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.

ROT-13 (Spoilers to the killer’s identity): Gur vffhr V unir Vf gung vs gurl arire pbzzvg n frpbaq zheqre, juvpu vf na vyybtvpny naq haarprffnel guvat gb qb, vg vf pregnva gung gur punenpgref haqre neerfg jbhyq unir tbar gb gevny. Gur xvyyre’f qvnel fgngrf gung gurl ubcr gung gurl jvyy or gubhtug thvygl bs gur pevzr ohg gurve npgvbaf va pbzzvggvat n frpbaq bayl cebir gung gurl pbhyq abg unir orra vaibyirq. Guvf vf rkcynvarq njnl ol gur vqrn gung gurl ner ercyvpngvat n fgehpgher bhg bs oberqbz juvpu va vgfrys cbvagf gb gur xvyyre’f vqragvgl ohg V nz hapbaivaprq gung gur punenpgre jbhyq znxr fhpu na boivbhfyl frys-qrfgehpgvir pubvpr.

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.

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie

Originally published in 1937
Hercule Poirot #18
Preceded by Dumb Witness
Followed by Appointment with Death

The tranquility of a luxury cruise along the Nile was shattered by the discovery that Linnet Ridgeway had been shot through the head. She was young, stylish, and beautiful. A girl who had everything . . . until she lost her life.

Hercule Poirot recalled an earlier outburst by a fellow passenger: “I’d like to put my dear little pistol against her head and just press the trigger.” Yet under the searing heat of the Egyptian sun, nothing is ever quite what it seems.

A sweeping mystery of love, jealousy, and betrayal, Death on the Nile is one of Christie’s most legendary and timeless works.

In his excellent book Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World, Mark Aldridge notes that while Murder on the Orient Express may be Poirot’s most famous case, Death on the Nile is ‘better suited for the screen than its more famous predecessor’. Part of that is the story’s exotic setting as even if Christie doesn’t spend too long describing the landscapes, there is great scope for filmmakers to create striking visual moments set against the river itself, at tombs or in grand hotels. I think the greater reason though is that this story offers some really intense dramatic scenes and a large cast of interesting supporting characters for Poirot to suspect.

The victim in this story is the beautiful and enormously wealthy Linnet Ridgeway who had travelled to Egypt on her honeymoon. Before making their trip, Linnet had expressed a belief that she hadn’t an enemy in the world but it quickly becomes clear that she was mistaken. She and her husband Simon are followed throughout their trip by Jacqueline who had been her friend, and in a relationship with Simon, until Linnet stole him away from her. While Jacqueline’s presence is upsetting to Linnet, Poirot reminds her that her former friend is breaking no law.

The couple hope to give her the slip by unexpectedly changing their travel plans to board the Karnak and take a cruise down the Nile. They are surprised then when they board to find her already waiting for them. Several attempts on Linnet’s life follow before she is found dead in her cabin having been shot in the head. The most obvious suspect, Jacqueline, had been under guard all night, leaving Poirot with the difficult task of figuring out who aboard the steamer murdered Linnet and why.

There is a lot to love here but I think it begins with the superb, complex characterization of Linnet. She has many admirable traits – her competence and understanding of business as well as her desire to be generous to her friends and yet Poirot notes that her treatment of Jacqueline was cruel. Her claims to be unfairly persecuted ring hollow when she, with everything in the world, took the only thing that mattered to her friend.

While it may seem hard to believe that such a young woman would have enemies, Christie creates a huge cast of characters and gives most a credible motive for murder (or at least for behaving really oddly). Among the most colorful of those characters are Salome Otterbourne, the romance novelist who keeps trying to push her book on Poirot, the young revolutionary Ferguson and the incredibly snobby Mrs Van Schuyler but even the more straightforward figures – such as the trustee of Linnet father’s estate – feel pretty neatly drawn.

Christie also chooses to bring back Colonel Race, a few novels after he met Poirot in Cards on the Table. I quite enjoy Race’s presence here and appreciate that he provides Poirot with an official reason to become involved though I think his reason for being on the Karnak is the novel’s least satisfying element. The subplot with the spy aboard the boat is far from convincing which is no doubt why I had completely forgotten it. It feels like an afterthought and I think Christie should and could have come up with a better reason to have him there or, alternatively, allow that matter to play out entirely in the background.

The other thing that I really admire about this book, and which I have appreciated more upon revisiting it, is how clearly Christie outlines both the various characters’ movements throughout the evening of the murder and also some of the questions that arise. Revisiting this story, I could see the clues that ought to have suggested the solution but I am pretty sure I came nowhere near working it out the first time I read this.

This is one of Christie’s most interesting murders, both in terms of the mechanics of how it was worked and also in terms of the motive behind it. Where some other celebrated Poirot stories have an audacious solution in terms of the trick being used, the one here struck me as really quite credible both in its conception and execution. On a related note, I feel that the way Poirot reaches that truth is equally convincing.

While a couple of the physical clues are a little obscure – I think particularly of a small bottle – and there is a little bit of luck involved, what impressed me most were the psychological aspects of the case. There are some excellent, subtle inferences that can be drawn from characters’ speech and behaviors and revisiting this novel, I was struck by how well those aspects of the solution are set up.

As impressive as this novel is, it is not without a few faults. One of those, the spying subplot, I have already touched on but I think that the secondary murders feel a little rushed and, in the case of the last, seem to strain credibility in terms of how quickly it seems to be carried out. Rather than reinforcing the cleverness of the crime, I felt that those developments reinforced my feeling that the killer is very, very lucky at several points in this story or to put it another way – the investigators are very unlucky. While any case will inevitably involve some elements of luck, it diminishes the sense that a solution is ingenious when you come away feeling that the killer was very fortunate to have everything come into alignment in the way it does.

Still, in spite of those issues I think that Death on the Nile is another excellent entry in what was a run of consistently very, very good Poirot stories (with a very occasional odd exception) Christie wrote in the thirties. While it may not be the pinnacle of her achievement with the character, it is not all too far off…

The Verdict: Deservedly one of the most famous of Poirot’s cases, boasting one of her most interesting victims and some fascinating human drama.

The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie, adapted by Kate McAll

Production Details

Recorded April 2021 by LA Theatre Works
Adapted from Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links by Kate McAll

Starring Alfred Molina as Hercule Poirot and Simon Helberg as Captain Hastings

The Blurb

In Christie’s clever and beautifully crafted tale, Detective Hercule Poirot receives an urgent letter from Paul Renauld summoning him to France. Upon their arrival, Poirot and his companion, Arthur Hastings, find they are too late. Plus, to complicate things further, certain facts just don’t add up.

The Verdict

A fine adaptation of a middling Poirot novel.

My Thoughts

Typically I try to avoid putting up multiple posts on the same day but today I decided to make an exception to share a few thoughts about this radio adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links. The reason for my urgency is that the production is streaming for free on the LA Theatre Works website for the next day or so and while there is an option to buy a download of the production for $4.99 (or on CD for $29.99), that may be a stretch for some people’s budgets right now.

The Murder on the Links was the second Hercule Poirot novel and while it is not one of my favorite Christie adventures, I think it is a sensible choice for adaptation. There are a few reasons for that but one is that in addition to its central puzzle, the story offers appealing elements of romance and comedy while the presence of Hastings enables for some voiceover to help convey a sense of the story’s action. The other is that while there are a few clever ideas in the story, there are some elements of the story that can be reduced or eliminated without diminishing the mystery.

The adventure begins with Poirot and Hastings on their way to France at the request of Paul Renauld, a very rich man who writes to them with some urgency. When the pair arrive they learn that they were too late to prevent the danger hinted at in the letter – Mrs Renauld tells them that in the early hours of the morning two masked men had broken into their home and abducted him. At the request of the local police, Poirot agrees to stay and assist in the investigation.

The adaptation struck me as a relatively faithful one and I think it managed to avoid the trap of utilizing narration too often. Instead the focus is on the interactions Poirot and Hastings have with the suspects as they learn the secrets of the Renauld family and their neighbors and begin to piece the case together.

One of the main reasons I was so keen to listen to this production was that it sees Alfred Molina return to the role of Poirot after twenty years, albeit this time listeners can rest assured that this is a traditional, period Poirot piece meaning he is unable to rely on his trusty netbook computer or VHS tape evidence! As I expected, Molina turns in a great performance, portraying the character with an appropriate mixture of warmth and self-assuredness, particularly in his interactions with Captain Hastings. When called on to deliver exposition or explain deductions he does so brilliantly, laying out the reasoning with appropriate clarity and emphasis to make the solution easy to follow. It’s a great performance and it leads me to hope that LA Theatre Works will bring him back to do other installments in the series in the future.

I felt that Simon Helberg embodies Hastings’ vigor and romanticism quite nicely. While there is a little stiffness to his English accent that took me a little getting used to, I felt the excellent chemistry he shared with Molina and his wife Jocelyn Towne who plays his love interest, ‘Cinderella’, helped me easily overlook it. She also is great, superbly capturing the character’s flirtatious playfulness. It is easy to understand why Hastings becomes so enamored of her.

While I was less familiar with other members of the cast, I felt that there were not any weak performances and I had no awareness of the few cases where actors were portraying multiple roles. My only note of disappointment is that while Kevin Daniels does a good job portraying Detective Giraud’s arrogance and dismissive attitude towards Poirot, a few aspects of that rivalry were downplayed, presumably for the sake of time. None of these moments were particularly essential but I did miss them a little.

My only other complaints are inherent to the source material – those who love the original novel are unlikely to feel disappointed! Overall then I found this to be a really fine adaptation that I can only hope leads to others featuring Molina’s Poirot.

Murder in the Mews by Agatha Christie

Originally published in 1937.
Collects four short works published between 1932 and 1937.
An edition was published in the US as Dead Man’s Mirror though that edition excludes The Incredible Theft.

Hercule Poirot #16
Preceded by Cards on the Table
Followed by Dumb Witness

How did a woman holding a pistol in her right hand manage to shoot herself in the left temple? What was the link between a ghost sighting and the disappearance of top secret military plans? How did the bullet that killed Sir Gervase shatter a mirror in another part of the room? And should the beautiful Valentine Chantry flee for her life from the holiday island of Rhodes?

Hercule Poirot is faced with four mystifying cases—each a miniature classic of characterization, incident, and suspense.

When I posted my review of Dumb Witness a little over a month ago I noted that I had goofed in my efforts to reread the Poirot stories in order as I had managed to overlook this short story collection. Well, such a mistake could not be left uncorrected – particularly given how much I want to get on and reread Death on the Nile – so let’s crack on and discuss the four stories that comprise Murder on the Mews.

The opening adventure lends its title to the collection and concerns a death that occurs during the height of the fireworks on Guy Fawkes Night. When Barbara Allen does not respond to knocks at her locked door, her housemate sends for the police. When the door is opened they find her lying dead of a bullet wound to the side of her head, a gun loosely in her hand. At first glance it seems like a case of suicide and yet there are some inconsistencies in the scene. How, for instance, could she hold the gun in her right hand but shoot herself in the left side of her head?

This is the first of three stories in the collection that style themselves as impossible situations and of those three, I think it is possibly the most successful of them. Though the length of the story necessitates some simplicity and the mechanics are pretty straightforward, Christie does give some thought to why this would be a locked room problem in the first place, devising a pretty convincing reason for that by the end.

There are, of course, flaws. I doubt that I will court much outrage by asserting that I think Christie was far more suited to the novel than the short story. One of the reasons for that is her writing style will often become overly economical such as in an early exchange where the flatmate casually drops into conversation, in argument against the idea of suicide by gunshot, that they had a lengthy discussion about possible methods of suicide which that she had been quite emphatic that she couldn’t shoot herself. While I understand the need for that part of the story, I do think that the writing feels very functional.

I should probably acknowledge that there is an argument concerning whether the absence of the key to her bedroom does perhaps undermine the impassability of that entrance. Still, why it may not be the purest example of the form, I do think that the story does do something interesting with it. Though I am not wholly convicted that the scheme makes sense, I do admire the story for trying something a little different and I appreciate the interesting framing Poirot puts on what the mastermind of it all was attempting to do.

I would characterize the second story, The Incredible Theft, as a pastiche or homage to the Sherlock Holmes stories (specifically The Adventures of the Naval Treaty) that we know had played an important role in inspiring Christie to write and enjoy mystery fiction. The action is centered upon the theft of some secret plans from a senior government minister’s home. The problem is that the plans had been out from the safe for just a few moments and no one was in the room at the time while each of the entrances were monitored at the time the crime must have taken place.

This is another story that seems to be an impossible crime, albeit one that is presented as an espionage story. In this case we have a room whose entrances are under observation by two different parties. In spite of that impossible setup however, I would suggest that the case underwhelms when read as an impossible crime – particularly in light of its solution.

It was this story that prompted me to muse on the difficulty of assessing the quality of a solution when reviewing a story you have previously read. It has been probably twenty years since I last read this short story and I didn’t recall much about it (unlike the other three stories which I remembered pretty well) but much of the solution occurred to me immediately. Was that because I remembered the problem, even if I didn’t recall any of the other details? I can’t rule it out. I can say though that the solution here strikes me as unimaginative and disappointing.

Dead Man’s Mirror on the other hand is a much more entertaining example of a locked room problem. In this story Poirot receives a summons from the highly eccentric Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore. Poirot journeys to his home where he meets the members of his household who, strangely, do not seem to be expecting him. When the obsessively-punctual Sir Gervase does not arrive when the dinner gong is sounded the group break into his locked study to find him dead and the word sorry scrawled on a sheet of paper. The key to the door is in Sir Gervase’s pocket and the only other entrance to the room is also locked and bolted so is this suicide or was it murder?

Of the stories in this collection, this felt the most substantial to me offering a much more developed cast of characters and a more complex solution than any of the others possess. That is reflected in some of the complexities of the various characters’ relationships, as we are prompted not only to consider the suspects’ relationships with the deceased but with one another. I enjoyed getting to know this cast of characters, several of whom felt quite boldly drawn. For instance, I would suggest that even though Sir Gervase never appears to the reader, he is far more of a personality and presence than anyone who appears in the previous story.

The solution is similarly pleasingly complex with Poirot presented with multiple clues and several aspects of the crime scene requiring explanation. While I think that there are some aspects of the crime that were not entirely convincing (the reason for the telegram being sent is particularly poor in my opinion) and the explanation of the motive felt initially quite shaky until it was given more detail at the end of the story, I appreciate that this feels a much more substantial effort than any of the other stories in the collection.

So, why don’t I find it as impressive a locked room as Murder in the Mews? I think it boils down to a matter of originality. That story, while far less complex than this, is using the locked room in an unusual way. This story does something far more familiar with it and so while the execution is fine enough, it felt significantly less ambitious and interesting to me.

This brings me to the final story in the collection, Triangle at Rhodes. This concerns two couples who Poirot gets to know while on holiday. He witnesses the couples’ interactions and anticipates what is likely to occur based on those observations. When the inevitable occurs, Poirot then explains what happened and ensures justice is done.

While each of the three previous stories could be described as a novella, this is definitely a short story. While its is the narrowest of the four stories however, I find it to be one of the more successful. That is partly because it recognizes the limitations of its page count, narrowing the focus to a matter of character and psychology. I also think it is one of the better examples of Christie anticipating the reader and engaging in a game with them.

The flaw in the story for me is a rather unexpected one: I don’t think Poirot reads like himself. There is a speech he gives where he compares what he is witnessing to other crimes he has encountered that struck me as far more the sort of thing that Miss Marple or Ariadne Oliver might say. I also think it a little unsatisfactory that Poirot abdicates himself of responsibility once he has issued a warning of sorts – while I understand why that happens to serve the plot, I think he could and should have done more to block the crime from happening. (ROT13: Uvf nethzrag gung ur unf vffhrq n jneavat naq gur pevzr vf varivgnoyr vf abg fb zhpu gur ceboyrz – engure V srry gung ur jneaf gur jebat crefba, pubbfvat gb fcrnx gb gur nppbzcyvpr vafgrnq bs gur ivpgvz.)

Still, in spite of those gripes I think the story is told at a near-perfect pace and does a wonderful job of capturing the building sense that a crime is inevitable and I do recall being quite shocked when I read this the first time around. While I think that this collection is unfortunately a little uneven, this does it end on something of a high note and it is the story that has stayed with me most strongly in the years since I last read it.

The Verdict: A rather uneven collection of stories. Those who feel that Christie works best as a novelist will find little here to challenge their belief.

Dumb Witness by Agatha Christie

Originally published in 1937
Hercule Poirot #17
Preceded by Murder in the Mews
Followed by Death on the Nile

This has also been published as Poirot Loses a Client.

In Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness, Hercule Poirot investigates the very suspicious death of an elderly spinster who, fearing the very worst, had written to the great detective prior to her demise.

Everyone blamed Emily Arundell’s accident on a rubber ball left on the stairs by her frisky terrier. But the more she thought about her fall, the more convinced she became that one of her relatives was trying to kill her.…

On April 17th she wrote her suspicions in a letter to Hercule Poirot. Mysteriously, he didn’t receive the letter until June 28th…by which time Emily was already dead.…

I need to start this post by acknowledging the elephant in this room. I forgot that the short story collection Murder in the Mews followed Cards on the Table. There is, of course, no excuse for this oversight which really amounts to carelessness on my part. Rest assured that this will be rectified in the coming weeks! Now, on with the story…

Emily Arundell’s nephew and nieces are visiting her to spend the Easter weekend at her home in the country. During their stay Emily meets with a shocking accident when she tumbles down her stairs having apparently slipped on her terrier’s ball. Fortunately she emerges just badly bruised but as she thinks over the affair she becomes increasingly concerned that it might not be an accident.

Emily decides to take the precaution of writing to Hercule Poirot to seek his advice. Unfortunately for her the letter is not posted until after she dies several weeks later. When he, accompanied by his friend Hastings, travels to Market Basing, he learns that she was widely believed to have died of a malady that had nearly killed her a year and a half earlier. Poirot however suspects that Miss Arundell had reason to think an attempt had been made on her life and wonders if the would-be killer might have tried again…

The opening chapters of this book are quite remarkable and do a fantastic job of introducing us to Emily and the members of her family and household who will be our principal suspects. There are some absolutely fantastic turns of phrase employed in Christie’s prose that give the narration a somewhat sardonic tone. One favorite of mine is that after describing how Miss Lawson, Miss Arundel’s companion, had professed ignorance that she would be named as the principal beneficiary of the will there is a paragraph break before the narrator adds ‘A lot of people, of course, did not believe this.’

Similarly I think Christie’s depiction of Emily Arundell feels really boldly drawn, in the best possible way. Between her love of her dog, Bob, and her extremely particular way that she organizes the household festivities and makes the bedroom arrangements (giving priority to her nephew over her niece because ‘In Miss Arundell’s day, women took second place’), we quickly build a strong picture of her. Indeed, I might well suggest that I consider her to be one of Christie’s most dimensional victims – helped by the fact hat we not only encounter her prior to the crime but she feels present in much of what follows as characters debate what her wishes or intentions might have been and we focus on the question of what she must have thought prior to her death.

I also really like the mechanism of Poirot becoming engaged in this case when a piece of mail is belatedly delivered to him. This is not only intriguing in itself as a question – why does this letter suddenly appear months after the death – but I appreciate that Poirot seems to regard it as a matter of honor to investigate as a result. It is curious to consider whether he would have had the same curiosity had the letter arrived when it was intended. Would there have been enough to catch his attention?

Poirot’s investigations take the form of a series of interviews but there is little sense of repetition or stagnation here. Each interviewee presents something new that pushes our understanding of the case forwards either by presenting some new piece of evidence or by clarifying or complicating the relationships within the family. Presentationally there is also the novelty that Poirot engages in a variety of minor deceptions to encourage those suspects to talk to him prompting a couple of comical moments where Hastings expresses his dismay at such unsportsmanlike conduct on the part of his friend.

The supporting characters are arguably a little less dimensional than the victim but each makes a strong impression and has a very clearly defined personality (an exception is Miss Peabody, Emily’s friend who has some wonderfully sharp dialogue, but she is not a suspect). Few come off particularly sympathetically but I felt there were nuances in the characterizations, particularly that of the Greek physician Dr. Tanios who is presented as a subject of much suspicion largely because of his nationality.

Even Emily’s little terrier, Bob, feels pleasingly characterful – helped by Hasting’s decision to interpret his barking. This is peak self-induglent Hastings behavior and I am absolutely in love with it, in part because Christie doesn’t overdo it and limits it to just a couple of scenes. It’s odd but I think it speaks perfectly to his romantic and imaginative character.

The solution is quite clever and I liked some of the subtle clueing that pointed to the solution. While the relevance of a particular clue may elude some readers, I think the way it is visually suggested is superb and certainly appeals to the imagination. Similarly, I think that the choice of villain is an interesting one and I appreciate in revisiting this very nearly in order how it feels quite unexpected in the context of the previous few novels. Poirot’s explanation is clear and struck me as holding together pretty well.

Unfortunately this post cannot be entirely positive.

There is a clue that is revealed midway through the novel that is predicated on someone doing something incredibly odd while wearing something that seems to make no sense. This aspect of the story bothers me every time I revisit it and I have never managed to make peace with it yet. I really dislike how contrived the situation feels and the idea that it exists purely for the benefit of the reader rather than because it makes any sense for the characters involved.

The other objection I have to the book is its use of a racist expression which is quoted for the title of Chapter Eighteen and casually used by Poirot himself in conversation with Hastings. I think it is that latter part which is what makes me most uncomfortable with this – Poirot is, after all, the hero and so I don’t like to think of him in such a light.

It’s really disappointing because in almost every other regard Dumb Witness is superb. After all, it boasts one of Christie’s most memorable victims, a puzzling premise and a rather clever solution.

The Verdict: This clever tale boasts one of Christie’s most distinctive victims and a broadly satisfying conclusion.

Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie

Originally published in 1936
Hercule Poirot #15
Preceded by Murder in Mesopotamia
Followed by Murder in the Mews

Mr. Shaitana is famous as a flamboyant party host. Nevertheless, he is a man of whom everybody is a little afraid. So when he boasts to Hercule Poirot that he considers murder an art form, the detective has some reservations about accepting a party invitation to view Shaitana’s “private collection”.

Indeed, what begins as an absorbing evening of bridge is to turn into a more dangerous game altogether…

You asked me just now to admit that your idea of a collection of murderers was amusing. I said I could think of another word other than amusing. That word was dangerous.

Cards on the Table has long been one of my favorite Hercule Poirot stories, though I will freely confess that prior to rereading it for this post it had been probably fifteen years since I last read the actual book. I have frequently revisited the excellent BBC Radio adaptation that starred John Moffatt however and so when I failed to reread this in time for Jim, Brad and Moira’s Spoiler Warning podcast I fortunately had no trouble following along. Their discussion, which was interesting as always, did leave me curious to revisit the actual book to see whether it would hold up to my memory of it.

Mr. Shaitana, a better dressed but morally-degenerate version of John Hammond, has developed the dangerous hobby of collecting murderers. Instead of a theme park, he irresponsibly gathers his deadly collection of four murderers at a dinner party attended by four exponents of the detection game, drops some not altogether subtle hints as to a secret he knows, clearly enjoying the little mind game he is playing with his murderers.

After dinner a suggestion is made that the party should play some rubbers of bridge and the group divides in two – our four sleuths playing together in one room while Mr. Shaitana goes with the others into the room housing an ornate dagger. The four play while their host seems to doze in an armchair but they soon realize that he is dead, having been stabbed while they were all playing the game. It is clear that the killer must be one of the four players – the problem lies in figuring out which of the four it was.

If the premise of this story sounds a little familiar, it is probably because it basically matches what Poirot describes as his ideal case in the earlier novel The A. B. C. Murders. The reader begins the novel knowing the means and the motive. We can even be certain that it is one of four individuals, each with an equal opportunity to commit the crime. Poirot’s inquiry will therefore look a little different than his usual cases – as Agatha Christie suggests in her introduction, the case is intended to be purely psychological.

In that Spoiler Warning podcast there is quite a bit of discussion of whether the novel is actually as psychologically-rich as is commonly supposed. I would strongly contend that it is but I think things get confused by Poirot’s discussion of the psychological moment – an idea he referenced in several previous cases such as Death in the Clouds. For those unfamiliar with the idea (which is referred to but not actually described in this book) it is that a murderer may manufacture a dramatic moment to draw your attention away from their actions. I do not want to diminish that aspect of the story in any way – it is clearly a central part of understanding this case and is a focus for the investigation – but I think the aspect of the investigation that is intended to be psychological is quite different.

Early in the novel our four sleuths discuss the idea that killers will repeat themselves. This is not meant in a literal way with a repetition of a method but rather that the reasons they will kill will be the same (whether it is for gain, out of fear or for some other motive). The psychological element of the investigation therefore is to understand the reasons that our four supposed murderers may have killed in the past and the circumstances leading up to that decision to see if those instances have any parallels with the Shaitana case. Whether that idea is psychologically sound is, of course, debatable but I feel Christie does a very solid job of exploring the characters of our four suspects.

One consequence of starting the novel knowing that at least some of those four characters have committed murder before is that we are never allowed to presume innocence. Yet most of the four are given moments where they may seem appealing or sympathetic reflecting a richness and complexity that I think elevates them and this book as a whole. Indeed I would suggest that in writing this book, Christie was laying the groundwork for her novel And Then There Were None with its cast of antiheroes which she would write just a couple of years later.

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Christie not only has Shaitana assemble four possible villains, he also brings together four sleuths who will work together to solve the case. In doing this she not only utilized Poirot but also brought back two detectives from previous novels – Colonel Race and Superintendent Battle. This was lost on me on the first reading (this being one of my earliest Poirot novels) but I really like the way this establishes that they all coexist in the same universe.

Joining them is Ariadne Oliver, making the first of several appearances in the Poirot novels (she had made a previous appearance in a non-Poirot short story). This character is clearly an example of the author poking fun at her own image as can be seen from the discussion of her irritating series detective which mimics some of the sentiments that she is recorded expressing about Poirot himself. I will admit to not having been the biggest Miss Oliver fan in the past, feeling then that the joke can be rather self-indulgent, so I was pleasantly surprised when I found myself really enjoying those passages this time around. It perhaps helps too that she makes for a strong contrast to the very masculine energy of Battle and Race.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of giving us four sleuths is that we see four distinctly different styles of investigation take place. Each of the sleuths at points will take the lead in talking with a suspect and we get to see how they use their particular skill set to elicit information and form judgements about that person. These not only help us get to know the suspects, they also cast a great deal of light on the personalities of the sleuths too. This is particularly welcome as it introduces some variety into what might otherwise be a very interview-driven story with comparatively little action (at least for much of the novel).

Where I do find some common ground with critics of the novel is in my feelings regarding the various games of bridge. While I think Christie was clearly wary of writing too much detail about the games for fear of aliening those who do not already love the game, those passages can feel a little alienating and confusing. I understand the necessity for them in that the information they provide will be one of the relatively few clues in the book and Christie does explain why the information is important after the fact, but I would sympathize with those who find them a little dull.

My bigger issue with the book is an aspect of the resolution which always strikes me as a little underwhelming whenever it is employed. Still, while I don’t love the manner in which the killer is captured, I really enjoy the chapters immediately preceding them with contain some really dramatic developments and help bring the story to a memorable conclusion.

As you can hopefully tell, I had a good time rereading this one and was glad to find that it mostly held up to my memories. While there are a few dry bridge-dominated passages and a few moments we might describe as a little stuck in their time, I think the story is a clever and original one that I found significantly more satisfying than the previous Poirot novel.

The Verdict: A clever and original tale that I consider one of Poirot’s better adventures.

The Mysterious Case of Agatha Christie by Maureen Corrigan

Audiobook Details

Originally published in 2021
This work is exclusively available through Audible

The Blurb

Meet Agatha Christie, the best-selling novelist in human history. Her writing career spanned six decades, during which time she wrote 66 crime novels, 6 non-crime novels (including romances), and over 150 short stories. Not only was she a phenomenally successful novelist, but she is also the most successful female playwright of all time – her play “The Mousetrap” is the longest-running show in history.

As you learn about Christie’s experiences and her storied career, you will better understand how the circumstances of her life shaped her work and vice versa. Along the way, consider some fascinating questions:

  • How did becoming a nurse and an apothecary’s assistant influence her crime stories? 
  • Would her literary career have been different if she had not been a part of well-to-do British society? 
  • Why did Christie disappear at the height of her fame – and will we ever know the whole truth about that fateful event?

Agatha Christie’s works have been read by millions and have been adapted into film, television, plays, and more since her debut novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, introduced the world to Hercule Poirot in 1920. Her famous detectives, Poirot and Miss Marple, have become beloved staples of pop culture around the world. With such a legacy, it can sometimes be surprising how much of her life remains a mystery to her readers. In The Mysterious Case of Agatha Christie, you will get an intimate glimpse of her private life, investigate the secrets of her greatest novels, and perhaps solve a few mysteries yourself.

The Verdict

An enjoyable and well-organized introduction to the life and works of Christie. Best suited to newcomers but still an entertaining listen even if the facts given are familiar.

Christie, more than any other mystery writer before her or since, was a genius at hiding clues in plain sight and awakening us readers to the realization of how blind we are to the truth before our eyes.

My Thoughts

Just over two months ago I wrote about a Great Courses series released on Audible discussing the Sherlock Holmes stories. I ended that review by noting that I’d be very happy to see a similar series of lectures released discussing the works of Agatha Christie. As you can see, my wish came true and so I naturally made a point to listen to the audiobook as soon as possible.

Before we begin I ought to offer up a short word about the way that this has been released. Like its Holmesian predecessor this is an Audible Original meaning that it is exclusive to that service. In the United States this is currently included in that service’s Premium Plus package, allowing you to listen without spending a credit while that membership is active. This may be different in other territories however.

The Mysterious Case of Agatha Christie is written and delivered by Maureen Corrigan who you may know as the book critic from NPR’s Fresh Air or mystery columnist for the Washington Post. This course is divided into ten lectures of around thirty minutes length. While they are referred to as lectures however and each part has its own themes, there is a much stronger connection and sense of development between them than was present in the Holmes series. That reflects that Corrigan’s approach is to center her discussion around the events of Christie’s life, exploring how they influenced her writing.

This results in a course that feels very accessible, even to those who do not already possess an encyclopedic knowledge of Christie’s works. Corrigan tries to avoid giving spoilers in her discussions of the stories though occasionally they might be inferred in spite of the authors’ efforts. I would advise listeners to have already read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder on the Orient Express to be safe though I suspect almost everyone who would be interested in this course would likely have done that already.

Listeners should expect the coverage of books and stories to be somewhat uneven with a focus on some key titles that represent turning points in her career or that clearly draw on things from the author’s life. It means that the course feels more focused on the works produced in the first ten years of her career than those produced later. This is inevitable given the length of Christie’s life and also the sheer number of works she had published. Fans of Passenger to Frankfurt may be disappointed but it makes sense in the context of the author’s approach to exploring Christie as a person and as a writer.

Corrigan makes a point to discuss Christie’s accomplishments beyond the world of mystery novels, talking a little about her theatrical successes. While this could certainly have been expanded upon, I think it was proportionate to the discussion of her books which are no doubt the main point of interest for most listeners. Her romance novels however arguably deserve a little more attention than they receive here.

The discussion of Christie’s life however is excellent and organized very clearly, once again focusing on some key moments and themes that can be observed. There is quite a bit of discussion concerning Christie’s childhood and relationships with her family, her marriage to Archie and later to Max, as well as her travels around the world. Inevitably there is discussion of her famous disappearance and the different theories offered about how to interpret it, but Corrigan’s reason for discussing this is ultimately to reflect on how it would affect her career.

I also enjoyed the discussion of some key criticisms of Christie, particularly those offered by Chandler, Wilson and Barnard (the latter of whom she draws heavily on throughout the course). Corrigan’s responses feel fair and considered, offering a view of Christie that is broadly appreciative but not without acknowledging some of points of criticism such as those concerning her social and class attitudes.

It makes for an excellent broad introduction to the life and works of Christie and would offer most value to those who are taking their first steps into her fiction or who may have seen one of the movies about her life and want to learn more. If you are much more widely read, particularly if you have read her Autobiography, there may be less new information here but it is still an enjoyable and worthwhile listen. Corrigan is an engaging and entertaining speaker and I enjoyed the time I spent in her company.

Finally, if someone from Audible or The Teaching Company is reading this, I’d be very interested to listen to a similar series about the works of John Dickson Carr or Dorothy L. Sayers… (No, I don’t think that will happen this time but worth a chance, eh?)

Lecture Titles

  1. The Making of a Master
  2. Miss Agatha Miller in Love and War
  3. On the Road with Agatha Christie
  4. Agatha Christie: “The Hour of Lead”
  5. Murder Most Foul!
  6. The Mystery of the Vanished Mystery Novelist
  7. Recovery and Reinvention beyond Mayhem Parva
  8. Love amidst the Ruins
  9. Agatha Christie during World War II and Beyond
  10. “Death Comes as the End”: Christie and her Legacy

Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie

Originally published in 1936
Hercule Poirot #14
Preceded by The A. B. C. Murders
Followed by Cards on the Table

Amy Leatheran has never felt the lure of the mysterious East, but when she travels to an ancient site deep in the Iraqi desert to nurse the wife of a celebrated archaeologist, events prove stranger than she could ever have imagined. Her patient’s bizarre visions and nervous terror seem unfounded, but as the oppressive tension in the air thickens, events come to a terrible climax–in murder.

With one spot of blood as his only clue, Hercule Poirot must embark on a journey not just across the desert, but into the darkest crevices of the human soul to unravel a mystery which taxes even his remarkable powers.

Last week I put the call out on Twitter for my followers – a small but intrepid band – to help me select the title I would read and write about for today’s locked room or impossible crime post. It was quite rightly pointed out that I had somewhat stacked the decks by including a Christie title among the ones offered. While I do not think it was conscious, I suspect that my doing so was rather purposeful. I needed a little extra push to get around to reading Murder in Mesopotamia again so thank you to the Big Four who voted this into the lead.

Before I explain why this novel is not a favorite, let me first recap the scenario. Amy Leatheran is a nurse who is invited to join an archaeological dig to help care for the wife of the leading archaeologist, Dr. Leidner. It seems Mrs. Leidner appears to be nervous though it takes some time for Amy to discover the cause of that anxiety and learn about her past. Soon afterwards she is discovered dead in the bedroom of her house having been forcibly struck on the head. There was only one entrance to the bedroom, which could not have been entered, while the window was shut and barred. Nor was there any sign within the room of an object that might have been used to murder her.

The mystery of the death initially puzzles the local police. Fortunately Hercule Poirot happens to be traveling in the region and he is persuaded to travel to the dig to assist with the investigation. He soon appalls everyone however when he asserts that the murder must have been carried out by someone involved in the dig. With the assistance of Amy Leatheran who documents the case, he begins to look into the matter…

It is the choice of narrator that is largely responsible for my lack of enthusiasm for this title and I am sorry to report that my feelings are not significantly altered. While I think there are some positive things that come of Poirot’s association with a tough and rather straightforward nurse, I find this particular character rather unlikable and I am not a fan of the awkward structure that this then imposes on the novel’s opening chapters.

Some of my issues with Amy Leatheran stem from her personality traits. From the start of the novel she comes off as highly judgmental and occasionally xenophobic, particularly towards Poirot. While I appreciate the idea of undermining some of Poirot’s own pretentious behaviors and quirks, my problem is that I find Leatheran’s less endearing. That is in spite (or perhaps because) of their being quite realistic and well observed. This means that I can find her company something of a chore.

Her role in this particular story requires her to enter as an outsider, both to the characters involved at the dig but also to Poirot. This leads to a certain amount of awkwardness however as it requires a certain degree of setup to be done to explain her presence and then her involvement with the investigation. This would not be such an issue if Christie didn’t also include a rather awkward and frankly quite unnecessary preamble in which we learn how she came to be asked to write this manuscript. All of this slows down the start of the story and leads to it feeling somewhat self-conscious.

The introduction of Poirot is welcome, both in terms of signaling the start of the investigation but also because it gives the proceedings a greater degree of focus. He quickly focuses our attention on some specific questions and pieces of evidence as well as starting to interview the various suspects. This section of the book is done fairly well and I appreciated that those interviews are not presented in full but rather key moments from each are pulled out and put into focus for us.

Poirot is on pretty solid form here. Certainly he has some moments where he not only shows off his brilliance and imagination but also his understanding of people’s characters, drawing some rather striking conclusions at times. More on those later… What I like most though, and this is the one aspect of the narration I think works well, is the sense of Poirot as an outsider. We have had some hints of that in previous stories, perhaps most recently in Three Act Tragedy, but I think this novel presents it as far more significant than most of its predecessors, even if it is not terribly important to the plot.

The main strength of this novel though lies in its depiction of the workings of an archaeological dig and of the types of individuals who might be involved in them. Christie by this stage in her life had quite some experience of digs, having accompanied her archaeologist husband, Max Mallowan, to some. She even is supposed to have drawn on some real people as inspiration for characters in this story. That detail helps the setting and characters feel quite credible, even if the narrator threatens to eschew providing any sort of local color in her narrative.

Let’s turn to the locked room aspect of the story which was, after all, my inspiration for revisiting it this time. The circumstances of the murder are intriguing and I appreciate that the clues are rather limited and relatively subtle. I think it might be fair to suggest that Poirot is rather fortunate that the murderer feels it necessary to commit a second killing as that does push things forward quite a bit and highlight some key aspects of the crime – certainly I cannot imagine him solving it based on the initial pieces of evidence.

There are challenges in accepting some of the aspects of this plot. Much has rightly been made of a rather ridiculous matter of identity and while I think Christie wisely tries to prime the reader early by discussing the idea in generalities, it is really hard to believe that it could work in practice. Some may also feel that the murder method relies on everything working in the killer’s favor and some extremely fortunate timing that they could not have counted on. I am rather more forgiving of this however as I feel that had things not happened that way then the murder would simply have been quickly solved and the case would never have come to Poirot’s attention at all.

Murder in Mesopotamia does have some points that I think do commend it. The setting feels credible and well-observed and while Amy may intend to provide no color, I think this is one of Christie’s more atmospheric locations for a Poirot story. I do also enjoy some of the aspects of the solution. My problem is that there are a couple of points which feel incredible in all the worst senses of that word. Those few ludicrous reveals, coupled with a tiresome choice of narrator, make this hard-going for me.

The Verdict: Not a favorite. The setting and characters feel well-observed but I find Amy Leatheran tiresome and to say a couple of plot points are incredible would perhaps be understating things.

Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World by Mark Aldridge

Originally published in 2020

From the very first book publication in 1920 to the upcoming film release of Death on the Nile, this investigation into Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot celebrates a century of probably the world’s favourite fictional detective.

This book tells his story decade-by-decade, exploring his appearances not only in the original novels, short stories and plays but also across stage, screen and radio productions.

Poirot has had near-permanent presence in the public eye ever since the 1920 publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles. From character development, publication history and private discussion concerning the original stories themselves, to early forays on to the stage and screen, the story of Poirot is as fascinating as it is enduring.

Based on the author’s original research, review excerpts and original Agatha Christie correspondence, Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World is a lively and accessible history of the character, offering new information and helpful pieces of context, that will delight all Agatha Christie fans, from a new generation of readers to those already highly familiar with the canon.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, (probably) the greatest detective in the world, will outlive us all.

If you follow a lot of Golden Age of Detection blogs you have probably already come across a review of this book which was published in the UK last year and arrives in the US next month. Even if you haven’t you probably already will instinctively know whether this type of book will appeal to you and so rather than attempt to respond to the book in exhaustive detail it seems more productive to share some general thoughts about it that may answer some of your questions about whether it is the book for you.

Probably the place to start is with describing the book itself. Aldridge has designed this book so it could either be read cover-to-cover or dipped into on a more random basis. Knowing that I intended to write about this book here I decided to do the former but prior to doing that I opted to read the chapter on The A. B. C. Murders on its own in preparation for my reread and I found it to be perfectly self-contained and very easy to follow.

Aldridge avoids giving out spoilers in the main body of the text and while there are a few in the (excellent and comprehensive) endnotes they are flagged to warn those who wish to avoid them. That means that this is a book you can put in the hands of someone who does not have an exhaustive knowledge of the character with confidence that they won’t curse you forever for spoiling the end of Elephants Can Remember for you.

Each book and short story collection receives its own chapter. I think it is important to stress that these entries are not plot recaps or reviews, nor are they collections of facts related to the book. Instead these chapters tell the story of where a project came from, some of the background about its journey to publication including details of exchanges between Christie and her agent. Where critical opinion is offered it is usually in the form of contemporary reviews or Christie’s own reflections rather than Aldridge’s.

In addition to the core canon texts, there are also chapters discussing projects in different media such as film, television, video games and key theatrical productions as well as Sophie Hannah’s continuation novels. These are treated with the same level of detail and care, offering a fascinating glimpse into how Poirot was developing beyond the written page. While I feel I got something out of every chapter in the book, these were the ones that offered the highest concentration of new information for this reader and helped me better understand Christie’s highly possessive relationship with her own creation and the decisions that her estate is taking in more recent years. In fact some of the most intriguing pieces of information relate to the projects that didn’t happen rather than those that did.

The book does go right up to date with comments on the development of the upcoming Death on the Nile movie, listed here as released in 2020 (but now pushed back to 2022). That was of course unfortunate but the information offered is interesting and makes me even more curious to see the finished movie whenever it does finally appear.

The entries themselves are organized in chronological order rather than being grouped together by their medium meaning that we learn about the theatrical and film experiments as they occurred between the development of the various novels. This is really helpful because it adds context of Christie’s broader endeavors and also allows us to see how experiments in one field sometimes affected the chances of another quite different project happening.

The hardcover print copy is also illustrated with lots of black and white pictures, usually with various book cover images but also production photographs, hand-drawn sketches and the like. This not only adds a little visual interest to the page layout, I think it also makes the print copy feel even more special. It certainly made me feel glad I made the decision to import my copy rather than get the plainer ebook edition (which is already available in the US).

Though the book is quite thick it is a quick and accessible read that I think offers interesting information at a level that should please both those starting to love the character and those who can already claim a lifelong appreciation for him. I certainly have already made good use of it and expect I will continue to do so whenever I revisit the Poirot novels. I just hope that we don’t have to wait until 2027 for a Miss Marple-themed sequel to appear…

The Verdict: A comprehensive overview of the development of the great detective both on the page and beyond it. Pitched well to offer something to both newcomers and established fans. Let’s hope a similar volume follows for Miss Marple!

The A. B. C. Murders by Agatha Christie

Originally published in 1936
Hercule Poirot #13
Preceded by Death in the Clouds
Followed by Murder in Mesopotamia

There’s a serial killer on the loose, bent on working his way though the alphabet. There seems little chance of the murderer being caught — until her makes the crucial and vain mistake of challenging Hercule Poirot to frustrate his plans …

When I realized that I was headed for my 400th book review I thought that I needed to mark the occasion somehow. Rather than trying something new, I decided that I would use the milestone to revisit and review an old favorite and took a list of possibilities to Twitter for people to vote on. The overwhelming favorite turned out to be this novel which I have often suggested is my favorite Christie. The thing is though that while I have often revisited the book’s radio adaptation over the years, it’s been over a decade since I read it which rather begs the question – would it hold up to my memory?

The story begins with the return of Captain Hastings from Argentina to London for a brief stay. After catching up with Poirot he learns about a strange letter that his friend had recently received. That letter was signed by ‘A. B. C.’ and challenged Poirot to stop him from committing a crime saying that he should ‘Look out for Andover, on the 21st of the month’. Poirot shares the information with Scotland Yard but when an Alice Asher is found dead in her tobacco shop it seems he has failed. Then another letter arrives referring to events to come at Bexhill…

One of my favorite tropes in mystery fiction is the idea of the cat and mouse game. While the detective and killer are always conscious of each others’ activities in detective stories, I really enjoy when the killer interacts more directly and try to influence the other’s actions as opposed to simply waiting to get caught. When done well this can make for a rich source of intrigue and tension and The A. B. C. Murders does this extremely well.

There are lots of things that I like about the setup here but let’s start at the beginning with the manner in which we, and our heroes, learn of the challenge. The idea of the anonymous taunting letters being sent directly to Poirot works well and serves to personalize this conflict very effectively. These letters not only come to insult Poirot’s professional abilities, seeming to suggest that his powers may have diminished, they also are imbued with a hint of xenophobia while the act of giving the detective the date and the general location of each crime feels shockingly arrogant. We understand what will drive Poirot to take A. B. C. seriously and why he will so active in this case – far more so than in any of the previous few adventures Christie had written for him.

The idea of a killer working with an ‘alphabetical complex’ is equally interesting and it is striking just how quickly Poirot comes to that idea. What I like about this as an idea is that it seems to narrow the focus, imposing a series of rules that the killer must work to. Those restrictions level the playing field a little, allowing the detective and the team of police profilers a chance to interpret those rules and the choices that are being made in the efforts to get an edge in identifying the killer.

Finally by starting at a point after the first letter has been received establishes the novel’s pace which is notably far faster than any Poirot story up until this point. Given that we do not know any of the victims prior to their murder, Christie avoids setting up households of characters or multiple motives. Similarly it is made quite clear that the victims come from quite different places and backgrounds. The killings appear to be the work of a madman, albeit a very neatly organized one, and so the focus instead falls on the story’s action and the sense that a net is slowly closing in around the killer.

Each murder feels quite distinct from those which precede it and while we do not spend much time with each of the other figures in their lives, I feel that each manages to pack a lot of impact and information into a very small number of pages.

Christie makes an interesting structural deviation from her usual style, mixing typical first person narration from Captain Hastings with some chapters titled ‘Not from Captain Hastings’ Personal Narrative’. These are short at first but increase in length and detail as we get further into the book and introduce us to the character of Alexander Bonaparte Cust who we encounter as a lodger in a shabby room, surrounded with paraphenalia that appears linked to the crimes that will soon occur.

The decision to have Hastings imagine the thoughts and experiences of Cust can be a rather awkward one at times given that he admits he didn’t witness these events himself. The benefit is that it raises the possibility that we may be reading an inverted mystery and while it is not clear whether that is the case for a substantial portion of the book, the reader is able to glean information that may help them make their mind up on that matter.

Structural issues aside though, this is probably my favorite of the Hastings stories and the reason is that Christie has a clear idea for how to use him. He shares several important exchanges with Poirot in the novel such as the memorable discussion about the importance of clues, each of which throw light on the character and his investigative philosophy. The most interesting of these exchanges though, at least for me, is highlighted by Poirot himself at the end of the novel and earns Hastings a ‘full meed of praise’ from his friend. It is built on a very simple idea but I feel that the novel accurately captures just how much it forces a reevaluation of the broader evidence. This not only works to contrast the pair but it shows us that Hastings actually does have a role in that partnership and can make important deductive contributions, even if he doesn’t always recognize their importance.

Another notable aspect of the novel is its incorporation of some psychological profiling techniques. While we have seen Poirot use similar techniques himself to whittle down a field of suspects in previous stories, here it seems to be used in a more critical way. The distinction between the way Poirot does it and the Police experts do may feel rather arbitrary and hard to fully understand but I think I appreciated it more on revisiting it this time. The techniques may be similar but Poirot disregards aspects of the profile when they do not conform to the logic of the crime scene.

So, what doesn’t work here? Well, not a lot. A few of the secondary characters from the investigation perhaps feel a little underdeveloped but each are recognizable as types and most play important roles in terms of the plot. I think that this is unfortunate but not unexpected given the amount of incident packed into this story. There is a particularly unconvincing example of a final pages coupling that seems to come from nowhere though and suggests some strikingly bad decision-making on Poirot’s part.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that some aspects of the solution feel rather obvious in the context of the focus being placed on certain aspects of the story. I think were this book read slowly the reader would be strongly positioned to work out the solution – the challenge is in whether they keep the story moving swiftly enough as to distract everyone. For me this definitely managed to do that and I am happy to be able to report that I enjoyed it as much on revisiting it as I did the first time around.

I really enjoyed getting the opportunity to revisit this story which brought some memories flooding back. It remains one of my favorite Poirot adventures and I look forward to hopefully wrapping up this reread project over the next 400 posts.

The Verdict: One of Poirot’s most interesting cases. As good upon revisiting it as I felt it was the first time around. Highly recommended.