Reading Christie

All of Agatha Christie's 66 novels, one at a time

Books read so far

In my quest to read all of Agatha Christie’s novels in order, here’s what I’ve read so far, starting with the Poirot mysteries:

The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920): a classic, cozy family murder
The Murder on the Links (1923): a complicated plot with twists and double-twists
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
(1926): Christie’s masterpiece
The Big Four
(1927): an over-the-top thriller—with an international crime ring!
The Mystery of the Blue Train
(1928): the problem of ethnic stereotypes
Peril at End House
(1932): a creepy setting for a clever murderer
Lord Edgeware Dies
(1933) – post to come
Three Act Tragedy
(1935-APA), originally Murder in Three Acts: a very British mystery with a rich supporting cast
Murder on the Orient Express
(1934) – post to come
Death in the Clouds
(1935): a locked-room mystery on a plane
The ABC Murders
(1935): an intriguing psychological study
Murder in Mesopotamia
(1936): an amusing narrator lightens up a sad story
Cards on the Table (1936): a lighthearted game of bridge turns fatal
Dumb Witness (1937): an adorable fox terrier steals the show
Appointment with Death (1938): a tyrannical matriarch gets what she deserves
Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938): vengeance roasting on an open fire
One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940): it all starts with a missing buckle…

I’m currently reading all of Christie’s novels featuring Poirot, more or less in order. There are a few that I have yet to post about, as you can see. I will try to catch up as I go, and will back-date the posts so that the stories are in order.

If you’re a Christie fan, I welcome your viewpoint and opinions! If you’re interested in why I started this blog in the first place, read this.

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One, Two, Buckle My Shoe

1940 1st edition UK cover

1940 1st edition UK cover

It all starts with a missing buckle…

After Poirot’s dentist is found murdered, Poirot has a twinge that something is wrong. His suspicions are proved right, of course, when one of the dentists’ patients becomes the next victim. So begins a typically complicated case, full of twists and turns.

I won’t say that the ending was completely unexpected, but at some point I gave up trying to disentangle the intricate details of the plot. Christie certainly loved to make her reader’s minds spin.

Still, I enjoyed this story more than the last two I’ve read, because I felt like it gave me some insight into Christie’s mind. The last two novels on my list, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas and Appointment with Death, feature victims that are truly evil people—both tyrannical heads of their households who enjoy making their descendents squirm. Yes they are evil, Poirot says, but so what? The murderers should still be brought to justice, because murder is always wrong. Good; I can get behind that.

In this story, Christie goes further by asking the question of whether one person’s life is inherently more valuable than another’s. It’s the age-old question of, “is murder ok if the ends justify the means?” Of course, for Christie the answer is no. She ends this book with a strong argument for equality and the worth of each individual’s life.

Yes, Christie has made this point in other novels, but in this one she really hammers it home. Although the way she does it is a bit heavy-handed, I appreciate her strong viewpoint. Remember, this happened right before World War II, when fascism was on the rise and many Europeans were under the belief that their leaders were somehow infallible. It’s hard to believe that the political climate of the day did not influence Christie’s decision to prominently feature a political figure in this book.

I still wish I was better at piecing together the clues. But this time, I was happy to leave that all to Poirot and trust that he would straighten things out in the end with a long-winded, exquisitely detailed explanation. Of course, I was right.

Hercule Poirot’s Christmas

1938 1st edition UK cover

Vengeance roasting on an open fire…

Hercule Poirot is fated to meet up with mayhem and murder wherever he goes. But even Poirot deserves to have Christmas off, right? Unfortunately for Poirot, but fortunately for us, Christie has other plans for him this year. While he is enjoying a nice fireside chat with Cornel Johnson (about murders, what else?) the two are called in to solve a gruesome case that appears to be a closed family affair.

Christie included a forward in this book to her brother-in-law, part of which reads:

“You complained that my murders were getting too refined—anaemic, in fact! You yearned for a “good violent murder with lots of blood.” A murder where there was no doubt about its being murder!”

She then cheekily echoes these words through the Colonel later in the book, when he says, “No, if one must have murder (which Heaven forbid), give me a straightforward case.”

Well, I was certainly not yearning for a “violent murder with lots of blood”—in fact, the refined nature of Christie’s work is one of the reasons that I enjoy it so much. But here, the over-the-top violence seem to fit with the novel’s style. Christie uses exaggerated foreshadowing and melodrama throughout the story, almost as if she’s smirking at her brother-in-law while indulging his request.

In the first chapter, for example, the lovely young Pilar tells Stephen about how she would handle her enemies. With a graphic gesture, she tells him, “I would cut my enemy’s throat like this…” Stephen’s shocked response is, “You’re a bloodthirsty young woman!” I can easily imagine that Christie is using this scene, and perhaps the entire novel, to gently poke fun at her more readers’ bloodlust.

Although I didn’t care for the murder itself, and I found the ending contrived, I enjoyed this book because of the strong, sometimes quirky personalities and the family relationships. Old Simeon Lee, the victim, is the tyrannical head of a dysfunctional family. Although three of his four sons are under his thumb, two his daughter-in-laws, and Pilar, are strong and clever enough to match his powerful personality.

The way Christie describes the various relationships, especially the marriages, is fascinating. There is the stuffy oldest son who married a vapid woman too young for him; the pathetic, sensitive artist whose spouse finds herself playing the role of mother rather than wife, and the good son, who lets his father walk all over him but whose energetic wife remains unaffected. She indulges her desire to break away from Simeon’s iron fist by making dioramas of foreign lands.

It’s these psychological details that keep the novel from becoming a farce and kept me happily reading until the end.

Appointment with Death

1938 1st edition UK cover

A tyrannical matriarch gets what she deserves

The opening line of this novel is one of Christie’s most intriguing:

“You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?”

Of course the line is overheard by Hercule Poirot and of course he later encounters the owner of that voice. It belongs to Raymond Boynton, a twitchy, shy young man who is traveling with his family through Jerusalem. Mrs. Boynton, their widowed mother, keeps her family in line by using cruel mind games.

The travelers—Poirot, the Boyntons, and a few others—end up in Petra. Described as “the bowels of the earth” and “a labyrinth of red cliffs,” it’s a menacing atmosphere that’s a perfect setting for the murder of the sadistic Mrs. Boynton. Because her death is such a relief for her children, it’s hard to feel sorry for her.

This plot line seems to be a recurring theme throughout Christie’s novels. We’ve seen morally repugnant people killed off in Lord Edgeware Dies, Murder on the Orient Express, and Cards on the Table. For a few moments, Christie cleverly makes us feel that the murder is somehow all right, because the victim was an evil person. But of course, she doesn’t allow us to continue thinking this. Poirot always reminds us that these are horrible crimes that must be brought to justice.

What continually brings me back to Christie’s writing, besides her clever plot lines, is this idea of justice. It’s trite and old-fashioned, but somehow very comforting. Unlike recent current events, there is always a rational reason for the crimes that are committed, and we know for sure exactly what happened. It’s not realistic, but it’s satisfying.

Sure, Appointment with Death wasn’t my favorite Christie novel. It’s too atmospheric, with too few characters whom I liked. But it offered the closure and justice that I’ve come to expect from her work. I only wish the real world were so dependable.

Dumb Witness

1937 1st edition UK cover

An adorable fox terrier steals the show

Any book (or movie) with a lovable terrier will win me over. Earlier this year, I fell in love with the jack russell terrier in Beginners (a touching, quirky, and wonderfully-written film). My own family dog, Mickey, was half terrier. Apparently Christie was also enamored with terriers, since Dumb Witness features a fox terrier named Bob who is modeled after her own beloved dog Peter. She writes what he would say if he could talk, and he provides a clue to help Poirot solve the murder.

I find this charming. Not everyone did, apparently; Robert Barnard wrote in A Talent to Deceive, “The doggy stuff is rather embarrassing, though done with affection and knowledge.” (quoted here). I guess Mr. Barnard just wasn’t a dog person.

Dog adoration aside, this story is solid. The setup is intriguing: Poirot receives a letter from an elderly woman, Emily Arundell, who suspects that one of her nephews or nieces is attempting to murder her. But the letter is mysteriously delayed, and Miss Arundell is already dead by the time Poirot receives it. Even more strange is the fact that Miss Arundell’s maid, Miss Lawson, has inherited most of her large fortune. Everyone is surprised (and most are unhappy) about this, including Miss Lawson… or is it all an act?

The final solution and the murder method themselves were not extremely thrilling. I’m always a little annoyed when the solution depends on some arcane clue that my everyday knowledge doesn’t cover. In this book, it was pretty obvious to me that the doctor’s lack of a sense of smell was an important clue, but I wasn’t able to follow through to its conclusion.

Oh well. Bob and Hastings’ happy ending was more than enough to make this a fun and satisfying read.

P.S. Apparently there is a graphic novel edition of Dumb Witness (by Marek)—how fun! I’d love to see some images from it but haven’t been able to find any.

Cards on the Table

1936 1st edition UK cover

A lighthearted game of bridge turns fatal

I wish I knew how to play bridge, because if so I might have spotted the true murderer in this story sooner! Another locked-room mystery, this one takes place at the home of Mr. Shaitana, a rich, mysterious, devilish character, who has assembled four people whom he believes have committed murder in the past, and four detectives, including M. Poirot.

I am very fond of the character of Ariadne Oliver, who appears first in this novel but, I believe, returns again in later stories and is supposed to be a charicature of Agatha Christie herself. I found myself wondering, “Was Christie also so fond of apples?” and “Did she consider herself an extreme feminist?” I was delighted to find, according to trusty Wikipedia, that a 1956 article about Christie reports that she did indeed love apples:

“It is perfectly true that sometimes she works at her stories in a large old-fashioned bath, eating apples and depositing the cores on the wide mahogany surround.”

Mrs. Oliver is one of my favorite of Christie’s comic characters that I have found so far. I love that her works feature a Finnish detective, Sven Hjerson, and that she regrets having made him come from Finnland, since she knows nothing about Finnish people. Of course, if it were me, I would have taken this as an excuse to do some research, but either Mrs. Oliver was not a traveler or was on a limited budget. I couldn’t help wondering if Christie had felt similarly about Poirot at some point in her early career.

Rhoda Dawes was another fun character. She is the roommate of one of the potential murderers, and she wants oh-so-badly for another potential murderer, the dashing Major Despard, to fall in love with her. Between Mrs. Oliver and Rhoda Dawes, this story felt quite light-hearted, which I appreciated after the psychologically dark Murder in Mesopotamia.

 

Murder in Mesopotamia

1936 1st edition UK cover

An amusing narrator lightens up a sad story

Some narrators are a lot of fun to read. Murder in Mesopotamia is written in the voice of Amy Leatheran, a nurse who travels to an archeological dig in Mesopotamia to care for Mrs. Leidner, a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Nurse Amy is practical and sensible, and I found her observations quite funny. I loved how, after visiting the site of the dig, she privately confides to the reader that she doesn’t understand why the archeologists get so excited over a few pieces of broken pottery.

There are also a few handsome men on the dig, and I was secretly hoping the Amy would end up with one of them in the end. It would have been fun to have a sweet love story to offset Mrs. Leidner’s murder.

My problem with this story was that I found its basic premise hard to believe.

Spoiler alert! Read the rest of this entry »

The A.B.C. Murders

1936 1st edition U.K. cover

An intriguing psychological study

I truly enjoyed this story. It reads like a suspense novel and the true mystery is hidden until the very end, with a delightful twist. The idea of the homicidal maniac with an alphabet complex is quite entertaining. The minor characters were fun as well, with some strong personalities.

A few things about the story made me think:

  1. Why does Christie have an obsession with the name “Grey” for beautiful female characters with a sensible temperament? This is the 3rd “Miss Grey” I have encountered in only 11 books (others are Death in the Clouds and The Mystery of the Blue Train). Is there a reason for this, or did Christie just love this name?
  2. Normally I do enjoy the little love story planted within the larger mystery, but this one fell flat for me. [Spoiler alert] Donald is described as “angry” and “quiet” and seems, frankly, like a jealous, controlling, potentially abusive boyfriend. And we don’t see him change or express remorse for these character traits. I don’t understand why Megan, who is spunky and intelligent, falls in love with him. I want to tell her, “run away, Megan, run far away!”
  3. What happened to Hasting’s wife? He met his eventual wife Dulcie Duveen in the second Poirot novel, Murder on the Links, and I know she is supposed to be on the ranch in Argentina while he visits England. But it seems a little unfair that she has to stay behind all the time while he gets to help Poirot solve mysteries; also odd that he never seems to miss her. In this novel, Hastings seems to have a crush on Ms. Grey. It seems odd that someone who is usually so concerned about morality and what is right would have a wandering eye. I wonder if his lack of expressed love for his wife and his continuing attraction to other women is a commentary by Christie on marriage, or just a lack of development of Hasting’s character.

On a side note, it was a bit jarring that the 3rd murder takes place on September 11. Hastings writes, “I shall, I think, remember that 11th of September all my life.” A sobering statement that brought me out of the novel and back into reality for a sad moment.

The ending of this book is quite sweet. I felt that Christie did a lovely job here, with few words, in transforming one particular character so that I ended up with a completely different understanding of the person at the end than I had at the beginning.

Death in the Clouds

1935 1st edition U.K. cover

A locked-room mystery… on a plane

Ah, the “locked room mystery.” This one takes place on an airplane during flight. A woman is killed with a poisoned dart. Who did it? We know it must be one of the people who was on the plane.

I enjoyed this story, although it wasn’t one of my favorites. The love story involving Jane Grey and Norman Gale is nice, especially since, unlike most of Christie’s crime-triggered romances, it actually ties in with the solution. But I must say, I didn’t feel particularly attached to any of the characters or especially interested in finding out who had committed the crime.

What is it that makes this story less intriguing to me than, say,  The Mysterious Affair at Styles? Putting a bunch of (supposed) strangers together in a locked room is not my favorite technique. Instead, I much more enjoy the small village or family mysteries, where the relationships between the suspects are deeper and more interesting. This is one of the reasons that my favorite Christie detective is Miss Marple. I love that Miss Marple always reminds us that village life, despite appearing so quiet on the surface, contains a wide variety of the dark sides of human nature. It is this quiet psychological drama that I enjoy more than exotic or adventurous locations.

On a tangent, it is fascinating to read about the in-flight experience of the earliest airplanes. Personally, I did not realize airplane travel was customary at this time. According to the official Agatha Christie website, the London-Paris service began in the same year that this story was published (link here). It is interesting that Christie used such a contemporary invention for her setting.

Three Act Tragedy

1935 1st edition U.K. cover

A very British mystery with a rich supporting cast

This was the second time that I read Three-Act Tragedy, published in 1935 (originally published in the U.S. in 1934 as Murder in Three Acts). I had to deal with a very stained, very old hardcover copy from the library, unfortunately. Still, I do enjoy free books.

About halfway through the book, I remembered who the murderer was. And I have to say, that made it more enjoyable because then I could more fully appreciate Christie’s cleverness. Like a little kid, I do enjoy that delicious feeling of knowing how the story will inevitably end.

I particularly enjoyed the characters in this story, especially the three main characters: Mr. Satterthwaite, Egg, and Sir Charles. Certainly, Egg is the quintessential spunky, determined young lady that we see quite often in Christie’s novels, but I’m rather fond of this type. Mr. Satterthwaite is intriguing. I enjoyed his observations of Sir Charles’ vanity, and his slightly bruised ego when Sir Charles continually overshadows him. I could sympathize, being a quiet, non-actor type myself.

Also intriguing is the way that Christie describes Mr. Satterthwaite. There is a fascinating article that muses on whether he is meant to be a gay character; although, as one of the commenters points out, perhaps this is over-reaching and we are putting too much of a contemporary spin on her writing.

As I was reading this story, I had an “ah ha” moment about how Christie hides the murderer’s identity from us.

[spoiler alert!] Read the rest of this entry »

What if there were an interactive way to navigate through Christie’s work?

Agatha Christie’s Novels: Demo Interaction.

In 2011 while I was still a grad student at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Design, I created this video. It shows a potential interactive interface that allows a user to navigate through and explore Christie’s work.

It was a lot of fun to make. Picking out the music and choosing the color and fonts were my favorite parts. Creating a circle with all of the years on it so that the numbers were evenly spaced was definitely my least favorite part.