“When you read what happens after that you will not believe it, but you will keep on reading, and as one incredible event is followed by another even more incredible you will still keep on reading. The whole thing is utterly impossible and utterly fascinating. It is the most baffling mystery that Agatha Christie has ever written, and if any other writer has ever surpassed it for sheer puzzlement the name escapes our memory. We are referring, of course, to mysteries that have logical explanations, as this one has. It is a tall story, to be sure, but it could have happened.” (Isaac Anderson, The New York Times Review of Books)
“No wonder Agatha Christie’s latest has sent her publishers into a vatic trance. We will refrain, however, from any invidious comparisons with Roger Ackroyd and be content with saying that (the book) is one of the very best, most genuinely bewildering Christies yet written. We will also have to refrain from reviewing it thoroughly, as it is so full of shocks that even the mildest revelation would spoil some surprise from somebody, and I am sure that you would rather have your entertainment kept fresh than criticism pure.” (Maurice Richardson, The Observer)
It’s 1939, and Agatha Christie is coming off a decade of writing that any mystery author would envy. Peril at End House! Murder on the Orient Express! The A.B.C. Murders! Death on the Nile! The hits keep coming, and it all culminates in what is widely perceived today as Christie’s masterpiece and one of the greatest mysteries ever written, And Then There Were None. This book is nothing like the twenty-five novels Christie has published: it is not strictly a puzzle mystery, nor is it a pure thriller. And it is an extremely dark novel, for there is no character one can latch onto and root for. As we seek something – anything – to admire in this group of strangers, they are destroyed one by one. In a way, the title we have all settled on due to the invidious meaning of Christie’s original is one of the most blatant spoilers ever visited upon a mystery novel. A book called And Then There Were None invites no sense of hope, and that promise is realized at the novel’s end.
One thing this book does share with the grand puzzles the author created throughout the 1930’s is the sense that if you remove the thread of murder from their plots, you essentially have nothing left. But after you have accomplished this feat over and over again – and reached the apotheosis of murder plots with ATTWN – where do you go from here?
- Come away, come away, death,
- And in sad cypress let me be laid.
- Fly away, fly away, breath,
- I am slain by a fair cruel maid.
- My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,
- O, prepare it!
- My part of death, no one so true
- Did share it. William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night
As far back as her debut in 1920, Christie sought to utilize the drama inherent in a courtroom trial. Her first effort had mixed results: there are simply too many trials in The Mysterious Affair at Styles; in fact, Christie was forced by her publishers to amend her original intention to have the solution revealed by Hercule Poirot on the witness stand in favor of the more traditional exposing of the killer in the warm confines of Styles Court.
She made a triumphant return to the courtroom in the 1933 short story “Witness for the Prosecution,” which accomplishes a more powerful tale of double jeopardy in its few pages than she managed in the lengthy problem found TMAaS. Four more times, Christie would employ this plot trope, in different and striking ways. In Murder on the Orient Express (1934), she explores the failure of the courts to find justice and its effect on a ravaged community. She takes on the same failure in Five Little Pigs (1942), only this time the case has been adjudicated and the defendant sentenced. Sixteen years later, Poirot’s task is to rectify a grave injustice, leading to a denouement that is every bit as powerful as that of Orient Express. Finally, in 1952 Poirot is called again to set aside a verdict that even the policeman in charge is uncertain about. The uncovering of Mrs. McGinty’s true killer is a true romp, sacrificing emotion for humor perhaps, but still a puzzle showing Christie at the top of her game.
Sad Cypress (1940) begins in medias res with a short, powerful scene: Elinor Carlisle stands charged with the murder of her late Aunt Laura’s ward, Mary Carlisle, with the understanding that Elinor probably made away with the old woman as well. As she stands in the dock, remarkably poised, the two counsels argue the case and the crowd observes the scene:
“People leaning forward, their lips parted a little, their eyes agog, staring at her, Elinor, with a horrible ghoulish enjoyment– listening with a kind of slow, cruel relish to what that tall man with the Jewish nose was saying about her.”
Er, yes, it’s 1940, and Christie’s casual anti-Semitism is begins the proceedings with a jarring note. (Fortunately, Christie is too busy with the rest of the novel to dwell on such unpleasantries anymore. As the scene continues, giving us a kaleidoscopic glimpse at the clues in the case (“Sandwiches . . . fish paste . . . empty house . . . “) and the people involved who now sit in the courtroom amidst the mob, we seekers of truth are pleased to note “one particular face with a big black mustache and shrewd eyes. Hercule Poirot, his head held a little on one side, his eyes thoughtful, was watching . . .”
And then . . . Christie does something she hasn’t done before. She drops Poirot for nearly a third of the book and gives us not a mystery, but a tale of romantic intrigue and a central portrait of a woman that is anything but flattering. We’re told she’s attractive, with “a graceful head, the modelling of the bones sharp and well defined.” The one physical quality that is repeated over and over are her “delicate, plucked brows.” We also learn that Elinor is one of the poor relations of a wealthy widow, Laura Welman, who resides in a mansion in a village outside London. We learn she is sort engaged to her cousin, Roderick Welman and that both live beyond their means in expectation of a sort-of-promised inheritance. They occasionally come down from town to dance attendance on Aunt Laura, who has suffered a stroke, but since the old lady has an indomitable will, the visits are getting more and more spaced out, which leaves Mrs. Welman in the warm, capable hands of Mary Gerrard, the gatekeeper’s daughter.
Yes, there’s an anonymous letter, warning Elinor about “Someone sucking up to your Aunt and if you’re not kareful you’ll get Cut Out of Everything.” This missive serves to bring our main quartet of characters together, and we are asked to seemingly put aside our search for a puzzle in favor of the progress of a romantic triangle. Except this isn’t much of a triangle: Christie is generous with her descriptions of Mary as lovely and innocent and desirous of only one thing: a career serving others. She does nothing to incur feelings of love or hate from the cousins, yet that is what she gets. Roddy takes one look at Mary, falls in love, and breaks his engagement to Elinor. And Elinor, who has been trained since childhood by both Aunt Laura and Roddy to repress all strong feelings, becomes a cyclone of barely pent-up rage toward Mary, who has done absolutely nothing to curry favor with her Aunt or even pass the time of day with her fiancé!
As a character, Mary is really not much more than a lightning rod for other people’s feelings. She is adored by Aunt Laura and earns the admiration of Nurses Hopkins and O’Brien for the way she cares for the old lady. Mrs. Bishop, the Welmans’ long time housekeeper despises her, and so, for some mysterious reason, does her own father. Ted Bigland, Mary’s mechanic boyfriend, thinks she has become too big for her britches now that some education has inspired her with dreams of being a nurse or a masseuse.
The poor girl can’t seem to catch a break, and this is especially brought to home when Mrs. Welman, who had promised Mary she would be provided for, has a second stroke and dies intestate. All the money reverts to Elinor, prompting Roddy to set sail for foreign climes. All the problems they have faced – as well as any motive to kill Mary – dissipates. And yet, Mary is murdered.
What can I say here? If you find yourself preferring Christie’s pure puzzles of the 1930’s, you might feel as if you had wandered into a Mary Westmacott novel. You might find yourself feeling a bit frustrated or even bored. Where are the suspects? Where are the clues? Where is the trickery at which Christie excels? It’s right in front of you, of course, for as you embrace, either reluctantly or eagerly, the tropes of the romance/adventure genre – the woman in love with the wrong man, The fair and misunderstood young maiden, the round-up of villagers taking sides in this romantic intrigue, the hints abounding of a hidden scandal amidst the local aristocracy – you are bound to miss the Christie-centric situations that are laid before your eyes.
Poirot returns for Part Two of our tale. This section comprises his investigation, and frankly it does get a little bogged down in interviews. Having had a chance to get to know Elinor and her circle so intimately, it feels odd to have her disappear from view and to have the personal narrative – down to the inclusion of letters between characters – replaced by the traditional Q & A of a murder mystery. However, it is interesting to watch these characters expound their thoughts through Poirot’s filter, for we begin to see truths that were only hinted at in Elinor’s presence. Some emerge as more admirable, others considerably less so.
When Poirot finally visits Elinor in prison, we see how Christie’s focus has really started to adapt to the slow retreat of pure puzzle from the literary scene. The most ironic thing here is how prison has actually been good to Elinor:
“Poirot noted the sensitive intelligent face with the square, white forehead, and the delicate modeling of the ears and nose. Fine lines; a proud sensitive creature, showing breeding, self-restraint and – something else– a capacity for passion.”
The poison of Elinor’s hatred for Mary seems to have reached its excess and dissipated with the girl’s death. She now seems capable of real feeling, especially love. The only thing Poirot has to do now is save her from the gallows.
Anyone closely familiar with Christie’s bag of tricks, along with her specialized knowledge, just might piece the solution together. Still, I think that the author pulls some fine sleight of hand here, especially as to motive. She does a lovely job laying the truth out in plain sight but forcing the reader to look anywhere but straight ahead as she does so. To my mind, the cleverest aspects of the mystery occur before and after Poirot’s sleuthing, when we are lulled into a sense of not quite knowing what sort of book to expect. In the end, though, we are handed another fine puzzle. And we are treated to something withheld from us all the way back at Styles Court: the sight of Hercule Poirot on the witness stand, laying bare the truth before an astonished jury.
More than anything, we see here an author embarking in a new direction, one where depth of character plays a greater role, where real life social and political history is interwoven into the plots, and where at journey’s end order is more shakily restored and personal happiness far less assured. If the books of the 1930’s reveal Christie’s mastery of the puzzle, the novels of the 1940’s show us a mature novelist who can imbue the cleverest of whodunits with a deep emotional jolt.
ALL ABOUT AGATHA Update
I have made my way through Kemper and Catherine’s podcasts for Christie’s 1920’s novels. Here is their ranking for these nine books, scored from highest to lowest:
- The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – 37
- The Man in the Brown Suit – 33
- The Secret Adversary – 28
- The Mystery of the Blue Train – 28
- The Murder on the Links – 27
- The Mysterious Affair at Styles – 21
- The Seven Dials Mystery – 20
- The Big Four – 17
- The Secret of Chimneys – 16
If I were scoring this list myself, Styles and The Big Four would be slightly higher up the list. Yes, the latter is absolutely ridiculous, but even the podcasters couldn’t help enjoy the repartee between Poirot and Hastings, as well as some of the single adventures. Also, I’m not a huge fan of The Murder on the Links, and my last foray into The Secret Adversary lowered that novel in my esteem due to its ridiculous thriller plot. (Still, I do love me some Tommy and Tuppence!)
I think things are going to get hot and heavy as the podcast wends its way through Christie’s own twenty-year long Golden Age (1930 – 1950), including the first appearance of Miss Marple and the psychologically rich novels of the 40’s that count as some of my favorites. My prediction is that their number one novel of the 1930’s will be . . . And Then There Were None! At least, this makes total sense to me, but if it’s not the way things roll with them . . . well, you know how much I love a surprise ending!