Without further ado, let’s dive right in…
Miss Marple #8
In which a woman witnesses a murder on a passing train, leading Miss Marple to a feuding family.
4.50 from Paddington (or What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw in the US) is a strong Marple work written on the cusp of Christie’s middle and late periods. As with many of her best works, there’s an intriguing and unsettled family dynamic, which spits out suspects left, right and centre. Best of all, there’s a strong investigator character in Lucy Eyelesbarrow, a young woman who goes undercover for Miss Marple at Rutherford Hall, which allows Marple to play to her strengths without the novel coming across as laconic. (Lucy is also the best thing about the better-than-average Hickson adaptation.)
Several late Christie works deal with “unclear murders”: a clue suggests someone died at some point somewhere, but with no clear information. (Witness the later Tommy and Tuppence books, for instance.) Most of the time, this leads to a confused narrative, relying too much on conflicting memories without the emotional strength that ties into the powerful nostalgia novels such as Five Little Pigs. Here, though, there’s enough intrigue in the murder – occurring on one train, witnessed by a woman on another – and Rutherford Hall provides so many possibilities, that things just work.
From the next novel, we’ll be looking at Christie classics. 4.50 from Paddington has elements of a classic, but doesn’t quite cut the mustard, for the simple reason that betrays many Marple novels: the limited, hazy clues simply don’t yield much fruit. In the climax, Marple is so certain of her case that she plants an elaborate – and very public – trap to catch the killer. Had she proven incorrect, this would surely have given the game away to the true murderer. Given that it’s so hard to see how Marple reaches her conclusions – or, rather, how she reaches them with so much certainty – this seems reckless. However, I’ll call this one a very solid read.
[Sometimes found under the title Murder, She Said, to tie in with the 1960s adaptation starring Margaret Rutherford.]
Marple ranking: 3rd out of 14
After their family member dies in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, the rest of the family must turn against each other.
Ordeal by Innocence is certainly a strong novel: it’s either the first classic on the list, or the last non-classic. This is not your typical detective story, as most of the time is spent with the respective family members coming to terms with Jacko’s death, and the resulting fact that one of them committed the crime. Still, the revelations and insights are solid, and the book is truly haunting. It’s unrelentingly bleak – and this is less of a strength than it will be in some of the bleak ones we’ll see down the line – but very strongly written. Both film adaptations – the first with Donald Sutherland in the ’80s, and the second as part of the new Marple series – had flaws, but were propelled on by the true sense of a human tragedy that pervades the story.
Hercule Poirot #20
Poirot tackles a courtroom battle.
Sad Cypress is a fascinating Poirot story, combining the weight of Christie’s most mature works with her more ‘classic’ mystery structure.
Sad Cypress is a complex but believable mystery, not quite as flashy as Poirot’s most famous works, but very skillfully put together. Coming off of her most prolific decade, Christie was an unstoppable force. Like the carefree, decadent characters who pervaded films in spite of the Depression, the War really did nothing to quash the appeal of Christie’s cruel worlds. Here, Poirot gets to be a champion for justice – always one of his strongest suits – with some convincing courtroom drama (practically unique to Christie’s oeuvre). I think it’s our first bona fide classic?
Rating: a careful 8.5/10
Poirot ranking: 13th out of 38.
Hercule Poirot #30
Ariadne Oliver’s intuition sets Poirot on a course for village murder.
One of Christie’s few classics from her later years, Dead Man’s Folly is a book that she clearly enjoyed writing. Ariadne Oliver sparkles, Poirot is written with a mix of satire and genuine affection, and the murder mystery – as with many of the best Golden Age writers – turns the bucolic atmosphere of a country fete into a bloodbath. Good fun, and a welcome respite for readers during Christie’s patchy later years.
Poirot ranking: 12th out of 38.
Hercule Poirot #38
In which two old friends are reunited, to solve their last crime at the place they solved their first…
Like Sleeping Murder – the last Marple published, if not necessarily the chronological end to her tales – Curtain was written in World War II as a back-up, and finally published shortly before Dame Agatha’s death, when it was clear she would write no more novels. As such, it is one one level a welcome return to form after the previous books in the Poirot series – such as Elephants Can Remember – which fail to impress on any level. It’s also one of her most shocking twists, and a book that brings a powerful and definite end to the tales of Poirot and Hastings. By returning them to Styles – the site of their first case in The Mysterious Affair at Styles fifty-four years earlier – Hastings and Poirot, the former a widower and the latter crippled, come full circle. The mystery is well put together, although the focus on our investigators means that there is less characterisation than usual for the suspects.
Curtain is a most unusual Christie novel, and an even more unusual Poirot one. At the same time, though, it follows logically from the maturation of both writer and character. (Poirot, that is. Hastings doesn’t seem to have evolved much in the last half-century.) The fact that Christie wrote this in the ’40s, before the developments of Poirot’s life, has both positive and negative traits. It’s surprisingly in keeping with the changing tone of Poirot’s later novels (and should make for a marvellous end to the Suchet series – God willing – given the direction they went with Series Twelve), but of course, there are questions of chronology, and the age of the characters, since thirty years’ worth of novels and the real world had intervened.
If we’re being technical, this is the best book of the 1970s (it seems a little unfair, but – if not – our choices are pretty dire). It’s a classic, but a pity about the vague depictions of some of the suspects. I would recommend new readers choose earlier volumes first!
Rating: a generous 8.5/10
Poirot ranking: 11th out of 38
Next time: “Four Poirots and a Marple”, including one of Christie’s most anti-formulaic, and one of her most well-known.