LET’S FACE THE MUSIC AND RANK: My Top Ten Christies
WARNING: What you see before you is very long, closing in on 10,000 words. I toyed with making it a two-parter, but honestly I want to be done with it! Let it go out into the blogosphere and be read by three people. Consider it this blogger’s Hooded Gunman, my coffee table book of a post to clear the sluices of a challenging year and pave the way for new authors and new ideas.
You could simply scroll down, look at the titles, and then post a comment if you wish. Or you could read it at your leisure. The truth is, folks, most bloggers, myself included, write our feelings about things not to lecture to all of you but to earn a response, whether you agree or not. I love to converse about these things, so forgive me in advance if I used a lecture to generate conversation. Also, there are spoilers. Oh, lord, so many spoilers. Don’t read anything more than the titles if you haven’t read the books.
Okay, here we go. But first, here’s how I went about it: I developed some categories and a process.
Here are the categories:
- Crimes – is/are the crime(s) well-plotted and/or intriguing and/or original?
- Characters – given that Christie’s approach to character evolved over time, how does she pique our interest in them here?
- Clues – how well does Christie “play the game” here? Does she provide a string of clues and deductions that lead us down the road to discovery? Are there sufficient red herrings to lead us down the garden path?
- Criminals – Does it all come together nicely in the end? Is the identity of the murderer inevitable? Does it surprise?
- Classic – As prolific as she was, some of Christie’s titles have earned the status of “classic” due to their originality, their solution, their place in the canon. This gives certain titles an advantage. Does that advantage push a title into my top ten?
- Charm – A mixture of the All About Agatha concept of tone mixed with Sophie Hannah’s enjoyability factor. (Are you confused now? Read here.) Christie is my favorite author, bar none, yet reading her books, you can feel the pleasure she must have taken in putting some of them together, while others feel a bit more like hard work. And while charm may come from the author’s use of any one of the other factors – a fabulous setting, clue or character – it can also be something more ineffable that makes the experience of reading the book sublime.
Here is the process: I went through the list of Christie’s sixty-six novels. I admittedly relied on my memory rather than poring through each text, since I’ve read these all so many times. I eliminated the ones that were easy to eliminate, then went back and started again, whittling the list down to twenty-five, then fifteen, then ten. Finally, I assembled an order.
To be honest, I wrote at great length about this process until I realized that I had something unwieldy on my hands that would prove quite boring to most of you. I would take great pleasure in discussing the process with those of you who are truly interested, but I figure that if you’re here, you’re looking for results, so get to it, man! And so, without further ado . . .
!!!SPOILERS ABOUND BELOW!!!
Number Ten: Evil Under the Sun (1941)
My relationship to this novel has evolved over time. I always liked it, but I couldn’t help dismissing it as a second-tier retread of a more beloved, earlier book. Those similarities are actually facile: romantic intrigue in a vacation setting was a popular motif for the author, and the novel owes more to “Triangle at Rhodes” than Death on the Nile (and the shorter work was written before Nile anyway, so I guess both novels owe something to “TaR.”)
Crimes: There is essentially only one crime here, since it’s not until the very end that 1) Linda is poisoned, and 2) we discover that Arlena’s death is part of a serial pattern by the killers. (The prologue in the film is enjoyable but sort of dangles there till the end, an unneeded capitalization of the jazzier prologue from 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express.) The fact is that Arlena Marshall’s murder, with all the elements around it, is juicy enough to sustain the entire novel. It is spectacularly done, from the discovery of the body through Poirot’s investigation of the crime which never falters or feels bogged down in the ritual of interviews and discussion of clues!
Characters: They are a magnificent lot. Often in Christie it’s the women who are the more interesting and varied group, and they are wonderful here. Rosamund Darnley is supremely attractive: you feel that if she were to be the killer, you would be very sorry. Christine Redfern is pathetic, but not nearly as obnoxiously so as she is in the first film, and Linda is one of Christie’s best child characters. Even the secondary females are great: Mrs. Gardiner and Miss Brewster provide fine comic relief and, in the latter case, at least, important clues to the truth. The men here are equally varied and interesting, making the central romantic situation compelling. The character who has grown on me as the years have passed is the victim. The presentation of Arlena vs. the truth about her is good Christie. Diana Rigg, marvelous in the first film, tends to ignore this – or, at least, it’s hard to swallow given what a bitch she is! Christie’s actors tend to be amoral figures, sometimes to the point of criminality, and in order to set up the situation, the author is compelled to accentuate Arlena’s selfishness. We tend to forget the insecurities that underlie the monstrous egos affecting so many artists; here, we would do well to remember the underlying humanity in every murder victim.
Clues: The timeframe of the murder is arranged with clockwork precision, and the clues, physical and verbal, which obfuscate and reveal, contribute perfectly to the final effect. Christie was fond of creating a distinctive clue list at the end, and this one is an amusing and effective mish mosh of objects and events – a bottle thrown into the sea, a mysterious bath at noon, the mirror that reflects Marshall at his typewriter, the candles, and so on.
The use of characteristics in secondary characters to lead us to the truth (Emily Brewster’s vertigo, the Reverend Lane’s prejudicial reading of Arlena’s character) is artfully done. And who can help but applaud when Christie, as she so often does, throws a huge bone to us at the very beginning, as Poirot comments on the sunbathers before him as identical slabs of meat roasting in the sun. Again, Arlena’s character is presented as so one-of-a-kind that we fail to see her as a possible example of this phenomenon.
Criminals: As much as I love a good murder, I especially revel in those novels where appearance is flipped by the end. The nature of the Redferns’ marriage is beautifully presented to fool us. One main problem with the film from the 1980’s, enjoyable as it is, is that Redfern is such a smug sociopath while Christine overdoes the helplessness just a tad. This does not occur in the novel. The one thing I can harp about a little bit is how late in the game their whole raison d’etre becomes apparent.
Classic: As has been discussed recently on other sites, the renown of this title was probably lifted by the 1982 film, which camped the proceedings up a bit and restocked the characters somewhat but still managed to charm from beginning to end. It’s funny, though: watching this film and Death on the Nile, it seems obvious to me that one has earned “classic” status and the other has not, and that has to do with the emotional resonance one gets at the end of Nile. As I stated at the start here, I have evolved in my feelings for Sun, but I admit that the realization that Arlena has always been a femme victime rather than a femme fatale, while lifting the status of the victim, doesn’t necessarily resonate with the same passion that the end of Nile does. I think this is largely because by the end of Sun, what has happened before feels largely forgotten, while the finale of Nile produces five corpses and a dozen lives changed by romance and crime. Nile feels much bigger – but, to my mind, that doesn’t disqualify Sun from the list because of its . . .
Charm: This novel is incredibly fun to read. The mystery plot is just fine, but the secondary tourists – the Gardiners and Miss Brewster especially – are lively comic relief, while the motives among the main suspect list are rich enough to not point us directly toward the killer. Marshall, like all military men in Christie, is a bit of a stick, but Rosamund Darnley and Linda are exceptional characters, and the unhappiness of the Redferns plays out convincingly until it doesn’t have to anymore.
Number Nine: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926)
It’s Christie’s grand finale to the 1920’s (put any of the next three, The Big Four, The Mystery of the Blue Train, or The Seven Dials .l, written during her “troubles,” on your top ten list – go ahead, I dare you!), and she does a brilliant job of taking a well-trod motif, the murder of the village squire, laying on all the typical trappings in terms of suspects and clues, and then up-ending the whole business famously.
Crimes: The murder of Ackroyd veers toward being a locked room mystery without fully embracing it, since many people lie or are mistaken about what they saw and heard. The first crime – the suicide-prompted-by-blackmail of Mrs. Ferrars, forms an enticing background, with Christie nearly shouting from the rooftops about how crucial it is to the plot. Dr. Shepard opens with Mrs. Ferrars and spends his last moments with Ackroyd arguing about Mrs. Ferrars . . . and then the reader is manipulated to drop the matter in favor of other motives.
Characters: This being the mid-1920’s, one doesn’t expect strong characterization. The needy relations, the female servant with questionable morals, the dutiful butler, the mournful housekeeper, the obsequious secretary, the bluff big-game hunter . . . all these have appeared ad nauseum throughout the Golden Age. Ackroyd’s household is rendered in a lively enough matter, but there is nothing particularly noteworthy about this group. What raises this category to greatness is the depiction of James and Caroline Shepard. Dr. Shepard makes a muchmore interesting Watson figure than Hastings: prickly, easily annoyed, more of a counterpart to Poirot than a fawning acolyte. Shepard is smarter, too, more observant and cognizant of what he observes. These qualities abound in his writing, giving the traditional 20’s plot a sleeker, more modern feel. Caroline is a gossipy gem and possibly the progenitor for Miss Marple. Also, Poirot is interesting here, humorous in his doomed-to-fail attempts at retirement – we have one of his best entrances into any story here – and magnificent in his observations and manipulation of character.
Clues: One could argue that the Dictaphone, the footprints outside the window, the fake telephone call, the lying witness at the study door, are all tried and true, often-used to the point of cliché clues. And that is precisedly whythey work perfectly well here because they call less attention to the real gems, namely Dr. Shepard’s narration. Notice how brilliantly Shepard manipulates his dishonesty to the reader, creating passages that you want to re-read over and over again. His depiction of action and feeling is masterful in the way he misdirects through omission. Shepard’s parting with Ackroyd before the latter is discovered dead is one of the great passages of Christie’s career, but so is the concern the Doctor expresses over certain situations, like the entrance of Poirot to the village or Ralph Paton’s erratic behavior; they are the fears of a murderer, which readers misread as something else.
Criminals: The final showdown between detective and murderer is one for the annals of crime writing, and it ultimately explains and excuses why the other characters feel more like chessmen on a master board. Who stood the greatest chance of blackmailing Mrs. Ferrars? Who manipulated Ralph Paton nearly to the gallows? Whose solicitousness and wary observance served as both excellent qualities for a Watson and telltale signs of a successful sociopath? (Why has Shepard never fallen in love?) Dr. Shepard is one of Christie’s best murderers and, despite the early date of this novel, one of her most fully realized characters.
Classic: Does the solution do the heavy lifting at raising this book to classic status? Sure it does, but the very ordinariness of the murder of Ackroyd provides fantastic camouflage for what Christie is achieving here. The “ordinariness” of the suspects and their grubby motives lull us into looking everywhere but at the truth. In his book Who Killed Roger Ackroyd, Pierre Bayard argues against the gimmickry of Christie’s solution and suggests another, intriguing one. His idea may be clever, but it does not contain the sense of inevitability that the original choice of murderer presents. If the motive is self-protection, nobody but Shepard could be the killer or have access to the confluence of the elements that confuse the timing of the murder.
Charm: I would venture to say that without the triumph of Shepard’s narrative voice, this case might have come across as banal, even with the twist. But his tone is refreshing throughout, urgent when it needs to be and tinged with mordant humor. The brother-sister relationship is hilarious, and the transformation of Shepard and Poirot from comrades-in-arms to cat and mouse is beautifully done.
Number Eight: Murder on the Orient Express (1934)
I first read it when I was eleven or twelve. It was the second Agatha Christie title in my collection and the first “traditional” Golden Age Mystery I ever read.
Or so I thought. Because what MotOE does so brilliantly is set up the readers of “traditional” Golden Age mysteries to believe that this is what they’ve got . . . and then deliver something more akin to the honkaku of the likes of Seishi Yokomizo. It thus becomes necessary to approach the categories from the perspective of classic Japanese crime fiction which, ironically, was inspired by the likes of writers like Christie herself.
Crimes: Ostensibly, there is one murder here, that of an odious man named Ratchett. He is a dealer in ancient pottery, an interest which Christie herself had embraced in the flush of her second marriage. Upon first sight, nobody on the Calais car in which Ratchett is traveling has much good to say about him, least of all Hercule Poirot, who refuses a commission from the man for the simple reason that “I do not like your face.” The victim had been concerned about anonymous threatening letters, and when he dies, the assumption is that he must have been killed by the writer(s) of these threats. The question is: is this unknown enemy someone who snuck aboard the train at the last station, or is it a fellow traveler?
We discover all too soon that Ratchett’s murder is the result of a monstrous event, one that claimed the lives of four members of the wealthy Armstrong family. Whether she possessed great savvy or questionable chutzpah, Christie clearly based this tragic clan on the fatal kidnapping of the Lindburgh baby, the trial of which was still going on when the book was published. Readers must have transferred some of their horror surrounding this event to the death of Daisy Armstrong, which sets us up to view the death of the man responsible in a wholly different light.
Not that it’s extraordinary for a murder victim to be loathsome, but one who has profited by the unnecessary death of a little girl, which resulted in the subsequent deaths of both her parents and an unfairly maligned servant, leads us to reserve our sympathies for the unknown killer.
Characters: Is there anyone, however, who reads MotOE and hopes that the killer is an unknown trespasser? No, we fully expect that we have met the murderer in the early chapters, but the chance of identifying him or her is going to be tough. The closed circle is extraordinarily large: twelve passengers and three staff members. Like most 30’s suspects, they are identified by certain tropes, and in this case, we experience a lot of international stereotyping. Are all English valets imperturbable, all Italians voluble, all Swedish nurses shy and sheep-like?
Those who criticize this novel complain about the large cast and the double line-up of interviews with each and every one. At least shrink the number down, they must ask themselves. In fact, the 2001 Alfred Molina TV-adaptation and the recent farce version by Ken Ludwig did indeed reduce the number . . . and we all know what a problem that creates for the plot as Christie intended it.
In the other three adaptions, the cast of characters is essentially intact, and we find that some of them are given short shrift. My friend Scott Ratner has suggested that the novel really does not make great fodder for film, and I have to say that all the characters are given more of their due in the source material. This is no small trick because it’s not uncommon for suspects in a murder case to have buried secrets and double lives, and here we find that to be the case for every character! But Christie pulls this bit off with aplomb, and it’s too here credit that even as she reveals the connection each passenger had to the Armstrong case, a great percentage of her readers do not see the truth because . . . it’s something we have never encountered.
Clues: I’m not sure if this novel has the most clues of any Christie book ever, but it certainly has, on purpose, more red herrings. The murder scene is jammed with objects, and the rest is a pleasant assemblage of odd discrepancies, bizarre events, and suspicious comments. One thing I love about the clues is that the boring ones – the pipe cleaner, the conductor’s button, the grease spot – have limited value, while the really important clues are better hidden (i.e., the slips in conversation by Mary Debenham and Hildegarde Schmidt, the meaning of the initial on the handkerchief, Colonel Arbuthnot’s rather short-sighted comments about justice) and mean more.
Criminals: After all, this is why the book is on the list: everyone is guilty, and by that I don’t mean just the twelve murderers. The four “innocent” members of the cast – Poirot, M. Bouc, Dr. Constantine, and Helena Andrenyi – are, by the end, all complicit in this crime. Much has been made of the fact that Poirot assumes a guilty secret at the end, but this discussion came late to the proceedings. In the novel, Poirot has no difficulty whatsoever in offering the possibility of absolution to the criminals. It is not the first time either that he has taken the law into his own hands; in Ackroyd, he gives the murderer the option of suicide over arrest, and the murderer takes him up on it. Only in the David Suchet version and, to a lesser extent, the Branagh adaption, does anybody’s conscience suffer, and while it is an interesting departure from the original, it is a departure. Christie chooses to view the passengers more as executioners than as criminals, and Poirot as approving of any dispensation of justice here. While it may be jarring in the Lumet film to see the passengers toast smilingly with champagne at the end, one may find the melodrama in the third act of the Suchet film a bit much to take. I happen to like how Branagh handled it: the passengers are excused from punishment, but it seems that none of them have taken lightly to the role of murderer and the atmosphere at the end is anything but celebratory.
Classic: Yes, for its connection to the real world and for its unique solution, I would call this one a classic. When I first read it, I leapt out of my chair at the final unveiling of a solution.
Charm: Perhaps due to the overcrowding of suspects, interviews and clues, MotOE is less charming to read than other titles. There is little humor here, except in the person of Mrs. Hubbard. But she has to be funny; it’s part of the mystery. And as I have grasped the breadth of Christie’s accomplishment here with many re-readings, as well as compared it to the many film versions, the charm of this novel grows and grows on me.
Number Seven: Crooked House (1949)
There are several types of parent figures to be found in Christie, and one can only ponder how much they represent Christie’s own mother and father. Certainly, mothers are a more complex lot in the canon than fathers, who basically appear in two varieties: the rapacious monsters of the 1930’s (think Colonel Protheroe and Simeon Lee) and the benevolent tyrants of the next decade. The first make good fodder for a puzzle mystery, but the latter are more interesting psychological figures. Gordon Cloade, of Taken at the Flood is a distinguished businessman who believes he has got his family’s back by supplying them with money from afar, while Aristide Leonides is a canny immigrant who gathers his immense crooked family in a not-so-little crooked house. Both men take a young beauty to wife, causing all hell to break loose when they die. Flood is high-level melodrama in a post-war world; Crooked House is one of Christie’s best family tragedies.
Crimes: Aristide is poisoned when someone switches his medicine. Refreshingly, there is no crime from the past, no “old sins cast long shadows.” The victim’s slightly sketchy rise to wealth has hurt nobody; the problem is that nobody in the family possesses the same skill for success that he had, while whatever “crookedness” there might have been in his nature has manifested in his descendants and their kin in unfortunate ways. As a result of his death, an old woman is also poisoned and a little girl nearly dies from a weight falling on her head, but both of these events happen late in the game. The investigation revolves around Aristide, and the stakes are higher than usual: if Charles Hayward does not solve the murder, he will lose the love of his life.
Characters: The Leonides family benefits from Christie’s 1940’s focus on character. Compare them to the vast array of Boyntons in Appointment with Death or Lees in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas ( both from 1938). All those colorless sons and daughters blend into each other or possess a single trait. The joys of both books – and they are many – depend upon plot.
But here the plot is simple in the extreme. In fact, the investigation is almost secondary to the situation in the house and the relationships between characters. This is proven by the fact that I can hardly muster enough cluesto give it a section all its own (a will, some love letters, a clump of dirt). The house itself is almost a character: a vast warren of sections separating the family members into factions: Philip and Magda’s messy cave of specious creativity; Roger and Clemency’s antiseptic laboratory, an odd setting for the most successful love affair in the book; Brenda’s apartment, the Usurper’s Nest; and the nursery, where Eustace, Josephine and their tutor Lawrence Brown operate at their best.
These are not GAD “types” but an interesting and varied lot. Yes, Magda West has the qualities of other tempestuous Christie actresses, but somehow it matters more here. As is often the case, the women are especially interesting here, but the men are, too: Philip and Roger are a study in filial contrast, like the Blake brothers in Five Little Pigs, while Lawrence Brown comes into his own by the end. The recent movie made the mistake of portraying the family as awful. They are not awful, just weak, made so by an over-reliance on Aristide’s guidance and generosity. His death ironically roots out the cancer within and allows an Augean-like cleansing to take effect. This is not your 30’s mystery where murder is a destabilizing event and its solving restores the world to order. Everyone is changed by Aristide’s death and made stronger and, potentially, happier by the end.
Criminals: I would extend that final sentence to the murderer, if we acknowledge that psychopathy brings with it a deep well of unhappiness or, at least, dissatisfaction. Josephine reminds me of that little boy in the famous Twilight Zone episode, “It’s a Good Life,” who possesses the power to recreate the world in his image but is never satisfied or happy with the results. Josephine would no doubt kill again and again to get what she wants, which is . . . what? Perhaps a recognition of her genius as a murderer and a detective. Except she can’t give away the first without losing her freedom, and she can only feign the second, for the same reason. She is one of Christie’s most terrifying and pathetic killers.
Classic: Yes, Margery Allingham and Ellery Queen beat Christie to the twist, but neither of their uses of the child murderer comes close to what Christie does here. So yes, pin its classic status on the solution if you must, but the novel works on other levels as well: as a post-war love story, as an examination of England in the 40’s, and as rich family drama.
Charm: Crooked House is a good read. In addition to the characters, to a love story you can root for because it matters to the mystery, and to the tragic inevitability of its finale, I would point to perhaps the loveliest example of a father-son relationship in all of Christie between Charles and the Assistant Commissioner. Inspector Taverner fits in here too as one of the sharpest tacks of the Yard.
Number Six: The Hollow (1946)
In so many ways, The Hollow is a companion piece to a novel that preceded it by four years, and it fits on my “Ten Best” list as the (slightly) lesser part of a matched set. It is criticized – wrongly, in my opinion – for being solved by Hercule Poirot. Having solved the earlier murder of another gifted but impossible man under similarly difficult circumstances, Poirot possesses the sensitivity to understand the issues surrounding this case that a stolid police inspector would not. (Go ahead, read the play – I rest my case.)
Crimes: As is more common in the 1940’s, there is only one crime and it comes late. Christie takes her sweet time developing our understanding of John Christow and the people in his circle, painting a dynamic, multi-layered portrait of a doctor who both saves and ruins lives. So often, the bonds that tie the members of a country weekend in a murder mystery are shallow: blood and friendship cut deeper than seems evident once the body is found sprawled in the study or, in this case, beside the swimming pool. Sure, the residents of The Hollow and their guests have problems with each other, but they also have great affection that gets them through a complex set of circumstances, like how the English inheritance laws have robbed Lucy Angkatell of her beloved Ainswick, or how Midge Hardcastle feels to be the mousy poor cousin; how people can hate and love each other at the same time and the path to a murder can be the result both of long-churning circumstances and a sudden violent impulse.
When Poirot comes upon the murder, he feels a moment of irritation: it looks so much like a staged scene that he is afraid it has been thrown together as an homage to his abilities. Given that in GAD, murder does seem to follow detectives around, this is a delicious meta- moment. It’s also a savvy one, for as soon as the characters begin to speak, a play is being improvised for Poirot’s benefit. Well, actually, it’s for the murderer’s benefit; at The Hollow, the family protects its own.
Characters: Nobody here – with the possible exception of actress Veronica Craye – is a typical Christie type. John Christow is not the bluff, hearty doctor of St. Mary Mead or Cards on the Table. He is a multi-faceted man, a brilliant philanderer, both cold-hearted and passionate. He appreciates that his wife needs him and that his mistress is willing to share him, and yet at times both irritate him. Like so many men in Christie’s fiction, Christow can’t find satisfaction but is always searching for more in both his professional and personal life. This could describe Christie’s father and her first husband, as well as xxxxx the associate second spouse Max Mallowan who, unhappy in his own marriage, forged a special bond with the author (and later cheated on his wife with another woman.)
The other male figures – Sir Henry, Edward, David – may pale in contrast to John, but the women come to life around him. Henrietta is hands-down one of the most interesting women in the canon, struggling between her love and her art, and possessed of a brilliant enough mind to spin Poirot off in countless wrong directions. Lucy and Midge show, so likeable from the start, reveal dark and dangerous depths. And Gerda cannot be dismissed as “poor Gerda” without taking into account the damage her dependence on John has wrought on her, as the early domestic scenes reveal. Even Veronica, another shallow, selfish actress, serves her purpose as a catalyst. Her first entrance marks her, like Poirot, as an unwelcome outsider; Christow’s great crime is letting her in.
Clues: Not many, mostly the gun and the holster, which I think are highly effective. Some fans, my friend Scott Ratner included, find the actual clueing one of the weakest aspects of this story. I beg to differ: the crimes of the 40’s are much simpler than the complex puzzles of the 1930’s because the murderers, all better rounded characters, are thinking and acting differently. (The murders in Towards Zero are carefully planned, but they are the work of a madman.)
Criminals: Like the clues, the crime here boils down to a simple and understandable reaction to betrayal. What is so cleverly done here is that Poirot encounters such opposition to finding the truth that he assumes a great intelligence is behind the crimes. This is another fine example of Christie’s misdirection at work. There is great intelligence at work, but that doesn’t mean it stems from the murderer. What Gerda turns out to have, when the time is right, is cunning, like a cornered animal striking back. She may be the most pathetic murderer Christie ever created.
Classic: No, I don’t think you can argue that this is classic Christie; instead, it is an extension of a classic. However, it does contain so much of the author’s nature: her passion for old houses, her sympathy for women who love a selfish man, her artistry that separates her from “normal” folk by turning everything and everyone around her into an idea for a story.
Charm: It oozes with charm for everything I’ve said before. If it is more “a novel with murder” than a mere murder mystery, you can decide if you like that or not. I would argue that, if you’re going to venture into such territory, this is how you do it.
Number Five: A Murder Is Announced (1950)
Listing the ten “best” by your favorite author isn’t easy! There are fifty-six other novels that didn’t make the cut, and out of these I can only name two (Passenger to Frankfurt and Postern of Fate) that gave me no pleasure. And while I’m not ready to say – in this bear of a post – why this or that title wasn’t included, I need to address the fact that seven of my ten best are Poirot tales and only one features Jane Marple.
I love Miss Marple. I think that the older I get the more I love her. In the category of charm alone, her titles score higher than Poirot’s. Her novels almost always open well: picture Mrs. McGillicuddy on the train or Major Palgrave reaching into his wallet for the photograph of a killer. Savor the brilliant hilarity of Mrs. Bantry dealing with the body in the library or the secretarial staff coping with Rex Fortescue’s corpse. And the one title that almost made the cut, The Moving Finger, is Christie’s best village mystery, bar none.
The “problem” with Miss Marple is that she doesn’t so much detect as intuit. Her village parallels are, you guessed it, charming, but they are stories of people we don’t know, and thus they cut off our participation in the murder game. Her novels invariably end with a revelation coming out of nowhere in most dramatic fashion: she stops a murderer from striking again in several books. She is nearly murdered herself in at least two. When the time comes for cold, clear logic, Miss Marple resorts to playacting. It doesn’t lessen the enjoyment of a book for me so much as lower its score in a situation like this.
Except for one: A Murder Is Announced is Miss Marple and Christie delivering a tour de force, complete with a killer opening, great clueing, and a neat twist, all sprinkled with some remarkable insight into post-War life and the vicissitudes of aging for a woman.
Crimes: The announcement of a murder in the local paper to take place that evening at Miss Blacklock’s cottage brings round an assortment of kindly, curious neighbors and ends with the death of a stranger. Rudi Scherz, who works at the local hotel, is a complete outsider to the villagers of Chipping Cleghorn, and so his death is ultimately dismissed as a means to an end. But, as Miss Marple points out, the population of a post-war village is comprised of people who are all strangers to each other. For that reason, identity must always be suspects, and the novel is rife (some have argued too rife) with people in disguise. Before it is all sorted out, two far more emotionally painful deaths occur.
Characters: The cast is dominated by middle-aged women, and they are a varied lot: strong, weak, sharp, foolish, admired, pathetic. They are roughly the same age as their creator, and Christie shows great sympathy for them, even the murderer. She demonstrates how lonely these women can be and how they come to depend on each other, no more so than in the scene in the tea parlor between Miss Marple and Dora Bunner. The fact that the two tightest couples in the book – friends, Miss Blacklock and Miss Bunner and partners, Miss Hinchcliffe and Miss Murgatroyd – are severed by murder adds to the depth of emotion running through this novel.
The younger generation, in addition to being the main suspects, provide a charmingly callous counterpoint to their elders. Edmund depends for support on his mother, but he is impatient as all get-out with her. Similarly, Julia, Patrick and Phillipa are in some ways patronizing, annoying or cold to their benefactress, Miss Blacklock. In other words, it comes across rather like real life. You like these people throughout, in true Brand-ian fashion, and it kills you to realize that one of them has to be a murderer.
Clues: This is the best clued Marple of them all, chockful of items, verbal and visual clues. Christie took a risk that readers would dismiss certain words as editorial errors or would simply not notice the difference between an “o” and an “e”, or an “i” and an “e.” Consequently, she went over the copy with her publisher extremely carefully for this one. When Miss Marple disappears toward the end – preparing as she must for another extraordinarily dramatic capture – she leaves behind a list that vies for the best of Poirot’s lists. Each item reveals another tick in the evidence that led Marple – and should lead the reader – to the solution. It’s the fairest played of the dozen novels featuring the old lady sleuth.
Criminals: Spinster criminals in Christie are a fascinating bunch, thwarted by love or financial circumstance, rendered invisible by their community. So they take advantage of their invisibility, of the fact that one old lady is very much like another. For Charlotte Blacklock, no good deed goes unpunished. After a lifetime of victimhood, she makes a snap decision to impersonate her successful sister, Letitia, and then proceeds to forge a good life in England, doing good works, being a good neighbor. She takes in her friend, Dora, and welcomes her cousins, Patrick and Julia, despite the risk. Because as Miss Marple herself describes her as possessing “kindness of heart and (a) naturally affectionate nature.” Strong sister, weak sister: we admire the former and pity the latter. But for Miss Marple, the search for justice is absolute, and while she can feel sorry for Charlotte, she sees right through her:
“People with a grudge against the world are always dangerous. They seem to think life owes them something. I’ve known many an invalid who has suffered worse and been cut off from life much more . . . and they’ve managed to lead happy contented lives. It’s what’s in yourself that makes you happy or unhappy.”
It’s impossible to feel sorry for Charlotte by the end: she can cry over the death of Dora, but she did put her down like an old pet, and she viciously murdered Murgatroyd out of self-protection and was willing to let Edmund take the blame for it.
Classic: Few would disagree that it is the best Marple title of them all. It is also her 40th mystery novel and only the fourth featuring the sleuth. One can understand why, after this, Christie tripled the output over the next twenty years.
Charm: One could spend a good deal of time overhearing breakfast conversations in Little Paddocks and never get bored. The details of these people’s lives under rationing are fascinating, and we’re so caught up in their lives that we forget to look for clues in their saved letters and casual dialogues. Miss Marple is charming, and the police and villagers are charmed by her. It is a longer novel, and it moves like a breeze.
Number Four: Death on the Nile (1937)
It is, for me, the most magnificent novel of the 30’s. The puzzle runs like clockwork, and if you want to argue that nobody would set the stage for murder quite like this in real life, then you have to come to grips with yourself that you don’t really like Golden Age mysteries. And that’s fine . . . now, move along. Not only is the puzzle great, but there is an epic feel about the exotic setting, the large cast, and a true sense of Poirot getting personally involved in his cases.
The reality of this list – and arguably a good case for “best of” lists being completely manipulative – is that so many of my selections pair up well with another: Number 5 with Number 3, (as you shall see) and Number 6 with Number 2 (ditto). Here Nile is sort of a companion piece to Orient Express: another travel piece, another huge range of characters, another fine flip-flop of expectations at the end. And yet Nile never feels like a stunt, unlike the train story; rather, it is the Closed Circle to end all Closed Circles. There are so many suspects that no adaptation can include them all, and Wikipedia doesn’t even try for a complete list. And yet, I can tell you about every one of them and why the fact that this is Christie’s longest novel is okay by me. (Sorry, JJ!) And while the basic motivation behind almost any mystery is simple – greed, lust, revenge – in Express it feels simple almost from beginning to end. The surprise is in the size of the conspiracy, not its intent. But Nile feels rooted in affairs of the heart, with a conspiracy that exemplifies misdirection at its best, but always with its motivations rooted in deep, abiding love. In that way, it also connects to Evil Under the Sun, with love and greed at the heart of a devious murder plot.
Crimes – At a certain time of year, the steamship Karnac sails down the river Nile with nearly two dozen passengers. When it returns, five people are dead, but it all boils down to the first: beautiful heiress Linnet Doyle. Although the mortality rate is high here, Linnet’s death happens quite late in the proceedings, and one could argue that the first “crime” is the gradual destruction of her honeymoon by her husband Simon’s ex-lover, the tempestuous Jacqueline de Bellefort. In a career stuffed with complicated romantic shenanigans leading to murder, this is Christie’s purest love triangle. Surrounding this doomed trio are a host of people with their own problems, only a few of which directly touch on Linnet: Mr. Pennington has embezzled her money, Mr. Fergusson is repelled by her on political principles, others express some jealousy that hardly amounts to a motive for murder unless you’re unbalanced. And so we have stolen pearls and the presence onboard of a hidden terrorist, but honestly, the fact that so many of the passengers onboard are unhappy or dissatisfied with their lives and that they have all been essentially trapped on a smallish vessel with this steamy love triangle makes what happens pretty much inevitable. And it makes sense afterward that things might unravel, people could find out, and thus more characters must die!
Characters – The panoply of characters takes on a hint of Christie’s beloved Dickens here. There are the leading lights – Linnet, Jacquie, and Simon – followed by a procession of strong secondary characters whose fates matter in the end: the Allertons, the Otterbournes, Miss Van Schyler and her pathetic cousin Cornelia, the Good Lawyer (Fanthorp) and the Evil Lawyer (Pennington), the would-be revolutionary Fergusson and the pious Dr. Bessner. Then there are the cameos that enrich the novel with cunning touches: the maid, the nurse, the archaologist. The ones who count are more memorable than the others, but everyone fits into the complex plot as suspect, victim, and/or witness.
As usual, the women are more interestingly drawn than the men, although for once, there are plenty of young fellas who stand out quite well. Linnet is not the utter bitch she is portrayed as in both existing adaptations; it’ll be interesting to see Gal Gadot’s take on the character next year. Linnet may be the Ratchett of this tale – Poirot essentially refuses to help either one – but at least in the book he helps her explore her ambivalence over how she has treated Jacquie. Miss de Bellefort has to carry much of the dramatic weight of the novel on her shoulders (and she does so beautifully), but she is assisted by Rosalie Otterbourne and Cornelia Robson, too opposite sides of the “young maiden” coin. And Miss Van Schyler and Salome Otterbourne are appropriately odious mother figures who get their comeuppance in the end.
Clues – My favorite clues in Christie are the more nebulous ones where we learn in hindsight that we have been hoodwinked. In Nile, it’s the dinner at Chez Ma Tante, where Poirot overhears Jacquie and Simon planning their wedding and wonders if she loves him more than he loves her. It’s true, she does, but we still get it wrong. (I also love the attack on Linnet at the temple, which sets us all off in the wrong direction.) Other than that, there is a bourgeoning list of physical clues that preoccupies Poirot throughout the investigation, roping in one passenger after another and then peeling off to reveal the heart of this complicated murder plot.
Criminals – It’s all so simple when you look at it the right way! And Christie herself pulled off the same stunt at the start of the decade, giving her criminal couple perfect alibis. But it works better here because all the people, all the melodrama, all the crazy stuff pulled from the Nile works together to shield Jacquie and Simon despite one piece of misfortune after another. Simon is another handsome cad in the mode of Monte Miller, but Jacquie is a brilliant creation, so endearingly pathetic, so justifiably angry that you almost immediately cross her off your list. All too often in a classic mystery, we are only allowed to see the mask a killer wears. I would argue that we see an honest portrayal of Jacquie throughout (Mia Farrow does the character no favors in the first movie), and this is what makes the denouement so particularly affecting.
Classic – It’s certainly one of her most famous novels because it is highly filmable (although both adaptations necessarily winnowed down the passenger list, and it looks like Kenneth Branagh will do the same and worse), but I can’t help thinking it deserves classic status, both for its devious plot and for it being the most passionate novel of Christie’s own “Golden Age,” presaging the character-rich novels of the 1940’s that populate so much of my own “Best of” list.
Charm – In our quasi-infamous argument on Nile, I think some of what JJ and I argued about had to do with charm. He wanted Christie to get on with it, and I enjoyed the slow build-up to the murder. Again, charm may be completely a matter of taste, but I loved reading about this voyage from its beginnings in rural England to the final docking of the Karnac.
Number Three: After the Funeral (1953)
I was still a child when I first read this, but I was by no means a Christie neophyte. I entered every new book like I was being challenged to a contest; luckily, I seldom won. By this, her 44th novel, Christie had the game down, and she was certainly not above recycling old twists. The central trick here is a variation on A Murder Is Announced, which was itself recycled from an old Marple story, “The Companion.” After the Funeral is a case study on how well Christie could reconfigure her own ideas brilliantly and hoodwink her readers, myself included, time and again.
Crimes: Another breathtaking opening sets you up for the question to follow: which heir murdered Richard Abernethie? As so often happens, those who blurt out their knowledge –batty old ladies clamoring for attention, for a start – often get their throats cut. Or, in a rare show of extreme violence for Christie, they get their faces bashed in. Again, if we have read our author carefully (One, Two, Buckle My Shoe), we should immediately be suspicious about identity, but we foolishly let it slide. When another silly spinster, Miss Gilchrist, is poisoned or the lovely “Saint” Helen is coshed, we embrace the theory that some greedy relatives will do anything to get their hands on a fortune.
Characters: With the Abernethies, we get another multi-generational family (or what’s left of it) that has for years been dependent on the largesse of the successful patriarch. But Richard was no Gordon Cloade or Aristide Leonides; instead, he was a practical man who planned ahead. And his relations are a varied lot, each possessed of his or her own troubles. They also comprise every sort of murderer Christie has included before: the actors, the seedy wastrel of a nephew, the mentally disturbed young man, the wife who would do anything for her invalid husband.
We also have a coterie of satellite characters hovering around the family, seeing, as they cannot see, the big picture. Lanscombe, the butler, is the only one to mourn the loss of the old world. Mr. Entwhistle protects and cares for the family because he understands the weaknesses and strengths of every one of them. And Miss Gilchrist provides a charming counterpoint to the eccentricities of the family she becomes embroiled with. She’s another woman alone, but unlike Charlotte Blacklock or Dora Bunner, she has cheerfully made the best of things.
Clues: They are plentiful and wonderful, from the wax flowers on the green malachite table, to the question of what Helen saw when she looked into the mirror, to the casually dropped comment during the devilishly entertaining family gathering to divvy up the spoils. Every sense is deployed here (why wouldn’t one smell paint in the cottage of a painter?), and the kaleidoscope settles into a surprising and satisfying reveal at the end. And to be honest, the reason I put this title above A Murder Is Announced is threefold: the essential misdirection is easily explained by the passage of time and lack of familiarity, the novel does not depend on a wacky confluence of imposters descending on Enderby Hall, and there is a scene right after the funeral where Christie basically lays out the truth for us but we’re too trusting to see it. As the old lady sits in the teashop feeling smug about her actions and decrying the lousy tea, how many of us ask why Christie doesn’t call the woman Cora?
Criminals: Miss Gilchrist is one of my favorite villains in Christie, and her motive is one of the most original in the canon. Some people kill for fortunes or to protect themselves from a sordid past, but others kill for ballet lessons or funding for a teashop. I know this is not to everyone’s taste, but it sure satisfied mine.
Classic: I don’t think you could call this a classic, especially considering its place so late in the canon. By now, Christie had shown herself more than capable of digging deeper into the milieu and motivations of a murder case. This novel feels lighter and funnier, as do most of the family murders of the 1950’s. But it runs like clockwork and besides, it’s loaded with . . .
Charm: I can read this one over and over and over and still enjoy. It’s tricky and fun and even when you know whodunnit, watching the case unfold is never less than a pleasure. Plus, watching Hercule Poirot double down on his old trick of appearing more “foreign” than he is – and then watching him get tripped up by the least likely person – is always a delight.
Number Two: Five Little Pigs (1942)
Why do people rate this one so highly? It is singularly lacking in the bells and whistles of others of her books. The cast is small and unglamorous; you can hardly imagine Angela Lansbury or Maggie Smith clamoring to play Miss Williams. It is not a funny book – hell, even Mr. Blore provides a bit of humor to the bloodbath on Soldier Island. The hook is original: a murder in retrospect is a trope Christie will fully embrace in her final decade as a writer, to often disastrous results, but here she does it first and she gets it right. The challenge with writing about a past crime is to figure out how to make moldy evidence come to life. With no live crime scene to examine, no body to post mortem, Poirot relies mostly on people talking. And talking. And writing things down. And then talking some more.
This may be what draws the line between people who don’t like this sort of thing and . . . er, smart people. (Sorry, but you’re wrong.) Still, it isn’t any particular preference for murders in retrospect that makes me rate this so highly. I do so because Christie, who usually employs her tricks to create a fine mystery, here uses her talents in service of something more. The crime occurs in the perfect confluence of people and events, not because a miserly old man has invited his relatives down for the weekend to taunt them or out of a desire to stamp out wickedness or for self-protection. These seven complex, difficult people gather together, they fight and make choices like humans do, and one of them dies. The characters aren’t actresses or moguls or mystery writers. Amyas Crale is a larger than life painter, but he’s also a husband, a lover, a father, a friend. It is his drive to create art that does him in, his willingness to use others to get what he wants on canvas. He and the circle of people around him come to breathtaking life, both as their younger selves and, in ways that are surprising or heartbreaking, as their sixteen-years-older counterparts. We see how our actions of the past wound us – or not. Caroline wounded her sister and then sacrificed herself for Angela’s benefit. Philip and Meredith Blake provide a stark contrast in how unrequited love can affect us. Elsa is one of the most effective young women Christie ever wrote about: incapable of controlling her passions, utterly selfish.
The clues are there, and they not only misdirect us, as they should, they enrich the emotional aspects of the novel. The actions that cause two women to sacrifice their happiness and freedom – Elsa destroying her very capacity to love, Caroline taking the rap for her sister – dovetail into a devastating finale with the perfect choice of criminal. You can talk all you want to about Poirot letting the murderers go free in Orient Express; this is where it really counts, where the detective understands that the woman he lets walk out the door is already dead.
The book is a classic, widely considered the best writing Christie ever did. Like Carr’s He Who Whispers, you can’t turn the final page and close the book without having the book stay with you for a while. Does it have charm? I recently heard Sophie Hannah argue against its placement high in the canon because it’s not as fun to read. I agree: it is a serious story. It has heft and crosses the border into novel territory more than once. I would say that it is still charming, that Meredith Blake and Miss Williams are charming figures, that Christie’s bestowing upon Angela Warren a great life and making you care about Carla Lemarchant, who appears in the book for maybe twenty pages, is a sign of her power as a writer and the charm of this tale.
Number One: And Then There Were None (1939)
Do I really have to tell you why?
It is a classic of literature. It is as much a morality tale as it is a mystery. It is unique in the canon; even Christie felt it so. Go ahead: complain that it isn’t very richly clued! It is still her most famous and popular work, one of the top best sellers of all time. It has been accorded a place in popular culture, meaning it is considered smart that if you’re going to read just one mystery, this could be the one. Its plot is stolen (as I keep warning people) more than any other mystery plot. There are more versions of it on film, television, stage, and radio than any other mystery story.
In case you think I’m giving my #1 short shrift, I refer you to my most recent article on the book in case you want to know more. (There are others somewhere in here, too!) I’m sure you’ve heard enough from me on this subject. If I’m still blogging in ten, twenty years, maybe I’ll try this again. Shall we bet on whether the titles and order stay the same? Meanwhile, I hope you’re not so benumbed by this gargantuan post that you won’t offer your opinions below. What would be on your list? I hope we can generate many more discussions about Agatha Christie together in the coming year, the centenary of her first publication!
Meanwhile, I want to wish everyone a safe pleasant ending to the “tens” and a glorious beginning to the “twenties.” May 2020 be a year that turns us all around in a good way.
Happy New Year!