And we’re back, to review the next five Agatha Christie books, in ascending order of quality. See my introductory post for notes, and a reminder that I won’t post spoilers without forewarning. The previous eight reviews can be found here.
Without further ado, here we go:
Some rather meaningless little nuggets of mystery in this collection; I’m sure the current Marple TV series will eventually get around to adapting them – since their aim is just to keep going until Miss Marple investigates every case ever written by Agatha Christie. Maybe she’ll go up against the Hound of the Baskervilles when they’re done.
You’ll notice I haven’t really written anything about this book; I guess I just didn’t find it interesting. Some of these stories were adapted as part of The Agatha Christie Hour alongside stories from Parker Pyne Investigates (see below).
[US readers can find these stories divided between Witness for the Prosecution and The Golden Ball]
Miss Marple #10
In which a pleasant holiday unites Miss Marple with a gruff millionaire and a long-forgotten murder… which leads to a new one.
A Caribbean Mystery is a lesser Christie novel, barely worthy of praise. As with the loose-sequel, Nemesis, this novel at least sees Miss Marple do a bit of investigating (which oddly doesn’t happen much in her better works), but the setting is about the only thing of interest here. The inimitable millionaire Jason Rafiel is a fascinating character, but he isn’t really connected to the murder in any useful way, so turns out to be neither here nor there. The rest of the characters are perfunctory and – while the actual solution is still surprising – we know from the start roughly where our suspicions should lie, so the playing field isn’t as wide as Christie would have us believe.
The Joan Hickson adaptation is quite varied in style, but ultimately is not one of my favourites – coming late in the series’ run, when even Hickson was tiring. (Understandably, as she was in her 80s!) I’d recommend starting with one of the early Marple novels, and leave this until you’re stuck somewhere on holiday. At least it will be thematic.
Marple Ranking: 12th out of 14
Hercule Poirot #5
In which Poirot and Hastings set off on a terrifying adventure to track down four master criminals with plans of world domination (no, literally.)
Well, it’s not very good, but it’s great fun… If the plot summary above didn’t inform you, it’s not a Poirot novel by any stretch of the imagination; instead, it’s one of the last vestiges of Christie’s 1920s thrillers. The plot is big and bold, like an early Hitchcock film but less well-executed, with spies and secrets, underground lairs, night-time executions, and the Christie equivalent of the informant who is shot with a blow-pipe just as they’re about to reveal the big secret.
Reportedly put together by Christie in the aftermath of her divorce, needing a quick buck, The Big Four does, however, genuinely make us concerned for the well-being of Poirot, Hastings (in one of his last appearances) and his wife (waiting for him in South America, to which he was exiled by Christie before even one decade of short stories and novels). It’s certainly a spirited read, bringing back one of the most interesting recurring characters from Christie’s 1920s output, but it just feels so out of place. Poirot is James Bond, and his villains respond accordingly. I would never suggest this novel to a Christie newcomer, but it’s good fun as long as you don’t try and take it seriously.
Incidentally, this is one of the bigger question-marks should a future (final) season be commissioned of the David Suchet Poirot series. As an early novel, and one so action-focussed, it will prove a bit of a challenge, I daresay.
Poirot ranking: 36th out of 38.
One of Christie’s more unusual detectives, there is certainly nothing wrong with Parker Pyne – indeed, I think he would make an interesting lead for an adaptation of this novel. Beginning as a retiree who wishes to help lovers investigate their dilemmas, Pyne evolves into a middle-era Poirot, trying to avoid cases but finding them piling up wherever he goes.
Christie’s short story skills were never as great as her novel construction, and neither the clients nor detective manage to jump off the page to make much of an impression. It’s not a bad book – it’s definitely a step up from The Big Four, that’s for sure! – and from here on out, we’ll be seeing stories that are at the very least mediocre. But I’m not that surprised that Dame Agatha never returned to Mr. Pyne.
Incidentally, two of the stories were adapted for television as part of The Agatha Christie Hour, while this collection also features the first appearances of Poirot’s sidekicks Miss Lemon and Ariadne Oliver.
Hercule Poirot #31
In which a prim British girls’ school becomes the unlikely target for murder and espionage.
First, a digression: I don’t think many people will argue with the rough placement of books #67 through #78. Even the most devoted Christie acolyte cannot deny the Dame’s faded glory in the last years of her life. Cat Among the Pigeons is probably more respected by some, and – as I quite enjoyed both reading it, and watching the recent David Suchet adaptation, which contained a large and talented cast, and utilised the autumnal, rueful qualities that have lately characterised Suchet’s Poirot – I don’t want to seem cruel. But, aside from the reasons I’ll lay out below, it’s important to note that for the next couple of posts, we’re looking at mediocre-but-solid novels. Christie was by now one of the world’s foremost experts on writing a crime story, and even a misguided attempt was bound to yield some fruit.
Cat Among the Pigeons is one of Poirot’s lesser novels, in my opinion. The story rests on so many contrivances – like The Clocks, we can only believe in so many secret identities – and an annoying number of callbacks to Christie’s early days as a mediocre thriller writer, that it can’t possibly hope to match up to her skillful ‘true’ murder mysteries. There are some enchanting elements in play: Christie turns things on their head as usual, taking an Enid Blyton-style school and making it the centrepiece for murder; and, as with her later period Poirot novels, it’s nice to see the detective dealing with his age and his relationship to the modern world. (Also like several of the later Poirot novels, he arrives very late in the piece.)
[Incidentally, this is the first of four appearances of the shadowy financier Mr. Robinson, who would return to make cameo appearances alongside Miss Marple in At Bertram’s Hotel, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford in Postern of Fate and also pop up in Passenger to Frankfurt.]
At the end of the day, Poirot fans will find things to enjoy in Cat Among the Pigeons, and her writing style is delightfully informal. Surprisingly, for a novel that sticks in the memory for its general atmosphere, I just don’t believe it has much merit.
Poirot ranking: 35th out of 38