#336: Highs & Lows – Agatha Christie from The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) to Hallowe’en Party (1969)

Agatha

Wow, those seems like arbitrary dates, hey?  Well, I am up to Hallowe’en Party in my reading of Christie (mostly in order, too…), and will more than likely read the final four novels she wrote — Passenger to Frankfurt (1970), Nemesis (1971), Elephants Can Remember (1972), and Postern of Fate (1973) — this year, and they’re near-universally agreed to be terrible.  So this seems a good point to do some reflecting.

My criteria will perhaps not be the strictest; I’ve been reading Christie since 1999 and over such a long period there will inevitably be problems with recall.  So this is not so much a “Five Best/Worst Books” post as it is a “Here Are Some Overall Impressions I Have from 18+ Years of Reading” and I beg your indulgence over any errors herein.

Okay, let’s go…

Thumb UpI was unaware of the existence of Superintendent Battle until I picked up The Secret of Chimneys (1925), and I didn’t know he was a recurring character until The Seven Dials Mystery (1929).  Battle’s sensible no-nonsense approach is something that really resonated with me at the beginning of my GAD reading, showing that an intelligent detective applying himself without any histrionics can hold the attention just as well as any tic-fuelled Genius Amateur.  It’s a short hop from Battle to my current fixation with Rupert Penny’s Edward Beale and Freeman Wills Crofts’ Joseph French, all brothers under the skin.

Thumb DownYou’ll cry “Foul!” and rend your hair, I know, but I have distinctly unfond memories of Cards on the Table (1936).  Set up as purely psychological deduction, the multiple sleuths seem simply to repeat each others’ ground, confuse events, and pad out the run-time. But the low point for me is having to lie about a witness at the end to force the killer to confess due to having absolutely no evidence.  Maybe I’m misremembering this one, but Leo Bruce showed how to do this with far more elan in the very same year with the vastly superior Case for Three Detectives.

Thumb UpA great part of a weak book: They Do It With Mirrors (1952) has many faults, but the way Christie casually expounds opinions on the way women exploit their beauty, the treatment of young offenders, and open-mindedness about what constitutes family would win her plaudits in today’s society.  The potential for her, as a Woman of a Certain Class who may never has experienced the issues on which she holds forth, to display insensitivity is vast, but there’s a real humanity in her writing that struck me and has stayed with me for a long time.

Thumb DownA weak part of a great book: the sudden parachuting in of Miss Marple for the ending of The Moving Finger (1942) has always bothered me.  Jerry Burton and his sister Joanna are great protagonists, the way that a maid realises who is sending the poison pen letters is one of my favourite moments in the whole of my GAD reading, and its recycling of an idea from a Chesterton story is far more accomplished…but, dammit, Jane keep your nose out of this!  We were doing fine before you stomped in just to put your name on the cover.

Thumb UpDespite (unfairly) not being renowned for the depth of her characters, the lawyer Mr. Bradley in The Pale Horse (1961) is one of the handful of minor players who will stick with me for a long time.  The scene in that book where he outlines the legalistic nature of the central idea of the book is one of the most staggeringly canny pieces of lawyering I remember reading.  Given that Christie was beginning to wane at this point of her career, this is a piece of complexity that sharply reminded you of how good the lady could be.

Thumb DownIts status as a masterpiece is assured, but the ‘murder by bear’ in And Then There Were None (1939) has never convinced me.  Every other aspect of the plot is seamless and perfect, but the scheme employed for this particular death — and late on, too, where failure would spoil everything — is much more likely to fail than succeed.  And I think I feel it extra keenly because the rest is so damn brilliant.  The televisation from a few years ago hugely improved this, but since that never made a point of reading you the poem it probably sailed over most viewers’ heads.

Thumb UpI remember the middle section of Five Little Pigs (1943) being nothing more than a repetition of the first part with one piece of information added.  Nevertheless, the resolution of the cut-and-dried murder of Amyas Crale is preposterously clever, and the emotional punch behind why a woman allowed herself to be arrested and jailed for the crime is simply staggering.  I’m sure others saw through it, but as a young man reading this I had a lump in my throat come the very end, because the choices herein really hit home.  And people say these books have no heart…

Thumb DownThe oft-levelled ignorance when it comes to aspects of race in GAD fiction is in the majority of cases simply a sign of less-enlightened social awareness.  Equally, the idea that a disguise is possible in the manner implied in the Sherlock Holmes canon was thankfully and steadily put to bed over the course of the Golden Age.  Thus far, the nadir of Christie’s writing for me is the conflation of these two things towards the end of Destination Unknown (1954).  If you’ve read it you’ll be aware a) what I mean, but also b) spoilers.

Thumb UpIf I were to pick a Top Five Christie Books That Typically Get Overlooked When People Pick Top Five Christie Books I’d probably go The Seven Dials Mystery (1929), Appointment with Death (1938), Sad Cypress (1940), Hickory Dickory Dock (1955), and The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962).  These I think are the Quality Unloved of her works, though mainly for personal reasons. The theft of the stethoscope in Hickory Dickory Dock is one of my favourite little details in the whole of Christie’s canon.

Thumb DownConversely, if I were to pick five books that failed to live up to whatever hopes I had for them — the ones I look back and have a moment of pause before mentally pulling and unhappy face — they’d be Partners in Crime (1929), Death in the Clouds (1935), Dumb Witness (1937), The Body in the Library (1942), and Towards Zero (1944).  I’m not saying these are the worst of Christie, far from it, and some of them have very clever ideas, but each falls down in a key way for (again) my personal tastes.  They will, of course, warrant re-examination in due course.

~

You are absolutely correct that there are four other Christie books to go, if we’re talking strict publication order: the short story collections Poirot’s Early Cases (1974) and Miss Marple’s Final Cases (1979) comprising stories written earlier in Christie’s career and previously uncollected, and the final two novels featuring these two worthies Curtain (1975) and Sleeping Murder (1976), which were written sometime during the Second World War.

Consider this fair notice given: I’m tempted, once they’re read, to do a Spoiler Warning post on those two final novels as there may (though there may not) be much to discuss about them.  And, on that note, also be forewarned that the next Spoiler Warring — in which Ben and I discuss John Dickson Carr’s The Problem of the Wire Cage (1939) — will be up on this site on Saturday.  Crikey, it’s all happening…

24 thoughts on “#336: Highs & Lows – Agatha Christie from The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) to Hallowe’en Party (1969)

  1. Interesting,and a little surprising, that you include “Death in the Clouds” as a bit of a disappointment. To me, it’s one of Christie’s better novels. OTOH, I find “The Mirror Crack’d” somewhat overrated.

    “Towards Zero” will always live on in my memory because of the identity of the murderer, but otherwise I actually don’t remember much of it, so it may be that I’m overrating it myself because of that excellent surprise I got.

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    • I need to reread Towards Zero, but there’s one part that sticks in my memory as being lifted straight from an Ealing comedy and it just…does not work. Additionally, it was the final Battle book and he’s barely in it – extra disappointment!

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  2. Lots to mull over here. Definitely agree that Miss Marple should have stayed at home in The Moving Finger – they did seem so vastly unnecessary. Also agree on Sad Cypress being an underrated novel. However I would have to disagree with your lower opinion on Partners in Crime (not read for ages but remember being a lot of fun) and Towards Zero. What put you off the last one?

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    • I think my difficulty with PiC is that Christie is deliberately aping other writers and I didn’t have enough of an understanding who they were at the time — probably still don’t now.

      TZ, as I said to Christian, is a weirdly combination of an unfortunate visual image, a lack of Battle, and I seem to remember the central misdirection being clever but waaaaay to ridiculous to actually believe. As ever, take these opinion with a pinch of faulty memory…

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    • I’m assuming that it’s the essential direction that story takes; yeah, perhaps a little callous if used a) by someone so visible at the time, and b) within a small number of years. Don’t know the details myself, but doesn’t sound great…

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  3. This was a fun, personal approach to the topic, JJ . . . therefore, I am going to steal it, probably right down to those delightful “thumbs up/thumbs down” icons! Perhaps we can start a blogosphere-wide movement!

    You and I know how personal and arbitrary are people’s tastes when it comes to . . . oh, anything! but especially to Christie. Some people maintain that At Bertram’s Hotel is great, whereas I know it’s not. However, I still get chills when I read the first chapter because the whole hotel tea scene is just wonderful, and there’s a deep pleasure in watching Miss Marple respond to this hearkening back to the olden days with the pleasure of a young girl – even as she knows from the start that there’s something very wrong about embracing nostalgia. (And you just know Christie knows this, too!)

    I’ll respond to the following of your posts, and again this comes from my opinion:

    1) I like Battle, too, and I know others think he’s just a stick. (In fact, Christie constantly describes him as exactly that – a stick of wood.) However, I think if you re-read Cards on the Table, you will find that it’s more than the sum of the bridge scores. It’s actually quite marvelous. And Towards Zero is a favorite of mine. Like Christian, I was gobsmacked by the killer’s identity (might not be now, but I was then), but I also think it contains one of the greatest misdirections through casual conversation of any of Christie’s books. Oh man, this will have to show up in my own post!

    2) I agree with you about Miss Marple’s lack of presence in TMF, and like you, rather than have MORE of her, I would have just done away with her and let the Burtons take over. They are cool!!

    3) Your “murder by bear” criticism strikes me as indicative of how truly “seat of your pants” much of the killer’s plan must have been. How did they know Rogers would be alone at the right point in the rhyme to be chopped up? If he had said, “I’m through! I’m not serving you crazy people!!” would the killer have had to chop him up somewhere else? Or chop someone else up? What if Dr. Armstrong had not been such a dupe? He had to do an awful lot of stuff to end up washed up on the shore. Any refusal on his part would have been disastrous. Hitting Blore with the bear, of course, is a ridiculous stroke of luck. So is the psychological “deduction” that the case would end up the way it did. The killer bets that Vera will get the upper hand on Lombard. I say the chance was 60-40. And if Lombard had won, he most certainly would not have killed himself. That means the killer would have to bet on the police fastening on Lombard and hanging him . . . something this murderer would not have known to be true.

    Luck! Luck! Luck!!!! But that’s how GAD sometimes works!

    4) Oh, yeah, Mr. Bradley! I have to say this about The Pale Horse: I get no sense of failing powers here! This is a book where we may never take seriously the idea of “murder by witchcraft,” but it doesn’t stop that scene with the three witches from being shocking. And then when we discover the truth about the murders, the very banality/bureaucracy/use of science is so much more chilling, making this the best of all Christie’s thrillers. And Mark/Ginger/Jim are the best heroic trio – and Mrs. Oliver is great here – and with all the cameo appearances and mix of tropes, I just think this book is a love letter to Christie’s fans.

    5) Your “overlooked”/”overrated” Christies are your own personal opinion. Mine would overlap and differ from yours. I do think Body in the Library has such a brilliant opening and is so much a delicious Anthony Berkeley type of parody of 1920’s whodunits that there was almost no way Christie could follow up on this. She simply didn’t have the sense of humor or satire to sustain this notion, and the mystery we’re left with is pretty much a drag. The outrageous change made in the modern Marple episode as to the killer’s identity is flogged for the sexuality aspect, but it actually proves more: that the identity of the killer here almost doesn’t matter and has virtually nothing to do with detection – a pretty big problem with most of the Marples!

    I don’t think Hickory Dickory Dock is underrated. It’s not the best of crime stories, and you could take it apart for the outrageous racism STILL being perpetuated in a later title – but it is so eminently readable and fun that it’s hard not to enjoy. Similarly, I think Partners in Crime is by far the most readable Tommy and Tuppence book, so I enjoy it more than you; however, you are spot on in your criticism of Christie’s application of what she might have known about her fellow writers’ sleuths.

    Sorry to take up so much space. You know me and Christie – and I have enough more for TEN posts!

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    • I look forward to your own tke on this, Brad, especially given your vastly superior recollections and appreciation of the various imbrications of plot character, consequence, and theme in Christie’s work — I’ll even email you the thumbs!

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    • Not at all, it’s fun to be able to sit and reflect over such a long period and see what the standout memories are. And to imagine that someone else actually read it makes it even better…!

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  4. Hmm, there’s enough here stirring my interest that I may have to re-evaluate some of my next Christie reads, or at least bump a few more titles into the queue.

    And, curse you for this post, because I’m going to have to bookmark it and return to it multiple times throughout the years as I finish all of these titles!

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    • Yeah, it’s a tricky one because these are all just the shapes of recollection — I’ll happily admit that I’m likely to be raving about the brilliance of Cards on the Table when I reread it, but that’s part of the fun: I think rereading Christie, on account of how much my perspectives have changed over the length of time I’ve been reading her, is going to cause a lot of upset in my overall impression of her works.

      Time will tell, I guess…

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  5. For a long time, I shared your opinion about Cards on the Table. But rereading it, I actually liked it pretty much. I still think, however, that the murderer is a very boring and perfunctory character, which in a book that is meant to be all about characterisation is IMO a pretty big flaw.

    As characters I not only prefer almost everyone else from Cards on the Table but also basically every murderer Christie wrote in her classic puzzles and even some thrillers like Seven Dials or Man in the Brown Suit. My dislike for the murderer as a character might have been the reason why I disliked the book the first time I read it.

    I always loved Towards Zero for several reasons, but two especially. The first is, that IMO it has the strongest Christie characterisation quantitywise. With that I mean, that some characters in Five little Pig or the Hollow might stand out even more, but some other are a bit weaker characterised. With Towards Zero IMO everyone has above average characterisation. Christie even wrote a believable friendly moment between Ted Latimer and Mary Aldin, two characters who couldn’t be more different.

    The second reason involves some sort of spoiler, so I try to be as vague as possible. Right after Mr Treves tells his story about the murderous child, there’s IMO one of Christie’s best clues, that only becomes obvious on a reread (and I don’t mean anything involving body parts). Let’s just say that it’s important who says what in this scene.

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    • A lot of people love Towards Zero, and I can’t deny the cleverness of the central conceit…well, maybe I’ll adore it when I get round to it again in — counting, coutning — 2023. I’ll be sure to let you know…

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  6. I powered through a lot of Poirot and Marple Christie in my teens so my memory of the books (rather than the TV and Radio adaptations) are unfortunately a little faded. I recall really liking Cards so I will be interested to revisit it and see how it reads as an adult.

    I have not read any Inspector Battle but I will be looking forward to giving him a go based on your enthusiasm!

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    • “Stoic” is the word for Battle — he’s unshowy, unspectacular, I’m fairly sure Christie describes him with a sort of bovine vacant-eyed look…and I honestly wish he’d been in 60 novels all of his very own. I can’t say that he definitely is the archetype for the professional-policeman-as-expert-rather-than-foil, but there’s a lot of stuff that comes after him which is in the same dull, dependable, wonderful mould.

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      • There is definitely a place for that kind of detective. I tend to think that type of character really shows the author’s skills as a plotter. A character with quirk can cover up a dull plot but stick a dull policeman on a dull case and your plotting is really exposed.

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        • Yeah, that is very true — hadn’t considered the number of dull books I’ve read with dull professional policemen as the lead sleuth. Getting it right is very difficult when you have no intwntion of distracting your readers with exciting foibles.

          Imagine! Actually plotting a novel rigorously! How very 1930s, darling!

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  7. “the sudden parachuting in of Miss Marple for the ending of The Moving Finger (1942) ”

    Well, there’s a visual for the ages. And in the new film version – following Branagh’s Orient Express there’s bound to be a renovated Marple too, surely – it has a respectable chance of becoming reality. And possibly a dance number.

    This was very enjoyable browse through your reflections. Though I’ve read most of them, it’s been a little while since I picked up a Christie and it’s given me an itch to reread. I’ve always had a soft spot for Miss Marple, despite agreeing that the actual plots and deductions are generally weaker (and there’s far too much “X is just like Y, ergo…”). They Do It With Mirrors is one of the few I haven’t read, so will have to remedy that.

    Good luck with the last few – it may be a plus to go in with your expectations set to zero for most. And look forward to your thoughts on ‘Curtain’, a decidedly ‘Spoiler Warning’ worthy book if ever there was one.

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    • Your starter for ten is: cast a current actress as a possible Movie Marple for the next 20 years. Is it just the Branagh connection that makes me think Emma Thompson?

      In entirely unrelated opinions, I think Peter Capaldi would make a wonderful…well, anything, but especially Alan Twist if the BBC ever wanted to make version of Paul Halter’s books.

      They Do It with Mirrors is a…not fully accomplished piece of plotting, but the attitudes on display did strike quite a chord with me at the time. But then my favourite Marple is (currently) The Mirror Crack’d ,which will have everyone spitting out their soup and angrily demanding I vow allegiance to A Murder is Announced. Well, I ain#t haning it, guv’nor…

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  8. Pingback: GOOSEBUMPS: THE CHRISTIE EDITION | ahsweetmysteryblog

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