All the Christie

Okay, not all the Agatha Christie — not yet — but I’m getting close. I’ve read all the Hercule Poirot short stories and novels (save one; the last). I’ve read all the Miss Marple novels and all the Tommy and Tuppence novels (but none of the short stories in either case). I’ve read a few of the stand alone novels, but there are a number of those to go. (I’ve even read a collection of her plays.)

The very last novels are disappointing, but the vast bulk of Christie’s work is a genuine treasure. To be honest, I never realized how engaging and wonderful her writing actually is. I’ve been a Poirot fan since childhood but never explored her other work because I saw it as ‘too old-fashioned and ordinary.’ My mistake!

Speaking of better late than never, recently I’ve finally explored a few other mystery authors, one of which was long overdue…

That would be G.K. Chesterton (1874–1936) and his fictional sleuth, Father Brown, the Catholic priest. Chesterton wrote 53 short stories (but no novels) starring Father Brown; most of them appearing in various publications at the time. They’re collected in five principle volumes plus a sixth that includes only two stories.

By the way, a religious figure who solves crimes is a bit unusual, but not unique. Harry Kemelman wrote 12 books about David Small, a rabbi sleuth, starting with Friday the Rabbi Slept Late in 1964. I’ll also mention, and highly recommend, The Name of the Rose (1980), by Umberto Eco, which features a monk and his novice solving a series of murders at an abbey. My dad raved about this book; rightfully so. The movie version stars Sean Connery.

Writers of detective fiction aren’t generally considered huge literary figures. Such work is often seen as more commodity than work of art. For instance, Sue Grafton wrote the very digestible alphabet series (“A” Is for Alibi, etc.). I enjoyed the heck out of those books, but they’re not literary treasures. Likewise Sara Paretsky and Robert B. Parker, two others I like a lot. Even Tony Hillerman and Agatha Christie aren’t known for their towering literary skill, despite writing great books I love.

Chesterton (along with Dorothy L. Sayers and possibly Rex Stout) is another matter. He is a different class of writer. Beyond detective novels, Chesterton was a philosopher and theologian as well as a critic of art and literature. His writings are notable among Christian apologists.

Kemelman used his Rabbi Small books to examine Conservative Judaism. Chesterton does use Father Brown to examine Christianity and faith, but more through example than examination. (Chesterton’s extensive non-fiction writing may have given him a better platform for the explicit examination of religion. Some of it, Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man, for instance, is well-known and regarded. The first is on my very long reading list.)

Chesterton’s Father Brown is a compassionate man who uses his intuition and keen understanding of humanity (gained from long experience as a priest) to solve crimes. In many ways he anticipates Christie’s Miss Marple.

Both are older rural people, not officially detectives, who use experience and an acute understanding of human behavior to solve the crimes they keep stumbling into.

(Christie was clearly familiar with Chesterton, and her characters reference him explicitly at times. And both were aware of Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930), whose career just predates Chesterton’s. Fictional Poirot is often disdainful of the fictional Sherlock. I don’t know why it amuses me that Doyle and Chesterton are part of Christie’s fictional world, but it does. When all three appear in the fictional worlds of modern writers I don’t blink an eye.)

So far I’ve only read the first collection of Father Brown short stories, The Innocence of Father Brown (1911). The writing has that old-fashioned feel (like Doyle and some of the oldest Christie; some early Sayers, too).

My library only has the fourth and fifth collections, The Secret of Father Brown (1927) and The Scandal of Father Brown (1935). I’m thinking they’ll be part of my summer reading. I’ll have to hunt for the second and third collections.

I’ll end with M. Hercule Flambeau, a recurring character in the stories. He appears in the first one, “The Blue Cross”, as a master jewel thief — one the police are having a hard time catching. It’s a clever story with a big-grin twist ending, and it perfectly introduces the kind of man Father Brown is.

The priest encounters Flambeau a few more times and ultimately convinces him to repent. When Flambeau shows up in later stories, he’s an honest private detective who often helps, or is helped by, Father Brown. It’s interesting given the Christian take on forgiveness and redemption. (It’s also cute that his first name is Hercule, which Christie later used for Poirot.)

Anyway, if you’re like me — you like mystery stories, but you’ve never gotten around to Chesterton — I recommend him!

§ §

Above I mentioned Harry Kemelman (1908–1996) and his Rabbi Small mysteries. I read several of these long ago when only three or four books were out so he hadn’t used up all the days of the week.

Back then I wondered what Kemelman would do after seven books. Each book’s title begins with the name of the day of the week.

I already mentioned Friday; then came Saturday (Hungry), Sunday (Stayed Home), Monday (Took Off), Tuesday (Saw Red), Wednesday (Got Wet), and finally Thursday (Walked Out). I think the last one I read was Tuesday.

My dad used to get them through the Mystery Book Club, and he ended his membership. I never got into them enough to buy them.

(In contrast, Sue Grafton died before she completed the alphabet. The last Kinsey Millhone book is “Y” Is For Yesterday. The alphabet ends there. Grafton’s will makes it explicit that Kinsey dies with her; no other writer may take up the mantle.)

In any event, after seven books, he just used other titles. The last books are The Day the Rabbi Resigned (1992) and That Day the Rabbi Left Town (1996). Other than the 12 Rabbi Small books, he only wrote eight Nicky Welt short stories and a non-fiction book, Common Sense in Education. I see the library has some Rabbi books, and so does Amazon Prime, so I may read these again (if I run out of other things to read).

§ §

Both Father Brown and Rabbi Small — along with Miss Marple, Dorothy Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey, and others — are not professional, or even self-described, detectives.

Contrast that with Holmes, Poirot, Grafton’s Millhone, Parker’s Spenser, or Paretsky’s Warshawski, who are all private detectives. Beyond private detectives are official law enforcement, such as Hillerman’s Chee and Leaphorn or Parker’s Jesse Stone.

More to the point, the not-a-detective character who, in a series, constantly stumbles into crimes to solve — in many cases murders; so many murders — is a major sub-genre of mysteries.

In that sub-genre one of the funnier ones is the Bernie the Burglar series by Lawrence Block. I read a bunch of those back in the day. I liked them enough to buy the paperbacks, but gave them to a friend years ago. I saw the library had all 12 that exist so far. (The last is a collection of short stories published in 2020.)

As with Kemelman, the titles have a self-referencing pattern:

  1. Burglars Can’t Be Choosers (1977)
  2. The Burglar in the Closet (1978)
  3. The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling (1979)
  4. The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza (1980)
  5. The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian (1983)
  6. The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams (1994)
  7. The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart (1995)
  8. The Burglar in the Library (1997)
  9. The Burglar in the Rye (1999)
  10. The Burglar on the Prowl (2004)
  11. The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons (2013)
  12. The Burglar in Short Order (2020)

Mrs. Rhodenbarr’s son, Bernie, starting at an early age, grew up to be a burglar. He is, as they say, half a Robin Hood: a robbing hood who steals from the rich. And then keeps it.

Bernie’s problem is that he keeps getting involved in situations where murdered people turn up, and the police generally figure he’s a crook anyway and probably did it, so the only way to clear his name is to figure out who really did do it.

While the books are not comedies strictly speaking, they’re way on the side of the comic. Block has a lot of fun with these, filling them with sly references to other mystery authors and books. For example, Bernie and his best friend, Carolyn, a lesbian dog groomer who owns a shop near the bookstore Bernie owns as a front (and a joy), have a lot of fun playing around with Sue Grafton’s book plots and titles (e.g. “F” Is For Train).

(They ponder what Grafton will do after “Z”. Go to double letters is Bernie’s thought, and he suggests titles such as “AA” is for Battery and “DD” is for Bust.)

As such, these books are a much richer read if one is familiar with the references. In a sense, they’re a special treat for mystery fans. They’re fun on their own, but especially so for the cognoscenti.

The protagonist is willfully, even gleefully, crooked (although he has principles) and so is the antagonist, plainclothes cop Ray Kirschmann, who is as bent as the day is long (and not big on principles, though he’s not entirely without them). He’s something of a frenemy to Bernie and, because some payoff is involved, usually very useful in the final act.

Which is the “you’re probably wondering why I’ve gathered you all here” scene that’s so standard in many mysteries. The reader needs it all tied up, and the real villain must be exposed — either pointed out through deduction and evidence or sometimes by trickery. (“What would you say if I told you your prints had been found…”)

The Burglar books absolutely and delightfully wallow in this. Bernie generally cannot resist actually saying the line.

Many are pastiches of other sub-genres. For instance, the Bogart one invokes a lot of the Bogart movies. The guest star characters in this one all right out of The Maltese Falcon. It’s a hoot.

I highly recommend these as great summer reading! I burned through all 12 in a few weeks. (I did a lot of reading in Feb, March, and April).

§ §

Before I return to Christie, there’s another series I finally explored — one I’ve been putting off this entire century.

I’ve been a big fan of the Spenser series (Robert Parker) since the 1970s. I started reading that series not long after it began with The Godwulf Manuscript (1973). Until recently I would have called it my favorite detective series by far. I wanted to be Spenser.

Over the years and several re-reads the love affair got more nuanced. Spenser (and likely Parker) evolved during that time, and so did I. Still a fan, but I’ve become more aware of both Spenser’s flaws and Parker’s.

I read his Sunny Randall books (they were okay), but I never got into his Jesse Stone books (or his western novels). Now that I’ve read a bunch of the Stone novels, I’m unsettled.

There are interesting similarities between Stone and Spenser, but I found the former somehow too pat and perfect. Now I wonder how I’ll react if I read the Spenser novels again. There is something a little idealized about Parker’s characters (which is probably why I did idolize them when I was younger).

Stone is a former Los Angeles homicide cop who was fired for being an alcoholic. He was drinking because his marriage broke up. He’s hired by the small town of Paradise, Massachusetts, to be the police chief. It turns out he was hired because, with his past, certain corrupt elements think he’ll be no threat and easy to handle.

Of course they turn out to be wrong about that.

I can’t say I loved these. As I mentioned, some of the reasons why made me question the Spenser canon. Each time I’ve re-read it I’ve been a bit less enamored. Not seriously, but the bloom came off the rose a bit. Now I’m wondering if I’ll see it with new eyes should I dive into it again.

It may explain why it’s been so hard to get around to writing a post about Spenser, even though I’ve planned one since the blog began back in 2011. My opinion has changed over those years. What would have been a post about my all-time favorite now needs to be a bit more qualified. (Also: it’s been long enough since the last re-read that writing a post is a growing challenge.)

§ §

Getting back to Agatha Christie, I find I said pretty much what I wanted to say in the lede (or in my previous post): She’s the Queen of Mystery for good reason.

Thanks to online library, I’ve been binging. Of her 66 novels, I only have a dozen or so standalones left.

I’ll say that I enjoyed the Miss Marple books much more than I expected to. Little old ladies solving murders never seemed my cup of tea, but Jane Marple is a delight. I wish I knew her.

The Tommy and Tuppence series was okay; the earlier stuff was better. There are only five novels in the series with long gaps between them. In fact, they span Christie’s career. The first one, The Secret Adversary (1922) is Christie’s second novel. The last one, Postern of Fate (1973), is her last, and it’s clear she was suffering from what the future would label Alzheimer’s. That book was hard to read.

In general her last novels lack her usual spark. I rarely can figure out a Christie mystery, but I did on several of the last novels. Or at least got a lot closer to the truth than I usually can. (At least she didn’t “do a Heinlein” — some authors do.)

I read a collection of her plays. They were okay. The Mousetrap is pretty good, and I did rather enjoy Witness for the Prosecution.

She converted some of her books to plays and altered the endings to make them happier. For instance, in the stage version of, And Then There Were None, the last two survive and walk off into the sunrise together. A while back I watched a video of a very old BBC presentation of the stage version and was surprised as hell by the ending!

Appointment with Death and The Hollow, likewise, both change the plot at the end. They change things in an even bigger way: both were Hercule Poirot novels, but her dapper detective is not in the play versions.

Speaking of the BBC and Poirot, I saw a modern version of The ABC Murders with John Malkovich as Poirot. It was awful, and I hated it.

§ §

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

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

8 responses to “All the Christie

  • Wyrd Smythe

    One thing to appreciate about Christie is how well she keeps things fresh. Often when reading a lot of a single author, things can get repetitious as some fall from format into formula. Except at the very end, Christie managed to invent new murders and motives and people. It’s quite amazing, actually.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    The last couple of days I’ve been working on a little project…

    (More about this in an upcoming post.)

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    Looks like you’ve been on a serious mystery binge. Or maybe the binge has just continued.

    The first book on writing I ever read was by Lawrence Block. It was an interesting book, but in retrospect it omitted a lot of story techniques.

    What does it mean to “do a Heinlein”? That phrase is vaguely familiar (maybe because you’ve told me before), but googling it didn’t surface anything relevant.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      The mystery binge will continue! Next up is “Jonathan Gash” (the Lovejoy series) and more Chesterton. I’m just taking a break for some science and science fiction (like that Long Earth series and Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher).

      I think I’ve seen more than one book by Block about writing. I’ve never paid any attention to them (or anyone else’s — not my thing). What’s sort of interesting about Block is that his other fiction, what I’ve read is all along the crime vector, can be pretty brutal. Some of his stories are told from the POV of a (successful) murder. I’ve never read any of his Matthew Scudder series, but from what I’ve heard it’s pretty dark.

      😀 You probably did hear “doing a Heinlein” from me, since it’s a phrase I invented (so I doubt you’d see in Google). It refers to a writer who later in their career goes from being excellent to being almost unreadable, often for reasons that make one’s skin crawl a little (they get creepy).

      Piers Anthony, at least in my view, did something similar. His early work is classic and wonderful science fiction — among my favorites. Once he tapped into the Xanth vein, he changed, and some of it really did make my skin crawl. His Blue Adept series, which I guess was young adult based on the writing, was hard to read through the forest of exclamation marks.

      Lots of authors change over time, but the Heinlein thing is about being more than famous (being an icon) and falling from a great height. Anthony wasn’t as well-known, and his fall was different (lots of people really loved Xanth), but I hated seeing the author of such interesting early work turn into a clown.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Ah, ok, that makes sense on Heinlein. I think I’ve noted before that he didn’t so much change but was unshackled in his later career. If you read his earliest stuff, you can see foreshadows of the later stage. But editors kept him reigned in for a long time, until his name was big enough that he could bulldoze through them. At which point he became ideological and sort of sleazy. Although in the very late stage it did seem to cross over into dementia.

        Asimov had a similar transition when he returned to fiction, but in his case the result of him dispensing with convention was more interesting stories, just with every character now sounding like Asimov arguing with Asimov, but the discussions were so good, no one cared. (And he was never all that good at conventional characterization anyway.)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Ha! Asimov is my canonical example of characters that [A] all sound alike and [B] all sound like the author. He’s a good example of the good kind of hard SF. The Foundation series and his Robot novels all still are great classic reads to me.

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