Ten interesting Agatha Christie novels

agatha-christieTo commemorate the 125th birthday anniversary of Agatha Christie (September 15, 2015) her estate commissioned a world-wide poll to find out what’s the World’s Favourite Christie. You can find the results here at agathachristie.com, as well as interesting background and links to other interesting stuff. However, I’ll reproduce an ordered list here for your convenience.

  1. And Then There Were None (which has sold more than one hundred million copies)
  2. Murder on the Orient Express
  3. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
  4. Death on the Nile
  5. The ABC Murders
  6. A Murder is Announced
  7. 4:50 From Paddington
  8. Evil Under the Sun
  9. Five Little Pigs
  10. Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case

This announcement was followed closely by an article in the Guardian by well-known crime/thriller writer Val McDermid wherein she claimed that The Murder at the Vicarage — which you will note didn’t make the list — is “the best Christie as opposed to the most popular”. You can read it for yourself here. McDermid talks about her childhood experience with this particular book as her introduction to detective fiction, and that she had read it again and again.  This  makes me think that, like my childhood experience with John Dickson Carr‘s The Red Widow Murders that has given me a lifetime’s affection for what is essentially a mediocre thriller, her childhood experience might be colouring her opinion. But TMATV is really a very, very good mystery, unlike Red Widow.

Both pieces caused a small flurry of discussion in my Facebook group devoted to Golden Age detection. There was the usual back-and-forth about the relative positioning of novels on the list, or the presence or absence of a particular title. What it made me think about was what was being championed. McDermid was clear that she wanted to talk about “the best-written Christie” whereas the Christie estate called it “favourite”. Similarly my colleagues and friends in Facebook and the blogosphere had worthwhile things to say about a number of Christie novels and suggestions for what their own top-ten list might contain.

Agatha-Christie-pictured--002I thought it might be useful to take a more consumer-oriented look with a slightly different focus, based on my self-selected role as a “curator” of such things. Sometimes I conceive of my role as a kind of consumer advocate, to be sure; “This book is worth your time/money/effort and this one is not.” But I also think part of my role is to bring to a knowledgeable readership things which will not necessarily make the top ten list, like novels with flaws or problems, but which reveal something interesting about the author, or are an attempt to try something new — even a magnificent failure here and there.

Here, therefore, is my list of “Ten interesting Agatha Christie novels”. I will say emphatically that these are in no particular order; in fact, they’re all about equal. Perhaps if you’ve finished someone else’s choices for the top ten you might move on to these. And of course I’ll provide a reason as to why a particular volume might pique your interest. The top ten are in no danger of being ignored, but these you might have overlooked.

119865642_6books_375265cThe Murder at the Vicarage (1930)

I’ll step right up to the plate and agree with Val McDermid. This is the first Miss Marple novel and it is the one in which her character is the most “pure”; she is described as being “dangerous”. This is not the fluffy and slightly scattered little old lady of later years. This is a woman with a mind like a steel trap and an acute sense of the squalid lives and minor-league wickedness of nearly everyone in her vicinity. And it is, as I’ve remarked elsewhere recently, a novel of manners. Okay, not Jane Austen, but certainly the central focus of the book is a scandalous love affair.

christie_crooked-houseCrooked House (1949)

A non-series standalone mystery with a truly surprising plot twist at the end. Christie herself spoke of it as one of her personal favourites and it’s one of mine also. There’s not much to it, plot-wise; a wealthy patriarch supports a large family of eccentrics and when he is murdered, there’s a long list of suspects.  It has a similar solution to an earlier Ellery Queen novel that I will not closely identify, just to say that it’s clear that Christie didn’t do this first. But she cleverly uses the reader’s assumptions against him/her.

482b49a5680ac8ced684e8847696fa26Death Comes as the End (1945)

This is a historical mystery set in ancient Egypt, and it reads surprisingly well. Christie was at this point married to archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan, so I’m ready to believe that the details are correct. What is surprising and pleasant about this novel is that it is very restrained about those details; it’s not so much about the details of Pharaoh’s court but more like where and how food is kept in a large household of the period. The mystery is not difficult but the book is quite engaging.

UnknownEndless Night (1967)

I’m sure many experienced readers will disagree with this being on anyone’s “best” list. It’s not on mine either. This is, however, a book with a plot twist that is overshadowed by Christie having used it before, but which is still a solid hoodwinking of the reader. It is flawed, partly by Christie having not really understood at this late point in her life what young people were taking for granted and partly by most people having first experienced it through a ghastly filmed version that ruthlessly sucked the intelligence out of the work. But I encourage its naysayers to give it another look; the concept is great, the writing is head and shoulders most books she wrote at this late stage, and it showed she was ready to try something new and different.

Unfinished_Portrait_First_Edition_CoverUnfinished Portrait (1934)

As by Mary Westmacott. Simply put, this is what an Agatha Christie novel reads like when she hasn’t put a murder into it; a story about a shy girl who is in the middle of a divorce who comes to terms with her past. You may think this has something in parallel with Christie’s own life. I think it’s interesting that she wrote this nearly simultaneously with Murder on the Orient Express. I’m not going to claim that Christie was in any sense held back by writing about series characters, but I think much of her non-series work has a more casual tone that suits her writing skills very well.

SpidersWebFinalweb1Spider’s Web (2000)

As novelized by Charles Osborne. I would actually recommend that you seek out a theatrical production of this play on video, if you can find one; it was originally written as a play specifically for Margaret Lockwood and it’s a wonderful starring vehicle for a 30-something actress. It’s also an interesting experience for a Christie aficionado because it recycles ideas and materials from a handful of other Christie short stories and novels, and it’s fun to think, “Oh, THAT’s from that short story about the movie star…”  The mystery is clever and the characterization is excellent. The Charles Osborne version seems to postpone all the tension in the book to a series of revelations at the end of the novel, boom boom boom like a fireworks display, but the play is balanced and fun. I do regret the addition of the character of the adolescent girl — generally, not an appealing aspect to an on-stage production for me — but apparently Margaret Lockwood’s real-life daughter was supposed to play the role.

12-hollowThe Hollow (1946)

This is a Poirot novel in which Christie later mentioned she wished she hadn’t included Poirot. I’m not sure if this would have made it better or worse. I do think this could have been a magnificent novel if she had taken more care in writing it. The character of Henrietta Savernake is beautifully written and wonderfully realistic; so much better-written than the rest of the novel that it’s quite jarring.  In particular the character of Lady Angkatell is … well, to me, just awful. Cardboard with a sign around her neck that says “eccentric peeress”. One great character, one terrible character, all adds up to a sadly flawed novel. But the central premise, the identity of the murderer, takes me back to an Anthony Berkeley novel I read not too long ago in which the author is playful with the idea of the “least likely suspect”. I think people have overlooked just how clever this novel is in that respect. Robert Barnard joins me in esteeming this one.

8849123536_95d37523a0The Big Four (1927)

As I noted above, I do like the occasional magnificent failure. This failure isn’t even really magnificent, but it is of interest to the student of vanished literary sub-genres. This is a novel of “international intrigue and espionage”, with which we certainly do not associate Agatha Christie as an expert. But this is a bizarre and highly melodramatic thrill-ride which I don’t believe anyone is meant to take seriously, and this particular type of novel pretty much vanished at about this time. It’s rather like E. Phillips Oppenheim or Edgar Wallace; vast international criminal conspiracies and the highest political stakes, and poor Hercule Poirot seems rather out of place. This is also cobbled together out of a set of short stories, which doesn’t happen much these days; it produces wild shifts in tone and atmosphere and these things disconcert the reader. The high points are the presence of Vera Rossakoff and the only appearance of Poirot’s twin brother Achille.

UnknownN or M? (1941)

The material in this novel of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford interests me because it’s one of Christie’s few attempts to deal directly with World War II. Poirot and Marple, we know, did not serve their country in any way other than solving mysteries while the constabulary was at war. The Beresfords did their bit as government agents, however, and this novel contains quite a bit of background colour about daily life in wartime, with rationing and black-out curtains and all. Unfortunately Christie chose to focus on the espionage aspect rather than a straightforward mystery and the result is somewhat tepid and inevitable. (If there is a wartime British novel wherein the triumph over German spies is not a 100% certainty, I’d like to see it.)

Ten Little Niggers (1939)

Let me say right off the bat, I don’t like that word any more than you do. But given the fact that it is the original title of the book that the Christie estate has just finished declaring is the favourite Christie novel (now known as And Then There Were None), and it’s sold 100,000,000 copies, I think it should be a point of honour for the true Christie student to track this down and see how this book originated. I have said elsewhere and will repeat here that I don’t think it is a good idea to censor history. It is important to say, when we are forced to use that distasteful word, that it is merely to remind ourselves that people used to use this word and we do not use it today; simply put, we have to know what we hate about this word’s meaning and history in order to combat it more effectively. If we bowdlerize it out of the literature then we run the risk of future generations thinking of this sort of linguistic bullying as something new and fresh, rather than something that has been disparaged by correct-thinking people in the intervening generations.

That being said — once its title was mercifully changed, this is a superb novel. If you have only seen adaptations on television, you’d be well advised to go back and find out how it all got started because, indeed, it was made much more cheery for stage and video productions. In the original, there is no happy ending; there is no love story. And there are more murders committed or disclosed in this one novel than in any other Christie title, or indeed a random half-dozen Christie titles added together. All the characters are unpleasant criminals and there’s a kind of morbid pall, and fear of retribution, that hangs over the novel very effectively.

And so I’ll throw this open to my audience. What Agatha Christie novels do you particularly cherish that have been left off top ten lists? What have we all overlooked in Christie’s work that we ought to have read?