Sad Cypress – Agatha Christie (1940)

SadCypress“Come away, come away, death, and in sad cypress let me be laid”

Although I’ve recently started an effort to read Agatha Christie in order, I’ve always intended to cheat on my diet.  It isn’t so much that I’m determined on reading Christie completely sequentially, but rather that I’m curious to read the first decade of her work in that way.  My reasoning is her first ten or so books don’t quite enjoy the same reputation as her 1930s-40s period (with the obvious exception of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd), and so if I’m going to tackle them, it might as well be with the added appreciation of where the author was in her career.

Sad Cypress has been a title that I’ve been eying for a while, and so it seemed like a good candidate as a diversion from my chronological affair.  I was lucky to track down a Dell map back edition for about a dollar a few months ago, and as you can appreciate, it’s pure torture to leave a map back sitting on the To Be Read pile.  It’s worth noting that there is actually another Dell edition with a very different cover and a different map on the back.  I would have preferred that other edition because I love the cover, but hey, you can’t argue with a one dollar map back!

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The Mysterious Affair at Styles – Agatha Christie (1920)

MysteriousAffairAtStylesAm I the only one with an odd bias towards the early works of prolific authors?  Not a bias in that I don’t like the books after I read them, but in that I assume they won’t be that good before I read them.  Well, it’s probably just me, so let me explain this quirk of mine.

Say that an author published four mystery novels and then disappeared into the depths of history.  I wouldn’t pay any mind to whether I was reading their first, third, or last novel.  But now let’s say that author published 30+ novels…  Well, the first few were obviously them finding their voice so they couldn’t be any good… right?

I had that sort of assumption in my head when I approached John Dickson Carr’s first novel, It Walks By Night.  In reading it, I was absolutely shocked that his prose were as rich as ever, his plotting much the same, and his impossibilities as crafty as they come.  Of course, it seemed silly in retrospect – it’s not like Carr dragged his knuckles through several volumes of garbage before he hit pay dirt.  That isn’t to say that he didn’t evolve over time, but even his earliest work featured that spark that I knew and loved in his wider library.

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After the Funeral – Agatha Christie (1953)

AfterTheFuneral“It begins, all this, at a funeral.  Or rather, to be exact, after the funeral.”

At its heart, After the Funeral (alternatively published as Funerals are Fatal) is a story of England in transitioning times.  The war has led to changes in all layers of society.  Not just has the very upper crust seen their standing buckle in light of post war regulations, but those impacts have rippled to the staff or even the pre-war business owner in town.  Christie has a knack for telling this sort of story.  It’s not just the lord of the manor lamenting that he can’t find a good help anymore, but also the manor’s trained butler questioning his own place in a changing society.

Of course, After the Funeral also features a murder, and a damn fine one.  The story unfolds after the natural death of Richard Abernethie – your typical rich corpse surrounded by a family pecking for his inheritance.  At his funeral party, socially awkward Aunt Cora remarks to everyone’s horror – “But he was murdered, wasn’t he?”  Twenty four hours later and Cora is occupying a coffin – her head nearly severed by an axe.

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A Murder is Announced – Agatha Christie (1950)

MurderIsAnnouncedIf there’s a better village mystery than A Murder is Announced, please tell me so I can scramble to read it.  Admittedly, I haven’t read many of these, so that statement might come across as hopelessly naive.  I don’t mind – all I know is that this one provided everything I was looking for.

I’ve enjoyed my nascent reading of Agatha Christie so far.  When picking my least favorite novel has me scratching my head between The Hollow and Cards on the Table, you know I’ve been having a good run.  That run keeps going with Murder is Announced.  It doesn’t pack an emotional punch that’s going to stay with me like Murder in Retrospect, but this may be the most fun I’ve had with Christie so far.

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Cards on the Table – Agatha Christie (1936)

CardsOnTheTableFour suspected murderers sit around a table playing bridge.  Nearby, four of Christie’s greatest detective minds sit embroiled in their own game.  The play is interrupted by a gruesome discovery – the body of the party’s host, stabbed through the heart.  Despite the murder occurring in full view of a room of players, nobody can describe how it happened.

Sounds like a dream come true, right?  There’s almost an element of John Dickson Carr’s The Problem of the Green Capsule or Seeing is Believing, in that a murder is pulled off in front of a room full of spectators.  In this case though, it wasn’t quite a captive audience – the players were paying too close attention to their cards.  It’s still  a perplexing puzzle – how did the killer slip away from the game and dispatch the host without being observed?

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Death Comes as the End – Agatha Christie (1945)

DeathComesAsTheEnd2The phrase “historical mystery” instantly brings to mind John Dickson Carr.  The author shifted his focus from contemporary Golden Age mysteries starting with The Bride of Newgate (1950) and contributed heavily to the sub-genre up until his final novel – The Hungry Goblin.  His historical works cover ground between the seventeenth century (The Devil in Velvet) up until the time of his own birth (The Witch of the Low Tide) and I’ve seen several comments claiming that he basically created the historical mystery.

Or does Agatha Christie hold that title?  Death Comes as the End, published in 1945, came out five years before The Bride of Newgate.  Set in ancient Egypt, the tale of death stalking a high priest’s family certainly checks the boxes for historical and mystery.  It’s worth mentioning though that Carr had two prior historical works – the non-fiction The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey (1936) and Devil Kinsmere (1934), although I haven’t read the later and I’m not certain that it qualifies as a mystery.

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The Hollow – Agatha Christie (1946)

TheHollowMy last encounter with Agatha Christie, Five Little Pigs (Murder in Retrospect), really stuck with me.  There was something that she captured between those pages that my mind couldn’t leave alone – the tragedy of it all.  It’s been several months, and yet my thoughts continually drift back to the characters, the setting, and paint drying on a canvas.

It’s a rare thing for me to really be impacted by a mystery book.  Christianna Brand has a certain knack for it – creating a cast of characters so richly painted that it becomes anguishing in the end when one of them is revealed to be a killer.  John Dickson Carr was less effective at it, but he had his moment with books like He Who Whispers and She Died a Lady – titles in which some element of the story pulls at the mind long after the book is set down.

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