Welcome back to my Agatha Christie rankings and reviews: this week we cover five enjoyable if slight books (four of them Poirot!). Last week’s reviews can be found here. Read on…
Hercule Poirot #29
In which a rash of petty thefts at a student hostel mask greater crimes…
Hickory Dickory Dock is by no means a masterpiece, falling squarely into that camp of run-of-the mill Christie stories that she churned out during the middle of her career. The good: a thorough characterisation of Poirot himself (one of only a few novels in which Miss Lemon actually appears; she’s primarily confined to the short stories); an overly healthy dose of misdirection; and, most importantly, a cast of characters in which all of them seem like viable suspects.
The negatives: it’s one of those forcibly contrived novels in which a variety of criminals and people in disguise inhabit the same space; the eponymous nursery rhyme bears even less sense than usual (a painful element taken to extremes in the Suchet adaptation); and things feel far more routine than usual. The Suchet adaptation, similarly, plays well enough and holds the interest, but can’t help but feel like a by-the-numbers ‘murder mystery’, not aided by one of those “twenty years ago” opening scenes that lead the mind – consciously or otherwise – toward the denouement before it should arrive there.
Suitable for Christie fans, but probably not an eye-catcher for novices. The U.S. title became Hickory Dickory Death, furthering my theory that the publishers just wanted a pulpy title for every release. The Italian title, moreover, was Poirot si annoia, or Poirot is Bored. I’m not surprised.
Poirot ranking: 28th out of 38
Hercule Poirot #21
The death of Poirot’s dentist reunites him with Inspector Japp for one final investigation together.
An unusually bleak foray for Dame Agatha, coinciding with the onset of World War II, and investigating conflicts between conservatism and communism. It’s not always subtle, nor brilliant, but it’s an interesting step for Christie. However, One, Two, Buckle My Shoe is neither particularly eye-catching nor, for that matter, unpredictable… at least in the murder mystery elements. Poirot – who starts the book the victim of some very gleeful humour regarding his fear of dentists – is forced to face his own conscience, and the resulting dilemma is very well articulated. (Perhaps needless to say, at the point, the eponymous nursery rhyme ain’t all that important. It was a useful gambit around which Christie could set a story, but often ended in nought. We’ll see some more exquisite uses of the idea in the Top Ten.)
Is there anything terrible about this novel? No, not in the least. It’s readable, and Japp puts in a strong performance. The David Suchet adaptation – while not my personal favourite – was the series’ first real foray into bleakness, and plays it well.
[US readers – lucky you – got not one but two alternative titles for this book: The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death.]
Poirot ranking: 27th out of 38
From London to South Africa, a young Englishwoman – eager for adventure – follows a trail of strange clues, only to find herself in a web of theft, lies and political intrigue.
One of Christie’s first novels, The Man in the Brown Suit is clearly in the thriller genre, and – like almost all of her thrillers – it ultimately becomes a morass of spy-story ideas that don’t quite gel together. However, unlike most of them, this book is attractive and engaging, with an enjoyable heroine in Anne Beddingfield, and a solid supporting turn by Colonel Race, who would later lead the cast of Sparkling Cyanide before returning for two superlative Poirot novels.
Hercule Poirot #32
Late in her career, Dame Agatha collected some Poirot short stories which hadn’t been published in book form, expanded them, and they became this release. As is her wont, Christie’s long-form short stories (if that phrase doesn’t sound ridiculous) often work well enough. No, they’re never going to have the complexity of her novels, but there’s a restrained strength to each of the Poirot stories here, all of which were subsequently made into very good episodes of the David Suchet television series. More to the point, most of the stories – notably the title story – are wonderfully atmospheric, and this elevates them a little.
The final story, Greenshaw’s Folly, is a rather weak Marple attempt. It’s an unusual choice to include in this volume, but it ensures that Poirot and Marple – at least nominally – share a book.
[US readers can find these stories scattered in The Under Dog, Three Blind Mice and The Regatta Mystery, but these days it’s probably just easier to buy the Complete Short Stories of Poirot and/or Marple, generally in quite lovely volumes from HarperCollins.]
Poirot ranking: 26th of 38.
Hercule Poirot #13
On an archaeological dig, nurse Amy Leatheran encounters murder – and a peculiar Belgian detective.
Murder in Mesopotamia is the kind of book that you don’t forget – for both good and bad reasons.
This was one of the first Poirot novels I read, and the one that cemented my love for the detective. It’s all in the setting: Christie had a personal passion for archaeology and for the Middle East, which really came alive in the 1930s as she travelled with her husband, Sir Max Mallowan. Her other examples – Appointment with Death and Death on the Nile – resound with similar strengths: a powerful sense of atmosphere and a truly vibrant cast of characters, each of whom comes across with believable motives which are only enhanced by the alien setting. Poirot is joyfully out of place in Mesopotamia, and his pairing with Amy Leatheran is lovely. (The strong David Suchet adaptation effectively replaced Amy with Captain Hastings, probably as an apology to poor Hugh Fraser, whose character had to be written out in accordance with the later novels.) Amy functions as a surrogate-Hastings here, but is also interesting on her own accord.
I’d love to give this novel 7.5/10, but – without spoiling anything – the solution to the murder is far too complex and contrived to satisfy even the laziest reader. It’s just a real letdown.
[Incidentally, the implication appears to be that, following the events of this novel, Poirot takes his famed ride on the Orient Express…]
Poirot ranking: 25th out of 38
Next time: we move into some solid Poirot territory, and once again catch up with Tommy and Tuppence.