Appointment with Death, and so on. I felt it was important to include one of these titles. All of them are brimming with flavor, thanks to Christie’s extensive travels throughout the Middle East. But Mesopotamia suffers from murder plot that caves in on itself due to one too many outrageous circumstances, and Appointment and Orient Express suffer mightily in some folks’ estimations from the “Dragging the Marsh” syndrome: an over-reliance on info dump by interview. Still, I toyed with including Orient Express here because, like Nile, its central backstory is so rich and the finale so satisfying that its weaknesses can be pretty much overlooked. But the central triangle in Nile is, to me, so emotionally satisfying in the way it plays out that I feel this is a must-read title in the canon.
Why you should read it fast: By the time this book was published, Christie had used a variation on the same trick three times before, and she would go on to employ further variations many more times during her career. Nile is, to my mind, the most dramatically satisfying version of this trick. I think this is proven by the highly entertaining film version of the novel, which is mostly faithful to the book and which you should definitely watch after you have read the novel. That movie – and another TV adaptation – tend to pop up on the small screen now and then, another reason to read Nile before you literally come face to face with the solution.
Crooked House (1949)
What it’s about: The Second World War is finally over and Charles Hayward, newly decommissioned, rushes home to marry Sophia Leonides, the girl he worked with and fell in love with in Cairo. But Charles discovers Sophia’s family in an uproar: Aristide Leonides, the patriarch, has been poisoned to death. Sophia refuses to marry Charles while a murder investigation hangs over her head, so Charles arranges with his father, who happens to be the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, to be allowed to assist the police with their inquiries. As he meets the eccentric members of Sophia’s family, he begins to wonder if a romantic happy ending will ever be in the cards for him.
Why you should read it: Unlike an author like Carr, whose works are bathed in strong atmosphere and attain a Gothic sort of grandeur, or Queen, who forever coupled his mystery plots with theological ponderings and other Big Ideas, Christie dealt in the prosaic. Her situations and settings were everyday: she focused on the upper and lower middle classes, and her characters ranged from noblemen to servants, from the nouveau riche businessman to the struggling artist. Nobody could create a family drama like Christie, and her novels are paved with clans just recognizable enough to seem familiar yet dysfunctional enough to lead to murder most foul.
And while the Leonides clan doesn’t necessarily stand head and shoulders above all the other Christie families, one thing that sets this book apart is its lack of a series detective. Charles Hayward is a compelling character with a strong personal motivation to solve the case unlike, say, Arthur Calgary in Ordeal by Innocence, whose reason for being in the novel smacks of the Big Plot Device and who, after turning the Argyle family upside down is pretty much relegated to the sidelines for much of that novel. Thus, as a family murder and a standalone title, this is one of the best of both worlds.
Why you should read it fast: This is another one of those books, like Ackroyd, that goes on the special list due to its solution. Christie only did this kind of thing once, and while other major authors – Allingham and Queen come to mind – did the same thing, Christie does it better. Plus, we are finally being treated later this very year to a film version of the Christie novel they said could not be filmed! Do not watch the movie until you have read the book!!!
- A Murder Is Announced (1950)
What it’s about: The village of Chipping Cleghorn is stirred up by a mysterious ad that appears in the local gazette announcing that a murder will be committed at the home of one of its citizens. As a lark, several of the neighbors happen to drop by when, at the announced time, a person actually dies. Fortunately, that sharp-witted old spinster, Miss Jane Marple, is vacationing at a nearby spa where the victim worked, and she sorts out the complicated private lives of the villagers in order to find justice for the rising count of victims. The unraveling of a complex mystery plot plays out as a post-war England takes stock of the social changes the conflict has wrought.
Why you should read it: Where do I start? It’s the best of the twelve Miss Marple mysteries. It has one of the best hooks in all of mystery fiction. I wouldn’t call it the quintessential village mystery because it’s better than that. It’s a cogent study of the small domestic changes wrought in British village life after the war. What’s more, those changes aren’t just atmosphere; they figure importantly into the mystery itself. And it is a most brilliantly clued piece of detective fiction, one that bears more than one re-reading in order to study the techniques of a master at work.
Why you should read it fast: The central conceit here is found in a great many Christie novels, but it is actually a common trick throughout the genre, found in both the classic and the hard-boiled sub-genres. You might as well read one of the best versions of this concept sooner rather than later. The novel is thick with clues, the kind that you hit yourself over the head about for not having noticed them. You might as well enjoy all the masochistic pleasure of this ritual before some bloody fool opens his yap and starts discussing how clever Christie was in this particular novel at dangling clues right in front of your face
- After the Funeral (1953)
What it’s about: Another Christie family, the Abernethies, endure not only the loss of their patriarch but the eroding of a classic way of life for Britain’s upper middle class. And to the older generation’s dismay, the younger generation doesn’t even much care about that. Amidst the squabbling between the relations over who will inherit the business, the plate service, and that lovely green malachite table, the family is pulled up short by crazy Aunt Cora, who announces right after the funeral that Richard Abernethie’s death was obviously a murder. When Cora herself is subsequently – and brutally – slain, Hercule Poirot is engaged to secretly investigate both deaths.
Why you should read it: This is personal: Funeral is one of my favorite Christie novels, and I think it’s her last great one. Not only is it superbly clued, it can also be quite funny: the family members are nicely assorted, and their arguments are rendered with great humor; plus, Poirot’s attempt at “undercover work” finds him at his most impish. And it can be poignant: the opening moments when the elderly butler reflects on the end of a grand old era is as effective an any old episode of Downton Whatsis!
Why you should read it fast: I don’t think I can say too much here without giving the game away. Suffice it to say that Christie is the mistress of misdirection, and she scores a bulls-eye here. This title rarely gets discussed and may not be on as many “ten best” lists as it deserves to be, so you probably won’t run into too many spoiler issues. All I’ve got is that you should read it fast because it’s that good.
Now I would love to hear from you: Which title(s) do you think should go here, either in place of one of my choices or in addition to them? Naturally, while I tend to allow spoilers for the sake of discussion, this post requires some delicacy for all those potential new readers that are flocking to my blog!!! All I ask is that you provide a warning for any spoilers you include at the start of your comments (as I will do as needed if I reply.)