Every year, I read at least one Christie I haven’t read for a while. Sometimes I even forget the murderer (until about halfway through)! This post is therefore my annual round-up of the ones I’ve read. (Annual because it’s almost October but I’m pretty sure I’m burnt out on Christie for at least several months). I didn’t read anything really brilliant, to be honest, but it was solid comfort reading during a very tumultuous summer (in which I got married, moved to a different country, worked multiple jobs, etc.)
New for this year are the Tommy and Tuppence books, so I’m linking to that (terrible) omnibus, and a few others I dug up in my increasingly desperate attempts to read ones I don’t remember. I can’t really bring myself to write 250+ words for each of them, and it feels a little strange to jump ahead so far in my CBR goals, so I’m going to round this down to 10 books, even though technically I’m discussing 14 (and some radio dramas as an extra).
A list of the ones I’ve read with some brief comments:
The Mysterious Affair at Styles: The one that started it all, and it’s a classic. Arthur Hastings (coincidentally: the name my 11 year old sister bestowed upon her dog) is at the forefront of this one. He is recovering from or taking a break from The War (i.e. WWI) and visits friends at their grand old mansion, Styles. The mansion is ‘ruled’ by the matriarch of the family, whose second husband is deemed unsuitable by family and friends alike. When the matriarch dies (I’m not looking up her name but it’s probably something like Agnes), Hastings enlists an acquaintance, Hercule Poirot, to help look through the family’s messy affairs and try to find the murderer. Hastings is slightly less irritating in this novel than the character he becomes in some of the later ones, but his penchant for every pretty woman who crosses his path is here in full force as well.
Murder on the Links: This one has interesting twists in the plot, including missing bodies, rebellious sons, blackmail, and long-ago crimes. However, far too much time is spent on Hastings and his ridiculous love affair with ‘Cinderella’ (who in later books is promptly banished to South America, only to be mentioned in passing until her early death.) I wouldn’t call this one a classic Christie; I think it took her a while to lean away from the sensational and into the more intriguing psychological cases that mark her best novels.
Poirot Investigates: This is a collection of short stories. Many of them are neat little mysteries with intriguing little solutions, but I’ve never been a huge fan of Christie’s short stories, to be honest. Some of the more interesting ones from what I can remember are “The Adventure of the Western Star”, and “The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim”, but many of them can be easily solved beforehand.
The Murder of Rodger Ackroyd: This is one of the big Christie classics. The premise is that the wealthy Roger Ackroyd dies, not long after his fiancee, the widowed Mrs Ferrars. It is told from the perspective of Sheppard, the village doctor, as he investigates both these deaths and any motives the other members of Ackroyd’s household might have had to kill him. Hercule Poirot has just moved into the village, and Sheppard becomes increasingly interested in Poirot and his methods as they endeavour to figure out who killed Ackroyd and why. In many ways, I think this novel is stellar for how it plays around with the limitations of the detective genre–it’s famous for a reason. There is often annoyance over the twist, and while I can see that, I don’t think it’s badly done. Poirot takes a backseat here in many ways, and Sheppard is much more interesting than Hastings as the ‘everyman’ POV.
The Big Four: In contrast to the last one, The Big Four is utter tripe. It is basically a bunch of short stories tied together into a larger narrative. Unfortunately, the larger narrative is awful. It’s supposed to be an international spy story, but it descends into melodramatic drivel. Hastings is back, and at his worst. There are utterly stupid twists here, and even worse, no sense of a larger mystery that actually matters.
Taken at the Flood: This is not a stellar Poirot. The mystery involves the Cloade family, whose wealthy benefactor, in the person of their uncle/brother, died and left all his fortune to his young wife, Rosaleen. Unfortunately, Rosaleen is under the control of her brother David, who will not let any of the fortune pass on to the Cloades. Add in a whisper that Rosaleen’s first husband might still be alive, and death strikes nearby. The Cloades enlist Poirot to help solve the mystery. The protagonist in this one is Lynn Marchmont, one of the Cloade relatives, who has returned from the war and can’t bring herself to settle down with her cousin Rowley. Lynn is fine as a central character for most of the book, until the end… SPOILERS.
>The end features Rowley practically strangling Lynn for some pathetic reason I can’t remember. Poirot steps in at the last minute and saves Lynn. Then, in the epilogue, LYNN IS MARRIED TO ROWLEY. Apparently it was an antidote to danger or some such rubbish, and this previously interesting and sympathetic modern woman settles down to become a farmwife, just as she was sure she didn’t want. And is apparently happy to ignore the abuse in the process. Absolutely infuriating, and one of the Christies to have aged the worst because of it.<<
Curtain: I had remembered really enjoying Curtain the first time I read it. It is the last Poirot novel, written by Christie mid-career and saved until the end. The premise is intriguing. Poirot enlists Hastings to help him catch the most cunning killer they have yet encountered, a man who preys upon others, slowly breaking them down until they commit murder. In this way the novel is much more psychological. The murderer is set up to be Poirot’s equal, who uses his ‘little gray cells’ for evil instead of good. Unfortunately, it was not as good as I remembered. Much of the novel is ruined by Hastings’ melodramatic relationship with his daughter, Judith. The ending is also absolved of much of its tension by being in the form of a letter.
Tommy & Tuppence
The Secret Adversary: This is the first Tommy & Tuppence. It’s very different from her Poirots and Marples. There’s a lot of banter that goes back and forth, and it reads as though it’s a spoof of some of the spy novels from the time. But really, the banter has aged quite poorly (more on this later). The spoof humor works a little better; there are some twists that (even if you see them coming), make for a more light-hearted detective caper. Unfortunately, it was all downhill from here.
Partners in Crime: Christie seems to have relied heavily on the short-story collections in her early years. Tommy & Tuppence’s foray into these is given a loose overall narrative, though nothing as dreadful as The Big Four. Unfortunately, each short story is supposed to be a spoof of well-known detectives from the time, such as G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown and (of course) Christie’s own Poirot. The ‘spoof’ almost always takes over the mystery, and expands upon the previous T&T’s problem with ‘banter’. Perhaps this translated once to something enjoyable, but it is just wearisome in the modern day. If I were up on all the old detective novels, perhaps I would enjoy it more–but it still wouldn’t change the fact that T&T are utterly irritating.
N or M?: I may have actually read N or M? once upon a time, as some of the plot points (including the identity of the culprit), were familiar. (Or perhaps I only watched one of the TV adaptations!) This is another ‘international spy’ caper, of about probably the same caliber as The Secret Adversary. Tommy & Tuppence are older now, with both their children gone to the war effort, while they are deemed too old for proper service. Instead they are enlisted by their old contacts to seek out German spies in southern England–one a man (M) and one a woman (N). The plot is still ridiculous, but at least T&T aren’t working together all the time (so there’s less obnoxious banter) and the plot is relatively interesting.
By the Pricking of My Thumbs: I had to look up the plot of this one on wikipedia, which is how bad and unmemorable it is. This one is more a mystery than a spy capter, but it has a ridiculously convoluted plot about nursing homes, a house by a canal, and a mysterious backstory of murdered children. Don’t think ‘oooh, murdered children, that sounds rather spooky and disturbing, I might give this one a try’. IT’S NOT GOOD. I vaguely remember the ITV Marples doing something with this. Their effort was awful, as was all the ones where they shoehorned Marple in to stories where she didn’t belong, but honestly, it may even have been better than the actuality of this one.
Postern of Fate: This is the only T&T more infuriating than the last one… Except maybe Partners in Crime; but at least that wasn’t 90% horrible banter. The worst part is that the premise of this one sounds really interesting. T&T move into an old house and discover a secret message in an old book from a child who used to live in the house. (The book was The Black Arrow, which I also read as a kid). The message says that the boy, Alexander, ‘knows who killed Mary Jordan’. And when Tuppence investigates, she finds that Alexander also died young. This is a great setup that is totally wasted. This book was ineffably boring. Even worse, German spies feature… AGAIN. Even though T&T are like 70 by this point and the war has been over for ages. By this time, I just rolled my eyes. Apparently this was Christie’s last book, and by this time her age seems to have caught up with her. It’s sad, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that this book is godawful.
The Mysterious Mr Quin: In my attempts to delve the Christie corpus for something I haven’t read before. This was the first short story collection I read this year, so I was less fatigued by them at this point. The stories are all a little darker and sadder than usual, which I appreciated. The narrator is Mr Satterthwaite, a little old man who is very keen on high society gossip, but who also feels as though he has missed out on life, having never married. Satterthwaite keeps coming across this mysterious Mr Harley Quin, who nudges him in the right direction whenever a mystery crosses Satterthwait’s path. While the ‘harlequin’ imagery is overdone at some points, the last story, Harlequin’s Lane, verges away from the mysterious and more into the supernatural. If you are bored with normal Christie and can suspend your disbelief for a taste of the supernatural, this collection might be worth a look.
Black Coffee: This is actually one of Christie’s plays adapted in novel format by Charles Osbourne. I think it would have been better to leave it as a play. The writing style is distinctly amateur (not that Christie was a wordsmith, but you know). The plot is too simple to work on the page; points that would have been better clouded amongst extraneous details are laid out in the open, calling attention to themselves. The characters are caricatures: Hastings’ tongue lolls out at any beautiful woman, there is an evil Italian, and the relationships between the characters (one of the things Christie does well at her best) are so stereotyped as to be practically nonexistent.
On a side note, BBC Radio has done many adaptations of Christie novels. These are actually very enjoyable. They usually only last 1.5-2 hours, and are a great way to enjoy the mystery without being bogged down in too much superfluous narrative. John Moffatt is actually a very good Poirot (though of course not quite as good as the wonderful David Suchet on TV). Some of the adaptations are better than others, and some of the ones without Poirot are very well done. The Marples are all sort of uniformly average, though Nemesis was much better here than in the terrible ITV adaptation they did…
Many of the best are actually adaptations of some well-known, non-Poirot centric ones. Ordeal by Innocence, Crooked House, and And Then There Were None are all very well produced (and have been done for TV recently). Phoebe Waller-Bridge even plays a character in Ordeal by Innocence, though unfortunately one of the most annoying characters… Sparkling Cyanide was one of the first ones I listened to and I enjoyed it very much, with very good voice acting–it’s a good plot as well. The Pale Horse is an unusual Christie and works well in this form.
Death in the Clouds is a mediocre Christie but actually worked quite well in this format–my favourite bit is that Japp was voiced by the same man who plays him in the TV series, and he has a nice bit at the end when Poirot is doing the reveal where he basically mocks the whole process. Nicely tongue in cheek!
The Unexpected Guest is like Black Coffee in that it was a play that was novelized; however, it worked better for radio than in a novel form (unsurprisingly; it helps that the story is better than Black Coffee, though there is one character who I think does not work very well in a modern setting–felt very awkward to listen to).
Some are not so good–Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, The ABC Murders (so boring in this format), Endless Night (an intriguing book but not one that worked well in radio form), Appointment with Death (the American accents were like nails on a chalkboard), Marple’s Final Cases (YAWN), Dumb Witness (one I remember liking as a child but that I found very dull in this format).
My library had them available on Overdrive–if they are available for you and you like Christies but don’t want to devote yourself to reading many subpar novels as I have done, the radio adaptations are like an episode of Poirot: comfortable, not brilliant, but quite enjoyable.
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