And on we go – five more Agatha Christie novels to be reviewed, as we move into some thoroughly average territory. As always, please see my introduction for my background, and there won’t be any spoilers.
The last five reviews are here. Shall we continue?
In which a grieving, abandoned woman finds herself caught up in Soviet espionage, and the hunt for a missing scientist.
(I really like that cover, just sayin’.)
A contemporary review of Destination Unknown called this “a delicious busman’s holiday” for Dame Agatha, and it’s hard to disagree. This is a by-the-numbers thriller with a slightly ludicrous, bare-bones plot which – having said that – could easily be used as the basis for a big-budget Hollywood summer blockbuster. It’s not a complete loss: the central character, Hilary Craven, is one of the more intensely-drawn protagonists of a non-series novel, for instance. But at the end of the day, this is just another Christie thriller, with everything that entails.
Hercule Poirot #3
Someone once said that if you only read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels, and only read Christie’s short stories, you’d think they were both bad writers. Well, it’s emphatically true of Conan Doyle, and I think it’s at least partly true for Dame Agatha as well.
Christie’s first collection of short stories united eleven Poirot and Hastings tales first published in The Sketch magazine in 1923. This is the first incarnation of Poirot: a respected detective, certainly, but one who struggles just as often with being a foreigner, and whose understanding of Western mores is far from complete, while his abilities can often be overshadowed by his arrogance. It is, indeed, the characterisation that has been the template for all the film adaptations, and the actors who have portrayed the Belgian. David Suchet, with his desire to create a more nuanced character (and 20 years in which to develop him), was able to take this as the basis for Poirot’s early years, and then develop him through the 1940s incarnation – someone who wants to retire and, as he ages, grows slightly gruffer – to the final Poirot, an older, justifiably famous man who now understands humankind all too well, and begins to wonder about the things he missed in life. (The Suchet TV series, incidentally, utilised these short stories as templates for some lovely episodes. The central quartet – rounded out by Miss Lemon and Inspector Japp – made those early episodes delightful. They don’t all work, but they’re a good lesson in taking a short story and developing it into a full hour.)
There’s nothing explicitly wrong with this collection: a few stories sparkle, and the pairing of Hastings and Poirot (even though Christie quickly tired of it) works quite well. There is a sense of newness and wonder in their relationship, being set only a few years after their meeting in (or after?) World War I. But, truth be told, these are the lesser short stories in Poirot’s canon. Robert Barnard, in his analytical book A Talent to Deceive, sees them as very much “in the shadow of Holmes and Watson”, and it’s hard to disagree. Picking one story and reading it can be good fun, but reading a few quickly exposes the formula. Hastings can easily be written off as a bit of a goof, so Christie made the right decision in limiting his appearances from here on out. This is not a waste of time, but – as with all Christie – her short stories have nothing on the novels.
[For once, US and UK readers got essentially the same collection this time. Nowadays, seek out a copy of the lovely Complete Short Stories of Poirot instead.]
Poirot ranking: 32nd out of 38.
Hercule Poirot #26
In which a young trophy wife finds herself left with a fortune – and a family who may be out for blood.
A thoroughly average Christie, but a step up from the novels we’ve previously covered. There’s nothing to make Taken at the Flood stand out, but finally, there’s nothing terrible either. Like many of the best Christie novels, we’re in a specific time period: very clearly in 1944, giving us a good sense of where both Poirot and the world are situated.
The murder itself is quite contrived (even the usually reliable David Suchet TV series couldn’t do much with this one), but the characters are varied and relatively strong, making this a decent, if not absorbing, read.
Incidentally, as we’ll see over the following posts, several novels had their titles changed when first published in America. (So far, I’ve never heard very good reasons.) This is – I think – the only title substitution which doesn’t completely suck. Taken at the Flood was changed to another quote from the same Shakespeare speech (from Julius Caesar): There Is A Tide.
Poirot ranking: 31st out of 38
Tommy and Tuppence #3
In which a married pair of former intelligence agents track German spies.
After 20 years, Agatha Christie chose to revive her detective couple Tommy and Tuppence for a wartime mystery. In their first two appearances – The Secret Adversary and Partners in Crime – the pair were something approaching delightful: effervescent and irreverent. Things don’t sparkle quite as much this time, and it must be said that Christie’s adventure/thriller novels were never her best. The WWII setting (contemporary at the time) means that – as with Taken at the Flood – Dame Agatha is able to tie her action into a real-life atmosphere. However, unfortunately, the setting doesn’t sit well with the leads, who are just a little too eager. Perhaps Christie’s decision to age these two realistically was a bad one after all. The plot hangs together well enough, and the pair are a touching couple, but everything seems a little tired. And, as we’ve already seen, their later adventures would be far worse.
Tommy and Tuppence ranking: 3rd out of 5
The Mysterious Mr. Quin is one of the more unusual curiosities in Christie’s canon. In the early 1920s, as a good deal of Christie’s career was devoted to writing short stories – Poirot, Tommy and Tuppence, supernatural tales, etc. – for a variety of magazines, she experimented with two less generic detectives. The wry Mr. Satterthwaite stumbles across challenging mysteries in each story and – with the help of an enigmatic nomad named Harley Quin – solves them.
These stories are some of the most bizarre in Christie’s canon. Rarely do the mysteries take on a standard ‘Holmes-and-Watson’ feel, instead Quin’s appearance often prefigures the mystery, and many of the stories are filled with cultural references and Satterthwaite’s observations of human nature, thoughts from the perspective of a man who has never quite lived the life he wished. Several of the stories are also remarkably atmospheric, much more so than the more overt ‘supernatural’ stories she developed for The Hound of Death.
Ultimately, I would argue that this is a somewhat flimsy collection. Some of the stories aren’t great, and generally the mysteries play second-fiddle to the atmosphere and character relationships (which, admittedly, work quite well). It’s interesting – given their unusual qualities, and the fact that Christie herself is known to have enjoyed them – that Quin and Satterthwaite never returned for further substantial pairings. (Two further Mr. Quin stories – unpublished in Christie’s lifetime – pop up in Problem at Pollensa Bay, while Satterthwaite is back in the Poirot novel Three Act Tragedy.) Perhaps – once she left short stories behind in the 1930s – Christie couldn’t see a way to make them work in the longer prose form.
Next time: Three Marples and some average but taut stand-alone mysteries.