Agatha Christie has been on my mind all day. First, the trailer for the first ever adaptation of the delicious Crooked House appeared on my Facebook feed this morning, and it looks absolutely marvelous! (Watch it here.) It reminded me that only a few weeks ago, I saw the trailer for the, to my mind, unnecessary remake of Murder on the Orient Express. (Here it is.) If you want my mini-review, I can tell that CH stands a chance to be a mature retelling with a fantastic setting, a literate script by Julian Fellowes, and a cast of actors who are just famous enough to draw audience in but not so reliant on their fame that they’re not going to act their asses off. Meanwhile, somewhere in the Balkans, the crew that is stranded on that blasted train are spouting words written by the screenwriter who penned Green Lantern, Logan, and Alien: Covenant. Watching the Orient Express trailer leads me to all sorts of questions: Why is Mrs. Hubbard so sexy? Why did director/star Kenneth Branagh choose to look so wrong as Poirot? What is that godawful rock song doing at the tail end of a trailer for what I hope is a period piece?
I continued to think about Agatha Christie when I sat down to read JJ’s latest post over at The Invisible Event. Although he was writing about one of the better juvenile mystery series, the subsequent chat led some of us to reminisce about our transition from kid stuff to the real thing. And in my case, the real thing was Christie.
Over the last week or so, I’ve had a nagging feeling that I’m letting my readers down. I barely eked out a baker’s dozen posts this summer, and now with school starting and me stuck on a book that I refuse to toss away until it’s done, I feel that I should try to get something done here. My motto when in doubt is, You Can Always Rely on Christie, and I set forth to pen a review of one of my favorite later titles, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead.
However, the reflective mood I’ve been in all day got me to thinking of branching out from the one book to a bigger idea. The plot of McGinty ultimately centers around a long-ago crime, and it occurred to me that this is a plot device that was much favored by the author. I sat down with the bibliography and right away came up with no less than twenty titles containing this trope that span Christie’s entire career. In fact, she became so preoccupied with this idea that six out of her final seven published books utilize the concept of old sins casting long shadows. What a shame that five of these titles arguably comprise the worst of Christie’s canon. I believe the theory goes that Christie might have selected the investigation into past events as an excuse for wallowing in nostalgia and explaining away the fact that her witnesses are perpetually confused about dates and events, a quality they sadly shared with their creator.
But that leaves us with at least fifteen other books, and among these titles we find some of the very best that Christie had to offer. So here is my offering: my own sort of wallow into a specific type of Christie plot, not so much a survey of the books but a sort of creative cross-referencing of what they contained.
When I speak about “old sins,” I refer to those novels that quickly link the crimes of the present to the actions of characters in the distant past. Moreover, to my mind the past actions of these characters must be criminal in nature or the book doesn’t fall within the admittedly arbitrary parameters of this category. Within this requirement, Christie exercises yet again her amazing ability to come up with wildly creative variations on a theme. I love spotting the similarities between books and then seeing how Christie sends a piece of thread into another direction on the loom and weaves a completely different story.
Take, for example, three titles on my list, all written within a space of five years during her most golden decade, the 1930’s. The aforementioned Orient Express (1934) takes place on that fabulous train, where the snow has trapped the passengers of one coach together as one of them meets a nasty end. It doesn’t take long for Hercule Poirot to discover that the victim is directly linked to one of the most horrific crimes of the previous decade. Outwardly, 1936’s Cards on the Table couldn’t appear more different: eight dinner guests sit down in two rooms to play bridge. Their host sits watching by the fire in one of the rooms. At the end of the evening, the host is found dead, stabbed like the victim on the aforementioned train, although while Mr. Ratchett is brutally assaulted over and over again, Mr. Shaitana is neatly, almost elegantly, run through with a beautiful and costly dagger. Before the case even begins, Poirot is made aware that each of the guests under suspicion had been “collected” by their late host for having committed a murder in their pasts.
Three years later, Christie will expand that idea of a gathering of murderers found in Cards and combine it with the trapped circle and the theme of justice found in Orient Express to create her masterpiece, And Then There Were None (1939). Who can say whether a savvy reader, having closed this last book with a sigh, didn’t have a moment where they thought, “Goodness, here’s a link to that Cards on the Table story that I lent to Phyllis at Bridge Club. And – oh my! – doesn’t this remind me of that train story of a few years ago?”
Whether this ever happened or not, the prevalence of the “old sins” concept coming back to bite people seems meaningful to me. And look at this: two more titles on my list were actually written within the same period! Murder in Mesopotamia (1936) tells the story of a woman who chose the wrong man to marry – a spy and a passionate lover whose jealousy drove him mad. At the start of the novel, Louise Leidner’s first husband is presumed long dead. Whether he’s really alive or whether his younger brother is carrying out revenge for Louise having remarried, Hercule Poirot determines right away that the truth of Louise’s death lies in these past events.
A year before And Then There Were None, Christie published Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938), a story she enjoyed so much that she essentially repeated the same idea fifteen years later in A Pocketful of Rye. In both we find the nasty patriarch, whose moral ambivalence has been established through his shady business history. He has made so many enemies that the crime solver’s prevailing idea is that a former foe has tracked him down years later to exact revenge. Whether or not this turns out to be true in the end, this plot device requires an element that Christie loved to employ: the character in disguise. Not everyone in a Christie novel is necessarily who they say they are, but since this idea turns out as often as not to be a red herring, I don’t think I’m giving the game away if I say both titles contain a fair amount of false identities and/or disguise. And in both we find an interesting take on the author’s penchant for justice. Both victims are thoroughly nasty characters: they’ve been bad husbands, bad fathers, bad business partners. And while Christie has no desire to cut their killer’s any slack, she only stops short of uttering good riddance when both these men meet their not so untimely ends.
So there you have five titles released in the last half of the same decade. In the 1920’s, Christie, the young writer just starting out, was less occupied with affairs of the past, although her third novel, The Murder on the Links (1923) does require Poirot to look into the victim’s mysterious past for the beginning of a solution, and past crimes of various kinds are an important element in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926).
Of the three titles in the 1940’s where old sins do indeed cast long shadows, two of them stem from an investigation into a past murder. 1942’s Five Little Pigs and 1945’s Sparkling Cyanide showcase a deft hand with character for which Christie is all too often not given enough credit. The best part of both novels is how we are made witness to the emotional toll that an event like murder can have on a small, tightknit community of people. Five Little Pigs is a better plotted mystery, which may make the difference in its status as one of Christie’s best, but it also packs a far greater punch on the last page. It’s hard to sit down and compare this great novel to the late title, Elephants Can Remember (1972), for although both begin almost identically with a young woman begging Poirot to uncover the truth about her parents’ deaths years ago, the later book sags unbearably under an ironically lightweight plot before falling apart due to a total lack of logic. One feels sad at the end, but for all the wrong reasons.
Nestled in between Pigs and Cyanide is the fascinating Towards Zero (1944) which takes as its premise that murder is not the start of a tale but the culmination of many past events and impulses. The most intriguing of these is the story one character tells of a child who got away with murder. Despite the various relationships between the characters here, we are never in doubt that the killer is this child, now grown. And while this may seem an overly convenient plot device, I think that for Christie, the attainment of justice and the punishment of the wicked was so important that she prodded her child killer to commit a further crime so that he or she might be caught at last. Ultimately, it’s a lucky break for the police that this killer is insane because the actual proof of their guilt is slim.
Given the overabundance of past crimes littering the novels of the 60’s and 70’s, it’s interesting that only two of the 1950’s titles allude to the past in a significant way. Also of interest is the way these two titles overlap and vary. Both Mrs. McGinty’s Dead (1952) and Ordeal by Innocence (1958) cover the efforts of one person to save the life or reputation of a man who has been falsely convicted of murder. In the case of McGinty, the man in prison hasn’t actually been proven innocent; he’s merely such a shlub that Poirot finds it hard to believe him capable of the crime. His investigations take him even further into the past where he must consider the relationship of this murder to a group of long past crimes. That connection forms a most entertaining aspect to the novel. What’s more, tackling a theme that more often than not veers toward the melancholy, McGinty proves to be perhaps the funniest book Christie ever wrote, and the solution, while extremely clever, is almost completely lacking in emotional effect.
This couldn’t be further from the case with Ordeal by Innocence, which is almost endlessly grim. Arthur Calgary returns from a trip armed with inviolate proof of Jack Argyle’s innocence, but he’s too late: Argyle has died in prison. What’s more, his family recognizes the folly of stirring things up. (And indeed, at least one more person dies as a result of the case re-opening.) Despite the overwhelming atmosphere of this novel, it has always felt a little off to me. One reason I think this is so is that Christie ultimately cops out at the end by obviating the essential tragedy of Jack’s fate.
With one exception, the remaining titles on my list deal with people who have killed in the past and kill again, either to protect themselves from exposure or, more interestingly, because it is in their nature. I will not trouble you with the names of these novels, but Christie came to rely on this plot for the rest of her writing life.
The one exception that I must mention is, despite its flaws (and they’re there), one of the most intriguing of all Christie’s novels. In The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962), everyone is suffering from a sort of malaise brought about by the changes wrought by time. Miss Marple walks through her beloved St. Mary Mead and bemoans the modernization she sees everywhere. But as she will demonstrate a few years later at a certain old London hotel, Miss Marple is a realist about time’s effect on the world. In several senses, Mirror hearkens all the way back to Orient Express. One aspect I simply cannot explain without giving the whole show away. Suffice it to say that the book deals with past crimes and a deep-rooted need for justice. Christie shared this quality with the characters she imbued with it. The large number of late stories about old sins may be explained away by an author’s advancing age and infirmity. But throughout her career, Christie displayed a finely tuned skill for taking the concept of past crimes and the shadows they cast and forging something original and magnificent nearly every time.