The first month of 2017 sees The Tuesday Night Bloggers — again, it’s not a closed group, you’re welcome to pitch in whenever you like — reflecting on firsts, debuts, starting points, and anything else that lends itself to the beginning of something (provided it’s detective fiction-related, of course). So I thought I’d get all dewy-eyed over not just my first Christie but also my first classic detective novel ever, the entry-level drug that started me on this path to blogging, obsessing over obscure classics, and spending every spare moment in second-hand bookshops.
I’ve talked about my first experience with Carr here, which was something of an (ultimately very happy) accident resulting from the excellent Crime Masterworks series produced by the UK publisher Orion (they of the departing and to be greatly missed The Murder Room) in the early 2000s. Starting Christie was more deliberate than that: I, like just about everyone else on the planet, knew the name — my school library had about 30 or so titles, though I was busier reading Michael Crichton, Philip Kerr, and John Grisham at the time — and I had a vague awareness of the David Suchet Poirots; so when visiting the University of Bath on an open day in 1999 I found TMoRA in their bookshop and thought “Well, why not?”. It was, I remember the author bio in my school library copies saying, her masterpiece, and if you’re gonna read one it might as well be a good ‘un.
Ah, from such casual acorns do giant trees grow. And these trees propagate to become first woodland, then forests… But I get ahead of myself.
Regrettably, I don’t have that copy any more. I leant it to a friend who I have no doubt never read it and then probably disposed of it somehow (not that I mind — if he still has it I’ll be frankly amazed, and it’d be a bit awkward to bring it up now after all this time…). And the actual reading of it I remember now, some 17-and-a-bit years later, only very vaguely. I remember thinking it odd that Christie had effectively retired her detective in like her fifth book, and the whole marrow fixation…well, that completely passed me by. I wanted murder, dammit, and plenty of it, and I was a little impatient to get it, so spent most of the setup suspecting everyone who appeared on the page and doubting everything they said and their reasons for saying it — there was no discernment, no delineation about where something seemed questionable, I just laid out a blanket of suspicion and wrapped everyone and everything in it and carted it along with me, filling it up as I went.
And then, between a third- and halfway in, I realised I knew the solution. Now, I have a narrative habit in these posts of going “Oh, yeah, I absolutely knew the solution” as a way of communicating how hilariously wide of the mark I was when the actual solution rolled around, but I mean it in the most literal sense here: I knew who the killer was. Not because I had worked it out — you’ll notice I only claim knowledge, and neither perception nor insight — but because someone had told me. Yup, actually told me in advance. So why didn’t I remember before I bought it, you want to know? How much of a forgetful idiot am I, for pity’s sake?! Yeah, it’s not quite as simple as that…
It’s difficult to remember the exact timeframe, but I’m going to say it was the better part of six to eight months previously (and that’s a low estimate) another friend — check me out, back when I had two whole friends — had told me about a very famous detective novel where it’s revealed that the killer is…someone who exhibits the qualities of the killer in TMoRA (it’s possible you’re reading thing without knowing, and I’d hate to ruin it for you, whoever you are…). He didn’t tell me the title of the book but, since I was doing a lot of reading in crime fiction at the time, he was pretty sure I would encounter it before too long — and I distinctly remember thinking that I could always go and ask him what the book was if I didn’t track it down. Well, these months later, I knew I’d found it: it was famous, it was considered a ‘masterpiece’, it was doing the thing that I was told the novel where this happens did…yup, and that’s exactly what happened.
So, friends, I never got to experience Roger Ackroyd completely pure, and as a result I have no idea what my reaction to it might have been (and, in fact, my second Christie was Murder on the Orient Express because I wanted to get it out of the way since I’d somehow — I can only imagine it was via osmosis — picked up the solution to that, too). I remember thinking it was a very clever idea when my friend told me about it, but I didn’t get to experience it properly and so, well, I’m especially keen to preserve it for anyone who doesn’t know it. Others may deem it in the public awareness, the book being 81 years old soon, but I say there are always new people coming to things and we should respect that.
I’m aware that Pierre Bayard has written a book
cashing in on building upon the note of doubt in the solution entitled Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? (2000), and I’ve never had any interest in reading it because…I dunno, it’s never really interested me. The only person I know who has read that book, apart from being insufferably smug about having done so even though it was a set text on their university course, implied that it was all to do with picking apart precise timings, and it doesn’t sound to me like an especially worthwhile endeavour (hell, I could pick apart the precise timings of a lot of detective fiction and offer alternative solutions). It’s not The Poisoned Chocolates Case, that’s not the point Christie was trying to make, and there’s something even now that seems to miss the point in such an endeavour. And talking of missing the point…
I remember catching the Suchet televisation of it (from, it turns out, early 2000, so it’s entirely possible I watched it ‘live’ so to speak) and it ending with the gun wielding killer being chased by Poirot through some sort of factory (?) while taking pot-shots at our duo and (my memory gets hazy here) possibly falling into some sort of machine and so evading justice. And even then, with only one Poirot novel under my belt, I remember thinking “Hmmm, Christie didn’t strike me as the sort of author to have a Thrilling Chase After the Murderer as her denouement”, and I’ve been suspicious of these televisations ever since (and this was back before they were taking the ludicrous liberties of late!). I resolved to keep away from them, I think, precisely because having had two very famous surprises spoiled for me I wanted to make sure there were still going to be some solutions left that I could either be shocked by (hello And Then There Were None, The Moving Finger, Murder is Easy, Peril at End House, The Seven Dials Mystery, Three-Act Tragedy, etc, etc, etc…) or work out myself (take a bow Taken at the Flood, Death in the Clouds, Dumb Witness, Death Comes as the End…).
Looking back, I find it interesting how quickly I got on board with the whole “play along at home” aspect — my reading at the time was mostly thrillers and the odd Ian Rankin or Michael Connelly where the line blurs somewhat — and how new that felt, and how much I looked forward to finally figuring one out. And it was the longest time before I really sought much else in the way of detective fiction — really, Christie was it for me for a good few years before it started to drip into my consciousness that I wanted more puzzles and less Woe-Is-Society-Look-At-How-This-Reflects-The-World-Today (yaaaaaawn).
But that, as they say, is a story for another time…