The ingenious website I Write Like has informed me on six separate occasions that my writing most resembles that of Agatha Christie, the best-selling author of all time, aside from Shakespeare and the Bible. Praise be! However, I have never read the First Lady of Mystery, as murders solved by someone other than Sherlock Holmes rarely appeal to me.
Fortunately, on last week’s trip to the coast I came across Coalesce Bookstore, a shop packed to the rafters with volumes old and new. I left with a well-thumbed 1972 Pocket Books edition of Nemesis (1971) and a new 2017 mass-market paperback of Murder on the Orient Express (1934), determined to remedy my deficiencies.
The four decades separating these two novels is keenly felt. The peppy Murder on the Orient Express takes place before World War II, when luxury sleeper cars were still zipping across the Continent and a pipe cleaner could be an important clue. Nemesis is a dotty, end-of-life effort that meanders through overgrown gardens and blames victims for their own murders. (It would never have happened if she hadn’t liked the boys so much, you see.)
Unlike contemporary tales of violence, the motives are not always sadistic. The gore is offstage or kept to a minimum. Entire chapters are devoted to interrogations that unfold in real time, pages to describing clothing and environments in loving detail. The all-too-human killers have supervillain foresight that rivals the Joker, and the coincidences are simply incredible. And yet I devoured each book in an evening and would happily go back for more.
If I had to pick my poison, I would go with Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, he of glorious mustache and elegant mind. His interview skills and nose for detail are bar none. Like Holmes he has a bit of a reputation and takes joy in the specificity of his job. His considers psychological profiles and creates timelines. Eliminate the impossible and what’s left must be the truth.
Not that Miss Marple is some slouch. Though she’s scatterbrained in her dotage she retains a flair for investigation and a refined sense of evil. She’ll mistrust a person on sight and then discreetly sniff around to determine why. Mysteries have a way of finding Miss Marple, in the same way dead bodies found Jessica Fletcher on Murder, She Wrote.
Recommended for literary importance, complexity of puzzles, and distinct lack of nightmare fuel. Beware rampant sexism and occasional xenophobia. For those who prefer to read series in order, please note that Murder on the Orient Express is Hercule Poirot #10 and Nemesis is Miss Marple #12.