POST #400: Christie Community Service

This is my 400th post. I wasn’t sure I’d make it over the past year (which has seemed like 400 years). The question is: what do I write about? For a brief instant, I thought I would wax reflective about my current life, but you really don’t want to hear about it. (No, really. You don’t.) And then I thought, hey, it’s a celebration! Why don’t I write about Agatha Christie?

For, you see, way back in December, after I had posted a review of Mark Aldridge’s book on Poirot, I made a sort of vow to myself: I didn’t want to be the guy who always writes about Christie, and I thought I’d “cool it” with the Queen of Crime for a while. This decision felt even more justified after I had the wonderful experience yet again of chatting with JJ and Moira about The Murder of Roger Ackroyd for JJ’s podcast In Gad We Trust, and someone posted this in the comments: 

I am really disappointed to see that the Spoiler Warning series has turned exclusively Christie. Nothing against her but I feel that all of her books have already been discussed to death. Seriously, you can find thousands of reviews of all the books in your list online. I know that these podcasts are just for fun but it does seem a bit pointless going over all that again.”

Eager as I am to please others, I felt bad about this for a minute and a half and, aside from posting links here to JJ’s podcasts about Ackroyd and Cards on the Table, I have focused mostly on films, plus a few other authors. But as I said, this is my 400th post, and a guy gets to do what he wants to after he’s made this kind of journey. The only question is: what do I write about? 

The answer sprang, as it often does, from the thoughts of another fan, this time on one of the many pages about Christie to which I subscribe on Facebook. I intend no disrespect here, but this comment was personally gut-wrenching:

Firstly I have to say I love all things Poirot (but only when he is played by Suchet). I also like to watch the Miss Marple series (again only when played by Geraldine McEwan or Julia McKenzie). I have never, ever read an Agatha Christie book, I am ashamed to say. which would be the best one to start with? I do realize that it will be totally different to the TV series and am hoping not to be too disappointed.

“My dear boy . . . “

I could spend an entire post deconstructing this one. I could worry that the writer has missed out on some wonderful adaptations of Christie by focusing exclusively on Suchet. Or that they have made a terrible mistake in ignoring Miss Joan Hickson, the truly best Miss Marple. But let’s get to the crux of this, something that was hammered home to me a few years ago, again by Mark Aldridge, on the very first page of his book, Agatha Christie on Screen

. . . many people’s first experience of Agatha Christie is not through her original texts, but through adaptations of her work for film and television. Indeed, while I was writing this book, several acquaintances have declared themselves to be fans of Christie, only to confess later that they have actually never read a single one of her published works. While I would always advocate that any fan of the screen adaptations should at least try some of Christie’s books, I would not be so dismissive as to suggest that they cannot be ‘fans’ without having experienced the original, as the world of Agatha Christie is so much bigger than the published stories.

To paraphrase Mr. Kipling, “You’re a better man than I am, Mark Aldridge.” Look, I’m not totally heartless: I myself came to Christie through a babysitter telling me a bedtime story about ten people trapped on an island by an insane killer. (My babysitter was cool!) At least half the team over at the hit podcast All About Agatha watched some of the adaptations on Masterpiece Mystery with her mother before she picked up a single book, I believe. 

One thing Mark is totally correct about, at least as implied by his discoveries, is that the only way to talk to the speaker above is to eschew any judgments and simply make suggestions of books she should read. Then it’s up to her to figure out that the books are better, that coming to Christie through her books is almost always better than starting with the adaptations, and that if she approaches reading a book with the fervent wish that she will not be “too disappointed,” she is missing the point and needs to be punished. Er, I mean . . . well . . . . . . oh, never mind.

It turns out after several tries that it’s very very very very very hard for me to come up with a suggestion of what one’s first Christie should be. If this person has watched all the Suchet adaptations and every episode of Agatha Christie’s Marple, what do I say to them? Do I advise them to pick one of their favorite episodes and read that book? Do I pick one of the more excecrable adaptations and casually suggest they let Christie herself show them how it ought to be done? Or, like most people, do I simply point to my favorites – either my top ten (which has already changed) or some of the others that I most enjoy – and make those recommendations? 

I actually got over halfway through assessing every one of Christie’s books as a potential first read when I stopped and thought, “This is getting onto 10,000 words, Bradley. Why are you torturing these people?” And so, for my 400th post, I am performing a community service of 1) not posting that uber-post, and 2) offering a few thoughts that you can share with those neophytes in your lives who ask you, “Who is this Aretha Kirstie? Is she worth reading? Which one should I read?” Feel free to needlepoint these suggestions on a fluffy pillow, find your friend, and place the pillow firmly over their face.

“Proceed, mon ami.”

BRAD’S EIGHT HELPFUL SUGGESTIONS FOR SELECTING YOUR FIRST CHRISTIE

Tell your friend not to choose one of Christie’s thrillers . . . unless they only like thrillers. This is where you should realize that you have selected a bad friend, at least when it comes to taste in books. After you have tried steering them to writers of better thrillers, I suppose you should recommend Endless Night as it’s a pretty good psychological thriller (surprisingly good considering Christie’s age at the time of writing it). If they demand a conspiracy thriller, give them Passenger to Frankfurt, and after they have fallen asleep on page 13, firmly place the pillow over their face . . . 

Let’s say your friend prefaces their request for a suggestion with the following: “Look, buddy, I know you think she’s great, but don’t try to lure me down the path where I’ll read a lot of dusty old mysteries by some long-dead lady. I wanna read one and only one of her books, so what’s it gonna be?” At this point, your recommendation should be And Then There Were NoneEveryone should read this book whether they like mysteries or not. Cultural literacy expert E. D. Hirsch included ATTWN in his book on what all civilized people should know. I believe it was the only murder mystery included. It is certainly one of the best ever written.

If your friend tells you they only like mysteries solved by a romantically linked couple, then you’ve got a problem. Tommy and Tuppence Beresford are perfectly charming, but none of the four novels featuring them constitute anything approaching Christie’s best. If your friend is adamant, it’s best to read the books in order, starting with The Secret Adversary and including the short story collection Partners in Crime (probably the best book featuring the couple.) The best novel is N or M, but that’s not saying much, in terms of all the best features Christie possesses in terms of plotting and clueing and puzzle-making. I mean, the person who reads a mystery solely for the the detective is either a Sherlock Holmes fan or a fool. 

Do not recommend any of the books from the 1960’s – 70’s as a first read. All of them, even the best ones, are weaker than anything she wrote before. Even if your own favorite Christie is Elephants Can Remember (who are you???), do not recommend this to your friend for the simple reason that people must be better to their friends than they are to themselves. The exception to the rule of a weak final decade is Curtainbut this should never be recommended as a first read, and if you don’t understand why, then come, sit closer to me, I have an embroidered pillow I’d like to show you . . . 

The Rule of Ratner. If I get this wrong, then you will find a comment below, possibly of inordinate length, because Scott K. Ratner knows whereof he speaks about Christie, possibly more than any of my other online mystery-loving friends who have not written a Christie-centered book (but have written a Christie-centered play) and he will explain just how I got this wrong. If I recall my conversations with Scott correctly, he knows that certain Christie titles can be considered extra special by way of their especially twisty or original solutions and that this would not necessarily be the way to start with her. That would probably mean not recommending The Murder of Roger AckroydMurder on the Orient Express, or Crooked House. This leaves plenty of titles with juicy surprise endings, but these three are rather special for reasons well-known to those of us who aren’t foolish enough to find ourselves in the predicament at our age of picking our first Christie. Scott might have other titles he suggests – or he may simply (but kindly, Scott, kindly) say that I have misrepresented him. We’ll see if he comments below . . . 

Generally speaking, if your friend is most interested in Christie as a puzzle-plotter, the most fruitful offerings would be found in the 1930’s. The best suggestions here feature Hercule Poirot. (And so, it seems, do the worst!) If you tried to pin me down to one title, I would recommend Death on the Nile. Is it one of the longer books? Yes. Are there too many characters? Arguably, yes . . . but I disagree. This is the best of her foreign travel books and, as Robin Stevens recently revealed on an episode of Shedunnit, the fateful cruise taken aboard the S.S. Karnak can no longer be done on the modern Nile. It’s one of the first of Christie’s books to make you feel as much as you think, but it also has a beautifully clued puzzle at its core. 

If your friend would rather read a title that combines puzzle with heart, then you should peruse the titles from the 1940’s. There’s something for every taste here: courtroom drama (Sad Cypress), historical mystery (Death Comes as the End), post-war family tragedy (Taken at the FloodCrooked House). There’s The Hollow, one of my very favorite of her books, and there’s Five Little Pigs, another favorite and arguably her best novel. In both of these titles, Christie provides some of the best character work of her career, powerful themes, and a devastating finale. Oh, and Pigs has a great puzzle as well. 

If your friend is looking for something more light-hearted, even funny, then look to the 1950’s and Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Christie’s funniest book. The second title of this decade featuring Miss Marple is A Pocketful of Rye, which contains an amusing family that feels almost like a pastiche of a classic mystery clan. The detecting is not very good, but the ending is quite moving. Although the second half of this decade would make a swift decline in the quality of Christie’s plotting, my favorite Miss Marple and my favorite Poirot can be found here. Nobody could do better with a first read than A Murder Is Announced or After the Funeral

*.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *

Out of the eight points above, you will find eight suggestions for a first read, all depending on your (or your friend’s) taste and goals.  Here is that list, in order of publication:

The Secret Adversary (1922)

Death on the Nile (1937)

And Then There Were None (1939)

Five Little Pigs (1942)

The Hollow (1946)

A Murder Is Announced (1950)

Mrs. McGinty’s Dead (1952)

After the Funeral (1953)

As I mentioned, I tried writing up a pros/cons list for every title. Here are the entries for the seven books listed above, in case you would like more information: 

The Secret Adversary (1922)

Why it should be your first: 

This is the perfect first book if you come to Christie looking for 1) a detective team, preferably one that is both romantically and professionally involved with each other (and that is exactly who Tommy Beresford and Prudence” Tuppence” Cowley are; 2) a strong sense of chronology where the sleuths advance both in years and experience (in which case, your next four reads will be Partners in Crime, which is actually a collection of short stories loosely linked together, N or M?By the Pricking of My Thumbs, and finally Postern of Fate; and 3) you prefer mysteries that are light on clueing and heavy on spies, crooks, and madcap adventures mixed with a dash of romance. 

Why it should not be your first:

While all of this is perfectly charming (or tiresomely dated, if your taste doesn’t run to this sort of thing), this does not represent what Christie did best. It is lacking in suspects, twists, and clues, at least in the way a traditional mystery works. I do like Tommy and Tuppence, and they are the only characters in the canon who age is a relatively realistic way. Unfortunately, their last two adventures are weak, and casual readers should definitely avoid Postern of Fate

Death on the Nile (1937)

Why it should be your first: 

This is iconic Christie, her best travel book, and the most expert use of a trick that she employs in various ways throughout her career. It is one of her most romantic books as well: the central triangle at the heart of the mystery is fabulous, and the lengthy passenger list provides a wide range of romantic and domestic entanglements, enough to create a soap opera. (A soap of DotN? That is a delicious idea!) A personal favorite of mine and many other fans, it also inspired (so far) three film adaptations, one of which is due out next year. 

Why it should not be your first:

Apart from the idea of saving the best for last, if that’s your thing, the build-up to this one is slower than most, due to the wonderful evocation of the setting and the roll-out of an especially large cast of suspects. For me, these are good things, but only you can know how those elements would strike you.

And Then There Were None (1939)

Why it should be your first: 

Forget about Christie – if you decide you are only going to read one mystery in your entire life, it should be this one. It isn’t like anything you will find in the 20’s or 30’s, although there are hints of its genius. And while she would never write anything very much like it again, Christie’s career took a definite turn from this classic into the 40’s. Oh, and it’s the first of her books I ever read at the tender age of 11. Do you want to make something of it?

This book is so many things: a whodunnit, sure, although not a typically clued one and it’s missing a detective until the very end; a brilliant psychological treatise on guilt and punishment; a horror story; and, oddly enough, a wartime comedy of manners, although I don’t believe WWII is mentioned once. It’s one of the best-selling books of all time and one of the world’s best mystery novels.

Why it should not be your first:

If you or your friend are looking for a “typical” Christie to start you off, this is not that book. However, in all fairness, Agatha was not a “programmed” author like, say, Ngaio Marsh. Her cleverness clearly shines through here, even if the novel is not clued in the same way most of her other whodunnits are. 

Five Little Pigs (aka Murder in Retrospect) (1942)

Why it should be your first: 

The best of her novels of “murder in retrospect: has Poirot investigating a 16-year-old murder to find out if the now-deceased woman convicted of the killing was actually innocent, as she claimed. This is the best novel of the 1940’s; I would hazard a guess that it can be found in the top five of most Christie fans’ list of favorites. It’s beautifully plotted and characterized and contains the most emotionally devastating ending in the canon.

Why it should not be your first:

It’s not that this one isn’t a great puzzle mystery, believe me, because it is. Personally, however, I would get a few more standard titles under my belt before attacking this one. If, however, your taste in mysteries has been mostly engendered by the modern age of character-driven stories, this may be the one for you. 

The Hollow (1946)

Why it should be your first: 

In some ways, I see this one as a companion piece to Five Little Pigs: strong setting, vibrant, appealing cast of characters (even the victim is complex and attractive), similar themes appearing in both. The earlier book has a better-clued mystery and more significant use of Poirot, but The Hollow also resides in my top ten, one of the few of Christie’s books that I would not call “iconic,” merely great. 

Why it should not be your first:

Just as it is light on Poirot, it is light on clues. Not that they aren’t there, but this one is more a battle of wits between the detective and his adversaries. People have argued for years as to whether Poirot should have even been included; even Christie asked herself that question and eliminated the sleuth from the play version. (I am on the side of those who think Poirot’s presence enhances the book.) The Hollow eschews all the “murder in the past” business of Pigs, which some would say makes this one more interesting. Both titles save their most powerful emotional punch for the final page. Great book, great choice.

A Murder Is Announced (1950)

Why it should be your first: 

This is easily the best-clued of the Miss Marple novels. All too often she discovers the solution through divine guidance (she calls it a knowledge of village life), but here she actually makes a list of the things that led her to the truth, and they’re all wonderful. The characters are delightful, and the portrait of post-war village life and the plight of middle-aged and elderly women is beautifully rendered. Only The Moving Finger has a better depiction of a British village, and Miss Marple doesn’t appear in that one until ¾ of the way through. This is arguably the best Miss Marple mystery. 

Why it should not be your first:

There are admittedly elements here that stretch the limits of disbelief, but what classic mystery doesn’t go there, even a little bit? Still, if you like things a bit more, shall we say, realistic, I refer you to The Moving Finger

I will also suggest that one of the great qualities of this book is its ruminations on changing mores in post-war England, and most specifically the plight of older, unmarried women. In short, we’re seeing a change in the life of Miss Marple and her society, so reading this would be like skipping the Victorian Age section of The Forsyte Saga and going straight to the Roaring 20’s!

Mrs. McGinty’s Dead (1952)

Why it should be your first: 

I suppose every prolific mystery author includes one “race against time before the wrongly convicted man gets hung” storyline. Here is Christie’s, and it has so much to recommend it! It takes Poirot out of his element and plops him in an incompetently run boarding house in a village. His research leads to some interesting developments that allow Christie to exercise her fascination with true crime cases, many of which had inspired her and her fellow authors in their fiction. Best of all, the novel is hilarious, both due to Poirot’s surroundings and to the presence of Mrs. Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s alter ego, who has arrived to collaborate on a stage adaptation of one of her own mystery novels. Pure comic gold!

Why it should not be your first:

It’s not her best clued, but it’s well clued enough. I believe the person who comes upon this book having read Cards on the Table first will enjoy this one more; having some back story under your belt is always a good thing. 

After the Funeral (aka Funerals Are Fatal) (1953)

Why it should be your first: 

The Abernethies are a wonderfully dysfunctional family, and the generation gap we see here is quite amusing. The set-up is marvelous: at the patriarch’s funeral, the batty old aunt blurts out that he was murdered, setting up a well-crafted spin of events. Great clues, great murderer, great motive. Hercule Poirot doesn’t come into this one until late, but his “disguise” as a foreigner is a nice dig at English prejudices for once. It’s easily one of my favorite Christies.

Why it should not be your first:

Honestly, if you tied me down and pressed me to name ONE title as a first read, then this would probably be it. 

*.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *

Finally, just because I wrote so many of these, I’m going to offer you nine more titles, with pros and cons attached. This should satisfy that poor, sad lady on the Facebook page (except she’s never going to see this because I’m not that mean.)

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926)

Why it should be your first: 

It’s easily the best Christie of the 20’s and a recognized classic, both for the author and in the annals of classic crime fiction. The reasons for this will not be laid out here. Suffice it to say that this is a solid village mystery featuring Hercule Poirot – in retirement! His own version of beekeeping is amusing, but one can barely blink before he’s back in the saddle, solving a neighbor’s murder. The characters may be “types,” a common characteristic of the decade, but they are still well drawn, especially the book’s narrator and his sister. 

Why it should not be your first:

With an author as successful and prolific as Christie, it’s not surprising that there are a handful of books that stand out as epitomizing how beautifully the author parades her tricks. The Rule of Ratner asks you to exercise caution before sending your neophyte friend off with this title. I understand this sentiment, but my first two Christies were from this list (although I did not know it at the time), and the jaw-dropping effect they had on me made me a fan for life. Your choice . . . 

The Murder at the Vicarage (1930)

Why it should be your first: 

This is the first novel to feature Miss Jane Marple, perhaps the best “little-old-lady detective” ever created. If you like your sleuths both spinsterish and intuitive, and/or if you prefer a village mystery to one set in town, Miss Marple may be more to your taste than Poirot. She appeared in twelve novels, and none of them sink to the depths of a few of the very last Poirots. Plus, she evolves more definitely than Poirot does – or, at least, she is more cognizant and philosophical of the changes being wrought in the world around her. 

Plus, as village mysteries go, this one is excellent, both for the case itself of the much-hated town squire being murdered in the vicarage study to the wonderful assortment of characters. Among the best of these are the vicar himself, who provides perhaps the most charming narration of any first-person Christie, and his beautiful young bride Griselda. 

Why it should not be your first:

It’s a little over-long with a few too many half-developed red herrings. I would also say that this book makes for fascinating comparisons with The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Christie’s first book and the debut of Poirot, both in terms of plot and Christie’s growth as an author over ten years. That would mean that you should probably read Styles first. 

Peril at End House (1932)

Why it should be your first: 

This is the fifth case for Hercule Poirot and could be the best of them all up till now. The seaside locale is wonderfully rendered, and the damsel-in-distress whom Poirot comes to rescue is a classic female character. Also, Poirot and Hastings are cooking on all cylinders together here, which is pretty much true in all the books they share in the 30’s. The clues are expertly placed, and Poirot’s deductions will make you kick yourself if you haven’t spotted their meaning before he does. 

Why it should not be your first:

It’s actually a good choice for first Christie. Some readers with a high instinct for these things may figure the problem out earlier than most, but it is a delightful ride from start to finish.

Murder on the Orient Express (aka Murder in the Calais Coach) (1934)

Why it should be your first: 

Well, it was my first Poirot (and my second Christie), and made a lifelong fan. This is one of Christie’s most famous titles, a technical masterpiece that manages to hit you in the emotional gut. It has been made into a film three times; therefore, it might behoove you to read it before you find yourself spoiling the whole thing while looking for a mystery to watch on Amazon Prime. It’s also one of Christie’s best travel books: the cast is a panoply of international travelers, and the train is a character in itself.

Why it should not be your first:

Books that twist as deeply as this one does are not typical mysteries, and you might find yourself expecting similar high-grade tricks from Christie every time and being disappointed. Some people find the investigation of such a large cast of characters a bit grueling (there are a LOT of witness interviews, but I think the witnesses are varied enough to make these interesting.)

The A.B.C. Murders (1936)

Why it should be your first: 

Christie centered her plots around a serial killer only half a dozen times, but these titles are always special. Here we have easily one of the best, and the culprit’s decision to match wits with Hercule Poirot ratchets up the suspense throughout. In some ways, this is not a typical Christie whodunnit, and yet it is still a remarkable novel of detection, full of twists, and easily ranks as one of her best. Plus, there’s lots of physical action here, just in case you don’t want your first taste of Christie to be too focused on the cerebral.

Why it should not be your first:

Some people complain about Christie’s more complex narrative structure here: most of the book is narrated by Hastings, but some chapters are not. I think this makes the book even more intriguing. After you read it, seek out the 1965 film adaptation The Alphabet Murders, which was my introduction to the novel. Then you should watch Sarah Phelps’ 2018 interpretation. After you have watched both, you will understand why those who view Christie before they read her are doomed to disappointment.

Evil Under the Sun (1941)

Why it should be your first: 

After the back to back sea change of And Then There Were None and Sad Cypress, signaling a new depth in the 1940’s books, we veer  back into clear ‘30’s puzzle territory, in a wonderful setting with great characters. I Poirot takes a vacation to a coastal hotel in Devon where, of course, he encounters murder. The red herrings are as delightful as the true murder plot. even love the minor characters who provide color, hilarious commentary, and even one or two vital clues. This would be an exemplary title to read first. 

Why it should not be your first:

There’s an earlier mystery that utilizes pretty much the same trick and is an even better book. However, since I’m offering no spoilers here, you’re going to have to take your chances as to which you read first. (Send me a message if you’re intrigued and want me to choose for you; I warn you, I’m going to choose the other title.) P.S. the 1981 film based on this novel is delightful, and yet it camps everything up, while the David Suchet version makes some unaccountable changes to the cast list. I strongly encourage you to read the book first. 

The Body in the Library (1942)

Why it should be your first: 

It took twelve years for Christie to return to Miss Marple, and it’s worth the wait. Given the tired old trope that the title represents, this is a lively and modern mystery that makes wonderful use of the denizens of St. Mary Mead (Miss Marple’s home) and contrasts them with more “modern world” shenanigans. Miss Marple is a more intuitive sleuth than Poirot, and that can make her deductions feel like they derive from divine influence. Here, she actually has some clues to work with, and she makes good use of them. 

Why it should not be your first:

Miss Marple operates in a more realistic universe than Hercule Poirot in that the satellite of characters around her advance in their own lives. Thus, if you have already read the short story collection, The Thirteen Problems, which introduced Miss Marple to the world, followed by The Murder at the Vicarage, you will enjoy this book even more for the sense of revisiting a group of old friends. Other than that, this is a great choice.

The Moving Finger (1943)

Why it should be your first: 

This is one of Christie’s very best village mysteries, populated by a highly interesting assortment of people. It’s main characters are a recovering war vet and his sophisticated sister, and for once in a Christie the romantic aspects of the story take center stage without distracting. Miss Marple swoops in toward the end and manages to solve multiple mysteries around two deaths and a plague of poison pen letters. 

Why it should not be your first:

Some folks posit that Christie’s last-minute addition of Miss Marple is confusing to her fans. If you’re coming to the author for this detective, I’d start with A Murder Is Announced  or The Body in the Library before you get to this one.

 Crooked House (1949)

Why it should be your first: 

This is definitely one of the iconic Christies and is arguably one of the top three stand-alones. For once, romance plays a major and interesting role: first, we have a protagonist who must solve the murder of a family patriarch in order to win his true love. And then there’s the marriage of the victim to a much younger woman that foments so much discord in his large family. Is she a saint or a sinner? It all leads to one of the more memorable endings of a Christie novel.

Why it should not be your first:

Some consider this the final book in Christie’s “Golden Age,” which may make you feel like you’re working backwards through the canon. Other than that, or putting aside the concept of saving the best ones for later, go ahead and read this one. 

Tres bien, cher Bradley! Vous êtes formidable!”

My 400th post is done. On to other matters . . . (as always, though, your comments are much appreciated. Yours, too, Ratner!)