“There is sometimes a deep chasm between the past and the future. When one has walked in the valley of the shadow of death, and come out of it into the sunshine – then, mon cher, it is a new life that begins . . . The past will not serve . . . “ Sad Cypress (1940)
Thirteen Novels (written as Agatha Christie)
One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940/1)
N or M (1941)
The Moving Finger (1943)
Sparkling Cyanide (1945)
Two Novels (written as Mary Westmacott)
Absent in the Spring (1944)
The Rose and the Yew Tree (1948)
Notable Short Story Collections
The Labours of Hercules (1947)
Three Stage Plays
And Then There Were None (1943)
Appointment with Death (1945)
Murder on the Nile (1945)
Two Radio Plays
Three Blind Mice (1947)
Butter in a Lordly Dish (1948)
Come, Tell Me How You Live (1946)
Detection Club co-founder Anthony Berkeley created a popular, though irritating sleuth in Roger Sheringham, produced one of the classics of the genre in 1929 (The Poisoned Chocolates Case) and wrote inverted mysteries under the pseudonym Francis Iles that are more popular today than his standard mysteries. In 1941 his novel Before the Fact was adapted by no less a personage as Alfred Hitchcock into the film Suspicion.
And yet by 1941, Berkeley had essentially traded fiction writing for criticism and would never produce a novel again. The same goes for Dorothy L. Sayers, whose gentleman sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey gained cult status thanks to television. After a great run in the 20’s and 30’s, Sayers mysteriously set aside the genre and dedicated the rest of her writing life to scholarly and religious pursuits.
By 1940, half of the original 28 members of the Detection Club had curtailed their mystery writing (only four of them had passed away). Not all of them had fervently embraced the genre or saw it as an avocation: E.C. Bentley, who served as president of the club from 1936 to 1949, only wrote three volumes of mystery fiction (the first of which, Trent’s Last Case, was already sending up the conventions of the genre in 1913). Indeed, only a few of the original members could be called crime writing workhorses, and I don’t need to point out the irony of the fact that these men – Freeman Wills Crofts, John Rhode, and Henry Wade – were the stars of a book by Curtis Evans whose fervent message was, “These guys deserve to be remembered and read.”
In 1940, as in 1916, the world was becoming embroiled in another great war. But readers’ tastes were not the same, and the idea that the “pure puzzles” of the Golden Age could suffice to distract citizens from the real terrors around them was shaky. People craved more realism. They wanted richer characters and emotional resonance. They wanted humor. They wanted depth. They wanted a point of view.
It’s not like puzzle-making stopped. Gladys Mitchell, John Dickson Carr, Nicholas Blake, and Christopher Bush, all elected to the Club in the 1930’s, wrote up a storm for the next twenty years. In 1946, Christianna Brand, Cyril Hare and Richard Hull joined and produced classics of the genre. I can’t speak expertly about all of these folks. Carr stuck with the “pure puzzle” until he was fed up and turned his focus on historical thrillers (with a puzzle twist!) Brand dabbled in many genres and attained great success as a writer of children’s books. Her mysteries are as clever as they get, but they are also a sort of character study of specific groups of people in specific milieus and illustrate like few other authors of her time the toll that crime takes on that community.
After a decade of unsurpassed success creating one clever puzzle after another, the fifty-year old Christie certainly could have slowed down, resting on her laurels or publishing a novel here and there while she focused on helping Max Mallowan in his archaeological work, buying up more real estate, and trying to figure out how to pay her taxes. The truth was, writing was a job and it barely paid the bills on her vast estates and travel. It was also her calling, and while Max spent much of the war overseas, Christie remained in London, returned to volunteer work in a hospital dispensary, and distracted herself, as much as her readers, from the frequent bombings with her writing.
Thus, rather than taking it easy, Christie in the 40’s was as prolific as ever: fifteen novels appeared in print, and two more were relegated to the vaults to provide a finishing point to the careers of Poirot and Miss Marple when the time came. In addition, her career as a playwright took off, with three adaptations of her own work appearing on stage over three years. Christie shows with her plays that she could crank them out pretty quickly and that she had no qualms about making changes where she felt it would better play to audiences and satisfy her own tastes. She tacks on a happy ending to And Then There Were None so that someone “would be left to tell the tale” onstage. She cut Poirot out of Appointment with Death and Murder on the Nile. Neither is a particularly fine play; Nile, in particular, suffers from a severe cutting of characters and the sorely missed exoticism of the novel’s setting. Still, Appointment holds special interest because Christie gives it a different, arguably much more interesting and shocking, ending than the one in the novel.
Agatha had also toyed with radio drama, and in 1947 she wrote a half hour drama to honor the 80th birthday of Queen Mary called Three Blind Mice. She took someone else’s suggestion to turn it into a short story, but it was Christie’s own inspiration to expand it into a stage play that would result in one of the most significant events of the following decade – and of her entire career. (That comes next time.) In the U.S., a short-lived series featuring the character of Hercule Poirot was broadcast on the air. It starred Harold Huber and avoided adapting the actual stories in favor of moving the Belgian to New York and having him deal with American-style cases that would have more likely suited Sam Spade or Johnny Dollar. I include a link to the first broadcast here, not because it’s a great show but because Christie herself introduced it over short wave radio, a rare chance to hear the author’s voice.
There were only two major film adaptations of Christie’s work during the 40’s. if one of them, a remake of Love from a Stranger (1947) had a lukewarm reception, the other ranks as one of the most charming Christie films. 1945’s And Then There Were None is based on Christie’s play rather than the novel, so it runs a bit more to high humor and has that happy ending that most likely would have been demanded by film censors. It is also beautifully cast and filmed, and if you can accept that it eschews much of the horror of the novel, it’s quite an enjoyable experience.
In 1939, Collins Crime Club had posted an advertisement claiming that Agatha Christie was finishing up the greatest novel of her career thus far. The ad gave away far too much plot, leaving the author incensed and threatening not to renew her contract, but the hyperbole was, for once, well-deserved. Other authors had received the word of how good this book was going to be; in America, Ellery Queen shelved a project because he heard that it bore too much resemblance to Christie’s.
And Then There Were None bears much resemblance to a novel that had appeared at the beginning of the decade. Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning’s The Invisible Host (1930) tells the tale of eight acquaintances summoned to a New Orleans apartment and warned by a recorded voice that they would all die. I read the book years ago and have forgotten it, but the film adaptation, The Ninth Guest (1934) is quite fun; it also reveals that the basic plot outline may be similar to Christie’s, but in all other aspects Bristow and Manning’s story is no classic.
It’s telling that Christie closed out the 30’s with something so different from the landslide of crisp murder mystery that came before. Yes, this is a whodunnit, arguably her most mature locked room mystery, more lightly clued than usual, but still fairly played. It’s also a psychological thriller of the first order. Finally, it is a brilliant character study. In the opening chapter, we meet a potentially stock group of characters: the shady doctor, the spinster, the soldier of fortune, the retired military man, the pretty working girl – all types that we have met before. Stuck in an extraordinary situation, they emerge as rich portraits of deeply flawed human beings, of the enormous variety of facades that evil can present. I remember first reading this when I was eleven and rooting for Vera Claythorne all the way, not understanding until much later that she . . . is . . . the . . . worst!!
In addition to becoming the most successful crime novel ever written, And Then There Were None serves as a signpost that the coming decade will most assuredly not be business as usual for Christie; rather, it will usher in the richest, most character-driven, most experimental work of her career.
This becomes apparent from the start. Sad Cypress (1940) is the first of six novels to feature Poirot . . . and yet Poirot isn’t even present for half the book. Instead, we focus on the murder trial of a complex young woman named Elinor Carlisle, and here a dominant theme of the decade emerges: the exploration of how the sins of the past inform the present. Certainly prior events have played importance over the past twenty years of work: the death of Mrs. Ferrars in Roger Ackroyd, the mischief made by the younger versions of Mrs. Boynton and Simeon Lee in, respectively, Appointment with Death and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. Most effective is the way the Daisy Armstrong case inspires murder aboard the Orient Express.
The youthful cast of Sad Cypress is ignorant of the “sin” committed long ago that has led to a sense of dissatisfaction in every character. Christie takes great pains to show the effect on Elinor, Roddy and Mary as each they struggle to create a happy life for themselves. This central triangle is reminiscent of the one in Death on the Nile, with interesting variations. The “Linnet” character becomes the Jackie figure, and the moral weakness of the “Simon” counterpart is laid bare pretty quickly. The satellite of figures orbiting around this triangle is quite small, so there’s no place for Christie to toss off one red herring after another. This doesn’t make Cypress a better book than Nile to me, but it is much more a romantic tragedy with murder rather than a conventional whodunnit. Still, the author manages to insert a few great tricks that allow her to heap suspicion on the heroine and give Poirot a real challenge. It’s also nice to know that the author – who was forced to eliminate the original courtroom finale of her first novel in order to get it published – is here able to stick in a wonderful scene of Poirot giving testimony that slowly reveals the identity of the killer.
Sad Cypress is followed in rapid succession by two more Poirot novels, and at this point one might be tempted to argue with yours truly about just how much Agatha has changed. One, Two, Buckle My Shoe has many of the trademarks of a traditional Christie novel: a marvelous opening (Poirot at the dentist!), the deadly duo, the framing of the tale with a nursery rhyme. It also presents us with a glimpse of Poirot at worship, where he receives divine inspiration that leads to the solution (God taking the place of Hastings?) and a killer who becomes a more interesting figure when revealed. It strikes me that Poirot has a much bigger moral dilemma here than in Orient Express as his revelation poses serious burdens on the future security of the British Empire.
Buckle is, in my view, something of a mess. The nursery rhyme is superfluous, and the uneasy mix of political and personal subplots drags on and on in a plot that feels like a long, crooked line leading to a solution where only three members of a large cast of characters are significant to the action. If Buckle is one of my least favorite Poirot novels, Evil Under the Sun can be found near the top. In almost every way, it is a return to the pure 1930’s puzzle plot, but with a lightness of touch and a profoundly entertaining readability. Again, old tricks appear, but they are given a new gloss and are wonderfully rendered. The novel is expertly clued, and one of the most interesting aspects of the book is how Christie shames readers into revisiting our opinion of the victim. (As much as I love Diana Rigg in the film, I don’t think she gives us the Arlena Marshall of the novel at all.) The other characters may revert somewhat to type, but they represent the very best of these types, and the minor characters are especially well rendered.
Next, we revisit Tommy and Tuppence and marvel a bit at the growing powers of their progeny. We last saw them operating a shifty detective agency in 1929, and at the end of their adventures in Partners in Crime, Tuppence announces her retirement from sleuthing to begin a much more involving adventure – motherhood. Twelve years later, in N or M, the Beresford’s two children are engaged in secret war work for the government and worrying from afar about their middle-aged parents. Considering how Christie expended much energy stretching the lifespans of Poirot and Miss Marple, it’s odd that she would conflate time like this. But it’s the best thing about this new adventure: the sense of ennui settling upon a devoted couple who have saved the world more than once and are now relegated to the dustbin of civic duty. When the call comes to Tommy to do some undercover work in aid against Nazi spies, he commits the most heinous betrayal of Tuppence and goes off to have all the fun for himself. Fortunately, Tuppence has beaten him to the punch and, equally fortunately she forgives him immediately.
What follows is . . . fine, but ultimately a Tommy and Tuppence mystery breaks the general rule of making the detective the outsider. Here, the suspects don’t matter, the spy plot doesn’t matter; all that matters is Tommy and Tuppence, how their love for each other (and their country) helps them overcome each other’s weaknesses and shine a light on their strengths. The picture of a seaside country inn, one of those places where so many people went to wait out the war during the Blitz, is lovely, and if the identities of N and M are not much of a surprise, you’re still invited to go along for a jaunty ride.
In 1942, Miss Marple finally returns. (It’s fascinating to learn from historian John Curran that Christie had intended to put Miss Marple into Death on the Nile; I would have loved to see the relationship that developed between her and Jackie. Oh, the places you’ll never go . . . ) The novel we get, The Body in the Library, is worth the wait. Where The Murder at the Vicarage literally basks in the traditions of Mayhem Parva, Library displays cracks in that façade. The Bantrys are still firmly ensconced at Gossington Hall, and Miss Marple still resides next to the vicarage where she can keep a benign eye out on the growing Clement family and a more calculating one on the goings on of village life.
But now the village has been invaded by outsiders, sullen young people connected with the film industry, who flaunt their dubious morality and disrespect for their elders – the perfect patsies, it turns out, for the real villains. The Body in the Library begins by exulting in the timeworn (to the point of banal) cliches of the Golden Age, but it does so with a wink. And then it plunges old Miss Marple into a surprisingly modern, sordid tale. Based on their youth and naivete, the victims are among the most pathetic in the canon, and the villains represent the most cruel. Fortunately, they are no match for Miss Marple.
Given this joyful signal that the spinster sleuth is now a regular part of the canon, it’s odd that, although she appears two books later in The Moving Finger, she doesn’t show up until Chapter Ten! Why on earth allow a perfectly charming ex-RAF soldier to carry the load, both as narrator and hero-sleuth, up till then and then relegate him to doing the heavy lifting for this elderly deus ex machina? True, Christie had relegated Poirot to the sidelines for the first half of Sad Cypress, but after a score of Poirot novels and many more stories, this experiment might have been Christie’s way of compromising with readers clamoring for the character she was most tired of.
Whatever the motive, the village of Lymstock and its inhabitants is every bit as enticing as St. Mary Mead was in the previous two Marple outings. In Agatha Christie’s Notebooks, John Curran makes much of the fact that Jerry Burton joins a long list of male narrators, that after inventing Captain Hastings, Christie had grown comfortable with speaking through the male voice. The only thing that disturbs me is how charming and smart Jerry seems to be . . . until Miss Marple comes to town. Then he becomes the stupid Watson in spades. He also becomes Megan’s savior, both of her life (which is par for the course in classic mysteries) but also in fashion. And here I have a problem with Jerry browbeating Megan into coming to London for a makeover. I know others disagree with me. It’s a very small point of contention that I have with a perfectly lovely book.
Sandwiched in-between the Marple novels is a book which crystalizes themes that Christie has flirted with throughout the decade into an emotional masterpiece. Five Little Pigs is about the rot that occurs when justice is not served. It’s about memory and art and the true nature of love. Its small cast encompasses the limitations and possibilities of three generations. And, rare for Christie, she saves the most devastating moment for after the solution is revealed, making this one of her richest and best novels.
Gone are the character “types” that cram the boardinghouse of San Souci and the Jolly Roger Hotel in Devon. These are flesh and blood folk with a complexity that permeates the entire work like never before. The theme of guilt is writ large throughout: Carla Lemarchant begs Hercule Poirot to prove that her mother, Caroline Crale, who died in prison after being convicted of the murder of her father, the famous artist Amyas Crale, was innocent. Poirot must thus prove the legal guilt of someone else, and while there is a disadvantage to having to piece facts together after fifteen years, the advantage to this is discovering what guilt has wrought on these individuals after all this time.
What he uncovers continues this theme: Caroline is guided by the guilt she feels for having disfigured her little sister; the Blake brothers wrestle with their feelings for their best friend’s wife and mistress; even Amyas has a problem with his own behavior and tries at the last minute to prove his love for Caroline. Ironically, it is only Elsa, the georgeous, amoral mistress, who feels no guilt at the time of the murder. And yet, with the passage of time her actions all but destroy her, to the point that Poirot makes an extraordinary decision in the end.
It’s fascinating to contrast Elsa with the two other young women in the novel. Elsa shrivels up due to an isolation of her own making. Carla, a mere babe at the time of the murder, can’t find personal happiness until justice is served. She mustunderstand why her mother never defended herself and yet pled her innocence in a final letter. And Angela finds such bliss in intellectual pursuits, having been lucky enough to find a friend in Miss Williams, that she alone among the “little pigs” blossoms into the best of women, despite her scars and her involvement in the tragedy.
In the middle of the decade, Christie produced three standalone mysteries, all of them concerned with events of the past, one in the most literal of senses. First is Towards Zero, as much a novel of psychological insight as a ripping good mystery. The basic premise is that, although we tend to view the murder as the start of a mystery, followed by the investigation and delivery of the solution, murder is, in fact, the endpoint of a series of significant events. And it is in the way that the past is either hidden or misread that brings these people together for an insidious murder plot. Christie offers another strong hook by telling us upfront that one of the people we are about to meet is a homicidal maniac who got their start as a child. The way she weaves the clues as to this person’s identity are splendid; I always love what Christie can do with casual conversation. The only thing that mars the book for me is the passivity of a key female character: I understand that she may have acted out of fear and love in the main, but at the end she submits to a man’s dominance in a way that doesn’t cut well with modern readers.
Death Comes as the End is the one set in ancient Egypt, the result of a challenge proposed to Christie by her friend Stephen Glanville. People have a variety of opinions about this one. Personally, I’m very fond of it. The body count is probably the second highest in the canon, and I have to say that – given how lacking it is in clues of any kind – I solved this one by correctly interpreting a variation of one of Christie’s favorite clues. As a feat of historical research, it deserves great praise, but most people don’t come to mysteries for historical research. I think it was Robert Barnard who pointed out that the killer’s identity is basically revealed when nearly everyone else is dead. I don’t think this is totally fair, but hey! You’re not going to find fingerprints and clues woven into conversation in this sort of thing. Nobody here has been trained to be a detective, and so there’s no detective – except perhaps the for grandmother whose rudimentary attempts at sleuthing are interrupted by some poisoned unguent. I just think the whole thing is a lot of fun.
I don’t think Sparkling Cyanide is as much fun, and the thing we’re supposed to swallow to believe in the second murder is such an iffy circumstance that I can’t buy it. However, the idea of the book is great and contrasts in interesting ways with Five Little Pigs in its exploration of effects that the death of a pivotal figure has in the lives of her circle of family and friends. Rosemary Barton is nowhere near as interesting as Amyas Crale, but the circle is interesting, and I think Christie shows here – as she did in Pigs and Cards on the Table that she is as comfortable with a small cast of suspects as she is with a great big family. After a good start, however, I find that the book gets a little tiresome, and the ending feels like a bit of a cheat. That’s okay, because there are three titles to go in the 40’s, and two of them count among my favorite Christies.
At first glance, The Hollow is a good old-fashioned extended-family-in-a-country-house murder mystery. Christie wrote surprisingly few of these. Even if you count Appointment with Death – it certainly centers around an extended family; just substitute a camp in Petra for an old castle in Newbery – the only others that come to mind up till now are The Mysterious Affair at Styles and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. If we compare The Hollow to these three titles, however, it becomes quickly apparent that Christie is inventing a different template for this sort of case, one she will use much more often in the latter half of her career.
The first notable difference is that the family that gathers at The Hollow for a fateful weekend is round instead of flat. It’s round in terms of most of the characters, and it’s round in terms of its history. In Styles and Appointment with Death, the only significant facts we learn are that the mother figure/victim-to-be is a stepmother who wields a heavy control over the family. Emily Inglethorpe is a much gentler tyrant than Mrs. Boynton, who used to be a prison warden. The oldest son in both families is in a marriage that, on the surface, seems unsatisfactory (in both novels, this is a feint toward ultimate domestic bliss). The younger son is at loose ends. The Boyntons are a larger family, but we don’t get – or even need – a lot of history about why they are so dysfunctional; the answer sits like a Buddha in a Middle Eastern cave, daring anyone to kill her.
The Hollow is bursting with history: about houses and inheritances, about good and bad marriages and complicated romantic history. The flattest character in it – movie star Veronica Craye – doesn’t need to be more than a construct (outsider and romantic threat); the rest of the cast resembles one of Christianna Brand’s families: they’re flawed, sometimes irritating, but also sympathetic. If most Golden Age victims possessed too much of something – money, power over others, even happiness – the best victims of the 40’s were complex – like John Christow, who is both a sinner and a savior, a highly attractive figure with terrible flaws.
I love how Christie takes the central triangle in Five Little Pigs – the artist, the long-suffering spouse, the lover – and shifts them around into a wholly original trio. And where the artist in Pigs was the victim, the fact that the artist here survives and takes center stage allows Christie to say something different about the artistic temperament. Christie is more personal here in every way, giving us a view of one of her old houses – and of her love of real estate – as well as a look into the isolated life of the artist. Poirot faces off against the most cunning conspiracy since that novel on the train, and he ends it as he ended Pigs: confronting the mistress of a dead man and allowing justice to take a different, kinder course.
Taken at the Flood was the last Christie novel I read. I had never heard of it, and when I came across a used copy in my neighborhood bookstore, it was like finding gold. This is a book that I don’t love, but I like it more each time I read it because I find more things in it. The specific historical events that set the stage for the mystery, the tangled dysfunctions within the Cloade family that are initially more subtle than usual, stemming from everyone’s willingness to allow patriarch Gordon Cloade to play Bountiful Father – and then falling apart when he suddenly dies. Maybe the ultimate chain of events gets more tangled than necessary, and once again we have an ending where a once engaging young woman needs to be slapped to fall in love with the “right” guy. Still, this is an often riveting portrait of a post-war family that is all but destroyed by their own weaknesses.
And, just like she did in the 30’s, Christie ends the decade with a bang! Three family mysteries in a row! When I decided at the end of last year to create a ranking of my top ten mysteries, Crooked House placed just below The Hollow, but aside from the family milieu, it’s hard to compare them and oh so easy for those placements to seesaw every other week! I think the Angkatell/Savernake/Hardcastle clan has more dimension than the Leonides, but Crooked House is like a dark fairy tale, where you can’t figure out whether to root for the princess or the stepmother, and where the prince emerges from the most unlikely of places.
When a mystery has one of those endings, the question I ask as a scholar of the genre is, with apologies to Peggy Lee: “Is that all there is?” My first experience with Ellery Queen was The Greek Coffin Mystery, which has a corker of a solution! I threw the book up in the air when I first read it. But when I re-read it, I was bored. A surprise ending is so much more satisfying when it is earned, and to my mind nobody earns the surprise more satisfyingly than Christie. This is because while all murderers wear a mask to hide their guilt from both the police and the reader, Christie puts her culprits in the thinnest of masks that almost resemble the person we’ve come to know from the first time they are mentioned. I don’t hold every one of her titles in equal esteem, but while I can think of several titles where the unmasking of the killer undid me, my reaction is never, “You’ve got to be kidding!” – it’s “Oh my God! Of course!!!”
And so, before we get to the unmasking of the killer of Aristede Leonides, we become drawn into the romantic crisis that Aristede’s murder creates for Charles and Sophia, as well as the repercussions of the victim having married a waitress. A similar situation to the unwanted marriage in Styles, but what a difference nearly thirty years of plotting has made. In her biography of Christie, Laura Thompson asserts that Crooked House marks the apex of the author’s career, that 1950 marks a turning point into pleasant retreads and a slow descent in quality.
I’ll give Thompson this: Crooked House is the culminating volume in an extraordinary score of years that produced one brilliant mystery after another. If, in her work of the 40’s, Christie hones down the complexity of her puzzles in order to give her characters the complex histories and emotional depth you would more likely find in non-genre fiction, she does so without sacrificing any of the qualities that kept that “Queen of Crime” coronet firmly on her head. It all depends on your tastes, of course, but I would argue that the ten years from 1939 to 1949 provide us with Christie’s finest, most mature work, and And Then There Were None, Five Little Pigs, The Hollow, and Crooked House belong on the most discerning top ten lists. (They, along with Evil Under the Sun, make up half of my top ten list.)
What happens to Christie in the 1950’s? Does her tone change? Does she start to slip? We’ll look at that next time.