“I’VE GOT A LITTLE LIST”

Inspiration strikes a blogger in all sorts of ways. You read or watch or hear something, and it makes you want to take pen to paper and . . . oh, hell! Does anyone take pen to paper anymore?  Nowadays inspiration makes your fingers itch to strike the keyboard and let the insight pour forth!

Sometimes events occur in tandem and you feel the urge to sing! In the past couple of weeks alone, there seem to have appeared a frenzy of lists featuring “The Best Of . . . “ this or that mystery author. The Puzzle Doctor conducted an elaborate poll of John Dickson Carr; not to be outdone, Ken provided the same service for Ellery Queen. Meanwhile, my dear friend Kate broke down the good, the bad and the ugly in her rankings of GAD Grandfather, Anthony Berkeley, while JJ ranked the five Roger Scarlett novels.

A quick search of any top author’s name will yield lists galore – the best, the worst, the most! The results are hardly scientific: can anything be more personal and riddled with bias than one’s reaction to art? If you examine a prolific author like . . . oh, say Agatha Christie, and you go ahead and pull up one “Ten Best” list after another, it’s a sure bet that no two lists will agree. What’s more, if you ask any fan to create a “Ten Best” list every five years, and then examine every list over a twenty-five-year period, none of this same person’s lists with be the same. Call it the “Seven Up Effect” (after Michael Apted’s devastating documentary series).  The fact is, people change. And in matters of taste, they change sooner than you think.

63up-_publicity_-_h_2019                 Started at 7, returned every seven years . . . . . look how far we’ve come!

I myself am the most fluid of Christie fans. The only thing that runs constant is that she remains my favorite mystery author. If you asked me to rate the ten best, she would have been #1 for some time, while John Dickson Carr has, over time, worked his way up to #2, and Ngaio Marsh has worked herself down and out of my top ten completely. Ask me every day for a week to name my ten favorite Christies, and I suspect you would receive seven slightly varying lists. And I said favorite! What if you were to ask me for the ten best? Does that endeavor require greater objectivity?  How does feeling not slip in? Are the criteria for “best” and “favorite” different?

And what does the effort matter anyway? As soon as JJ put up his rankings for Roger Scarlett, the disagreements began in the comments section. Despite the fact that there are rules to this genre business (see JJ again!) and those of us who obsess over GAD can’t help but apply the rules to what we read, the fact is that art is subjective. This is why some people rush past the Impressionists at MOMA to hit the Abstracts; it’s why some set their dial on Sirius Radio to “The 80’s on 8” while others listen to “Broadway Greats.”

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Let’s talk about this further, if only to give me another chance to allude to my favorite podcast, All About Agatha, the weekly series where Kemper Donovan and Catherine Brobeck analyze and rank every novel by the Queen of Crime in order of publication. I first wrote about them on January 2, 2018, when they had reviewed exactly two novels: The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) and The Secret Adversary (1922). Time marches on, and their most recent analysis has been on the landmark 1950 Marple title, A Murder Is Announced.

Catherine and Kemper’s method of ranking the titles is what I would term “semi-scientific:” they assign points in certain categories (plot – mechanics and credibility, character – series and book specific, and something called “setting and tone” which covers everything else) and they subtract for offensive material that we all find discomfiting when we read GAD books. As of this date, their Ten Best list is as follows:

  1. Five Little Pigs
  2. And Then There Were None
  3. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
  4. Crooked House
  5. A Murder Is Announced
  6. Murder on the Orient Express
  7. The Hollow
  8. Death on the Nile
  9. The Murder at the Vicarage
  10. Peril at End House

This, to my mind, is a very credible list. If I were to create a list of my own, I’m pretty certain that most of these titles would be on it. I waffle back and forth on Ackroyd: does the “ordinariness” of the crime itself actually benefit the brilliant way Christie leads us by the nose to the denouement? The author does something similar in Orient Express by initially reducing the suspects to a potpourri of international clichés, reinforcing this with that long middle section of interviews – and then once again pulls the rug out from under us with a startling conclusion that not only explores new territory in the genre but humanizes the characters.

Just for fun, compare the All About Agatha Top Ten to the list created by John Curran, whose credentials as one of the most noted Christie scholars alive begs us to sit up and take notice. This list was published in The Guardian on 16 September, 2009:

  1. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
  2. Peril at End House
  3. Murder on the Orient Express
  4. The A.B.C. Murders
  5. And Then There Were None
  6. Five Little Pigs
  7. Crooked House
  8. A Murder Is Announced
  9. Endless Night
  10. Curtain

The first two books on Curran’s list may be discounted for comparison for the moment because they have not been covered yet on the podcast. In addition, I have no idea how much personal preference played into the make-up of this list, although Curran has more than proven his academic credentials in his discussion of the author. Here he has included The A.B.C. Murders on his “Ten Best” but has not included The Murder at the Vicarage, Death on the Nile, or The Hollow.

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How do I feel about that? Well, I think A.B.C. an all-around better book than Vicarage – snappier, more original – yet in some ways I like Vicarage more, as it contains a rich description of the village from where Miss Marple sprang, and I have quite an affinity for the old broad!  But I think Nile and Hollow have both of them beat. Nile’scentral triangle runs rings around Vicarage, as do the various subplots. And The Hollow is so rich in character, so revealing in a roundabout way of the author herself, that it can’t help but satisfy. And yet, perhaps, the actual mystery of A.B.C. is better than The Hollow?

Oh, gosh, I don’t know! Is this analysis . . . or emotion? While I understand the inclusion of Peril at End House, which incorporates one of the most effective utilizations of an oft-used trick, something about the tone of that book leaves me cold. As a reader who values characterization, I don’t particularly like any of the characters except for Nick. And then, part of it may have to do with my feelings about Hastings and whether or not he improves any book that he is in. I tend to think that he is at his best in the worst of his entries: The Big Four and Dumb Witness, for example, are better for his presence, but I don’t see him as a particular asset in ABC or Peril. Don’t get me wrong, I do like Hastings; my analysis of him has to do with the range of subjectivity I bring to any “analysis” of Christie.

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One of the things I appreciate about Kemper and Catherine’s process is that they have periodically revisited their rankings and made changes as they saw fit. Their initial ranking of Styles was alarmingly low, but after a year they saw what I can only term as added value in the novel and adjusted their scores accordingly. I can’t quite remember, but I think much of this had to do with plot credibility and their objections to the specialized knowledge required to figure out how Mrs. Inglethorpe died. And with all due respect, the pair poke quite a bit of fun throughout at Christie’s over-reliance on disguise. Would it actually have worked here? Does the suspension of disbelief that may prove necessary here obviate its qualities? The answer is . . . probably yes. But for a first novel it is really quite good, with fully realized characters, a strong sense of time and place, and a thrilling introduction to Poirot. It deserved more points, and I thank Catherine and Kemper for bestowing those.

At this point, I feel I should inform you that this post has been drastically revised from a much-worked original one, where I pulled down a great many Christie “Ten Best” lists for the purpose of comparison, all leading up to the Grand Unveiling of my own personal list. But then, All About Agatha followed up their AMIA review with a “very special episode,” a second interview with author Sophie Hannah. And everything changed.

I should tell you that I have a very problematical relationship to Ms. Hannah. On the one hand, it is readily apparent from her two interviews on the podcast and several I have read in the newspapers that Hannah is a huge Christie fan whose – and I use this word very much as a compliment – nerdiness over Dame Agatha matches my own. What’s more, we share an inordinate fondness for After the Funeral: I would go so far as to call it my favorite Christie, knowing full well it may not be her best but that its features work so well and it contains perhaps the most startling motive in the canon.

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On the other hand, there are those Poirot continuation novels of hers to contend with. Honestly, maybe nobody can capture Christie’s panache in plotting combined with her charming simplicity of style. Hannah herself has stated that she refuses to attempt to duplicate what Christie has done. You can refer to the three books that have come out thus far (with a fourth due next fall) as homages, but the fact is that Christie’s name is smack dab on the cover, and Poirot, on the page at least, is an iconic figure. These are being sold partly on the memory and reputation of the original. Yet I have read these books, and they are but shadows of the original. I do not say this cavalierly or to garner attention. I recognize it’s just my opinion; obviously, the novels have been selling well enough to engender one sequel after another.

Honestly though, folks, there is nobody on this earth who wants this to work more than me. I’m the guy who dreams of uncovering a cache of twenty or so Christie titles thought lost to the ages, bringing them back to civilization and having them published for an adoring public. I’m the man who still maintains his childish vision of heaven as a green village/city where I have my own cottage (complete with every pet I’ve even companioned with), where Ella Fitzgerald sings at the nightclub in town, and where the local bookshop knows me well because I stop in frequently for the newest novel by the Angel of Arsenic! I wanted some essence of her brilliance to shine through in Hannah’s writing, and I don’t think it does.

This opinion might cost me the opportunity to sit down to Sup with Sophie, which is a shame because I respect her passion for Christie and know we would have a ball finding some common ground, arguing vehemently where we disagree, and geeking out on the minute details we both remember and love.

I bring this up because as I was in the middle of writing my original incarnation of this article, I listened to Sophie Hannah chatting with Kemper and Catherine where she got down to gently but firmly shredding the podcast’s current rankings. It was clear that the hosts were prepared to be challenged but a bit flustered by what they heard. They didn’t back down – these aren’t neophytes! They are equally ardent students of Christie’s work – but they couldn’t help but sound a bit defensive as they argued their own points (and conceded a few points to Hannah.) I think that’s because they had set up an “objective” system and had been caught wearing their hearts on their sleeves. Which is fine because Ms. Hannah’s refutations were likewise equal parts fact and feeling.

I heartily concurred with some of the opinions Sophie brought up, most notably a sense of bafflement that the hosts hated Death Comes as the End so much and had rated it so low. It isn’t just that the tour de force set in ancient Egypt is an impressive technical achievement; it’s also fun and certainly deserved more respect than the podcast had given it. Even more delicious was that some of Sophie’s reasoning touched on individual moments in the novel that we both love, most notably the death of Satipy, on which I have commented several times on this blog for its application of a favorite Christie technique: the look over the shoulder.

cards-on-the-table-4               murder_in_retrospect_first_edition_cover_1942

Ms. Hannah and I also disagree on several things. She didn’t give much love to Cards on the Table, one of my favorites. She couldn’t understand why Five Little Pigs is the current first place title. Catherine defended this choice well – you go, Catherine! It deserves its place for its final pages alone, one of the four most devastating endings in the canon (the other three being And Then There Were None, The Hollow -both of which deserve their top ten status – and A Pocketful of Rye, whose final pages give a mostly humorous revisit to Family Country House Murder Land emotional resonance and deepen our love for Miss Marple.)

The main point Ms. Hannah wanted to make was that the current ranking system was missing an important category, that of reading enjoyability. How much fun do we have reading each book? It’s an interesting idea and certainly lends credence to the argument that ranking art has as much to do with emotion as with technical prowess.  Hannah argues that the brilliance of the murder plot in Pigs is offset by arid quality to the writing (I disagree), and she goes on to suggest that Dumb Witness, ranked quite low on the podcast, should be rated much higher because it’s so much damn fun to read. (Really, Sophie???)

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I suspect that a year from now, Kemper and Catherine will have a different Top Ten list, however slight the variations. After they cover Funeral, and Ordeal by Innocence and The Pale Horse and Curtain . . . what will the final list look like? I suspect that the next time Sophie Hannah appears on the podcast, her opinions will have changed. I suspect that, were I so lucky as to sit down again for dinner with John Curran and ask him to spout the Ten Best Christies, his list would differ from the 2009 list.

 

Postscript: this was all supposed to lead to my own personal list of Ten Best Christies. Truth to tell, I did create a list and then, for good or ill, I decided to wait till the evening to post. And then I forgot. And then I woke up and remembered, but when I read the list I had created, I . . . wasn’t so sure. And then I started thinking of what my own criteria might be,  and how it would be okay to factor favoritism into the mix. I feel like I’m enough of a fanboy, that I know enough about Agatha Christie, that my opinion of what constitutes her best counts for something, that it can be based on an understanding of how well she accomplishes something technically andaesthetically.

Of course, it would be foolhardy to assume that it matters much to anyone but me because personal taste will always color one’s reaction to another person’s preferences. That is why when I read on a fan page something like, “Just read my first Christie, At Bertram’s Hotel, and it’s such a perfect book . . . “ I remain silent. I know that the opening chapter of the novel is gold. I know that the character of Bess Sedgwick is fascinating. I know that every time I read the book I want a toasted scone. But a “perfect” book? Who am I to say this isn’t so? All I can tell you for certain is that you will never find it on my list of Ten Best Christies. Never.

What will you find? Tune in next time.

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(Postscript to the postscript: When I realized that I would be writing about lists, I decided to endow this post with the title of a song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. When I checked the lyrics, I discovered that the song essentially describes all the sorts of people that Koko would like to have beheaded. A more appropriate choice for a mystery blog could not have been made!)

23 thoughts on ““I’VE GOT A LITTLE LIST”

  1. My top 10 includes a lot of the likely suspects. I wish I could include A Murder is Announced, but as I’ve mentioned before its set-up for me projects one of the more transparent variations on an oft-used device. And I suspect Moving Finger is there because of my eagerness to include Miss Marple SOMEWHERE (I actually prefer her as a character to Poirot, but he gets most of the best plots). And I think there’s something about The Hollow that I just miss (I love the characterizations, but the plot is just nothing, IMO).

    10. Ordeal By Innocence
    9. The Moving Finger
    8. Cards on the Table
    7. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
    6. Curtain
    5. Murder on the Orient Express
    4. After the a Funeral
    3. Death on the Nile
    2. Five Little Pigs
    1. And Then There Were None

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    1. Well, my list will certainly include many of your list, which either proves the old “great minds” adage or suggests that there really are certain titles that, you know, belong at the top!

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      1. Well, I think that both true!

        I should point out that my 1-4 run a very close race, as do my 5-8. If the list were open to all Christie works— not just novels— The Unexpected Guest might very well make the top 10, or even the short story The Witness for the Prosecution.

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      1. Full disclosure, Ken: Sarry (that’s my pet name for her) consults with me on every adaptation. At last, Sarry and I are allowing the real Agatha Christie to shine through! That’s why you can thank me for all the scenes that you will find in The Pale Horse involving necrophelia.

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  2. The EQ poll is incredibly close right now, so if anyone hasn’t voted …

    The problem with coming up with a list now is that many of her books I have not read in decades, but others I have reread. Like blending lists from two people! I have always liked the Poirot novels more than the Miss Marple ones, and yet I wonder if that would change on rereading.

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    1. The Marple novels are more loosely clued as a rule, and the deduction is far more “instinctive.” I think that would drive some readers crazy. I always liked Marple, but I’ve come to appreciate the more ruminative aspects of her books as I’ve gotten older. It’s a natural response because Christie is much more sensitive here than in the Poirot novels of how aging affects your relationship with the world.

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  3. Any ranking of anything ever done by anyone was immediately regretted the second another person laid eyes on it. Like you, I can safely say that any ordered list I’ve ever made probably wouldn’t turn out the same if I sat down and rewrote it now — even that Roger Scarlett list (only 5 items long!) will be different next month…well, okay, maybe not…

    However, I can safely say that my top two Christies of all time are and will always be:

    1. Agatha
    2. Linford

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  4. If you want to talk popularity, it just happens that I did a Christie poll yonks ago. The top 4 Poirot, in no particular order, were Orient, Nile, ABC and Roger, top Marple were Announced, Finger, Vicarage and 4:50 (quirk of the voting there) and non-series-or-based-on-an-island were Cyanide, Crooked and Pale Horse. Just so you know…

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    1. It is hard! It’s very hard. Christie waited until she was 82 to provide her own list, and who knows how serious she was about that! (She claimed at the time that her favorite novel was . . . Endless Night!!!) Imagine having 66 children and being asked to name your favorite ten. All of them have qualities that you admire, even love, and after eliminating the ones who stiffed you at Christmas and the ones who’ve gone to prison, you still find 35 or so that might qualify! And once you’ve finally reached a decision, one of those in prison sends you a Christmas present, and you have to start all over . . .

      Obviously, I have too much time on my hands . . .

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      1. “(She claimed at the time that her favorite novel was . . . Endless Night!!!)”

        Creators often express a preference for what they see as their “neglected” children — not their worst works, but the ones they think haven’t been recognized enough. (I can think of examples among the composers whose works I’ve taught.) I feel that I’ve seen Endless Night turn up on more than one top-10 lists of her work. I don’t get it either. (This isn’t the place to go on about it.)

        The list at the top of this matches my own preferences, close enough. I probably wouldn’t include Crooked House — I admire its ingenuity more than I actually love it), but I definitely would have Peril at End House, The Hollow, And Then There Were None, Orient Express, and Five Little Pigs. I’d be hard-pressed to include a Marple, though of course one feels obligated to; maybe 4.50 from Paddington, which has many endearing scenes even though it’s a prime example of solution-by-divination. (A Murder Is Announced is a better puzzle but pushes coincidence beyond any conceivable limits.)

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  5. I’ve said it here before and I’ll say it again: Dumb Witness is the only Christie novel which actually bored me. Hastings is indeed the highlight, since I recall his narration being a little snippier than normal in that one. I know Christie phased him out and I don’t blame her, but perhaps she could have gotten some more mileage out of him by toning down the fawning and thickheadedness and playing up him rolling his eyes at Poirot a bit. Sort of like, “Yes yes, Poirot, I know you solved it ten minutes after showing up here, you don’t need to drop teasing hints all the time.”

    But it’s been so long since I’ve read it that maybe I’m wrong! And it has painfully little to do with your post! I guess I’ll say that top 10 anythings are almost always subjective, it’s more an opportunity to wrestle with your own opinions/the opinions of others, in good fun of course.

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