Today, we’ll be examining another five average Agatha Christie novels (mostly Miss Marple, so we’ll be discussing her flaws and qualities in abundance), as we move steadily up the charts. As always, please see my introductory post for the guidelines. There aren’t any explicit spoilers in this post.
The last five posts can be found here. Now, let us continue…
In which a casual conversation with a stranger on a train leads Luke Fitzwilliam to investigate an unsettling village, and the murderer within…
For some reason, I have very strong memories of reading this book as a child. Returning to it as an adult, I find that it isn’t half bad – indeed the mystery is engaging, and the writing quite taut. Luke Fitzwilliam – a rare example of a lead detective in Christie murder mystery who never appears elsewhere – is perhaps the weakest element. He’s rather generic, really – young-ish British men were never Christie’s strong point – and there’s a strain of unnecessary melodrama. Ultimately, Murder is Easy probably falls somewhere in the ‘whatever’ pile, but it’s a decent read, with a cameo from Superintendent Battle. (The Marple series recently co-opted this, with Julia McKenzie, and it worked quite well, although was heavily changed.)
[In the US, this book was released under the title Easy to Kill – one of several completely unnecessary title changes that we’ll see over the next posts.]
Miss Marple #6
At a delinquents’ home, Jane Marple investigates an unknown threat, at the behest of an old friend.
Watching the Joan Hickson adaptation of They Do It With Mirrors, I was struck by how many of the notable elements – the number of underage characters, the theatrical menace – struck me as rather un-Christie. Not surprisingly, reading the book shows that – as with many stories that venture outside characters she was familiar with – things begin to fall apart. They Do It With Mirrors is not a Marple highlight, but it’s an easy read. The strange setting – a country house doubling as an institution for troubled youths – is not very well realised, but the perennial upper-crust characters shine through in what is (intentionally or otherwise) a light examination of changing social mores. The 1980s Helen Hayes adaptation was rather lifeless, but the recent Julia McKenzie Marple finally managed to create a genuinely vibrant, boarding-house atmosphere, which enlivened the proceedings considerably.
Miss Marple’s hawk-eyed, gossipy personality is – of course – perfect for an amateur detective. Far more than any of the other amateurs Christie offered over the years, Jane Marple’s ruthless cunning can ultimately unravel any thread of mystery. (Unlike Poirot, I don’t think she ever gets things wrong, which can, unfortunately, make the occasional climax – 4.50 From Paddington, notably – seem wantonly reckless.) However, these books can often lack anything regarding a thrill – one can’t help feeling that a more active detective might have provided this. It’s no surprise that the best of the Marple novels either unite her with a co-detective (officially or narratively) or at least see the spinster knuckle down on some true investigation. There’s nothing wrong with They Do It With Mirrors, but it’s one of the least memorable Marples.
[The U.S. title was Murder with Mirrors. Again, who knows why? Perhaps they just wanted a title that assured you of the book’s genre? Or perhaps, like me at eight years old, finding it on the library shelf, they found “they do it with mirrors” to be giggle-worthy. Puerile sort, perhaps?]
Marple ranking: 10th out of 14
Miss Marple #2
None of Marple’s short stories are brilliant, but this collection is satisfying enough for a Marple fan. Unusually, the stories are framed as part of a series of dinner conversations, in which a group of amateur problem-solvers get together to discuss murder and mayhem. This premise has a wonderful ambience which lends the stories an air of something stronger than they actually are.
A few of the problems: rarely do the stories sideswipe you with a surprise (the short form was just never Christie’s structural forte); the premise – for all its giddy atmosphere – means that the stories never feel urgent (a bit of a problem over the course of a full-length book); and, as mentioned above, Miss Marple’s inherent lassitude is stronger than ever, coming across as something approaching psychic intuition. It’s doesn’t always happen, but there are many times in Marple’s canon where you have to suspect she’s using supernatural abilities, or just plain cheating, to reach the answer with what clues she’s given. Perhaps when I’m 80, and oh, so much wiser, I will come to understand. Until then, I enjoyed reading this collection, but it’s going to have sit on the top of the “average” pile.
[US readers experienced this under the equally interesting – but again, pointlessly changed – title, The Tuesday Club Murders.]
Marple ranking: 9th out of 14.
In which a country house plays host to international espionage.
It’s hard, when ranking anything – let alone 78 novels by the one author – to not come across as judgmental. Okay, I know, it’s inherently judgmental to rank something, but I should note that I am an Agatha Christie fan. I grew up on Christie’s novels, which played an important part in my development and understanding of narrative structure. The books that have come so far – numbers 53 through 78 – were not particularly notable, no. But they were efforts from a consummate storyteller, all indicative of greater attempts elsewhere (well, except for The Big Four and The Hound of Death… they’re indicative of nightmares after watching a B-movie.) From The Secret of Chimneys onward, we’re looking at novels I class as “better-than-average”. They’re reliable and fun reads, even if they’re not always perfect. Dame Agatha wrote more books than there were years in her life – that’s an astonishing achievement for anyone, and one really has to accept that some of those were just little puzzles, put together as part of a contract. Not to say that she didn’t give each book her all, but we can’t expect them all to be brilliant. As a result, what’s coming up are gems, but not particularly lustrous ones.
The Secret of Chimneys is an odd little thing. Christie’s 1920s novel output consists of many mediocre thrillers, and this is one of the best of the lot. The household at Chimneys – personified by Wodehousian heiress Eileen “Bundle” Brent – have panache, and – while it’s far from Christie’s greatest strength – she really tries her best to write with a looser, more lively style, in the vein of the better Tommy and Tuppence books. If you only read one Christie thriller, check this one out – and it’s always enlightening to see an established author tackling a different genre. On the other hand, the sparkle, while there, is never particularly brilliant. The “international intrigue” encroaching on the comfortable country-house lifestyle is diverting, but the facts of the case are all a bit broad really.
Beyond this, Chimneys is one of those rough early novels that reveals an awkwardly racist streak. As with Hergé, and his Tintin series, Christie’s later work would somewhat make up for these youthful indiscretions, and – also like Hergé – an element of this racism and anti-semitism was simply a product of her upbringing in pre-war England. But it colours things nonetheless.
Miss Marple #3
In which Miss Marple stumbles across a crime almost too perfect to be true.
As you’ll note, this was only the third Miss Marple book (and the second novel) in the first twenty years of Christie’s career. As Poirot waned in the 1940s, Marple became her preferred investigator, fitting Christie’s slightly more sedate style, and her gradual feelings of disconnection from the modern world. Given we’ve already covered half the Marple books before we hit the Top 50, you’ll probably intuit that my preferences lie with Hercule Poirot. But a good Marple novel can be very socially astute, and – with the contrast between Marple’s personality and the more direct methods of the younger police – can be very wryly written.
The Body in the Library is an average Marple, and a slightly better-than-average Christie, buoyed a little by the moments that it plays with the detective story form. (The title comes from a fictional detective novel which Christie had referenced in an earlier work.) In spite of decades of the Golden Age detective tradition, Dame Agatha manages to make the idea of a body in a country house library somehow genuinely disquieting. The solution is interesting, in that it shies away from the usual revelations about citizens of a manor house, but it’s a bit hazy. As with many of the Marple books, it’s an enjoyable read, but isn’t one that will stay with you.
Marple ranking: 8th out of 14
Next time: Miss Marple puts in some sterling efforts, while Poirot goes Greek.