A CENTURY OF AGATHA CHRISTIE, PART FIVE: The Pendulum Swings in the Swinging 60’s

You know . . . I really can’t think how anyone ever gets away with a murder in real life. It seems to me that the moment you’ve done a murder the whole thing is so terribly obvious. . . The murder part is quite easy and simple. It’s the covering up that’s so difficult. I mean why should it be anyone else but you? You stick out a mile.”                     The Pale Horse 

Nine Novels

The Pale Horse (1961/2)

The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962/3)

The Clocks (1963/4)

A Caribbean Mystery (1964/5)

At Bertram’s Hotel (1965)

Third Girl (1966/7)

Endless Night (1967/8)

By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968)

Hallowe’en Party  (1969)

Notable Short Story Collections

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding (1960)

Double Sin and Other Stories (1961)

Two Stage Plays

Go Back for Murder (1960, based on Five Little Pigs)

Rule of Three (1962)

Other

Star Over Bethlehem (1965, poems and short stories)

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Dressed up for “meeting” Christie

The 60’s are the decade when it gets personal for me, for this is when I “met” Agatha Christie. In 1964, my family was living in Phoenix, Arizona. I have told you before of Steven Levy, my favorite babysitter, who regaled my brother and me with stories gleaned from books and movies he had seen. (I owe Steve my lifelong obsession with Alfred Hitchcock, too!) A year after he related, in installments, mind you, the plot of And Then There Were None, my family had returned to California, I found a paperback copy of Ten Little Indians, which had been released as a tie-in to a new movie, read the back cover, put the blurb together with the bedtime story Steve had told me the previous year, and begged my mom to buy me the book.

Cut to 1968: by now I was so obsessed with Christie that when Rabbi Asher sat me down in the temple study on a December evening a few days before my bar mitzvah and asked me to tell him about myself, she was the first biographical detail that came to mind. The rabbi hailed from Australia and was a tall, imposing man with a hypnotic speaking voice. I was short and admittedly nerdy, nervous in his presence as well as over the impending festivities. It turns out, however, that in the rabbi I had found a fellow fan – maybe my first – of Christie. We talked about her books for a while, and maybe we talked about other things, too. 

On Saturday morning, the sanctuary was filled with relatives and friends. I acquitted myself well enough to consider (for about five minutes) dropping my plans for becoming a movie star and joining the rabbinate. After my portion of the ceremony was through, the rabbi began his blessings. Part of the ritual included a private conversation between teacher and pupil before the congregation. As the music swelled (to keep out the prying ears of family), Rabbi Asher placed his hands on my shoulders and said to me, “Brad, I think if you look at today’s Bible portion, you can see it like an Agatha Christie mystery . . . “

Okay, I was listening! My portion was the story of Jacob settling in Canaan and having all those kids, including Joseph. (Thirty years later, I would play Jacob in a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, so don’t you tell me the world isn’t full of strange and wonderful mysteries!) I’m not sure I buy that the tale of Joseph and his brothers is worthy of Agatha Christie: I figure she would have at least killed off Pharoah or Potiphar or somebody and pulled a shocking twist or two out of her hat. I do like the part where Joseph, in disguise, frames his brother Benjamin for theft just before revealing his true identity to those rats. By now, I was well-read in the framing of innocent men and surprise endings! I will always be grateful to Rabbi Asher for two things: in the weight of that momentous occasion (the bar mitzvah is the ceremonial rite of passage from boyhood into manhood), not only did the rabbi give me a few moments of fun, but he signaled to me that this devotion to an author was worthy of carrying with me for the rest of my life.

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During the 1960’s, as Agatha Christie progressed through her 70’s, she wrote the same number of novels as she had in her 30’s. Older stories were recollected in editions in the U.K. (The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding) and the U.S. (Double Sin and Other Stories), but Christie did produce an original collection of stories and poems, Star Over Bethlehem, in 1965 (although the title story was first published in 1946.) The work here, which I have not read, runs on a Christian theme and – to be honest – this is the first time I have been made aware of the depth of the author’s faith. 

The stage work during this period was minimal: Go Back for Murder was a poorly received adaptation of Five Little Pigs, and Rule of Three, a weak set of one-acts. Thus, in examining Christie in the 60’s through her first hand work, one must concentrate on the nine novels. However, before we do that, let’s examine the shift that occurred in the way the Queen of Crime was handled by the film industry. After the success of such a prestige production as Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution – and critics gave credit to Christie’s story for that success as much as to the stars and director – you would think that the conception would have arisen of more such productions. 

Unfortunately, producers took less interest in Christie’s ability to craft a puzzle and more in two things: her name and the entertainment factor her mysteries brought to the discussion. 

The result is pretty schlocky: there is some high entertainment value due to casting, but Christie purists – and lovers of good movies – may spend most of the decade shaking their heads.

Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple in Murder She Said

By far, the most famous film news in the 60’s would be the casting of Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple. As described by Mark Aldridge in his invaluable work, Agatha Christie on Screen, negotiations between Agatha Christie and MGM film studio had been going on for nearly 25 years when a deal was finally struck to bring a series of Miss Marple films to the screen. The casting of the popular Rutherford in the role made some sort of sense to everyone, even Christie at the start. Yet, when the smoke cleared, Rutherford’s comic portrayal of the spinster sleuth failed to convince her creator (although they remained friends until Rutherford’s death.) 

The first film, Murder She Said (1961) is also the most faithful to its original source, 4:50 from Paddington. In order to beef up Rutherford’s part, the roles played in the original story by Mrs. McGillicuddy and Lucy Eyelesbarrow are subsumed by Miss Marple. This works at the start when Rutherford witnesses the murder in the train, but it makes absolutely no sense for Emma Ackenthorpe (a purposeless shortening of the original Crackenthorpe) to hire a woman of 70 to be the sole live-in servant (maid, cook, nurse) in this enormous mansion (which is called Rutherford Hall in the novel and thus had to be changed to Ackenthorpe Hall in the film to avoid confusion.)  Rutherford also demanded that a role be created for her husband, Stringer Davis, and so Miss Marple gets a friend named Mr. Stringer who assists her in her enquiries throughout the series. The best factoid about Murder She Said is that, while MGM settled on Rutherford to play the detective after considering numerous “sophisticated American minxes,” as Edmund Cork described them in a letter to Christie’s daughter, the actor playing Mrs. Kidder, the daily help, was none other than Joan “Maybe-the-best-Marple-ever-created” Hickson. Talk about your Right Under Their Noses moment!

Other than the changes imposed by the casting of the leads, the plot from the novel progresses mostly to form. I personally love the 60’s pop sound of the theme music, and I appreciate that the film honors the whodunnit aspects of the story. Far too much of the film’s airtime is devoted to shenanigans that suited the style of its star – so well that, even if Christie disapproved of her performance, audiences clamored enough for more that three additional films were made. Aldritch doesn’t provide a reason for MGM choosing After the Funeral, a novel featuring Poirot, to supply the basis for Murder at the Gallop (1963). Setting aside the switch of detectives, the changes between book and film here are even more numerous and irritating, although the fact that Funeral is so much stronger a mystery than Paddington (and the casting of the murderer is inspired), there are still many things to enjoy as long as you put your Christie fandom aside for a couple of hours.) 

Aldrich points out the problem that plagued the 60’s films, and it’s succinctly put as he talks about the next film, Murder Most Foul (1963), based – as loosely as the flaps of skin under your armpits – on another Poirot mystery, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead

The decision to place Miss Marple into a Poirot story for the second time demonstrates that Murder at the Gallop was not a one-off, and MGM’s attitude towards using the extensive back catalogue of Christie’s work was not a desire to bring her mysteries to the screen, but rather to fillet them for the most commercially advantageous elements – and in this case, it was the character of Miss Marple as portrayed by Rutherford that was the most popular element.

There were no loud complaints by purists, the sort we see today on every Christie forum about Sarah Phelps and her ilk. A few critics commented on the lack of fidelity to Christie, but not in any way defending the author’s work; rather, the suggestion was that films like Murder Most Foul were updating the old-fashioned nostalgia of a Christie thriller. 

All I can tell you is that Murder Most Foul is not very good. Rather than Poirot settling down in the town of Broadhinny to uncover the true killer of Mrs. McGinty, Miss Marple goes undercover as an actress in a second-rate stock company to figure out which of her fellow thespians is a killer. Aside from Ron Moody, who gets far too much screen time as the eccentric but decidedly unfunny theatre director, none of the characters can be differentiated from any of the others (although it is nice to see a young Francesca Annis here, even if she is completely wasted in her role.) 

Perhaps the greatest mistake Christie made in her deal with MGM was not noticing the fine print, which included a clause giving the studio permission to insert her character Miss Marple into original stories. The result, Murder Ahoy (1964), was the last of the Rutherford Marple films, and deservedly so. It is simply terrible, and it garnered terrible reviews and poor financial gains. The trailer for the film mentions the author thusly:  “Excitement storms the high seas on a wacky wiild voyage of homicide and hilarity as only Agatha Christie can mix with such riotous abandon.” This marks the ultimate proof that the studio just didn’t get it, but it was the poor international box office that brought Margaret Rutherford’s tenure as Miss Marple to an end, much to Christie’s relief. 

The actress did make one more in-character appearance, as a cameo in yet another Poirot-based film – only this time, Poirot was actually present! The Alphabet Murders (1965) was based, of course, on the 30’s classic, The A.B.C. Murders. It was the first adaptation of a Christie novel that I ever saw. I would like to tell you that MGM did a better job with Poirot than with Miss Marple, considering that he hadn’t appeared on the screen in over three decades; sadly, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Everything in this film is wrong, from the portrayals of Tony Randall and Robert Morley as Poirot and Hastings (here in an adversarial relationship through the first half of the film) to the bizarrely comical and – god help us – sexy tone the producers try to take, The Alphabet Murders is an abomination, one that Christie’s family and friends actually prevented her from viewing out of love and pity. 

Christie’s history with the film industry was fraught with mistakes and bad judgment, including the fact that when she allowed And Then There Were None to be made into a (perfectly fine) movie in 1945, she lost control of the property. The rights were scooped up by Harry Alan Towers, a shady British radio producer, who in 1965 made the first of three adaptations of Christie’s great novel and called it Ten Little Indians

I’m not gonna lie: this was the first version of the book that I saw on screen, and at the time I loved it. The memory of my enjoyment prompted me to purchase the film on DVD many years later, and while I still enjoy it with the nostalgia the film induces in a man brought to a lifelong enjoyment of the author by this very tale, it’s kind of crazy what Towers and director George Pollock do with the original material. Like MGM, Towers embraces the concept of the source material but then does everything he can to bring it down to the standards of modern youth culture. (In all fairness, the film is based not on the novel but on the play, which is to my mind stodgier than the novel -if you’re looking for stodginess.) And so, the roles of Vera and Philip (here renamed Anne and Hugh) are played by sexy people who actually engage in sex onscreen. (Does Hugh O’Brian have the hairiest chest of any actor who had yet appeared onscreen?) Miss Emily Brent becomes fashion plate Ilona Berger, played by hot Israeli actress Daliah Lavi, and Anthony Marsden become pop icon Mike Raven, played by pop icon Fabian. A blatantly convulsive jazz score dominates the action.

The rest of the cast is played by shriveled old prunes – just like in Christie’s original story – which makes for a weird generational dichotomy throughout. Gone is Indian Island, replaced by a snowbound schloss in the alps. In the final confrontation, the killer pets a cat, calling to modern minds the image of Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers movies. Still, the plot is basically intact, and there is a “Whodunit Break,” one full minute that allows you to revisit all the murders and try and figure out the solution. It worked for this eleven-year old, but now, as I hurtle toward my dotage . . . not so much. 

1965 saw an even more fascinating variation on And Then There Were None, this one from the other side of the globe. The Bollywood production of Gumnaam (1965) eventually strands its protagonists in a secluded mansion, where one by one they die. But in some ways, the film is more evocative of Gwen Bristow’s earlier novel, The Invisible Host, in that these characters all have a connection to each other, rather than sharing only the guilt of having committed individual murders. After having already scored in 1965, with Chupi Chupi Ashey, a Bengali adaptation of The Mousetrap, the Indian cinema, would continually revisit Christie for inspiration. Again quoting Mark Aldridge: 

India is one of the more interesting producers of Agatha Christie films because, unlike many regions, its productions transplant the basics of Christie’s mysteries to its own society, location and characters. While productions in countries including Russia and Japan usually try to preserve the essence of Christie’s British settings, either by keeping the mysteries based there or by transplanting features of that society to a new environment, the Indian adaptations put the domestic audience first. This is a refreshing take on the normal principles of Christie’s adaptations, where the heritage features are so often part of the substance and appeal – here, the central puzzle and mystery elements of her stories are able to have precedence.”

Given the growing cacophony regarding present-day adaptations, it’s interesting to see how other cultures take to the ultimate British mystery writer. Unfortunately, the language barrier and lack of access make it difficult for me to study this aspect of Christie as much as I would like. 

Okay, take a moment to enjoy the Bollywood number that opens Gumnaam, and then let’s talk about the novels of the 60’s!

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(WARNING: SPOILERS ABOUND HERE!)

When a best-selling author continues to write well into her seventies (and even into her eighties), questions arise as to whether she can produce anything really new. The truth is that Christie recycled plots and tricks throughout her career and she continues this practice throughout the 60’s. She had always excelled at confusing a reader’s perceptions, disguising the killer as the intended victim, disguising the troubled marriage as a happy one, disguising . . . oh, heck, one character as another! We find all of these old tropes here, along with the respectable citizen or institution covering up sins, and even a return to her most famous trick, here dressed up in something so new that, for most readers, it proves as astonishing a surprise as it did before. 

Christie also manages to produce arguably her greatest thriller, and there is much to enjoy in every book, whether it’s a delightful hook, a startling final twist, or time spent in good company with beloved sleuths. Still, there’s no question that Christie’s abilities are on the wane. The three novels featuring Poirot are especially flabby in the middle, and by the end of the decade, Christie’s grasp on plotting is left seriously in doubt.

But the decade opens on a decidedly high note. The Pale Horse gives us Christie’s best conspiracy thriller ever. Eschewing politics for once,  Christie gives us something totally original: a combination serial killer/supernatural mystery with hints of multitudes of techno-thrillers that will dominate the modern book market. The quartet of sleuths who tackle the mystery of Father Gorman’s murder – Mark Easterbrook, Ginger Corrigan, Jim Corrigan (no relation) and Inspector Lejeune – are original and attractive. And as a huge bonus, Christie reaches out to her long-time fan base like never before by including characters, most of them in cameo, who have appeared in all aspects of the Christie-verse. This is the closest M. Poirot and Miss Marple will come to working together, folks!

The best of these – no surprise – is the inclusion of Ariadne Oliver who provides considerable assistance. In a way, it is an audition for her future role as Poirot’s final Watson, a role she will play in all but one of the contemporaneously written Poirot books until Christie’s death. More and more, Mrs. Oliver seems to resemble Christie – or, at least, the way we would like to think of Christie: as painfully shy as she is talented, struggling mightily to make the decades-old tropes of classic crime fiction seem fresh and new. It’s also interesting to see Mrs. Oliver – along with Mrs. Dane Calthrop (from The Moving Finger) or the Despards (from Cards on the Table) provide support to a younger group of sleuths. It feels like a handing down of classic ideas to a new generation; it’s a wonderful harbinger of a rebirth in Christie’s abilities. 

And yet that rebirth never comes. Seven of the next eight novels continue the adventures of aging sleuths: Miss Marple needs constant care, Poirot sits all but forgotten in his flat, writing monographs, and the Beresfords visit an old folks’ home and find that they are all too close to the age of admittance themselves. The portrayal of the younger generation – in At Bertram’s Hotel, Third Girl, and Endless Night – is mostly negative and feels false. Most of the cases from here on out will deal with past crimes, a device that helps account for the fallible memories of witnesses but doesn’t do much to reassure us, by the end of the decade, of the firmness of Christie’s own grasp on her plots.

The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side is the last book but one in the contemporaneous canon that I can say I fully enjoyed. The problem for me with this title is that while the central trick is beautifully laid out, the investigation which is meant to obfuscate the reader is not well-developed. There simply aren’t enough characters in the novel with a strong enough motive to want to kill Marina Gregg. The idea that she put motherhood on as a role and discarded it when it suited her is a great idea but is also under-developed. (And the recipient of Marina’s desultory parenting is a minor character.) The strongest suspect is killed, and while her murder is well-dramatized, the third killing feels as tacked on to move things along as a third killing can feel. 

Two things rescue Mirror Crack’d  from mediocrity. The first is the true motivation for the murder and the way it is dramatized. The scenes with Marina on the stairway, greeting guests and then looking over a person’s shoulder to meet her . . . doom? curse? . . . are wonderful. The unfolding facts behind Heather Badcock’s death transform the novel from puzzle to tragedy. And the fact that the whole thing is seen through the eyes of Miss Marple and Dolly Bantry – and that Christie utilizes both of these women not only to relate a mystery but to ponder the changes time has wrought on ourbeloved St. Mary Mead is the icing on the cake. Both women are determined to live in the now, but they still have opinions about how things have changed, mostly for the worst, and spending some time in their company as they deal with those changes is a pleasure. 

The ending of Mirror Crack’d, where Cherry decides that she and Jim will give up their dreams in order to move in with Miss Marple and take care of her, can read like a plea to the younger generation not to abandon the storied past. Sure, I’m reading too much into it, but young couples like Cherry and Jim were fleeing the old villages for the cities in order to make a lot of money . . . and then run back to the solace of British country life in some charming but dangerous Midsomer village!

The Clocks is, frankly, troublesome. It resembles Cat Among the Pigeons in that it is a hybrid of whodunit and spy thriller, and Poirot doesn’t appear till nearly two-thirds through it. What The Clocks lacks are interesting characters, originality, or charm. It begs one to suggest improvements: have Colin Lamb fly solo here and not seek out Poirot’s help. Take out half the neighbors in Wilbraham Crescent and make the rest of them more rounded. Maybe the fact that the solution recycles ideas from one of my least favorite Poirot novels of the 40’s is a further point against it. 

The biggest missed opportunity, in my opinion, occurs in Chapter 14, where Poirot makes his first opinion, knee deep in his study of classic crime when he welcomes Colin into his home. What ensues is Christie’s version of Dr. Fell’s locked room lecture, this one about the inspiration of true crime on writers of fiction, followed by a critique of the current literary scene. It starts well enough, with a brief but entertaining discussion of the true cases of Adelaide Bartlett and Constance Kent, followed by a mention of significant classic pre-GAD crime fiction. But then Christie chickens out and masks her opinion of her contemporaries in fictional terms. One might be able to guess who Garry Gregson, Louisa O’Malley and Florence Elks really are or, at least, who they represent; maybe the point isn’t their identities but the kind of mysteries they write. Still, I can’t help feeling that Christie has dropped the ball on a chance for us to truly see into her mind. 

A Caribbean Mystery was the first Miss Marple mystery that I read, and that always counts for something. It’s the second Marple in a row to make fantastic use of the “look over the shoulder” trope, this time in a rare instance of an actually great clue (for a Miss Marple mystery). The hook of Aunt Jane being treated to a tropical holiday and then being trapped by an old-time military bore is equally good. If the middle drags a bit too much, and if Christie’s depiction of the natives is more troublesome than usual, given the changing times, the novel still builds to a great climax. And while this includes the solution, the main reason to read this novel is to witness the almost supernatural rising of Miss Marple to the symbolic position of Nemesis. It’s rare in one of her tales to see the old lady take on the primary detecting role; here, she is a mover and shaker from beginning to end, and it is a pleasure to watch her in action.

I wish that were the case in At Bertram’s Hotel, but honestly, the best part of this novel for me is the opening chapter; everything goes downhill from here. The message that Christie is sending is absolutely brilliant: “Hey, beloved readers! Are you coming back for a nostalgic look at the old days? Be wary of what you wish for!” But the truth of Bertram’s is a bit confusing and the murder mystery is sadly forgettable. I feel like Bess Sedgwick was conceived to be one of those fascinating characters we fans all talk about – like Jacqueline de Bellefort or Lucy Eyelesbarrow or Miss Bulstrode – but she just irritates me. Something is definitely askew here, in terms of plotting, and it will hound Christie for the rest of the decade and beyond. 

Third Girl was advertised as a clash between Hercule Poirot and the younger generation. The problem with this is that the portrayal of youth culture rings totally false, and the ultimate murder plot has been used to better effect too many other times. And while it behooves any classic mystery fan, when faced with a highly unlikely plot move, to relax and accept things, it’s easier for me to believe that a dozen close friends won’t recognize a buddy disguised as a servant or even that a woman will marry the same man twice and not recognize him!! than the disguise trick employed here. No amount of drug-taking will convince me here, especially since Poirot himself gets to meet everyone. 

What I would advise the first-time reader of Third Girl to do is focus on the expanded support provided by Mrs. Oliver. She provides the best moments in the novel, and her wanderings through the swinging 60’s London scene are delightful. 

Most fans would agree that Endless Night is the most significant title of the 60’s. For many Christie fans, it feels like a return of her powers and shows her actually taking on something new. On the surface, it’s a novel based on a Miss Marple short story, but the central conceit – a newlywed couple is attacked by a gypsy’s curse, leading to the bride’s “accidental” and fatal fall from a horse – is reworked entirely as a novel of obsession and madness. The husband in the story is a typical “Monte Miller” type – the sort of charming bad guy who nearly gets away with so much throughout the canon. Michael Rogers, the novel’s protagonist, is a much darker, more complex figure, who maybe more than any other creation during this decade, feels very much a figure of the 60’s. 

Perhaps it isn’t fair that I never warm to Michael, expecting to find a softness, a vulnerability, something for my sympathies to latch onto. But from start to finish he feels like a creep, and it spoils the novel for me. The other problem – the elephant in the room (and it’s a much more interesting elephant than Christie will introduce in the 70’s) is the use of a trick that went so well for her before. I’m not saying it doesn’t work here. In fact, it may be the last example in her career of Christie successfully reworking an old trick so that it’s almost unrecognizable. 

So perhaps it’s unfair of me to compare the two uses (and no, I’m not going to get any clearer than that here. )What I will say is that I feel in the earlier book, Christie does a masterful job of blurring our perceptions of the killer, so that the unmasking, when it happens, is as surprising as it is inevitable. This doesn’t happen for me in Endless Night. I feel the “wrongness” of the killer from the start. I don’t enjoy being in their company, and I’m not so much surprised when they are unmasked as I am relieved.  To be fair, I owe this title a re-read with fresh eyes. (And I’m up for suggestions on how to do that because, to be honest, I’m not sure how to get in the mood to re-read this one!)

The final two titles illustrate how Christie’s gift for providing a powerful hook could be both a blessing and a curse. So much about By the Pricking of My Thumbs drew me into its pages. For starters, we have not come across Tommy and Tuppence for over twenty-five years! In that time, they have gotten a bit slower and greyer, but they are still, by and large, the same. The early chapters as we follow them on a visit to Tommy’s Aunt Ada, now in a rest home, give us a welcome chance to catch up. 

Here Christie utilizes a plot device that she had been toying with for some time (it has been mentioned in two earlier works, including The Pale Horse): Tuppence encounters an old lady who, while staring at a fireplace in the rest home, goes into a sort of fugue and then murmurs: “Was it your poor child?” When Aunt Ada dies, and the Beresfords return to the rest home, they discover that the other old lady has disappeared. Christie has made a great start, and she has a brilliant finish in mind. Unfortunately, the path to that finish is almost tortuous, choppy with incident, with every lead suffering from an increasingly intolerable vagueness that will sadly become the norm in the books of the 70’s.

The hook in Hallowe’en Party is even better: the description of a group of villagers preparing for the holiday festivities is great, made even more vivid because it’s all seen through the eyes of Mrs. Oliver. The boastful claim by a little girl that she once saw a murder marks her as an instant victim of murder herself, and the nastiness of a child being killed is mostly obviated by the girl’s nastiness (and with the equal unattractiveness of her relations, nobody really suffers!) Mrs. Oliver calls in Poirot who, before he can figure out who killed Joyce, has to discover what, if anything, Joyce herself witnessed. 

And that’s when the book plunges us into another increasingly vague investigation into the past deaths that have occurred in the village. Most of them have a whiff of past, better, Christie plots, and the whole thing resolves itself in a fair-to-middling way. Christie had a way with creating children, and the contrast between Joyce, the victim, and Miranda, the fairy sprite who belongs to Mrs. Oliver’s friend, is nice, as is the final confrontation between Miranda and an otherwise uninteresting murderer. I can still remember when this title came out: I would find the book in a store and read the inside flap over and over again. (It read so well!!) I then notified my mother of the book’s existence, and she made sure my Aunt Rosalie found out so that I would receive my “Christie for Christmas.” Even in 1969, at the age of 14, I was disappointed. The very concept behind Hallowe’en Party holds so much promise – how I wish the book itself had been better!

The 70’s approach – and they hold more promise than you might imagine, given Christie’s progressive decline during the 60’s. We’ll talk about it in three.

12 thoughts on “A CENTURY OF AGATHA CHRISTIE, PART FIVE: The Pendulum Swings in the Swinging 60’s

  1. I read Endless Night when it was brand now, and disliked it because I felt the twist to be inadequately prepared; I had thought it was one kind of book (which admittedly wasn’t 100% grabbing me) and it turned out to be another, and it didn’t work for me. (Also, unlike the famous previous use of the device, there seemed no justification for the narrator not to tell us everything along the way; I would still stand by that reaction.) So I returned it to the library and thought no more about it. Until many online and published surveys in the last couple of decades singled it out as especially good.

    So I bought a new copy and liked it much more. So I will say by way of encouragement for your own situation, that it’s vastly more gripping on rereading, when there’s an extra layer perceptible underneath everything that happens.

    Also, I find this a puzzling but welcome departure from Christie’s depiction of Young People in the other books of the decade. Usually her attempts come off embarrassingly false (all the worse because of the apparently well-meant “dear me, we must try to understand them and what they want” overtones of her writing), our protagonist here feels pretty convincing and rounded. I don’t really understand why it’s so different this one time, but I’m grateful.

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    1. I’ve often thought I would like to write genre fiction for young people, and the thing I was taught about all YA fiction is to try and keep it timeless. As soon as you write “contemporary” characters and try to match their slang, attitudes, etc., you date your book. Sure there are some classics that are “dated,” but if I want to write mysteries that kids will read for a number of years, I think it’s smart to avoid these markers that date books.

      That said, I think Michael and Ellie are written in that sort of timeless fashion. The idea of a disaffected youth is more modern, but neither speaks like the teens I knew back then, nor do they seem to be preoccupied with anything that was bothering young people in the late 60’s – and lots of stuff was bothering them. Compare any of these characters with those in Third Girl!

      I actually have re-read this, maybe a couple of years ago. At that time, what struck me the most is that the middle section felt padded. Nothing much happened, and Christie’s attempt to insert red herrings felt desultory to me. I’m pretty sure I have another read in me . . . just not yet.

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  2. We diverge a little more in our opinions here, Brad, though not too much. For example, I find “Third Girl” much better than you do. Yeah, sure, the disguise thing is very far-fetched, but I think there’s a pretty strong plot in this one. Diluted by tangents here and there, but on the whole very solid. I’m also more tolerant towards “Hallowe’en Party” than you. There’s an excellent piece of misdirection in it.

    Meanwhile, “The Pale Horse” is a bit boring to me. Parts of it are very good, but I just don’t feel it hangs together as well as it should. Dunno if I’d agree with you that it’s a thriller either. Not more than “Murder Is Easy” anyway. And again, why was “Corrigan” included in that list of names? (To steer the readers’ suspicions in a certain direction is the real answer, but the in-story one?)

    But for the rest of the novels here, we’re pretty much in agreement. As for “Endless Night”, which I just published my own post on today, I just can’t stand it. I managed to get through it, but bleh. I don’t want to read Ruth Rendell when I read my Christie.

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    1. I don’t want to read Ruth Rendell when I read my Christie.

      That’s a good one, Christian. When I re-read Third Girl a few years ago, I liked it more, but I still tend to lump it in with novels like The Clocks and Dead Man’s Folly: there are good things in all of them (Mrs. Oliver’s in two!), but as mysteries they feel tired compared to other middle of the road Christies.

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  3. I really loved reading this piece. I was curious what you were going to say about Christie’s later years because, though they are hardly her best years, I find them so interesting. Christie was – to some extent – a being out of time in the 1960s. By then, the likes of Ruth Rendall (notorious for her dislike of Christie) and P.D. James (less outspoken but pushing a different agenda) had come to the scene and were reworking the mystery story. And yet, Christie was still plugging along with her mystery plots. The stories themselves *feel* different in the sixties than they did in the thirties or forties. I read many of these titles and I detect a darker streak underscoring Christie’s work. The “real world” encroaches in on Christie’s world more than it did before the war, and I find that so interesting. Christie may have still been doing the things that she did in the previous decades, but in some respects she was laying the groundwork for the writers who followed her.

    I cannot wait to see what you say about the seventies.

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  4. Surprisingly, A Caribbean Mystery was also my first Marple! I followed it up with Nemesis, which was really just a stroke of luck for me, and controversially, I enjoyed Nemesis more.

    I love The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. I honestly think that if Christie had written it in the late 30s or 40s, it could have been one of the top tier Marple’s. There’s a lot to love in the set up and solution, and there is that sense of tragedy in the ending that she did so well in books like FLP. I think it’s biggest flaw for me is, as you said, how little the actual solution is hidden from us. I remember reading in John Curran’s ‘Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks’ about how when the first draft of the book was received, that a mention of measles made the solution so obvious that they asked for her to rewrite it. But I think that it’s still a brilliant book, and the portrayal of the changing landscape of 1960’s Britain is probably her best treatment of the subject, as it’s not as pained as say, the descriptions in Third Girl.

    Endless Night is such an interesting book for me, because it so often is such a divisive book. Back when I hadn’t read much Christie, or read about her works, I always assumed that it was among her top tier of books, and one of her most praised/best, and I’ve carried that view for a long time. It was really fascinating to see just how much people either love the book, or hate it, after getting deeper into the GA community. Personally, I love it. She’s using a combination of some old and hoary tricks that we should be able to see through, but she’s morphed and twisted and coated them in so many new ways that it’s an entirely different entity from her earlier works. In a way, it does read like Christie attempting to write a thriller in the more modern, psychologically focused sense, but it’s much more successful than most of those books ever are, at least in my opinion!

    The squandering of By The Pricking of My Thumbs and Hallowe’en Party’s premises has always been something that’s bothered me – especially when it comes to Thumbs. The mention of children behind a fireplace is just so delightfully macabre, and it’s brimming with so much potential, only for it to be wasted on a confused and barely there plot. What the Dame could have done if she had used it earlier! I can only dream.

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  5. I think the biggest disappointment in BtPoMT is that Christie has teased us – TWICE! – with that creepy “kid in the fireplace” story . . . and this is the best she could come up with? After Mrs. Lancaster disappears, the whole book is just boring until the end. (And an ending that cool deserves a much better lead-up to it.) Hallowe’en Party has so much more going for it that it makes me even angrier. I don’t expect great mysteries out of Tommy and Tuppence, but Poirot, combined with Mrs. Oliver, dead children and past crimes has always promised more. At least it’s better than Elephants Can Remember, but does that mean anything?

    I know what Christie’s trying to do with Endless Night – I can’t say that was true when I read it as a kid – and I can appreciate it, but the book still leaves me cold.

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  6. I have a very soft sport for “The Patient”, one of the one act plays in Rule of Three. In a way, it’s one of her last traditional whodunnits, with not outstanding but at least solid clueing and a villain that znl or boivbhf bapr lbh pbafvqre gurz, ohg pna rnfvyl or bireybbxrq, orpnhfr gurl ner nyzbfg cneg bs gur frggvat.

    I would have prefered it as a novella or short story, but I do like it.

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  7. Brad – I am enjoying your decade by decade retrospective immensely including the comments from others that create debate.

    For me, I look at the list of books from the 60s and ask myself which I would take time to re-read again. Now that I have been exposed to so many GAD books and an ever-growing TBR mountain, I can’t imagine wanting to read any of these again other than The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side or A Caribbean Mystery. I no longer have time for meh books.

    Finally, thanks for the lookback on the Margaret Rutherford films that I admit are a guilty pleasure … I don’t pretend they have anything to do with Agatha Christie and just take them for what they are.

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  8. I’m clearly in a minority here, but By The Pricking Of My Thumbs is actually a favourite of mine. I can see the flaws in the plot, but they don’t stop me enjoying re-reading it every time. I also like The Clocks to a lesser degree – I think Colin carries it, to the extent that we may not notice that his deduction right at the end of the book is never explained properly. By contrast, the major plot problem in Third Girl really is a stumbling-block as far as I’m concerned.

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  9. Sorry if I go off topic in a way, but I feel i have to vent, and this seems to be the right place…
    Just came home from a trip to Piccadilly, and was told by one of the guys in Waterstones that apparently Harper Collins have stoped printing the Christie Facsimile hardbacks – none to be found in any of the stores or online, not Amazon, Ebay – nada. This must be a recent thing since a few weeks back, the shops were still full with them. If that’s true, It’s a baffling decision if ever there was one, since they are clearly all selling well… sorry, rant over now.

    As for the Rutherford films, they were and still are enormously popular in Germany, and that’s the image of Miss Marple that people know, sadly. As far as I remember, some plot elements of Murder Ahoy could be said to be taken from They Do It With Mirrors, if one wants to be charitable…

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  10. Feel free to vent! This is upsetting news, as the Facsimiles are beautiful little books! I picked up a few in a used bookstore. They were like new, so obviously someone did not value what they had purchased. If I had been more flush, I would have bought them all up. This is the time of life when I would love to trade in the ratty old paperback copies I have had all my life for a beautiful full set like this one. Evidently, it wasn’t worth the cost to Harper Collins.

    Reading the blurb at the back of my DVD of Murder Ahoy, I know what you mean; in fact, it actually gives away the deep, dark secret at the heart of They Do It with Mirrors, so I can understand why the producers wouldn’t credit the book – although I think they would have scored more points with fans if they had. Or maybe not! I don’t remember any sailors of broad comedy in the novel!! 😉

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