The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie

SittafordMy quest to read and review all of the non-series mystery and thriller novels by Agatha Christie continues this month with a look at The Sittaford Mystery. The only experience I had with this book prior to this read was seeing a very loose television adaptation for Marple! so much of this was new to me.

Bad weather is about to set in on Dartmoor as a group gathers in Sittaford House to chat and engage in a little seance. While the game starts off as entertaining, soon it takes a turn for the unsavory as the spirit spells out that Captain Trevelyan, the owner of the House, has been murdered.

Visibly distressed, Trevelyan’s friend Major Burnaby announces that he will walk to the home Trevelyan is staying in to check on him. When the house is locked on his arrival he is concerned and summons the Police. When they gain entry into the home they find him lying dead and, as Major Burnaby points out, the likely time of death would be around the time the game was taking place.

As with many of the non-series Christies I have read, while there is a detective they are a supporting character in this story. Instead we follow the exploits of a young woman whose fiance becomes the prime suspect in the case and the journalist she manipulates into helping them. This is certainly not a bad thing as both characters are quite charming and make for pleasant company but I am not convinced that the male was really necessary for this plot to work.

The centerpiece of the novel is the seance scene which occurs early and, while only loosely described, does convey a striking sense of dread as we wait for the name to be spelled out. Christie pitches this perfectly, playing with a slightly gothic playbook but never going overboard with those elements.

I also think this makes for a great starting point for the story as our pool of suspects can all give each other alibis for the time of death. We know that the situation cannot have occurred as described, therefore there is a (deliberate) error somewhere in the scenario. Unfortunately while the introduction to the crime is interesting, it turns out to be dressing for a much more pedestrian murder case.

There are a few aspects of the plot that I feel limit its overall effectiveness. The first is that the murder itself lacks any flair or appeal to the imagination. Indeed I would go so far as to label it the least interesting death I can think of in the Christie canon in terms of either the method and the circumstances in which the body is discovered.

The other problem I have with it relates to the table turning at the beginning of the novel and the role it plays in causing Trevelyan’s body to be discovered. The problem is that the murderer seems to rely on that event taking place to spur on the events that followed but they could not have anticipated or prompted the game taking place at the necessary time to suit their purpose.

On a more positive note, I do think Christie finds some clever ways to casually drop  important information into her plot and a few of those clues are quite well designed, sitting in the background until they are needed to explain the solution.

In short, while I didn’t love The Sittaford Mystery I do think that it possesses a few points of interest and I did enjoy reading it. It’s not Christie’s best but I also gather it’s not her worst.

Next month’s selection will be The Pale Horse which will be completely new to me. In the meantime chums, can I ask your opinion on a Christie question? Do you consider the Superintendent Battle stories to belong to a series or not? I won’t be including the Tommy and Tuppence series in this reading challenge but I’m a little stumped as to whether Battle should be regarded as a series or just a recurring character.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: During a Weather Event (When)

Death Comes As The End by Agatha Christie

DeathComesI have always been intrigued by Ancient Egypt ever since I saw a sarcophagus and set of canopic jars as a child. Lately I have been rekindling that interest while playing Assassin’s Creed Origins and it occurred to me that it would be nice to read a detective novel set in that historical period.

It just so happened that I have been undertaking a project to read through all of Agatha Christie’s standalone mystery novels so I had little difficulty in settling on a title. Death Comes as the End was written in response to a suggestion from a family friend, the archaeologist Stephen Glanville.

The novel stands out for a couple of reasons but its biggest claim to fame is that it is Christie’s only historical mystery. While some reviews assert that it is a ‘typical Christie country house mystery’ that has been given a little Egyptian set dressing, I think such views ignore much of the thematic content of the novel and, in particular, its discussion of Egyptian views of death.

The book centers around an Egyptian family. The father, Imhotep, is away on business and has left his adult sons to manage his estate. When he returns he brings with him a much younger woman, Nofret, who he installs as his concubine. Soon the family realize that the operations of the household are changing to her whims and they worry that they are being disregarded.

An attempt to bully her into submission backfires horribly when she sends a message to Imhotep who is travelling again to tell him about his children’s behavior towards her. His response is to threaten to disinherit his sons and cast them out. Before he returns to make good on that threat, Nofret is found dead at the foot of a cliff. This does not end the drama however and soon the bodies are mounting up.

The body count here is certainly impressive and I think the comparisons some readers make to And Then There Were None are understandable. As with that book, the body count provides a sense of growing tension and impending doom that proves really effective and while there may have been relatively few suspects left standing at the end, I still failed to figure out the killer’s identity.

I also think that it is worth stressing what a good job Christie does of finding a convincing way to tell a mystery story set in the ancient world that still retains all of the hallmarks of her writing. Death Comes as the End is a psychological crime novel, even if it takes place a few millennia before that word was used. Our characters have no forensic science or independent witnesses to rely on. They have to utilize their own intuition and observation to understand the personalities within the house and to identify who would have killed and why.

One of the most impressive things about the novel is the balance she is able to find between the historical and cultural details and the details of the plot. This is a tricky thing for a writer to gauge and I have certainly read many novels by writers who specialize in historical mysteries that fail to keep those elements in balance.

I mentioned earlier that I think this book does a good job of reflecting aspects of Ancient Egyptian society and spiritualism. While some of the plot points could clearly take place in any period of history, the way those events are interpreted could not. This principally can be seen in one of the character’s musings on the relationship between life and death but I think some seemingly supernatural events are also taken more seriously by the cast of characters than they ever would be if the action took place in a contemporary setting.

While I found the book to be an impressive and enjoyable read, I do think there are a few issues. The biggest of these is that I am not sure the reader could reach the killer’s identity through logical deduction. Though there is certainly plenty of information that suggests who is responsible, this is not the sort of case where the attentive reader could only reconcile the clues in one way. Instead the killer really just reveals themselves at the end. Personally I enjoyed the ride and being uncertain of quite how it would all be resolved but your mileage may vary.

The other thing that I think didn’t quite work was the attempt at a romantic subplot. Wikipedia would have me believe that the ending was forced on Christie and later a subject of regret, though I couldn’t easily find out what her preferred ending would have been, and I do wonder if this was one of those elements that she was forced to include. While this is not the only Christie novel that features an attempt to bring a restoration of order with a romantic subplot, I am not sure that it fits with the otherwise bleak tone of the later chapters.

In spite of these less satisfying elements of the novel, overall I found Death Comes as the End to be a very enjoyable and entertaining read. I think it conjures up a strong sense of place and culture and though I think it may disappoint a little as a detective story, I felt gripped by the way it unfolded.

Finally, if anyone has an Egyptian mystery novel they’d like to recommend to me I’d love to hear your suggestions…

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: A historical crime (When)

The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie

BrownSuitAs you may recall, I had originally planned to read The Man in the Brown Suit last month as part of my efforts to read all of the non-series Christie novels in order. A mishap with my copy of the book forced me to go in a different direction but I am happy to have finally got around to it.

A lot of what I will be writing about relates in some sense to the labels we use to categorize fiction. These days the boundaries between thriller, adventure, mystery and suspense have become increasingly blurred but genre will still inform the reader’s expectations of a book.

Many reviews of The Man in the Brown Suit will suggest that this book is not really a detective story but that it actually belongs to the thriller genre. The expectation being that the reader should be braced for a story that focuses entirely on the movement of the story and elements of intrigue rather than the process of ratiocination.

Those reviewers who view the book purely from that perspective are certainly correct to draw attention to those thriller elements. There is a very real sense of motion throughout the story as we see the heroine, Anne, begin by moving from the countryside to London, witnessing a suspicious death and learning of another, then boarding a intercontinental liner travelling to South Africa before journeying through parts of that country. In her travels she finds a secret message to decode, an enemy to sniff out and a romance while at points she is kidnapped. All solid thriller material.

There is however a puzzle present too that the reader can consider and participate in – who is the mysterious crime lord known as the Colonel?

Like in any other Christie mystery we have a selection of potential villains to pick from and there are some clues dropped as to that person’s identity. The reader has the potential to deduce who might be the villain prior to the reveal using clues within the book. In short, we have a real mystery on our hands so why is it viewed almost exclusively through the lens of the thriller and does it really matter how the book was marketed?

Addressing the first question – part of the reason is that Christie will undermine the mystery here with some of her subsequent novels as she brings back one of the characters from this adventure as a sleuth. That in itself is an interesting choice and I’ll hold off on discussing that until it’s time to talk Cards on the Table but if you know that character is not the crime boss (and, to be honest, it would be a little on the nose) then your pool of suspects becomes a little too small.

While there is a mystery there for the reader to puzzle out, Christie places the reader’s attention onto her novel’s adventure elements. In short, the mystery becomes hidden by the other elements of the setting. The reason this matters is that Christie utilizes an idea in this story that she would gain far more attention for using a few years later in another novel.

At this point, if you care about being spoiled for this book you should look away. Scroll down and I’ll use bold type to indicate when you can look again!

Christie utilizes a structural device designed to play on the reader’s expectations about what they are reading. The novel is divided into narratives from two separate characters, recollections from Anne, the spirited young woman who dreams of adventure, and sections from Sir Eustace’s private diary. Christie gives each character a quite distinct way of writing and I found the result to be quite entertaining, particularly the diary entries which are often very funny.

Christie’s reasons for doing this are to allow the reader to make false assumptions based on their expectations that a first person account from a narrator is likely to be true. What intrigues me most about this is that it does not seem that this aspect of the book is viewed as particularly remarkable at the time yet when Christie revisits the idea in a later Poirot novel it is the aspect of that book which everybody comments on.

There are a couple of reasons I can think of why this book wouldn’t attract the same level of notice as that other effort though I am not entirely sure how I would weight them. First, I think it is likely that because readers generally experience this expecting an adventure there is little of the sense of outrage at the idea that an author hasn’t played fair (even though, as I will no doubt argue when it comes time to talk that other novel – I don’t agree with that view of the ‘trick’).

Second, I think that by having two accounts the impact of that revelation is probably lessened a little. While both narrators are actually quite likeable, one is clearly more heroic than the other. We place our trust in them and we’re aware that as the other source is being presented as a document it has a slightly different status.

Finally, I suspect that the nature of the respective crimes means that we feel a little more betrayed in that other novel than we do here. Where in that novel we like the criminal less once we realize what they have done, here the guilty party is still strangely affable even in defeat. This, I feel, lessens the sense of shock for the reader and contributes to the moment of revelation feeling underplayed.

From this point onwards it is safe to resume reading!

While I would not describe it as a top tier Christie work, I think The Man in the Brown Suit does have a lot to commend it. Whether it is categorized as a thriller, adventure or mystery, I can say that I found it a very entertaining and enjoyable read. Christie’s story maintains a strong pace and I found both narrators to be charming and distinctive. I found the mystery of the Colonel’s identity fun and enjoyed the moment of revelation enormously.

I was a little less convinced by the romance, in part because we do not spend enough time with the characters as a couple to take this aspect of the plot too seriously but I don’t want to be too hard on this as it is fairly typical of this type of adventure. Similarly, I felt that the villain’s plan felt a little underdeveloped though I enjoyed the sequence in which they finally confront Anne and I particularly appreciated the coda given to that relationship in the final chapter.

It is that character and their relationship with Anne that I felt was the most successful and distinctive element of this novel and while the villain may not feature in a classic story or have a particularly striking plot, I found their personality to be memorable and engaging.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Color in the title (What)

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

StylesI had initially planned for my next Agatha Christie read to be The Man in the Brown Suit but in an act of absent-mindedness I contrived to leave it at work and was stranded without a read. My Audible collection came to the rescue and I quickly settled on a recording of the story read by David Suchet. Incidentally, if you do wish to listen to this on audio, his reading is superb.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles is narrated by Captain Hastings who, after receiving an injury at the front, has returned to England for convalescent leave. At a loss for what to do he visits a friend at their country house, Styles. This house is owned by his friend’s stepmother who inherited it for the remainder of her life upon her husband’s death along with the majority of his fortune. This has made her stepchildren reliant on her for financial support. She had been fairly generous, if controlling, with them in previous years but we learn that things have changed following her marriage to a much younger man.

Several days later Emily Inglethorp is found dead in her boudoir from an apparent case of strychnine poisoning though it is not clear how the drug had been administered. Hastings suggests that the family bring in a friend of his, Hercule Poirot, who he has discovered is staying in the village as a refugee and the family agrees after being persuaded of his discretion.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles was Agatha Christie’s first published novel and so it also introduces one of mystery fiction’s most iconic characters: the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot with his egg-shaped head, military moustache and desire for neatness and order. While the character would become richer over the years and play a larger role in later adventures than he does in this narrative, it is striking just how well formed he already is at this point.

Rather than focus on the things that are already in place here, I was more interested in a couple of things that felt a little different from the character or the style of the later mysteries.

Firstly, it is immediately apparent that this is a book that evokes a sense of the period in which it was written in a way that few other Christie stories do. Here we see a family whose circumstances are actually being affected by the war and throughout the book there are references given that remind us of this. Economies are being made at Styles and we hear Emily Inglethorp complain that her stepchildren are not doing enough to help the cause. And, even more noticeable, a woman is working in a professional capacity.

Given Christie’s popular image as a stodgy, conservative voice, I was struck by how Christie writing in 1916 is a progressive voice for that time. Her women are strong and patriotic, whether they are working to put Styles on a war footing or serving in a pharmacy. Meanwhile the males are mostly coasting on financial handouts, not seeking to contribute while believing that they are owed a living. The contrast is striking and gives the lie to the notion that Christie was someone who deplored progress.

The question of Christie’s politics is, of course, contentious and I think more complex than it appears. Part of the problem is that her longevity meant that many of her later works were written when she was a much older figure, seemingly from a bygone age. Those novels seem to wistfully reflect on the past and while I think that there is some acceptance of the need for progress in those later books, that can often be overlooked by readers. While I do not think you can base an opinion on a single novel, I would argue that at the very least it illustrates that there was a period of her career where Christie was more forward-thinking and perhaps even a little disapproving of her supposedly beloved establishment.

Secondly, while Poirot’s later adventures usually put a primary importance on the analysis of the psychological factors of a case, here he seems almost entirely focused on the question of motive and opportunity. While Poirot may later berate Hastings for what he suggests is an obsessive focus on the clue, here we see him finding scraps of a will in a fire grate and some of those unlikely strands of fabric stuck on a door latch.

Thirdly, in this case we actually see a suspect being brought to trial. I am not entirely sure that trial writing was really a strength of Christie’s and the narrative does seem to slow quite significantly at this point yet its inclusion is important and does serve a real purpose in the story.

Finally, here we have a version of Poirot that is living in difficult circumstances as a refugee and yet is managing to retain his sense of pride. This is essentially the same character we will see later and yet he is not initially the master of the crime scene through reputation but because of his inherent competency.

So, the final question I want to consider is whether this book, were it not the first Poirot mystery, would be considered a particularly noteworthy one. I say that because I think it is one of those books that anyone with an interest in GAD should try for its significance to the genre but that is not necessarily a mark of quality.

I personally rather enjoy The Mysterious Affair at Styles but I do think the mystery itself is one of Poirot’s less interesting cases. Certainly there is an element of the resolution (the identity of the killer) that I think is quite clever and utilizes Christie’s soon-to-be iconic skills at misdirection well but the cast of suspects are not particularly interesting either in variety or motive.

Also there is also an element of the resolution (the means of death) that I think is too clever and technical for me to be entirely happy with it. Not so much because it isn’t fair play but because it isn’t ingenious enough to be interesting and the death could have been contrived in a simpler way.

Still, I would reiterate that I did enjoy revisiting the novel. It is fascinating to see how much of the Belgian detective’s character is already in place in his first appearance and there are some wonderful moments along the way, not least one of Hasting’s customary and misguided acts of chivalry.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: At a country house (Where)

Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie

SparklingCyanideLast month I took my first steps in a grand undertaking to read all of the crime stories by Agatha Christie other than those containing Poirot or Miss Marple by reading Ordeal By Innocence. This month I selected Sparkling Cyanide. Technically it is not entirely new to me as I had listened to a radio production a few years ago but it transpired I didn’t remember a thing about it…

Rosemary Barton died from cyanide poisoning at her birthday dinner in a restaurant surrounded by six friends and family. The inquest returned a verdict of suicide but a year later her husband, George, receives anonymous notes that suggest she was actually murdered leading him to suspect that the murderer must have been one of their party.

The novel is divided into three distinct phases. The first introduces each of the suspects and their possible motive for being the killer. The second describes how those six characters end up at a dinner recreating Rosemary’s death. The third and final section features Colonel Race taking up the investigation and solving the mystery.

I really enjoyed the way Christie introduces us to the cast of characters while also outlining the facts of the case. They are an interesting assortment of likely killers and these chapters which vary considerably in length provide memorable introductions for each.

While all of the characters are strong, I was particularly struck by the character of Stephen Farraday, a rising politician. Christie presents him as an opportunist whose tendencies would suggest that he is a Liberal except that he can see no future with them because they have no chance of attaining power. Instead he makes overtures to the Labour party before deciding that his best chances for advancement would lie with the Conservative party. I encountered several Farradays in my time working as a political professional so this character rang particularly true to me.

The other characters are similarly strong however and I think that the quality of that characterization plays a big part in the success of this novel. Given that the formal murder investigation will not begin until two-thirds of the way into the novel, our attention is held because these characters are psychologically interesting and very well drawn. Christie balances the time she gives to the various suspects and utilizes the multiple perspectives approach well, taking care to

Discussion of the mystery itself is a little challenging because there are some key developments that take place late in the novel that I would hate to spoil. What I can say is that Christie devised a puzzle that is very neat and tidy in spite of its seeming impossibility. Eyewitness accounts make it clear that no one had the opportunity to tamper with the glasses of champagne while the party were away dancing and yet the poison was administered.

While I felt I knew who had done it and why, I could not understand how the murder was achieved. When the explanation is given it turns out to be quite devastatingly simple and very satisfying. In my opinion it ranks among Christie’s very best because it does not require elaborate plot explanations to work and it is very easily explained.

The man tasked with providing that explanation is Colonel Race, a name that may be familiar from a couple of Poirot novels. According to Goodreads I am supposed to consider Sparkling Cyanide the fourth book in the Colonel Race series but that feels like a bit of a stretch as in every other respect the book stands alone. Race is certainly a thoughtful and diligent sleuth and I think his plainness makes him an interesting contrast to Poirot in particular but his presence here neither requires or benefits from any prior knowledge. As it happens I had selected the earlier Colonel Race novel, The Man in the Brown Suit, to be my next non-series Christie selection for January so I will soon have another opportunity to reacquaint myself with him.

He is not a particularly flashy detective and his personality is rather dull. On several occasions he is presented in description as being something of a relic of British Imperialism. He does possess a keen mind however and I appreciated that Christie keeps her suspect interviews from dragging on, preferring to keep the narrative moving.

Overall, I think Sparkling Cyanide is a really entertaining Christie story. It is beautifully paced and the characterization is very strong. I thoroughly enjoyed the read, devouring it in a single sitting and would strongly recommend it to anyone curious to try Christie for the first time.

The Murder on the Orient Express (Movie)

MOTOEAfter a week of trying to make schedules align I was finally able to go and see the new Murder on the Orient Express movie. I had initially planned on writing this up as a more structured book and movie contrast or to compare different versions but there are plenty of good posts out there already doing that. Like this one from Brad which not only compares each of the filmed versions but also talks about the significance of the book to him.

Instead I am just sharing some thoughts about the movie. I’m not trying to cover or mention everything – just the things that struck me most during the film or which I ended up talking about with my wife as we left. And for those who are considering seeing this and don’t know the ending I am keeping this spoiler-free.

OrientExpressKenneth Branagh’s Moustache Isn’t Distracting

The most surprising thing about the film was how little I noticed the moustache once the film began. I have slightly mixed feelings about the content of the first ten minutes which is a little like a Bond-style pre-credits adventure. It’s there to establish Poirot as the greatest detective in the world and set up the principle themes of the movie. While I felt the film tried too hard to be funny and it was a little too frantic, it does allow the viewer time to adjust to this new Poirot before he sets foot on the train. By the time we see Poirot sniffing breads in Istanbul I wasn’t concentrating on the moustache or his more streamlined physique – I was becoming immersed in the story.

 

Bouc Actually Makes An Impression

When I read the novel I remember the character of Bouc feeling like a significant figure because of his established friendship with Poirot yet I often feel that the character becomes forgotten. Tom Bateman does a great job here though, portraying Bouc as an irresponsible bon vivant. More importantly, through his character we witness the emotional toll the case takes on those involved as we see how grave and serious he has become by its conclusion.

Branagh Has A Great Eye… But Overthinks Some Shots

Why did we need a new version of Murder on the Orient Express? I certainly was wondering this but sequences such as the train pulling through the city of Istanbul or the avalanche give the film a sense of scale that differentiates it from previous filmed versions. The train looks truly fantastic and so glamorous that you almost wouldn’t mind being trapped in it with a killer on the loose if you could enjoy the seemingly endless supply of Godiva chocolates that are on hand.

While much of the film is very well directed, I do think Branagh goes a little overboard at moments trying to inject some visual flair into the movie. At several times he indulges in long tracking shots, an overhead shot of a conversation in a corridor and films scenes through textured glass and it’s a little distracting. And then there’s the scene near the end where the cast are positioned like they are in a very famous painting…

GadJosh Gad Stands Out In An All-Star Cast

Like the previous movie version that starred Albert Finney, Branagh has assembled an all-star cast. In a film that features Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi and Olivia Coleman, the standout performance came from Josh Gad who surprised us by playing the part absolutely straight. He is much more than Olaf and LeFou!

Johnny Depp Is A Good Ratchett

Last year my wife and I went to a film where Johnny Depp made a ‘surprise’ appearance in the final few scenes of the movie. When he appeared the full audience audibly groaned, disappointed in the reveal and with a hint of Depp-fatigue.

There was a little of that yesterday but for my money (an outrageous $15 for a matinee!), Depp fit the part very well and makes a strong impression in relatively little screen time.

The Ending Isn’t Exactly Bungled But…

When the early reviews came out, several suggested that the solution was impossible to follow if you don’t already know the story. I asked Brad his opinion before seeing it and I essentially agree with him that there are a few clues left on the table but that the solution is there.

I will say though that the film does rush through the conclusion. My wife, who has seen previous film versions but not in a long time, did not struggle to understand what the solution to the murder had been but did wonder what Poirot decided to do about what he learned in the end. She had guessed correctly but we don’t get to hear the conversation take place.

We Would Be Excited To See Another

At the end of the film there is a little moment which is meant as a little nod to the fans and possibly sets up a sequel. If that happens, and it looks likely now that it will, I would be excited to see it.

Ordeal By Innocence by Agatha Christie

OrdealbyInnocenceWhen I first began blogging about crime fiction I had a number of goals in mind. One of the biggest reasons I started this blog was to broaden my literary horizons. Part of that goal meant finding brand new writers and trying books from crime fiction sub-genres I would otherwise never have tried, but the other part of my thinking was that I wanted to learn more about some of the seminal figures in the genre through exploring their work.

I was, of course, already quite familiar with the works of Agatha Christie long before I began blogging. I grew up watching the ITV adaptations of the Poirot stories and I loved to listen to the June Whitfield radio versions of the Marple stories as a teen and was inspired to explore the novels themselves. Yet though I have read most of Dame Agatha’s novels featuring her two greatest creations, Miss Marple and Poirot, I have to confess that I have not dipped into much of her other work beyond And Then There Were None.

I plan to rectify that.

Ordeal by Innocence is the first book I have selected as part of that quest to educate myself about her other works. My goal is to read every one of her detective and mystery novels, beginning with the standalone works and then tackling Inspector Battle as well as Tommy and Tuppence.

Why did I select this book to be my first? The honest answer is that I know it is one of Christie’s two personal favorite works and so I hoped that I’d be starting off on a high note.

The novel begins with a man, Arthur Calgary, taking a journey to deliver a piece of information to the family of Jacko Argyle. Jacko had died in prison after being found guilty of killing his adoptive mother. He had protested his innocence, saying that he had an alibi as he was being given a lift by a stranger but no one had ever come forward to confirm Jacko’s story.

Arthur had been the man that gave Jacko that lift but, after getting hit in an accident, he was badly injured and only recently recovered his memory of what had happened when he learned of Jacko’s fate. Blaming himself, he hoped to provide comfort to the Argyle family by proving his innocence but his news has the unintended consequence of alerting the family that the real murderer must be one of them. Realizing he has only added to their troubles, Arthur determines he will protect the innocent by finding the real killer.

This is an interesting starting point for the novel and it allows Christie to define her theme of discussing the nature of innocence and justice early and clearly. It is chiefly concerned with the question of whose innocence is more important: Jacko’s or the remaining family members who were not guilty of committing the murder. I felt that this was an interesting question and that the most successful parts of the novel were those exploring the complicated reactions of the family to Arthur’s news and the ways that information alters how family members interact with one another.

By presenting her story from the various perspectives of each of the family members, Christie enables us to feel closer to her characters, to hear their worries and to understand their decision making. This is very helpful in terms of addressing her central theme and in conveying the paranoia that Arthur’s revelation brings but it also brings a problem with it. We know that at least one of the family must be the killer yet we are also privy to their thoughts. It is hard to believe that the guilty party would not be constantly worrying about their own safety as the case reopens which would present problems if we are hearing their thoughts. Christie attempts to avoid this by having that character be absorbed in a situation whenever we have to hear from them.

This compromise is a little inelegant but it exists to make sure that the novel still works as a traditional whodunit mystery building to an identification of the killer at the conclusion. I think this approach essentially works but some will find it draws attention to the killer’s identity. I do wonder if, freed from the structure of the traditional whodunit and perhaps presented in an inverted form, the novel might have been able to develop its themes even more effectively.

Christie’s decision to retain aspects of the traditional whodunit also impacts the development of the character of Arthur who assumes the mantle of detective but does not assert himself much within the narrative until the ending. Once again this feels like an awkward compromise designed to have events explained to an outsider for the reader’s benefit but, because Christie wants us to hear the family members’ thoughts first hand he is largely absent from much of what follows and so feels ill-defined and like he doesn’t really fit with the rest of the narrative. There is an attempt, near the end, to tie him more directly to the fates of one of the characters but in a novel that seeks to explore human psychology, this feels like a highly artificial development.

The Argyle family generally fares better and Christie spends considerable time exploring how this family was constructed and why each of the family members had come to resent Rachel Argyle in spite, and perhaps because, of her financial generosity with them. Some, such as the characters of Micky and Leo are particularly well drawn and possess interesting contradictions that Christie takes time to develop and illustrate.

There is one family member that didn’t sit particularly well with me and that was Tina. While the novel explores the other adoptive children’s struggles in adjusting to life in the Argyle family, Tina is more typically just defined by her mixed racial status. Where the other children’s complex feelings about their mother are explored, Tina is ‘docile’ and this is attributed to her mixed parentage. Generally I think that books have to be judged within the social context of the time they were written but it is frustrating that while her adoptive siblings’ complex feelings are explored in detail, Tina is not afforded the same depth of characterization within the novel.

While I had some issues with characterization and the development of the mystery itself, I have to say that I still found the book to be quite enjoyable and appreciated that it feels different from much of her other work. I would not agree with Christie’s own assessment that it is one of her very best works but I did find its central theme interesting and provocative.