Hello again, dear readers! We’re approaching the big-time now in the Agatha Christie countdown and this week, all five books feature amateur detectives in five great-but-not-quite-classic mysteries. You can find the last five reviews here. Read on…
In some ways, it’s a great relief to reach this part of the countdown, where the books are undoubtedly enjoyable and well-written. It’s easier to talk about bad or middling books, sure, but it’s also easy to come across as a hater. Going into the Top 25, though, the trick is to find a tone that is praising without being sycophantic, while still discussing the flaws and questionable elements of Christie’s work. The aim, after all, is to take a critical look at Christie’s entire oeuvre, as my love of her work – and hopefully yours, dear reader – should be taken as read.
Miss Marple #1
A baffling murder in St. Mary Mead has the police and the townsfolk flummoxed. Except for one elderly spinster…
Throughout the 1920s, Agatha Christie wrote countless short stories for a number of periodicals, featuring many characters – Hercule Poirot, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, Harley Quin, and so on. All of these eventually found book form, and the luckier characters therein would go on to headline novels of their own. Jane Marple was one such, having headlined several short stories before making her publication debut in this novel.
The Murder at the Vicarage skillfully “introduces” Marple, seen as one of just many characters through the eyes of the book’s narrator, who gradually comes to the fore as the only person with the keen eyes and pricked-up ears to solve this perplexing murder. The murder plot itself relies on so many trivial occurrences that you have to suspend your disbelief more than usual, true. However, Christie utilises her setting well in this regard. The central idea of the novel is that these trivial occurrences are like clockwork in a small village, and knowing where someone will be, or how they will react to a particular situation, is a crucial element.It’s exactly the kind of keen psychological insight that exists in this gossipy society. (If I wasn’t able to ad lib these kinds of psychological reasonings for Christie denouements, I’d go mad!)
The Murder at the Vicarage is not really a classic. (I just had to type the name three times, as I kept confusing it with other Marple works). It’s a well-built house of cards, but it also feels like a house of cards. Thankfully, it showcases a tight-knight cast of characters, a wonderful portrayal of St. Mary Mead (which isn’t quite the loving hamlet it seems), and is, in every way, a seminal work. Interestingly, Christie wouldn’t bring Marple back for 11 years, spending the ’30s – her most prolific decade – primarily with Hercule Poirot.
Rating: a generous 8/10
Marple ranking: 4th of 14.
In which the members of an Ancient Egyptian household begin to die…
Death Comes as the End was perhaps the most challenging book to place on my rankings. It’s one of my favourites, but as I begin to ask myself why, I have to admit to the book’s failings as well. The book was one of my favourites when I was young – with its focus on Ancient Egypt (a favourite era of both myself and Dame Agatha), how could I not love it? It was a daring challenge that Christie set herself, to tackle a mystery so far outside of her own time, and it’s a bit sad that she never tried it again.
The family of Imhotep is large, leading to a sizable suspect base. On the other hand, they die off quicker than even a seasoned Christie fan will believe! Christie renders this land believable, and has great fun utilising motives, beliefs and characterisations that simply wouldn’t be legitimate in a drawing room in St. Mary Mead.
Some reviews have claimed that this is basically a drawing room mystery, and that the characters have effectively been transported straight out of 1930s London. While I don’t entirely agree, I can understand these claims: the internecine arguments amongst the family do remind you of a contemporary Christie work, as the author chooses to focus on household and quotidian routines rather than politics or the larger culture of the age. Personally, the mystery fascinates me, with its two-faced characters and noble heroine, amidst the ravishing setting of Egypt at its height.
At the end of the day, Death Comes as the End is either my Christie guilty pleasure, or a quality novel which allowed Christie to challenge herself, while also leaving her free to write characters with motives and reasonings that could ignore the usual moral codes her characters had to operate within.
Rating: a biased 8/10
In which two deaths bury a gruesome secret – but not forever…
The cover of The Pale Horse always scared me as a child. That’s the first thing that comes to mind when I think of this novel. It’s a story in which threats of the supernatural merge with both the detective and the thriller genre. Nowhere else has Christie combined all three of these so well and – while it isn’t as tightly constructed as her earlier novels – The Pale Horse is pretty damn adept. This really isn’t a Poirot or a Marple; in fact, it’s a Tommy and Tuppence novel, if anything. Instead, the investigation is led by a young historian, Mark Easterbrook, who makes for a forthright and surprisingly invigorating lead. Amongst the supporting characters is one of Christie’s most sublime creations, Ariadne Oliver (not all that surprising ,given that she’s an echo of the author herself). Oliver, too, enlivens the story. Both the puzzle and the investigation are sound. Julia McKenzie’s recent film version – incorporating Miss Marple into the plot – was quite good really, in spite of a few leaps in logic which come from the book.
From an historical standpoint, The Pale Horse is a precursor of the two classic 1960s novels – one of which features Mrs. Oliver, and the other uses a supernatural undertone in a similar manner. Most of Christie’s ’60s and ’70s output would be forgettable, but when she tried to experiment, the Dame could still do quite well.
[Incidentally, Reverend Calthorp from Marple’s The Moving Finger appears here, linking the spinster detective to Poirot through Mrs. Oliver.]
A dying man’s last words lead a Vicar’s son and a Lord’s daughter on a thrilling adventure…
As with The Pale Horse, you could be forgiven for assuming this would be a Tommy and Tuppence novel. The slightly bumbling leads, Bobby Jones and “Frankie” Derwent, are quite similar to the youthful Beresford couple, to the point where James Warwick and Francesca Annis – cast in the lead roles in a 1980 film version of Evans – would subsequently play Tommy and Tuppence in Partners in Crime.
Ultimately, I don’t have much to say about this one. It’s a somewhat trifling little confection, with a nifty, engaging plot, and some dynamic – if harmless – leads, who were characterised quite well in the latest adaptation, made for the Marple TV series. A good read.
[In the US, the title is – or has been – The Boomerang Clue. Less Christie-ish, but probably understandable.]
Tommy and Tuppence #1
Down-on-their-luck, a young couple hire themselves out as adversaries.
The Secret Adversary was Christie’s second novel, coming on the heels of seminal murder mystery The Mysterious Affair at Styles. It was an unusual choice, combining detective and spy stories with a giddy, light-hearted feel. Most of her thrillers would fail in part for being too dour; those like The Secret of Chimneys and Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? that allow for some humour tend to succeed – at least, relatively so.
Tommy Beresford and Prudence “Tuppence” Cowley are delightful and easy-going, suitably young, modern people in post-WWI England. It’s perhaps the best of Christie’s “thrillers”, and certainly the best of Tommy and Tuppence’s canon. Christie would revisit them sporadically over the next fifty years – and they would age along with the real world – but none of their remaining books would shine like this one; a real pity.
We’re about to start looking at Christie’s classics, but this falls short of that mark, I’m afraid. Ultimately, the light-hearted nature of the piece doesn’t destroy the tension, but it certainly muffles it. And whenever Christie tried international intrigue, there was inevitably the feeling that she was making it all up as she went along. Still, The Secret Adversary is a lively romp, worthy of a fan’s interest.
Tommy and Tuppence Ranking: 1st out of 5
Next time: We enter the realm of bona fide Christie classics, including some haunting character pieces.