Here we go, as per my introductory post, I’ll be writing mini-reviews of 78 of Agatha Christie‘s novels and short story collections. I won’t be covering the Mary Westmacott novels, the plays or the miscellanea, as I simply don’t know them that well (except for The Mousetrap, and in the spirit of the thing, I don’t want to spoil that!).
Finally, it should be noted that many of the short stories were collected in different orders for their U.S. release, and some of these subsequently have filtered around the world. As a result, what you will see outlined in the following posts encompasses all of Christie’s mystery canon in print, and I’ll try and mention alternate titles wherever possible. Spoilers – if any – will be forewarned. Let’s start…
First, though, three books that I won’t be placing on the official rankings, for reasons below:
A UK-only work, published in 1991 – fifteen years after Dame Agatha’s death; it contains eight short stories – featuring Hercule Poirot, Quin and Satterthwaite, Parker Pyne, among others – not previously published in the UK (outside of their original magazine publications.) Notably, it includes two Poirot short stories later taken out of publication due to their being reworked: Yellow Iris as Sparkling Cyanide, and The Second Gong as Dead Man’s Mirror. As I’ve not read this collection – with the exception of Yellow Iris – I’ll refrain from ranking it.
80. While the Light Lasts
Published in 1997, this short story collection is the most recent (assumedly last) group of stories not previously collected in the UK. Again, I’ve not read it, although I’d be interested as these – unlike the ones in Problem at Pollensa Bay – aren’t all crime fiction, and are primarily odds and ends from Christie’s career.
The Detection Club is a celebrated group of British mystery writers, formed in 1930 during the so-called ‘Golden Age’. In 1931, 14 members of the club – including Christie, G.K. Chesterton, Canon Victor Whitechurch and Dorothy L. Sayers – wrote this collaborative experiment. Each of the fourteen chapters was written by one of them, after which a suggested solution was sealed in an envelope, and the book was passed on to the next author for the next chapter. It’s far from perfect, but The Floating Admiral is a fascinating read: these 14 authors were experts in their field, and – although the sealed solutions show that many had picked up on at least the general direction of the clues – it’s marvelous to see how these professionals manage to pick up on the existing elements and weave them into a constantly-changing narrative. The Floating Admiral is tough to find these days, but if you can, grab it. (Personally, I recommend dating someone whose father collects such books; it’s a no-fail option.)
Tommy and Tuppence #5
In which a retired pair of amateur detectives discover an age-old mystery right under their noses.
So it has come to this. Postern of Fate was Agatha Christie’s final written work, and it is undoubtedly her worst. Yes, worse than those tawdry thrillers she churned out in the 1920s, or the spurious supernatural short story collections of the ’40s. In her defence, the octogenarian Dame Agatha was probably suffering from early onset dementia, but her editors should’ve seen sense in not damaging her legacy by publishing this tripe.
This is the 5th novel in the Tommy & Tuppence series, which began with two delightful little throwaway books in the ’20s, matured into a charming-but-pointless ’40s novel, and was already teetering on the brink with the laborious By The Pricking of My Thumbs. The only redeeming factor is to see the continuation of these lovely characters, who aged along with Christie since their first novel (her second) in 1922. Conversations meander onto tangential topics page after page (Christie reportedly would speak into a dictaphone, or recite to a typist, and then basically just check what spilled out for spelling errors – even if this is a myth, it doesn’t seem unlikely!).
The murder mystery is nonsensical, and our heroes have stopped being characters, instead becoming mouthpieces for an outdated generation. I’m a big fan of Dame Agatha (natch), so one day I will buy a copy of this for the sake of completion. But for now, I’m quite happy not to have this cluttering up my shelf.
[This novel is the last of four appearances by Mr. Robinson, an enigmatic financial mastermind of unknown ethnic origin. A member of a powerful Syndicate, Mr. Robinson is a unique link between Christie’s novels – as well as appearing in Passenger to Frankfurt [see below], he comes across Hercule Poirot in Cat Among the Pigeons, and Jane Marple in At Bertram’s Hotel.]
Tommy and Tuppence ranking: 5th out of 5
Miss Marple #14
More like “This reviewer’s final decision to never read Agatha Christie again”. At the end of her life, Agatha Christie agreed to publish the remaining Miss Marple short stories which hadn’t yet been put into book format.
There’s a reason they hadn’t yet been put into book format. These are indicative of Christie at her short story laziest, and Miss Marple – a character who is often “magically” intuitive in her understanding – here is just a plot device to reveal answers no one could ever have known. The two final stories – The Dressmaker’s Doll and In A Glass Darkly – are equally forgettable tales of the supernatural. There are some dynamite Marple stories, but they’re all in the other book.
[US Readers will find these stories scattered throughout Three Blind Mice, Double Sin and The Regatta Mystery, with some reprinted in Thirteen Cases for Miss Marple]
Marple ranking: 14th out of 14
Hercule Poirot #36
In which Mrs. Oliver uncovers a long-dead murder, and Poirot sets out to solve it.
The worst of the Poirot novels. There is a distinct drop in vocabulary and grammatical variety, consistent with old-age, in Christie’s final novels, and here she babbles on at length, reminiscing about things that have no bearing on the plot whatsoever. In fact, very little makes sense. The murder mystery isn’t wholly unbearable (hence the 2/10 instead of 1), but it’s submerged beneath all of this silliness. Amazingly, even the usually reliable pairing of Poirot and Ariadne Oliver can’t salvage this. Mrs. Oliver had begun as a wry commentary on Agatha Christie’s own career, and had been utilised several times as a dynamic character – combining her love of amateur detectives with her gift for characters who could unsettle the exacting Poirot – and as a commentator on crime fiction as a genre. Here, she’s just a surrogate for the bemused Christie, still writing this Belgian detective decades after she tired of him. Unlike Arthur Conan Doyle, Christie considered her role as a storyteller to be more important than any kind of dispute with a fictional character, so refused to let go. Perhaps she should have.
Elephants hasn’t been adapted by the David Suchet series, but if – God willing – the show returns for more, we should expect an adaptation. Good luck to them.
Poirot ranking: 38th out of 38
Points for trying, okay? Anyone who has written 70-odd books in the one genre can’t be faulted for trying their hand at something else. In her earlier years, Dame Agatha sought to experiment with the supernatural and macabre. Many of these short stories are supernatural in nature, and all but one of them are forgettable. Elements of the otherworldly would end up creating some of her finer books in the late period – Endless Night, Hallowe’en Party – but Christie’s writing style simply doesn’t lend itself to the requisite spookiness.
By and large, the ‘standard’ stories fare no better, with one exception: Witness for the Prosecution, a clever tale which would subsequently become a famous play, and later a film.
[US readers will find these stories scattered throughout Double Sin, The Golden Ball and Witness for the Prosecution]
Miss Marple #12
At the behest of a recently-deceased millionaire acquaintance, Jane Marple joins a tour of Great Britain’s stately homes to track down a murderer – without knowing the identity of either killer or killed.
Christie’s other novels of the 1970s – see above – are insults to the detective form. Nemesis – the last Marple novel written – is, at least, a notch above those two wastes of ink, but it doesn’t fare much better.
On the plus side: the spectre of Jason Rafiel, from A Caribbean Mystery, looms large over the story, which gives things a sense of purpose. The unusual structure – a coach tour around Great Britain – allows for a bit of a shake-up, utilising Christie’s trademark group of gathered unknowns from a new angle. The emotional circumstances of the crime are quite powerful, and Marple herself gets to do some of the investigating, which isn’t always the case in her canon. (The Joan Hickson adaptation is one of her best, making good use of the settings and characters, while the Geraldine McEwan adaptation – although well-cast – is barely recognisable.)
However, the writing style and the boring characters do nothing for this book, which exhibits all the traits of the end of Christie’s career: peculiar tangents, lazy dialogue writing, and a disappointing lack of logic to the red herrings. A bore for anyone who hasn’t read a lot of Christie, and I’d also imagine it’s quite boring if you haven’t read a fair swath of Marple.
Marple ranking: 13th out of 14.
Hercule Poirot #33
In which a blind woman, six clocks and a mysterious murder lead Poirot to attempt solving a complex case from afar.
The Clocks is an utter letdown. Again, there’s no surprise, since this was one of Christie’s last books, but – unlike those cited above – The Clocks begins with a fascinating premise, one which I remember being delighted in as a child, and then does nothing with it. On a personal level, I’m probably overly bitter about this book, but I remember being delighted by the opening chapters – and again by the opening of the David Suchet adaptation – and realising both times that things would soon devolve into a mess of unlikely (to say the least) coincidences and clues that go nowhere. Poirot seems as bored with the case as Christie does with involving him in the first place.
Poirot ranking: 37th out of 38.
In the ’20s, Christie wrote several thrillers before she was firmly established as the ‘Queen of Crime’. None of them were amazing – indeed, we’ll see most of them coming up in the next couple of posts – but neither were any as misguided as this one, perhaps unwisely chosen to celebrate Christie’s 80th birthday. (It’s a wonder her reputation didn’t slide further during her last years.) A North by Northwest scenario sees a diplomat caught up in what can only be described as a web of international intrigue (what else would you call it?), up against the usual world-domination seeking manic. So many questions… I just don’t care.
[Incidentally, the third of four appearances by the mysterious financier Mr. Robinson, who is the only inarguable link between Poirot, Marple, and Tommy and Tuppence.]
Tommy and Tuppence #4
The ramblings of an old lady lead Tommy and Tuppence Beresford on the hunt for a killer.
In the later years of Christie’s career, she focussed many of her stories on crimes from the past. This sub-genre would yield a couple of her greatest works, as we shall see, but it was by no means a surefire recipe for success.
20 years after their last appearance (and 40 years after their first), Christie again resurrected her married couple Tommy and Tuppence for their fourth adventure. Each of these novels is worse than the last, and this is no exception. There are some genuinely creepy moments in this tale, and Tuppence remains an interesting character (Christie always liked writing strong people, as evidenced by her novels written under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott). Tommy is less so, but he’s not as vital to the plot, really. (The Geraldine McEwan adaptation utilises Tommy and Tuppence as supporting characters while giving the main plot over to Miss Marple: it actually sorta works.)
Christie can’t quite seem to decide where she’s going with this novel, and it shows in a haze of underdeveloped characters spewing out tracts of unintelligible dialogue. There’s a mildly interesting idea in here somewhere, but it’s well-buried. If you’re a seasoned Christie fan, and enjoyed the first three books in this series, then I would recommend this (although you can skip their last adventure, the dire Postern of Fate). Otherwise, stay away.
[Something that moves this Christie book up in my estimation? The German title is Lauter reizende alte Damen – or Lots of Charming Old Ladies.]
Tommy & Tuppence Ranking: 4th out of 5
Coming up next time: five books of limited quality, but some interesting experiments nonetheless.