I had a browse in a used bookstore the other day and came away with three very cheap, old paperbacks of Agatha Christie, ones I either hadn’t read in ages and had forgotten or had somehow missed.They have been perfect reading just before bed; usually I read on my phone/kindle app but have been enjoying not staring into a screen just before I sleep. I will organize them in order of reading, as the first two were about the same in ranking–fairly solid Christie contributions without being particularly brilliant (no Murder on the Orient Express, And Then There Were None, or Murder of Roger Ackroyd here, but enjoyable nonetheless. The third, however, I didn’t like as much.
Synopsis: Elinor Carlisle is warned in an anonymous letter that a childhood companion of lesser birth, Mary Gerrard, is sucking up to Elinor’s ill and very wealthy Aunt Laura, and that there is a chance that Aunt Laura might wish to leave her money to Mary instead. Elinor doesn’t want to believe in the letter, but she and her fiance Roddy go to visit just in case. Aunt Laura dies suddenly without a will, and Elinor is the recipient of her riches–but even if Mary hasn’t gotten the money, she has won Roddy’s heart. When Mary dies suddenly, Hercule Poirot is entreated to prove Elinor’s innocence. The problem is, the case against Elinor seems pretty cut-and-dry: she had both means and motive…
Verdict: Christie manages to make both Elinor and Mary sympathetic characters. (Roddy, on the other hand, is unabashedly a tool.) Mary does not actively try or even seem to want either Aunt Laura’s fortune or Roddy’s interest, but one also cannot really blame Elinor for hating her for what happened. (Though really, she should be hating Roddy; see above parenthetical assessment.) This isn’t an absolutely fantastic Christie but it was solid, with some twists and turns and red herrings and mysterious backgrounds, as well as the usual sort of stock characters that worked well enough with the plot. Unfortunately, I had seen the adaptation in Poirot which turned out to actually be faithful to the book, so I remembered the outcome fairly early on. If I hadn’t known it, I think I would have enjoyed it more.
Death in the Clouds
Synopsis: Jane Grey (historical reference definitely intended) is on a flight (in the 1940’s no less!) from Paris to England when a woman is murdered–apparently by a poisoned dart from a South American blow-gun. It turns out that she is a well-known moneylender–and blackmailer. Suspects include a society woman on coke, a crazy mystery writer, some archaeologists who are apparently suspicious by virtue of being French, as well as Jane herself and the handsome Norman Gale, who take it upon themselves to investigate alongside the indomitable Hercule Poirot.
Thoughts: This one was rather fun! A bit of a change from the usual Christie in which an old lady with lots of money dies, and the cast of suspects is her resentful family who all have lots of secrets to hide. Much of this one was trying to piece together motive and opportunity, like how it’s difficult to shoot a woman with a blow-gun in a tiny airplane. There are lots of nice red herrings and much of the plot revolves around blackmail, which is always juicy. Jane’s POV is a nice change of pace from Hastings, and it also features Japp. It’s always nice to see Poirot from an outsider’s perspective (as with Sad Cypress to some degree), especially as he takes Jane under his wing during the investigation and works with Norman too.
Death Comes as the End
Synopsis: In Ancient Egypt, Renisenb returns to her father’s household after the death of her husband, where her three brothers struggle over how to continue the family business (her father is a priest caring for lands around tombs). A more deadly conflict raises its head when their father brings a concubine, Nofret, into the household. Nofret sows discord all around her, so it is hardly a wonder when she dies. To save themselves, the family agree that it was an accident, but when other mysterious deaths begin to happen, as members of the family die off one by one, they begin to wonder if Nofret’s vengeful spirit has returned…
Verdict: As an ancient historian who appreciates Christie’s connections to archaeology through her second husband Max Mallowan, I like the historical setting of the novel. It’s amusing to see her general archetypes–conniving beauty, set-upon husband with overbearing wife, brash man, love triangle–appear in a new setting. The historical background doesn’t overwhelm, but at the same time, it impacts the way the story progresses. For one thing, we don’t have a ‘detective’, we only have Renisenb’s (naive) perspective and, to some extent, Hori (a scribe) and Esa’s (the grandmother) attempts to figure things out.
Renisenb is a bit infuriating in her inability to try to figure things out until it’s convenient for the plot. Also, there is such an enormous body count (8 I think it was!) that by the end it was more about exhausting all other opportunities rather than actually figuring it out. In fact, when I got to the big reveal, I was more annoyed than interested. Apparently Christie changed the ending for this one at her friend/historical advisor’s suggestion. I wish I knew what the original ending was going to be, but as it stands, I felt very let down by the end. The explanation for the murderer’s actions fell flat.
Comments online suggest that this is normally one of peoples’ least favourite Christie’s. I can see why, though I do think it’s a pity, since the Egypt setting has a lot of potential… perhaps she felt constrained by the historical background or by her friend/advisor and that got in the way of the natural plotting of the story.
Ratings: Overall–I would say that Sad Cypress and Death in the Clouds would be about 2.5 stars; Death Comes at the End about 1.5 (an extra half star for setting).