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 Peril at End House

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)

Poirot Investigates by Agatha Christie

Poirot Investigates
Agatha Christie
Originally Published 1924
Poirot #3
Preceded by The Murder on the Links
Followed by The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Poirot Investigates was the first collection of short stories featuring the Belgian detective. Published in 1924, it is usually described as the third Poirot book though many of the stories contained here were originally published prior to The Murder on the Links.

The collection is an interesting one made up of a pretty diverse blend of cases. While the majority involve murders, there are a couple of thefts and disappearances to solve as well. In short, it makes quite a nice change of pace for the character and allows Christie to show some different sides of his character.

Unfortunately I feel that the quality of these stories also differs quite sharply with only a couple of truly memorable stories and quite a few duds in this particular assortment. On the positive side I would say that The Million Dollar Bond Robbery, The Kidnapped Prime Minister and The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman are all quite compelling, engaging adventures. I am far less impressed with the others however, finding some stories such as The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb and The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor to live up to the promise of their premises while others such as The Lost Mine and The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge are pretty tedious.

One influence that can be felt on many of these tales are Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Not only are they structured similarly, being written as accounts of Poirot’s cases for publication, many touch on similar themes or plot elements. In some cases this can be quite charming but it sometimes means that some parts of a solution stand out a little too much.

I should also probably mention at this point that the stories contained in this book differ based on where you are purchasing it. The American edition of the book is longer, containing three additional stories. Those stories would eventually be collected in the UK as part of the Poirot’s Early Cases collection (which would also be released in the US – go figure!).

For the purposes of this review I am working with that American edition. The three extra stories are each marked in the individual reviews below. While none of the three are classics, I think two of them are very good and significantly boost the quality of the collection.

While I think a number of these stories are quite flawed, I did enjoy rereading this collection and I appreciate the author’s attempts to provide a variety of settings and styles.

The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie

linls
The Murder on the Links
Agatha Christie
Originally Published 1923
Hercule Poirot #2
Preceded by The Mysterious Affairs at Styles
Followed by Poirot Investigates

This year marks the first time in over twenty years in the US that new titles have entered the public domain. This covers books originally published in the United States in 1923 and one of the most prominent titles on the list is this early Hercule Poirot novel, The Murder on the Links.

I was shocked when I realized that I have not written about a Christie title in over six months so when I saw this piece of news I couldn’t resist dusting off my copy to take a fresh look at it.

The Murder on the Links was the second of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels. It followed his first appearance in The Mysterious Affair at Styles which I found an enjoyable read though I felt that the mystery plot was not particularly compelling. I think this novel, though still having some flaws, features a much more interesting and compelling mystery plot.

This novel begins with Poirot receiving a letter from a Paul Renauld who writes requesting his help and asking him to travel to his new home in Merlinville-sur-Mer in northern France. Poirot sets out immediately with his friend Hastings to travel on the overnight train but when they get there they learn that he was found dead that morning. Feeling a sense of obligation to the dead man to honor his commission, Poirot decides to stay and investigate the murder.

It turns out that his body was discovered dead in a shallow grave that had been dug in a patch of ground that would soon be turned into a bunker at a local golf course. He had been stabbed in the back with a letter opener. His wife claims that in the early hours of the morning two masked men broke into their home and tied her up, taking him with them and the French authorities suspect that they may be gangsters from South America but Poirot is unconvinced.

This book strikes me as a more complex and intricately plotted book than its predecessor and one of the reasons is the way this story is set up. Christie provides us with an apparently clear reading of the crime scene supported by physical evidence and witness testimony and yet Poirot spots the small details that suggest that the crime scene has been managed and that something else may be going on here.

The way Christie does this is quite masterful, emphasizing the logical flaws and in one particularly brilliant observation the absence of a piece of evidence that ought to be there. This showcases Poirot’s attention to small details and is an early source of tension between him and Giraud of the Sûreté.

The antagonistic relationship between Poirot and Giraud is one of the joys of this novel for me and I think it helps bolster our sense of Poirot’s brilliance. Giraud certainly makes mistakes and reaches for an easier or more obvious reading of the crime scene and the facts but he is not stupid and we understand that he is a character that is regarded as being at the top of his profession. By creating a competition between the two men which it is hardly a spoiler to reveal Poirot will win makes him seem only more brilliant and builds a sense of his unconventionality which here is identified as lying in his supposedly old-fashioned approach to the art of detection.

At the same time, I think this is a crime scene where we cannot blame Giraud for his errors because it is quite intricately set up. We are given a surprisingly large amount of information in these early chapters and one complaint I have heard is that this makes this chapter feel quite dense. I have no problems with this however because unlike his previous case the important thing here for the reader to solve it is to understand the narratives and psychology implied by the evidence.

Where I think the critics have more of a point is in the argument that Christie incorporates some information about a previous case inelegantly, dropping a hefty amount of back story that takes up a whole chapter before resuming the story in the ‘present day’. I certainly think this is awkwardly structured and a little jarring but I have no inherent problem with a past case being relevant to the present one. After all Murder on the Orient Express similarly requires us to learn about a historic crime and no one really holds it against that novel. I consider it a perfectly fine idea, just inartfully executed.

The historical crime described here is a little complicated and messy in its application to the ‘present day’ case which I suspect to be part of the reason it does not sit quite as well with readers. Certainly I think it adds an additional layer of complexity to some of the character relationships, making it once again feel like quite a dense chapter to unpick. It may perhaps have worked better had Poirot explained it to Hastings in dialogue, putting emphasis on the most important details.

I am less forgiving of the way Christie uses Hastings here. I have no problem with using him as light comical relief but this story requires him at several points to act thoughtlessly, becoming a liability to Poirot and the investigation. In the end no lasting harm is done and yet I find it hard to believe that Poirot would ever be able to trust him on future investigations based on his conduct here. In other stories Christie will often balance any moments of buffoonery with some action or observation that sets Poirot back on track but there is no such moment here and I am struck by how small a contribution he makes to solving the case.

Still, that solution to the case is clever and I did enjoy the final few chapters of the book a lot. I think it does showcase Poirot’s talents well and I did appreciate the story’s French setting which also helps give a sense that Poirot is sufficiently good at what he does that he can command interest in clients from all over the world, further building our belief in his abilities. It is, in my opinion, a big step up for Christie and Poirot although it would soon be overshadowed by his next appearance in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by knife/dagger/etc. (How)

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

Styles
The Mysterious Affair at Styles
Agatha Christie
Originally Published 1920
Hercule Poirot #1
Followed by The Murder on the Links

I 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)

Suggested Reads: Murder on the Orient Express

I am unlikely to have time to go and see Murder on the Orient Express this weekend due to a busy work and childcare schedule but I couldn’t resist posting something that might tie in with its release. An added bonus would be that this will be my first post about Dame Agatha – it’s fairly amazing that I managed to go fifteen posts without so much as mentioning her name!

I initially toyed with doing a top five listing of my favorite Christie stories but it has been such a long time since I read many of them that I am not sure my memory would be entirely reliable. Another option was to write something about Christie’s legacy but that wouldn’t be particularly personal.

Instead I decided to do some suggestions of other Christie stories that I would recommend to those who loved this movie and want to investigate some of her other works. Below are a number of reasons you may have liked the movie with a suggestion or two to match. I am confident that if you do try them you will find a great read!

You Liked MOTOE Because… Of The Exotic Setting

DeathontheNileChristie’s work doesn’t always feature settings as magnificent or appealing to the imagination as the Orient Express but when Poirot or Marple do travel they often do so in style.

Death On the Nile is a great example of this. Here Poirot is approached by a beautiful woman while traveling in Cairo who has recently married but now finds that she is being stalked by her husband’s lover. While Poirot initially declines to assist believing there to be no crime, events take a murderous turn.

While much of the novel is spent aboard a steam ship on the great river itself, we get a sense both of the country and of the experience of travelling before the outbreak of the Second World War.

Also consider Murder in Mesopotamia, another Poirot story which is set against the backdrop of an archaeological dig.

You Liked MOTOE Because… Of Its Ingenious Solution

ABC MurdersChristie’s plotting is one of her greatest strengths and she pulled off some wonderful surprises throughout her career. Some are famous such as the solution to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd but I’d rather focus on two stories that don’t get quite the same press but which I think are quite brilliant.

The ABC Murders is, to my mind, Christie’s best book that people just don’t know about. Perhaps that reflects its title or the lack of a major modern movie adaptation. In short, Poirot is challenged by a serial killer to anticipate his moves and stop him before he kills again. The serial killer is working alphabetically and leaves an ABC Railway guide near the body as a calling card. The solution is wonderfully simple and just as cunning and memorable as that of MOTOE.

A Murder Is Announced is a Miss Marple novel which has a wonderful hook: someone has placed an advert letting people know when and where a murder will take place. Inevitably the whole village seems to gather at the indicated date and time expecting a game and are shocked when a murder really is committed. Once again, the genius of this story lies in its cunning simplicity.

You Liked MOTOE Because… Trains

DeathintheCloudsWell, once again Dame Agatha provides and if trains are your thing, consider The Mystery of the Blue Train or The 4:50 From Paddington.

I’d prefer to switch gears though and suggest Death in the Clouds. Sure, the murder takes place in the skies instead of on tracks but some of the elements of this story are quite memorable and the solution to how a murder is conducted mid-flight is really quite clever.

If you are planning to watch rather than read my suggestions, I seem to remember that the David Suchet adaptation is not one of the better ones though so you may want to chase it down with a viewing of the quite wonderful (and not particularly faithful) adaptation of The 4:50 From Paddington, Murder She Said!

You Liked MOTOE Because… Of Its Star-Studded Cast

NoneWell, books aren’t really star-studded so let’s shift formats and switch to films. The good news is that there were a heap of film adaptations made in the seventies and eighties featuring some really big name stars. The Albert Finney Murder On The Orient Express is a great example – it features Sean Connery and the wonderful Ingrid Bergman among its cast.

Though I think some parts of the adaptation stretch a little too far from Christie’s original (especially the bacchanal sequence), the recent 2015 adaptation of And Then There Were None is quite chilling and features a superb cast that includes Charles Dance, Sam Neill, Aidan Turner and Toby Stephens. It also comes closer than most adaptations to using the actual ending of the novel.

So, there are some of my suggestions for some literary (and movie) chasers to wash down your viewing of Murder on the Orient Express with. Hopefully you loved the movie and I hope it won’t be too long before I get to go see it myself. If you have any comments or suggestions of your own, please do share – I’d love to read them.