Agatha Christie

A Bit of a Relief

After my bad experience with Agatha Christie’s mystery set in Ancient Egypt, it was quite a relief to get back to the English countryside, and doubly so to find that the next Christie book in my TBR pile had the typical Christie mix of entertainment and intrigue with just enough character development to give the reader the information they need to try to guess at the murderer.

Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie

Sleeping Murder (which, according to the cover is Miss Marple’s Last Case) was published in 1976, but somehow feels a coupe of decades earlier… in my opinion, a good thing.  And yes, Agatha Christie died a few months before its publication.

Had she lost a step?  I really didn’t think so while reading it–it felt very similar to the work she did in her heyday but–and this isn’t necessarily conclusive evidence–I was able to guess the murderer at a very early stage, and none of Christie’s handwaving made me change my mind.  That’s unusual in the extreme, and I don’t recall doing it all that often (I’d say I guess in maybe one of five caes).

Of course, many of Christie’s books flirt with the concept of fairness.  They’re not murder mysteries in which all the clues are presented objectively so the reader can work alongside the detective, but they are usually veiled and incomplete.  They are more mystery entertainment than actual play-along-with-me kind of mysteries.

Nevertheless, once you know a little about how Agatha Christie works, you can often predict where she’ll go, and in this case it was particularly easy.

Even taking this into account, and despite being a Marple mystery (I personally much prefer Poirot), it was a very enjoyable quick read.  I guess it takes a slipup like the Egyptian thing to make one realize just how consistently good Agatha Christie really was.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s own take on the mystery / thriller genre is anything but cozy.  Timeless is a chilling transition from an intellectual literary mystery to a world of international criminals, violence and murder.  You can check it out here.

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Agatha Christie’s Worst Book?

I raved about the last Agatha Christie book I read.  It captured my attention and kept me reading long after I should have been in bed.

Not every book can be that good, of course, not even from the Queen of Crime, but the rest had been decent also, giving me a healthy respect for her ability to write consistently.  Well, as it turns out, she was capable of utter clunkers as well.

Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie

Of course, Christie didn’t forget how to write a murder mystery, so the parts where people get killed and other people try to figure it all out is all right (not as brilliant as in other books, but decent).  If she’d stuck to that, this one would have been passable.

But she didn’t, and the book went off the rails.

Let’s see what happened.

The big mistake was that she decided to set the murder mystery in Ancient Egypt.  I can see why that might have been attractive: exotic, interesting and, most importantly, different from what she normally did.  It would make the critics sit up and take notice.

Well, it certainly achieved its intended effect of being different, but not necessarily in a good way.  Christie ran into major issues right from the outset.

The first problem she had was that she tried to create an in-depth character study of the men and women in the household.  Even though she succeeded in giving us their personalities, the scene-setting failed spectacularly because we ended up hating every single one of them.  The men were flawed but nearly bearable, but all the women were shrews of the highest order.  While it might have been a realistic portrayal of what life is like when a lot of women are concentrated together (Christie would know more about that than I do), it doesn’t make for attractive reading.  I found myself wishing for a convenient asteroid to wipe them all out.

Worse, the table setting went on for the first 100 pages of the book.  Fortunately, after that, Christie began killing people so the rest of the book was better.

Better, but not perfect, and the reason is unsurprising.

The magic of Christie’s books depends, in my opinion, on the sheer familiarity of the setting and characters.  England in the 20th century (or even France or whatever when the books make you travel) is a place we know.  We might have every single detail wrong, but it exists in our heads as a familiar landscape.  So when Christie tells us about a cottage in the country, it springs to mind, flower garden and all.  The same with an elderly gentleman or aging spinster.  They are all archetypes, and Christie uses that familiarity not only to avoid having to write about them in detail, but also to throw the reader off the scent.  Her murderers often hide behind our own preconceptions.

But what image or idea does a 21st century reader have of a country house in Ancient Egypt?  Despite the constant mention of crops and cattle, I kept seeing an adobe house in the middle of a desert.  I have to concentrate to understand the imagery correctly.

In my own particular case, a good part of the pleasure of reading one of these books is to be taken on a trip into the kindler, gentler society of the 20th century.

In that, as in much else, this one fails.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose latest book is a monster thriller entitled Ice Station: Death.

In Order, No Less

Serial killers are fascinating to me only because of the obsessive quality of their work; I don’t really care for the actual murder part of it…  Which probably explains why I enjoy Agatha Christie’s work.  Her cases, though involving the sordid occurrence of the death of one or more human beings, always steer away from any suggestion of violence or mess:  “Ooh. There’s a cadaver, let’s see who made it.”

The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie

The ABC Murders, though not considered one of Christie’s best, is interesting as it brings Christie’s style to the personality of a serial killer.  The sequence of murders is in alphabetical order, and they are all announced by a note giving warning.

After that setup, however, the rest of the book is classic Christie.  Poirot enters stage right and, though others appear to be leading the investigation, takes command.  He guides us through the plot and reminds us to keep an open mind even when things appear to be leaning strongly in one direction.

His cryptic comments keeping everyone honest are the reason this one stays fair, and I’ll give it high marks in that regard.  Also, readability is supreme, as is the obsession factor to know whodunnit.  I read it in a single day, unable to go to bed without knowing how it finished.

High marks and a good place to keep going once you’ve read the obvious candidates (Roger Ackroyd, Orient Express).

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist whose novel Outside is science fiction, but with an underlying mystery that should make Christie fans happy.  You can check it out here.

 

Does it Have to Be Fair?

Hercule Poirot

If you were to ask a million people what makes a detective story good, you might get a whole bunch of different responses, everything from that the murder be nice and bloody and happen to someone who deserves it (or who, though undeserving of being murdered, perhaps is annoying enough that we enjoy it), to the fact that the detective is someone unexpected.

However, and this is pure speculation as I have no way to ask a million people a question (and if I did, this probably wouldn’t be the question I’d choose), I believe that there are two answers that would come up more than the rest combined.

The first is the interest factor.  If the butler did it with the revolver in the billiards room, no one cares.  It’s been done before.  So to keep people’s interest, the writer needs to get clever either in the method, the culprit or the motive.  So if the butler’s invalid mother committed the murder using a poison distilled from the teeth of a Venus flytrap, because she wanted to take the rear-view mirror from the victim’s antique Bentley, readers who like originality will be happy.

The second major preference in my utterly hypothetical scientific study would be those who want to have a chance to beat the detective at his or her own game.  These would insist that the keys to discovering the murder must be given to the reader, no mater how fiendishly disguised.  In fact, the more cleverly hidden, the better; true experts aren’t interested in the thrill of a hollow victory.  They want to earn it.  But to do so, there must be no ambiguity, and the clues must point to a single possible resolution.

The perfect mystery story would have both of these characteristics at the same time.  It would be both original and fair.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen, which creates a Venn diagram with a couple of circles that do touch, but not as often as would be ideal.

After the Funeral by Agatha Christie

So where are we going with this?  Well, we’re looking at a specific book, and through it at a particular author.  The book is After the Funeral and the author is Agatha Christie.  I’ll try not to spoil it for anyone.

(By the way, we’ve looked at Agatha Christie before, but that was through the lens of what made her a megagazillion bestselling author–not looking at her as a pure specimen of a mystery writer.)

This is a typical Christie book in that everything, including the murder, is in doubt until the very end.  From a reasonably large sample size that also includes her more well-known titles, I’d have to say that this is a fairly typical showing.  If someone put a gun to my head and asked me where Christie falls on the spectrum discussed above (again, is that the question anyone would ask another person while threatening them with death?), I’d place her firmly on the “originality” side of the Venn diagram with one foot occasionally, but certainly not permanently in the “fairness” circle.

This isn’t to say that Christie doesn’t give certain clues, or that it’s always impossible to guess at what’s happening, but her objective, I believe, was more to make her audience say ‘coo, that was clever’ (she was British, the British say this sort of thing) than to slap themselves in the forehead and say ‘of course! That was why the goose swallowed the revolver!’

But, at the same time, there is certainly a soft focus to the clues in many of her mysteries.  While the resolution arrived at by Poirot or Marple or whoever might fit all the clues, there is always a fuzzy border in which the clues also fit other answers.  These are usually discarded by Poirot after he goes on an undisclosed trip to talk to someone off camera.

That’s fine, and I think half of the people who read these books will not be overly concerned with that… But the other half might, and considering Christie’s status, they might be put off mystery fiction forever.

Of course, as a writer in a different genre, I am not unduly bothered by this.  A failed mystery or a perceived unfairness in a Christie novel might simply drive them to one one of my books instead (hooray).  So I’m not complaining!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is the author of Outside, an SF novel with a mystery at its core which may or may not be fair, but it will definitely both shock and surprise you.  You can buy it at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Queen of Crime: A Midlist Report

Elephants Can Remember by Agatha Christie

If you’ve never read a book by Agatha Christie, you’d be silly to begin with anything other than The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or Murder on the Orient Express.  These are clearly the two “must read” Christies, and act in the same way that The Great Gatsby does for Fitzgerald: the rest of the books might be decent, but there’s a reason these two in particular stand out.

But, as witnessed by the fact that she is the best-selling novelist of all time, it’s pretty clear that most people don’t stop at these two.  They read on and on and on.  The questions we aim to answer today are: 1) why? and 2) is it worth it?

In order to make a run at these, I’ll use three Christie books I recently read: Elephants Can Remeber, Nemesis and Murder on the Links.  These three are a couple of Poirots and a Miss Marple, so a reasonable selection.

Before answering the question, though, I found something interesting: Nemesis was not set in a soft-focus prewar era, but actually in a much more modern milieu.  That ultimately made little difference to its effectiveness as a mystery but somehow, cozy mysteries are just that bit less cozy without some kind of Edwardian-ness about them.

Anyhow, with these three as the star exhibit (I won’t go into plots here – anyone aware of Christie’s methods knows it’s difficult to avoid spoilers if one gets into details) I’ll try to answer the quesions.

Nemesis by Agatha Christie

1)  Why do people read more that one or two of the non-superstar Christie books.  I think there’s a couple of reasons for this one.  The first is the fun of trying to work out who the killer is alongside the detective.  Christie’s lesser work might not be quite as good as her best, but with her, you know that the mystery is going to be interesting and fair to the reader.  You’ll be given a chance to solve it.

Another reason is, I believe, comfort with the characters and scenario.  The grisly, life-shattering effects of any murder are glossed over to focus on the surviving characers and the detective.  No scenes of blood spattered bathrooms or bodies in excrement-filled sewers here, just a clean dead body that starts a process of deduction.  Also, the characters speak in familiar ways and plow familiar furrows.  They are books you can relax into.

Finally, they are entertaining.  Whatever their status as classics, you can certainly count on them to help you pass a pleasant two or three hours and, really, what else can you ask from a book of this kind?

The Murder on the Links

2) Is it worth it?  That’s the crux of the question, isn’t it?  There are more books out there than any human can possibly hope to read, so why bother with anything other than an author’s best?

Well, the reasons above are a good start, but they clearly don’t work for everyone.  Many people will answer the question above with “Don’t bother with anything else,” and they’d have a perfectly valid point.

In my own case, I find that a little Christie novel is the perfect balm after reading something a bit more literary and dense, an Eco, maybe, or some Joyce.  I enjoy a good mystery as much as the next fellow, and these are pretty much always decent, if not necessarily brilliant, and I don’t have to worry about subtext and symbolism (the body was buried in a bunker on the eighth hole… is that symbolic of something?  Sand being the end of all life?).

To others, Christie is exactly the right level for all their reading.  Even very well-educated people might not feel like diving into Kierkegaard after a hard day at the office, and that’s just fine.  And some people can’t be bothered to read anything harder than this – which is also fine; at least their not watching a reality show featuring a Kardashian.  That counts for a hell of a lot in my book.

Whatever the theoretical answer, reality has already given us the real response: Yes.  To many, many people it certainly is worth it.  The illustrations above show the most recent editions of these books, but most, if not all, of them have been continuously in print since they were first published – and the most recent was released in 1975: 43 years ago.

Yeah, she knew what she was doing, and even the internet age hasn’t dulled that.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer.  The characters in his novel Outside face a 500-year-old mystery that has a completely unexpected resolution.