Welcome back to the Agatha Christie reviews! If you’re new, you might want to check out the index to get an idea of my thoughts, and what’s already come. Or you can just jump right in, as we investigate some intriguing stories (again, mostly Poirot, but he does take up about half Christie’s mystery canon!).
The last reviews can be found here, or keep reading…
Hercule Poirot #22
In which a seaside holiday goes horribly wrong…
Evil Under the Sun is a somewhat inconsequential little Christie, written on the heels of her most prolific decade as a novelist. The crime is ingeniously plotted, although the mystery itself is bog-standard, with a host of intertwined resort guests and a seemingly impossible murder. The characters are interesting, if not compelling, but the joy is in seeing Poirot’s reasoning, for this is one of those books where his little grey cells are put to such good use.
Evil is no classic, but it’s a solid example of what made Christie Christie, and it’s not really a surprise that this was chosen to follow Death on the Nile in the Peter Ustinov series of films (and became the best of the batch, incidentally). Incidentally, the American title remained the same – what, no Death Under The Sun?
Poirot ranking: 20th out of 38.
Hercule Poirot #18
In which a tyrannical stepmother dies in Petra.
It’s broken record time, unfortunately, dear readers, as I have to report this is satisfactory but not amazing. Luckily, we’re at the end of the “satisfactory but not amazing” phase of novels, so don’t abandon hope!
Dame Agatha’s love for the Middle East makes Appointment with Death come alive. As with Murder in Mesopotamia, Christie’s portrait of a tour through Jerusalem and Jordan, full of bitter characters and eager explorers, makes for a lively read. The sadistic Mrs. Boynton hovers over the proceedings from beginning to end, energising the psychological study of all the book’s characters. There’s a stylistic letdown, in that the denouement feels like a clever author revealing how each piece was pushed around, rather than a natural discussion arising from the story. (I know this seems like arguing that just one episode of Two and a Half Men is inane, lazy comedy, but many of the better Poirot denouements – Murder on the Orient Express, for instance – at least simmer with tension and surprise. This one feels boastful.) But it doesn’t hamper the novel, nor do the relatively contrived circumstances surrounding the murder.
Appointment with Death was the last of the Peter Ustinov adaptations (although, I confess, I didn’t know he’d filmed it until writing this review) coming just a year before David Suchet took over the role. Ustinov’s film brought out much of the best of this novel, with only some of the Boynton family members failing to come across particularly strongly. Suchet himself recently starred in a lavish adaptation of this, which was far from perfect, but featured beautiful design and some wonderful performances.
Poirot ranking: 19th out of 38.
Hercule Poirot #2
In which a panicked note to Hastings leads to murder…
You can’t go wrong with Poirot and Hastings, although Murder on the Links is a complicated affair. Christie wasn’t yet at the height of her powers, but she had mastered these characters in the intervening short stories, so the second Poirot novel proves a strong indicator of things to come. The mystery is solidly written, forcing Poirot’s little grey cells to work overtime, and there are some nice character dynamics. If there’s a flaw, it’s that it feels too perfectly constructed, as if no one could actually commit this murder.
Amusingly, Christie had already grown tired of Hastings (or, rather, the expectation that he appear as her constant narrator), and the seeds are sown here that will see him gone for Argentina, to return only intermittently, by the time Poirot returns to the novel format in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
Rating: 7.5 /10
Poirot ranking: 18th out of 38
Hercule Poirot #7
One of the challenges I face writing these reviews is that, to avoid sounding sycophantic, I have to focus more on the negatives than the positives. Realistically, though, that’s because most elements of most Christie novels are thoroughly enjoyable, and there’s little need for me to focus on those every time. I say this under this entry for no particular reason, but just because I worry that I may come across as some kind of hater! If you’ve read through a few of my reviews, you’ll hopefully realise that deep inside, I’m a Christie nerd, and any perceived bitterness is just spirited debate.
Anyway, if there’s a strong novel for a Poirot newbie, Peril at End House may be it. It’s not Christie’s best, or Poirot’s – indeed, my own (made up as I go along) rankings would seem to indicate it’s at about the midpoint for both of them – but this book features Poirot as both a cunning investigator and a human, featuring a rare case in which he becomes heavily invested. Along with Hastings, Japp, and some well-drawn secondary characters, Peril is a great novel to recommend to someone intrigued by Christie: all of her best elements, yet there are so many even better things to come.
So far, I’ve avoided spoilers in this blog. Today, I’m going to change that, but don’t fear! The unspoilered review of this book first: although the suspects are deftly drawn, Christie gives over so much time to their interactions (necessary, I think, for the denouement) that it occasionally feels like a drama novel, not a mystery. (Although the same could be said of the splendid The Hollow.) This is one of Christie’s best misdirections, with even Poirot fooled. If you figure this one out, you’re a genius.
Rating: 7.5 / 10
Poirot ranking: 17th out of 38
For those who know the answer, or don’t care, keep reading. If not, skip this section and go straight to #31.
Spoilers! (boo! hiss!)
It’s hard to talk about this book without linking it to the others in Christie’s canon that do the same thing. Having the client or narrator be the killer was Conan Doyle’s bread-and-butter, but Christie rarely utilised this technique, meaning that she was highly acclaimed when it came about. But, like nearly all those books – with the exception of her beautiful late ’60s example, which treats the case less as a mystery and more as a horror tale – there’s one problem: in making Poirot’s companion figure so interesting, the other characters recede into the background just a little. Peril at End House is better than the example mentioned last time (can you tell I’m trying to avoid spoilers at the cost of all grammar and reason?), since the prolonged melodramatics of the suspects means that our attention really is diverted. The twist remains surprising, truly so, but in retrospect, after the foolishness wears off, the reader is left with a bit of an empty taste in the mouth. Or maybe that’s just me.
End of spoilers (The crowd goes wild!)
A seance, a snowy moor… what can possibly go wrong?
I love The Sittaford Mystery. It’s a strong non-series outing from Christie at the start of a decade when she was at the height of her powers. This is Christie’s Hound of the Baskervilles, with lonely moors, escaped convicts and the suggestion of something otherworldly. Like most, the mystery relies on timing and contrivance, but it’s never unbelievable. In fact, looking back, the reader discovers how many questionable elements they have accepted as “fact”. A lovely book.
[The US title is Murder at Hazelmoor. So far, every replacement title has had “Murder” or “Death” in it, so I think we’re on to something.]
Next time: Poirot and Marple duke it out for their place in the Top 30, as we review some more notable Christies.