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…
I 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.
You’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.
A 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.
A 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.
Despite (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.
Its 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.
I 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…
The 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.
If 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.
Conversely, 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.