A CENTURY OF AGATHA CHRISTIE, PART FOUR: The Iffy 50’s

Fifteen years ago one knew who everybody was. The Bantrys in the big house – and the Hartnells and the Price Ridleys and the Weatherbys . . . But it’s not like that anymore. Every village and small country place is full of people who’ve just come and settled there without any ties to bring them . . . and all you know about them is what they say of themselves.

                                                                        A Murder Is Announced (1950)

Twelve Novels (written as Agatha Christie)

A Murder Is Announced (1950)

They Came to Baghdad (1951)

Mrs. McGinty’s Dead (1952)

They Do It with Mirrors (1952)

After the Funeral (1953)

A Pocketful of Rye (1953/4)

Destination Unknown (1954/5)

Hickory Dickory Dock (1955)

Dead Man’s Folly (1956)

4:50 from Paddington (1957)

Ordeal by Innocence (1958/9)

Cat Among the Pigeons (1959/60)

Two Novels (written as Mary Westmacott)

A Daughter’s a Daughter (1952)

The Burden (1956)

Notable Short Story Collections

Three Blind Mice and Other Stories (1950, notable because it was only published in the U.S.; British readers have never gotten to see “Three Blind Mice” as it spoils the hit play The Mousetrap)

Seven Stage Plays

The Hollow (1951)

The Mousetrap (1952)

Witness for the Prosecution (1953)

Spider’s Web (1954)

Towards Zero (1956) (co-written with Gerald Verner; Christie’s solo adaptation was recently rediscovered by Julius Green)

Verdict (1958)

The Unexpected Guest (1958)

One Radio Play

Personal Call (1954)

(A Note about the Covers: One of the most fun things we GAD bloggers do is search for covers for our posts. The late great Noah Stewart made it a highlight. For this series, I have tried to present the first edition cover wherever possible. This has brought up a sad truth, one you can learn more about in the Coffee Table Book to End ALL Coffee Table Book, John Curran’s The Hooded Gunman. And the truth is this: Collins Crime Club Christie Covers, for the most part . . . suck!)

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The 1950’s begin as the 30’s did, in a village troubled by murder, where an elderly spinster lady snoops out the truth. But this time, Miss Marple isn’t at home in St. Mary Mead; she’s recuperating from a bad bout of rheumatism at a spa in Medenham Wells. And as she is quick to note, village life isn’t what it used to be. Two wars have killed off a great percentage of the younger generation; manor houses have been sold off, and the servant class has all but dispersed. The group of neighbors who gather in the drawing room at Little Paddocks on a Friday night for a game of murder actually don’t know each other well at all. Even the family members, as it turns out, are strangers to each other in A Murder Is Announced

It creates a whole new set of rules for the intime murder mystery, and Agatha Christie had to deal with that. Over half of her output during the 1950’s takes advantage of “the company of strangers” in intriguing – if not always successful – ways; for the rest, Christie relies more and more on the extended family to create her closed circle, although even then she pulls some surprises. There are signs that the author isn’t always up to full strength in some of her novels, but the 50’s aren’t a disastrous falling off for her. Whereas her work in the 40’s showed Christie could change with the times, her attempts here are more sporadic and sometimes awkward; still, she manages to pull off some great work with the world she’s got to work with. 

Moreover, for the next ten years, her life as a playwright will take off, producing seven plays that include arguably her best (Witness for the Prosecution), the longest-running in history (The Mousetrap), and three completely original stories. Only one of her scripts wouldn’t immediately go anywhere: Towards Zero never received a professional production, replaced for decades by an adaptation co-written with Gerald Verner. The original version was recently uncovered by Julius Green and has now been published and performed. I won’t go into the differences between the two plays, but I recommend interested parties read both. The Verner version is a little more “faithful” to the novel’s plot yet oddly static, while Christie focuses more on the ramifications of character during these extraordinary times. 

To be honest, when I saw The Mousetrap in London many years ago, I came away disappointed. It was an off night with a very small house, although it was fun listening to the members of the family sitting in front of me as they hazarded their guesses at intermission. Many years later, I directed the play with my high school students and had a ball with it. If one lays aside the high standards we’ve come to expect of Christie’s manufacturing of puzzles, The Mousetrap is an excellent stage thriller, along the lines of Night Must Fall and Kind Lady. The killer’s identity came as a surprise to most of our audiences. Best of all is the way Christie builds the atmosphere of fear and suspicion that consumes the heroine Molly, who has to examine how much faith she can put in all the men around her – especially her own husband. Having come upon this tale first as a novella, I can venture to say it works better as a play. 

A brief word about Witness for the Prosecution: I got to see a wonderful production of that play in actual legal chambers in London last year. It felt a little dated, but the ending still packed a great punch for our audience. The best thing about this play is that Christie, who spent much energy resisting the offers of movie studios throughout the 50’s, allowed Billy Wilder to write and direct what became the most prestigious and, arguably, the best adaptation of her work up to that point. I’d also like to think of the film as Charles Laughton’s unofficial apology to the author for his miscast performance as Poirot in Alibi back in ’28; here, he shines as Leonard Vole’s senior counsel, Sir Wilfred Robarts. And if I ever go on a purist rant about adaptations, someone need merely wave this post in my face as I state my adoration of the added character of Miss Plimsoll, Sir Wilfred’s nurse, played to utter perfection by Elsa Lanchester. The closest Miss Lanchester would come again to Agatha Christie was in her portrayal of spinster sleuth Jessica Marbles in Neil Simon’s film, Murder by Death. And that’s a damn shame!

In addition to her stage work, Christie published the final two Mary Westmacott novels. Biographer Laura Thompson calls A Daughter’s a Daughter and The Burden “inferior (but no less interesting” and adds: 

“. . . there was a sense that the revelation of (Christie’s) identity had closed a door: the one that opened into her most private and precious imaginative garden. ‘It’s really all washed up,’ (Christie) wrote to (her literary agent Edmund) Cork. 

Thompson states her own belief that “almost all her best writing was done between 1930 and 1950.” One has to grapple in response to this suggestion over what “her best” means. Do we not count her adaptation of Witness for the Prosecution as amongst her best work? I would argue that it expands a sharp little tale into something rather amazing. Does she give us any puzzles that rival the trickiest titles of the 30’s? I would say “yes” to a couple of titles, which rank in my top ten of her books.  Still, for the first time, we find more increased reliance on old ideas, and for some reason, for at least half of the decade’s output, Christie pulls back on the emotional depth she exercised throughout the 40’s, as if she’s trying to take it easy . 

Remember that at the start of the decade, the author is sixty years old and perhaps her energies flag a little. As the decade progresses, her plotting gets looser, even sloppy by 1955, but then she seems to regather her talents and deliver a trio of fine books by the end. It’s interesting to not her preoccupation throughout the decade with the lives and issues facing women in their late middle years. Miss Marple becomes a more predominant figure, appearing in four of twelve novels; through her, much more than Poirot, Christie explores the rapid social changes around her. Poirot is still present in five books, although, interestingly, in two of them he doesn’t appear till halfway through the novel, and, to my mind, this doesn’t negatively affect the quality of either title.  

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(SPOILERS AHEAD)

Back in 1930, on a fateful Tuesday night, a group of friends sit before the fire at Gossington Hall, listening to Dr. Lloyd, “the grizzled elderly bachelor,” tell a story. I imagine that this is one of the last things the good doctor will do in St. Mary Mead because later that year, in Murder at the Vicarage, young Dr. Haydock takes over the practice! The old case Lloyd describes, that of “The Companion,” takes place on the tropical island of Las Palmas, where Dr. Lloyd meets a pair of tourists, “two English ladies – the thoroughly nice travelling English that you do find abroad.” The story provides the antecedents for two novels of the 1950’s: A Murder Is Announced, my favorite Miss Marple novel, and After the Funeral (1953), my favorite Poirot. 

The relationship of the gentlewoman and her companion is at the center of all three tales here, accompanied by the trope of impersonation, so beloved of the author. Comparing them gives us a perfect example of how well Christie reassembles old plots into something fresh. Being a short story, “The Companion” is essentially reduced to a trick, and the characters are boiled down to the plump one and the scrawny one. The idea that Christie addresses here and uses to stronger and stronger effect throughout her career is that observers tend to expect people to conform to type and therefore tend to confuse one maiden lady (or servant, tradesman, or foreigner) for another. 

Interestingly, it is always the companion, the lower-class figure, who understands this concept and uses it to her advantage. Amy Durrant figures that nobody will differentiate her from her mistress (who is actually her distant cousin; the distant relation from Australia will be put to better use in Sad Cypress) and takes Miss Barton’s place after drowning her. Miss Marple notes Dr. Lloyd’s confusion after meeting the travelling pair and bases her solution on that. And although she is a maiden lady herself, Miss Marple shows no sympathy for the murderer. Employing one of her village parallels, that of old Mrs. Trout, who drew on three dead women’s pensions. Miss Marple reminds her fellow group members, kindly or not, Mrs. Trout stole money that had been meant for poor families. And yet, in “The Companion,” Christie essentially allows Miss Durrant to get away with the murder and for her relations to enjoy Miss Barton’s money for the rest of their lives. 

I think A Murder Is Announced is the all-around strongest of her adventures. It is, by far, the most cleverly and most fairly clued – the verbal and spelling clues alone are brilliant – with a fine cast of characters and an evocative portrait of British village life in metamorphosis after the war, as mentioned above. Sir Henry Clithering makes a welcome return to the fold, and his godson, Inspector Dermot Craddock, is easily the most attractive policeman to work with Miss Marple. (One of my favorite moments is when Miss Marple urges Craddock to interview a pretty witness as “her candid blue eyes swept over (his) manly proportions and handsome face . . . with truly feminine Victorian appreciation.”) It may stretch credulity that three out of six residents of Little Paddocks are imposters, but it all goes hand in hand with the idea that war has separated families and made such impersonations easier. 

Once again, we have a relationship between two older women at the center. In fact, we have two such relationships in the novel, and a comparison between their friendships is telling. Opinion is that Miss Hinchcliffe and Amy Murgatroyd represent Christie’s most positive depiction of lesbian characters and a queer relationship. Whatever their relationship is, its nature is known to the community, as is the comfortable openness between them. The friendship between Miss Blacklock and Dora Bunner, on the other hand, is bound by a shared secret that proves life-threatening to both of them. Through loneliness and a shared history, they have taken a huge risk, and it proves to be the undoing of them both. That the destruction of their relationship brings about the end of the other is what exposes the killer as a true monster, however sympathetic she may appear. 

Miss Marple understands, maybe even sympathizes, but cannot excuse Miss Charlotte Blacklock’s actions. I tend to think that Miss Blacklock doesn’t care as much about the money she will inherit as she does about escaping her old, miserable life as Charlotte As “Letitia,” she wants to be a helpful member of society, but she disrupts that society by committing three murders to protect her secret. The dichotomy of character that Christie explores here is fascinating. Compare it with the three criminous older spinsters we meet in her earlier work: two appear in 1939 – one is insane and the other a religious bigot;  while the one we meet in 1943, may ultimately be seen sympathetically but through most of the novel is very much a bluff, hearty, obnoxious “type.”

After the Funeral switches things around again by making the motivation of the killer’s whole plan to downplay the relationship of gentlewoman and companion. Before we meet Miss Gilchrist, much discussion has taken place about the queer things that happen when two middle-aged women live together. Miss Gilchrist obviates the suspicion that falls on her by creating a false narrative to occupy the minds of the police and the Abernethies. The interesting thing about Cora Lansquenet, who is nothing like Miss Barton or Miss Blacklock, is that we actually never meet her, and yet her character rings vibrantly and significantly from start to finish. She is that unforgettable figure you find at family gatherings, but due to time and scandal, she has been forgotten. Miss Gilchrist takes advantage of this fact to brilliant effect, and once again Christie brilliantly clues the path toward her unmasking.  What makes her the most sympathetic of the three murderers is that she, like so many others, has suffered because of the war but without any wherewithal she, like Dora Bunner, must find a better-off and sympathetic woman to cast her lot with. We further admire Miss G. because while she may appear cheerful in her submission to this fate, we see a sense of hope and ambition in her to recoup her losses, even at her age, and establish some independent success that well serves others. (The woman can cook!)

And here Christie again does something that she does so well: she takes admirable qualities – a wish to help others in this case, or a devotion to motherhood, or a desire for justice – and shows how they can curdle into murderous impulses, thus providing a great, but inevitable, surprise in the end. Yes, we can argue that Miss Gilchrist is motivated by ego, craving the adulation she once got when she owned The Willow Tree, but it comes out of a woman who was intelligent and talented . . . and then, like so many other women of that era, was thwarted by circumstances beyond her control. Charlotte Blacklock was similarly thwarted – by disease, by dependence upon her sister, who then died, and by her own inability to accept the cost of taking over Letitia’s life, which was to live that life in solitude. 

One of Christie’s great abilities was the development of complex female characters. The three novels that appeared between A Murder Is Announced and After the Funeral all feature women thwarted by circumstance, although none of them is the central murderer. Victoria Jones, the irritating heroine of They Came to Baghdad (1951), can’t hold down a job and makes the fateful decision to go to the Middle East in search of . . . that cute guy she met on a park bench at lunchtime. Honestly, I don’t have much to say about Baghdad. I assume Christie had fun writing it, as she seems to have done with all her thrillers. This book, and 1954’s Destination: Unknown, find the author trying to be politically relevant: Victoria stumbles upon a conspiracy to keep alive the Aryan myth of a Siegfried-type world master. In Destination: Unknown, Hilary Craven, another woman thwarted by life who journeys to Morocco to commit suicide, is recruited by the good guys to uncover the bad guys, something like Communists, who are possibly stealing the world’s scientists for their own nefarious schemes Both women operate under false pretenses, unmask the conspirators, and come face to face with some good old-fashioned Christie twists before they save the world . . . and find new husbands. Both books are preposterous; Destination: Unknown has a better heroine and better twists. 

Forgive me for jumping around here. Back to our regularly scheduled series detectives . . . 

In 1952, Christie published a Poirot and a Marple. Mrs. McGinty’s Dead is a real charmer for multiple reasons. As Martin Edwards explains in The Golden Age of Murder, the members of The Detection Club, including Christie, were fascinated and inspired by true crime cases. This history permeates McGinty, as Poirot makes a journey totry and save an innocent man from the gallows. Somewhere in the village of Broadhinny lives one or more thwarted women who were involved in one or more famous past crimes. The solution to the case is clever enough, but what truly delights here is the tale of not one, but two, fish out of water: Poirot suffers mightily from the haphazard ministrations of his landlords, and Ariadne Oliver comes to town to battle for the soul of her own fictional sleuth, Sven Hjerson, whose identity is about to be dismantled by a local playwright. Considering the burgeoning success of Christie’s own theatrical career at the time, one has to imagine a certain autobiographical spirit woven into these pages. 

The thwarted women in They Do It with Mirrors are three generations of the overly complicated family who live at Stonygates. Carrie Louise Serrocold keeps marrying cranks, her daughter, Mildred Strete, feels unloved, and her granddaughter Gina Hudd might have married the wrong man. This part is interesting, as is the luring of Miss Marple to Stonygates by Carrie Louise’s sister to investigate a feeling she has that something is wrong there. It’s a little hard to imagine a young Jane Marple hanging out with two sisters who will end up having eight husbands between them, but the glimpse into her past is deliciously welcome.

Unfortunately, the mystery itself is a pretty drab affair and one of the few that I saw through immediately. As many of you know, I hate when that happens! My other complaint is that Christie decides to make Stonygates a home for juvenile delinquents, and none of that aspect of the book rings true. It’s the first whiff that perhaps Agatha is a bit at sea with the younger generation of the 1950’s. I assume that she senses this as well: for the rest of the decade, her younger characters will feel distinctly timeless.

You might start to sense a sort of zig-zag pattern here: Christie starts the decade off with a bang, falls off in Baghdad, is revitalized in Broadhinny, then sags again at Stonygates. As I’ve described, she returns to greatness with After the Funeral and follows that one up with another large family saga, this one featuring Miss Marple. A Pocketful of Rye is a highly enjoyable read, but after the absorbing dysfunction of the Abernethie clan, in Funeral, something about the Fortescue family in Rye seems off. It’s as if we have returned to the Golden Age with its stock characters, including a large downstairs contingent to match the upstairs, a nursery rhyme woven to easy effect through the plot, even a revenge scheme borrowed from Hercule Poirot’s Christmas,. To me, the servant characters are more interesting than the family. The Fortescues have hired the world’s best housekeeper and the world’s worst butler (a necessity in order to have his wife, the cook.) The housekeeper, Mary Dove, is particularly good, and as my friend Kemper Donovan of the All About Agatha podcast points out, seems to presage an even better character who will appear later in the decade. 

Being a Miss Marple book, it can’t compete with the complex puzzles and fair play clueing of the 30’s mysteries but, as I said, it’s incredibly fun to read, and the rationale for Miss Marple’s presence provides an emotional thread to the proceedings that grows more powerful until its genuinely sad conclusion. 

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The slogan, “A Christie for Christmas,” was created in the 1930’s by William Collins and Sons to reflect the celebrity of their most treasured talent. By the middle of the 1950’s, after the publication of Destination: Unknown, the phrase became a literal reflection of the author’s output: from now on, Agatha would put out one book a year, every year, until she stopped writing. The five titles that appear between 1955 and 1959 even include what some would consider one of her best novels. But that is not Hickory Dickory Dock. How I wish it had been: in December, 1955, six weeks after the book came out, a child was born in the California city of St. Francis, a child who would have a mystic encounter ten years later and spend his life spreading the word about Agatha Christie with zealous fervor. (More about that little rascal next time.)

Hickory Dickory Dock makes literally no use of the nursery rhyme for which it is named, but at least it has a cute hook: Miss Lemon, Poirot’s machine-like secretary, makes a mistake! This leads the detective to investigate strange thefts in the student hostel run by Miss Lemon’s sister. What Poirot encounters is a rather dull case of triple murder and an intense aura of xenophobia that this time cannot simply be excused as the opinion of this or that characters. Sure, the Greek landlady hates people of color, but what’s with Christie’s disgust with Greek people? And her “sympathetic” black characters are presented so patronizingly that a modern reader would cringe. Of course, it’s readable, but it would be a mistake for a neophyte to choose this novel as a starting point to explore the author. 

Another Poirot novel follows immediately, but quite frankly, I don’t think a great deal more of Dead Man’s Folly. Its setting is perhaps the best thing about it, as Christie placed the novel on the estate of Greenway where she currently lived. It also features Mrs. Oliver, always a good thing. This time out, she has been hired by the local squire to create a Murder Hunt for the coming fete. At her request, Poirot hurries down to investigate, simply because Mrs. Oliver has a bad feeling about things. This is the third novel in five years where a sleuth jumps in because of some vague intuition that “something is wrong.” It’s charming the first time but grows a bit sloppy with each passing occurrence. 

The Murder Hunt turns out to be better in the idea than the execution, on several levels. The best aspect of the whole thing is watching Mrs. Oliver’s growing irritation with how her best laid plans go awry, and she takes it as almost a personal insult when the teenager playing the victim gets murdered for real. Unfortunately, after this point the whole affair becomes rather tiresome. The characters barely come to life, and it doesn’t help that the solution offers an uninteresting example of the “Deadly Duo” whose machinations all seem silly compared to the murder plots of other, better, pairs. I know fans are divided on this one, but while I appreciate its charms, I wish the great idea of the Murder Hunt had been used to better effect in a better book.  

The Times review from December 1955 of Hickory Dickory Dock stated: “The amount of mischief going on in the hostel imposes some strain on the reader’s patience as well as on Poirot’s ingenuity; the author has been a little too liberal with the red herrings.” The following year, the reviewer wrote of Dead Man’s Folly: “Miss Agatha Christie’s new Poirot story comes first in this review because of this author’s reputation and not on its own merits, which are disappointingly slight. They consist almost wholly in the appearance yet once more of certain profoundly familiar persons, scenes and devices.”

What did these reviews do to damage Christie’s reputation and sales? Not much. At the same time, The Mousetrap had survived mixed reviews and had two months previously celebrated its fourth anniversary. Witness for the Prosecution had been a smashing success both on the West End and on Broadway, where it had closed an eighteen-month run earlier in the year after garnering two Tony awards and an Edgar for Christie. (The film version would go into production the following year, open in December, and earn rave reviews and six Oscar nominations.) Spider’s Web had been even more successful with West End audiences, if not with critics, than Witness, and in 1955 would be adapted for television, with Margaret Lockwood reprising her stage role as Clarissa. A movie version, starring Glynnis Johns would come out in 1960. 

Still, we’re more concerned about the books here, and it’s nice to report that, from a literary standpoint, Christie ended the 50’s on a triple high note, first, with a delightful case for Miss Marple, then a powerful stand-alone mystery that ranks as one of her best, and finally a Poirot that I can’t help but adore, no matter how much anyone tries to convince me otherwise.

There is so much to love about 4:50 from Paddington that I hate to point out its nearly fatal weakness. It’s the first Christie for Christmas in nearly twenty years that actually takes place mostly during the holiday season. It has a terrific hook: Mrs. McGillicuddy is returning from London after doing some gift shopping and sees a murder being committed on the train travelling parallel to hers. The early part clearly demonstrates the perspicacity and deductive abilities of Miss Marple, who calls upon every resource she can think of, including vicar Leonard Clement’s grandson, to trace where the body may have gone. And when Miss Marple turns the investigation over to someone with more mobility, Christie gives us one of her best characters: Lucy Eyelesbarrow, domestic servant extraordinaire! And when Lucy inevitably does find the body, the case is taken over by that hot Inspector, Dermot Craddock!


By then, we are in familiary GAD territory: the family at Christmas. The eccentric Crackenthorpes rattle around a decaying mansion until they start getting killed off. All the men present are interesting variations of favorite past figures from the canon: a kinder Simeon Lee, a smoother Dr. Roberts, a gentler Philip Lombard and an amusing variation on Amyas Crale. Throw in two delightful little boys who enjoy dabbling in detective work and a sympathetic spinster sister who I suspected of dressing as a guy for much of the novel. In short – anyone could be the killer. 

And that, ultimately, is the one problem with the novel. It virtually ignores the idea of presenting its audience with clues or any path, straight or circuitous, which could lead Miss Marple to the killer. And yet find the killer she does, in a remarkable final confrontation, where, if you ask me, the old lady gets very, very lucky. (Not only does the killer confess, but he doesn’t kill her!) It’s a huge defect, and yet the novel is so jolly that it’s still highly enjoyable. 

Throughout the decade, we have been introduced to families that amuse and entertain us, providing a lightness to the murderous proceedings. The Abernethies, the Fortescues, the Crackenthorpes . . . add to them the eccentric villagers who populate Broadhinny in McGinty and the less interesting groups found in Hickory Dickory Dock and Dead Man’s Folly, and you would imagine that Christie has made a conscious decision to bring a light touch to the output of her later years. It comes as a surprise, then, when in 1958 she unveils Ordeal by Innocence, one of her darkest works featuring her most uniquely put-together family. This is Christie’s most serious attempt to date at psychological fiction, and it proved to be a risk, garnering mixed reviews when it came out. It just might have been ahead of its time, for Its darkness presages the mysteries of writers like Ruth Rendell. Personally, it’s a novel I admire more than I like, but it’s extraordinary in many ways. 

Among its many assets is truly complex characterization, no more so than with the victim, Rachel Argyle, whose impetus for kindness – to seek out needy children during the war and provide them with a loving home – turns out to have murkier, more selfish motives. That this is not overtly expressed in the novel but emerges in the dark dysfunction that seizes the surviving members of the family is one of its strongest facets. What is clear is that Rachel doesn’t think too deeply of the ramifications of pulling each child out of its native habitat, and this selfishness comes back to bite her. Among her adopted brood is a bad egg, Jacko, and when his mother is found bludgeoned to death, suspicion falls upon him. He is arrested, tried and convicted, and conveniently dies in prison, protesting that he has an alibi for the murder. 

All of this is backstory that emerges after another fabulous hook that opens the story: Dr. Arthur Calgary, a noted geophysicist, returns from an expedition to discover that he himself was Jacko’s alibi. He decides to break the news to the family. Things do not go well. I owe Ordeal by Innocence a more in-depth review than I can give it here. To be honest, it’s a title I admire more than love. It’s pretty gloomy, a fact that is emphasized by the three imperfect adaptations that have been made of it so far. (There’s a fourth, in French, that is a bit more effervescent . . . which is also the wrong tone.)

Perhaps I have no right to love Cat Among the Pigeons, which to all intents and purposes is a lesser mystery than Ordeal: a weird-ish hybrid of thriller and whodunnit, where Poirot basically makes a cameo appearance to lay the culprits to rest. But there are so many things for me to love about the final novel of the 50’s: it is largely an academic mystery, and its portrait of an exclusive girls’ school is exquisite. The cast is large and colorful, and I want to give Christie special kudos for bringing the students to life especially. I would read a series of juvenile mysteries featuring Julia Upjohn in a split second!

Personally, I think the author interweaves the spy plot and the domestic mystery to great advantage here, playing some neat tricks on us and even providing a poignant ending. And, as author Sophie Hannah says, you can argue this or that about plotting or clueing or characterization (or lack of it), but one quality you must always consider about Christie is her readability. Cat Among the Pigeons is a joy to read from start to finish. 

We won’t linger in the 50’s anymore . . . all those Cold War issues are getting to me. Next time, we’ll find out if Agatha Christie, like England, could “swing like the pendulum do!”

16 thoughts on “A CENTURY OF AGATHA CHRISTIE, PART FOUR: The Iffy 50’s

  1. Overall, I again concur with your assessment of this decade, but I’m less impressed with the final works of the 50s than you are. They are all quite flawed, in different ways, and to me it just shows that the decline that had begun with “Hickory” just continued over the final years of the 50s.

    In fact, from the mid 50s on, I think there’s only three novels that are satisfying enough – anyone who isn’t me and enjoys psychological thrillers would probably argue that there are four – to overcome the flaws and become entirely enjoyable reads.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I probably agree with you more than you think. From “Hickory” on, there’s something wrong with just about every book. Did I mention the lousy clueing in 4:50, the coldness of Ordeal and the weird hybridity of Pigeons? But it’s all a matter of how much you can still enjoy. I will say this, and I think the point is telling: as someone who re-reads Christie constantly, I find it much more difficult to re-read the books after 1953, with only a few exceptions. We’ll see how long those exceptions hold out, as I’m due for a revisit to The Pale Horse, which has long been my favorite of her thrillers.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, I did notice your caveats about these three novels – I just wanted to underline that at least in my opinion, they are big enough to mar my enjoyment when reading them. With “Ordeal” my main complaint isn’t the detached aura of the book, it’s the huge plot hole – why didn’t Jacko just say exactly what happened as soon as he realised that his plan wasn’t going to work?

        Yes, I’m looking forward to seeing what you think of “The Pale Horse” (among other novels) – I was less impressed with it this time around, but maybe you’ll find things in it to make me see the error of my ways. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh yeah – THAT plot hole! Jacko is certainly not the sort who would take the rap for another person, particularly when he is, in essence, legally innocent of his mother’s murder. But that, I think, what we’re intended to believe. That, and would anyone believe the truth coming out of Jacko’s mouth.

        I just completed the draft of my take on the 60’s, and I’m not sure I’m going to make many changes. The Pale Horse comes off great, so please don’t make me doubt my memories of that one?”😢

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  2. I love your review of Christie’s career. Can’t wait for the indepth review these highlights in the 70s, Passenger to Frankfurt and Postern of Fate. 😉

    By the way, I totally agree with your opinion about both Cat among the Pigeons and Dead man’s Folly.

    Re: 16:50 from Paddington. IMO, there is one thing that, while not exactly a clue, could lead you to the right direction. I’m putting it in Rot13: Vg’f qhevat gur cbvfbavat bs Nyserq. Ng svefg, gur jubyr snzvyl trgf zvyqyl vyy, ohg gurl nyy trg orggre, vapyhqvat Nyserq. Gura ur fhqqrayl trgf jbefr naq qvrf, fb bar pbhyq znxr gur pbapyhfvba gung ur trgf vawrpgrq gur sngny qbfr yngre. Naq gur bar jub pregnvayl unq gur orfg cbffvovyvgl, vf gur qbpgbe jub gerngrq uvz. Naq jr ner gbyq, gung gur Pheel jnf fgnaqvat va gur unyy juvyr ur jnf va gur ubhfr.

    Mind you, I also think that it would have helped if Miss Marple told us, that this was her way of thinking.

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    1. That’s not Miss Marple’s way: she always plays it close to the lace fichu!

      As for you thoughts on clues in Paddington, here’s what I think of that:

      V guvax vg’f n znggre bs cenpgvpnyvgl gung, jura znff cbvfbavat bpphef, vg jbhyq or rnfvrfg sbe gur xvyyre gb or n zrqvpny zna be fbzrbar jub unf npprff gb gur cbvfba NAQ na haqrefgnaqvat bs ubj vg jbexf naq gur orfg jnlf gb nqzvavfgre vg. Jr’er nyy qrfcrengr sbe pyhrf urer, fb V’yy tvir vg gb lbh!!!

      Finally, don’t expect a re-read of any of the 70’s titles. Honestly, it’s the first time when the novels will be down the list of priorities to cover. (Well, the ones that were written in the 70’s . . . )

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  3. Thank you for a very thorough consideration of this important decade in Christie’s work. There’s so much to talk about, and you’ve covered it well enough to start me down memory lane with my own experiences with all these titles, which I encountered in my teen years in the 1960s….

    Probably the most embarrassing recollection is that I really liked They Came To Baghdad when I first read it! One is tempted to write it off to youth and stupidity, but I don’t think I was 100% wrong. Even then, I knew it was preposterous (I had already noticed that Christie invariably told us that, if people were discontented with the way the world was, there must be a sinister conspiracy telling them to think so), but I still found it a good yarn, and was still naive enough to be surprised by the twists.

    I too adore Lucy Eyelesbarrow, and wish we had more books with her, and even more details about her housekeeping and cooking. And I did notice on my own what everyone seems to agree on: Miss Marple gets her solution utterly without the aid of evidence (Barnard said “by divine guidance”). I’ve come to like Miss Bulstrode in Cat Among the Pigeons almost as much, but that may be helped by Harriet Walter’s wonderful portrayal on TV.

    I noticed that the Suchet adaptation of Hickory Dickory Dock gave us lots of shots of a mouse running up and down a clock, presumably to make up for its irrelevance to the story. And it also simply removed the students of colour, which though it might be objected to on grounds of inclusion, was probably the best available choice, considering how badly they’re written.

    SPOILERS: One change that Christie insisted on in the play version of Witness for the Prosecution is the additional twist at the end, with an unsuspected girlfriend for the defendant, and a final murder. It’s been said that this is became Christie had belatedly come to insist that criminals had to pay for their crimes, but I think (supported by other statements of hers) that there’s a more practical reason: Theater audiences look at the cast listing in their playbills. If there’s no new character left to appear in Act II, they start to suspect the big impersonation before they should. So there is in fact a character listed, named The Other Woman, and that puts their minds at ease.

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      1. Oh, and I fixed them for you. For what it’s worth, you used the wrong bracket and forgot to put the “I” in the end bracket. But italics work in comments!

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    1. Good point about the casting for Witness for the Prosecution! What you said here rings such loud bells that I’m sure I read something like this elsewhere. It’s as good a reason as any, although after seeing the play so recently, I do think that the ending plays much more dramatically than simply inserting the final line of the story would have done.

      I won’t spend much time excusing you for liking They Came to Baghdad when you first read it, but if it makes you feel any better, the exact same thing happened to me. I thought Victoria was “plucky” and I thought the identity of the villain was extremely clever. With the passage of some years, however, I have come to my senses.

      But I will take up a banner with you and cheer on Miss Bulstrode. I think ALL the members of the Meadowbanks faculty are simply wonderful, even the mean ones. And I think I was well enough into my teens when I read this that, like so many of the girls and women at the school, I swooned for Adam Goodman. (Even his name made him sound like a nice Jewish boy . . . )

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  4. I think it’s of note that Agatha Christie didn’t come up with the idea of billing Leonard’s new young girlfriend “the other woman,” thus allowing the audience to deceive themselves that the “other woman” was the scorned, revengeful woman with the scar. That was Peter Saunder’s idea, which dame Agatha delightedly embraced!

    Hey, what about The Unexpected Guest?. For me, it’s Christie’s best play.

    Actually, between After the Funeral, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, The Unexpected Guest, Witness for the Prosecution, A Pocketful of Rye (I think it’s rather strong), and Ordeal By Innocence (and I suppose I should include A Murder is Announced, though I find its central deceit as transparent as that of Murder with Mirrors), I actually probably consider it a stronger decade than the 40’s— if admittedly nothing in it is as strong as Five Little Pigs.

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  5. I love 50s Christie. She was better at doing communists than John Le Carré. And in They Do It with Mirrors she sent up current flannel about /why/ these boys committed crimes. Gina has the best diagnosis: they steal money because they want money.

    And I think she was prescient about conspiracies: what would she have thought of Al Qaeda and Q-Anon? Since the war, the idea that the far-right would regroup has been a constant fear. Well, that could NEVER happen, could it?

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    1. As of this writing, thirteen men with the I.Q. of rabid bunnies have been arrested for conspiring to kidnap and murder the governor of Michigan and foment a CIVIL WAR!!!!! They call themselves the Wolverine Watchmen, and if you Google that you get a million posts about comic book heroes. That is the level of maturity and intelligence behind the current conspiracy groups – that, and the embarrassing if it weren’t so scary beliefs of Q-Anon that democrats are cannibalistic pedephiles.

      It’s as if nobody paid any attention at school and has let their brains atrophy. They don’t want competent leaders, they want entertainers. Trump gives a stand-up routine at every rally, laced with profanity and cruelty toward his enemies. His “base” is a fanbase, and the real danger is what Trump and his fans stir each other up to do – and, in all fairness, rouse the lengths to which some of their opponents will go. I never dreamed I would live through such a nightmare . . . AND with the added bonus of a global plague! I hope we all survive it.

      That’s why the intelligence and charm of Christie and writers like her is so comforting. In her world, people like Gina cut through the crap and tell it like it is. And while the Trumps in her world can fool some of the people some of the time, they can’t fool Miss Marple and their wall comes tumbling down. Heck, it never even gets built!

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  6. Very much in agreement with you, Brad. A Murder is Announced is very good and I have a soft spot for Cat Among the Pigeons. That is a great cover, by the way!

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  7. Brad – I agree that the 50s are a zig-zag of great, good and definitely not good books.

    Having read A Murder is Announced and After the Funeral many times already, darn you 🙂 , you make me want to read them again. There is a sadness in each of the culprits, who want something they cannot have and go too far to reach the unobtainable. Both books show the transition of England post-war where money is scarce (e.g., Chipping Cleghorn inhabitants trying to make ends meet and the grand Enderby has to be sold).

    I so want to like Ordeal by Innocence. While the choice of whodunit is clever, you are so right … Jacko would never have sacrificed himself. Nothing like Caroline Crale who sacrificed herself to protect someone she thought was guilty.

    Onto the 60s where unfortunately there is more zag than zig for Christie in that decade.

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