REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST: The Stirring of Memory in the Novels of Agatha Christie

I know, I know, friends! I was waxing reflective on Agatha Christie only the other day, and here I go again. Forgive me, but January is always a rough month to get some reading in. It’s the final stretch of rehearsals for the big school show, and this year’s entry, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, is even bigger and showier than usual. Still, I have been so gripped of late with the blogging bug that I just can’t let things go until Valentine’s Day, when my schedule will be comparatively free and clear. Plus, two occurrences in recent days have stirred up the inspiration, and so I’ve decided to put a few thoughts to screen. Bear with me!

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The first is that my pal JJ of The Invisible Event, is counting down until he reaches the end of Christie’s oeuvre. Recently he posted a review of Elephants Can Remember, the last written Hercule Poirot novel. All I can say is, thank God for Curtain, penned when Christie was at the height of her powers and wanted to ensure a posthumous send-off worthy of a world-famous Belgian sleuth. Most of us tend to give Elephants a lot of shade, but JJ managed to bypass the plot difficulties and focus on a major element of the novel that pleased him no end: the depiction of memory as it pertains to crime investigation. He reveled in Christie’s handling of this aspect of the story, even though the recollections of the characters don’t always come together in a logical fashion; indeed, it is assumed that the fogginess of her witnesses was exacerbated by the author’s own failing mental acuity.

The end result was that JJ agreed to share the experience with me of reading and posting about the notorious Postern of Fate. This is one of three Christie novels that I only read once. It has been over forty years since I revisited Tommy and Tuppence’s final adventure, and I can’t imagine a better companion for this ordeal experience than JJ! In other words, there’s no way I’m reading this again without someone to hold my hand throughout. Details to follow.

The second occurrence was a most pleasant extended conversation with Jason Half, whose blog is one of the most erudite out there in the great wealth of blogs about mystery fiction. If you are a fan of – or interested in – the lengthy career of Gladys Mitchell especially, you must follow Jason’s blog!

By sheer coincidence, Jason reached out to discuss how Christie handles the issue of the past informing the present in a crime investigation, having himself just completed an example of this type of plot by Nicholas Blake. While any chance to talk about Golden Age matters, and Christie in particular, is a sheer joy for me, it was especially delightful to have such a stimulating back and forth with Jason. This was Jason’s topic, but at one point he graciously said to me, “You offer so many wonderful, title-specific notes on the books you consider with my question that I encourage you to use them as the start of a future treatise for your site, if you wish.”

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I really appreciated this because, to be honest, our conversation had inspired me to wonder what a blog piece about this subject would look like. At the moment, it looks something like this . . .

Jason succinctly set some parameters around our conversation from the start by defining defining:

“. . . three obvious ways to deliver a past-events story in prose. . . : use parallel-structure flashback scenes where the reader is handed information a little at a time, and we realize the importance and the climactic moment when the present-day story has given us the proper context in which to place it; relate the story through contemporary interviews but let the characters conjure the events as vividly as the author intended (the approach used in Thou Shell); or let the information be part of the solution/denouement via the detective’s revelations, where the reader understands the importance (i.e., the motivation/motive) but the events remain in the abstract.

“So. My question to you is this: To what degree does the venerable Agatha Christie use each of these approaches to past events when considering her output as a whole?”

The incorporation of past sins (which cast long shadows) into present events is a standard feature of murder mysteries since their inception. During one of the first recorded whodunits in literary history, Oedipus stakes his honor as the Theban king to solving the murder of Laius, the ruler he succeeded, in order to rid the citizenry of a plague curse. He must delve into the distant past, interview witnesses – some with faulty memories and others with good reason to lie – and inexorably gather evidence that ultimately proves that the crimes of the past are inextricably linked to his own history and to the very tenets of his culture.

Cut ahead a few thousand years to the late 1800’s, where writers like Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle let present crimes be inspired by earlier events. All four of the Sherlock Holmes novels and many of the stories incorporate the past into their plots, sometimes to the point of leaving Holmes and Watson behind for whole swaths of the tale to narrate what led to a murder spree (A Study in Scarlet, The Valley of Fear). Moving on to the Golden Age (1920 – 40), we find an evolving genre that thrives on the country house stuffed to the gills with unfaithful spouses and greedy relatives; here, the motive of vengeance, by necessity rooted in the past, provides a welcome respite from the standard motives of lust and covetousness.

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Christie was no different from other practitioners of the genre. She incorporated each of the three forms of “delivery of past events story in prose” that Jason describes above, and the issue my friend initially brought up launched us into our conversation:

“ . . . of the twenty-plus Christie books I’ve read over the years, I by far remember (falsely?) that AC often used the third iteration with her past-event reveals, where the detective identifies the connection in his summation . . . What I recall about this third approach is that, in Christie’s hands, the past event remains abstract and theoretical.”

I don’t know why, but this sounded like sort of a dig to me ,possibly because the third iteration strikes me as the least creative or emotionally resonant of past-events usage, and here Jason was suggesting it was Christie’s most common employment of the strategy and, to make matters worse, one that in her hands never stretched beyond the “abstract and theoretical.” Yet there’s no denying that she was occasionally guilty of all that he had suggested.

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Let me give you an example to make sure we’re all on the same page. One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940) begins as a domestic mystery: a disparate group of people, including no less than Hercule Poirot himself, become suspects in the murder of a prominent dentist due to the fact that their names all appeared in his appointment book on the day he died. At first, suicide is suspected because another man, a patient, is found dead in his hotel from an overdose of novocaine, and the police surmise that Mr. Morley, aware of his medical mistake, shot himself in remorse. But when yet another patient is found brutally murdered in her flat, the investigation begins to broaden and take on a larger, more political scope.

That’s all I can say without spoiling matters, but in the end, Poirot finds a solution that is rooted in issues of the distant past. These matters are barely alluded to in the course of creating dossiers on each of the persons involved in the case, but Poirot is able to snatch this and that fact and put them together to reveal in the final moments a clear-cut motive that allows him to clarifies the nature of this murder plot beyond doubt.

For me, One, Two, Buckle My Shoe is exactly the kind of novel that verifies Jason’s complaint. In the abstract, the solution achieves that kind of reversal that Christie is known for, which in and of itself is satisfying. But none of the people – not the victims or the murderer – comes to life in such a way that we feel much sympathy or horror or righteous indignation for the parts they play. That’s because the past events here never engage us. They are simply part of the exposition, parsed out in a mixed-up order to avoid allowing us to make any obvious conclusions; thus, they never come alive. Interestingly, the TV adaptation by David Suchet begins with a flashback to these earlier events. Perhaps this choice creates greater emotional resonance, but it also points us too quickly in the “right” direction and ruins much of the surprise. Most GAD readers would see this trade off as a bad thing, but I leave it to each of you to make up your own mind.

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This is perhaps the strongest example in Christie of the third type of past event usage, but there are many more, starting as early as Christie’s second novel, The Secret Adversary. I can’t even remember why it’s significant that Jane Finn went down with the Lusitania, other than to start the novel with a bang. Title Three, The Murder on the Links, deals with the death of a man whose past sins come back to haunt him, but the employment of the past here is couched in the form of pure exposition and has never gripped my emotions.

Jason’s first example of past event usage, the one where a story is told in parallel time periods, is a familiar form of storytelling in modern mysteries, and an increasingly popular way for TV series to unfold. Paul Halter uses it sometimes, as in The Picture from the Past and it is extremely popular in today’s psychological suspense genre, allowing unreliable narrators to be: a) one person introduced twice, b) one person with two personalities, c) one person, dead! These are just three possibilities. The options are endless . . . but as the list grows, it gets more and more ludicrous, blocking any real emotional engagement between author and reader.

For Christie, this narrative form would have been highly unconventional but she manages it rather well in one novel: Sad Cypress (1940). Here we move back and forth between Elinor Carlisle’s trial for murder with the events leading up to it. At the halfway point, however, we return – and firmly remain – in the present. It should be noted that certain details from the more distant past turn out to figure importantly in the solution but, following Jason’s third example, Christie glosses over them in the body of the novel and only elucidates them in the denouement.

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Turning to Jason’s second format – “relate the story through contemporary interviews but let the characters conjure the events as vividly as the author intended “ – here we find Christie at the top of her form. And alongside this, she also conjures up a fourth, similar, structure, where interviews are replaced with internal monologues. Nobody rendered internal monologues better than Christie: they can elucidate character and hide guilt at the same time. It’s one of her best tricks, and it yields some of her richest work.

 

It also requires some clever side-stepping in terms of vengeance as a motive. Even in novels with the most loathsome victims – Simeon Lee in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, Mrs. Boynton in Appointment with Death, Louise Leidner in Murder in Mesopotamia, or Rex Fortescue in A Pocketful of Rye– people who you would expect would garner a long list of enemies throughout their lives, Christie tends to bring these ancient foes back in disguise. The end result can range from ridiculous to blindingly clever. Keeping in mind Jason’s original concern about Christie, I have to concur that cleverness here does not bring with it an attendant satisfactory emotional response. Of the four exacters of vengeance in the novels above, we are allowed to feel a smidgen of sympathy for exactly one of them – and this person turns out to be a red herring.

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The best of Christie’s forays into the distant past revolve around the theme of Justice Deferred. She was certainly one of the most conservative literary dispensers of justice, a lifelong proponent of the death penalty, and she was determined that those who committed sins in the past should pay for it in the present and that those who were wrongfully accused should be exonerated, even posthumously. In only one instance is the murderer – not exonerated, exactly, but excused – and this comes after the monstrousness of the victim and the suffering he caused is hammered home with as much excessive force as what killed him!

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Examining the best of the titles revolving around the past often yields the most emotionally resonant of her novels, as well as some of her cleverest plots. Perhaps significantly, only one of these titles comes from the true Golden Age of the 1930’s, and this is perhaps the least emotionally resonant of the bunch. Cards on the Table (1936) has a marvelous set-up with a marvelous victim – the satanic Mr. Shaitana, who essentially collects souls and makes them suffer – before it devolves into a procedural. Shaitana plays host to eight guests at one of his fabulous dinner parties. Four of them are detectives, although their “credentials” are delightfully different (one official Scotland Yard man, one government agent, one private sleuth, and one mystery author). The other four are, according to Shaitana, murderers who have succeeded in getting away with their crimes. It seems that, in at least one case, Shaitana has hit his mark because, by evening’s end, he has been murdered by one of the four.

Interview follows interview after the fact, but several factors keep this interesting, not least the different personalities and methods of the sleuths, but also Poirot’s newfound keenness for exploring the psychology of the suspects in a way that, for once in Christie, doesn’t seem totally cockeyed. The other fun aspect is the exploration that must be made into each suspect’s past to determine: a. what, if any, suspicious deaths occurred on the person’s watch, and b. did the suspect cause that death. The answers are varied and interesting, and the suspects’ past crimes further aid us in understanding each character’s psychology. In other words, they help us, to some extent, solve the present crime.

What’s lacking is much in the way of emotional resonance. Because Cards on the Table  functions purely as a puzzle novel, the presentation of the past is informational. We get no internal monologues, no sense from the suspects how they felt in the past. They testify, when pressed, as to their feelings about past events in the present, but most of them are lying. This structure is necessary because we are actually trying to solve not one, but five murders. The cases in the past are not as precisely clued, but part of the fun in Cards is discovering whether or not Shaitana was wrong about one or more of his collection of “murderers.”

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And Then There Were None was published in1939, as Europe began its second world conflict in less than twenty-five years. When we talk about the Golden Age, we tend to focus on that period including and between the two World Wars, and we – what, explain? dismiss? acknowledge that popular detective fiction served as a tonic to soothe the nerves of a society enduring social, political and economic stress of the highest order. Christie was a leader in creating this sort of antidote to our sense of powerlessness. Her whodunnits were set in a world seemingly without background conflict, and her thrillers were lighthearted. Murderers and masterminds were all brought to justice by diminuitive foreigners, little old ladies, and adventurous young thing

But ATTWN is a different animal. It is not set in the bustling city or the bucolic village, but on a storm-tossed island. The house isn’t a warm, inviting country estate but a cold, modern structure of steel and glass. Characters, plot, and setting are dark, dark, dark. There are no heroes here, no one to feel sympathy for. I remember that when I read this at the tender age of eleven, I felt sorry for Vera; I was too young to understand why she was the last to die, but it had nothing to do with sympathy or heroism.

The novel is set in the present, but as the situation devolves into murderous chaos, the character spend more and more time accessing the past in their minds. Guilt for their own deeds weighs as heavily on them as suspicion toward the others, and it’s interesting how many of them – the General, Miss Brent, the Judge, Vera – embrace death when it comes. Aside from the servants, we get as much information about the islanders’ past crimes from their inner thoughts as from dialogue. The device is both expository and experiential, allowing us a close-up view of their suffering. The puzzle is still fairly intact: one of the most delicious aspects of these interior monologues is that the reader knows that one of these people must be the killer, and we’re being let into his or her mind. And yet Christie structures their thoughts so deliberately that we cannot eliminate anyone – until they die.

 

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And Then There Were None marks the beginning of the end of the actual Golden Age and a change in focus for Christie. The novels of the 1940’s are richer in character, even as the puzzle, by necessity, becomes simpler. Five Little Pigs (aka Murder in Retrospect) is perhaps the best example of a Christie novel set in the present but rooted in the past. We are back in the mode of a traditional detective story, and 5LP is more procedural than usual, as Hercule Poirot seeks out the testimony of the persons involved to figure out whether or not Caroline Crale deserved to be convicted of her artist husband’s murder.

Christie makes the choice to eschew inner monologue because, once again, she is parsing out suspicion amongst the five little pigs. Poirot speaks to each of them, and then he asks them to write down their testimony. Some readers complain of a sense of repetition in this structure, but through it the author moves us to a deeper understanding of the suspects by having them elucidate their memories in their own words, free from prompting.

Unlike almost every other novel which followed ATTWN, Five Little Pigs shares a darker vision of life and provides the bleakest of denouements. The literary portrait of this murderer brilliantly elucidates, more than any other character in Christie, the power of the past to ruin the present.

 

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Mrs. McGinty’s Dead (1952) is a lighthearted detour by comparison, and I include it only because – well, I have always loved the novel, and I think Christie provides a sharp commentary on the public’s preoccupation with past crimes, a fascination that has only grown over the past sixty-six years! The four cases recounted in the newspaper foreshadow the countless cable new specials, Dateline episodes and true crime podcasts that flood today’s market. Admittedly, it borders on silliness that so many of these tragic women of the past would congregate in the village of Broadhinny. And the solution, while wonderful and clever and surprising, doesn’t really need the past to give it its kick.

The final two novels up for consideration here, Ordeal by Innocence (1958) and The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962), are dark in tone and center on the investigation into the personality and actions of a dead woman and their repercussions on those around her. Like Pigs, Ordeal centers around a past crime that had, to all intents and purposes, been solved. Now, the guilt of the convicted party is not just called into doubt but completely refuted. The investigators must start over, and while the police go over all the stale clues again, it is up to Arthur Calgary to get to know the family and discover how a woman known for her beneficence to children could have, in fact, been a monster. We become privy to the thoughts of each of the Argyle children, and Christie allows us to eavesdrop on their private conversations. It’s a necessity here because nobody wants to re-open old wounds and talk.

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Until she tried to “get hip” with the younger generation of Third Girl, it could be said of Christie that she actually wrote young people very well. The best part of Ordeal is the depiction of Mary, Hester, Mickey and Tina as lost people, each in their own way. This part of the book is A-list Christie, even if the mystery itself seems to drown a bit in its own tears.

The Mirror Crack’d, on the other hand, suffers only in that its red herrings are weak. When I first read this novel, I was not aware of the true story that inspired the author. Had I been so informed, I can’t imagine that I would have been fooled by any of the weak ruses Christie sets in our path here. As I was blissfully ignorant, however, I just as happily fell into her trap. Yet all the stuff around Marina Gregg’s life as an actress – all the reasons people would have to kill her – seem either tacked on (Margot Bence) or the stuff of old, tired GAD tropes (the secretary in love with the boss, the rival star, and so on).

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But two things lift Mirror into a higher echelon. One of them is the dark light at the end of this tunnel, a secret so awful that, for once, our ambivalence about murderer and victim knows no bounds. The other great thing about this novel is how much of an Easter Egg Christie presents to her fans in the guise of Miss Marple walking around and pondering the changes that have taken place in her beloved St. Mary Mead. This is an aspect of the book I have come to savor more and more each time I re-read it.

By 1965, with At Bertram’s Hotel, all of her novels (except one, the execrable Passenger to Frankfurt) centered on the past; unfortunately, this coincided with a steep drop in Christie’s literary powers, and the fluffily muddled memories that filled one case after another, which JJ found so charming in Elephants Can Remember, played havoc with the razor-sharp logic couched in wool that pervaded her best work. The events of the past in Bertram’s, in By the Pricking of My Thumbs, in Nemesis and Elephants are the best parts of those works, but the present day investigation into those events ranks from confusing to  tedious. Conversely, it is the present that most comes to life in Hallowe’en Party and, to some extent, Postern of Fate, while the past events are either recycled bits from older, better novels or pure gobbledygook.

The two novels published after Christie’s death, both written years before (certainly one of them at least during World War II), approach the distant past in different ways. Curtain, the final Poirot adventure, is a mildly interesting present-day hunt for a serial killer. I say “mildly” because none of the non-series characters come to particular life, and the clueing is, for the most part, only so-so. What makes this novel such an important title in the canon is its return to Christie’s origins. It returns Hercule Poirot to Styles Court, where he made his first appearance in 1920, and it reunites him after a separation lasting thirty-eight years, with Captain Hastings.

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Because Christie wrote this novel for posthumous publication, she had to be careful in her depiction of time, and so the focus is on the changes in her characters. This creates an odd sense of displacement: the people feel oddly neutral because Christie doesn’t know what to make of them. And Poirot cannot refer to world events or to the dozens of cases his fans know all about because they didn’t exist at the time of writing. All those wonderful moments we find in Taken at the Flood or even Third Girl, where Poirot and the characters are grappling with the changing times are not present here; instead, we focus on Poirot and Hastings and the vicissitudes of debilitating age in the one and familial loss in the other. It’s almost, but not quite, enough to satisfy.

For some reason, Christie took an entirely different tack with her final Miss Marple novel, Sleeping Murder. This is in no way a “final case” for the detective. It feels like it was written just after Murder at the Vicarage (in fact, some evidence suggests it was written much later than the 1940’s) and Miss Marple is in her prime. There is no suggestion that after this case she will stop detecting. But it is a case rooted firmly in the past, and the most delightful aspects of the novel are the suggestions of the supernatural in Gwenda Reed’s frightening sense of déjà vu in her new home. The case itself is just okay, mostly because the suspect list is especially listless, and, sad to say, it is one of the few Christies that I figured out as soon as I met the murderer, for reasons I will not go into here (but will happily share with anyone who asks!)

The final decade of Christie’s life may have produced her weakest puzzles, yet her late-in-life preoccupation with the past – her own past and that of her beloved regular characters – is a gift to her true fans. Thus, we tend to forgive the inconsistencies and weaknesses of these final entries in the canon, even as we tell newcomers: “Neverbegin with this one!” Reading or re-reading her work in chronological order makes this thematic journey even more evident, and we embrace the opportunity to follow the mind of a great lady from youth to  dotage, from Styles to Curtain, only to discover, as she reminded us in Endless Night: “In the end is my beginning.”

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13 thoughts on “REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST: The Stirring of Memory in the Novels of Agatha Christie

  1. What an interesting post, Brad. I think Christie’s fascination with the past and with memory really does come through in her work. You’ve mentioned some excellent examples here, too, for which thanks. I think memory plays an interesting role in Murder on the Orient Express, too. An event in the past is really fundamental to that plot, in my opinion. Thanks for the ‘food for thought.’

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting article. I read One, Two Buckle My Shoe recently, after a number of years without reading Christie, and found it not to have the enjoyment factor I remembered from her books. Others I have read in the subsequent weeks have restored my faith. I wonder if Buckle somehow reflects Christie’s boredom with Poirot at that time. The plot is ridiculously complex, but more than that the characters are barely developed (many are cardboard cut-outs), and there is so little description that it almost reads like a play. While Christie was hardly ever in Henry James territory for long, descriptive passages, Buckle is an extreme example of her excising them completely. The book has a churned out feel, and even the nursery rhyme link seems rather forced.

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    1. SPOILERS AHEAD:

      Her basic strategy is sound, Shane: start with a domestic murder and build out your plot with spies and Communists and
      Possible terrorists to set people up to believe this is politically motivated, then pull the rug out!

      The problem is that Christie’s political plots never convince, so the cardboard characters also seem silly. The one great idea is at the end, when Poirot has to decide what to do about a person who is responsible for stabilizing England – and who just happens to be a murderer.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Apologies for getting to this post late. It is of course another Christie tour de force. I think this topic can be come at from the opposite direction, i.e. forgetfulness, a lack or suppression of memory, as Christie plays around with this concept as well, most memorably in Ordeal by Innocence, (where it leads to someone’s wrongful imprisonment) and in Sleeping Murder. The latter text especially could be read through the lens of Freud’s theory of the uncanny.

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      1. Do you think it is a viable idea to say that the theme and issue of memory is often more connected with female characters? Just been pondering novels with female leads who are deemed unreliable due to supposedly faulty memory, such as in The Wheel Spins.

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      2. I’m immediately put in mind of Helen McCloy, who does a great job of looking at memory through a male perspective. Check out Two Thirds of a Ghost and, most especially, The Slayer and the Slain. For Christie, it’s mostly women, but I don’t think they dominate. The male amnesiac is a staple character of noir mystery.

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  4. A fascinating exploration here, truly. Lots of great analysis of individual books and structures, and your note regarding Cards on the Table’s use of past crime details lacking emotional resonance for the reader (largely because of its juggling of four backstories) is interesting. This question sounds puckish, but I will ask it anyway: Should a reader expect emotional resonance in a GAD mystery? Is the absence of it a bad thing?

    Because of the way I’m wired, I prefer stories told with a personal or emotional reverberation created by the story’s end. As you note, it’s what elevates Oedipus Rex from a detective story to a cathartic one with moral attached. I’ve come to think of it as Value Added: if there’s not something more resonant at the end of a mystery story, okay, but if there happens to be — cue And Then There Were None or Hamlet or The Lady in the Lake or Chinatown or Five Little Pigs — then you’ve not only been entertained but you’ve been given a glimpse of enlightenment and, just perhaps, ecstasy.

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    1. Yes, but if you call up Sophocles and ask him, he will fervently deny that he was writing a whodunit! Dickens might not deny that at least a part of Bleak House sets the standard for the Golden Age. It’s a good puzzler, but it is only a part of the huge thing Dickens is trying to accomplish!

      In answer to your question, Jason, based on all the reading I’ve done I would hazard a guess that emotional resonance at the end of a classic mystery is not expected and, frankly, not appreciated by a whole lot of fans; when it appears, it’s gravy!

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  5. I loved Christie’s characterizations in Five Little Pigs and particularly, how each person’s remembrance was compartmentalized and where common areas traversed, slightly different from one another. Poirot’s reconstruction of what must have happened was one of my favorite denouements.

    Sleeping Murder was a story I received “hot off the press” and once I started it, I couldn’t put it down. I loved the sequence where Gwen is discovering things about the house that match her memories. I remember physically starting when I reached the part about the wallpaper in the cupboard.

    Overall, I like cold case mysteries in books and movies/shows. Unforgotten is similar in structure to FLP in that the reminiscences of a variety of individuals who each have a different perspective on the original crime are woven together to make a great story.

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