You probably have heard of the phrase “A Christie for Christmas,” but I lived through it, at least through some of my most formative years. Beginning in 1968 with By the Pricking of My Thumbs, my late, beloved Aunt Rosalie presented “A Christie for Bradley” on my birthday (December 16) in the form of a hardcover copy of the Queen of Crime’s latest. It was always my favorite gift!
The phrase had actually been in use since the late 1940’s, when Agatha Christie eased up on the publication of multiple titles each year. Issues of taxation might have figured into this: the bigger she got and the more books she sold on both sides of the Atlantic, the more dire her financial straits became with the British and American Internal Revenue. Then there were the plays – ten major productions between 1944 and 1958 – that she took time and enjoyment in creating and helping to nurture to production. And, of course, there was the issue of . . . why work so hard?
While I’m often accused of focusing too much attention on Dame Agatha, I haven’t put up a Christie-centric since July! Now that the holidays are upon us, it behooves me to provide you with a service, using the benefit of my obsession with knowledge of my favorite author to offer gift suggestions for the Christie nut in your family. And if that nut happens to be your own good self, then by all means feel free to add my suggestions to the list you provide your own circle of gift-givers.
Now I could just give you the usual patter about “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding,” but I’m going to exercise my little grey cells a bit more than that here. You might ask . . . why work so hard? Believe me, my friends, the chance to talk about Agatha Christie novels that might not get talked about as much as they deserve is no heavy labor for me. In fact, why not make things even more challenging? I’m going to align my suggestions with that funnest of fun holiday songs, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Of course, as I have researched the song, it turns out to have more layers in it than I thought, and trying to link certain Christies to a particular verse has been a bit like attempting one of my friend Countdown John’s cryptic crossword puzzles. Still, I’m always up for a huge intellectual challenge. (Translation: it’s a rainy Sunday, and I’ve got nothing better to do.)
Rest assured that even if you find the connection between a title and it’s corresponding verse a little wonky, any book in this collection is a surefire crowd-pleaser for that shopping-weary parent whose brood of six young ‘uns is crying, “More Christie, mama! More! More!” Okay . . . . Donder! Blitzen! Let’s start dashing through that snow!
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On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me a partridge in a pear tree . . .
Although not set at Christmas, the final Poirot novel has a wintry quality to it, a sense of finality and the end of things. After many years of separation, Captain Hasting, now a widower and a father is reunited with his old friend. And, for the first time in the canon, Poirot seems really old, confined to a wheelchair and robbed of his health and vitality; yet, his mind remains as sharp as ever.
They reunite at Styles Court, the scene of their first case together, now transformed from a private home to a hotel. Very quickly, Poirot reveals that he is on a busman’s holiday: a serial killer, referred to only as X, is present among the gathered company. Poirot knows who X is, but he hasn’t figured out how to prove this or how to stop the killer from striking again. Hastings is eager to help, but the situation is complicated by the presence of his own daughter Judith, whose personal troubles lead Hastings to a drastic act. And he’s not the only one who will behave this way before the novel is through.
In the song, the “partridge in a pear tree” is said to represent Jesus on the Cross, sacrificing himself for the sins of his people. Similarly, a mother partridge acts in defense of her young, even if it causes her own death. While characters in murder mysteries tend to behave selfishly – that’s how even good people become suspects – in Curtain, we find a dramatic sacrifice that seems to me to fit perfectly within the song’s context.
Perhaps because it was written in the early 40’s and not published until the end of Christie’s life, in style Curtain reads like one of her late 20’s/early 30’s books. The richer characterization that blossomed in her wartime novels is missing, but there is still much to savor. Curtain contains one of the most interesting raisons d’etres for a serial killer that I’ve found in my experience of reading such novels, and this makes for a most original sort of interplay between the guests and staff at Styles. Most of all, though, one savors the poignancy of this final meeting between two long beloved fictional characters. In that sense, Curtain is a devastating read, one I would gently suggest you approach after having a lot of Christie under your belt. Of all the “Christies for Christmas” that I received in real time from Aunt Rosalie, this is the one true classic title to savor.
On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me two turtledoves . . .
N or M (1941)
Turtledoves mate for life and raise their young together. And where in all of the mystery genre can you find a more devoted pair than Tommy and Tuppence Beresford? Through four novels and a wonderful set of loosely connected short stories, Christie presents the full lives of a pair of childhood friends who, after bumping into each other at the end of World War I, become workmates, then sweethearts. Tommy’s outright heroism on the battlefield gives way to secret government work, while Tuppence, in the manner of Lucy Ricardo, butts in on her husband’s job, lands in hot water, and then usually saves the day. Or, at least, she figures everything out, then lands in hot water and it is Tommy who saves the day.
There’s a bit of young Agatha in Tuppence, especially in the fact that they both worked as nurses’ aides during the war and married soldiers. I sometimes wonder if Agatha’s marriage to Archie would have survived had he only been more like Tommy Beresford, disarmingly ugly rather than gorgeous, faithful to the core rather than . . . well, let’s move on.
N or M is not only the best novel featuring the Beresfords, it’s one of the only books Christie wrote during this period that deals head on with the social/political situation in which England found itself during the war. Tommy and Tuppence are also the only characters Christie wrote in a sort of real time, so here, twenty years after they were introduced to readers, these middle-aged turtledoves are chafing at the bit to feel useful in a world that has deemed them extraneous. Even their two children – who should be teenagers but have been SOROSed into full-fledged adults engaged in important war work – think that Mum and Dad are old.
Enter a secret agent named Grant who offers Tommy a chance at some undercover work. Two German agents, a man known as “M” and a woman known as “N,” have infiltrated British society and are trying to steal our secrets. All that is known is that one or both of them seem to be a part of the entourage hanging about Sans Souci, one of the many seaside boarding houses where Londoners have gone to wait out the war. Tommy is dispatched in disguise as a retired soldier to see what he can discover, while Tuppence is left behind.
But not for long.
The chief joy of N or M is watching the couple’s patriotic fervor fully unleashed as they investigate the guests and hangers-on at Sans Souci, even bringing their old faithful servant Albert into the fray. There’s something wonderfully (or terribly, depending on your taste) old-fashioned about the Tommy and Tuppence books: some of the fixes they get into were creaky when Edgar Wallace employed them. But the humor that Christie, now over fifty herself, imbues into the story as she demonstrates how every Britisher, even a middle-aged woman, is of value in the war effort makes this one an incredibly fun, if not overly puzzling, read.
On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me three French hens . . .
Death on the Nile (1937)
It is one of Christie’s finest puzzles, her best foreign travel mystery, and perhaps her most romantic book. It is epic, both in size (thirty pages longer than the average-sized Christie of the day) and in scope (two detectives, three victims, sixteen suspects, plus a host of well-drawn minor characters that span half the globe). It is such a jam-packed book that both film adaptations – and, I imagine, the one due out next spring – had to jettison characters right and left. And yet, the story is so strong and the setting and tone so rich that, even incomplete, both films can’t help but benefit from the novel’s greatness.
The three hens of the song symbolize the gifts of faith, hope, and love, and at the core of Death on the Nile lies a bond between a man and a woman brimming with these qualities. It is a bond so strong that it becomes destructive, blasting away friendships and inspiring dark emotions – jealousy, greed, hatred – that lead inevitably to murder. The central triangle between Linnet Ridgeway, Simon Doyle, and Jacqueline de Bellefort that propels the plot is is arguably the best of its kind in all of classic detective fiction.
Their passion plays out thematically against the insipid love stories churned out by novelist Salome Otterbourne, the romantic frustrations of her moody daughter Rosalie, and the lightly comic question of who will win the heart of Cornelia Robson. It’s easy to understand how the question of what constitutes healthy love and an appropriate partner would fascinate Christie herself, as these issues plagued the author through the first half of her life. –
Nile is a beautifully clued mystery, full of romance and intrigue, whose exotic setting will warm you up on a cold winter’s night. (It couldn’t hurt to add a cup of spiced egg nog!)
On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me four calling birds . . .
Cards on the Table (1936)
I’ve been playing quite a lot of online bridge and, to be honest, I’m not a fan. There’s something so much more appealing about facing your partner, your opponents poised to make their contract or block your attempts to make yours. The little bowls of nuts and bridge mix are in the corner, and the exotic-looking gentleman with the exotic-looking dagger jabbed through the nape of his neck is draped in the armchair in the corner, gazing at you with lifeless eyes . . .
Oh, where was I? The four calling birds stand for the four books of the gospel, and I could sift through titles to find guys named Matthew (“In a Glass Darkly”), Mark (The Body in the Library), Luke (Murder Is Easy) and John (The Hollow). But I’ll plump for the tale of the satanic Mr. Shaitana, who likes to collect things like object d’art, exotic weapons . . . and successful murderers. In a drama that is never less than elegant, Shaitana invites four such characters, plus four corresponding sleuths, to one of his famous dinner parties and then proceeds to bait them until his not-so-shocking demise. The subsequent investigations are colored by each sleuths distinctive style, and one false ending follows another until all is finally revealed.
If I were to tell you that a “calling bird” is a slang term for a bridge player bidding his contract . . . well, that would be an utter lie. But it makes for a good story, and Cards on the Table is a delightful story. Plus, anywhere Mrs. Ariadne Oliver goes, she brings the spirit of Christmas with her.
On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me five golden rings . . .
Towards Zero (1944)
“There was only one person in the room and the only sound to be heard was the scratching of that person’s pen as it traced line after line across the paper. There was no one to read the words that were being traced. If there had been, they would hardly have believed their eyes. For what was being written was a clear, carefully detailed project for murder.”
The cover of my own paperback copy of Towards Zero shows a series of concentric rings, surrounding a woman (my God, I’ve never realized before how much this cover . . . well, never mind!), and it provides a nice underscore to the suggestion of this stand-alone whodunnit as a great choice for a Christmas read. Here, Christie operates on the theory that a murder, rather than be the starting point of a story, is truthfully the culmination of many actions and feelings that slowly come together in fateful symmetry. And there truly are a whole slew of things that happen, seemingly without connecting one to the other.
The closed circle that gathers at Gull’s Point on a fateful weekend in September, and the solving of a murder that takes place late in the proceedings there, are the result of a decades-old murder, a tragic death by car, a man’s suicide, the bullying at school of a teenaged girl and enough lovers at cross purposes to fill a season of Dynasty. There’s also some wonderful clueing here and a chilling reveal of the killer that you’ll savor for a long time to come. I’ll admit the final coda is a bit icky (not delightfully gross “icky” but stuck in its time “icky”), but it can’t ruin this richly charactered, well-plotted tale.
A bit spoilerish here, in case you haven’t read it: the weaving together of seemingly irrelevant plot strands into a whole works beautifully. The visit Superintendent Battle makes to his daughter’s school, where the “modern psychology” hijinks of the headmistress are the direct opposite of Miss Bulstrode in Cat Among the Pigeons, seems at first to be a very non-Christie-like sojourn into the personal life of a sleuth . . . until the end, where Silvia Battle’s pain allows her father to solve a fiendish crime. I also love the story Mr. Treves tells about two children playing playing with bows and arrows, the clue Treves tags onto the end of his tale, and the brilliant way Christie reveals the truth of that clue in seemingly innocuous conversation.
On the sixth day of Christmas my true love gave to me six geese a-laying . . .
The Sittaford Mystery (1931)
It took me a little time to offer a snowbound title for your delectation, but the wait was well worth it. There was a time when I tried to read Dickens every Christmas, and Sittaford in many ways is Christie’s nod to the creator of Great Expectations and that epic-novel-about-law-with-a-whodunnit-in-the-middle, Bleak House. Set on the fringes of Dartmoor and its prison, this one is Dickensian in scope, with dozens of characters, escaped prisoners, and more than a tinge of the supernatural.
On a snowy afternoon in the hilltop mansion known as Sittaford House, six geese a-lay-, er, residents sit down for a game of table-turning. To their utter shock, a spirit enters the proceedings and raps out the message that Captain Trevelyan, the house’s owner, who lives down the mountain in the village of Exhampton, has been murdered. His best friend decides to trudge hours through the snow to check on the Captain’s good health, but alas! that good fellow has breathed his last breath!
The story folds out from there and quickly becomes a tale of greedy relatives and a race to save an innocent man. In the best of ways, what seems epic and mysterious becomes intimate and prosaic by the end, with a surprise killer and a creepy motive thrown in for good measure. To my mind, this is the first really good stand-alone mystery Christie wrote, full of atmosphere and good fun. And snow, snow, lots of beautiful snow . . .
On the seventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me seven swans a-swimming . . .
Cat Among the Pigeons (1959)
I should have known when I started this that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” would be full of religious symbolism. Still, this Nice Jewish Boy finds a certain appropriateness in using the tune as a model for my project, seeing that Agatha Christie was, herself, a devout Christian. The Seven Swans represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, as detailed in Romans 12:6 – 8. These gifts are prophesy, service, teaching, encouraging, giving, leadership, and mercy. As a 31-year veteran of the education field, I can’t think of any secular place that imparts these qualities than a school. (Even prophesy, as in “If little Roger Ackroyd doesn’t turn in his answers to Dr. Sheppard, I predict dire tidings on his report card.”)
I’m a sucker for a good academic mystery, and Cat Among the Pigeons is very good, indeed. The motley staff and, especially, the students, are beautifully rendered and provide a perfect balance to Christie’s rare merging of her beloved and often silly thriller elements with a classic puzzle plot. Arguably, Hercule Poirot wasn’t even needed here: I could have been satisfied watching this get solved by schoolgirl detective Julia Upjohn, abetted by the hunky gardener. I also think the relationship Julia has with her globe-trotting mother is an idealized representation of what Christie wished she had had with her own Rosalind, so think on that! Suffice it to say, the novel is fast-paced, amusing, and creates a mystery with lots of questions . . . and quite a few answers. Given the center-stage position of Julia and her friends, I would also suggest that this is a good Christie to give to that bright teenager, brimming with curiosity and good taste, as their first Christie.
On the eighth day of Christmas my true love gave to me eight maids a-milking. . .
Sad Cypress (1940)
I read some interesting stuff about this one. In religious terms, the eight maids represent the Eight Beatitudes that led up to the Sermon on the Mount. These are:
Blessed are the poor in spirit.Blessed are those that mourn.Blessed are the meek.Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.Blessed are the merciful.Blessed are the pure in heart.Blessed are the peacemakers.Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.
Keep these in mind. As we examine things in the more literal sense, the “maids a-milking” are what they are – maidens at work – and the concept of “milking” can refer both to the literal work of a milkmaid and to the man’s courtship of a woman. “Would you like to go a-milking with me?” could indicate a proposal, but it also had a bold sexual connotation that the demure maiden could translate literally into “let’s milk us a cow” and thereby preserve her honor.
Combining these meanings both spiritual and secular and I find myself drawn to Sad Cypress. It really is a book about women and the lengths they must go through to achieve a modicum of respect and comfort in a male-dominated society. Laura Welman lies bedridden in her fine home, working through the options she has to make things right for those she has wronged. Her nurses and her protegee Mary Gerrard work tirelessly for her benefit, and it is Mary, meek, merciful, and pure in heart, who alone mourns when Laura dies.
But this book is mostly about Elinor Carlisle, Laura Welman’s niece. She is working hard, too, to curry her wealthy aunt’s favor, to hold onto her fiancé Roddy, even as his eye strays toward the hapless Mary, to protect her own interests. The idea of “going a-milking” has had a shattering impact on the lives of all three women, and by the mid-point of the novel two of them are dead, and the survivor is on trial for their murders, “persecuted for righteousness’ sake.
To my mind, if Alfred Hitchcock had ever chosen a Christie novel to film, this would have been a good candidate. Ultimately, we have another novel where the well-clued puzzle plays second fiddle to courtroom dramatics and the transformation of its leading character from a girl prone to fits of uncertainty and self-pity to a woman deserving of love. Yes, there are men here, including Poirot in an abbreviated role, but most of them are weaklings. In Sad Cypress, it’s the women who do the heavy milking.
On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me nine ladies dancing . . .
The Hollow (1946)
I have tried to resist turning to my own Top Ten Christies (and boy! that’ll be a challenge for the next number), but bear with me here. First of all, you must admit that the Christmas season is the perfect time to bury oneself in a country house family mystery. And although The Hollow doesn’t have a corpse found under the Christmas tree dressed like Santa, it is appropriate to the season for reasons that will require me now to turn to the Bible.
According to my research, the nine dancing ladies of the song represent the nine fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These are most certainly notthe qualities you expect to fill a house at Murdertime. And yet, this is exactly what you would find if you spent the holiday with the eccentric and delightful Angkatells. The love they feel for one another is incontestable; in fact, the murder and the investigation Hercule Poirot undertakes finds him in conflict with a great big ball of family love. In the Hollow, the sleuth meets a clan that practices kindness toward each other, that shows patience for John Cristow’s follies and his wife Gerda’s thick-headedness, that displays faithfulness – in butler Gudgeon’s loyalty to his mistress or cousin Edward’s feelings toward Henrietta. It’s their self-control that makes the family in toto a worthy adversary to the detective.
I have been known to compare this to Five Little Pigs, which is Christie’s finest Poirot and, therefore, easily one of her best novels. The puzzle there is better, and the pall cast by the murder-in-retrospect trope grips you by the throat and tosses you about until you emerge exhausted on the final page. (In short, it may not be on this list but it is Essential Christie.) What The Hollow shares with that earlier book are themes of fidelity – to love and to art – and of loyalty to family. The clueing in this later book is almost negligible, making it almost a novel with murder in it rather than a straightforward murder mystery. (No wonder people complained of Poirot’s presence!) What is so powerful to me is how Christie twists these themes around in both books, creating in one her most devastating book and in the other something ultimately filled with hope. And that’s what you want to read for Christmas.
On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me ten pipers piping . . .
After the Funeral (1953)
The ten pipers stand for the ten commandments, most of which are broken during the course of my favorite Poirot mystery and another great family tale. People kill, of course, but they also steal, commit adultery, and covet – oh, how they covet! In a few short weeks, JJ will unleash the conversation he, Moira and I had over this book, and I hope you will forgive my panting sounds as I kept getting carried away with my love for this book.
Because of that, I’ll be brief here, merely to whet your whistle: a wonderfully dysfunctional family seems to have problems when they gather together. At the patriarch’s funeral, the daffy aunt announces that the deceased has been murdered. At a subsequent family weekend, the clan sits down, claws unsheathed, to fight over the victim’s possessions. In between, there’s murder, attempted murder, and Hercule Poirot disguised as . . . well, as a foreigner. Add to this amazing clueing, a fabulous murder, and one of the best motives in GAD fiction, all fairly clued (I can’t say it often enough), and you have a delightful read on your hands.
The novels of the 1950’s were lighter in tone than the previous decade, so this one is, first and foremost, a great deal of fun. And fun is what you should have over Christmas, which is why Five Little Pigs did not inhabit the Golden Rings verse (it did in the first draft!), and Ten Little What-Have-Yous is not being discussed at this very moment. They are perhaps Christie’s two best novels, but they are not Christmas fare. I’ll save them for my Valentine’s Day list.
On the eleventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me eleven lords a-leaping . . .
Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938)
Oh, come on, you know you want to.
The eleven lords a-leaping stand for the faithful apostles of Jesus, and I embrace the irony of this metaphor, considering that those gathered at their father’s last supper are (mostly) faithful to anything but him. 1938 was a great year for parents in Christie: here the monstrous patriarch Simeon Lee follows Mrs. “Mommy Dearest” Boynton from Appointment with Death, and he spends the hours leading up to his violent death proving his worth as one of Christie’s greatest bastards.
This is also one of the author’s few forays into the locked room mystery, so it’s the perfect gift for the sullen teenager in your family, who lies about in his room whining that he wants you to buy him a new Carr. The two questions occupying Hercule Poirot this Christmas are 1) if all of Lee’s apostles were busily occupied at the time of his noisy death, how was he killed, and 2) who’s the Judas in this crew?
The answer to that question is perhaps more classic than the book itself, stuffed to the gills as it is with suspects. And while I love the solution, I question the of-its-time creakiness of some of the clues leading there. But there is ONE clue that is the perfect package, and that is the clue of the calendar. That is Christie bestowing one of her greatest gifts upon us.
On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me twelve drummers drumming . . .
Murder on the Orient Express (1934)
The other mystery filled with snow . . . Yes, I know I’ve tried to avoid most of the famous titles, and this one is perhaps even more famous to non-mystery fans than And Then There Were None. But Christmas is a time when we are filled with nostalgia, and I get very nostalgic over this one.
ATTWN was almost preordained to be my first Christie. My babysitter used it as a dark lullaby in installments, and it was the first Christie title I ever saw in a store. After I talked my mother into buying her eleven-year-old a book about a serial killer who bludgeons, chops, drowns, poisons and shoots a group of people guilty of everything from child murder to genocide, I knew I was in love. Upon completion of that book, I went back to the local pharmacy where I had found it and perused all the other Christie titles there. This was going to be the first one I had picked for myself! I didn’t even know who Hercule Poirot was, nor could I tell the difference between a Calais coach and a football coach. But the idea of a dozen passengers trapped on a luxury train in the snow when murder occurs sounded really cool.
Even at that tender age, with mostly the Hardy Boys books and Encyclopedia Brown under my belt, I knew how a murder mystery works. Maybe it was all the “Old House” films they showed on Shock Theatre. I sat in the cozy armchair in our living room for three days, reading that book, combing through too many suspects and too many clues, and although I wasn’t sure who the killer was, I still understood how the book was going to end.
Those who have already read MotOE will understand why I reacted the way I did at the end, throwing my book in the air with a shout and declaring that all rules governing mystery writing were suspect. They will also understand why I have placed this title under the “twelve drummers drumming” section. The rest of you will have to read this one to find out.
I guarantee that purchasing any one of these titles will make the recipient’s days merrier and brighter. Purchasing an even dozen will guarantee a holly jolly Christmas to the Christie fan in your life.
Merry Christmas from Mimi . . .
Sonny . . . .
and me . . .