To be Read – Agatha Christie edition

TBR

I figure I only get so many of these – esteemed mystery writers with an extensive backlog of widely praised works.  There are plenty of authors who turned out 5-20 titles, but how often do you get up into the 30-70 range?  Yeah, there are a few names I could list, but the only ones in the pack where I’ve really gotten excited are John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen, and now, Agatha Christie.

Perhaps it seems odd that I’ve never read any of Christie’s work.  I suppose I have my upbringing to blame for that.  As a child of the 80s, Agatha Christie was a household name.  That’s not to say “cool”, but one of those authors that everyone knows.  So why did I never try her out?  Well, I’m going to paint with a broad brush and probably sound like an idiot, but here we go…

For someone of my generation, these were your parent’s books, or perhaps your grandparent’s books.  That’s not to say that I didn’t read loads of novels from previous generations, but there was something about Christie that felt… old and boring.  Of course, I hadn’t actually read any of her stories, but I suppose my opinions were formed by the glimpses of Poirot and Marples that I got from the movies playing on public television (public television having somewhat of a dry connotation in the US at the time).  An odd little detective with a funny mustache muttering quips in French.  An old lady knitting and catching killers over tea.  Murder She Wrote seemed downright cool by comparison.

Understand that it isn’t any of those specific characteristics that made the detectives seem boring.  It could have just as easily been Gideon Fell, Henry Merrivale,  Ellery Queen, or any of a host of other GAD characters – had I been aware of them.  In these seemingly ancient murder novels, my juvenile mind saw crusty elites in a mundane time gone by.

And so, unjust as it may be, my adolescent self concluded that Christie was moth eaten and boring.  I suppose some of these biases just carry with you into adulthood.

Of course, I’m so much wiser now, right?  Well, probably not.  I still have preconceived notions about what a Christie novel would be like – or more accurately, what it wouldn’t be like.  My assumption is, that while these are crafty mysteries, they don’t necessarily fall into the category that I’m drawn to – impossible crimes.  For me, the locked room, missing footprints, or some other bedevilment is necessary to draw me into a plot.  At least, I think it is.

If Lord Astbury is stabbed to death in his house while he’s hosting a party, I’m not really that interested.  Untangling the web of which guest had a motive and who was where when doesn’t really appeal to me that much.  However, if Lord Astbury is stabbed to death while in his study – locked from the inside and proven to be inaccessible from outside – then I’m intrigued.  Now, say that the study where he died has a century long history of mysterious deaths, and I’m absolutely hooked.

That’s what it’s all about for me – the hook, or at least the promise of it.  The man stabbed by his hypnotized wife using a knife that was moments before shown to be rubber (Seeing is Believing); the psychic who time and again accurately predicts murders that they had no way of having committed (The Reader is Warned); a victim killed in plain view of an audience, yet none of the witnesses agree on what they saw (The Problem of the Green Capsule).

I’m by no means familiar with the basic plots of even a sliver of Christie’s catalog, but I’ve never seen a hook that jumped out at me like that.  Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? seems intriguing, as does the ever dwindling cast of And Then There Were None.  Beyond that, nothing leaps to mind at the moment (disclaimer: I’m sure Christie wrote some killer hooks that I’m just not aware of).

Yet, in my reading, I’ve learned that you can have a killer mystery with a seemingly vanilla premise.  Take Christiana Brand’s Fog of Doubt and John Dickson Carr’s The Emperor’s Snuff Box as examples.  Both feature a seemingly straightforward premise of a man being bludgeoned to death, and the plots focus on a detective trying to work his way through the testimony of a number of suspects.  No real hook there.  However, they both have another thing in common – a high stakes plot and a knock your teeth out twist ending.

That’s where my hope lies for Agatha Christie.  Not that she needs to offer the mad plotting of JDC or the revelations of Brand.  I’m hoping that she offers something else entirely that I just don’t know that I want yet.  She has to.

You see, as I’ve been enjoying my way through the locked room tinted swath of GAD, I’ve noticed that many of the bloggers whose opinion’s I respect consider Christie to be a big thing.  Like, a bigger than JDC thing.  Like, way bigger.  And why would that be if these are just vanilla mysteries?  There must be something more that separates Christies work from the rest of the pack and justifies her notoriety.  I aim to find out.

How have I resisted up to now?  Well, I’ve had a few false starts I must admit.  I had The Murder of Roger Ackroyd practically at the very top of my To Be Read pile, when someone recommended that I had to read Carr’s The Man Who Could Not Shudder.  Unfortunately, the latter includes a spoiler for the former.

Next, I had the brilliant idea to watch the recent production of And Then There Were None.  Right?  Because if I enjoyed the movie, I’d obviously know if I would…..enjoy the book that I just ruined…  As much as I treasure a film rendition of a GAD novel, we all know that they never capture the vivid detail and twists of the written page.

Ok, so no more false starts.  I’m going all in, and I’m actually going to, you know, read one of the books.  Well, I assume I’ll read quite a few.  My tactics for Christie will be similar to my approach for Carr – read a bunch of the more well regarded books up front, to decide if I want to make a further investment.

That worked out beautifully with Carr.  I still marvel when I glance at my shelf of past glories (I keep them in order) and contemplate how epic of a run I had.  Hag’s Nook, The Nine Wrong Answers, The Problem of the Green Capsule, The Judas Window, The White Priory Murders, The Emperor’s Snuff Box, He Who Whispers, The Red Widow Murders,…  I could go on with another seven books before I hit my first “medium” title, but you get the point.

Contrast this with my strategy for approaching Ellery Queen in chronological order.  The first two books were…not quite my thing.  I probably rag on The French Powder Mystery more than I should, but the experience of reading it back to back with The Roman Hat Mystery was draining.  I have yet to gather the strength to surmount “the Dutch Shoe hump”, after which I assume I’ll be on to greener pastures with the much heralded The Greek Coffin Mystery.

I get the sense that Christie’s earliest works aren’t regarded as her finest, and so I’m going to let go of all illusion of tackling her work in order and just dive in with the hits.  Well, not all of them – I’m not going to drain the well – but I plan to read enough of the more praised works to come to a conclusion as to whether I want more.

Of course, what constitutes “the hits”?  Conventional wisdom would obviously call out Murder on the Orient Express and And Then There Were None – the two titles that are most widely associated with the author.  But, hey, popularity doesn’t necessarily translate to quality.  Just because a band has some hit singles doesn’t mean they’re the best songs in the catalog…

Fortunately, I’m armed with a lot of information.  I’m not going to go overboard this time and invest hours researching an author that I haven’t read.  The blogosphere has gifted me with plenty of guidance in lazily consumable form.  The Puzzle Doctor offers several “best of” lists, even breaking things down by Marple and Poirot.  Even better, there is a “beginners guide” to Christie.  Then there are JJ’s always reliable “five to try” lists at The Invisible Event, plus a recent post in which he covers which of Christie’s books he’d recommend to a newcomer.  Kate at Cross Examining Crime devoted an entire post to how one might become acquainted with various categories of Christie’s library.

But I may have even better than all that.  Brad at Ah Sweet Mystery has honored me with my very own “Five books to read before they’re spoiled for you” list focused on Agatha Christie.  Well, maybe he didn’t create it just for me, but I did get a name check, so there’s that.  The list is exactly what I’m looking for though.  It isn’t necessarily “the best of” Christie, although I think few would debate the merit of the titles he chose.  Rather, these are books that I should read before I stumble upon the inevitable blog comment that gives away the twist.  That’s worth it’s weight in gold (…of course, a blog post weighs nothing, so…).

It looks like a pretty decent list, and so I’m going to use it as a loose inspiration to get started.  Of course, I can scratch And Then There Were None and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd off since I already know the ends of those.  I’m sure I’ll still enjoy them and will save them for later, similar to what I’m doing with Carr’s The Hollow Man and He Wouldn’t Kill Patience.

So what are those books that seem to be rising towards the top of the stack?

Death on the Nile

Crooked House

A Murder is Announced

After the Funeral

Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?

Death Comes as the End

The Sittaford Mystery

Mrs McGinty’s Dead

The Hollow

Five Little Pigs

The ABC Murders

If you’re reading this article, much less this blog, I imagine you’re already more than familiar with Christie’s works.  So, the question goes out to you – how did you get started with the author?  What five books would you recommend to someone just getting started?

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22 thoughts on “To be Read – Agatha Christie edition”

  1. At the very beginning of her career, Christie was writing stuff that was meant to be part of sub-genres that don’t really exist any more. The Big Four, for instance, most people think is abysmal (I’m pretty much in agreement). But it’s actually a good example of a kind of story that isn’t popular any more, for good reasons; it pretty much died with pulp magazines. Think of it as “protagonist struggles against a mighty and secret criminal organization with tentacles everywhere” — a good example being Fu Manchu. This sort of story was, I believe, what Monseigneur Knox was getting at with his “Rules” when he said “No Chinamen”. It wasn’t so much that he was prejudiced against Asian people as that he wanted this sort of story to go away. Similar ones are The Secret of Chimneys, The Seven Dials Mystery, The Secret Adversary, The Man in the Brown Suit.
    So if you start chronologically, you will have to plough through The Big Four and The Secret Adversary. I would recommend reading Mysterious Affair At Styles (1920), The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), and avoid all others before 1932, Then start at Peril at End House from 1932 and move forward from there with Poirot, then Marple separately, in order. You can then go back and fill in the gaps and read all the short stories and novelizations and plays and Mary Westmacott and and and …
    If you want to read one book that will let you understand why Christie really is the Queen of Crime, get a copy of Crooked House (1949) before anyone can talk to you about it. No series detective, just a classic mystery with a brilliant ending. I believe that one will impel you to read the rest.

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  2. Basically, steer clear of the thriller. Noah just mentioned a few but there are more which pop up all through her time line and I think they are very poor fare – Christie simply couldn’t write that kind of material convincingly and comes across as a slightly edgier version of Enid Blyton – but there are some better ones and I reckon the Tommy and Tuppence books are by and large worthwhile.

    You have a fair list already but I’d also add in Death in the Air and Towards Zero.

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      1. Those kinds of, now incredibly dated, thrillers can be really enjoyable if handled the right way and written by someone who had a flair for them. Rohmer’s Fu Manchu stories, bar the first novel which is basically a patched together serial, can be an awful lot of fun if you’re in the right mood and just accept them for what they are.
        Christie, despite a number of attempts, was not a thriller writer -instead, she was one of the greatest detective story writers.

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  3. argh, only pick 5 favourite Christies!!! That’s a challenge and then some lol I definitely second reading a non series Christie first such as Crooked House or Towards Zero. I think either of these would blow any misconceptions of Christie out of the water. But A Murder is Announced or Evil Under Sun would also make for good entries into Christie’s work.
    I say this of course very blithely, as in about 5 nanoseconds I’ll probably change my mind again lol

    Last year as part of celebrating Christie’s 126th birthday I organised a series of posts on Christie Firsts Recommendations, which quite a few other bloggers took part in. Included the links below, if they might be any use in helping you navigate Christie:
    https://crossexaminingcrime.wordpress.com/2016/09/15/christie-firsts/

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  4. I consider myself the luckiest little boy on earth to have had a babysitter like Steve Levy. He could have left my brother and me to our own devices and pursued his teenage interests. Instead, he regaled us with stories. And what stories they were! In great detail, often over several sittings (maybe this is why I like Dickens and soap operas), he would tell us about the books and movies he had enjoyed. So what if we were seven and nine! We were treated to the entire screenplay of Hitchcock’s Psycho! And. Y favorite was the story of ten strangers trapped in an island who, one by one, died horribly . . .

    Cut to two years later. My family had moved back to California, and I was feeling lonely. My mom and I had stopped in a drugstore so she could pick up something and, as usual, I passed the time checking out the rack of paperback novels. Love and behold! I came upon one called Ten Little Indians! Could this be the story that Steve had told me? Based on the blurb in the inside front cover, it sure seemed so! I begged my mom to buy it for me . . . and the rest, as they say, is history. 🙂

    I think we are deeply affected by those things we first encounter, especially as children, and Christie was my first. I had never heard of her until I saw her name on that paperback, do I can definitely say I was drawn by the story, not the author. But a month later, I purchased Murder on the Orient Express and met Hercule Poirot, and within the year I was introduced to Miss Marple through A Caribbean Mystery.

    I will never ask or expect you to replace your “first love” with Christie, and seeing how rarely she plays with impossible crime conventions, you may wind up viewing her as no better than fair to middling. The people who began their investigation of Christie’s work with Third Girl or At Bertram’s Hotel probably ended it soon after. But if you go in with as little sense of comparing her to Carr as you can, you will find that her hooks, although quieter, are no less captivating, and that she is every bit the master of misdirection that Carr is. And it’s fascinating to compare their methods because they each use a different toolbox! Oh, and her simple prose style, while. It as atmospheric as Carr’s is definitely more readable than Queen’s.

    I appreciate your shout-out to my list. I feel like a nervous father sending his son off on a bike without training wheels and hoping you won’t fall. Remember this: I didn’t read Christie in chronological order, and here I stand – a huge fan. I didn’t touch the 20’s till much later, but then I was a kid, and you are a grown-up. The first decade contains some gems: Styles, Ackroyd, The Seven Dials Mystery, and The Man in the Brown Suit. The 30’s and the 40’s are brilliant, and there are many pleasures to be found in her late period even as her powers wane. When JJ introduces a weaker title like Hallowe’en Party, the discussion begins from the place of strength Christie deservedly occupies in the firmament. But she’s not a goddess, she’s just a writer, and your opinion, even if it turns out to be negative, will provide a fascinating perspective in the discussion.

    Wringing my hands a bit here, I wish you well, Ben.

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    1. Sniff, I’ll make you so proud pa! I feel that I’m in good hands and the collective recommendations cited above have already started me down the path. I can definitely understand what you mean when you say that her prose are simpler than Carr’s and she is easier to read. So, which one did I choose? Well, you’ll have to wait about a week to find out…

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  5. I consider Death on the Nile not only essential reading when you’re going to explore Christie’s work, but required reading for every devotee of (Golden Age) detective fiction. In my opinion, Death on the Nile is as close as you can get to a flawless detective story with a perfect balance between the plot, (main) characters and setting. I would describe the book as one of the wonders from the Golden Age of Detection.

    So, now for four other recommendation that you might like…

    Puzzle Doc already mentioned Hercule Poirot’s Christmas as a locked room novel, but the impossibility is only a minor aspect of the plot, one that’s almost immediately solved, but luckily, it is not her primary impossible crime book. Murder in Mesopotamia is a locked room mystery. However, you’ll only see the impossible angle to the murder when the culprit’s identity is revealed.

    You might find that a stumbling block with Christie, because her “hooks” are usually her solutions. Case in point is my next recommendation.

    After the Funeral is a late entry in both Christie’s and Hercule Poirot’s career, but the plot is one of her cleverest pieces of work with a daring piece of misdirection and flashes of genuine originality. The book also has a memorable villain with a great motive. Highly recommended as, what was perhaps, her last grand performance as a mystery writer.

    Murder is Easy is a personal favorite of mine and arguably the best of all of Christie’s village-set mystery novels, but criminally overlooked because it is a standalone.

    My last recommendation gave me some trouble. There are so many titles left to pick from, ranging from Five Little Pigs and The A.B.C. Murders to Taken at the Flood and Cards on the Table, but decided to go for a title none of you would probably expect. My final recommendation goes to a short story collection, Partners in Crime, which I have seen described as a farewell to the 1920s and a welcome to the Golden Decade of the Golden Age. All of the stories are splendid parodies of the famous detective and thriller writers of the day, but there’s a red-thread running through the collection that ties everything together. Warmly recommended.

    Well, I hope this helps.

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  6. I got started with Murder at the Vicarage, and was hooked; I probably read 50 of her books in the next year (and I’m a slow reader). I don’t rate Christie quite as high as Carr for puzzle plots, but I’d place her second (with Christianna Brand a close third). Christie has a few impossible crimes, but they’re not her forte. Strangely (for a Carr fan), I’m not a big “impossible crime” fan. I like Carr (and Christie) for tricky but fair plots with clues that make me groan “How did I miss that?” Actually, I usually guessed the culprit in both Christie and Carr, after I’d got used to their styles. In Carr, you can often guess the murderer by personality. In Christie, I looked for someone who was never suspected and had no apparent motive or opportunity, then worked backward to try to figure out how s/he could have done it. But with both Carr and Christie, even if I suspected the right person (and both sometimes crossed me up), there’s always something I missed—some clue or trick that’s embarrassingly obvious in retrospect.

    So… (before I read what others have suggested) which five books would I recommend to a beginner? Well, I’d recommend And Then There Were None as a masterpiece, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd because it’s likely to be spoiled if you wait (Christie herself spoils it in one book), but you’ve mentioned those. I’ll go with the following—four of which I now see are on your list:

    • The ABC Murders – the idea has been copied so often it may not be a surprise, but that’s because it’s a great idea
    • A Murder Is Announced—one of the first I read. A great read, and I was fooled completely, even though she waved the truth under my nose repeatedly. She’d used a similar ploy in two or three of her earlier books, so when I read those, I guessed the solutions right away.
    • Death on the Nile – an excellent “conventional” mystery, maybe the best traditional whodunnit ever
    • Crooked House – one of my personal favorites, and, I later learned, one of Christie’s.
    • Death in the Clouds – another of the first Christies I read; I think it’s under-rated.

    Other books I consider under-rated, possibly because they’re non-series: Sparkling Cyanide, a.k.a. Remembered Death (a neat semi-impossible crime) and Towards Zero (despite one of the worst lines in detective fiction—“Then, with a laugh, the paper was torn in pieces”).

    A couple more I might recommend to a beginner who wasn’t already a mystery fan: The Body in the Library and The Moving Finger—not spectacular but very good, and short.

    Some comments on other books on your list (again, my biased opinions):
    • Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? – lightweight, and a bit light on detection, but entertaining. I think this is her most successful (and amusing) attempt at the “light thriller” format (and the hero and heroine are not irritating, as Tommy and Tuppence sometimes are).
    • Five Little Pigs – this has always seemed to me like Christie’s bid for literary respectability (of the Sayers kind). Solid performance with a decent plot.
    • The Hollow – more focus on characterization than plot. I liked some of the characters, but was irritated by others.
    • Death Comes as the End – interesting attempt at a historical mystery before they were common. So many murders that there aren’t many suspects left.
    • After the Funeral – competent but mediocre until the solution, which took me totally by surprise—even though I’d suspected the right person early on. Christie’s red herring suckered me.
    • Mrs. McGinty’s Dead – to me, the reverse of After the Funeral: I thought the first third was great, and found the rest a slight letdown. Still a good book.
    • The Sittaford Mystery – minor Christie; I thought this one of the weaker from Christie’s peak period. (I guessed the murderer right away but not the alibi.)

    Happy reading. I wish I had unread Christie to look forward to. (But the sight of POSTERN OF FATE on your bookshelf makes me want to recoil, holding up a crucifix in self-protection.)

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    1. I never guess the culprit in Carr books (well, I have maybe five times, but three of them were mere hunches), but I’ve immediately identified the killer in both Christie books that I’ve read so far (more on that in future posts…).

      Many thanks for the recommendations and footnotes – they won’t be wasted. Towards Zero seems to be well respected and may just creep up on my list.

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  7. Hello, please don’t tell me about “your generation”, you make me too so old! We are young! I am reading Agatha Christie since I was born. It was one of my first books or something. My first soft bunny was named Agatha in memory of Christie. And, I read the whole – book – seriously – when I was 10 or so. I would recommend to read: 1) And Then There Were None; 2) The Murder of Roger Ackroyd; 3) Murder on the Orient Express; 4) Evil Under the Sun (very cinematic); and 5) Murder in Mesopotamia. My all-time personal favourite is Cards on the Table, because of the claustrophobic feel of one room and the murder near the fireplace. Spooky.

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  8. I’m late to this post (in fact, I found you through a pingback on Brad Friedman’s post), but if you enjoy “impossible” locked-room mysteries, than Murder in Mesopotamia IMO comes closest. The victim doesn’t die in a locked room, but in a place with only one entrance and the entrance was watched the entire time. I have to admit that it isn’t one of my favourites and in general you’ll find it on very few favourite Christie list. It has one big problem, that I won’t describe any further not to spoil anything, but it will be obvious to anyone who has read the book. The way the crime is comitted is not influenced by this, though. And for big parts, it is an entertaining read.

    The victim in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas is killed in a locked room, but this is only a minor aspect of the book. Still, I would recommend this book any time, because this is one with Christie’s very best clueing. Another one that I would always recommend because of it’s excellent clueing is A Murder is Announced and also Towards Zero. Both have also several pretty memorable characters.

    If you’ll want to read one of her thrillers, than I would give the Seven Dials Mystery the edge over Why didn’t they ask Evans. I am in the minority here, but I think Seven Dials Mystery is by far the best of her thrillers. There are several reasons for this, but the one that I can mention without spoiling anything, is that it’s the fairest with a clue that in hindsight should be obvious. Though none of her thrillers probably belong to her very best vooks.

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    1. Thanks for the suggestions. I recently picked up Murder in Mesopotamia, although who knows where it will land in the teetering pile. I also picked up Towards Zero on the back of an avalanche of recommendations.

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