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
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
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?