Welcome back, readers: today we enter Dame Agatha’s Top 30, with five examples of vintage Christie – not quite classics, but books that shouldn’t disappoint any fans out there. The last five reviews are here, or you can see the complete list at the index. Now, on with the show…
Hercule Poirot #8
In which a nasty old man dies at dinner, and everyone’s a suspect.
I don’t have a lot to say about this one: it’s a great example of vintage Christie. The pieces are all in place for a fun, elaborate murder mystery with less contrivances than usual (although it does use one of Christie’s favourite standbys, having actors amongst the suspects, which always increases the confusion and/or red herrings). It’s relatively taut and logical, Poirot gets plenty to do, and Hastings makes one of his final appearances. Robert Barnard comments about some of the anti-Semitism that appears briefly, but thankfully it was the end of such an era for Christie’s works.
Like many Christie books, the title was changed on first publication in the US. Oddly, though, this is a rare occurrence where it is mellowed, becoming Thirteen at Dinner. (Every title change we’ve seen thus far has introduced a word implying fatality, and I’m not sure why this change was made.)
Poirot ranking: 16th of 38.
Hercule Poirot #14
In which a woman asks Poirot to save her life, and a dog is blamed for murder.
Dumb Witness is a book where I worry that my own childhood bias moves it up the list. In retrospect, the eponymous canine – Bob – is overdrawn, and everyone acts like children. The suspects are varied, but none of them are well characterised. Beyond this, the question of who wears a hulking great brooch to bed has always confused me. Still, I’m sticking with my ranking: it may not have much nuance in either the characters or the mystery, but I find Dumb Witness to be intriguing. Most importantly, Poirot genuinely fears for the safety of his client here, which is always a nice element of his characterisation. This was Hastings’ last appearance – outside of short story collections – until he returned for his swan song.
[In the US, the book’s title was changed to Poirot Loses a Client; I imagine due to concerns over understanding of the meaning of the word “dumb”?]
Poirot ranking: 15th of 38
Miss Marple #9
In which an attempt is made on a movie star’s life, and no one is asking the right questions.
I’ve always liked this book, but perhaps that’s just because I have an affection for The Lady of Shallot – the poem from which the book’s title emanates – and that poem’s eponymous lady, Elaine of Astolat.
Either way, The Mirror Crack’d is not too shabby for a ’60s Christie book, with an intriguing murder, some clever misdirection and an enjoyably broad cast of characters. As with some of the later Poirot works, Marple gathers most of her information second-hand, and there aren’t an abundance of clues to begin with (but then again, the murder doesn’t require many.)
Christie’s later works often feature “young people” and modern society encroaching on village life, but it’s less hoary here than usual. Having the elderly Jane Marple as the detective makes Christie’s treatment of this seem in-character, and Marina Gregg and her potentially murderous entourage are well-drawn. The solution is a decent surprise – drawing on the tragic life of actress Gene Tierney, incidentally – and it’s possibly the only one of Christie’s works featuring an actor in which the solution does not rely on disguise (and, thus, the unlikely plan of no-one recognising the killer in said disguise). The Mirror Crack’d is not a classic (few Marple books are), but it’s a worthy read, and you’ll hopefully be surprised but not annoyed by the fitting solution. It’s been filmed not just once but thrice, with quite strong outings for Joan Hickson, Angela Lansbury and Julia McKenzie.
Marple ranking: 5th of 14
Hercule Poirot #15
In which the Belgian detective’s Egyptian holiday is ruined by love triangles, tourists, and murder.
Death on the Nile is, in many ways, the quintessential Agatha Christie novel. Amidst a colourful setting, a variety of characters – some openly shadowy, others repressing their quirks – are suspected in a locked-room murder, while romances and rivalries obfuscate Poirot’s attempts to untangle the situation. There’s no surprise, then, that this is one of her most well-known works, and opened the Peter Ustinov “all-star” film series of the ’70s and ’80s. As with all Christie’s work set in Africa and the Middle East, she devotes a good deal of time to the lush setting, although here it feels less textured than Murder in Mesopotamia or Appointment with Death. Both the Ustinov and Suchet films have been very successful, although how can you really go wrong with a steamer on the Nile?
On a personal level, though, I’ve always found this novel to be a little cold and analytical. Perhaps I was just not drawn into the lives of the characters, whose scattershot nature conflicts with their seeming familiarity with one another. (Murder on the Orient Express succeeds for the opposite reason: everyone tries to keep to themselves, making us wonder who is connected to each other. Here, no one can keep to themselves, making us wish they would.) Or perhaps the murder – which is cleverly done, and will hopefully leave most people surprised – just relies on too many coincidences for my liking. Ultimately, though, I think I’m biased against this because I guessed the murderer’s identity. It’s probably the only Christie where I’ve ever done so, and the lesson I learnt was that I’d rather be surprised!
[Incidentally, Colonel Race makes his final appearance in Christie’s canon and, although his part could have been played by any old friend of Poirot’s, it’s nice to see Christie continue to interweave her narrative worlds.]
In short, top marks for construction, and it’s certainly famed for a reason, but it’s just not my bag.
Poirot ranking: 14th of 38
In which Superintendent Battle comes across a familial murder.
Superintendent Battle makes his final appearance in Christie’s canon in this nifty little novel, published toward the end of WWII. I’ve always liked Battle, who – like Japp before him – is a thoughtful investigator whose books fit him like a glove. His previous books – The Secret of Chimneys, The Seven Dials Mystery and Murder is Easy – are all rather light affairs, but Battle is nonetheless an admirable part of the canon, and a good way of her writing a standard detective story that could still utilise a recurring character. Towards Zero is Battle’s best solo outing (although he’s lucky enough to join Poirot, Colonel Race and Ariadne Oliver in Cards on the Table), and it’s a splendid novel. Backstabbing households were always a strong point in Dame Agatha’s repertoire – we’ll see several more in the Top 25 – and the inter-relationships here are particularly well-drawn. Just genuinely a good book.
Next time: five – count ’em, five! – books featuring amateur detectives, including one of Christie’s most interesting stylistic experiments.