Agatha Christie

Shakespeare talked about the ages of man, and it’s well known that age seems to revert us to our youth. The last handful of years that’s been true for me with regard to mystery authors. For the first time in many decades I’m reading (or rather re-reading) Dorothy L. Sayers (Lord Peter Wimsey), Rex Stout (Nero Wolfe), and others from my past.

This month I’ve been enjoying Agatha Christie and her Hercule Poirot novels. I got into them after finishing a collection of 51 short stories starring her famous Belgian detective (with his “egg-shaped head” and giant mustaches). Reading those put me in the mood to revisit the novels.

And I must say I’ve been thoroughly enjoying them!

Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie (Lady Mallowan), DBE (1890–1976) is unquestionably the queen of mystery fiction. My Shakespeare reference was apt because, with over two-billion books published, in over 100 languages, only The Bard and The Bible have outsold her. That makes her arguably the queen of literary fiction — the most popular novelist ever.

She wrote 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections. Her work being available in over 100 languages makes her the most translated author of all time.

She also wrote 30 stage plays. The most famous, The Mousetrap, is the longest running play in history. It debuted in London’s West End in 1952 and ran continuously for 68 years until COVID-19 forced it to close this past March. (It took a worldwide pandemic to stop the queen!)

Christie published her first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in 1920 when she was 30. It introduced her famous detective, Hercule Poirot — her version of Sherlock Holmes. (The rest, as they say, is history.)

As the official Agatha Christie website puts it:

Writer. Traveller. Playwright. Wife. Mother. Surfer —

Agatha Christie - Surfer

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This month I’ve been chain-reading Poirot novels (in no particular order — publish date and chronological order are different; other than the occasional reference, there is no connection between stories). So far I’ve read 19 of 34. (They’re short reads compared to today’s books; one can easily read them in an afternoon.)

As I wrote last month, reading that collection of short stories led to grabbing two of the novels I found freely available to Amazon Prime members (alas, they want you to buy all the others).

They were the first two Poirot novels Christie published, The Mysterious Affair At Styles (1920) and The Murder on the Links (1923). (As just mentioned, the former is her debut novel.)

I enjoyed them a lot, so I checked my library, and, wow, bonanza! Nearly all the Poirot canon is freely available in ebook form.

(I’m so loving library ebooks. That, too, is something of a return to youth in that most of my early reading came from the local library. I was a weekly visitor.)

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The Queen of Fiction!

As an adult (with much more reading under my mental belt), Christie’s writing impresses me far more than it did as a callow youth. At the time I had no appreciation of her skill — turns out she is really good. Her popularity is well-deserved.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are historically special — even unique — but the authors who’ve carried on the tradition have generally been superior writers. Christie absolutely was.

The truth is, Holmes is fun, but he’s ultimately preposterous. Mystery stories are like hard SF in that readers often forgive lack of character development and arcs as they aren’t the focal point of the story. That said, superior mysteries and hard SF nails both.

Agatha Christie fills her stories with rich very human characters — part of the fun of a Christie novel is the cast of characters. They are always interesting with plenty of background drama for red herrings. (Christie is excellent at misdirecting your attention.)

I also enjoy how well she uses the Rashomon effect. Different characters paint different views of events and people. It brings to life how our opinions color our views. Christie was a cogent observer of the human condition (her stories have genuine depth to them).

If there is fault, it’s that the dialog can feel a bit dated, which is minor, and there are moments of casual racism (not so minor). That’s not uncommon in writing of that age, but it’s jarring. Like finding mold on your bread or a worm in your apple. We’re not free of our problematic past.

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I’ve noticed that Christie was delightfully inventive in creating murder situations. Each book I’ve read offers something different.

For instance, two of her more famous novels, Murder on the Orient Express (1934) and Death on the Nile (1937), take place, respectively, on a train and in Egypt, mostly, as the title says, along or on the Nile river. (A lesser known story, Death in the Clouds (1935), takes place on an airplane.)

In some books, Poirot doesn’t show up until later in the novel. I think of it as Columbo mode, because that was standard on that show. (Aspects of Det. Columbo’s approach do seem to channel Poirot, and I can’t help but wonder about influence.)

I find the classic sleuth refreshing compared to the modern sleuth. Calmer, anyway. Both involve an arc of discovery, but the denouement differs. Classic sleuths expose the murder in the genial context of the drawing room or study. The murderer, knowing they’re beaten, often just confesses and surrenders. Modern murders — when they realize the sleuth is on to them — attempt to kill the sleuth in a thrilling death-defying final scene.

The Nero Wolfe stories follow this classic arc. Everyone involved gathers in Wolfe’s study for the big reveal. Columbo likewise just talks to people; it was all very congenial (another reason I suspect a Christie influence).

On the other hand, more modern detectives, such as Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, and Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, and usually Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, generally, and rather predictably, must escape certain death in the final scene.

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A version of Hercule Poirot

Poirot’s and Christie’s debut, The Mysterious Affair At Styles, is a classic British murder mystery involving a poisoning, (but with something of an interesting twist in how it’s administered).

In the second book, The Murder on the Links, Poirot and his companion, Captain Hastings, are on vacation in France when they encounter a murder.

More to the point, as with Sherlock Holmes, Hastings is the narrator (and info dump excuse). But at the end of the second book Hastings marries and moves to Argentina. (He returns in later stories, but many of the stories don’t include him.)

The marriage of Hastings is an aspect of something I’ve noticed in many of the Poirot novels. Christie is a romantic. Many of the stories feature two people who either finally find each other (maybe with a little nudge from Poirot) or have obstacles removed (by Poirot — usually one of them has been falsely accused of the murder).

Poirot states several times that, despite being a confirmed bachelor, he has a romantic heart, and indeed he does. (He also clearly has OCD when it comes to symmetry and neatness.)

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The third novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), is a written account by one Dr. James Sheppard, who is a friend of Roger Ackroyd (who, as the title says, is murdered). Dr. Sheppard helps Poirot investigate the murder of his friend.

The story has been redone in TV, film, radio, and stage. It has won awards and acclaim, and it’s considered hugely influential in the genre. It’s one of Christie’s best known novels.

Spoiler: Dr. Sheppard is the murder! (I think reading the story knowing it’s the narrator makes it richer, so I’m comfortable spilling these beans. Besides, the book was written almost 100 years ago.)

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In fact, Christie mixes it up quite a bit when it comes to Poirot’s “Watson” (and in some cases Poirot is solo).

One of the more interesting companions is Ariadne Oliver, who clearly is Christie’s avatar. Oliver is a well-known, popular, and quixotic, mystery author known for her love of apples. Many of her most popular books feature her vegetarian Finnish detective Sven Hjerson, about whom she has conflicting feelings.

Which parallels Christie’s feelings about Poirot. (For that matter, Doyle didn’t like Holmes, either.) I think the books with Ariadne Oliver are especially fun. Christie, through Oliver, offers her opinions on being a popular mystery writer with lots of fans.

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I’d always assumed my interest in Christie centered exclusively on Poirot. I never connected with Miss Marple or others. Yet two of the more striking Poirot books don’t have much Poirot.

For one, I really liked The Hollow (1946). Lady Lucy Angkatell may be one of my favorite supporting characters. (Poirot was struck by her, too.) Ironically, Christie regretted bringing Poirot into this story, and, indeed, he seems almost peripheral somehow. Christie later turned the novel into a play and dropped Poirot from the plot, which says something. I found the drama in this one especially compelling.

The other is Three Act Tragedy (1935). Part of what’s interesting in this one is the structure, which, on multiple levels, resembles a play. It’s a clever bit of writing. Poirot is on hand early, but doesn’t get involved until about halfway through. Much of the detecting is done by other characters. The sheer cleverness made me laugh out loud several times.

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In these fraught times, Agatha Christie is a pretty nice way to escape for an afternoon.

My recent attraction authors from the last two centuries may have more to do with the age than my age. (Or both.) We live in crazy times.

Science fiction isn’t for everyone, but I think anyone can find something in Christie to enjoy. I certainly have.

Stay mysterious, my friends! Go forth and spread light and beauty.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

9 responses to “Agatha Christie

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Now you know why, in the last post, I said there has been no science fiction this month. It’s been wall-to-wall Poirot!

  • Wyrd Smythe

    This has probably been done (I can almost recall seeing it), but I’d love to write a Sherlock Holmes story in which he is constantly guessing wrong about people. All his smug little observations of clues turn out to be completely incorrect.

    The recent BBC series Sherlock played with the trope a little, but Sherlock always turned out to be 100% right. Or very close. He got the sex of Watson’s sister wrong based on an engraving that used only a first initial. But, for example, in that same scene, he guesses the sister has a drinking problem due to scratches on the phone’s power connector. I’d love for that scene to have gone that the sister didn’t drink at all and happened to usually plug the phone in in the dark.

    Because some of Holmes’s deductions really are utterly ridiculous.

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    I’ve actually seen Holmes held up as the inspiration for some people of the power of deductive logic. But I agree. His powers in the story are really superpowers, a fantasy with just enough detail to make it seem plausible, as long as you don’t think about it too closely.

    I saw something once, where Holmes from the 19th century somehow ends up in modern times. When he attempts to deduce things, he gets everything completely wrong, because he misreads the context of all the modern stuff. Of course, being Holmes, after a brief crisis in confidence, he adapts and recalibrates in time to save the day, but I remember thinking it was a nice touch to acknowledge how context sensitive that ability might be.

    Sounds like you’re on a mystery binge. I’ve occasionally dipped into mysteries, such as the original Holmes stories, and some of Dashiell Hammett’s stuff, but never got into Christie’s stuff. I do own one of her books (And Then There Were None), which I got to examine her technique, but never got around to reading it.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      No reason something can’t be both preposterous and an inspiration! (It would be interesting to see just how many of our inspirations are wildly idealized. Superman, for one. I wonder if it would turn out that, being an inspiration necessarily involves exaggeration?)

      True about the context-dependent nature of Holmes’s observations. So many of his conclusions are based on knowledge of life at the time. Confounding that would make a fun story. What I’ve always wanted to see was situations with (at least) two valid reasons and Holmes always guessing the wrong one. He’d be right in the logic working, but wrong because there was another path to the outcome.

      Because that was always my main objection about Holmes. Multiple paths leading to the clues he observed. They kind of played with that in the first episode of Sherlock (the scene I mentioned in the post). Cumberbatch made a series of deductions about Watson’s sister based on observations of her cellphone, including an engraving with only a first initial. Since the engraving was clearly from a woman, Cumberbatch assumed Watson’s sibling was male. That’s the sort of thing I wanted to see more of.

      It pops into my head almost every time I plug my cellphone in for a charge. One of the deductions involved a problem with drinking due to all the scratches around the jack. But I frequently fumble with plugging in, especially in the dark, and it has nothing to do with drink.

      Definitely on a mystery binge. It’s my other favorite genre. And Then There Were None, as you probably know, is one of her classics. Ten people stuck in a location slowly being bumped off one by one. Which of the remaining is the killer? 😀

      I think a serious study of her technique would require multiple books, probably selected by someone who really knows the canon. She experimented a lot with how she wrote. I just finished Elephants Can Remember which includes Christie’s avatar, the fictional mystery writer Mrs. Ariadne Oliver. At least twice, maybe three times, it comes up about how Mrs. Oliver is always experimenting with her hair, and it just now occurs to me Christie may have been saying something about her own writing approaches. She definitely experimented with how she told stories.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Good point on inspiration. And I suspect the example of Holmes has inspired many a scientist to figure things out in the same manner. (Of course, Doyle likely got his inspiration from scientists, so it’s a loop.)

        Yeah, those alternate explanations can really be deflating. Something everyone needs to remember as this phosphine on Venus thing plays out.

        Not sure what made me pick up that particular Christie novel. It might have been because Amazon simply listed it prominently. But when I do that, I’m usually interested in getting something of the author’s at the top of their form. But from what you’re saying, that form evolved throughout her career. Hmmm.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        That loop you speak of came full circle in the TV show House, M.D.. A.C. Doyle based Sherlock Holmes on a real person, one Dr. Joseph Bell, who was famous for his observational skills. Dr. Greg House, of course, was a deliberate Holmes analogue, and at one point in the show a colleague gives him a gift — a book written by Dr. Joseph Bell. 🙂

        I’m assuming the phosphine on Venus thing turns out to be some kind of high-heat chemistry we just haven’t figured out, yet. Life on Venus sounds pretty unlikely, although it is something of an organic soup, and certainly there is plenty of available energy, so who knows.

        Maybe it’s the protomolecule! 😀

        As I mentioned below, at the beginning of a Christie novel one never knows what it will be. Christie was very good at not repeating herself. And Then There Were None has something of a problematic origin (as you’ll see from the Wiki page). She published it in 1939, when she was 49, and had published over two-dozen novels by then. I’d opine she was likely in top form at the time.

        Last night I finished Elephants Can Remember, which is the second-to-last Poirot story, which she published in 1972 at the age of 82. It maybe didn’t sparkle quite like her earlier work, but there wasn’t that much difference. I still enjoyed it a lot.

        Honestly, I don’t think any single book could give you “Essential Christie” so to speak. I’ve got seven more Poirot novels queued. When I finish them I’ll have read most of the Poirot canon (minus just a handful the libraries don’t have). It’s maybe roughly half her oeuvre and I couldn’t say I have a handle on “Essential Christie” — just a dim sense of what a talent she really was.

        The book you have would certainly give you a taste, though!

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        On Venus, I came across a tweet to a paper hypothesizing that it might come from currently active volcanism on Venus ejecting phosphine into the atmosphere. James Pailly relayed that the volcanism would have to be more than 200 times what currently happens on Earth, but apparently some planetary scientists think it might be possible.

        But the protomolecule would be a cooler explanation. Actually, I guess one possibility is that it’s engineered biotechnology left there by somebody. But if it is life, it’s probably the remnants of Venus’ biosphere from before it turned into a hellscape.

        On ‘And Then There Were None’, well, that original title is quite an eye catcher. Apparently it was controversial in the US even in 1940 since they changed it. Even that Pocket revised title would probably land them in trouble today.

        Maybe I’ll like it enough to read a bunch of other Christie books. We’ll see.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        At the least, you should find it a pretty easy and quick read. Christie does sometimes use the terminology of the time, but apparently she was quite egalitarian as a person. She did quite a bit of travel, which she liked, and that tends to broaden one’s views.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Speaking of the predictability of the final thrilling scene of modern novels, it occurs to me that, when one starts reading an Agatha Christie novel, one has no idea what it will be like — how it will be structured, what kinds of characters one will meet, and what underlying theme Christie may use (and she often did).

    Certain elements are consistent. Poirot is very consistent in who he is (all Christie’s characters are well-drawn). There will be at least one murder, and Poirot will solve it, but that’s about as much as one can predict.

    That might make an interesting analysis: The degree to which various authors with long-running series stick to a format or don’t.

And what do you think?

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