Maggie A's Meanderings




 Mar 16, 2014

The Beginner's Intro to the Essential Agatha Christie

The first Agatha Christie novel I ever read was given to me by a neighbor when she found out I enjoyed mysteries. It was Hallowe'en Party (1969), and it was very nearly the last Agatha Christie I ever read. To say I did not enjoy the book was an understatement. I found it bizarre, confusing and, at the same time, emotionally flat and, most of all, utterly boring. I thought if this was Agatha Christie, I didn't get what the big deal was. So I put the book on the shelf and went back to reading "Nancy Drew" and "The Hardy Boys."

But then for Christmas that year I was given two box sets of Agatha Christie paperbacks. I put the boxes on the shelf next to Hallowe'en Party and there they remained unread.

There they also remained staring at me. And staring at me. And staring at me every time I looked at those shelves.

So eventually I pulled out a book and started reading. And fell in love.

One box set was strictly Hercule Poirot:
The Mysterious Affair at Style (1920)
A Holiday for Murder (1938)
Evil Under the Sun (1941)
Curtain (published in 1975 though actually written in the early years of World War II)

The other set was mixed (though three are Hercule Poirot):
The Secret Adversary (1922) 
Poirot Investigates* (1924 short story collection)
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd* (1926) 
The Seven Dials  Mystery (1929) 
Death on the Nile* (1937)
And Then There Were None (1939) 

*Hercule Poirot stories

Those two box sets started me on a lifetime of reading Agatha Christie mysteries. To this day I still think when Christie was in top form that she's the best whodunnit mystery writer since the genre was invented, and Christie is the standard I compare whodunnits to. (I recently picked up several Lilian Jackson Braun "The Cat Who" mysteries at the library book sale and, though charming, as mysteries I describe them as complete failures. All I had to do was pick out the character who was written as to be so unlikeable I couldn't stand him/her and that's the murderer.) I read those two box sets of Christie over and over again in the next few years as well as expanding my Agatha Christie collection with trips to the mall bookstore (back when malls still had bookstores).

Eventually, after reading many more Christies I came to understand why I did not like (and still do not like) Hallowe'en Party. Christie had a prime, and Hallowe'en Party was written long past it while those two box sets contained books written in her prime with the only one truly weak book from that time period (A Holiday for Murder alt. Hercule Poirot's Christmas, Murder for Christmas). As even uber-Christie fan Nancy Blue Wynne admits in her An Agatha Christie Chronology, "The famous Christie magic touch begins to diminish in the 1950s." And Christie continued to write long past the 1950s with her last written book published in 1973 three years before her death.

I would eagerly try any mystery written by Agatha Christie in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and even the 1950s. Generally, I learned to approach a Christie written in the 1960s or 1970s with lowered expectations. By now I've read virtually all of Christie's mystery books (excluding three books not available from the library: one late novel and two short story collections). I discovered even in her prime decades that Christie had some pretty mediocre stuff. And then she had the stories that made her the bestselling mystery writer of all time.

But with more extensive reading of Christie, I got to thinking, "If I were to put together two box sets (one of Poirot and one of anything else) to introduce someone to the mysteries of Agatha Christie what would I choose in order to show the essentials of Christie?" Now this list is not about the most famous Christie mysteries or even my personal Top 12. It's about introducing the spectrum of Christie's mysteries: the types of her detectives, killers, settings, themes, etc., though I do try to pick (what I think are) the best examples of those types.

So here you have, my list for............

(Many Christie novels were published under other titles which are marked "alt" for alternate.)
Hercule Poirot Mysteries:
The Mysterious Affair at Styles
(available on Project Gutenberg)
1920 Christie's first and still a masterpiece, this book introduces Hercule Poirot. A "large family" and "country house" mystery (both elements repeated often in Christie's work).
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd 1926 The book that broke big for Christie caused a sensation in its day making her famous overnight.
Death on the Nile 1937 The favorite of many Christie lovers and for good reason. Christie's own favorite from her "foreign travel" mysteries.
Appointment with Death 1938 One of only two Christies to feature a group of Americans (not British). A "large family" and "foreign travel" mystery.
Evil Under the Sun 1941 The best of the "English-on-holiday" mysteries.
Murder in Retrospect
Five Little Pigs
1942 A "sleeping murder" mystery, reopening an old case which is another staple of Christie's plots.
Other Christie Mysteries:
Partners in Crime
(short story collection)
1929 Christie wrote a lot of short stories and none are more delightful than these featuring Tommy & Tuppence. These short stories stand on their own though this is the second appearance of Tommy & Tuppence as they debuted in 1922's The Secret Adversary (available on Project Gutenberg) and were featured in three further novels, N or M (1941), By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968) and Postern of Fate (1973).
The Seven Dials Mystery 1929 Definitely has the feeling of an early work and comes across as dated, but contains many elements which are staples of Christie's writings, including her fondness for "secret groups" and "master criminals," and no introduction to Christie would be complete without reading one of this type. (Christie continued using the "secret group" and "master criminal" [especially master criminals out to rule the world] elements as late as 1970's Passenger to Frankfurt.) A number of characters in Seven Dials were introduced in 1925's The Secret of Chimneys as the same location and social group are used for both books. An "espionage" and "thriller" mystery.
The Murder at the Vicarage 1930 Miss Jane Marple's introduction. The Marple stories are known for their "English village" setting and this one is set in Miss Marple's home village of St. Mary Mead with all its village characters.
And Then There Were None
Ten Little Niggers, Ten Little Indians
1939 This book has Christie's highest body count as well as her most politically incorrect title. (However, "political correctness" wasn't around back then, and the earlier books use some racist terms and have the Imperial British racist attitude. Christie, recognizing her own people's shortcomings, frequently describes the English as "insular.") 
Towards Zero
Come and Be Hanged
1944 The investigator featured here is Superintendent Battle, the most stolid of all of Christie's detectives. This is the final and most fully-fleshed use of Supt. Battle who appeared in four prior novels, The Secret of Chimneys (1925), The Seven Dials Mystery (1929), Cards on the Table (1936) and Murder Is Easy (1939). It's implied that the narrator in The Clocks (1963) is Battle's son.
Witness for the Prosecution
(stage play)
1953 The only Christie play I've read that surpasses its source (the short story of the same name). The play is far richer and more detailed than the story. (Usually it's the opposite as Christie simplified a lot in turning her stories into plays.) The play is available in the book Mousetrap and Other Plays (1993). Newcomers to Christie might be surprised to learn that Christie was an extensive playwright and wrote plays for the stage, radio and even TV. (Christie wrote 19 plays for the stage, 4 radio plays and 1 TV play. What Christie never wrote is a screenplay for any of the movie adaptations.)

Through that list you'll meet Christie's two main detectives: the eccentrically fussy Belgian, Hercule Poirot  (33 novels, 51 short stories and 1 play) and the proper Victorian spinster with a mind like a sink, Jane Marple (12 novels and 20 short stories). You'll also discover the three additional archetypes of Christie's detectives:
  1. The Stolid Englishman --- Quiet, stiff-upper lip Englishmen who never give up when they've sunk their teeth into something
  2. The Christie Heroine --- High-spirited and inquisitive, her stories are described by Nancy Blue Wynne as "charming-young-girl adventure"
  3. The Male-Female Couple --- Usually consists of Type 1 and Type 2 (Christie's most popular male-female duo is Tommy & Tuppence who appear in four novels and one short story collection aging from their early twenties [The Secret Adversary (1922)] into their seventies [Postern of Fate (1973) the last novel Christie wrote].)
You'll also meet some of the many supporting cast who appear in multiple stories: Captain Arthur Hastings, Inspector Japp, Colonel Race, Raymond West, Sir Henry Clithering, Colonel Melchett, Inspector Slack, the villagers of St. Mary Mead.

The settings for Christie's early stories are the UK or the Continent. From this book list you'll see London of the Roaring Twenties, country houses where you'll discover how the upper-class of another era lived, the English village with its eccentric ways and the English on vacation (or holiday as they call it). But once Christie married her second husband, who was an archaeologist, and began travelling with him to his digs, then the exotic East started being the setting in a group of stories called her "foreign travel" books, and the two "foreign travel" mysteries on the list will take you to Jerusalem, Jordan and Egypt. (Christie's most unusual setting is Death Comes as the End (1944) which is actually set in Egypt 2000 B.C. where Christie writes an ancient Egyptian version of a large family, English country house mystery with a Stolid Englishman detective.) Oddly enough, considering how well Christie's books sold here, what you won't get is a book set in the United States of America. I don't know if Agatha Christie ever even visited the U.S. The closest Christie gets to the U.S. in her mysteries is the 1964 Jane Marple novel, A Caribbean Mystery (set on the fictional island of St. Honoré), written after Christie visited the West Indies.

As far as murders are concerned, every one of those books has at least one. Some have more than one. Christie was never shy about dropping bodies. There's the classic Christie poisoning, people are shot, stabbed, strangled, axed, drowned, bludgeoned and hanged --- there's a whole assortment of death........more ways of killing people than the game of Clue. And the motives are also varied: money, love, jealousy, revenge, justice, sadism, fear, survival, self-protection, insanity.

What you won't find on that list is a "locked room" murder. Christie only wrote one full-length "locked room" murder: 1938's  A Holiday for Murder (alt. Hercule Poirot's Christmas, Murder for Christmas). As mentioned earlier, it is one of Christie's weaker novels (even Nancy Wynn Blue describes it as "disappointing"), and since "locked room" was never a big plot device in her novels, I chose to leave it off the list. However, Christie did write some "locked room" short stories all featuring Hercule Poirot: "The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman" (from 1924's Poirot Investigates), "Dead Man's Mirror" (an earlier version of this story is called "Second Gong") and "Murder in the Mews" (both from 1937's Murder in the Mews alt. Dead Man's Mirror), "The Dream" (from 1939's The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories) and "The Market Basing Mystery" (from 1951's The Underdog and Other Stories).

As to her killers, when it comes to Christie, her killers might be anyone ----- and I mean anyone. It's not like those "Cat Who" mysteries I read by Lilian Jackson Braun where all the killers were unlikeable. In Christie that person you like very much might just turn out to be the killer. (It is the gift of Christie's writing that even in subsequent re-reads, even though I know they're the killer, I still like them and feel kind of bad they get caught.) Among the books I listed you'll find examples of the "least likely" killer, and when Christie's at her best no one does "least likely" better than her. But "least likely" is what so many mystery writers do. But to do it well takes intelligence and cleverness. What takes guts as well as cleverness is to have the killer be the "most likely" but write it in such a way that you don't think that person is the killer. And you'll find examples of "most likely" among those books.

Through reading that list you'll discover two things about Agatha Christie's writing.............

1. Christie isn't just a mystery writer; she's a romance writer.

And I mean that literally. Agatha Christie wrote half a dozen romance novels under the pen name Mary Westmacott. So many of her mysteries contain a love story, often more than one love story. Engagements abound at the end of some of her novels. But not all her love stories end happily --- some have tragic endings. So in that list you get both happy and unhappy love stories.

2. Christie cheats.

Now Christie doesn't always cheat. But, there's no denying that sometimes she does. Sadly, cheating is commonplace in mysteries. The only two series I can think of where cheating never happened are "Ellery Queen" and "Encyclopedia Brown" where you were presented the mystery and given a chance to solve it before turning to another page for the solution.

Agatha Christie cheats so often that
it earned Christie's two most famous detectives spots in the hilarious mystery parody "Murder by Death" (1976) where at the end of the movie they and the other fictional detectives are castigated with, "You've tricked and fooled your readers for years. You've tortured us all with surprise endings that made no sense. You've introduced characters in the last five pages that were never in the book before. You've withheld clues and information that made it impossible for us to guess who did it. But now, the tables are turned. Millions of angry mystery readers are now getting their revenge. When the world learns I've outsmarted you, they'll be selling your $1.95 books for twelve cents."

Though Christie has other sins (
sometimes what Christie presents at the end of the story doesn't match with what she wrote early in the story, and Christie makes the occasional mistake that you can't determine is a mistake, hence, to be ignored or a deliberate clue, hence, to be remembered), Christie's besetting sin from that tirade is the withholding of clues and information, and you'll encounter that from the list as well as stories where Christie plays it completely straight and fair with the reader.

But if you read those twelve listed works by Agatha Christie and discover that you love what Christie's mysteries are, that list will prepare you well for future Agatha Christie mystery reading. You'll be able to read a book and be able to identify it by type. You'll say to yourself, "Oh, this is a foreign travel with a charming young girl/Christie Heroine" or "This is Poirot versus a secret group of master criminals" (That one's The Big Four (1927) and it's a book I do not recommend as that's one of the mediocre Christies.) or "This is large family in a country house mystery with a Stolid Englishman detective."

The only thing more I can add is if you do fall in love with Christie's classic whodunnit mysteries, I hope they give you as much enjoyment as they have to me throughout the years.

drawing of a woman shooting a man


Agatha Christie Bibliography
, Wikipedia (accessed Oct 2013)
Nancy Blue Wynne, An Agatha Christie Chronology (New York, NY: Ace Books, 1976)

For more about literature, read "The Usual Characters," "4 Classic Novels that Are Way More Depressing than You Think They Are Based on the Movies" Part 1 and Part 2, "My First Fantasy Book?" and "Avoiding the Perils of Being a Mute Fairy Tale Heroine."

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