Welcome, kind readers, to yet another installment of my Agatha Christie rankings. Today, we’re rocketing through some solid but underwhelming books (again, mostly Poirot) as we move ever closer to #1. (Check out the last five reviews here.)
Tommy and Tuppence #2
Christie’s second Tommy and Tuppence book (of five) is also the second-best. The characters shine as in their first outing, The Secret Adversary, and their bubbliness – which was a bit off-putting in the trenches of N or M? – is used to maximum effect in these giddy little cases. All of the stories are enjoyable, and they were the basis for the 1980s TV series Partners in Crime, which is, by and large, gorgeous.
Partners in Crime is let down by the fact that each short story parodies a detective or detective style from the era. Many of these have faded into history, which can lead to hidden jokes feeling disconnected, and witty one-liners become merely non-sequiturs. The first time I read this book, however, I didn’t realise this; aside from the occasional discombobulating moment, it wasn’t an issue. Re-reading, I notice the format more. An enjoyable confection, but won’t sate your hunger for long. Sadly, when Christie revived the couple for three further escapades in middle age, they’d be largely a waste.
Tommy and Tuppence ranking: 2nd out of 5.
Hercule Poirot #1
In which a lieutenant, an inspector and a Belgian emigré solve murder during the War.
Let the flaying begin. Well, actually, don’t. Coming 39th on the Agatha Christie rankings isn’t that bad. Styles is a seminal novel in 20th century detective fiction: Christie’s first published work, and Hercule Poirot’s first appearance in literature, as well as the introduction of then-Lieutenant Arthur Hastings, and Inspector Japp. Poirot’s methodology is relayed to us by Hastings in a manner very similar to Watson’s introduction of Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet. This novel, I rush to point out, is a damn sight better than Holmes’ introductory one, with Poirot emerging almost fully formed, and the country house of Styles a suitably atmospheric host for murder.
The David Suchet adaptation – coming very early on before the series had established a darker visual style – is satisfactory, largely due to Suchet’s ability to create a younger, more ‘foreign’ Poirot. But it doesn’t have the raw power of the later adaptations in the series.
I do have to be honest, though, and confess this is not one of my favourite Poirots. Christie hadn’t yet ironed out her style yet (she had another sixty years of writing to go, so I’ll cut her some slack), and – aside from Poirot – none of the characters really jump off the page. Still, this is an impressively easy read, and all fans should check out where Poirot began his British career (in the same place he would end it sixty years later). If you’re new to the series, keep in mind that Christie will – with experience – challenge her own style in the years to come.
Poirot ranking: 24th out of 38
Hercule Poirot #10
In which a clergyman dies at dinner – with no apparent motive or reason – and it’s only the beginning…
Why is there so much Poirot in the middle of my rankings? Part of the answer is, simply, that Christie wrote a lot of Poirot. Half her output of mysteries feature the Belgian and his presence often ensured a stronger story than usual, as the clues needed to be hidden well to avoid his prying eyes. (While it’s not a foreign idea in Poirot by any means, secret children and one element being ‘out of place’ tend to dominate the Marple books, where the police are easily fooled, and Marple is more often an unwelcome outsider. Poirot, on the other hand, is usually an unwelcome insider.) Hercule will put in a good showing at the top as well – at least half of the Top Ten, depending on how I feel when I get there – but, due to the unstoppable machine of books Christie was churning out, many of his novels fit into the “satisfactory” range.
All of which is by means of introducing you to Three Act Tragedy. On the one hand, it features a varied cast of characters, including a charismatic actor friend of Poirot’s, Sir Charles Cartwright, who dominates the proceedings. Cartwright was played by Tony Curtis in the Ustinov film, and Martin Shaw in the lovely Suchet adaptation, and is the best thing about both the novel and the films. The structure of the murders is well-conceived and elaborate without feeling contrived. For perhaps the first time in our rankings – yes, I’m sorry, my dear Labours of Hercules – the structure imposed by the title makes sense both thematically and narratively. The reveal will hopefully be surprising for all first-time readers, as it is cleverly done.
On the other hand (does this belie everything I just said?), once the surprise wears off, I find Three Act Tragedy to be a bit of a bore. In retrospect, the surprise is never a shock, for reasons I won’t spoil here. Suffice it to say that several of the suspects never come alive to warrant suspicion. The few who stand out quickly take their places: “the trusted ally”, “the innocent”, etc, and looking back, you can’t really find any other viable suspects. (I’ll discuss this in spoiler-y detail under the next post, when we reach a more notable book of the same ilk.) However, I recommend this because Christie puts up some of her best smokescreens here.
[The US title is the equally-clever-but-somehow-less-good Murder in Three Acts, thus basically confirming my suspicion that all Christie mysteries without “murder” or “death” in the title weren’t considered viable.]
Poirot ranking: 23rd out of 38
Hercule Poirot #27
In which the seemingly random death of an old woman may hide a darker motive…
Mrs. McGinty’s Dead hangs on the cusp of an era, really: the end of the Poirot-who-just-wishes-to-retire age (most notably featured in The Labours of Hercules), and the beginning of the rueful-retired-Poirot period. Sensibly, then, it also features the crime novelist Ariadne Oliver, the perfect complement to Poirot’s fastidiousness, as well as Superintendent Spence, who debuted in Taken at the Flood. (Rather neatly, he is played by Richard Hope in both of the Suchet adaptations.)
I’m not sure I’d regard this as a classic – the mystery relies a little too much on coincidence and chance – but the suspects and murders are solidly set-up, Mrs. Oliver has one of her strongest outings, and Poirot himself gets to be the victim of an insufferable guest house, which makes for much merriment. The TV movie was particularly enjoyable, with Zoë Wanamaker – delightful as always – giving her all as Mrs. Oliver.
Poirot ranking: 22nd out of 38.
Hercule Poirot #37
A lovely collection of Poirot short stories – published in periodicals early in Christie’s career – which provided much of the grist for the early episodes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot.
Aided by Hastings, Inspector Japp and the sublime Miss Lemon, Poirot investigates a vast array of cases including murder, kidnapping, theft, espionage and extortion. Hercule Poirot isn’t best represented by his short stories, but there are quite a few clever tales in this collection, and indeed the book is immensely readable. Notable stories are, unsurprisingly, also the ones that I enjoyed most from the television adaptation. The Double Clue introduces Vera Rossakoff, a woman of dubious morals who has a brief liaison with Poirot, and who would return in two novels cobbled from short stories, in increasingly unlikely situations. The Chocolate Box is the only glimpse we get of Poirot during his days in Belgium before the War.
Poirot’s Early Cases is a diverting read, but it’s fair to say that her shorter works – with a central pairing which often mimics the dynamic of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson – were more of a training ground for her more intricately plotted later novels.
Incidentally, this is the highest-ranked short story collection on the list, proving yet again that novels were where Dame Agatha’s strengths lay.
Poirot ranking: 21st out of 38
Next time: some more Hercule Poirot, as we move into some truly solid works.