Dumb Witness by Agatha Christie

The Verdict

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

Book Details

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.

The Blurb

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.…

But though Miss Arundel’s death surprised no one, something else did. The provisions of her will gave rise to varying emotions, astonishment, pleasurable excitement, deep condemnation, fury, despair, anger and general gossip.

My Thoughts

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.

Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie

Book Details

Originally published in 1936
Hercule Poirot #15
Preceded by Murder in Mesopotamia
Followed by Dumb Witness

This book features the recurring sleuths Superintendent Battle and Colonel Race, each of whom appear in novels outside the Poirot series. It also introduces Ariadne Oliver.

The Blurb

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…

The Verdict

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

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.

My Thoughts

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 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

Book Details

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

The Blurb

Suspicious events at a Middle Eastern archaeological excavation site intrigue the great Hercule Poirot as he investigates Murder in Mesopotamia, a classic murder mystery from Agatha Christie.

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.

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.

“She’s an odd woman. A mass of affection and, I should fancy, a champion liar – but Leidner seems honestly to believe that she is scared out of her life by something or other.”

My Thoughts

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.

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

Book Details

Originally published in 2020

The Blurb

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.

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!

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

My Thoughts

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 A. B. C. Murders by Agatha Christie

Book Details

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

The Blurb

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 …

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.

“Let us see, Mr. Clever Poirot, just how clever you can be. Perhaps you’ll find this nut too hard to crack.”

My Thoughts

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.

Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie

Book Details

Originally published in 1935
Hercule Poirot #12
Preceded by Three Act Tragedy
Followed by The A.B.C. Murders

Also titled Death in the Air

The Blurb

Hercule Poirot must solve a perplexing case of midair murder in Death in the Clouds when he discovers that the woman in seat two of the airborne aeroplane he’s traveling on is quite unexpectedly—and unnaturally—deceased.

From seat No. 9, Hercule Poirot was ideally placed to observe his fellow air passengers on the short flight from Paris to London. Over to his right sat a pretty young woman, clearly infatuated with the man opposite; ahead, in seat No. 13, sat a countess with a poorly concealed cocaine habit; across the gangway in seat No. 8, a writer of detective fiction was being troubled by an aggressive wasp. 

Yes, Poirot is almost ideally placed to take it all in, except what he did not yet realize was that behind him, in seat No. 2, sat the slumped, lifeless body of a woman. Murdered, and likely by someone in Poirot’s immediate proximity. 

The Verdict

This boasts a memorable setting and method of murder but I was unconvinced by the solution.

My Thoughts

As its title suggests, Death on the Clouds concerns a murder that takes place during a plane flight from Paris to Croydon. Poirot is aboard the flight though dozing to combat his airsickness but he is woken by a steward asking if he might be a doctor. The steward is concerned about the health of another passenger, Madame Giselle, who seems unresponsive. Another passenger volunteers his services only to reveal that she has died during the flight which based upon the medical evidence and the crew’s interactions with her must have occurred during a very narrow window.

A mark is noticed on the woman’s neck and at first this it is supposed that she must have been stung by the wasp that bothered several passengers within the cabin but when Poirot notices a small yellow and black object on the floor he discovers it is a poisoned dart. This, coupled with the discovery of a blowpipe behind Poirot’s chair, suggests murder yet it seems impossible that anyone could have carried out such a murder without drawing attention to themselves.

One of the most appealing elements of the book for me is Christie’s use of the aeroplane to create one of her most extreme examples of a closed circle. With the murder taking place and being discovered during the flight there is clearly no way that anyone could leave or enter meaning we can be certain that the murderer is either among the passengers or the crew (narrowing that to just the people who were present inside the first class compartment during the flight).

I also appreciate that this story gives us yet another variation on the idea that Poirot is a poor traveller, placing him in the vicinity of the crime but incapacitating him for the crucial lead up to the discovery of the crime. As with many of his stories from this decade, this is a case where a murder is commited under his very nose – a situation I love because it always leads to him feeling obliged to investigate. Christie however manages to give him an even more personal reason at the end of the coroner’s inquest that stands for me as the highlight of the book.

Much is made of the idea that Poirot has identified the killer early in the book merely from an inventory that he has made of the passengers’ belongings. This certainly adds a lot of intrigue to the story and at the end of the novel the evidence is explained logically, showing exactly why Poirot has reached that correct conclusion. Of course he does not share his suspicions with either the reader or Inspector Japp though and some feel that he behaves recklessly by keeping those suspicions to himself. Personally I accept Poirot’s reason that he could not begin to prove his case at that point however.

On the subject of Japp, I think that this is easily the character’s best outing to this point in the series. I think a large part of the reason for this is that Hastings does not appear in this novel, allowing him to work more closely with Poirot than he does elsewhere. In doing so I feel we get a stronger sense of his general competence at running down leads as well as the limitations of his imagination in theorizing about the case.

Christie provides us with quite a large cast of characters we can suspect though inevitably some can be discarded quite quickly. Most are colorfully drawn and distinctive and while I do not intend to go through the whole list, not least because I don’t want to inadvertantly draw your attention to their importance to the case, there are a few who are worthy of comment for other reasons.

Daniel Clancy, the mystery writer who excitedly identifies the blowpipe and describes its use, is a rather wonderful comedic creation. Much like Ariadne Oliver in Christie’s later novels, Clancy is used to lampoon some of the practices and poor taste of other crime writers though while Oliver feels more of a self-parody, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was some other figure she had in mind with him.

I particularly enjoyed his descriptions of his own series detective, Wilbraham Rice, whose defining character trait appears to be his love of eating bananas. With a television detective series now in the offing for Ariadne Oliver’s Sven Hjerson perhaps we can hope for a similar effort to bring Wilbraham to our screens in the future. We can but hope.

The other two characters I should mention are dentist Norman Gale and Jane Grey. These two characters are quickly established to be attracted to one another and remain close throughout the novel, working together at points to assist Poirot. This idea that Poirot will recruit assistance from within the circle of suspects is used by Christie in several novels of this period and I think that it is used well here, allowing them to not only help advance the investigation but to explore how the events have affected them both personally and professionally.

There is however an aspect of their characterization that I have to comment on because it will stand out as pretty appalling to modern readers. I had been quite enjoying the interactions between the pair until we get a short passage in which the pair talk over dinner and compare their opinions, finding themselves to be compatible. Many of their preferences are quite innocuous and so shallow as to be potentially comedic until we read that ‘[t]hey disliked loud voices, noisy restaurants and negroes’.

Clearly Christie intends that remark to be comedic and yet it sits really badly because it seems to suggest that racism is a whimsical personal preference rather than something more serious and insidious. While it is an isolated remark in the book, I found that I had little enthusiasm for either character after that point and did not feel invested in their finding happiness.

In addition to my problems with the romance, I also had some problems with the novel’s solution. To be clear, those problems do not relate to the killer’s motives which I feel are excellent and explained very well. Instead the problems lie with the practicality of the plan. In short, I feel that the killer takes on a very high level of risk to execute an extremely complicated murder plan. For a more spoilery explanation of what I mean see the end of this post.

There are some aspects of Death in the Clouds I really enjoy. I think the setting for the crime is pretty novel and the circumstances surrounding the murder are intriguing, not least the killer’s motive. I also think Poirot is quite clever and charming here, particularly appreciating the way he works with Japp in this story.

Unfortunately I was unable to look past some of the issues I had with it, not least the killer’s needlessly risky plan. For that reason I see this as a decidedly lesser effort, particularly when compared with the stories on either side of it.

This counts towards the Scene of the Crime category in the Golden Age Vintage Scattegories challenge.


Three Act Tragedy by Agatha Christie

Book Details

Originally published in 1934
Hercule Poirot #11
Preceded by Murder on the Orient Express
Followed by Death in the Clouds

Also known as Murder in Three Acts (original US title) though there are apparently some plot differences between the original UK and US editions outlined on the All About Agatha podcast. Beware it will spoil both versions though!

The Blurb

Sir Charles Cartwright should have known better than to allow thirteen guests to sit down for dinner. For at the end of the evening one of them is dead – choked by a cocktail that contained no trace of poison. 

Predictable, says Hercule Poirot, the great detective. But entirely unpredictable is that he can find absolutely no motive for murder.

The Verdict

Very cleverly plotted with some great characterization.

My Thoughts

For the past few years I have maintained on this blog that I have read all of the original Poirot novels. When I started to read Three Act Tragedy however it quickly became apparent to me that might not actually be the case as I remembered next to nothing about the case. Could it be another case of faulty memory? Perhaps. I certainly have heard a radio adaptation of it so I ought to have been able to recall more than I did. Not that it really matters because whether I have read it before or not, it felt entirely new to me and that was a very exciting feeling!

The story begins with the retired actor, Sir Charles Cartwright, about to entertain a group of guests for dinner. There are thirteen in the party so his secretary suggests that she should join the party to prevent any worry from the more superstitious members of the gathering. In the end however tragedy still strikes when the mild-mannered Reverend Babbington drops dead from nicotine poisoning moments after drinking a cocktail. There is no trace of poison in the glass, nor any in the food served at dinner. Adding to the confusion, it is hard to imagine any motive why someone might want the elderly clergyman dead.

There is lots to love about the circumstances surrounding the opening murder. For example, this is a case where Poirot is present from the beginning and while his role elsewhere is rather limited, it does mean that he is not relying on third party observations. He has met all of the players involved and so when he fails to even detect that it might be murder, which of course it is because Agatha Christie didn’t write novels about people dying from heavy smoking (Tuberculosis in Three Acts?), it demonstrates just how clever this puzzle is and how challenging it will be for Poirot to solve it.

One knock that people will often make against Christie’s writing relates to her characterizations. Three Act Tragedy is the perfect evidence to offer to refute that claim. Each of the characters present at Sir Charles’ party, who will either serve as surrogate sleuths for Poirot or make up our circle of suspects, feel dimensional and well-observed. There is certainly little sense that anyone is present just to make up the numbers and flesh out the circle a bit.

Several characters are related to the world of entertainment, which allows Christie a little opportunity to comment on aspects of that profession, and there is also some discussion of life in the Cornish countryside. For instance, Lady Mary Lytton Gore, a woman living in difficult financial circumstances, reflects on how she is not able to take her daughter (who is nicknamed Egg) to the city where she would meet a variety of different men. Instead she likely has two options – either the young mechanic Oliver who is regarded as a communist or the much older Sir Charles.

What struck me most about the attention to characterization here is that it also applies to Poirot himself. While he appears relatively little, we are actually given something of a description of Poirot’s life and career as well as an explanation for some of his quirks as an investigator. Quite why this was the book that did that, I am not sure, but it is interesting and helps to make him seem a little more human and sympathetic than he often appears.

As I suggested earlier, the death of Babbington is simply the opening murder – the first of our three “acts”. I do not intend to identify the victims of the subsequent murders except to say that I think the choice of victims are surprising and that only adds to the sense that this is a particularly baffling crime. Were I less familiar with some of the elements and ideas that recur frequently in Christie’s work I am sure I would have been completely stumped by this one and in understanding the relationships between the three murders.

I previously referred to Poirot’s limited role in this story and the presence of some surrogate sleuths so let’s discuss the manner of the investigation here. In this story Poirot learns of the second death after the fact and at a point where several other characters have decided to undertake their own investigation. One of these, Mr. Satterthwaite, had previously appeared in The Mysterious Mr. Quin short stories a few years earlier. He is not unintelligent but he does have some qualities that mark him as being quite Hastings-like, such as the way he reads the evidence in front of him. Poirot describes him as being like an audience member at the theater and that is not inaccurate – he is highly perceptive and notices details but also rather credulous. I rather liked him by the end of the story, particularly when paired with Sir Charles, and would have liked to have seen him appear again alongside Poirot.

Also investigating the case is Egg who has used it as a pretext to spend time with Sir Charles. The pair conduct interviews with witnesses and while clearly nowhere near as sharp as Poirot, they are quite entertaining to follow. I particularly enjoy a sequence in which Egg uses deception to try and get some answers out of a witness. Did I really expect them to get to the solution themselves? Perhaps not, but I did like the setup with those two characters working together and how it allowed their romance subplot to feel not just entertaining but important to the central mystery plot.

Of course, while Poirot stays in the background content for these other sleuths to divide the work up between them that situation cannot stay forever. Inevitably Poirot eventually takes control of the proceedings and he will be the one to provide the explanation of what happened. The downside of this approach is that we do not spend much time with him but I think the time we do get feels all the more significant as a result, helped by some of the actions he takes once he gets involved (my favorite being the sequence in which he throws a small sherry party).

I have already described the puzzle here as challenging and it remains so right up to the end. While I may have been able to identify the guilty party and even something of their motives, the how of the matter is really quite clever and uses an idea that is used again later in one of my favorite Christie novels, albeit in a slightly different way. Its use here is just as good though and there are some other clever elements that are unique to this novel.

Do I buy everything about that solution? Well, I think that the motive will be problematic for some readers. This resulted in some changes being made for the American edition. I have not read that version of the text myself so I can’t speak to the details other than to say that based on the description it takes something admittedly quite far-fetched and substitutes for it something that seems like it would be quite an unsatisfying ending.

Personally I quite like the explanation we get. It reminded me a little of one of my favorite novels (as well as possessing some similarities to another Christie novel I adore – can’t say which ones without spoiling) and I appreciated how clever and original the method used feels. It is smart, fair and as far as this reader is concerned one of her best puzzles in terms of how it is worked mechanically.

Overall then I found this to be a thoroughly enjoyable read. Perhaps the icing on the cake is the last paragraph which is for my money one of the best and most in character endings to any Poirot novel.

This counts towards the Murder by the Numbers category in the Golden Age Vintage Scattegories challenge.

Five to Try: Memory Mysteries

I first began compiling this list in response to Curtis’ Friday Fright Night meme (more on that here). You see, being of a somewhat squeamish disposition I don’t typically read books that really fit with the trappings of the horror genre and so I thought rather laterally about things that scare me.

The first thing that came to mind was the idea of losing my memory or my sense of awareness of my own actions. The odd thing is that I cannot really identify the origin of that fear. There is no great incident in my own life I can think of, nor do I have any reason to think that it is likely to happen to me. Still, the idea unsettles me and so I often find myself drawn to stories that use it in some fashion.

One work that does this well, though I have not included on my list, is the fascinating short story Diary of a Serial Killer by Young-Ha Kim. I decided against this book because only one of the stories, the titular one, is really a genre work. That story however is fascinating as we experience the thoughts of a serial killer who is suffering from dementia and struggles to keep his memories and thoughts in order – a dangerous prospect for someone whose life is comprised of secrets that might someday slip out. The presentation of what that would be like and, particularly, how distressing it could be is really effective and makes for a really powerful reading experience.

Looking at the five titles I have picked, none of them are really horrific or spooky in their presentation though I think some create horrific situations for their protagonists. I will try harder next time!

What I tried to do was select five books that handle the idea of memory in different ways, each focusing on some different aspect of it. In some you experience, quite directly, the narrator’s sense of confusion about their actions as they try to piece together what happened. In others the reader is kept at a distance from that character whose memory loss might be treated more ambiguously.

As always with these Five to Try-style posts, I invite you to share your own favorites of stories that play with memory-loss or manipulation in the comments. I love reading your thoughts and expanding on my wishlist of titles to read in the future!

One final note – I might very well have selected Great Black Kanba for this list had I not previously chosen it as part of my Railway Mysteries list just a few weeks ago. That offers a great example of how a character’s memory loss leaves her utterly confused about just who to trust and is definitely worthy of a closer look if you can track down an affordable copy. And so with that out of the way, on with the list!

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

Ordeal by Innocence (1958) by Agatha Christie

If Only I Had Remembered…

I think it is fitting to begin this list with a book by Agatha Christie since she herself was supposed to have experienced one of the more mysterious cases of amnesia herself. For more on that story, check out this episode of the excellent Shedunnit podcast.

Ordeal by Innocence begins with Arthur arriving at the home of the Argyle family to share some information with them. Several years earlier the matriarch of the family had been murdered and her adopted son, Jacko, had been sent to prison for the crime. He had claimed that he had been given a lift by a stranger at the time but that stranger could never be found. Arthur reveals he had been that man and the reason he could not verify the information was that he had lost his memory due to a car accident.

Unfortunately this piece of newly remembered information does not bring the peace Arthur had hoped for. Jacko had died in prison some time before and, as everyone soon realizes, if it wasn’t him then someone else in the house must have been responsible.

While the premise to this one is rather convoluted, it explores some interesting issues and family dynamics. Christie uses a structure where the story is told from the perspectives of each of her characters which allows us to understand how they are feeling and explore the sense of paranoia that Arthur’s revelation causes in most of them. Though not wholly successful, the book was one of Christie’s favorites and feels quite different from much of the author’s other work.

The Executioner Weeps (1957) by Frédéric Dard (Translated by David Coward)

Who Is She?

Most of the examples I have chosen on this list feature a protagonist who is struggling to piece together their memory of some events that happened to them. This work by Dard takes a different approach by having the person trying to piece that memory together be someone who finds the woman experiencing memory loss and falls in love with her.

What this book deals with, very effectively, is the idea that someone losing their memories might develop a secondary or different personality and that – in time, as their memories return – the original personality may reappear. It makes for a really compelling slice of noir drama and a great introduction to Dard’s work.

The Good Son (2016) by You-Jeong Jeong (Translated by Chi-Young Kim)

Why Did I Do It?

A young man wakes up to the smell of blood and a confusing telephone call from his brother asking if everything is okay. As he explores his house he finds his mother lying dead in a pool of blood at the foot of the stairs with her throat slit.

The main character suffers from seizures and frequently does not remember things following them. Slowly his memories come back as he decides to try and cover up what he did.

While I prefer You-Jeong Jeong’s Seven Years of Darkness, this book is a better match for the theme of this list and does a really good job of portraying how disconcerting this experience is for the protagonist.

Net of Cobwebs (1946) by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding

Did I Do That?

Malcolm Drake served as a merchant seaman before his boat was torpedoed leaving him quite nervous and volatile. He is staying with his brother and their family to convalesce which includes his rather domineering Aunt Evie. During a party Aunt Evie drops dead of alcohol poisoning. Several members of the party are sure that Malcolm was responsible and one, the butler, even claims to have witnessed it.

Holding is a superb writer who explores compelling psychological situations. Several of her stories incorporate some aspect of memory or the idea that the mind is playing tricks on a character. I think Malcolm’s volatility makes him an interesting protagonist however and left me quite unsure how this story would end.

The Red Right Hand (1945) by Joel Townsley Rogers

Why Don’t I Remember?

My final selection is also one of my favorite reads on this list. The Red Right Hand is told from the perspective of a character who ought to have been a witness to a murderer fleeing. The way the road is laid out they must have passed him and yet he cannot remember seeing anything. As he delves deeper into his memory, replaying events, we may begin to doubt the trustworthiness of those memories and if there might be some other reason that he cannot recall seeing a killer pass him.

This was recently reissued by Penzler Publishing as part of their American Mystery Classics series and is one of my favorite releases of this past year. Part of the reason for that is the book is not simply an unsettling suspense or thriller story but it also plays fair with the reader.

So those are my selections on this theme. What are some of your favorite mysteries that play with the idea of memory?

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Book Details

Originally published in 1934
Hercule Poirot #10
Preceded by Lord Edgeware Dies
Followed by Three Act Tragedy

The Blurb

Just after midnight, the famous Orient Express is stopped in its tracks by a snowdrift. By morning, the millionaire Samuel Edward Ratchett lies dead in his compartment, stabbed a dozen times, his door locked from the inside. Without a shred of doubt, one of his fellow passengers is the murderer.

Isolated by the storm, detective Hercule Poirot must find the killer among a dozen of the dead man’s enemies, before the murderer decides to strike again.

The Verdict

A well-plotted story with a truly memorable conclusion. It is not my favorite Poirot novel but it deserves its reputation as a classic.

My Thoughts

Hercule Poirot arrives at his hotel in Istanbul where he receives an urgent telegram that suggests he needs to return to England immediately. Poirot decides to book passage on the Orient Express, a train line that spans Europe, and asks the hotel desk to make arrangements. Unfortunately the first and second class compartments are fully booked but his friend, Monsieur Bouc, is a director at the railway and is able to intervene and secure him a berth when a passenger does not show up for their reservation.

At dinner Poirot is approached by Ratchett, an American businessman, who wants to hire him. He tells Poirot that he has received death threats and wants Poirot to sniff out the responsible party. He declines the commission however, telling Ratchett that he does not like his face. Poirot retires to his berth and tries to sleep, only to be woken in the early hours by a series of noises in the corridor.

Meanwhile weather conditions outside the train seem to be worsening and before long the train has come to a halt, trapped in a snowbank. Then Ratchett is discovered dead in his compartment, his body have been stabbed twelve times. Bouc implores Poirot to carry out an investigation while the train is halted in the hope that they can present their findings to the Yugoslav police at the next station and avoid further delays.

It is a curious thought that this is one of just a handful of mystery titles I could write about that I can reasonably expect anyone reading this post to have experienced in some form. Even if you haven’t actually read or watched a version of this story, even if you do not like mystery fiction, there is still a very good chance that you will know some elements of the general setup and perhaps its solution.

Though I suspect anyone reading this blogpost will already know most of this book’s secrets, I will still do my best to avoid providing spoilers. I would suggest though that if you haven’t read this book yet and you have any sort of interest in mystery fiction that you should seek it out while you remain unspoiled – if you can preserve and experience the surprise of its ending then I think you owe it to yourself to do so while you still can.

So, why do I think Murder on the Orient Express became regarded as one of Christie’s best stories? I think the answer to that begins with its setup. This was not the first Christie story to be based around a train but I think it is much more successful than the previous one because the train itself, its features and internal space and geography feel more important to the crime and the detection of the killer. The use of a snowdrift to shape the geography of the crime is also very clever, avoiding the problem of a train’s accessibility as customers move on and off and making it into a very effective closed circle.

Another reason I think the setup to this story is effective is that unusually we have a victim who expects the murder. The question of who the victim is and why they have attracted enemies is an interesting one and here, as in The Murder on the Links, Christie opts to take inspiration from a famous real-life crime. The answers to those questions are effective, both in establishing Ratchett as a character but also in providing a credible motive for his murder.

There is one other aspect of the setup that I think works particularly well – Poirot is on the scene from the very start of the case. As he is also travelling on that train, he is able to observe the suspects’ behavior prior to the crime and has already noticed some things about them prior to being aware of the death threats or the murder itself. This is not only an economical choice in terms of the narrative, allowing the sleuth to notice some key points and relationships organically rather than having them explained to them, it also adds some excitement in the idea that the crime has been committed in the presence of the detective – an idea used very effectively in Peril at End House and which Christie frequently returns to in subsequent Poirot adventures.

Christie also creates an interesting mix of suspects to consider from a variety of different backgrounds. One of the initial challenges is understanding why any of this multinational cast, all apparently unknown to Ratchett, would have motive to kill him at all. In the course of his investigation, Poirot will turn up multiple possible killers and uncovers lots of secrets.

This brings me however to the thing I like least about the book – the lengthy succession of interviews. In practice the detection process in mystery novels often boils down to a series of interviews but these are often broken up, differentiated or disguised by moving them to different locations or requiring a little effort on the part of the detective to track the interviewee down. Here however it is presented as a succession of interviews and while many of the disclosures made are interesting, the structure that information is delivered through can feel a little limited and repetitive.

[To digress – it is that same succession of interviews that makes this book such a popular choice for adaptation. You have twelve really good single scenes of about the same length – ideal for bringing in a group of A list actors for just a short filming period.]

And yet while I think the somewhat flat presentation of the interviews can be disappointing, I find it only elevates the puzzle itself. It takes confidence in the ingenuity of your solution to risk stripping everything back and place so much testimony side by side to really highlight the contradictions between them. In doing this we also see Poirot’s brilliance as he pieces the puzzle together, using logic to resolve the differences and problems in the accounts and come up with the book’s memorable solution (or, more accurately, solutions).

Which brings me to the novel’s conclusion. When I first read this I disagreed with the way the case is resolved and the resolution of a central theme of the novel but returning to the book itself I find that I feel differently about that ending. Perhaps I am reading this section of the book slightly differently – my views on the themes discussed haven’t shifted so it must be the way I am interpreting the material itself.

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Revisiting this with the knowledge of the solution, I was impressed by how well it was set up and clued and I think it manages to be surprising without feeling gimmicky. I probably enjoyed it more on revisiting it than I did on my first reading. Certainly I can understand why this story remains one of Christie’s most popular, even though I prefer some of Poirot’s other cases in terms of the interest of their initial scenarios.

Second Opinions

Brad at AhSweetMystery has written extensively about this book. Two of the highlights are this post in which he discusses it in the context of Christie’s output in the 1930s and this discussion of the book, what it means to him and its adaptations.

Kate at CrossExaminingCrime shares eleven things she finds interesting about the book.

Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery similarly found that they enjoyed this more on revisiting it – perhaps this is a story that is more enjoyable if you ignore its reputation.

Christian at Mysteries Short and Sweet covered this as part of his Christie at 100 series and gave this a glowing review. One of my favorite things about this series of reviews is looking at the various covers that have appeared on Swedish editions and seeing how different publishers have interpreted the book.

Bev at My Reader’s Block discusses the importance of this book to their becoming a mystery reader and many of the adaptations.

Dead Yesterday also shares some personal experiences of the book and how it shaped their reading. There are some spoilers but they are clearly labeled and avoidable.

Countdown John shares his notes on this book including research of some of the references contained in the book.

Nick at The Grandest Game in the World calls this a masterpiece and provides some interesting contemporary reviews.

Jose at A Crime Is Afoot describes the book as a classic and gives it his highest recommendation.