By now, it will have become clear, at least to myself and all the sensible people who pay attention to my whining, that I have to cancel my plans to return to London this summer. The Bodies in the Library conference has been postponed, the buildings are empty, and the streets are bare – and while a whole dramatis personae of wonderful new friends resides there and I would have a blast just visiting with them, it’s hard to reconcile the reality of social distancing with the fact that I am a hugger.
Thus, I am honoring the strictures of self-isolation (starting my 7th week today!) in order to hopefully survive this modern pestilence until it is a mere blip in our collective memories, get through my last year of teaching and then, again hopefully, enjoy a long, happy retirement which will hopefully include participation in the yeshiva of GAD contemplation and discussion with an international coterie of smart, witty fellow fans.
Less than a year ago, I participated in a high tea with just such a group, consisting of Moira Redmond, Kate Jackson, Christine Poulson, and the inimitable Martin Edwards, and, boy, did I consider myself a lucky man. And when I got to share thoughts about Agatha Christie with my homies Dan and JJ – who recorded the whole thing, for God’s sake – I felt like the mystery nerd version of Cody “Top of the world, ma!” Jarrett. This is exactly where I wanted to be last year and what I wanted to be doing!
How hubristic of me to want to relive those happy times, to savor again a delicious gluten free steak pie with JJ, Dan, and John Harrison, to trade Christie trivia with John Curran and Julius Green, to go bookshop hopping as part of Martin Edwards’ posse. Although I suppose what would really be the height of self-delusion would be to suggest that God sent this virus to teach me a lesson about wanting too much. Job, I’m not.
So let us all get through this, Lord willing, until it is a blip, and then it is my profound hope that I will get to mingle with cognoscenti of classic crime. And one of the many folk I hope to cross paths with is Jamie Bernthal-Hooker, creator of the awesome Sign of the Crimes blog, gender theorist and fellow Agatha Christie nerd. I’ve never met Jamie, but I did get to listen to him engage in a fascinating discussion with the creators of the All About Agatha podcast, in which he applied queer theory to Christie’s work. (It’s much more complex and nuanced than you would think!)
Other bloggers inspire me all the time. Right now, I’m reading (and loving) a book that TomCat recommended on his blog (more about that in a future post). Today, Jamie has provided my inspiration with as simple a project as a review of his re-read of Christie’s The Clocks. I’ll leave it to you to read his review, which perfectly sums up the experience of experiencing a half-remembered, generally-thought-to-be-second-tier, Christie novel through new eyes and in the midst of a pandemic. I do that all the time: in fact, I’m about to start doing that very thing with another title in preparation for an exciting summer project about which I’ll let someone else spill the beans.
Jamie began his review with a confession, which I hope he doesn’t mind my quoting here:
There are some Agatha Christie novels I know word for word, by heart. For nearly all of them, I can give you a pretty good summary of the plot, name all the characters, and discuss key themes and quotes without doing any prep. This isn’t a boast: if anything, it’s a confession of severe social ineptitude and an unhealthy obsession.
Um . . . . . . . that’s me! Not for the first time did I experience the rush of self-recognition and the relief, oh yes, the relief! that there are other people like me in the world, that there is no reason for me to hide in the shadows anymore! So what if I don’t feel quite the same about The Clocks as Jamie (although I do want to re-read it a fifth time now.) There are parts of it I can remember as if I read the book yesterday: the opening, which is terrific, the murder of Edna, the cool little girl who is stuck in her room with an illness and therefore sees something important (wow, imagine reading that scene again in these fraught times!), Poirot’s description of mystery authors. I can’t for the life of me remember the significance of the clocks themselves, but I do love Christie’s use of the double whammy, the sort of bifurcated solution she favored more and more in the 50’s and 60’s. (More about this below.)
I started this corona-crisis by writing about how reading classic mysteries might get one through these dark days. And then I found myself stalled in terms of reading, exemplified by spending the last six weeks struggling to produce one paltry review. Most of that is emotional response to the bigger picture and trying to literally get my students out of bed so that they can focus on their virtual acting lessons.
I think, perhaps, that I am starting to shake off those doldrums as I seem to be zipping along with my latest reading fare. But Jamie has inspired me to reflect on the thousands of Christie-inspired memories bouncing around in my crowded brain. Many of these can be found in what some would call “second-tier” Christie, but the fact that I have, like Jamie, gotten to the point where “there are some Agatha Christie novels I know word for word, by heart,” means that there must be something about them worthy of calling to your attention.
“This is getting good . . . ”
I suppose I could present ten Christies that rarely make it on a “ten best” list – they didn’t make it on mine – and call it: the Ten Best Not Best Christies. But that wouldn’t cover the myriad of moments that stick out all across the canon. Maybe they’re not enough to elevate the status of a title in my mind, but they certainly illustrate that, like any prolific author, Agatha Christie is the sum of all her parts, not just the ones that run like . . . well, like clockwork! So please indulge this half-crazed PI (that’s Pandemic isolator) as he ruminates – without no defined spoilers, but any information about any novel gives something away – about some of the wonderful things I suggest you look for in Christie.
ONE: The second-best twist of the 1920’s.
Every author deserves a chance to practice and hone her skills. And even if she came out of the gate a talented amateur, Christie never wrote a truly unreadable book in the 1920’s; she even came up with one of the all-time classics in only her sixth outing. And if it was Roger Ackroyd that crowned her the Queen of Crime, the other eight books of that decade all have their defenders. (Never has the adage “One man’s meat . . . “ been clearer than when discussing “My Favorite Christie novel” with a group of fellow aficionados!)
The 20’s did produce the one Christie I simply can’t get through, and that is The Secret of Chimneys (1925). I don’t love the lady when she’s in thriller mode, and yet I should be able to at least get through the book as a comedy of manners. Other people like the book. Why can’t I? And then, four years later, Christie doubled down and returned to Chimneys for a sort-of-sequel with a few of the same characters but a whole new mystery. And again, for the bulk of the novel, there’s a Bertie Wooster vibe going on that kinda sorta makes me grit my teeth.
But here’s the thing: The Seven Dials Mystery (1929) is essential Christie because it contains the second-best twist of the 1920’s and ends the decade proving the author’s mastery over her audience. Ironically – because The Clocks started this whole post – it is the first Christie where the murder scene is teeming with timepieces, and I have to say yet again that I don’t remember why they’re there. TSDM is very much in the “silly thriller” mode and boils down to the essential question: can “that amiable youth, Jimmy Thesiger” and his pals discover the secret of the sinister Seven Dials Society?
Despite the overstuffed plot that is over-populated with mostly forgettable characters (I counted twenty-seven of them), one can’t help rooting for Jimmy to figure it all out. What he discovers, to my quarantined mind, at least, elevates this novel to “must-read” status. (Just don’t be put off by the first thirty-two chapters.)
TWO: The Ascension of Poirot in the 1930’S
Many of the people who insist that the Golden Age of Detection lasted from 1920 to 1940 will argue further that Agatha Christie’s own “Golden Age” lasted from 1930 – 1939. Even I, who adore the mature work she produced in the 1940’s and her “return to fun” in the first half of the ’50’s, can see the strength in that argument. Christie produced twenty novels in that ten-year span, including her first Mary Westmacott novel and her first collaboration with the Detection Club. And if you note that she began the decade with the full-length debut of Miss Jane Marple and ended it with the creation of the most famous classic murder mystery of all time (I can italicize ANYTHING here because you know what book I’m talking about!), it’s hard to deny the 30’s lovers their claim.
The 30’s could also be subtitled “The Ascension of Hercule Poirot,” as a full twelve novels and three novellas were published in this span. It was easy to include Murder on the Orient Express (1934) and Death on the Nile (1937) in my top ten. It was agonizing not to include first and last cases published in 1936: The A.B.C. Murders, which stands apart as quite a different sort of Poirot, a tense manhunt rather than a “mere” whodunnit (although Christie ultimately gives the people what they came for), and Cards on the Table, the consummate novel for those of us suffering from O.C.D.. We have four suspects and four detectives, a murder as audacious as it is bloodless, and a brilliant illustration of how a sleuth addicted to order and method, who is naturally drawn to the precision of a game like bridge, exposes a killer by identifying the person who made a mess out of this order.
There are a myriad of other pleasures to be found in the Poirot novels of the 30’s, even the lesser ones. Peril at End House (1932) and Lord Edgware Dies (1933) may have obvious solutions (at least they were to me) and rather flat secondary characters, but they showcase the friendship between Poirot and Hastings at its best, and they feature a dynamically drawn woman at their core.
The two Poirots of 1935 are both delightful. Three Act Tragedy suffers from too many uninteresting suspects, and a trick that Christie relied on all too often in her career. But it does have Mr. Satterthwaite, who makes a charming companion for Poirot here, and one of the most insidious motives in the canon. Plus, Christie had a way with daffy mothers in her early writing days –Lady Rosalie Tamplin was a highlight of the so-so Blue Train – and Mary Lytton-Gore is a lot of fun here, even if she forgot to teach her daughter some sense. Meanwhile, Death in the Clouds is unfairly underrated because it suffers as a “travel mystery” in comparison with Poirot’s sojourns on the Orient Express and down the Nile. But it really is a neat impossible crime story, with a surprise killer and some expert clueing that is a model of simplicity. One of my favorites is . . . let me be vague here . . . a trick that Poirot plays on the killer to get them to make a mistake.
I’ve raved about two of the three Poirots published in 1936, but the middle title Murder in Mesopotamia is rich with the flavor of a 1930’s archeological dig that the author herself visited, and if most of us scoff as a major action on the part of the victim, she is such a fascinating character study that we can almost understand how her neurotic egotism could drive her to do this crazy thing. And it’s not a bad little impossible crime either.
Dumb Witness (1937) is the weakest of the lot as far as mechanics go,, having fared better as a short story. Poirot works in a village setting when he is depicted as a fish out of water (see Mrs. McGinty’s Dead), but the milieu of Emily Arundell’s world is still lovingly rendered, and the early investigation into the facts is a lot of fun.
Finally, the two titles of 1938, Appointment with Death and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, feature the most incredible monster mommy and daddy! If ultimately I am drawn to more multi-faceted victims, Mrs. Boynton and Mr. Lee are perfect examples of the “so loathsome you can’t wait for them to die” genus of victim.
It’s a well-known fact that Agatha Christie spent some time working in a hospital dispensary, where she honed much of her knowledge of her favorite method of murder. (There’s a whole book written about this!) She begins showing off her prowess from her very first book where it becomes as much a mystery figuring how Emily Inglethorpe was poisoned as by whom!
Sure, the poison is often obvious, but Christie often makes a wonderful mystery out of the sources and means of administration. And since I promised that I would not spoil anything here, I can’t make a whole list of examples. However, since there are something like ten murders in this one book, I will say that my all-time favorite poisoning – maybe my favorite murder method in the whole canon – occurs in 1939’s Murder Is Easy!
I get it. I mean, I read all of P.D. James’ work, as well as Elizabeth George. I know what it means to describe a landscape or a city or a room over the course of three to five pages. If you like that sort of thing, Agatha Christie’s location descriptions will come across like shorthand. Personally, I think she is weakest on houses: she doesn’t describe most of them in a way that brings them to life – which is odd, because in life she loved her houses. She had a lot of them, and she set many of her mysteries in the houses she loved.
The setting for Evil Under the Sun and And Then There Were None
But she also loved Devon, and her description of seaside locales (Peril at End House, Evil Under the Sun, Toward Zero, And Then There Were None) are just fine. Even better are her villages, and many a novel is elevated by its village setting and populace. Much of British social history can be found by tracing these settings, from the bucolic traditions of St. Mary Mead in 1930’s Murder at the Vicarage (too many subplots, but who cares?) to the close knit yet dysfunctional town of Lymstock, viewed from the eyes of a city boy in 1943’s The Moving Finger, to the unsettling changes in a post-war village like Chipping Cleghorn in 1950 (A Murder Is Announced) and then right back to St. Mary Mead in 1962, where tacky new neighborhoods encroach on the security of the old residents in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. Only one of these books made it to my top ten, and yet I love them all, especially upon multiple re-readings.
FIVE: The Fifties
If the 30’s are Christie’s Golden Age, and the 40’s – as I’ve argued constantly – showcase her richest, most mature work, it’s the 50’s where things don’t fall apart quite as much as some people would have you believe. In her biography of the author, Laura Thompson makes the fallacious claim that by 1950, Christie is essentially phoning it in. But I will give you FIVE reasons why, like Alex in Fatal Attraction, Christie in the 1950’s cannot be ignored.
The Ascension of Miss Marple
Between 1920 and 1949, Miss Marple appears in three of the twelve novels Christie wrote about her. By 1950, she may be something like a hundred years old, but she really comes of age during this decade, not only by solving four of her best cases but also by becoming the most emotionally complex detective Christie created. Think of it: her compassion for older women like herself in A Murder Is Announced and for the servant class in A Pocketful of Rye, the touch of nostalgia she betrays for the first time over her lost youth in They Do It With Mirrors, and, strongest of all, the burning need for justice over evil that she shows in Rye and 4:50 From Paddington. If Poirot’s cases of the 1930’s are more complex and satisfying in their mechanics, he remains throughout a delightful set of authorial tics. Miss Marple becomes less and less a vision in lace fichu, a fluttery old dear, and more of a real old woman than we find in Golden Age detective fiction. And her development doesn’t stop, as all of this sets us up for the figure of “Nemesis” that she becomes in the 1960’s.
The Lesser-but-no-less-wonderful Ascension of Ariadne Oliver
In 1934, Christie took a minor series character from Mr. Parker Pine, Detective and gave her a starring role in Cards on the Table. To my mind, she stole the show, but at that point she was definitely a figure of fun, a parody of the ardent feminist and a skewed depiction (maybe) of the author herself. She doesn’t return until 1952 (in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead), but the modern version of Mrs. Oliver is very much worth the wait. Nobody can convince me that her arguments with playwright Robin Upward over his adaptation to the stage of her Finnish detective is not to some extent autobiographical (the playwright for 1928’s Alibi, an independent adaptation of Ackroyd, wanted to make Poirot into a young stud but had to settle for turning Caroline Sheppard into a sexy partner for the horny Belgian!) From then on, she enlivens every book in which she appears, creating a superb beginning for the otherwise slightly derivative Dead Man’s Folly, showing she doesn’t need Poirot to act off of in The Pale Horse and being the best part of not-great late titles Third Girl and Elephants Can Remember. She may or may not have had much of the real Christie in her, but she is both a fabulous creation and the locus for the author’s best meta moments.
After the Funeral, aka The Best Poirot
I’ve talked and talked about this title, probably more times than any of her other books during my blogging career. What more can I say? It’s the best. You should read it!
The Rise of Humor (which has a bit to do with the Humiliating Descent of Poirot)
I think that what some think as a blurring of Christie’s sharpness in the 1950’s is more a lightening of her tone. I daresay that she didn’t reinvent the wheel now that she was in her 60’s; she didn’t have to. The twelve mysteries that appeared during this decade (she also wrote the last two Westmacotts) include three of her best (A Murder Is Announced, After the Funeral and Ordeal by Innocence), but they also include books that were fun! The eccentric families that populate A Pocketful of Rye and 4:50 from Paddingtonhearken back to the Golden Age to the point of pastiche, yet their witty banter and downright nastiness saves them. Mr. Crump of Rye is, I believe, the last of Christie’s butlers and so awful a servant that he provides a perfect send off (especially coupled with the wonderful Lanscombe from that same year’s Funeral.) Mr. Crackenthorpe, from Paddington, is a fabulous crank, nasty enough that you wait for him to be the victim and find yourself laughing along with him when everyone around him starts to die.
No less amusing is the way Christie takes Poirot down a peg throughout this decade. Known far and wide for his vanity, Poirot must face the inevitable diminution of his reputation. In After the Funeral he is mistaken for a hairdresser. In Hickory Dickory Dock (1955) he is brought in as a guest speaker before a baffled student audience. The sharpest slap will come a decade later when a young potential client rejects him with a resounding “You’re too old!” Clearly the creator is having a bit of fun with a creation she confessed to growing tired of, and we can revel in that fun since Poirot still manages to solve every case.
The Bifurcated Solution
She was called “the Mistress of Mystery” because Christie had the talent for misdirection like no other. We could discuss all her tactics for days on end (God, I can’t wait I have that opportunity!), but one late technique that I tend to enjoy is the one where two separate ideas or storylines weave in and out of each other until the end, when their merging causes a delicious upset in our expectations. This is the best aspect of The Clocks, and one of the problems with the Suchet adaptation is that it upsets the balance by taking the second espionage-related plot and elevating it to higher status. I’ve mentioned here that I don’t particularly love Christie’s thrillers, but I think she does international intrigue best when she bifurcates it with a classic mystery. This turns a middling book like 1954’s Destination Unknown into something a bit more interesting when the final twist is revealed. And while there is a raging argument over whether the intrigues raging through the Middle Eastern kingdom of Ramat add to or detract from the joys of Cat Among the Pigeons (1959), I would argue that Christie does an excellent job making one plot interdependent on another. And if I, like most people, enjoy the girls’ school vibe a lot more than the Mata Hari stuff, the whole thing is expertly woven together and provides us with a lovely series of twists in the end.
Well, there you have it. I’ve cobbled together a whole passel of ideas and mentioned a lot of titles in passing. I think the point I want to make is that there’s something in nearly every Agatha Christie title to enjoy during these troubling times. I’ll even go out on a limb (I know Jamie’s there with me) and say there is much fun to be had with The Big Four. Sorry about Passenger to Frankfurt, though, Jamie . . . . you’re on your own there.