With 80 crime novels and story collections to her name, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Agatha Christie had quite a few repeating characters to call upon: Hercule Poirot, Jane Marple, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, and Superintendent Battle all got to be the focus of several books. Ariadne Oliver, Colonel Johnny Race, and Mr. Satterthwaite cropped up a few times each, as arguably did James Parker Pyne and Mr. Harley Quinn through their short stories. But then what about the others, the one-offs, those sleuths who strutted and fretted their hour upon the stage and then were heard no more? What immortality do they get? Well, since you ask…
The Sittaford Mystery (1931) Damn those evil ouija demons! Up to their tricks again, predicting the death of a man alone in a house cut off by a snow drift, unsettling a friend of his enough to ski down there…and find his dead body. Makes Charlie Charlie and his spinning pencils seem rather tame by comparison (you’ve probably already forgotten that reference, that’s how behind the times I am). Possibly breaks one rule of detective fiction, and the investigation largely consists of a lot of similar conversations, but the reveal is one of the watershed moments in my reading life (yeah, no, I’m not exaggerating) and probably singled-handedly convinced me that this was a genre and an author worth pursuing.
Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (1934) Christie wrote several standalone thrillers – Destination Unknown, The Man in the Brown Suit, They Came to Baghdad, etc. – with poor unfortunates caught up in grand schemes, but this is her best effort in that particular field. There’s something delightfully Hitchcockian about the framing (the title is the last words of a dying man found over the edge of a cliff by our hero during a game of golf) and how it goes on to build in threat and menace. It’s also tied up in a way that makes sense, which is not really something you can say about all her thrillers, and the overabundance of luck experienced throughout is actually just part of the fun. I mean, god forbid that you take these things too seriously; we’re only here to enjoy ourselves, after all. Plus, an impossible shooting! Dive in!
Murder is Easy (1939) I’m breaking my own conditions here, but I’m in charge so it’s fine: Superintendent Battle features in this book, but not in a functional way and so it counts. Probably one of Christie’s best opening hooks – a man on a train is told by a female fellow-passenger that someone is going to be murdered, and a few days later he discovers that both she and the victim she named have been separately duly dispatched – and also one of her best standalone detectives in Luke Fitzwilliam. I originally assumed that a minor character called Humbleby was a reference to the novels of Edmund Crispin, but it turned out that Crispin didn’t publish his first book until 1944. Perhaps his Inspector Humbleby is a reference to Christie’s character herein, though that seems less likely. Seems like too small a circle, and too many fictional names to choose from, to be a coincidence, however. Ah, well, we shall never know.
Death Comes as the End (1944) I have heard it said (well, no, I’ve read it written) that Christie invented the historical mystery with this book, but I lack the coverage of the genre to support or refute this. Setting your murder mystery in Ancient Egypt is bold in itself, pulling off the fair-play clues while building a world that is – okay, while a little hermetically-sealed – different enough to challenge the reader’s perception of exactly what’s happening is a sign of true excellence. An experiment, sadly never repeated, that could have gone very wrong but instead plays perfectly into the requirements of a classic detective novel. It would be considered a dry-run for And Then There Were None if that masterpiece hadn’t preceded this by five years, but it did so, um, I’m not sure where that leaves this comparison.
Crooked House (1949) I maintain – and will argue to my dying breath – that you can draw a direct line from this novel to virtually everything being done in crime fiction today. This is the mother of modern crime writing, a book so vitally and centrally important to the development of the genre that, had Christie not written it, everything would be at least 20 years behind where it is now. Even more so than …Roger Ackroyd and …Orient Express, this family poisoning tale is arguably her most enduringly influential work. Obviously I do not wish to explicitly discuss why and spoil it, but if you know this you can hopefully see my point. If you say you’ve never heard of it that wouldn’t surprise me, but if you love your crime fiction then you really should read it.
[All titles are currently available from Harper in print and ebook]
Disclaimer: opinions are my own, And Then There Were None is excluded for being too obvious, wash light colours separately.