With the self-imposed “every two months” deadline for episodes being a little difficult to maintain, it nevertheless gives me great pleasure to present to you today a new episode of our increasingly-occasional podcast The Men Who Explain Miracles.
Recorded in the wake of the 2019 Bodies from the Library conference when Mr. Bradley Friedman was over in London, this week sees Brad and myself sitting down to take a somewhat unstructured meander through the impossible crime novels of Dame Agatha Christie.
The precise contents of the episode are fairly self-explanatory, and covered in the episode itself, so I shall not go on besides to say that a) we don’t go into any spoiler details on anything, though we do throw a few broad hints around about other, non-impossible books, and b) the Christie novels explicitly discussed herein are:
The Sittaford Mystery (1931)
Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (1934)
Murder in Mesopotamia (1936)
Appointment With Death (1938)
Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938)
And Then There Were None (1939)
Sad Cypress (1940)
Sparkling Cyanide (1945)
The Pale Horse (1961)
We get into why these titles were selected in the discussion, so again I don’t really feel the need to get into that. Okay, think that’s all you need; hope you enjoy the following…
All that remains is to thank Brad for his insight, and to tell you that next Saturday there will be a second part to this episode when Dan joins in, having thankfully fought off that giant octopus, and the three of us do some personal reflection on Christie and her work. If that sounds like it might be interesting, here’s hoping that impression doesn’t turn out to be false.
28 thoughts on “#564: The Men Who Explain Miracles – Episode 10.1: The Impossible Crime Novels of Agatha Christie”
Gentlemen – I loved this conversation so much, so thank you for doing this. Brad is so eloquent and passionate about Christie it is a pleasure to get to hear him talk.
I think you make some excellent points about the issues that Christie sometimes has with her impossible mysteries and I was fascinated and persuaded by JJ’s view on HP’s Crimbo (to use Dame Agatha’s original title) and by your perspectives on the endless discussion of who ate which sandwiches and drank from which cups in Sad Cypress.
A little bit of me does wonder if we might consider Mysterious Affair at Styles impossible on the topic of how the poison could have been administered to Emily. Not that it is necessarily a particularly satisfying one!
I know that I suggested Styles, Aidan, But JJ either nixed it or said he couldn’t remember enough about it. (Bad JJ!) I remember there’s an actual locked room element that gets dashed when they find an open door! But the poisoning method is really clever – although you probably need to have worked in a hospital dispensary during the war to figure it out.
That locked door ‘puzzle’ is extremely anticlimactic but you are right that the poisoning method is very clever indeed albeit a little too clever for this reader!
Huh, I remember not a thing about it. Expect much mea culpa when I reread Styles in 2020 (probably…)
I will look forward to hearing your thoughts when you do. I am genuinely on the fence about it.
Well, next year being its centenary seems a perfect opportunity to dig down into such matters, eh?
I couldn’t remember Styles, and so you can 100% blame me for its absence. But this at least means we can do a follow-up episode when Brad’s over for Bodies again next year, right?
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Sure! Let’s get that Go Fund Me campaign going right away . . .
That was brilliant! That was a very insightful, in-depth discussion which really made me think about key aspects of how Carr, Christianna, and Christie constructed their plots. I think you’re right about HP’s Christmas being consciously written to fit a different mode of crime fiction to Christie’s usual. Brad mentioned the setup of “rich guy tells kids he’s changing his will, then shuts himself in his rooms”. If I remember rightly, isn’t HPC just that?
Also, I really want to read a murder mystery featuring Mothra now. Someone needs to make it happen!
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I LOVED the original Mothra . . . . Well, I loved the Peanuts as the miniature twin princesses singing the Mothra theme song!!
Ha, yeah, HP’s Christmas is exactly that sort of book…and maybe that’s also a factor in why I enjoy it less, because she’s normally so good at avoiding these tropey setups and — while her characters and plots aren’t exactly envelope-pushing — giving us something a bit more interesting in the process.
Brilliant! Looking forward to next week’s episode, though you ought to get your stories straight as to what happened to Dan. One person says he was fighting an octopus, another says he was sweat lodge… If I was in a detective novel I would say that was a fishy discrepancy…
The truth of the matter is that Dan is a beekeeper, and while he was sitting in his little yard preparing notes for our discussion, the entire hive attacked him. You can read all about this harrowing incident in Dan’s new blog, The Reader Is Swarmed.
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Well, we’re only going off what Dan told us, and I hadn’t realised he’d been selling different stories. Hmmm, that alibi of his for the night of the bog bond robbery is looking ropier and ropier…
Plus, where did he get all those bank bonds from, eh? I don’t think he found them in his box of Corn Flakes as claimed. We’re onto you, Daniel…
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Well, I know some busybody is going to come in here and point out that there are in fact several other short stories that fall into the category of impossible crimes, such as “The Sign in the Sky” (from Quin), “Murder in the Mews” (from, ahem, Mews), “A Christmas Tragedy” (from 13 Problems) and “The Million Dollar Bond Robbery” (from Poirot Investigates). In fact, I’d pronounce the latter just as much an out and out impossible crime as HP’s Christmas.
And that busybody will probably also mention that the story from The Regatta Mystery which is the impossible crime is not the one JJ tried to pronounce, “Problem at Pollensa Bay”, but in fact the title story.
But at least that saves me the effort. 🙂
Otherwise, a very interesting conversation. Brad’s enthusiasm is palpable and I think you both bring out some of the key points of some of these stories, without spoiling them for anyone. Now, when you talked about “And Then There Were None”, you mentioned that there are two other stories where we get to follow the murderer’s thoughts, but isn’t there in fact a third? Though that killer is deranged, so what we do get of their thoughts is somewhat obscured by that.
Thanks heavens neither of the people involved in this discussion has a much-discussed lifelong devotion to the works of Dame Agatha, is all I can say, otherwise those omissions might look embarrassing for them. For my part, I find Christie’s short stories remarkably difficult to recall, which is a discussion Brad and I had off-mic and a key factor — along with time — in not discussing them this time around. But, as I say, there’s always next year 🙂
Is there a third story where we follow the killer’s thoughts? I can think of one where we follow the thoughts of a red herring, but nothing jumps to mind beyond the two novels I hope it’s clear Brad and I are talking about here. Wow, how to resolve this? In fact, maybe let’s not, because if you start getting into “Oh, yeah, it’s one you haven’t read” territory” I have so few left to read that something will end up gigantically spoiled. Maybe wait until I’ve done them all and then we’ll come back to this. Assuming we remember.
Not had a chance to listen yet, but perchance shouldn’t the first murder in Three Act Tragedy count as impossible?
I’m going to let JJ field that one! (Hint: his reply to that question was, “No, no, no, no and no!”)
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So poisoning a victim by making the target pick the only poisoned glass out of twelve? Sounds pretty darn impossible to me…
Nah, not when the workings of it are revealed. There’s nothing clever about as there is with, say, the similar problem in The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji.
It only appears very difficult and unlikely in TAT as opposed to an outright impossibility, for one, and the revelation, as I say, removes it from consideration in my eyes.
However, anyone who wants to do a blog post listing Ten Reasons JJ is Wrong About Three Act Tragedy Not Being An Impossible Crime is more than welcome; my ego could probably do with being brought down a peg or twelve.
But surely when the workings are revealed, nothing is impossible. And in my book, the utter simplicity of that one places it higher than something that takes three whiteboards to explain. That was Christie’s gift, after all…
Great Episode. From a purely technical point of view of how it was done, Mesopotamia is probably Christie’s best impossible crime novel. I like Hercule Poirot’s Christmas better, but the locked room part is IMO not the most interesting part of the book.
Slight spoiler to Appointment with Death:
I wouldn’t count Appointment with Death as an impossible crime novel, because there are several possibilities remaining basically during the whole novel (1. Ginny Boynton, who was in the camp the whole time, did it, 2. Dr. Gérard only pretended to have Malaria and did it or 3. Sarah King lied/was mistaken and therefore everybody could have done it)
\Appointment with Death was one Brad wasn’t so sure about, but the issue of the reader being told nothing that was false brings it into the fold for me. If we wish to be strictly accurate about a lack of false testimony, more than a few classic “impossible” crimes don’t qualify — I wrote about that here, if anyone’s interested — and so if we accept those problems as they appear my feeling is that AwD also gets a pass.
But, yeah, I completely get your point, and many others would agree with you. It’s surprising how many shades of grey can be introduces when one really digs down into these things — look at my post from Saturday about clewing and “fair play” in GAD…as soon as you think a thing is settled, there’s always another point of view!
Spoilers for “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas”.
In the discussion of this novel in the podcast you pointed out the double meaning in the line “Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?” (The first meaning being the allusion to Shakespeare, and the second beng the physical clue: how could one victim have produced the quantity of blood found at the crime scene?)
But the brilliance of this line is that it has a third meaning! The word “blood” is a metaphor for family relationship and consanguinity (in phrases like “blood is thicker than water”). So the line is really asking, “who would have thought the old man had so many sons?”
…but surely they already know he has lots of sons. I’m not sure I can agree with your reading it in this way, but that’s the beauty of subjectivity.
Incidentally, the phrase “blood is thicker than water” is a misquote. It originally came from, I believe, “blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb” and means the exact opposite of how it’s used these days. I learned this recently and it’s my new favourite fact — thanks for the opportunity to roll it out 😊
I don’t mean that the character (Lydia) intends the third meaning—clearly she has no inkling at that point. It’s a wink from Christie to the reader.
I love the third meaning, Gareth, and I could kick myself for not thinking of it! A possible fourth meaning suddenly strikes me: if we think of blood as indicating strength and spirit (I.e., the blood rushing to one’s head), Simeon Lee would seem too feeble to have put up the fight it took to destroy that room. Another layer of clueing in one line!!!
God, I love Christie!
Incidentally, I do not believe the claim about the origins of “blood is thicker than water” being reversed. The claim is mentioned in Wikipedia, but I looked at the references and found no evidence presented for it. Albert Jack just states the claim baldly, giving no source. James Lindemann sources the claim to Henry Trumbull’s The Blood Covenant (1885), but I looked at Trumbull and he does not make any such claim.