Hello again, kind readers. We’re nearing the end of my Agatha Christie rankings and reviews. Today, we’ll revisit five classic Christie novels featuring Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple, as we climb ever closer to the top. (The last five reviews are here.)
Hercule Poirot #28
In which a stray comment from a batty relative leads to murder.
It’s tough – and I suspect I’ll lament it often in the Top Ten – to rank Christie’s novels at this juncture. Of the five novels in this post, After the Funeral probably features my personal favourite denouement, as well as my favourite title. On the other hand, I think it integrates the detective least, and relies more, perhaps, on chance than any of the other examples we’ll see today. This is my way of saying, these rankings will likely have changed – in my mind – by the time you read this. The works of any oeuvre which I love – the musicals of Stephen Sondheim, the Tintin albums of Hergé – tend to rocket up and down in a flurry of movement. But for now, I’m sticking to my guns, and assigning this as a true classic, but not quite as sparkling as the gems we’ll see at the bottom of the page.
After the Funeral is promisingly bleak, with a horde of greedy relatives torn asunder when – at the reading of a dead man’s will – a tactless relative intimates he was murdered. Dame Agatha was grand at creating scheming, backstabbing households, and After the Funeral is a powerful example. Unlike the repressed schemers of 4.50 From Paddington or Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, the Abernethie heirs really have no shame in their greed, and it’s not hard to suspect everyone in the two murders. In this bewildering mix, Christie floods us with clues while blinding us to the obvious. Indeed, hidden amongst the plot are many of Christie’s stalwart tropes, but reinvented and interpreted so as to seem refreshing. The denouement is simply a wonderful piece of plotting.
There aren’t really any flaws. While the murderer’s plan relies on taking a great risk, it seems reasonable that he or she would try it, and – unlike some very contrived plots like The Body in the Library – this is a risk that only requires one event to work as planned. Poirot puts in a good show of logic, but his characterisation gets somewhat lost under the weight of the others. Still, this was an era when Christie often inserted Poirot as an afterthought, so he’s probably lucky to have emerged at all.
[US readers, unsurprisingly, got this title rejiggered as Funerals are Fatal, and, later Murder at the Gallop, because a Margaret Rutherford Marple movie stole this plot.]
Poirot ranking: 10th out of 38.
Hercule Poirot #35
In which a young girl is killed, and Ariadne Oliver calls in an old friend.
It’s no surprise that Dame Agatha came to rely on Ariadne Oliver as Poirot’s familiar in his last novels. Aside from being a dynamic character in her own right, and a fun fictionalisation of Christie, Mrs. Oliver is an extension of the themes in the last Poirot installments: his world-weariness, and his disconnection from the world, a world which no longer relies upon the same kinds of social mores and interpersonal tricks that he excelled at recognising. If you look back at the first posts in this series, most of the 1960s and 1970s novels make themselves felt very early on (indeed, only one more novel written after 1950 appears in the Top 15). Despite the power of such a change to one of crime fiction’s most fascinating detectives, Christie’s age – and, ironically, her own disconnection from the modern world – prevented her from chronicling this with her younger self’s zest.
The more recent episodes of the David Suchet series (creeping in from Series Nine, and in full throttle by Series Twelve, when Hallowe’en Party was adapted) have taken up this element of the character to considerable success. Hallowe’en Party was a decidedly successful adaptation, with Suchet and Zoë Wanamaker giving strong performances in the lead roles, and the director and designer taking full advantage of the creepiness allowed by a Halloween setting and airdate.
To the book, then: there’s no denying that Hallowe’en Party shows some of the structural faults from Christie’s late period. Not all the clues fold out into anything, and there are too many characters cluttering up the narrative. The return of Superintendent Spence – not included in the TV adaptation – is also underrealised. Yet, it remains one of my personal favourites. Mrs. Oliver has a stand-out appearance, and I personally was caught up in the novel’s atmosphere. Christie shows an almost sadistic delight in the brutality, too. Not that this is necessary, or even desirable much of the time. But here we are as compelled as the aged Poirot to track down someone who could commit this vile crimes, and the nature of the murder – a far cry from poison over tea and scones – ties in yet again to the world-weariness Poirot exhibits.
Rating: a biased 8.5/10
Poirot ranking: 9th out of 38
Hercule Poirot #4
Poirot retires to grow marrows… and solve the murder of a widower who was hiding a dark secret.
One of Christie’s most notorious works, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is an interesting case: it’s undoubtedly a good book, but there’s a certain laziness in ascribing it “classic” quality just because of that ending. There’s no doubt that Roger Ackroyd is a defining moment in the history of crime fiction, but how does that stand up against the book as a work of the genre?
Well, the simple answer is: very well. In fact, I’d call it the best book Christie wrote in the ’20s. Admittedly, she spent much of this decade writing short stories and dabbling in thrillers, but in some ways, Roger Ackroyd was where Dame Agatha found her place constructing baffling mysteries and then – more importantly – obfuscating every damn element of them. There’s nothing amazing in the construction of the murder itself, and one could argue that there are too many red herrings, to the point where it just becomes nonsensical. Yet, there’s nothing at all wrong with it either. Each individual clue makes sense, and Poirot’s investigation is both completely logical to the viewer and completely impossible for us to mimic, while also justifying the fact that he fails to detect the killer for so long.
Christie had reduced Hastings to a recurring player already, and so Dr. James Sheppard fills in as narrator: it’s a perfect decision, because we get to essentially “re-meet” Poirot: a retired, civil but reclusive man who just wants to grow vegetable marrows. When he returns to active detection, Poirot will become much more arrogant, but in this environment, he is just a tradesman, doing his job.
[Retrospectively speaking, Poirot’s retirement in 1926 raises questions about how he remains so active into the 1970s. There are, it seems, four theories:
1) Poirot is much younger than we assume, i.e. he basically retires as a man in his 30s or early 40s, leading him to be around 90 at the time of Curtain in 1976. This, however, has to discount the short story The Chocolate Box, which is explicitly set during Poirot’s Belgian police days in 1893. See this website for a further discussion.
2) Poirot’s life is not synonymous with the dates the books were published after WWII. He was in Belgium in 1893, and lived the ’20s and ’30s as written. However, all remaining books are set before and during WWII. After the war, Poirot retires permanently, and Curtain takes place in the 1940s, when it was written. (See here.) This is certainly a neat way of incorporating the early years and the TV series, but it again means some severe pretending: the ’50s and ’60s novels – even when not explicit – are clearly set in a more modern world. Hell, the word “lesbian” pops up in Hallowe’en Party! (This wonderful website attempts to make the TV series into a logical timeline.)
3) The third theory is one which long-time Doctor Who fans may recognise: our worlds are simply not the same. In classic Doctor Who, the ’70s saw changes in technology – e.g. trips to Mars, BBC3 – which simply didn’t exist. Some fans and researchers suggest that – at some point after 1963, when the series premiered – the timeline of that world diverged from ours, thus explaining these differences. Perhaps, in Poirot’s England, there was a sudden cultural explosion in the 1930s that led to ‘mod’ life coming twenty years too early? Thus, Curtain takes place before 1950, but yet the social mores of the ’50s and ’60s encroach during WWII.
4) Finally, a questionable theory at best, but the only one that doesn’t rely on mass ignorance: Poirot is simply very, very old. He lives to be over 100, whilst solving cases the entire time. Simple as that. ]
Moving on… the twist ending of Roger Ackroyd, which I won’t spoil here because I don’t think it’s necessary, was front-page news at the time, and reasonably so. It was unprecedented, endlessly clever, and – depending on who you talked to – possibly unfair for the reader, who couldn’t be expected to figure it out. I’m not sure if that would apply nowadays. I certainly didn’t, but it’s possible a more astute reader – with ninety years of this trick’s descendants – may figure out the killer. (Of course, the other possibility – which has happened to all of us at some point – is that the mere act of knowing there’s a trick ending means you figure it out. You somehow become more cagey, and those little details – the joins and the screws – stand out.)
So, is Roger Ackroyd a classic? Well, yes and no… and yes. It deserved the praise at the time, and still remains a bold experiment. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the reception to this novel – and the mere struggle it must have to been to write it – prepared Dame Agatha for her increasingly elaborate constructions in future, and her other no-holds-barred twisters like Murder on the Orient Express and And Then There Were None. (Not to mention The Mousetrap.) At the same time, it’s not quite as effortless as the 12 classics we’re about to review, nor are the details of the case likely to stick in your mind as might Death in the Clouds or Cards on the Table. But then again, Roger Ackroyd is very solidly put together and – in truth – I can find nothing to fault it.
Rating: a realistic 8.5 bumped up to 9/10
Poirot ranking: 8th out of 38
Hercule Poirot #24
In which a man bleeds to death by a country house swimming pool, and Poirot stumbles across the body.
We’re into the Top 10 of Poirot novels, and it’s fair to say that they’re pretty marvellous. Half of Christie’s mystery canon is taken up by Poirot, so it’s inevitable there will be clunkers. As a result, of course, it should be no surprise that he takes up six of the slots in her overall Top 10. His irrepressible personality and his brilliantly well-formed existence would be nearly impossible to top. Poirot’s evolution over the fifty-plus years Christie wrote him is remarkable. And to think that within a few short years, Dame Agatha had grown tired of the pompous Belgian, and spent much of her life wishing she’d stopped writing him before he became her iconic – and best-earning – character!
The Hollow is one of Christie’s most enigmatic works: she herself was immensely proud of it, but felt it wasn’t perfect (and a large part of that due to Poirot’s presence). The murder itself seems stock-standard: a man shot by the pool of a country house, where the residents of both The Hollow and the nearby cottage possess motives, and red herrings are seemingly endless. Poirot, needless to say, is staying in a nearby cottage, and begins to realise that the killer is trying their darndest to cover up the crime.
Yet The Hollow borders on a Christie masterpiece for a few reasons: the author’s contrivances are revealed to be those of the characters; the mystery itself is intriguing on account of being a psychological investigation: Poirot himself is a guest character, and we’re here privy to the inner workings of the family and their friends as the investigation goes on. As many critics have noted, this is a novel told internally, which makes it all the more impressive that the David Suchet adaptation worked so well.
Famously, Hercule Poirot’s entrance comes so late in the book (and, indeed, his involvement still remains minimal) that Christie herself later thought it a mistake, writing him out of the subsequent stage adaptation. Christie had not written a Poirot novel since Five Little Pigs – itself a breakthrough novel – four years earlier. When he returned again, Poirot would be plotting retirement in The Labours of Hercules and then – with the bleak atmosphere of Taken at the Flood – the great Belgian would begin his final stage, as an older man out of place with the world. Christie, meanwhile, was writing less but also devoting more time to Miss Marple.
The Hollow is not my favourite Christie (evidently.) While her ambition is admirable, and the mystery very well-constructed, there’s still only so far Christie’s skill as a psychoanalytical author could go in this context: basically one long con perpetrated on both us and Poirot. (Psychological studies, however, will play a major role in the Top Ten.) Beyond this, Poirot’s limited presence means we don’t get to see his thought processes, and thus lose most of his characterisation. Finally, there’s that inherent bias which comes from having read Christie since I was about 7: I do like a good tale where we meet the detective and the suspects, have interviews and go about in a usual way. All this, though, is not meant to be damning: The Hollow is a very worthy novel; it’s just that – for me at least – it stands out because it is so different to much of Christie’s fare: a success by context, if you will. A classic, yes. A masterpiece, nearly… but not quite.
[Unsurprisingly, the title was changed in the US to the more sensational Murder After Hours. Seriously, Google book covers of these novels sometime and check out some of the mid-century American covers. Ridiculously sensationalised!]
Poirot ranking: 7th out of 38.
Miss Marple #4
Poison pen letters devastate idyllic Lymstock, but they’re only the beginning…
The Moving Finger is a fitting pairing with The Hollow; it, too, utilises our regular detective in a comparatively minor role. It certainly lacks The Hollow’s psychological introspection – Maurice Disher’s contemporary Times review (at Wikipedia) certainly points out some flaws with the narrator’s voice – but it’s perhaps Christie’s best examination of the sinister undercurrent in these tiny hamlets. The brutal poison pen letters with their filthy insinuations, the blackmail and murder, are at their peak here, with the duality perfectly conveyed through the arrival of our narrator and his sister – a London society couple – who struggle to interpret the difference between the sincere and malicious actions of their new neighbours, in a world with different social mores, hiding all sorts of dirty deeds.
There’s a case to be made for Jane Marple as a fascinating detective – where her observational skills and taste for gossip can one-up the local constabulary – but much of the time she is a secondary figure in her own novels. The general technique of solving a Marple mystery – noticing the background inconsistences in seemingly implacable facades of village elders – often means the mystery consists of a close reading of some blathering elderly folk. When it works, it works, but too often the Marple books come across as glacially paced. The Moving Finger, though, is an example of all these elements working, and how.
Later in life, Agatha Christie came to feel very comfortable with Miss Jane Marple (that’s the other factor in the relative decline of quality: Marple books were primarily written after WWII, and thus in Christie’s more patchy era). The best Marple books are those in which – shock horror! – Marple herself does some investigating, and the clues prepared for us are logical… if only we could read them. What makes Poirot stand out as a detective in crime fiction is that – in retrospect – we kick ourselves for not having been able to see what should have been blindingly obvious. Marple is in fine form here: her status as a hawk-eyed gossip makes her a wonderful amateur detective when used well, and this time the clues and facts – gathered by the narrator, the police and our spinster – all make sense. With a comparatively strong narrator, and a nice array of characters, the novel focuses on all the potential suspects while also maintaining atmosphere. Unlike The Hollow, Marple’s late entry doesn’t damage things: if anything, it allows us to gather clues and then watch Marple figure things out in a far more breezy fashion than usual.
In terms of believability, The Moving Finger is the strongest Marple (you’ll see what I mean soon enough), and it’s a clear classic. There are only two flaws: the “ugly duckling” sequence is an unnecessary strain of melodrama (which also led to an embarrassing low point in the Hickson adaptation series), and there is a curiously maligned gay dude. (Christie wrote a few touching lesbians in her time, but gay men seem to have failed her litmus test.) However, these are minor issues for a novel written when my grandparents were children. Great stuff.
Marple ranking: 2nd out of 14
Next time: we begin counting down the Top Ten with some cleverly plotted and neatly atmospheric Poirot mysteries.