Welcome back, as we continue to sweep through the canon of Dame Agatha Christie. Today, we’ll be recalling three novels and two short-story collections, each with their own strengths, but none of them classics. The last five reviews can be read here. Shall we continue?
Miss Marple #13
In which a young woman’s haunting memories lead her on the trail of a murder from the far distant past.
Sleeping Murder was written during World War II and – along with the more explicitly-final Poirot novel Curtain – placed in a bank vault, to be opened only when Christie was either deceased, or too old to write any more. As a result, the various recurring characters in Jane Marple’s life don’t really seem to have aged properly, and it seems best to treat this as a flashback, rather than – as the book’s subtitle would inform us – “Miss Marple’s Last Case”.
This book is quite middle-of-the-line but has a lot going for it: the central character, for instance, is intriguing, and fairly haunted by the things she discovers. For some reason, Marple novels always work better when she has a sidekick of sorts, although here you could really call Marple the sidekick, as Gwenda does a good deal of the investigation. Also, when Christie wrote this in the early ’40s, she must have been enticed by the idea of the retrospective novel: many of her later efforts – often brilliant, often not – would tackle long-dead murders.
On the downside, there aren’t all that many suspects and – unlike later efforts, such as Five Little Pigs – the 18-year-old murder remains firmly in the past, affecting the present only through the fear of retribution, never through a human element. It’s an interesting-enough read, at the end of the day, but the “cold case” feels very cold, and Miss Marple herself really could have slept through this one. (Incidentally, it’s one of the poorer efforts from the Hickson adaptation series – not through any fault of its own, but simply that it adapts the novel quite literally: an incredibly languid story in which Marple herself makes a few cameos. Geraldine McEwan’s version fares better, although it features some unusual attempts at loose adaptation.)
Marple ranking: 7th out of 14
Miss Marple #7
The cruel poisoning of their patriarch shocks an upper-class family, but it’s only the beginning…
Agatha Christie sure loved a good gallery of grotesques. As in the superior Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (of which this novel is highly evocative), A Pocket Full of Rye lets a murderer loose amongst the upper class and, in doing so, reveals their inherent greediness and unpleasantness. I’m not personally enamoured by blood and gore, but there was something freeing during the ’50s and ’60s, when Christie was able to become a bit more gruesome with her crimes, and when she set about examining the darker side of human nature. All of the characters in this novel are intriguing, if soulless, and there’s more misdirection than you can shake a stick at. It plays out into two very good adaptations in both the ’80s and ’00s Marple series.
Some will fault me as they realise that we’re only at #49, and already we’ve covered all but five of the Marple books. For this, I can only hope that my descriptions of the books to come can exonerate me. Marple’s novels, such as this one, are often satisfying reads, but don’t stick in the mind as much as a good Poirot, I find.
As for the title… I was tempted, at first, to say that using a nursery rhyme indicates an average novel that Christie decided to bolster with a slightly contrived structure. (We’ll be seeing a few of these in the coming posts). However, I realised that no less than three of my all-time favourite Christies incorporate a rhyme, so it can’t be as simple as that. I’ll ponder this more next time, but suffice it to say that while the nursery rhyme is used creepily, it never amounts to all that much.
[Incidentally, the Fontana covers are amazing: the cover for The Pale Horse gave me nightmares as a child.]
Marple ranking: 6th out of 14
In which a party of seven is reduced to six after an uncomfortable dinner; and, a year, later, six becomes five…
Sparkling Cyanide (or Remembered Death, as it was released in the US, leading me to assume that the publishers’ mandate was just to get the word “Murder” or “Death” into every title) is an expanded retelling of Yellow Iris, a Poirot short story, which was effectively adapted for the David Suchet series in the early ’90s. It’s a lovely idea, and told damn well, featuring a detective – Colonel Johnnie Race – who had previously appeared in The Man in the Brown Suit, and would return to Christie’s world twice, as a friend of Poirot’s. (It’s lovely that – while Christie remained staunchly opposed to ‘uniting’ Poirot and Marple – nearly all of her books tie in to an overarching ‘Universe’ [yes, I apologise for sounding like an anorak], with St. Mary Mead referenced in a Poirot novel, for example)
Race is an adept, if stoic, detective, and the story is well told – with a beautiful premise and a clever title. For me, the solution is a little too… unlikely, but – while that’s obviously a major element of the story – it doesn’t really detract from the rest.
Hercule Poirot #25
Poirot commits himself to retirement – once he has solved 12 cases which resemble the famed 12 labours of Hercules.
Is there a more unusual book in the Christie canon? The Labours are some of the last short stories Christie wrote (possibly the last?) and she brings a consummate skill – in both prose and construction – that wasn’t always present in the early days. Without Hastings, or indeed any narrator, we get to see Poirot at his most arrogant. It’s pleasant that Christie would let her character be this much of a prig. This is the middle-era Poirot: a man who believes wholeheartedly in himself, and who has come to understand the human heart as well as the mind, but isn’t yet as besieged by regrets as he will be in the often moving later novels. Besides, it’s nice to know that after decades of service, Poirot is generally held in high esteem.
Miss Lemon, Japp and George pop in on occasion (Hastings is left squarely in Argentina), but this is Poirot’s book, and overall, that’s probably a good thing. Almost all of the stories are diverting, and a few – The Nemean Lion, The Erymanthian Boar – are very strong. The final story, The Capture of Cerberus, serves as the last story to really deal with Poirot’s personal life until his swan song in Curtain, bringing back a notable figure from his past, although leaving us with yet further questions. It’s satisfactory, but Cerberus is possibly the weakest of the 12, since it centres around a thriller, not a mystery, and is reminiscent – for a few reasons – of the disastrous The Big Four. Thrills were never the author’s strongpoint, nor the detective’s, and while he proves his worth in all the stores, including those few which involve spies and assassins, it’s harder to rein in one’s disbelief. All in all, though, an enjoyable read; each time I checked the clock, I was amazed how much time had passed as I breezed through this book.
The first 11 stories appeared in magazine form first, providing the framing narrative – as existed in other collections such as The Thirteen Problems and Partners in Crime – of the 12 ‘labours’. Poirot had been ‘retiring’ since 1926, when The Murder of Roger Ackroyd came out, so I’m sure no one took this seriously, but the Poirot we see after World War II is decidedly more domestic. (We’ll consider the detective’s age in future posts, I’m sure.) However, that framing device is the most questionable element. While it is absolutely fitting that Poirot would compare himself to Hercules, this sometimes makes him seem even more idiosyncratic than he usually is, given that he’ll sometimes ignore a pressing case until he makes the thematic connection. Occasionally, Poirot seems heavily involved with a case which only reveals its link afterward. I can’t deny there’s a lovely snug nature to the interlocking aspects of these cases, but sometimes the connections between the story and mythology seem… pardon the pun… laboured.
Poirot ranking: 30th out of 38
Hercule Poirot #17
As I’ve mentioned above, all of these are “better-than-average” Christies: they hold the interest, and feature astute writing and characterisation, but either they don’t come across as original or inspired, or they often niggle at you with questions – be it questions of plot, of wonky puzzle pieces, or of general blandness. The four stories in Murder in the Mews all work as puzzles, and – at a length hovering somewhere between short story and novel – manage to incorporate enough shades of character without ever tapping the well dry. Next week I’ll cover novels for which I appear to have less affection than I do for this or The Labours of Hercules: it’s just that, in truth, even the best short story is never going to match a Christie novel, where we can really get under the skin.
There’s nothing groundbreaking here, no, but as an example of “classic era” Christie, Murder in the Mews is not too shabby. The title story is perhaps the most engaging, with a murder plot that will keep you guessing. The Incredible Theft and Triangle at Rhodes are more opaque mysteries, focussing as much on character and ambience, which makes for a surprisingly good read. Dead Man’s Mirror – a retelling of an earlier Poirot short story, The Submarine Plans (which, poor thing, is now erased from most Poirot collections due to redundancy) – is my least favourite, failing to engage me for unknown reasons. However it is the most typically ‘Christie’ of the bunch – with a country house full of eccentrics – and there are some lovely pseudo-supernatural touches in for good measure.
Poirot ranking: 29th out of 38.
Next time: Well, a lot of Poirot, really.