Thursday, September 15, 2016

CHRISTIE FIRSTS: There's Nothing Like a Dame Agatha

Happy Birthday, Dame Agatha! A writer never looked better. I’m talking about her books, gang. No amount of plastic surgery would make a human of 126 years old look good. At the suggestion of Kate Jackson, who helms the 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.

Hercule Poirot
“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.

Jane Marple
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.

Superintendant Battle
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.

Colonel Race
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.

Short Story Collection
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.


  1. Replies
    1. This was fun to do since I rarely write about the popular mystery writers and their books. I let everyone else do that while I wallow and wade in the Limbo of Forgotten Mystery Novels. Great opportunity to mention some of my favorites that I also think are perfect examples as introductions to her writing, plot techniques, and her characters.

  2. Great choices. Moira and Brad have also put their posts up if you want to compare notes. Interesting see which ones people have picked the same. I'm liking the old dust jacket for Mrs McGinty's Dead - quite funny to see Poirot look so disconcerted. The Mysterious Mr Quin is also a good choice and is a collection I have been meaning to re-read, especially since its discussion in one of the essays in the collection The Ageless Agatha Christie. It is arguable that Christie is more experimental when she is not writing a novel or story with Miss Marple or Poirot in.

    1. I guess I erred in one choice. I read Remembered Death when I was a teen and liked the gimmick enough to remember it all these decades later. But I now learn that Colonel Race plays a very minor role in the book so I guess not at all the best place to start to get to know him. Oy! He's definitely more "on stage" in either Cards on the Table or Death on the Nile.

  3. No fair, John! You added other categories! But we matched in quite a few!

    I'll have you know that when I staged The Mousetrap years ago, NOBODY could see the murderer strangling Mrs. Boyle! But I get your point. And it's ironic that this rather mediocre playwright is also the most successful playwright (financially if not aesthetically) of all time. Even Shakespeare didn't make so much money!

    A few years ago, I was in New York at The Drama Bookstore, and I had a fascinating discussion with the fellow behind the desk and a couple of customers about the dearth of good whodunit plays. It may be that the whodunit simply doesn't make for the most thrilling tropes for the stage, partly because you always get bogged down in interviews. I've directed five Christie plays now, and four of them have that issue. The fifth, And Then There Were None, suffers from the excising (for length's sake) of most of the suspense from the novel, the weird changing of Blore into a comic figure, and the "happy" ending tacked on at the insistence of the producers. I tried to "fix" all that recently. I'm not sure how well I did, but the audiences did have fun reacting to the stuff I added . . .

    1. You know that song from ON THE TOWN -- "Carried Away"? That's me. Can't help it.

      I read about your production of AND THEN THERE WERE NONE a while ago. Gave me insight into the minds of creative young people and the challenges they face as they begin to learn what acting is all about. I love that you amended the script with dialogue and scenes from the novel. Would have liked to see that production.

    2. Snap! Or even Supersnap! Kate didn't think anyone would choose the same Poirots, but we proved her wrong. I like your choices in your extra categories too.

  4. Love your choices (and extra categories--I added the neglected Colonel Race as well). You've also given me another prompt that I really need to reread Mrs. McGinty. It's been a very long time since I read that one.

    1. With so many other superior Poirot books to pick from as the entry point for a novice Christie reader I'm really amazed that two other people picked that book. I thought I was the only rabid fan of Mrs. McGinty's Dead. Do re-read it soon and discover why it's quintessential Christie. I'm raring up for some Agatha re-reads myself, mostly books where I've forgotten the ending. Always fun to go back to those and relive the thrill of the finale.

  5. Great choices and you've picked out some of my favourites. I remember seeing The Mousetrap several years ago and predicting who the killer was from their first entrance. But not by following any clues - simply because I'd read all her mysteries so many times by then that I could guess the direction of the plot. I suppose that's cheating...

    1. I think it's fairly easy to figure out the murderer in that play or story whether you know her technique or not. How is it cheating? To know how a writer employs her tricks and use them yourself is observant and knowledgeable!