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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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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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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Murder in Retrospect – Agatha Christie (1942)

Five Little Pigs

MurderInRetrospectI was dead set on reading this book under it’s original title – Five Little Pigs.  It’s an odd enough title that it always caught my interest.  But I’m a creature of some convenience and thrift, and so when I realized that I already had access to the story under its US release as Murder in Retrospect, I had to succumb to practicality.

What a dry title though – Murder in Retrospect.  At least, that’s what I thought as I initially started to turn the pages.  I’ll tell you this though – upon completing this 1942 Poirot novel, I can see no name more fitting.

That’s what it is after all – a murder in retrospect.  Poirot is approached by a young woman with the request that he investigate a murder that occurred 16 years in the past.  Her mother, Caroline Crale, was convicted of the murder of her father Amyas, a well renowned painter.  Although Caroline died in prison, she left a note to her daughter proclaiming her innocence.  Poirot is intrigued enough by the case to take it up, drawn in by the prospect of solving a mystery without ever being able to glimpse the crime scene.

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Death on the Nile – Agatha Christie (1937)

DeathOnTheNile2Is there even a point to reviewing an Agatha Christie novel?  I mean, there must be books about books about Christie reviews.  My comments wouldn’t even by footnotes in a footnote.  Still, half the fun of reading for me takes place after the book is finished – the discussions that ensue and the insights shared by my fellow GAD enthusiasts.

In this case, I’ve completed my first Agatha Christie book, which feels like an embarrassing admission to make in this sort of forum.  Oh well.  I started my journey with John Dickson Carr and locked room mysteries, and if I spread my wings a little late in life, so be it.  I don’t mind doing it in the open.

A little research into which Christie book to start with has led me down a somewhat obvious path – Death on the Nile.  Yes, I suppose that And Then There Were None or Murder on the Orient Express would have been a bit more obvious – at least in the US, theses are the two titles that anyone on the street would associate with the author.  I spoiled the former by watching the recent movie adaptation, and the later seems like the conventional hit that I might save for later.  Death on the Nile was the middle ground – it shows up on pretty much everyone’s “best of Christie” list, plus Brad at Ah Sweet Mystery listed it as one of his “five Christies to read before they’re spoiled for you”.

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