Recently, my husband went away for work for a few days, and I treated myself to a puzzle and took full advantage of my Scribd subscription. After a while, I wanted a break from fantasy and also wanted something that didn’t involve too much thinking, so I returned to one of my old comfort reads: Agatha Christie. I’ve read and re-read most of the novels, so now I turned to her short stories collections. Some of them I had read before, some I recognized from the relevant Poirot TV episode, and some were new to me. Here’s a quick rundown with comments:
The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories
- The Regatta Mystery: A famous diamond goes missing during a dinner party in a locked room. This one is fine, and although I had read a long time ago I could not quite remember the solution, which is quite clever. But it does rely a little overmuch on information which the reader could not guess.
- The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest: A man’s body is found inside a piece of furniture in his rival’s house the night after a party. This one is quite good, and a little deliciously macabre.
- How Does Your Garden Grow? Poirot gets a letter from an old woman declaring that she has need of his assistance, and then the old woman ends up dead. In contrast to the above, this one is a bit silly and overwrought at times, and is a bit too strong making the nursery rhyme connection plain.
- Problem at Pollensa Bay: Parker Pyne, who makes people’s troubles go away, is on holiday. A woman begs him to help prevent her son from marrying his fiance. This one made me laugh. Pyne is not a detective to the same extent that he was in the Regatta Mystery, and there was no mystery here at Pollensa Bay, just observations on human nature.
- Yellow Iris: Poirot becomes embroiled in a mystery from four years before which is about to repeat itself. Those who have read Sparkling Cyanide will find this plot familiar, though in fact the identity of the murderer makes far more sense in this one. It’s quite a good mystery, especially when removed from the nonsense about a political regime’s overthrow that was inexplicably added to the Poirot episode.
- Miss Marple Tells a Story: A man is accused of murdering his wife in a hotel room. I had to double check what this one was actually about, which perhaps doesn’t suggest its excellence, but it was again a neat little solution that is perhaps not wholly unobvious.
- The Dream: Poirot is called to the home of an eccentric millionaire, who says he has been having a recurring dream in which he kills himself. This one is quite a tidy solution, though this is one that I think could have been expanded to good purpose. I always like the ‘rich person is an asshole to everyone around him and gets bumped off’ stories.
- In a Glass Darkly: A man has a disturbing and foreboding vision in his looking glass when visiting a friend. This is the most supernatural of stories in this collection, and though the twist is perhaps a bit obvious, it is not meant to be a mystery. The narration is first person and suits the story well.
- Problem at Sea: An unlikable woman is found dead in her locked cabin while on a cruise–to the relief of her husband and the other passengers. This is another that I felt could have been expanded, though I suppose in some ways it is a bit reminiscent of the excellent Death on the Nile.
- Overall: I recognized a lot of these stories from the Poirot adaptations, which were on the whole faithful (even if they added in a lot of fluff). The narration on the audiobook was one of the highlights: it features the wonderful Hugh Fraser, the incomparable David Suchet, the excellent Simon Vance, Isla Blair (who I do not know outside of this but was fine), and Joan Hickson, who is beloved for her portrayal of Marple but who I don’t think I would like to listen to for a whole book.
Three Blind Mice and Other Stories
- Three Blind Mice: A young couple have just opened a guest house when they are snowed in–and the news comes that a murderer is on their way there. This is an excellent, tense story, and well it should: the premise might seem familiar to those who know Christie’s famous play, The Mousetrap. I cannot compare to the play, but highly recommend the story.
- Strange Jest: A Miss Marple story about finding a missing inheritance with low stakes and not much in its favour. Also, bad jokes.
- The Tape-Measure Murder: A woman with a sordid past is found murdered and her mild-mannered husband blamed. Another Marple, this one with a better plot and higher stakes, though it is still not one of the best.
- The Case of the Perfect Maid: Two sisters, one bedridden, get a maid who seems too good to be true. The quality of the Marples increase, and though I’d read this one before, I still enjoyed the solution. There are a few good scenes of Marple being outwardly flustered and foolish that make for a good laugh.
- The Case of the Caretaker: Another Marple, this one with a story good enough to be expanded into a full-length novel, Endless Night, which made the excellent choice of removing Marple (who here is more of a framing device anyway) and leaning more heavily into its creepy elements. I recommend reading the novel before the short story, though once you’ve read the novel there’s not much point in reading the short story.
- The Third Floor Flat: When four young people are locked out of their flat, they take the coal lift up to let themselves in and discover a murder. Another faithful Poirot episode, but one that doesn’t lose its shine in its original form. There’s perhaps too little to go on to guess the solution, but it’s still a clever one.
- The Adventure of Johnny Waverly: A young boy, son of a well-known local nobleman, is kidnapped after three warnings. This one was a bit boring as a Poirot episode and it’s not much better as a short story, though the solution is quite good.
- Four and Twenty Blackbirds: Poirot’s interest is caught by the story of a man who always eats the same thing switches up his menu choices–especially when the man later turns up dead. As is the case with short stories, there’s not very many suspects, which makes for a rather boring reveal.
- The Love Detectives: A local squire is murdered, and the obvious suspects (his wife and her lover) both try to save the other. This one features Mr. Harley Quinn, whose name and everything else about him often makes me roll my eyes, but it also features the delightful Mr. Satterthwaite. It’s a fine story, though not thrilling.
- Overall: This one features most of the same narrators as before; there was too much Hickson in a row for my taste, but the others are still excellent. No Isla Blair in this.
Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories
- Witness for the Prosecution: A man is on trial for the murder of an elderly woman, with his wife as a chief witness–against him. There’s a reason this one is a classic. It’s partly the fact that the story is a great one, but even more so it’s that the 1957 film is just SO DAMN GOOD. If you haven’t read the short story, watch the film first. The story won’t be a surprise, but it’s pretty good in its own right. (Interestingly, the ending to the story is slightly different, and actually the better choice. Hollywood probably interfered.)
- The Red Signal: A man is in love with his best friend’s wife, despite his fears of her past. I hadn’t read this one before and quite enjoyed it. No famous detectives in sight, but it’s not really a mystery at all.
- The Fourth Man: Three men are in a train carriage, discussing a famous case of multiple-personality disorder, when the fourth man tells his side of the story. This is one of Christie’s more supernatural exhibitions, most of which are really not very good. This one isn’t a mystery and it doesn’t really have a twist (or at least the twist is obvious) but if you can suspend your disbelief it is at least interesting.
- SOS: A well known psychic ends up staying the night at a mysterious farmhouse with a mysterious family. Another more supernatural one. I may not have been listening closely, but the solution/resolution of this one didn’t really click with me.
Where There’s a Will/Wireless: An old woman who lives with her devoted nephew gets a wireless to keep her happy and content. I actually loved this one: the setup, the realization of what was happening, and the resolution. It’s quite funny, for a story of murder!
The Mystery of the Blue Jar: A man hears a voice screaming about murder every morning on his golf tour and resolves to get to the bottom of it with the help of a psychiatrist. This one is also quite funny–the less said the better, though I did guess the solution.
Sing a Song of Sixpence: An old barrister is visited by a young woman to whom he once promised he would help whenever she needed it. She’s calling in the favor now to solve the murder of her aunt–it seems like anyone in the house could have done it. A neat solution, but the best part is the barrister’s narrative, because he fervently regrets making such a promise to a pretty young girl and has no interest in her charms now.
Mr Eastwood’s Adventure/The Mystery of the Second Cucumber: Anthony Eastwood is stuck writing his next novel when a mysterious telephone call begs for his help. Another funny one, though not spectacular.
Philomel Cottage: A woman is disturbed by a recurring dream in which she is grateful that her new husband is dead. This one is brilliant, and even though I’d read it before, I thoroughly enjoyed it a second time round.
Accident: An ex-inspector thinks the new woman in town is a murderess whose crime was never proved. This is another brilliant one, so the less said the better.
- The Second Gong: An eccentric millionaire commits suicide, to the surprise of his family–and to Poirot. This one works very well as a short story and it feels very Christie: there’s not an obvious solution. It also improves on the Poirot episode, which is rather unintentionally hilarious thanks to a ridiculous spiritualism subplot–though my research tells me that there was actually an expanded novella version of this story that the episode was actually based on. This one doesn’t need expansion: it feels like a proper Christie novel, just in miniature, with all the best elements: money, hints of family scandal, Poirot’s little gray cells, and even a little nice bait-and-switch during the reveal.
- Overall: One of the nice perks about this collection is that many of them are read by Christopher Lee. The more supernatural selections are perfectly suited for his voice. This collection has perhaps a higher percentage of new ones (for me) and quite good ones. If you’re looking for mysteries, though, this isn’t a collection best suited for you, aside from The Second Gong.
- Worth Checking Out: Baghdad Chest, Three Blind Mice, Philomel Cottage, Accident, The Second Gong
- Good for a Chuckle: Pollensa Bay, Wireless, Sing a Song of Sixpence
- Better in Another Form: Yellow Iris –> Sparkling Cyanide; Case of the Caretaker –> Endless Night; Witness for the Prosecution –> 1957 film.
And a final note: the collections and name of the collections often vary depending on the country you’re in. The UK and US have different traditions for publishing these stories, but then Audible gets involved and it all gets a bit confused. For example, there’s a short story collection called The Problem at Pollensa Bay and Other Stories which features the short story of that name, plus The Second Gong, Yellow Iris, and The Regatta Mystery. Another called The Hound of Death and Other Stories offers some of the more supernatural offerings, including The Red Signal, The Fourth Man, Wireless, Mystery of the Blue Jar, Witness for the Prosecution, and SOS. The last is The Listerdale Mystery and Other Stories which contains Philomel Cottage, Sing a Song of Sixpence, Accident, and Mr. Eastwood’s Adventure. But sometimes I just enjoy picking up a short story collection at random knowing I’ll have read some before but not all.