I’VE never hung out so much with other guys until I started blogging about death. Seriously, if you knew me, it makes total sense that this GAD commentator would associate with the elegant Moira, the scrappy Kate, and the sagacious Bev. To my surprise and delight, however, I find myself welcomed into the company of men, and I am having the time of my life.
Most of these fellows comprise a gang dedicated to following every thread, idea and epiphany associated with the impossible crime mystery. Seriously, folks, it’s a real gang. We’re called the Keyholes. We wear leather jackets as white as snow, with a blood-red footprint insignia stamped on the back. We hang out in doorways (only locked ones) on the city streets and jeer at any passerby who thinks Hake Talbot is a type of fish. One of our members, Juke Joint Jones (we call him “JJ” for short) once beat a man to a bloody pulp in the street when the guy dared to challenge JJ’s plan to have every one of John Dickson Carr’s novels republished in reasonably priced paperback editions with original covers printed to order. I mean, didn’t the man know this would happen?
The Keyholes are a motley crew. Besides JJ, there’s TomCat the Terror, Dirigible Dan (he can blow up at a moment’s notice), Crafty Christian, Craftier Colin, Noah the Nudge, and our youngest member, who goes by the ironic title of Gentle Ben. Our leader always wears a mask to hide his cruelty, knows everything about everything, and answers only to the name . . . Santosh
I don’t know as much about locked room mysteries as any of them, but they keep me around because I look great in the jacket. In return, I have to do the work, keeping up as best I can with the ever-growing pile of Roscoe, Smith, Penny, Berrow, Sladek, Carr, Dickson, Rawson, King, Queen, and Wells titles, not to mention all the emerging shin honkaku and the French authors, the classicists like Vindry, Boileau and Narcejac and the modern upstart, Paul Halter!
In return, they accept, albeit grudgingly, my allegiance to House Christie, and they even throw me a bone occasionally by admitting that Dame Agatha herself occasionally dabbled in this sub-genre. It has resulted in some interesting conversations (the most recent one as we all stood on a freezing Saturday night at the deserted Bowling Green, waiting to rumble with the MCFs – Modern Cozy Fans) over what exactly constitutes an impossible crime mystery. It’s a question worth pondering – and worthy of applying to a master of misdirection like Christie.
See, the whole art of misdirection is to make you, the reader, believe that something is impossible and then to prove you’re wrong. For Christie, this act usually centers around the killer’s identity. In ways both obvious and subtle, Christie leads you to cross a person off your suspect list. The most obvious way is to provide them with a perfect alibi, but other variations include futzing with the gender of a killer, clouding the issue of motive or of who the intended victim was, or using disguise to deny a character’s presence.
Ultimately, however, most of the examples we find in Christie are not labeled as “impossible crimes” because, for various reasons, she does not wish to call attention to these situations. There is a whole sub-genre of mystery that involves the police zeroing in on their suspect and then trying to bust a perfect alibi. Christie comes close to this only once or twice; most of the time, she wants us to quietly accept something as fact, figuring that we will miss the clue that proves otherwise.
Occasionally, I will offer spoilers, and I will put them in boxes that readers can skip if they have not read the book in question. Here is one of my favorite examples of misdirection. It’s from A Caribbean Mystery(1964).
In Chapter One, Miss Marple is the polite but unwilling captive of old Major Palgrave. Not only does he possess a most unattractive glass eye, but he is a fountain of boring tall tales about his past exploits. He drones on and on so much that Miss Marple almost misses his tale of a killer he once heard about. Her interest perks up when he offers to show her a picture of a murderer. He pulls the snapshot out of his wallet – and then he snorts in fear and surprise, staring over Miss Marple’s shoulder, comparing what he sees to the picture in his hand, then stuffing the photo back and loudly changing the subject. Miss Marple turns to look behind her and sees a tableau of seven people. She – and the reader – naturally conclude that one of them must be the killer Major Palgrave was talking about. Four of the seven are men, and the story Palgrave had related had been about a man. But he had also muttered something about a woman as he sorted through his pictures, and canny readers know they cannot eliminate the three females so easily. We now have our list of suspects; anyone else in the novel serves as window dressing.
Except . . .
Those canny readers have been bamboozled. The muttered comment about the woman is a red herring. The real clue has been paraded before them repeatedly and will be again: Major Palgrave couldn’t have seen the seven people over Miss Marple’s shoulder because of his glass eye. He must have been looking over her other shoulder – which narrows the list of suspects considerably.
Examples like the one above abound in the Christie canon. A few others require specialized knowledge, which I agree is eminently unfair to the reader. How was Emily Cavendish Inglethorpe poisoned in Christie’s debut novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920)? Hercule Poirot spends most of the book eliminating possibilities. Ultimately, you cannot reach the solution without knowing the special properties of the poison; when it is revealed, all impossibilities are wiped away.
Still, Styles deals with the question of method, and this is the aspect of a crime upon which authors like Carr, Vindry and Rawson focus. That’s not to say that Carr does not excel at surprising us with the killer’s identity – he often does – but it’s the method of murder that calls attention to itself. And that element of showiness is what, to my mind, distinguishes an impossible crime mystery.
Master plotter though she is, Christie is rarely showy. Her set-ups are more than fine, and her killers’ plots are often extremely complex. But she is also more likely to start from a point of simplicity than from an elaborate mousetrap from which her victims cannot escape. Who shot the dentist in his surgery or the Colonel in the vicarage study or the visiting cousin during the fireworks display? Who bashed in the stranger at the inn or the Captain in his study or the old lady in her bedroom? Who stabbed the businessman in his study or the Lord in hisstudy or the collector in hisstudy? Who poisoned the old man or the young man or the old lady or the young lady . . . ???
Asked this way, Christie’s plots boil down to the simplest of questions, but the trappings enliven proceedings considerably: the carefully introduced backstories that send you down the wrong trail; the artful use of disguise (oh, so many disguises!); the masterfully hidden motives; the scenes that flaunt the truth before your eyes – if only you are perceptive enough to see it – the simple comment that makes you believe one thing when you should be so very wary about jumping to conclusions:
- “But he was murdered, wasn’t he?”
- “I can’t go on . . . “
- “I’ll see to her packing!”
- “Was it your poor child?”
Some of Christie’s plots are much more complex from start to finish. Nowhere does she achieve such stunning results than in And Then There Were None (1939) which, to all intents and purposes, is nothing like your typical Christie. Yes, there is a closed circle of suspects. Yes, one of these ten people is responsible for the murders of the other nine. The novel’s epilogue makes a good case for this being an impossible crime – if all ten people are dead upon discovery and certain clues eliminate each of them, one by one, from being the killer – and there is an absolute certainty that no outside could have gotten on and off the island – then how could all of this be?!?
But the novel does not begin with the epilogue. That doesn’t mean that Christie doesn’t hint at what awaits Scotland Yard when it investigates. We follow along as characters are bumped off one by one until we are left with one person. We find it nearly impossible to believe that this sole survivor is the killer, so we ask ourselves that same “what the – ?!?” question. Is this a case of impossible crime? I’m all for saying “yes” – especially after JJ included this book in his list of top fifteen impossible crime novels – but I find myself stopping short for some reason. I leave it to the rest of you to discuss and convince me of one side or the other.
Sometimes, in making you ponder how a person could have been killed, Christie stands at the boundaries of the impossible crime. InThe Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), the titular victim is found stabbed to death behind the locked doors of his study. A lot of occurrences, some of them criminal, others fortuitous, add to the confusion of just how and when Ackroyd died. Ultimately, though, the killer doesn’t so much create an impossible situation as manipulate the police into a false theory of who committed the murder and how. To my mind, the book skirts the impossible issue, even as it utilizes many of the technical tropes of the locked room murder.
In Three Act Tragedy (1935), the Reverend Babbington drops to the ground stone dead, his body loaded with nicotine. And yet his cocktail is free of poison. How the heck did this happen? (Ultimately, we find out how, but the answer pales to the shocking conclusion as to whyhe died.) In Cards on the Table(1936), a man is murdered after dinner in his library while sitting by the fireside in full view of four witnesses. The audacity of the crime is tied into the psychology of playing bridge (a mindset I have over the past year come to understand perfectly. When you are focused on the cards, virtually nothing can distract you – even murder!)
Here’s one of my favorite scenarios that flirts with the impossible crime:
The 1930’s were the decade where Christie’s focus was purely on the puzzle and where some of her greatest tricks originated. In 1935’s Death in the Clouds, murder in an airplane cabin limits the suspect list and the method of murder. Madame Giselle has been poisoned; the mark of entry is visible on her neck. A wasp has been noticed flitting about the cabin. A blowpipe is found hidden under the seat of Hercule Poirot himself. Yet in this tiny space, nobody noticed anything unusual that would suggest how and when the victim was killed.
All in all, this is “B” grade Poirot, but what it does so well is create the illusion of one sort of murder – death by dart (since nobody accepts the idea that a wasp killed Mme. Giselle) – and drops a number of ordinary facts that point straight to one person as the killer. A dart and a blowpipe suggest murder committed from a distance. In reality, this was the most intimate of crimes, and the reason nobody saw anything treads firmly into Chestertonian territory. I have a fondness for novels where the detective cries early on that he or she knows who the killer is. In Clouds, Christie actually presents virtually everything you need to know to solve the crime, fully confident that most of us will not possess the imagination to put several innocuous clues together. (I certainly didn’t!) The presence of the wasp – which all sane people must excuse as a ploy – the matchbox, the white coat, such a motley assortment of items that give Poirot a solution a quarter of the way through the book!
In most of her work, Christie’s focus is on the “who” and the “why.” Even when she highlights the “how,” the answer to this question is firmly woven into the other two. There are basically three cases – two novels, one short story – where much thought is given to the method of murder. All three cases feature Hercule Poirot. I don’t think this is an accident: Miss Marple’s cases rarely highlight the technical aspects of a crime. (A Murder Is Announced comes the closest to depending on a variety of tricks to bring off the initial crime.)
I confess that I am not overly fond of the 1938 short story, “The Dream,” mainly because it seems highly unlikely to me that anyone even slightly well read in classic mysteries will have no problem parsing out the essential truths of this case. The big deceit seems so obviously drawn here, and anyone who knows their Christie will recognize certain character types and relationships for what they are. In fact, many of the tricks here call to mind the start of Christie’s career.
That said, it is a pure locked room puzzle: Benedict Farley has been found shot to death in his locked office with witnesses waiting outside to testify that nobody entered the room. The shocking element is that Farley had earlier notified Poirot of a dream he had foretelling his death this same way, right down to the time of his demise.
The problem here is that the general rule is that the presence of magic and/or the supernatural is always a ruse in a GAD crime. (The one exception I can think of – not a Christie – gets some fans of the author very very mad!!!) If we accept that Farley could not have had a dream that foretold his death, we have to suspect any evidence that says he did – and the owners of that evidence. This leads to the revelation of a secret relationship often found in Christie’s work. Furthermore, the opening scene, where Farley conveys his fears to Poirot, contains one of Christie’s least subtle uses of a tactic of which she was all too fond.
That leaves us with two novels – one of them very good indeed and the other more problematical.
Murder in Mesopotamia (1936)
There is much to like about this novel. Christie gives full sway to her inside knowledge about the world of archaeology, a world she visited frequently and where she assisted her husband, himself a renowned archaeologist. It features Hercule Poirot but doesn’t have too much Poirot. His one-shot Watson, Nurse Amy Leatheran, is charming, sharp and female. The initial victim is a fascinating and complex individual based on an actual person who was no less charming, but neurotic and difficult. And the novel contains scenes of rich atmosphere and horror, notably surrounding both murders.
Louise Leidner’s backstory is interesting. She is a nervous wreck for multiple reasons, only some of them of her own making. She is haunted by the idea that she is being stalked, either by her first husband, a German spy who was believed to have been killed, or by his vengeful younger brother (and a number of the members of the dig qualify to be this young man.) Louise thought she had found peace with her adoring second husband, but she is a restless sort and embarks on an affair. She also stirs up jealousy and bitterness, especially amongst the female members of her party. And to top it off, she may have unearthed a plot to steal precious treasures from the current excavation. And so the motives fly fast and thick here, just the way we like them, even if most of the characters are drawn fairly thin.
Louise’s murder occurs in her bedroom in the light of day, while everyone is busily working at his or her job. The one entrance to her room is off a busy courtyard and has been under almost constant observation. Even more baffling is the means of execution, a large blunt object that is nowhere to be found at the scene of the crime. The solution to the “how” element is extremely clever, relying on simple mechanics and an understanding of the psychology of the victim. It shouldall work very well.
Yet there’s a problem – and it’s a big one. It’s so big that it nearly ruins this book. Look for it in the spoiler below.
The problem has nothing to do with the “how” and everything to do with the who. Once we learn the secret to Louise’s death, the number of suspects is reduced to one – the adoring husband. Frankly, if Dr. Leidner had been exposed as the killer and it had turned out that he was overcome with rage at his wife’s infidelity, this would have been a much better book. But Christie just couldn’t let go of the backstory: she decides that Dr. Leidner is in reality Louise’s first husband returned from the dead. The idea that a woman would in no way recognize a man with whom she had been intimate, even if their last contact had been fifteen years earlier, is so ludicrous that it obviates all the good that has come before. Yes, this is a 1930’s whodunit, and the 20’s and 30’s were loaded with utterly ridiculous twists by a countless number of authors. Unfortunately, at this point in Christie’s career, we expect better.
Hercule Poirot’s Christmas(1938)
In terms of locked room mysteries, this is the gold standard of Christie’s output. It was good enough to inspire Dan to include it in the list of histop fifteen impossible crime novels. The thing I love most about this book is how terrifically intertwined the “how” element is with the “who” and the “why.” This is all too seldom the case with locked room mysteries.
The novel purports to be a fine example of that hoary old chestnut where the family gathers in the old country mansion for the holidays. The victim is a horny old rascal named Simeon Lee, who cut a fine swath during his early days, bedding wenches and cheating his business partners in order to amass his great wealth. Now that age and infirmity have rendered him physically negligible, he channels his love for vice into the constant torment of his family. He is defined in this novel by his sadistic tyranny of his clan, and it is enough.
The rest of the cast is even less complex, each person essentially defined by one characteristic. Simeon’s four sons: the one who hates his father for the way his mother was treated, the one who seeks nothing more than his father’s approval, the pompous, righteous one who is morally craven and the ne’er do well who is probably the best of the lot. Two of the daughters-in-law are almost interchangeable – one of them has a penchant for rock gardens – while the pompous son’s wife would be played in the movies by the British equivalent of Jean Harlow. There’s a tempestuous Spanish granddaughter, a handsome visitor from South Africa, and assorted servants of various moral hues – and that’s it. The old goat invites everybody home for the holidays because he knows it will stir up trouble, and then he foments enough resentment amongst his relations to warrant his being murdered ten times over.
When he is killed, however, the novel veers a bit from your typical Christie. She wrote the book for her brother-in-law, who had complained that her murders tended to be somewhat dry and bloodless. (If one examines the half dozen novels published previous to this one, I tend to think that this “complaint” is rather tongue in cheek: thirteen people are murdered in a variety of ways, including two being shot in the head, several stabbings, one woman having her head crushed in while another drinks hydrochloric acid.) The murder scene here is awash with blood. The door is locked from the inside, and the window is high up and impossible to climb. The family had been summoned by the blood curdling screams of the victim, along with the sounds of a terrific fight; at that moment every member of the household was downstairs and essentially accounted for. And yet the man is hideously dead, and a sack of raw diamonds is missing.
Colonel Johnson, the Chief Constable, doesn’t quite know what to do. On the one hand, the investigating officer, Superintendent Sugden, is a good man and was even at the scene immediately, having been summoned by Simeon Lee to discuss security for the diamonds. However, this case is bizarre and requires an investigator of imagination, something Sugden distinctly lacks. Fortunately, Hercule Poirot is in the vicinity, and he takes over the investigation.
This is one of those classic Christie’s where everything is a clue! A few of these are among the cleverest Christie devised: the quote from Macbeth, a party balloon, and my favorite, the scene with the butler and the calendar. Others are a bit shakier, particularly those dealing with issues of biological inheritance. Yes, we get our eye color or a tendency to baldness or anything else having to do with our general size and shape from our ancestors. But do we really inherit habits, or likes and dislikes? In Christie’s world, we do, and although one can quibble, in the 1930’s, when plotting superseded all other literary elements, characters werereduced to traits and foibles and odd habits. So why not accept – no, embrace – this GAD quality and simply enjoy the ride?
I’m not sure Christmas would make my top ten Christie list, but it is one of my favorite locked room puzzles because of that aforementioned interdependence between the top three questions every decent mystery writer poses. The “how” of this story meshes beautifully with the “who” and perfectly reflects the “why.” Everything has a reason here: there is a purpose to all the blood beyond Christie’s satisfying a relative’s barbaric tastes. The servants are necessary. The character of the victim explains (if not quite excuses) a few excesses of plot. Perhaps there are one or two too many characters; the Suchet adaptation eliminated a son and his wife with no real harm done. However, the French adaptation, which served as the pilot to the series Les Petits Meurtres d’Agatha Christie, adds even more characters, deepens the soap opera aspects of the familial conflicts in a (mostly) fine way, and is altogether the best of these Gallic versions of Christie.
The rest is spoilers:
Is Hercule Poirot’s Christmas one of the most mystifying of Christies?
Edward Powys Mathers suggested in his 1938 review in The Observer, “the business of the appalling shriek will probably make no mystery for the average reader. The main thing, is, surely that Agatha Christie once more abandonedly dangles the murderer before our eyes and successfully defies us to see him. I am sure that some purists will reverse my decision on the ground that the author to get her effect, has broken what they consider to be one of the major rules of detective writing; but I hold that in a Poirot tale it should be a case of caveat lector, and that the rules were not made for Agatha Christie.”
I was a kid when I read this, and I had no sufficient background in the ways of impossible crimes to figure out how this trick had been managed. More than that, I have always concentrated my interests on the killer’s identity, and at the time I did not know that this sort of solution was possible. Powys acknowledges himself that Christie had “broken the rules.”
Ronald Knox’s Rule #7:
The detective himself must not commit the crime.
Van Dine’s Rule #4:
The detective himself, or one of the official investigators, should never turn out to be the culprit.
Christie is extremely clever in how she sets up the reveal of Superintendent Sugden as the killer, particularly as his presence at the time of the murder should certainly activate our spider senses! The reactions of the butler, the cunning display of family tics – although I refuse to believe that I would inherit the tendency to throw back my head and laugh or to stroke my chin thoughtfully just because a group of relatives I have never lived with and seldom observed do so – Poirot’s machinations with a fake moustache, Pilar’s flirting . . . All of these come back to haunt Sugden during the big reveal.
Another thing I like about this book is that the reveal, while surprising, doesn’t veer from the initial theme of family blood and “the sins of the fathers.” Often, Christie will devise a plot that seems to lead us in one direction and flips beautifully at the end. After the Funeral is the supreme example for me. The ABC Murders, One, Two, Buckle My Shoe and The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side are others. In Christmas, Christie manages to shock us at the same time staying true to the sins of Simeon Lee and the torment he has inflicted on his family. In some ways, Sugden is the best son Simeon ever had: a good cop and a fine handsome man. Like Simeon’s other sons, Sugden has inherited a strain of his darkness, but again, it is the most purposeful strain. Alfred and David are helpless in their need, Harry is a nomad and a mountebank, and George is a fraud. Perhaps in the end, Stephen Farr is the best of the lot, but we know so little about him, and when you get right down to it, his presence is rather annoying, making the novel a rather unrealistic convention of bastards.
But even Stephen, once he arrives in England, doesn’t quite know what to do. Sugden proves Colonel Johnson wrong: he possesses a fine imagination, good enough to put together this ingenious plot. Yes, it is his tough luck that Poirot was on the scene, but in the end he has been brought down by two women: the observant Hilda, whose Shakespearean utterance leads Poirot to an understanding of the inherent fakery of the murder scene, and the romantic Pilar, whose flirty comparison between Simeon and Sugden acts like a beacon of guilt in the night.