Crooked House by Agatha Christie
Originally published in 1949
Charismatic businessman and patriarch Aristide Leonides has been poisoned in his own home. Charles Hayward hoped to marry Leonides’ granddaughter Sophia, yet instead finds himself in the midst of a dangerous mystery. The eye of suspicion falls heavily on Aristide’s second wife – the cuckoo in the nest was decades younger than her husband, and perhaps she couldn’t wait a few more years for the hefty inheritance she was due. The atmosphere inside the great house is thick with intrigue, and Charles is scrambling for the truth when a second attempted murder shocks the family to their core. Surely the killer couldn’t be among them? It appears that the murderer knows the Leonides family all too well, and their reign of terror is far from over…
In my first few years of running this blog I embarked on a reading project to read and write about all of the non-series Christie novels. I got off to a pretty good start but as is often the case with these ongoing efforts, the project stalled when I hit a book I really didn’t enjoy (no names here – I’ll try it again at some point in the future and will, no doubt, absolutely love it). I ended up starting to reread the Poirot novels and got caught up in that, doing a pretty good job of reading about one a month.
So, why am I interrupting that run to write about Crooked House? Well, there are a few reasons but chief among them is that I finally broke down and bought some of the gorgeous Folio Society reprints of Christie’s works and as I didn’t want to jump ahead to Five Little Pigs, reading this next seemed like the smart choice. It also helped that this is one of the more highly regarded titles that I hadn’t read before in spite of now owning (checks shelves) four copies of it.
Charles Hayward meets Sophia Leonides while in Cairo during World War II. The pair are attracted to one another and Charles would have proposed except that he did not want to burden her with an engagement while he was still on foreign service. He plans instead to seek her out upon his return to England.
When he returns he reads in the newspapers about the death of her grandfather, Aristide Leonidies – a hugely successful businessman. He meets with Sophia again who tells him that she cannot marry him as it appears that her grandfather may have been murdered as someone had replaced his insulin with his eserine-based eye drops. She is concerned that unless the matter is resolved without scandal, that to be connected with Sophia might cause Charles and his family harm.
Charles visits his father, an Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, to learn more about the case and becomes informally involved with the investigation. He hopes that if he can find the truth it will remove the impediment to their marriage so they can finally be together.
One of the challenges with any amateur sleuth story is coming up with a compelling reason for that character to investigate. Christie’s solution here is one of the best I have come across, combining high personal stakes with a connection to the formal investigation which allows for multiple levels of access as Charles shifts from family friend to informal police helper and back again, sometimes within the same interaction.
The biggest objection to such a setup is that it is rather unprofessional on the part of the police. This is not so much with regards his presence in the house, which Sophia could easily rescind if she wished, but the sharing of information with a man who is intimately connected with someone who ought to be one of the suspects. As unwise as that may be, I am not surprised that Sir Arthur would be willing to do that given the circumstances and his desire to protect and help his son.
The setting for the story, the curious Three Gables house in which all of the Leonides family are living, is as interesting as its inhabitants. Sophia describes it as crooked and while I was initially unsure exactly how that was meant, I appreciated that the aptness of that word as a description becomes more and more apparent as the story unfolds. I also love how the house can be seen as a reflection of the family that inhabit it.
I found the Leonides family to be a really interesting mix of individuals. It is not just that they have a variety of occupations and personality types but that Christie explores the complexities of their relationships with each other. Resentments have clearly existed for years but while Aristide was alive they were manageable. In his absence however they begin to be voiced as the balance within the group breaks down. It’s a fascinating study of family dynamics and while this family may have some rather unusual figures within it, I felt those relationships were really well-observed and far more subtle than they initially may seem.
The problem with discussing those characters as individuals in any depth is that I would run the risk of spilling their secrets. Instead let me say that even the characters who are given the least to do make an impression and that I found it unusually easy to keep straight how each of the characters were related to one another. I don’t think any of the family are particularly likable – even Sophia, who is by far the most appealing of the group courtesy of Charles’ feelings for her, has moments where she can seem quite sharp – but I enjoyed learning more about them and seeing their personalities emerge as they respond to the events, some of which are pretty surprising.
The investigation itself is not based so much on any material evidence as it is on understanding the psychology and relationships that exist between these people. There is little focus, for instance, on the matter of who had the opportunity to switch the medication. Instead Charles is given a list of characteristics by those formal investigators that he should look out for in his interactions with the various suspects.
That list of characteristics will prove important and I do commend Christie on ultimately following through on them and in fact referring back to them during the reveal at the end of the novel, but I do question how credible they are. It is quite daring of Christie to be as specific as she is here and I think it speaks to her confidence that her solution would be surprising regardless. I do think however that the idea we should simply be looking for someone to match the profile strikes me as inadequate as an investigatory technique, limiting the scope of investigation before the evidence has been fully collected, even if it happens to be proved correct by subsequent events.
While I may have some issues with the parameters of Charles’ investigation, there are some aspects of it that I really love. One of my favorites is a moment in which he reflects on the efficacy of being silent, rather than asking questions. That idea is so rarely seen in detective fiction and yet I know how effective it can be as a method of getting someone to open up to you, so I enjoyed how it is used here.
I also really enjoyed how one of the characters, a young girl who is playing detective, refers to the conventions of the detective fiction genre. That sort of self-awareness can often be a dangerous indulgence in the genre but it works well here because of that character’s personality and interests.
The conclusion is smart and struck me as quite satisfying, at least on a thematic level. I could see how it fit with the evidence and list of character traits we were given and to that extent it struck me as fair. I do question a little whether it would have felt that way without the killer performing an apparently motiveless and illogical action and without that list of character traits.
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Still, in spite of those reservations I cannot deny that I found this to be a really satisfying read. I loved its concept, the cast of characters within the Leonides household and their complex, twisting relationships, and I admired how straightforward Christie is at many points in the book. The resolution is striking and powerful and most importantly, it feels earned by what has come before.
The Verdict: A superb read containing one of Christie’s most interesting casts of characters. It is easy to see why Christie regarded this as one of her best works.