I’ve been reading Agatha Christie’s novels since I was an egg, so it seemed about time that I spilled some ink talking about them. I don’t plan to say much – a short paragraph for many of the books should suffice – but, in a career that encompassed sixty years (see ‘about the author‘), Dame Agatha wrote in excess of eighty books – novels, short story collections, romances under her nom-de-plume, plays, poetry collections – and her output has been revered as one of the pinnacles of the ‘Golden Age’ of crime fiction. There is so much more to her legacy than that (although also so much less – as we’ll see, the ‘Agatha Christie’ seal is by no means a mark of quality), that it seemed only fair to run the gamut.
(You can find the index here, if you want to get straight to the rankings: just click on “Day One”)
I really have four people (besides the illustrious Dame herself) to thank for my Christie addiction: my mother, whose near-complete collection of books allowed me to be absorbed in the world of these mysteries from such a young age; David Suchet, who – although I only saw one or two of his performances as Hercule Poirot during my formative years – solidified the character in my mind; Mrs. Boller, my 11th-grade English teacher, who taught me the breadth and depth of the crime fiction genre; and a good friend of mine, who kept me entertained in the stories after highschool, and who I hope would be chuffed to be included in the same pantheon as David Suchet and Mrs. Boller.
I’m not a crime fiction nut: indeed, beyond Christie and the Sherlock Holmes canon (of which I may blog about in the future), I’ve read relatively little. Sure, I have a working knowledge of film noir, and a good understanding of many of the notable detectives and authors throughout history, and Twin Peaks is damn near one of my favourite shows of all time, but crime fiction – or ‘murder mysteries’, as we laymen call them – don’t interest me enough to read regularly as a genre. As a result, I hope I will approach this task from a different angle: not hopelessly reverent of Christie’s works and – more importantly – not trying to be concerned with whether the characters, plots and tropes in each novel have since been done to death, or whether they were already tired when she published her books. Every genre is an ever-decreasing spiral of the same ideas, endlessly recycled. It’s simply those who can reconstruct these into something bracing, or just those who can master the jigsaw-puzzle so adeptly before our eyes, who rise to the top.
Christie was never a literary genius; even her most consummate works reveal this. But even if her characters were rarely as skillfully-drawn as Dickens, her bon mots never as gut-busting as Wodehouse, her societies never as icily drawn as Fitzgerald, she created endless worlds, inhabited by vast arrays of seemingly familiar people, and yet any of them – you began to fear – could have committed calculated murder. The X-Files at its greatest could beat any horror movie, simply by suggesting that it might not be a zombie or a werewolf that gets you, but the food you eat, or an ATM machine, or your own child, or just something that can get into the safety of your cozy, warm house. Lurking under the surface of any Christie manor-house, holiday resort or Halloween party, is bitterness, revenge and – ultimately – death.
I don’t mean to disparage the woman: her books have reached out to us for ninety years for a reason, and she deserves her place in history. If anything, I hope to support her place in our culture by being open about the ups-and-downs of her long career. As a result, I plan to post capsule reviews of 10 Christie novels (in ascending order of quality) each day over the next couple of weeks. (At the upper echelons, I may decrease this to 5 per post.) I’m deliberately trying to stay short because: a) I have a job and a life, and b) most of the time, a few sentences will suffice. Along the way, hopefully we’ll be able to consider the strengths and weaknesses of each of her detectives, of the various genres she experimented with, and the peaks and valleys of her life in the spotlight.
A note on spoilers: There will be very few explicit spoilers, as the delight in reading Christie’s novels – for a first-timer, at least – is trying (and failing) to solve the puzzle. On the occasions where I have to vaguely spoil things to review the book (e.g. “given there’s only one major suspect, it shouldn’t be hard to solve this murder”), I will give fair warning. Once we reach the top of the list, I may want to discuss a few books in detail, in which case the review will be divided into ‘non-spoiler’ and ‘spoiler’ sections. However, there will be many times where I will say things like “the solution makes no sense, and those clocks [for example] don’t even play into it”, so if you’re the kind of person who needs no fore-knowledge about a book before reading it, what are you doing here anyway?