Crossexamining Crime blog, a gaggle of mystery fiction bloggers have joined together to celebrate Agatha Christie’s birthday with their personal choices for favorite books. As Kate put it to us in her invitation the post is to be "called Christie Firsts which suggests to new Christie readers which novels are the best introduction [to her various detective characters] Christie's thrillers and Christie's stand alone novels." And because I always get carried away with these invitations to write about my favorite books I’m adding three other categories to those she gave us: best play, best short story collection and best Colonel Race novel.
“I am Hercule Poirot!" "What a lovely name. Greek, isn't it?"
I should probably pick something from her early years like Peril at End House (1932), Death on the Nile (1937) or Evil Under the Sun (1941) but I happen to love Mrs. McGinty’s Dead (1952) more than any other Poirot novel. I can’t help it. It’s one of her funniest books and it has a devilishly clever trick in the plot. It’s pure detective novel fancy chockful of deep, dark secrets waiting to be unearthed. And watching Poirot suffer in silence at Maureen Summerhayes’ guest house -- from her inept cooking to her overly zealous hospitality -- is alone worth the price of admission. Ariadne Oliver, Dame Agatha’s alter ego, is also present and we get a lot of talk about the dreary life of a detective novelist and her disgust with her own creation which is easily seen as Christie’s own expression of her own exasperation with Poirot.
I prefer the later Marple books again over the earlier ones. A Murder Is Announced is pure Christie. It’s almost the template for her midpoint career books. That it has much in common plot-wise with Mrs. McGinty’s Dead is no coincidence. I’m drawn to the books from our Grand Dame’s oeuvre that deal with criminals in hiding and people trying to escape their shameful past. Brilliant use of misdirection in this book and a nifty surprise reveal.
Tommy & Tuppence
I can’t overlook that the Beresford's debut The Secret Adversary (1922) was a less than stellar performance. But their sophomore effort is such an original twist and simultaneously a tribute to the then very trendy notion of being a detective fiction fan. So I pick Partners in Crime (1929) as both a lesson in early overlooked fictional detectives and for Dame Agatha’s send-up of many writers who she obviously enjoyed reading. That she thought she could improve on many of those still unknown and forgotten characters (Thornley Colton, the blind sleuth and McCarty & Riordan, Isabel Ostrander’s beat cop and fireman detective team, to give a handful of examples) showed even at an early age she was a risk taking mystery writer.
For high drama, a good puzzle, some trademark Christie clever misdirection and trenchant observations about a marriage headed for ruin I pick Towards Zero (1944) as the best of the Battle books. This was the midpoint in her career and it’s the era (1942-1955) when Christie began to delve deep and created some of her most human and complex characters.
Sparkling Cyanide (1945) [US title: Remembered Death] may be a reworking of a Poirot short story but as a novel I enjoyed it a lot. Also I had read this novel first before the short story so the ingenious ploy that leads to murder went unnoticed. One of the best plotting gimmicks in her entire output. Subtle, clever, and completely believable.
No Series Character
This is my second choice for favorite in order to avoid duplicating the one I know will pop up over and over -- And Then There Were None (1939). It’s a true mystery classic, her masterwork I’d say, and it’s deserving of all the accolades. But once again I turn to her later career. Like Dame Agatha I will forever be fascinated with the occult, black magic, and superstition and how those beliefs affect human behavior. For that reason I choose The Pale Horse (1961) as the best of her stand alones.
To be honest I don’t care for many of her thrillers at all. The early ones all seemed to have been pale imitations of her fellow crime writers who were doing it much better in the late 1920s. The heroes and heroines seem interchangeable in most of them and the plots are overloaded with what Carolyn Wells loved to call “hackneyed devices.” Her three globe-trotting thrillers of the 1950s are dull to me. But if I have to pick one out of the small bunch then I’ll go with The Man in the Brown Suit (1924). It works well as both a mystery and a thriller and it’s the most entertaining of the lot – hackneyed devices notwithstanding. No Bundle Brent in sight, thankfully. (Sorry, I don’t like her.) It also incorporates a trick that would become her infamous hallmark and used at least three other times that I can recall.
I think her most original character is Harley Quin, the mysterious man from nowhere who appears as a detective guide to help Mr. Satterthwaite solve crimes and restore order to troubled lives. Many of the tales are tinged with supernatural events so no surprise that I count it among my favorite Christie books. The Mysterious Mr. Quin (1930) is one of her most refreshing short story collections covering all aspects of crime fiction from straight detection to action thriller. There is ample romance as well. Quin enjoys bringing about reconciliation among the young lovers in each story. He seems to be a precursor to her later Parker Pyne, perhaps mysterydom’s first “love detective”.
Though Christie wrote many original mystery dramas directly for the stage none of those are worthy of her. The Unexpected Guest? Really rather dreary and I’m afraid to say utterly obvious from the moment the curtain goes up. Black Coffee? Trite. Three Blind Mice was written for radio before it was adapted into a short story and later the stage play The Mousetrap and it will always work best on radio, I think. Too often the strangling murder is ineptly staged and badly lit so that the murderer’s identity is obvious to the audience. What does that leave us? The stage adaptations of her novels or short stories. For my money the best of her stage plays is hands down Witness for the Prosecution (1953). There’s something about the courtroom and the stage that go hand in hand. Both have so much in common. Murder trials are part showmanship, part legal procedure and lend themselves easily to the stage. So many dramas about courtroom trials make for riveting theater (Inherit the Wind, Twelve Angry Men, Execution of Justice) and Christie’s adaptation of her short story is no exception.