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.

Lord Edgeware Dies by Agatha Christie

Book Details

Originally published in 1933
Hercule Poirot #9
Preceded by Peril at End House
Followed by Murder on the Orient Express

Also known as Thirteen at Dinner

The Blurb

When Lord Edgware is found murdered the police are baffled. His estranged actress wife was seen visiting him just before his death and Hercule Poirot himself heard her brag of her plan to “get rid” of him.

But how could she have stabbed Lord Edgware in his library at exactly the same time she was seen dining with friends? It’s a case that almost proves to be too much for the great Poirot.

The Verdict

By no means a classic story but the plot has a few interesting features while the characterizations are pretty good.


My Thoughts

Lord Edgeware Dies begins with Poirot and Hastings attending a theatrical performance at which they witness an impersonation of the actress Jane Wilkinson by Carlotta Adams. As it happens Wilkinson is in the audience and afterwards loudly voices her frustrations towards her husband, Lord Edgeware, who refuses to grant her a divorce, declaring that she would willingly murder him. Later she approaches Poirot and begs him to intervene for her by visiting him and making a case for why it would benefit him to divorce her. He is persuaded and tries to set up an appointment, only to be told Lord Edgeware needs to meet that day instead.

In their meeting Lord Edgeware declares he withdrew his opposition to divorce some time before and had written to Jane agreeing to proceed. Poirot is confused but breaks the good news to Jane who is delighted. The next morning however Inspector Japp visits Poirot to tell him that Edgeware was murdered in his home and Wilkinson was witnessed visiting him that night. The problem is that another group of witnesses can confirm that she was present at a party at exactly the same time some miles away.

Up until just a few years ago when I first discovered GAD blogs, I would have likely cited Lord Edgeware Dies as one of the classic Poirot novels. I should say that was not based upon my own assessment but rather my perception of what others thought of the novel. I was rather surprised when I learned that its standing was lower than I had anticipated and, incidentally, broadly in line with my own opinion of the novel.

The reason for my belief that this must be a classic was that the novel was one of the first four adapted when Poirot returned to our television screens in its glossier, star-studded TV movie format. The other three books – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Evil Under the Sun and Murder in Mesopotamia were all clearly highly regarded so I naturally assumed that this one must be of a similar status. Knowing no other Christie fans at that time, I simply assumed that I must be the outlier and that I simply didn’t get it.

Before I dig into the problems I had with the novel both then and now, let me take a moment to point to some of the things I think it gets right. First, I really enjoyed the depiction of the relationship between Poirot and Hastings in this novel which blends moments of warmth with a fair number of moments when Poirot is being quite insufferable towards his friend. The pair share quite a few amusing exchanges with each other and I think that sense of their being friends enjoying each others’ company on this investigation comes over well. Japp similarly fares well with the novel doing a good job of capturing the teasing, frustrated relationship between him and Poirot.

I also think that Christie does a pretty good job of conveying both Jane Wilkinson’s appeal and also her rather enigmatic qualities to the reader, helping them understand the differing opinions of her character held by others. While I do not think she is quite as magnetic a figure as Nick in Peril at End House, the interpretation of her personality and actions by Poirot and others is central to this novel.

As much as I appreciated these aspects of characterization, I feel that the book is much less successful in terms of its plotting. To be clear, I do not have a problem with the logic of the solution – Christie’s explanation of the crime made sense for me and seemed quite credible as a sequence of events. Instead, my issues with it are more structural and based on Poirot’s own responses to the facts of the case.

I do not think I will be spoiling anything for first-time readers by saying that Christie spells out rather openly near the beginning a possible explanation for what happened. Readers well-versed in her work will likely spot some implications of the setup and notice how they might lead to some opportunities for murder but even those less familiar with her work will likely be able to make some logical deductions about the crime based on what we learn. Of course, the reader will also probably realize that it is unlikely that they will have solved the whole thing just a couple of chapters in.

One problem I have is that Poirot really does not consider the most obvious and simple explanation for what has happened for much of the novel, instead positing a more complicated solution. Even when parts idea falls through he never stops to think what the simplest solution to the puzzle might be, making him appear rather dense or stubborn. That is certainly not the Poirot I think of and does not show him in a particularly strong or brilliant light.

Indeed I was rather struck that Christie never really seems to consider that the reader might simply not read the evidence in exactly the same way as Poirot. For that reason there never really is any attempt to hide the facts associated with the real solution and instead it just seems to be assumed that it will never occur to the reader.

I also felt it was strange that there are several aspects of this book that do seem to parallel or mimic aspects of a previous and then quite recent novel by the same author. This immediate repetition feels rather unfortunate and seems to keep the book from feeling as original as it could have done, also causing some unflattering comparisons with that other – and in my opinion, superior – novel.

When we do get to the end of the novel I am struck by the sense of being rather underwhelmed. That is not because the book is bad – there are some very well written moments and ideas to be found here but the misdirection simply did not work for me here making for a disappointing experience.

Overall then, though I would not suggest that this is my favorite Poirot, I should stress that I consider it to be far from the worst. Even the elements that don’t really work here are at least quite interesting while Christie creates several interesting characters who do stand out as being quite effectively developed, particularly Jane and Carlotta, while the motive for the crime is reasonably clever.

Peril at End House by Agatha Christie

Book Details

Originally published in 1932
Hercule Poirot #8
Preceded by Black Coffee
Followed by Lord Edgeware Dies

The Blurb

On holiday on the Cornish Riviera, Hercule Poirot is alarmed to hear pretty Nick Buckley describe her recent “accidental brushes with death.” First, on a treacherous Cornish hillside, the brakes on her car failed. Then, on a coastal path, a falling boulder missed her by inches. Later, an oil painting fell and almost crushed her in bed.

So when Poirot finds a bullet hole in Nick’s sun hat, he decides that this girl needs his help. Can he find the would-be killer before he hits his target?

The Verdict

One of my favorites. It is cleverly plotted with a memorable setup and some entertaining interactions between Poirot and Hastings.


My Thoughts

I had not planned to be writing about Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House today but this week I have found myself tremendously distracted. Every fifteen or twenty minutes I seem to be checking to see if those test results are in and, as a consequence, I find I cannot really concentrate on anything. Realizing that anything new I read was not going to get a fair hearing, I decided to revisit an old favorite instead.

While I do not typically think of myself as Cornish (my parents both having moved there as adults), I spent my entire childhood living there. As a consequence any time I encounter a book that is set there it tends to stand out and stick in my memory. Peril at End House stands out all the more as the first novel I can remember reading to be set there. That is not to say that I think the setting comes through particularly in the prose – it is really just a series of place names – but at the time that gave it a huge amount of novelty, grabbing my attention for long enough for me to notice the superb plotting.

The story begins with Poirot and Hastings holidaying together in a hotel in Cornwall. They encounter a beautiful young woman, Nick Buckley, who tells them about her frequent narrow escapes from death over the previous few days. During their conversation Nick complains of a wasp flying past her head but Poirot finds a bullet nearby leading him to suspect that she had just survived yet another attempt on her life.

Poirot, although still retired, decides that he will act as Nick’s protector. He meets her friends and, fearing that one of them may be responsible, persuades Nick to invite her cousin Maggie to stay and act as a protector. Unfortunately that act does not prevent a murder from taking place.

One of the things I remember most about the experience of reading this for the first time was my sense of shock at the killer’s identity and their motive. It was a significant enough surprise that I never had any difficulty remembering that solution. I have revisited Peril at End House many times over the years since though and I find that each time I am struck by how very cleverly and carefully it is constructed. This is one of Christie’s purest puzzle plots and I appreciate that it is achieved with some simple but very effective uses of misdirection.

My enjoyment of the story begins with the very organic way in which Poirot is brought into this case. He is not hired or compelled into taking this case but he is a witness and his decision to become involved is a consequence of his feelings of empathy towards Nick and his natural sense of curiosity. In short, I appreciate that this is a case that emerges out of his character and that, as such, it feels like it fits with the more empathic and gallant Poirot that we see at points in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

It struck me that this case is the first time we really see Poirot challenged to prevent a murder. This is an idea that Christie returns to in several other Poirot stories, most memorably in my favorite Poirot story The A.B.C. Murders, and I think it suits his character particularly well. This case represents a challenge to him and makes him feel personally involved in its resolution. I think this helps us understand better why he becomes so agitated about any little failures or misjudgments on his own part – here it is less a matter of vanity and more the knowledge that if he fails it could mean death for those he has sworn to protect.

I also really appreciate that this novel brings back Hastings and builds on the sense of friendliness and comradeship we see on display in The Big Four. Here, once again, we get the sense that the two men simply enjoy each others’ company and care about each other. They are, after all, choosing to holiday with each other. There are, of course, plenty of Poirot’s typical little dismissive comments about Hastings’ mental abilities but towards the conclusion we see another little instance of Hastings being valuable to Poirot precisely because he thinks so differently from him and I think he has a much clearer purpose here than in his first few appearances.

Nick is an intriguing character and it is easy to understand why Poirot and Hastings are drawn to want to protect her. She epitomizes that sense of carefree living in the moment that was in vogue at the moment. This carries through into some of the details we learn about her life and those of the set she associates with and, as a result, the story feels quite youthful and energetic. This is not only entertaining, it also reminds us that Poirot and Hastings are of a different generation and that, quite amusingly, Poirot seems more aware of what is in fashion than his considerably younger friend.

The other characters are perhaps a little less fully sketched but each is easily distinguished and several are quite entertaining. There is just one story strand that I think feels disconnected from the others. I cannot identify the character or characters without spoiling their role in the plot but I will say that I find their appearances to be a little tedious and that I find it hard to take seriously as a killer or killers. They are not in it enough however to really irritate me and I can imagine others may find their appearances more entertaining than I did.

The plotting is, as I suggested above, generally very good with Christie pacing out her little moments of surprise and intrigue well. Things build to a close with a rather wonderful set piece sequence that stands out for me as being one of the great Hastings moments and sets up a powerful sequence in which Poirot identifies the killer. Unfortunately a choice made in the ending seems to undermine it a little, not feeling entirely earned, but on the whole I think the story is wrapped up very tidily.

While The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a greater work with a more intricately worked plot and narrative trickery, I find Peril at End House to be the more entertaining read. The situation is clever and I really enjoy the interactions between Poirot and Hastings throughout the book. I am happy to find, each time I revisit it, that it stands up to repeated reads and I am sure that I will find myself reading it again before I reach Curtain in my read-through.

The Detection Club by Jean Harambat

Book Details

Originally published in 2020 in two volumes.
This review covers the works as a totality.

The Blurb

In 1930s England, the best mystery writers of the era come together to form the Detection Club. G. K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr and others gather to eat, drink, and challenge one another. They are in for a bigger test, however, when eccentric billionaire Roderick Ghyll invites them all to his mansion on a private island off the coast of Cornwall, promising to enchant them with his latest creation: a robot that can predict the culprit in their novels. But when someone ends up murdered, who will lead the investigation? 

The Verdict

A simple but colorful mystery comic with a memorable setup and entertaining characters.


My Thoughts

Most of the time I find browsing my Amazon Kindle recommendations to be an exercise in futility. Having read several Gladys Mitchell books and a handful of Perry Masons, my recommendations are always pages of the same two or three authors.

Except this week. Suddenly The Detection Club Volume 2 turned up – the question of why not Volume 1 is a bit of a mystery in itself – and after a quick look at the sample pages I decided to give it a go.

As its title indicates, this tells a story involving members of the Detection Club, the famous society of mystery authors that included many of the leading figures of the Golden Age. The story takes place shortly after John Dickson Carr has been admitted to the group.

During a dinner a letter arrives inviting the members of the Detection Club to visit an island off the coast of Cornwall. The invitation comes from Roderick Ghyll, a billionaire who wants them to come and see Eric, a robot designed to predict the culprit in detective novels.

After giving the group a dinner, everyone heads to bed. During the night there are sounds of a struggle and cries for help from within Ghyll’s room. The door is locked but when it is broken down they find the window smashed and signs of a dressing gown submerged in the waters at the foot of the cliff. Realizing that they have a real mystery in front of them, the writers try to work out exactly what happened to Ghyll in their own distinctive fashions.

Perhaps the first thing I need to make clear is that Harambat is rather selective in the members he chooses to include. Unfortunately that means there is no Rhode, Berkeley or Crofts. Instead we are given Carr, Christie, Knox, Mason, Orczy, Sayers and, of course, G. K. Chesterton.

From left to right: Chesterton, Christie, Mason, Knox, Orczy and Sayers

The decision to trim the numbers does make sense – a bigger group would have been unwieldy – though it would have been nice to take a moment to reflect its broader membership. Of those used, several are obvious selections and while Orczy and Mason will be less familiar names to some readers, they do represent different personality types ensuring that each member of the party feels quite distinct from everyone else.

Smartly Harambat chooses to give some additional focus to Christie and Chesterton, establishing them as a sort of double-act. The pair trade witticisms and tease each other, providing much of the book’s sense of warmth.

Of the other characters, Knox and Carr fare pretty well. While they are primarily treated comedically, they both show off their styles and sensibilities well and each has some entertaining comedic moments that plays off their respective styles and reputations. The remaining members are treated mostly as comic relief and they often seem least engaged with the broader plot.

This brings me to one of the principle problems that the two volumes face and struggle to resolve. Who is the intended audience for this – Golden Age mystery fans or comics readers with a casual interest in mystery fiction? The book tries to be accessible to those with no knowledge of the genre but the humor is so based in a knowledge of these personalities that I do not think it works without that.

On the other hand, I think more seasoned fans of the genre may well wish that the various characters demonstrated their own approaches and their personalities in further detail. Sayers fares particularly poorly, being reduced to a running gag where she fires a handgun into the air and the other members dismiss her work.

I also enjoyed some of the extra elements that get thrown into the mix. At one point I found myself researching Eric the Robot and was delighted to find that it was a real thing and that the look here is pretty much spot-on. The styling of the piece seemed successful and established Ghyll’s character and personality well.

The mystery itself is, happily, pretty well crafted although my enjoyment suffered a little from my thinking up a solution that I believe would have been more satisfying than the one given. The solution basically works though and while the case is not particularly complex, it fits the length of these two books pretty well.

This brings me to my other complaint – the decision to split this into two volumes. The reason for doing this obviously makes business sense, pitching this at a lower price point to grab shoppers’ attention but the delivery is unsatisfying. The second volume feels incredibly short in comparison to the first and some aspects of the solution feel rushed or insufficiently clued.

Still, while it may not have been everything I hoped for from a Detection Club comic, I did find it to be lively, colorful and enjoyable. The books are fast, entertaining reads and I was left with a deep interest to go off and find out more about Mason’s Inspector Hanaud – a character I haven’t read before. If nothing else, I chalk that up as a success.

The Mystery of the Blue Train by Agatha Christie

Book Details

Originally published in 1928
Hercule Poirot #6
Preceded by The Big Four
Followed by Black Coffee

The Blurb

When the luxurious Blue Train arrives at Nice, a guard attempts to wake serene Ruth Kettering from her slumbers. But she will never wake again—for a heavy blow has killed her, disfiguring her features almost beyond recognition. What is more, her precious rubies are missing.

The prime suspect is Ruth’s estranged husband, Derek. Yet Hercule Poirot is not convinced, so he stages an eerie reenactment of the journey, complete with the murderer on board. .

The Verdict

This dull mystery plot has never really sparked any excitement in me. Sadly this time is no different.


My Thoughts

Ruth Kettering, an American heiress, is in an unhappy marriage to an English aristocrat. Her father, Rufus van Aldin, gifts her a fabulous ruby – The Heart of Fire. He advises her to keep it at home but instead she decides to take it with her on a trip on board the Blue Train through France.

During the train’s journey Ruth’s body is discovered in her compartment having been strangled and the jewel has vanished. Poirot, still in retirement and also travelling on board the train, is asked by her father to take on the case. He agrees to take on the case, comparing himself to a retired doctor who has stumbled upon someone needing medical treatment.

According to several sources I have read this novel was one of Christie’s least favorites and unfortunately I rather share her feelings (although I suspect her reasons were rather different from mine). A month or so ago I tweeted about how I have spent the past two decades of my life attempting to listen to the BBC Radio adaptation of this novel and never made it all the way through. Part of that is that I really just don’t dig that production but it also reflects that this plot is, for me, a bit of a snooze.

Let’s start with some positive comments about the book – while I do not love the mystery, I think Christie’s writing continued to mature and the prose is pretty engaging. Actually one of the reasons I think I had no problem concentrating on the book was because her narration was sharp, clear and generally quite entertaining. The radio adaptation loses that and instead forces you to focus on the more melodramatic elements in characters’ conversations with each other.

I also quite like the way Poirot is brought into this story and the awkward relationship he forms with van Aldin. One of the things I think that this story conveys very effectively is that Poirot considers the dead woman (and the truth) to be his client rather than the man who hired him. There are several points at which Poirot asserts himself over his employer and in those moments I think make him appear rather heroic.

Unfortunately here I rather run out of good things to say about a book that shares some of my least favorite traits of the thrillers she was writing in this decade.

Let’s start with the character of Katherine who serves as the replacement Hastings for this story. I actually rather liked the idea of Katherine – the former companion who was left a huge bequest by her last employer and who is now travelling. It makes for an appealing backstory but I really do not love the way she is provided with a really unconvincing romance. This is partly because I just don’t see why that relationship would work for her but mostly I think it overwrites the character’s actual arc of trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life (I don’t actually buy that either but the two resolutions seem completely incompatible with each other).

The second relates to the setup to the murder plot which feels far too forced and mechanical. Part of the problem is, I think, that we are given too much information about the suspects and possible motives from the start. While Poirot still has things to do, the closed circle nature of this crime feels all the more evident and I do feel there are chapters in the middle of the book that seem to drag as though the investigation is being stretched out.

The biggest other issues I have with the book though veer far more into the spoilery territory of discussing the villain or villains of the piece. Some of the clues given struck me as rather unconvincing such as a dropped cigarette case which is discussed in depth yet seems to me to be far less clearly incriminating than the novel suggests. Throw in a rather unexciting group of suspects and you have a recipe for a book that just seemed to drag on for me.

I had come to The Mystery of the Blue Train hoping that my feelings towards it might have changed with time or familiarity. Sadly they have not. Still the good news for me is that I have nothing but fond memories of our next Poirot story – Peril at End House. Hopefully I will find it holds up!

The Big Four by Agatha Christie

Book Details

Originally published 1927
Hercule Poirot #5
Preceded by The Murder of Roger Ackroyd *
Followed by The Mystery of the Blue Train

* Based on publication order. The events of this story may be taken to suggest that it is placed before that one.

The Blurb

Framed in the doorway of Hercule Poirot’s bedroom stands an uninvited guest, coated from head to foot in dust. The man stares for a moment, then he sways and falls. Who is he? Is he suffering from shock or just exhaustion? Above all, what is the significance of the figure 4, scribbled over and over again on a sheet of paper?

Poirot finds himself plunged into a world of international intrigue, risking his life—and that of his “twin brother”—to uncover the truth.

The Verdict

A tedious attempt at a espionage thriller. Largely dull, this suffers from poorly defining the aims and motivations of its villains.


My Thoughts

Having thoroughly enjoyed rereading The Murder of Roger Ackroyd I approached The Big Four with a little less enthusiasm. While it has probably been fifteen years since I last read it, my memories of it were of being a pretty underwhelming experience. Still, I tried to approach it in the hope that the memory may have cheated or that perhaps I might enjoy it more as an adult.

The book opens with Captain Hastings returning to London from his new home in Argentina. He looks forward to catching up with his old friend Poirot during his trip but arrives to find the detective will shortly head to Argentina on a case that he had accepted, in part, because of his hopes of seeing Hastings. His imminent departure means that their conversation is brief but Poirot expresses some regret about how he is having to put another investigation to one side – a look into the activities of a worldwide crime syndicate called The Big Four.

This book is composed of a series of cases, each of which work Poirot a little closer to discovering the identities of the four crime bosses who make up this shadowy organization. Typically Poirot finds himself engaged in solving a smaller problem, only to find there are links to that wider case.

The reason for this unusual, more episodic storytelling style was that Christie reworked a number of previously published short stories into this novel, altering the openings to tie them into a wider thriller narrative. This does seem to be a creative approach to generating a novel from previously existing material and I feel on balance that Christie manages to wrangle her material into enough of a coherent form that it feels purposeful.

The problem is that while the stories are linked, the narrative still feels somewhat disjointed. In this sort of story I think there should be a sense of progressing deeper into the mystery yet each case seems to be pretty much in line with the others in terms of the dangers and the information to be gained. As a consequence, Christie’s storytelling seems flat to me.

I believe that the problems start with the way that Christie introduces us to the idea of the Big Four. At the start of the book we learn that Poirot is already basically aware of what they are and the extent of their power. This is not dissimilar to the way that Moriarty is introduced in The Adventure of the Final Problem which I think works in the context of a short story but I feel it is unsatisfactory in a novel-length work.

Christie could have shown us Poirot slowly becoming aware of the group but by jumping into the middle of the investigation there is no sense of discovery of the scale or scope of their operation. The only question for Poirot and the reader to solve is who the four individuals at the top of the organization are.

Once again, this is not in itself a bad question to focus on. After all, The Man in the Brown Suit had charmed me with its hidden villain – wouldn’t four such villains be four times the fun?

Well, no. Where that novel had fun with its game of finding the villain, The Big Four makes no attempt to play the game with the reader at all. We are never invited to find spot the villains among the seemingly innocuous supporting characters – it is all done for us (the exception to this is a reveal so obvious that it is hard to fathom how it takes Poirot so long to think of it).

Nor are the characters that make up this group particularly interesting. There is no real sense of an ideology or character to this group or their activities. We get no real sense of the scale or meaning behind their ambitions. Christie certainly hints at a significant threat to world order but the nature of that threat never seems to be spelled out, nor is there a clear time limit imposed. If it is a race against time, we lack the context to understand how near we are to destruction.

Contributing to the problem is the presentation of the mastermind of the group, Li Chang Yen. This characterization evokes ideas of the Yellow Peril with its suggestion of secretive Chinese societies controlled by a mandarin-style figure. Yes, it evokes the Fu Manchu stories but it neither offers a counterpoint, nor does it do anything particularly new or inventive with the trope. This idea was tired in 1927 and time has only rendered it more uncomfortable and offensive.

The one thing that I think Christie does achieve with her four crime bosses is a sense of a global organization. We are frequently reminded that our focus is on just one aspect of their operations and that stopping Poirot is critical to them because they regard him as the greatest threat to their own rise. I do have big questions about how they came to join forces that Christie never really answers but the scale of operations certainly impresses and makes them appear a more formidable group of opponents for Poirot.

While I am striking a positive note (don’t blink – this won’t last long), I should also say that I enjoy the treatment of Hastings here. Not only does Christie have Poirot show some real warmth and affection for his old friend, she also allows Hastings to make some smart and strong choices under enormous pressure. Sure, he is sometimes wanting in the application of methodical, logical thinking but it is nice to see him looking quite competent for long stretches of this novel.

Having dispensed with the compliments, I do need to comment on the adventures our heroes have in this book. With the exception of the section involving a chess match, the stories here are drab and slight. Several feel quite trivial and almost all lack the sort of imaginative elements that usually pull me into Christie’s story. I think there is some truth to the idea that Christie worked much better in longer form fiction and this seems to me to be pretty clear evidence of that.

With no detection to speak of, this work is best compared with Christie’s other thrillers but even if we look at it through that lens I think it is pretty lacking. Sure, it makes more sense than Passenger to Frankfurt but at least that seemed to be about something.

In contrast The Big Four is simply dull and not a patch on the stories that preceded it. For that reason, I would certainly not suggest this as an early stop if you are getting to know the author or Poirot – this is a distinctly lesser work and can be easily skipped.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

Book Details

Originally published 1926.
Hercule Poirot #4
Preceded by Poirot Investigates
Followed by The Big Four

The Blurb

Roger Ackroyd knew too much. He knew that the woman he loved had poisoned her brutal first husband. He suspected also that someone had been blackmailing her. Then, tragically, came the news that she had taken her own life with an apparent drug overdose.

However the evening post brought Roger one last fatal scrap of information, but before he could finish reading the letter, he was stabbed to death. Luckily one of Roger’s friends and the newest resident to retire to this normally quiet village takes over—none other than Monsieur Hercule Poirot.

The Verdict

Right considered a classic and one of Christie’s greatest achievements. Make sure you read it before the solution is spoiled for you.


My Thoughts

A couple of weeks ago I realized that today’s post would see this blog reach another important milestone. This would be the three hundredth book I would have read and written about on this blog – not a bad achievement to reach in about two and a half years.

It seems to me that when I hit a milestone I should find a book to write about that is a little special (particularly as I wasn’t actively blogging a few months back when this site would have hit its second blogiversary).

When I hit 50 I reviewed a very early Italian inverted crime story, The Priest’s Hat. 100 saw me read what is probably the most influential inverted mystery, Malice Aforethought. Unfortunately I messed up with 200 (I miscounted and passed it before I realized it was coming up) so I was determined that this time I would make sure to find another landmark title to write about.

Which brings me to the subject of today’s post, Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

This novel is frequently (and, in my opinion, deservedly) voted one of the best crime novels of all time and it is certainly one of Christie’s most famous. An unfortunate consequence of that fame is that it is really easy to get spoiled about the solution.

Generally I try to avoid giving away significant spoilers about the solutions to stories and, of course, I will attempt to do so again here. That being said, if by chance you are someone who has never experienced this story I would urge you to skip reading the rest of the review and get hold of a copy as soon as possible. Then obviously come back here and let me know what you think of it.

So to briefly recap the scenario: Roger Ackroyd is a rich industrialist who has been romantically associated with a wealthy widow whose husband died a year earlier. After she unexpectedly dies of an overdose of veronal, presumed to have been suicide, Dr. Sheppard meets with the distressed Ackroyd in his study where he hears that she had confided in Ackroyd that she had murdered her husband and was being blackmailed. During that conversation a letter is delivered to the study and Ackroyd opens and reads it, finding it is a suicide letter. Ackroyd asks him to leave so he can read it alone and Sheppard leaves, returning to his home.

When Sheppard gets back he receives a telephone call claiming that Ackroyd is dead and races back to Fernly Park. He gets there to find that the butler denies having called him at all and upon entering the study they find him dead at his desk having been stabbed with a curved knife from his own collection.

Poirot, now living in the country as Sheppard’s neighbor, agrees to a request from Ackroyd’s niece to end his retirement and find her uncle’s murderer…

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd departs from the setup Christie had established in the previous Poirot adventures by returning the detective to relative obscurity. This recalls the circumstances of his first appearance back in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, reinstating him as an outsider. To illustrate this, Christie has the locals speculate about the new neighbor and has the narrator, Sheppard, suspect that he must have been a hairdresser – an idea that he returns to at several points later in the narrative.

This is a Poirot then who felt that he had given up on detecting but finds a case thrust upon him. It is an intriguing idea but not always a wholly convincing one. It is hard to imagine the relatively vital Poirot of The Murder on the Links deciding on retirement, let alone a life of growing ‘vegetable marrows’ in the English countryside. In my opinion, this story would make a whole lot more sense had Christie placed it between Poirot’s first and second cases – but I suppose there was a desire to keep Poirot’s story moving forward, even if it didn’t feel like a natural evolution for that character.

If we ignore the continuity however it is an interesting starting point and gives Poirot’s story a depth that I think was missing from The Murder on the Links. Poirot’s arc here then will be that he begins determined to maintain his obscurity and then, drawn reluctantly into the case, finds he must prove his abilities and solve it only to find that he cannot return to retirement. This is not only an interesting character journey in respect to this novel, it also serves as an opportunity to relaunch the character (perhaps anticipating that a change of publisher might bring a new audience).

The absence of Hastings reinforces this arc and is an obvious difference between this novel and The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Where Poirot had a champion and enthusiastic colleague in Hastings, Sheppard is reluctant to get involved in the investigation and on several occasions makes comments that suggest he doubts the detective’s abilities.

Though he does provide Poirot with information, particularly with regards the events on the night of the murder, Sheppard is less an assistant than someone who is documenting the case. This allows us to get a sense of the household and community affected by the murder. As the village doctor, he is able to mingle freely with the other characters and record their actions and opinions in a way that Hastings could not while Poirot’s odd lines of questioning seem all the more eccentric without that prior knowledge and friendship.

Compared with Hastings, Sheppard may seem to be somewhat lacking in personality. While I have a tremendous fondness for Captain Hastings, his previous appearances each had moments that grated on me. In The Murder on the Links he acts thoughtlessly, bumbling his way through the investigation. In contrast, Sheppard’s conservative and deliberate personality feels quite refreshing and while he is less lively, his narration does contain a few amusingly caustic remarks about others involved in the case.

In revisiting this novel I was particularly interested to see how the case would hold up given I could remember its solution so clearly. I am happy to report that I came away just as impressed with its construction as the first few times I experienced it.

The first thing that grabs me is the way Christie provides us with an interesting historical crime but almost immediately gives us a clear solution with the murderer’s identity, the motive and means. The idea that one crime begets another (whether directly or indirectly) is one that runs throughout Christie’s work and prompts several of her most interesting novels. I love that she leaves us with the tantalizing idea that Ackroyd had in his possession a letter naming the likely murderer and I think every reader encountering the novel for the first time must share the frustration that Sheppard is asked to leave before the name is read.

While the cast of suspects is not Christie’s most colorful collection of personalities, I think most are well defined and there are several good prospects among them. Each have secrets they are keeping from Poirot and Christie keeps the pace of the revelations steady, at each stage making it increasingly difficult to see who could have done the crime.

One of my favorite characters is not really a suspect at all but Sheppard’s older spinster sister, the gossipy Caroline. A favorite running gag is the doctor’s exasperation that no matter how quickly he returns to his home she seems to already have his news before he gets there. Similarly I enjoy that, while he is ultimately fond of her, he frequently complains about her in his narration.

All of which, I suppose, brings me to the ending.

While The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is generally considered to be a classic work it is not without its detractors. The most common complaint is the idea that the book simply does not play fair with the reader. This was one of the aspects of the book I was most interested to consider in revisiting it.

In my opinion the ending Christie gives us is absolutely fair and appropriately clued. Not only is each aspect of the solution clearly referenced earlier in the text, I think the solution Poirot gives is the only one that makes logical sense in the context of the information we have.

That is not to say that I think the reader should guess it. Rather the solution is clever because Christie understands her readers and predicts how they are likely to respond to and interpret those clues. It is certainly cunning and creative but it is not, in my opinion, cheating.

The only weakness I can point to in the ending is that I don’t love Poirot’s resolution of the matter which doesn’t feel earned to me. That is quickly forgotten however as in every other respect the ending is a triumph.

Overall I was happy to find that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is one of those novels that actually matched up to my teenage recollections and its enormous reputation. It is not Christie’s most creative scenario, though it is certainly very clever, nor does it have her most colorful characters or setting but it has one of her very best solutions.

Second Opinions

Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery offers a short but glowing review, defending it as playing completely fair. I clearly agree with his comments about revisiting it.

Moira @ Clothes in Books writes about the book for the Tuesday Night Bloggers, making some excellent points about its social context that I wish I had been smart enough to think of myself.

JJ @ The Invisible Event has not reviewed the book but did share a wonderful essay also as part of the Tuesday Night Bloggers about his experiences with the novel and how it was spoiled for him (he doesn’t spoil the solution but be careful in the comments!).

Amazingly I couldn’t find a post from Christi-anado Brad @ Ah Sweet Mystery focusing on just this book (if it’s there, I apologize – it’s already the early hours of the morning and I may be overlooking it). He does however list it on his Five Books to Read Before They’re Spoiled post!

Finally there are some shorter reviews from Nick @ The Grandest Game, Jose @ A Crime is Afoot, Christian @ Mysteries, Short and Sweet (complete with fantastic cover reproductions of the various Swedish reprints)

Towards Zero by Agatha Christie

Book Details

Originally Published 1944
Superintendent Battle #5
Preceded by Murder is Easy

The Blurb

What is the connection among a failed suicide attempt, a wrongful accusation of theft against a schoolgirl, and the romantic life of a famous tennis player?

To the casual observer, apparently nothing. But when a house party gathers at Gull’s Point, the seaside home of an elderly widow, earlier events come to a dramatic head. As Superintendent Battle discovers, it is all part of a carefully laid plan – for murder.

The Verdict

A triumph of thoughtful development of theme and characterization.


My Thoughts

I have previously suggested that one of the important questions to consider when looking at non-series Christie is why she opted not to use one of her more established sleuths as a hero. One can only assume that a Poirot, Marple! or Tommy and Tuppence title would have been a bigger draw in terms of sales and so, I believe, there must be some purpose behind that choice.

There are, of course, a wide range of possible reasons for Christie not to use her most popular characters but usually these are quite clear from the structure or themes of the novel. In many cases there is no formal sleuth at all with the story either adhering to more of an adventure or thriller story structure or telling the case from the perspectives of the suspects themselves. That is not the case here however and, as some will no doubt point out, Christie does actually provide us with a recurring sleuth of sorts in the form of Superintendent Battle (even if his previous appearance – Murder is Easy – was little more than a cameo).

The problem is that no matter how hard I try I cannot believe Christie ever considered Battle to be leading man material – at least, not after his first pair of outings. He is a solid and competent detective but he lacks the personality quirks of a Hercule Poirot as evidenced by a point in this story where he tries to imagine how Poirot would see some details of the crime. It feels like Christie was perfectly aware of his shortcomings as a protagonist but chose to use him regardless.

Before I can explain why I believe Battle was the right choice to lead this novel I need to explain what the book is about. Towards Zero is the story of the brutal murder of an elderly widow in bed during a family gathering. The physical evidence of the crime scene seems to indicate a possible suspect and yet that person’s motives would seem to make no sense.

Superintendent Battle happens to be on a short holiday in the area when he learns of the crime and the local police request his help in solving it. This process involves untangling the deceased’s will and the complicated personal relationships of the house guests who include a famous tennis player and both his current and ex-wife.

Could Poirot have solved this case? Absolutely. I think there is nothing in this case that requires Battle’s quiet yet dogged approach to sleuthing and so I do think that he would likely have performed just as well. They would however solve it quite differently as Poirot would have sought to play a more active role in sorting out the truth whereas Battle allows things to play out and applies his experience and knowledge of people to the situations he is witnessing to good effect. In other words, by using Battle I think Christie is able to give the other characters more space and attention – we are paying attention to them, not the sleuth.

While Battle does not prove an overbearing presence on the story, he does enjoy quite a few moments where I think his qualities and view on the world come through effectively, often reinforcing the broader themes of the novel. I particularly enjoyed his first appearance in this story where we see him solving a much more minor crime that takes place in a school and I loved the way Christie was able to tie that moment into the bigger and more important themes of her novel. By the end of the novel I found I liked him far more than I remembered doing in any of his previous outings and I did feel it was a shame that this would be his last appearance.

(As a sidebar to this discussion, I really wish that the Christie estate was publishing new Battle stories rather than Poirot – I feel that the character would offer a writer more space to develop new ideas and expand on his core traits and history)

In terms of the specifics of this story and its plot, I did appreciate the interesting and colorful cast of characters that Christie creates here. Some characters make only brief appearances or are just mentioned in passing while others are much more significant but I felt almost all were lively and interesting enough to justify the attention. I particularly appreciated the extremely minor character of the elderly lawyer Treves whose story about the prepubescent murderer at the start of the book is genuinely quite chilling and unsettling.

I want to try and be careful about giving away the solution but I will say that it is quite a clever one and it was pretty fair in how it presented itself. The mechanics of the crime are explained well and I appreciated the way Christie was able to tie the seemingly disparate strands of the novel back in together at the end.

So, what didn’t work? Well, I think a romantic subplot falls pretty flat, occurring rather suddenly and seeming quite unconvincing. This is a hazard of the final chapter whirlwind romance structure in general but, though sweet, I do think that it is not properly earned as it feels as though it is a little tacked on to the story. It is hardly unique to this story but regardless it is not done well.

I would also say that while I was reading the novel I was a little frustrated by how several elements were established and then were not returned to for a long time. I trusted that moments involving a man who had attempted suicide, Mr Treves and the school theft would ultimately prove important (I even remembered how – at least in the first two cases) but we are left waiting a long time for Christie to return to them. Happily I think the eventual reveal is worth the wait.

One of the most impressive aspects of the novel is the way it develops the meaning behind its title which is derived from a conversation with the elderly lawyer Mr Treves who describes how the act of murder should be the culmination of a mystery novel rather than its genesis. This is an interesting idea that makes more sense once it is explained and I feel it is one that generally works well and makes more sense of the narrative as a whole.

Overall I think Towards Zero is an accomplished piece of mystery writing. The situation developed is interesting and the characterizations of the various figures in the case are pretty compelling. Perhaps its most effective aspect though is the development of the novel’s key themes and ideas which are powerful and, at times, quite chilling.

Second Opinions

Brad @ ahsweetmystery describes this as Battle’s best case and lavishes praise on Christie’s development of the killer’s character, placing it in the context of her other work in this period of her writing.

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime appreciated the complex and ‘knotty’ presentation of human relationships here – I love that word which is perfect to describe what we have here – and makes an interesting point about the relationship at the end which had not occurred to me (it is in the spoilers section of the review).

Les @ Classic Mysteries described the book as one of Christie’s most carefully constructed and praises the use of misdirection.

Murder is Easy by Agatha Christie

Murder is Easy
Agatha Christie
Originally Published 1939
Alternative Title: Easy to Kill (US)

Murder is Easy begins with Luke Fitzwilliam, who had been a policeman overseas, making a train journey to London. He is seated next to Lavinia Pinkerton, an elderly woman who tells him that she is headed to Scotland Yard to report a murder she suspects will take place. She bases her suspicions on a look she observed on the killer’s face shortly before several other suspicious deaths. She tells Luke who she expects the victim will be but does not mention the killer’s identity.

He learns later that she was run over in a hit-and-run accident but he suspects that she may have been onto something when he learns that the man she thought would be the next victim had unexpectedly died. He decides that he will investigate her claims informally himself, coming up with a cover story with a friend who arranges for him to stay with a cousin at Ashe Manor, the grandest home in the area.

Let’s begin with the cover story aspect of the novel as it is, in my opinion, the book’s most charming feature. Basically Luke crams knowledge about old English customs, particularly those relating to death, to give him a reason to go to this otherwise unremarkable village and poke around. This leads to some light tension as he runs the risk of being exposed throughout much of the novel, adding complications to his investigation as he has to keep up the pretense that he is there primarily to research this book. This not only works quite well as a plot device, it also lends the village of Wychwood under Ashe and its inhabitants a little personality.

Similarly I quite enjoyed the way Luke (and the reader) is brought into this story, even if the somewhat dotty spinster talking about seemingly improbable murders idea would be used somewhat more memorably in The 4:50 From Paddington. This exchange not only builds interest in the setting and situation, it also helps to introduce us to Luke and give us a sense of his personality and some of the traits that will define him as a protagonist.

On the topic of protagonists, one question I find myself considering whenever I read one of the non-series Christie titles is why she didn’t opt to include one of her series regulars. After all, my assumption (with no data at all to back it up) would be that sales would likely have been higher had it been part of one of her established series.

Sometimes, as with Death Comes as the End, that reason is quite obvious but in other cases it can be more subtle. The thrillers obviously belong in a category by their own but sometimes Christie would play with structure or form in a way that would make it hard to include a detective character (for example, Ordeal by Innocence).

If we consider just the basic elements of the plot it seems that Murder is Easy could have quite easily been a Poirot or Miss Marple story. The setting feels appropriate, particularly for Miss Marple, and it is not difficult to imagine her being pulled into a mystery through a chance conversation on a train. For that reason it shouldn’t really surprise us that ITV decided to adapt it as part of the fourth series of Marple!, albeit with some pretty significant changes to the story and particularly the killer’s motivations.

I think that the changes made for that production actually point to the reason that this book couldn’t have featured Miss Marple. I suspect that with her greater understanding of human nature and the relationships within a community she would have found this crime as it appears in print too easy to solve. As for Poirot, it is hard to imagine him entering the investigation the way that Luke does, listening (albeit very reluctantly) to an elderly lady talking on a train about her suspicions about people he has never met.

Another reason that I think that this story really wouldn’t work as a Poirot tale is that the prominent romantic story thread shared by the protagonist and a young woman he meets in Wychwood under Ashe. This creates a little dramatic tension although I personally did not find them to make for a particularly engaging pairing. The inclusion of a romantic subplot is a fairly typical element in a Christie mystery but here I think it is used to serve a slightly different purpose, albeit with only partial success.

With the exception of Murder on the Links, romances in the Poirot stories seem to be treated distinctly as subplots. What strikes me most about Luke’s romance is that it affects the way he conducts his investigation, particularly as we enter the final phase of the story. I found this idea to be quite intriguing as it is easy to imagine how this could lead to the prospect of a partial or corruptible sleuth and the ways that could affect the investigation. While some of those ideas are not entirely realized, I did find those aspects of the story enjoyable and the way this prompts a secondary detective character to emerge in the later stages of the book.

Alternatively it could just be that Luke is not a particularly good policeman…

This brings me to what I consider the book’s biggest problem to be – as much as I enjoyed the process by which Luke gathers information, for much of the book the investigation seems to be fairly bland. There are few clues turned up and we have a fairly limited pool of suspects with some pretty weak motivations to kill, particularly on the scale we are talking about here.

This creates a problem that I think ends up undermining the effectiveness of the book’s ending. The reader sees all of the evidence pointing in one direction but knows that ending would be pretty unsatisfying, therefore they are likely to guess at the twist not based on any clues in the text but rather based on their intuition as seasoned Christie readers. This is hardly satisfying puzzle mystery writing, leading to an ending that simultaneously feels predictable and yet not really supported by the material that came before it.

This really is a shame because much of the setup for the story and the atmosphere it conjures up is quite delicious and shows enormous potential. For much of the first half of the novel I felt sure I would be writing a rave review. Unfortunately this didn’t quite live up to those expectations but while I was a little disappointed with the destination, I did enjoy much of the journey.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Set in a Small Village (Where)

Further Reading

Kate at CrossExaminingCrime found this to be a middling Christie and was far less entertained than I was with the lengthy exchanges with the villagers. I do agree with her about the book’s biggest problem though.