Agatha Christie: Career
Christie Plots: A Taxonomy: Impossible Crimes | Experimental Mysteries | Things Hard to Explain | Dying Messages | Complex Thefts | Twins and Doubles | Other Kinds of Mysteries | Undercover and Disguise | Romances and Drama | Scientific Detection | Doyle and His Influence
Short Story Collections: Partners in Crime | The Mysterious Mr. Quin | The Labors of Hercules | Miss Marple Short Stories
Novels: The Mysterious Affair at Styles | The Man in the Brown Suit | The Sittaford Mystery / Murder at Hazelmoor | The A.B.C. Murders | Dumb Witness / Poirot Loses a Client | And Then There Were None | One, Two, Buckle My Shoe | The Body in the Library | The Moving Finger | Crooked House | A Murder Is Announced | 4.50 from Paddington / What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!
Plays: The Mousetrap / Three Blind Mice | Spider's Web
Politics: Christie Themes and Politics | Christie and Racism
Television: Christie on Television | Poirot TV Shows
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page | Download a free E-book of my mystery stories in EPUB or Kindle format.
The Man in the Brown Suit (1923 - 1924) (Chapters 1-12)
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1925)
The Murder at the Vicarage (1930)
The Sittaford Mystery / Murder at Hazelmoor (1931)
Murder on the Orient Express (1934)
The A.B.C. Murders (1935)
Murder in Mesopotamia (1936)
Dumb Witness / Poirot Loses a Client (1937)
Appointment with Death (1938)
Hercule Poirot's Christmas / Murder for Christmas (1938)
Easy to Kill (1939)
And Then There Were None (1939)
Sad Cypress (1940)
One, Two, Buckle My Shoe / An Overdose of Death (1940)
Evil Under the Sun (1941)
The Body in the Library (1941)
The Moving Finger (1942)
Death Comes as the End (1944)
Sparkling Cyanide (1945)
A Murder Is Announced (1950)
They Came to Baghdad (1951)
Dead Man's Folly (1956)
The Clocks (1963)
Elephants Can Remember (1972)
Short Story Collections:
Murder in the Mews / Dead Man's Mirror (collected 1937)
The Labors of Hercules (1939 - 1940)
The Mousetrap / Three Blind Mice and Other Stories (collected 1950)
Black Coffee (1930)
The Mousetrap and Other Plays
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1925) is usually discussed solely in terms of its central plot idea. This main plot is certainly brilliant, to say the least, but such a view does not do full justice to Christie's novel. The sheer complexity of Christie's plot gets ignored, with numerous inventive plot elements that go to make up its complex solution. This plot complexity is in the Golden Age tradition - in fact, it probably helped create that tradition. Also noteworthy are the many clues Christie has included in the book, all pointing to the murderer. The killer's identity would be obvious, were not the reader bamboozled by Christie's main plot.
After the publication of Ackroyd, Christie's husband ran off with another woman, abandoning his wife. Christie responded by disappearing in December 1926. The subject of a nationwide, media frenzy manhunt, Christie was discovered ten days later at a resort hotel, claiming to be subject to amnesia. Soon recovered to her full memory, Christie stuck to her story, of amnesia brought on by emotional stress, for the rest of her life. It is still unclear whether Christie was faking this attack to get revenge on her husband and publicity for her fiction (it did both), or whether her story of amnesia was in fact true. A few years later, Christie met and married a young archeologist specializing in the Ancient Middle East, Max Mallowan, and lived with him for many years in Baghdad, Iraq, as well as accompanying him on his archeological digs. Christie's second marriage was a major success, lasting till her death in 1976.
Following Ackroyd, Christie embarked on period where she changed her pace (1927 - 1931). Her spinster sleuth, Miss Jane Marple, was the subject of her finest book, the short story collection The Tuesday Club Murders (1927 -1931), as well as the novel The Murder at the Vicarage (1930). Readers looking to get acquainted with Agatha Christie for the first time would be well advised to start here, with The Tuesday Club Murders. The high quality of the stories, combined with their great variety of approach, make it the perfect introduction to Christie's world. Christie brought Hercule Poirot to the stage, in the play Black Coffee. She also wrote about Parker Pyne, in an undistinguished 1932-1933 short story series collected in book form in 1934.
During 1934 - 1941, Christie's writing changed direction again. She stopped creating so many sleuths, stuck closely to the detective story proper, and concentrated on detective novels and short stories featuring Hercule Poirot. These works are the "meat and potatoes" of her career. They maintain a uniform standard of excellence, and are what many people fondly think of as a "typical Agatha Christie" novel. Cleverly plotted, with ingenious solutions that surprise even the astutest readers, the novels also feature fascinating detective work. The Poirot short story, "The Dream" (1937), is my favorite Christie short story after The Tuesday Club Murders. Especially outstanding among the many Poirot novels are The A.B.C. Murders (1936), Hercule Poirot's Christmas (1938), and One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940). But most of the 14 Poirot books of this period have virtues. Murder in Mesopotamia (1936) and Sad Cypress (1940) have ingenious solutions.
Christie also created some important non-series works during this period. And Then There Were None and Easy to Kill (both 1939) are the best; the former is a virtuoso summing up of Christie's mystery technique, a "fantasia on detective themes", to modify a phrase of Arnold Bennett's, and is one of Christie's best books.
Christie changed direction again at this point. She wrote fewer Poirot books. Christie brought back Miss Marple for a long series of novels, of which the best are the first, The Body in the Library (1941), The Moving Finger (1942), and A Murder Is Announced (1950).
Christie also created an unusual mystery set in Ancient Egypt, Death Comes as the End (1944). While just so-so as a mystery plot, it is interesting as a look at daily life in the distant past.
During her first twenty five years as a writer (1920 - 1945), Christie produced an enormous number of impossible crime stories and novels. She also wrote many tales, such as clever alibi stories or ingenious poisonings, whose plot ideas derive from the impossible crime tradition, even if their mystery situation is not presented as impossible, strictly speaking. Christie's sleuths were genius detectives, who usually solved their crimes through pure thinking: what this Guide has been referring to as the "intuitionist" tradition in detective fiction. Many of the writers in this intuitionist tradition of hard-thinking sleuths, Jacques Futrelle, G. K. Chesterton, Carolyn Wells, John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen, Joseph Commings, Edward D. Hoch, Paul Halter, also produced impossible crimes in great quantities. Chesterton was probably a major influence on Christie's work.
After World War II ended in 1945, Christie's work generally suffered a decline in quality. The plots generally became simpler, and the storytelling and characterization less interesting. Her best post war book was the spy novel They Came to Baghdad (1951). Like many of her novels, it is set in the contemporary Middle East, where Agatha Christie lived.
Fewer of Christie's post war books feature Hercule Poirot. Perhaps significantly, she only brought Poirot back for books that showed the complex plotting of her prewar works. Some of these are outstanding, especially Dead Man's Folly (1956), The Clocks (1963), and Elephants Can Remember (1972). Dead Man's Folly seems linked thematically to an earlier Poirot novel, Evil Under The Sun (1941). The two novels somehow seem to form a pair of works in which Agatha Christie developed similar material, using similar techniques of the mystery story, and yet came up with books that are interestingly different. They remind one of Leonardo da Vinci's two versions of the painting, The Madonna on the Rocks.
For many years I have had a dream, one that repeats itself quite regularly. I am in a library, and I find an Agatha Christie novel that I have never read before. I always wake up happy after this dream.
Christie wrote many impossible crime works. She was not a full-time specialist in impossible crime tales, like John Dickson Carr or Paul Halter. But she was a major contributor to the form, both in quality and quantity.
"The Blue Geranium" (1929) (starring Miss Marple) is one of Christie's best impossible crime tales. Christie includes two impossibilities in the tale, the "supernaturally" appearing flowers and the murder itself, both occurring behind locked doors. Christie used a similar structural approach in other of her impossible crime tales, such as the Poirot story "The Dream" (1937) in The Regatta Mystery and the Mr. Quin "The Shadow on the Glass" (1924). All three have both a supernatural-appearing impossibility as a subplot, and a locked room murder mystery, too. In all three, there turns out to be a loose connection between how the apparent supernatural events were really worked, and the mechanism of the murder itself. These three stories are among Christie's finest mysteries, with their abundance of imaginative plot. The Mr. Quin "The Dead Harlequin" (1929) also has a similar structure, although the locked room murder problem and the fake supernatural event are less closely linked.
The novel known as The Sittaford Mystery or Murder at Hazelmoor (1931), also has a seemingly supernatural impossibility, paired with a murder mystery. The two mysteries are in fact linked. But the murder is not presented as a locked room puzzle here.
A somewhat similar structure appears in the novel called Dumb Witness or Poirot Loses a Client (1937): there is an apparently supernatural subplot, and a conventional, non-impossible main murder mystery that is not really connected to it.
Similar in structure to Dumb Witness: Crooked House has an impossible crime subplot, and a conventional, non-impossible main murder mystery that is not connected to it.
"The Blood-Stained Pavement" has both an apparent supernatural impossibility, and a main murder story that is an alibi tale - not an impossible crime.
It has long been recognized that Murder at Hazelmoor contains references to Arthur Conan Doyle and especially Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901). See Wikipedia. The Hound of the Baskervilles also has two plots: a seemingly supernatural story about the Hound, and a non-supernatural tale about the escaped convict. This double plot structure could have served as a model for Christie.
Psychology. "Miss Marple Tells a Story" (1934) is one of Christie's best impossible crime tales. It seems constructed on different principles from Christie's other stories, although it has links in its use of architecture to "The Man Who Was No. 16" (1924) in Partners in Crime. It ultimately comes from a tradition involving a tale by G.K. Chesterton, but turns them into new and original approaches.
Christie wrote some other tales inspired by this same story of Chesterton's. "The Man in the Mist" (1924) in Partners in Crime develops some borderline-impossible features, as does Death in the Clouds (1935).
The mystery tale in Chapters 3-4 of The Big Four is a direct imitation of this same Chesterton tale. This was originally a short story "The Adventure of the Dartmoor Bungalow" (1924).
Locked Rooms. The solution of Murder in Mesopotamia (1936) recalls the second impossibility in "The Dream" (1937), works that show Christie's plot ingenuity. The technique of this series derives from the Chesterton, impossible crimes school, although the cases are not all presented as impossible crimes.
Locked Rooms: Gimmicks. The locked room aspect of "Dead Man's Mirror" (1932, 1937) is basically a gimmick, although a pleasant one. Most of the interest of the tale is in its non-locked room aspects, both mystery plot and storytelling.
The same is essentially true of of the locked-room puzzle in Hercule Poirot's Christmas (1938), although here the gimmicks are much more imaginative. I use the word "gimmicks" to describe the very simple, but sound, solutions to the locked room puzzles.
"Dead Man's Mirror" and Hercule Poirot's Christmas share approaches. SPOILERS. Both:
A British paperback of Murder in the Mews includes a version of "Dead Man's Mirror" with a floor plan of the crime scene (start of Chapter 3). I'm not used to seeing such a floor plan in American versions of "Dead Man's Mirror". The floor plan adds a lot to the story.
"Dead Man's Mirror" has an odd flaw. We never learn the solution to a mystery subplot: what is the mysterious problem for which Poirot is hired at the tale's start? This is unusual, for Christie to leave a mystery unexplained.
Impossible Disappearances of Objects. "The Capture of Cerberus" in The Labors of Hercules is one of several stories Christie wrote about the Impossible Disappearance of an object. These include "The Affair of The Pink Pearl" (1924) in Partners in Crime, "The Pearl of Price" (1933) in Parker Pyne Investigates, the policeman's vanishing equipment in The Mousetrap. All four of these tales have solutions (SPOILER WARNING) that involve "clever hiding places" for the vanished objects. The Impossible Disappearance in "The Capture of Cerberus" recalls Ellery Queen in general, and Queen's The American Gun Mystery (1933) in particular.
"The World's End" (1926) in The Mysterious Mr. Quin and the Poirot "The Veiled Lady" (1923) are related to such stories, although not fully Impossible Crime tales.
Two other Impossible Disappearance of object tales, "The Million Dollar Bond Robbery" (1923) in Poirot Investigates and "Have You Got Everything You Want?" (1933) in Parker Pyne Investigates have essentially the same solution as each other. The earlier story, "The Million Dollar Bond Robbery", is the more satisfying version. This plot idea is also related to the more developed solution to the the Impossible Disappearance in "The Regatta Mystery" (1936), one of Christie's finest works. These three tales are different, in that none of them involve "clever hiding places" for the vanished objects.
Many of these tales involve framing someone else for the theft or disappearance - a frame that is particularly ingenious in "The Affair of The Pink Pearl", forming a complete other subplot in the tale.
A hiding place for humans is found in "The Man Who Was No. 16" (1924) in Partners in Crime. Christie used a similar idea in They Came to Baghdad (1951). Neither is an Impossible Disappearance.
Impossible Disappearances of People. "At the Bells and Motley" (1925) in The Mysterious Mr. Quin is a seminal work of Christie's, influencing many later stories of hers. The influence extended in several different directions. It is closest to the Miss Marple "The Case of the Perfect Maid" (1942), which seems like an inventive variation on it. Both of these tales involve a disappearance, one that eventually defies an intensive police manhunt. In this they can be seen as impossible crime tales - and "At the Bells and Motley" was treated as such in Robert Adey's classic history, Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crimes (1991). People should also get this book's equally invaluable continuation, Brian Skupin's Locked Room Murders, Supplement (2019).
This aspect is even more pronounced in the more traditional Impossible Disappearance story, "The Girdle of Hyppolita" in The Labors of Hercules. This tale draws on broadly similar approaches to "At the Bells and Motley". The detectives in each story refer to the crime as a "conjuring trick".
An early version of the same idea can be seen in "The Disappearance of Mr. Davenheim" (1923) from Poirot Investigates. This is not as gracefully done as the later tales. SPOILERS. Problem: while the villain's schemes are clever and hard to figure out, they leave him in a poor position at the scheme's end. This makes such a scheme undesirable. Surely the villain could come up with a better scheme.
"The Kidnapped Prime Minister" (1923) from the same book, also uses similar ideas - it is especially close to "The Girdle of Hyppolita". Both works:
Alibi Stories: Related to the Impossible Disappearance of People tales. "The Sunningdale Mystery" (1924) in Partners in Crime, "The Blood-Stained Pavement" (1928) and "A Christmas Tragedy" (1930) in the Miss Marple book called The Thirteen Problems or The Tuesday Club Murders, "Four and Twenty Blackbirds" (1940) in The Mousetrap, "Greenshaw's Folly" (1956) in Double Sin, also develop ideas in "At the Bells and Motley", in a different direction. These are stories of perfect alibis. The techniques used to create the alibis are similar to the techniques used in the impossible disappearance stories like "At the Bells and Motley". One might note, that the alibi tale in general has links to the impossible crime story: an alibi makes it look impossible for someone to have committed the crime - when they actually did so.
"The Mystery of Hunter's Lodge" (1923) in Poirot Investigates, is an ancestor of these tales. It is a bit more awkwardly done.
Christie's amazing impossible crime masterpiece, And Then There Were None (1939), also has links to these alibi stories. It uses their alibi techniques, to create a full-fledged impossible crime.
The alibi tale "Problem at Sea" (1935) from The Regatta Mystery has some relationship to tales like "The Sunningdale Mystery" and "A Christmas Tragedy", but is a bit further away from "At the Bells and Motley".
The Body in the Library (1941) has links to "A Christmas Tragedy".
All the Christie stories about bad guys in disguise or in deceptive roles, from The Man in the Brown Suit and The Big Four on, also have a plot relationship to "At the Bells and Motley".
"The Affair at the Victory Ball" (1923) is an early story in the alibi tradition. It is not as ingenious as the later tales.
Impossible Poisonings. Christie wrote several first-rate tales of poisonings, that have links to the impossible crime tradition. These include "The Coming of Mr. Quin" (1924) (from The Mysterious Mr. Quin), "The House of Lurking Death" (1924) in Partners in Crime, "The Tuesday Night Club" (1927) and "The Herb of Death" (1930) from The Tuesday Club Murders, "How Does Your Garden Grow?" (1935) from The Regatta Mystery, and the novel Sad Cypress (1940).
"The Yellow Jasmine Mystery" (1924), which forms Chapters 9-10 of The Big Four, has some borderline-impossible poisoning features. Later writers, such as Erle Stanley Gardner and Edmund Crispin, would sometimes build stories around Christie's approach.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) has an ingenious method of poisoning, like the above tales. It is used to create alibis rather than a pure impossible crime though.
Strange Events - with Similar Solutions. As an impossible crime, "The Blue Geranium" has links with "Motive v. Opportunity" (1928) in the same collection The Thirteen Problems - but is richer in plot. There is no murder mystery in "Motive v. Opportunity"; there is just an apparent impossibility, whose explanation somewhat resembles the "supernatural" subplot about the flowers in "The Blue Geranium".
The "supernatural" subplot in Dumb Witness / Poirot Loses a Client (1937) also has a puzzle and a solution, broadly linked to the stories above.
The Pale Horse (1961) has links to this tradition, although it is not strictly speaking an impossible crime tale.
Signatures. Both "Motive v. Opportunity" and Crooked House have mysteries about missing signatures on wills. The two have completely different solutions.
Impossible Knowledge. Christie wrote a few tales, in which the impossibility was knowledge: access to another person's mental processes, in a seemingly impossible way. "The Voice in the Dark" (1926) from The Mysterious Mr. Quin and the first of the two impossibilities in "The Dream" (1937) are outstanding examples. The two have drastically different solutions, both clever.
The heroine's "psychic" knowledge at the start of Sleeping Murder forms a third approach, also nicely done. Here the heroine simply seems to "know" things, in an impossible way, rather than being able to reach into another person's mind.
The impossibility in The Sittaford Mystery / Murder at Hazelmoor (1931) is somewhat related. It has a much different solution from these other tales.
A Mystery Idea. The solution to the "impossible knowledge" in "The Voice in the Dark" contains a plot idea, that was used by her again, in non-impossible mystery tales.
The strange tale, "The Companion" (1930) in The Tuesday Club Murders, reworks this plot idea from "The Voice in the Dark" - but to create a regular mystery, with no impossible crime. "The Companion" also has links to the alibi tales, especially "The Blood-Stained Pavement" (1928).
Christie created a light-hearted variation on "The Companion", as "The House at Shiraz" (1933) in Parker Pyne Investigates, that essentially reuses the same plot. "The Companion" and "The House at Shiraz" involve neither alibis nor impossible crimes.
Years later, Christie would employ a variation on these tales' plot, in "The Harlequin Tea Set" (1971).
Related ideas occur in the solution of A Murder Is Announced (1950).
Witnessed, but Not Understood Crimes. The Mr. Quin "The Shadow on the Glass" (1924) has people seeing alleged supernatural events, and misinterpreting them. And "Finessing the King" (1924) in Partners in Crime has a solution subtly related to that of "The Shadow on the Glass". "Finessing the King" is not at first glance an impossible crime, but it does ultimately present reality contradicting a witness to a crime, in a way that seems impossible.
Chest. "The Mystery of the Bagdad Chest" (1932) was greatly expanded into the novella "The Mystery of the Spanish Chest" (1960). The two tales have similar mystery plots.
"The Mystery of the Bagdad Chest" is not strictly speaking an impossible crime tale. But it does look impossible for anyone but the main suspect Major Rich to have committed the murder. (That is, if the valet witness is telling the truth.) Christie has Hercule Poirot come up with a brilliant alternative explanation of the crime.
SPOILERS. The clue of a servant noticing that a piece of furniture has been moved, recalls The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. This clue has different implications in the two works, however.
Hastings says the opening situation of the crime, is just like a play. Poirot responds that such a play has already been written. One suspects that the tale might be referring to the real-life play Rope (1929) by Patrick Hamilton. There is crime but no mystery in Rope: it is a pure thriller. This is an unusual event for Christie: taking someone else's thriller, and adding a clever mystery plot to it.
Rope is often seen as a gay-themed play. If Rope is the source of Christie's opening, she has completely heterosexualized the situation. All the suspects in Christie's mystery are straight.
Other. Christie also wrote a number of excellent impossible crime tales, that seem to stand alone within her work. So far, I have not been able to relate them to each other, or anything else Christie wrote. These include the Miss Marple tales "Ingots of Gold" (1928), with its impossibly behaving truck, and "The Case of the Caretaker" (1941). There are also borderline impossibilities in "The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb" (1923) in Poirot Investigates, and in Sparkling Cyanide (1945).
The Miss Marple "The Idol House of Astarte" is also an impossible crime. But it is a recycling of a well-known gambit that goes back to Israel Zangwill.
John Dickson Carr pointed out, that the experimental ideas in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd had previously been used by Christie in The Man in the Brown Suit (1923 - 1924). And that she employed them there, in a variation that was more fair play. The Man in the Brown Suit is also an unusual hybrid of the adventure thriller, and the detective story.
In "Motive v. Opportunity" (1928) the main idea of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is briefly proposed as a possible solution. It is immediately rejected. A drastically different idea turns out to be the true solution. This true solution is not experimental.
The Third-Floor Flats. "The Third-Floor Flat" (1929) in The Mousetrap is one of the best Poirot short tales. It subtly subverts detective fiction conventions, just as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1925) did, but in a different specific way. And like that novel, it is full of clues to its killer - if the reader would only start thinking in those directions (I did not).
Tales with Strange Mystery Construction. "The Augean Stables" in The Labors of Hercules, one of Christie's best tales, seems to work in reverse ideas present in the Miss Marple tale "The Affair at the Bungalow". It also is even more closely related to plot ideas in Witness for the Prosecution. All of these stories also resemble "A Pot of Tea" (1924) in Partners in Crime. All of these tales have a similar, brilliant construction, one hard to analyze here without spoiling the tales. The stories all have a common basic design of plot, that seems like an experimental or avant-garde variation on the traditional mystery construction.
In addition, "The Augean Stables" is unusual in terms of genre. It is not a conventional mystery, with a crime to be solved. Instead, it presents an odd, somewhat thriller-like situation, one that has both unexplained and often surprising features. By the end of the story, the reader knows all about the events of the tale, with a full explanation in the story. This explanation is logical, just like the solution in a traditional mystery. So it can in fact be regarded as a "fair play mystery" tale, albeit one of strange construction.
"The Market Basing Mystery" (1923) in The Under Dog and Poirot's Early Cases is related to the above tales. Christie would go on to re-use the clever main plot ideas of this story in a longer Poirot case, "Murder in the Mews" (1936).
The off-trail "Wasp's Nest" (1928) also has links to the above stories. It shares mystery plot ideas with "The Market Basing Mystery", and a temporal architecture with "The Affair at the Bungalow".
The Moving Finger. The Moving Finger involves a hunt for a writer of numerous anonymous letters. So its opening examines countless small events (each letter) rather than one big one (a murder or theft, say). This gives it a structure different from a typical mystery.
The Moving Finger can also be looked at as a mystery, with a surprising, carefully hidden solution. This mystery plot too has experimental aspects. As a mystery plot, The Moving Finger has a broadly similar structure as the mystery in another experimental novel by Christie, The A.B.C. Murders (1936). Both works are among her top achievements in mystery plotting.
Like "The Augean Stables", The Moving Finger looks at large scale, public scandal. SPOILERS. In both works this scandal is calculated by its perpetrator to have an odd effect. These effects are designed to play a somewhat similar structural role in the tales. The effects give an experiential aspect to the tales.
Murder on the Orient Express. Murder on the Orient Express has an off trail, unusual solution: with an unusual choice of who is guilty of the crime. It is atypical enough that Murder on the Orient Express can be considered an experimental mystery. However, the book is not as radically subversive as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
In addition, both The Moving Finger and Murder on the Orient Express build up an artificial reality. This is due to the schemes of the tales' villains. This artificial reality has something of the effect of today's "virtual reality": an imaginary, non-realistic world in which characters can wander around, inside. This artificial reality is also powerfully experimental in feel and structure.
Unlike today's virtual reality, which is usually created by advanced technology, the artificial reality in The Moving Finger and Murder on the Orient Express is not technology-based. It is instead due to the lies, illusions and schemes of the villains.
"The Affair at the Bungalow" also has an "artificial reality" feel and structure.
And Then There Were None. And Then There Were None has experimental features. Unusual plot structural aspects of And Then There Were None are discussed in this article's section on the novel.
Other Aspects. The rest of this section will look at some aspects of the above tales that are NOT experimental.
Architecture. "The Third-Floor Flat" exhibits the architectural interest found in Golden Age detective fiction. The architecture recalls "The Adventure of the Cheap Flat" (1923). But it is explored with greater intellectual depth. The architecture is thought of in a systematic way in "The Third-Floor Flat".
Both tales anticipate the multi-story office building in An Overdose of Death.
Not an Impossible Crime. "The Market Basing Mystery" is sometimes listed as one of Agatha Christie's impossible crime tales. This seems misleading. The body in this tale is indeed found inside a locked room. But as Inspector Japp immediately points out, the explanation is obvious. Christie makes no attempt to present the locked room as some sort of impossible puzzle, and this aspect of the tale is downplayed in the story itself. Far more important are the main ideas of the solution.
Note this is NOT an "impossible crime". The man's behavior is physically possible. It's just that no one can figure out a motive that would explain why he did this.
In "The Erymanthian Boar" it is hard see any reason why a criminal would choose to rendezvous in such an awkward, out of the way spot.
In "The Blue Geranium" the nurse states correctly, that the fortune-teller's behavior lacks a clear point. It doesn't give the fortune-teller any advantage.
"Hard to explain" mysteries are a speciality of Helen McCloy. This next link will take you directly to my list of Helen McCloy's Hard to Explain Mysteries. In both Christie and McCloy, the "hard to explain" mysteries get a logical explanation by the tale's end, that solves the mystery.
Things That Don't Make Sense. Things that don't "make sense" are perhaps related to things that are "hard to explain".
Some events in Christie's N or M? (Chapters 7, 8) don't "make sense", as sleuth Tuppence points out (first part of Chapter 8). Eventually a logical explanation is developed.
Another tale that doesn't make sense, until the solution, is "The Sunningdale Mystery" in Partners in Crime.
The stabbing in Murder on the Orient Express (Chapter 7) does not make sense. This is one of the major puzzles of the novel. Christie repeatedly reminds the reader of the difficulty of explaining the stabbing.
Many mystery aspects in Hercule Poirot's Christmas (1938) don't make sense, as Poirot points out at the finale.
A key subplot in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe doesn't make sense (end of Chapter 5). The facts are "contradictory and impossible".
The mystery in A Murder Is Announced (1950) doesn't "make sense" at first (end of Chapter 7.6, Chapter 8.2).
The Dream. In "The Dream" (1937) Poirot points out three things that are "inexplicable": that is, can't be explained. The first of the three things lacks a motive, and falls into the "hard to explain" doesn't-have-a-motive category. By contrast, it is not so much motive that is lacking for the other two things. Rather, the other two things do not make sense at all, in terms of what Poirot and the reader know about the crime and its background. These three things will serve as clues to Poirot's solution.
There are also clues in "The Dream", that have nothing to do with the "hard to explain" / "doesn't make sense" continuum. A fourth clue comes from the dead man's personality. Also, the complex architecture of the crime scene serves as a premise to Poirot's solution - although this architecture is not structured as discrete, separate "clues". The solution is thus richly clued and premised.
"The Dream" has features in its treatment of Poirot that recall other Poirot tales, especially Murder on the Orient Express:
SPOILERS. The hard-to-interpret dying message in "Sanctuary" is NOT the word "Sanctuary". It is the phrase that comes after.
Related: the heroine's attempts to interpret the message on a dropped piece of paper in The Man in the Brown Suit (1923 - 1924) (Chapters 4, 7, last part of 9, 12). This is not a dying message: although it comes from a man who has just died, the message was created long before his death. Another difference: most true dying messages offer clues to the killer's identity; the one in The Man in the Brown Suit does not. Still, this subplot has strong links to the dying message tradition.
There is a dying message in Why Didn't They Ask Evans? (1934). However, unlike many dying messages in mystery fiction, this message is not hard to interpret. Instead, it is hard to find a context to which the message can be related.
Poirot's attempt to understand or interpret the Countess' invitation at the start of "The Capture of Cerberus", is similar to a dying message puzzle.
An agent leaves a rather cryptic dying message in N or M? (Chapter 1). But it is immediately interpreted by government officials. It's a nice example of dying message interpretation. But it is only a mystery for a few sentences.
"A Fairy in the Flat" in Partners in Crime has a brief spoof of dying message stories. It is funny. But doesn't have anything of substance to say about such tales.
A victim makes a dying statement in Destination Unknown. But it is just a piece of information: it doesn't need interpretation. So it is far from a standard "dying message".
Writing. "The Four Suspects" (1930) with Miss Marple recalls the Poirot tale, "The Double Clue" (1923):
Christie would return to this sort of writing puzzle, as a subplot in Murder on the Orient Express. This novel too involves both social class among the suspects, and an international background. Christie depicts the United States as an Utopian realm, that can melt down the distinctions of class and national origin, that so obsess people in Britain.
"In the House of the Enemy" (1924) in The Big Four seems ancestral to "The Four Suspects". Its mystery plot is simpler, being just a code tale rather than needing the imaginative interpretation of a dying message. It also suffers from the problems of The Big Four in general.
In "The Tuesday Night Club" (1927), writing found on a blotter needs to be interpreted. This has a clever solution.
"Double Sin" has a good plot.
By contrast, I can't figure out what the crooks gain from their complex scheme in "The Plymouth Express". The tale has decent storytelling detail. But its mystery plot seems pointless.
Christie expanded "The Plymouth Express" into the novel The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928).
Christie expanded the short story "The Submarine Plans" (1923) into the novella "The Incredible Theft" (1937). The two stories' mystery plots are nearly identical.
The pair of related tales "The Submarine Plans" / "The Incredible Theft" have both similarities to and differences from "Double Sin" and "The Plymouth Express". Similarities:
The much greater length of The Incredible Theft" allows many events to be shown "on stage", while the same events are merely talked about in "The Submarine Plans".
Characters. Young heir Reggie Carrington in "The Incredible Theft" is described as good-looking but weak in character. This links him to Jim Pearson in Murder at Hazelmoor. Christie has sympathies with these men, as well as contempt. Both men are seen as sexually exciting to women characters.
Both "The Incredible Theft" and Murder at Hazelmoor have women characters who are good at manipulating men. This is the heroine of Murder at Hazelmoor, and the spy villainess of "The Incredible Theft".
One of the best characters in "The Incredible Theft" is the woman politician Mrs Macatta. She is presented as a person with boring, blunt mannerisms, and perhaps is seen satirically. But one suspects that Christie has a lot of sneaking sympathy with her. For one thing, everything Mrs Macatta says turns out to be both true and morally sound. Her denunciation of the villainess is actually 100% accurate, for example. So is her condemnation of gambling.
We don't learn explicitly whether Mrs Macatta is left or right wing. But a clue that she is left wing is found in her use of the term "parasite". This was often used as a term of contempt by left-wingers of the era.
Christie would soon write other books dealing with the era's politics: The Labors of Hercules (1939-1940), One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940). These books too are perhaps surprisingly sympathetic to leftists.
Secretaries. The secretary Mr Carlisle is my favorite character in "The Incredible Theft". He is the only middle class character in the tale, and his devotion to work and his duty are admirable. Another hard-working, straight-laced male secretary is Guy Pagett in The Man in the Brown Suit (1923) (first seen in Chapter 8). He too is likable. The way Pagett's name is "Guy", and the way Carlisle is referred to as "Mr" emphasizes their maleness.
Another sympathetic male secretary is Mr. Selby in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (Chapter 5). Like Mr Carlisle, there are signs he might be gay. Or at least outside of traditional male gender norms.
All three of these secretaries work for well-to-do men in political public life. All three are efficient at their jobs.
"The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly" (1923) also involves a mystery about characters that are more-or-less doubles (at least seen at a distance) to main characters in the mystery. SPOILERS. The solution has links to the treatment of the twin diamonds in "The Adventure of 'The Western Star'". Note: "The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly" also has a mystery about "who is responsible for the crime?". This mystery subplot has nothing to do with the mystery about the doubles.
The material about Hercule Poirot's twin brother Achille in The Big Four (1924 - 1927) uses related ideas (Chapters 15, 18).
These plots have solutions related to Christie's Impossible Disappearances of People.
The "who is responsible for the crime?" subplot of "The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly" has been re-used over and over in modern-day tales and TV shows, without any credit to Christie.
A Different Approach. A mystery subplot about doubles, but constructed on very different principles, is in Hercule Poirot's Christmas (1938).
The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) is a complex alibi story. It has maps and floor plans, and involves Miss Marple herself as a witness.
The Murder at the Vicarage incorporates as an opening gambit, the ideas in the Mr. Quin tale, "The Love Detectives" (1926) (from The Mousetrap). "The Love Detectives" was the only early Mr. Quin story not included in the collection The Mysterious Mr. Quin. One suspects it was because Christie wanted to use its plot as an ingredient in The Murder at the Vicarage.
The Miss Marple "Death by Drowning" (1931) has a clever alibi idea. Like "The Love Detectives", it can be said to be a "conceptual" approach to the alibi story, rather than a matter of time tables or maps.
Death on the Nile (1937) turns on alibis.
Towards Zero (1944) has a simple alibi concept.
Framing. Several Christie tales involve a bad guy framing an innocent suspect. Such framing can be a subplot, in a mystery whose main plot is of a different kind. SPOILERS. The A.B.C. Murders (1936), "The Affair of The Pink Pearl" in Partners in Crime, and Chapter 4 of The Big Four are examples. See also the opening chapters of A Murder Is Announced, leading up to the detailed look at framing (Chapter 8.2).
The main villain in The Man in the Brown Suit is a criminal mastermind, whose organization has pulled off countless crimes. One reason he has been successful: he usually leaves an innocent "scapegoat" who can be blamed for the crime (Chapter 1). We learn about how he frames two innocent young men for a diamond robbery he commits. We also learn about a counter-scheme, that has the potential to prove the young men are innocent. This counter-scheme adds pleasantly to the plot, making the plot larger and more complex (a good thing).
Find a Suspect; No Fair Play. "The Thumb Mark of St. Peter" (1928) with Miss Marple is one of a series of tales Christie wrote, in which suspicion of poisoning falls on a spouse or relative after a mysterious death. These include "The Cornish Mystery" (1923) in The Under Dog and Poirot's Early Cases, "Death on the Nile" (1933) in Parker Pyne Investigates, "The Lernean Hydra" (1939) in The Labors of Hercules, and the novel Crooked House (1949). These tales are often gripping as storytelling, with Christie investigating many suspects, and going through several stages of suspicion and investigation. But most hardly succeed as fair play, puzzle plot mysteries: it is hard to see how a reader could deduce their solutions from any sort of facts or clues in the tales. So they have to be regarded as among Christie's lesser works. "The Chocolate Box" (1923) resembles these other poisoning tales - but it does have a simple fair play clue to the identity of the killer. Christie also includes what is essentially a burlesque of such tales, as the second half of Chapter 15 of The Big Four (1924).
Stories like "The Lemesurier Inheritance" (1923), "The Crackler", "The Under Dog" (1926), "The Horses of Diomedes" seem quite similar in structure, even though they do not focus on poisoning. They are non-fair play tales which look for which of a group of suspects is guilty of a crime - with no clue indicating to the reader who is guilty. So is the one-act play, The Patient, in Rule of Three (1963). Despite reservations about this approach, The Patient did manage to fool me about who-done-it! "The Horses of Diomedes" is also clever in its choice of villain.
Treasure Hunts. Also weak is the Miss Marple "Strange Jest" (1941), a buried treasure hunt story in the tradition of Partners in Crime's "The Clergyman's Daughter" (1923), Poirot Investigates' "The Case of the Missing Will" (1923) and "Manx Gold" (1930) in The Harlequin Tea Set. Most of these hidden treasure pieces are strictly minor works in Christie's canon, although "Manx Gold" is charming. Their closest literary ancestor that I know of is "Lord Chizelrigg's Missing Fortune" in Robert Barr's The Triumphs of Eugène Valmont. Valmont has often been cited by critics as a possible literary ancestor of Hercule Poirot.
Hidden treasure tales go back to Poe's "The Gold-Bug", and perhaps it is just expected that every mystery author will write one. "The Case of the Missing Will" seems close to Poe's "The Purloined Letter". "Strange Jest" also has elements that recall "The Purloined Letter", although it is not as close.
Learning. Some Christie tales have sequences in which the sleuth learns something hidden, through a clever scheme. Two such good passages occur in otherwise minor thrillers: Bunch's monitoring a meeting of the secret organization in The Seven Dials Mystery (1929) (Chapters 13, 14). And Tuppence's involvement in the opening of N or M? (1941) (Chapter 1 and start of Chapter 2). These sections occur fairly early in the novels, and are not either book's central mystery. Both involve plucky women amateur sleuths.
The Bird with the Broken Wing. The Mr. Quin tale "The Bird with the Broken Wing" (1930?) doesn't seem to be close to other Christie works in its main mystery plot. It has some broad resemblance to Murder on the Orient Express: both look at people moving around at night, often to sleeping chambers. But details of the two works are not close.
SPOILERS. The mystery subplot about "what is the mysterious weapon used to commit the strangling" returns in "Tape-Measure Murder" (1941). The weapons are different in the two tales, though.
The love tangle in "The Bird with the Broken Wing" anticipates Sparkling Cyanide. SPOILERS. However, these personal relationships turn out to have little bearing on the mystery plot of "The Bird with the Broken Wing".
The heroine resembles fairy people, seemingly different from everyday reality. This echoes the Mr. Quin tale "The Dead Harlequin" (1929). In "The Dead Harlequin" these legends are about "people who come out of the hills in Gaelic fairy tales." "The Bird with the Broken Wing" invokes the Celtic legend of "Hidden People from the Hollow Hills". "The Man From the Sea" (1929) mentions the Celtic-linked legend of Isolde. All three works are among the last-to-be-published Mr. Quin tales.
The table-turning scene where the other characters don't think of Mr. Sattherwaite as being really present, echoes "The Tuesday Night Club" (1927), where the characters don't think of Miss Marple being present. Both characters are elderly, old-fashioned people, and not really recognized as being a real part of society.
The spot-the-criminal-impostor puzzler "The Gate of Baghdad" (1933) in Parker Pyne Investigates also belongs here. So does the spot-the-hidden-Nazi-spy puzzle in N or M? (1941). Both tales feature a group of seemingly ordinary, honest people, in which one or more characters, we learn right from the start, is actually a notorious criminal or spy - but we don't know which one. The reader has to figure out the guilty impostor.
Not quite undercover work, but a tale of "respectable" people with secret involvements occurs in The Seven Dials Mystery (1929). Christie sometimes does ingenious things, with reversing our understanding of good and evil involvements. One suspects that both the secret organization, and the reversal in our understanding of guilt and goodness, were influenced by The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) by G. K. Chesterton. Even the time symbolism of the group members in The Seven Dials Mystery seems to derive from Chesterton. As a whole, though, this is not one of Christie's better works.
Disguise Experts. Undercover stories in Christie, are perhaps related to her tales of disguise experts.
These disguise experts include Number 4 in The Big Four (1924 - 1927) and his numerous disguises. His disguises tend to include various new roles, as well as purely physical disguise. These disguises are the most interesting aspect, of an otherwise lesser Christie work. The disguise elements are richest in Chapters 2, 4, start of 5, 7. Then in Chapter 14, Poirot does some inventive detective work figuring out the disguises.
Christie's own spoof of The Big Four, "The Man Who Was No. 16" (1924) in Partners in Crime, also centers on disguise.
Related: the Count in The Man in the Brown Suit (1923 - 1924) and his many disguises. He has a background as a quick-change music-hall artist on stage (Chapter 1). The two men are similar in their disguise ability. But their criminal motives differ: The Count is a crook and schemer, while Number 4 is a cold-blooded killer.
These tales are also related to "The Listerdale Mystery" (1925).
Plays. During the 1940's Christie wrote some novels, which are basically romances with a brief coating of mystery. She also turned some of these into plays. The play versions of The Hollow (1951, based on the 1946 novel) and Go Back for Murder (1960, based on the 1941 novel Five Little Pigs) are examples. Go Back for Murder is surprisingly absorbing. And the play versions of The Hollow is OK.
Both of these deal with self-centered male intellectuals, an artist in Go Back for Murder, a medical research doctor in The Hollow, and the suffering women in their orbit, including a famous woman sculptor in The Hollow. They once again show Christie's interest in writing about the intelligentsia.
Christie would soon revert to "herself", and abandon the Freeman school. A lifelong interest in poisons would remain, but one involving highly ingenious puzzle plots, not purely scientific methodologies. Also, Christie's interest in Egypt would grow from a fashionable fad to a deep personal involvement in the archaeology of the Middle East.
In The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) (Chapter 14), Doctor Haydock gives a speech about how in the future, criminal behavior might be discovered to be just a form of disease. He backs up his ideas with statistics about criminals. In both The Murder at the Vicarage and The Thirteen Problems (1927 - 1931), Miss Marple solves crimes partly by uncovering parallels to other crooked situations she knows. Both ideas involve a systematic look at human nature. In Parker Pyne Investigates (1932-1933), the hero makes his living by his statistical knowledge of human types and situations.
"The Case of the Missing Lady" is a dynamic spoof of Doyle's "The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax" (1911).
The finale of "The Chocolate Box" (1923) parodies the finale of Doyle's "The Yellow Face" (1893).
Christie's Poirot story "The Veiled Lady" (1923) is constructed as an ingenious takeoff on a Doyle story, "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton" (1904). This earlier story is less of a parody than "The Case of the Missing Lady", but it still centers around a twist on the master.
The introduction of Hercule Poirot's brother Achille, in The Big Four, burlesques Sherlock Holmes' brother Mycroft.
The introduction of the Countess Vera Rossakoff, a recurring character, in "The Double Clue" (1923), is an echo of Sherlock Holmes' meeting with Irene Adler in "A Scandal in Bohemia" (1891).
"The Adventure of 'The Western Star'" (1923) opens with Poirot and Hastings looking at a person in the street below Poirot's flat, and trying to deduce things from appearances and interpret what they see. This recalls the start of numerous Sherlock tales. (The story's "valuable diamond" subject is a burlesque of The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins.)
Poirot solves the crime in "The Kidnapped Prime Minister" (1923) by sitting quietly and thinking, for a long time. This recalls Sherlock Holmes' methods in "The Man with the Twisted Lip".
"The Tuesday Night Club" and "The Thumb Mark of St. Peter" refer briefly to cases that Miss Marple once solved. We get a brief, fascinating teaser to their events, but nothing more. Doyle regularly used this teaser approach. In both Doyle and Christie, one strongly wishes the authors had gotten around to writing full detective stories about these events.
Murder on the Links. The opening of Murder on the Links (1923) has a Doyle-like feel. Poirot is summoned to a remote house in which many conspiracies, plots and counter-plots seem to be occurring, based on hidden events from the owner's past - an archetypal setting and plot set-up for Doyle. Christie eventually subverts these Doyle-like aspects, to the point where this novel too can seem like a twist on Doyle.
The Cheap Flat. SPOILERS. Christie's "The Adventure of the Cheap Flat" (1923) is in the tradition of Doyle's "The Red-Headed League" (1891), with innocent people who fit certain characteristics unknowingly recruited to take part in odd but ultimately sinister schemes.
The name Robinson is used for its pseudonymous effect, a comic touch Christie will repeat in Partners in Crime (1924) by having Tuppence adopt the nom de guerre of Miss Robinson.
Christie's play Spider's Web (1954) reuses and substantially expands the plot of "The Adventure of the Cheap Flat". The additions are imaginative and ingenious.
A Fairy in the Flat. "A Fairy in the Flat" (introductory). This story and the next show how Tommy and Tuppence are set up as a detective agency, by the Intelligence chief of Tommy's. The whole arrangement is similar, in a comic, tongue in cheek way, to that in Herbert Jenkins' Malcolm Sage Detective (1921). Jenkins' book, like Partners in Crime, is a short story sequence disguised as a novel. In that book the talented Malcolm Sage, former top Intelligence agent in Britain's Division Z during World War I, is set up in peacetime as a detective, by the head of his former department. Sage has a secretary; Tuppence poses as the secretary of their agency, just as Tommy poses as the detective Blunt. Sage has an office boy who reads detective fiction and serves as comic relief; Tommy and Tuppence have Albert, who serves a similar function. Albert seems even younger than Sage's office boy, however. Both Sage and Tommy and Tuppence are in a typical "modern" office of the 1920's, with phone lines and buzzers for communication. Tommy and Tuppence are light hearted and playful with this equipment, however, unlike the more serious Sage. Sage can be haughty and turn away customers if he has too much business; Tommy and Tuppence pretend to do the same to make people think they are busy. Everything in Tommy and Tuppence is an exaggerated, parodistic reflection of the set-up in the Sage stories. Sage runs the Malcom Sage Detective Bureau; Tommy and Tuppence the International Detective Agency, whose motto is "Blunt's Brilliant Detectives".
A Pot of Tea. "A Pot of Tea" (introductory). I like this tale. It is humorous and sweet, and has affinities in its subject matter to stories in The Listerdale Mystery, such as the title tale (1925) and "The Manhood of Edward Robinson" (1924), the latter story appearing immediately after the magazine publication of the Partners in Crime stories in late 1924.
Tuppence's social network plays a role in the plot here, and in "The Clergyman's Daughter".
The Affair of The Pink Pearl. Christie does a nice comic job evoking R. Austin Freeman's Dr. Thorndyke and Polton. She does not get involved in science at all, flatly stating at one point that Tommy and Tuppence (and by extension, their author) know nothing about science, but she does pick up on Freeman's interest in crafts, the solution turning on her own more domestic version of the same. The young boyfriend who is a Socialist will turn up again in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe.
The Adventure of The Sinister Stranger. Well done spy tale; good plot and storytelling, with a nice thread of humor. Christie's ability to pack such a complex plot into such a small space is impressive. This story spoofs Valentine Williams.
Finessing the King. Isabel Ostrander was a popular American detective writer of the Post World War I era. She was read by John Dickson Carr as a teenager, according to Douglas G. Greene's biography, was praised by Dorothy L. Sayers in The Omnibus of Crime and The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, and was one of the famous detective writers chosen for parody by Agatha Christie here. Despite this one time fame, her works are almost completely forgotten and unobtainable today. This story spoofs Ostrander's series detective, ex-cop Tommy McCarty, and his best friend, fireman Dennis Riordan. Tommy dresses up like a fireman at a costume party, a favorite Christie setting, while Tuppence masquerades as McCarty. As does McCarty in Ostrander's The Clue in the Air (1917), Tommy and Tuppence hear the murder committed, and are the first to find the body. In both stories the victim is a young society woman. They also hear the victim's dying message, just as in Ostrander's novel. Christie's construction of a plot around the "dying message" situation is superb. Christie also includes a minor character named Ostrander in the Mr. Quin tale "The Dead Harlequin", perhaps a tribute.
"Finessing the King" has features in common with Christie's The Man in the Brown Suit:
The Case of the Missing Lady. "The Case of the Missing Lady" is a dynamic spoof of Conan Doyle's "The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax". The burlesque is done more through Christie's brilliant plotting than through stylistic means. It is the cleverest story in the book.
Blindman's Buff. Parody of the Thornley Colton stories by Clinton H. Stagg. Christie's spoof of Stagg's mannerisms is very funny. Christie's parody can be classified as a burlesque; it uses slapstick and other low comedy elements. She picks up on the absurdities of his assistant Sydney Thames, so named because he was found as an orphan near that river, and the "Keyboard of Silence". She also uses the restaurant setting that opens Stagg's story. Stagg's work consists of fair play puzzle plots; Christie's little spoof is a thriller, and confines its parody to his detective characters; it does not seem to take off on Stagg's detection or plotting techniques, unlike her spoofs of Chesterton or Orczy, for example.
The Man in the Mist. The Chesterton takeoff. There is well done atmosphere in the first half of the tale, not quite Chesterton-like, but close enough, and good in its own right. Christie is also sharp about the use of color in Chesterton's scene painting. Christie has also got one of Chesterton's poets in the tale. The solution of the story as a mystery is much more ordinary; it draws on one of Chesterton's most famous tales, but does not augment it. Still, "The Man in the Mist" is a good story.
The Crackler. Even the title of this tale sounds like one of Edgar Wallace's series characters. There is some good natured ribbing of Wallace in the early pages. Christie sets the story in the Wallace turf of high living cafe society characters who are also crooks. The finale involves a Biter Bit, a common Wallace plot approach.
As a mystery plot, the tale is pretty weak. There are no clues to the culprit. And no mystery plot ingenuity. The suspects are not interesting as characters, either.
Albert's motorcycle was considered an admirable, even hip, form of transportation, in British mystery fiction of that era. He uses it highly effectively in this tale.
The thriller subplot about the piece of chalk, does show ingenuity. This is not a mystery puzzle plot, though.
The story about the piece of chalk and the door mentioned by Tommy, is the fairy tale "The Tinder Box" (1835) by Hans Christian Andersen.
The Sunningdale Mystery. "The Sunningdale Mystery". An astonishing pastiche of the Old Man in the Corner tales by Baroness Orczy. Very close in every way to the originals. Christie has not only caught Orczy's stylistic mannerisms, she is also on to the Baroness' plotting style. Some of the Orczy like characteristics: There is the emphasis on the movement of people around, during a situation involving the last people to see the victim alive. There is the element of financial crookedness in the background of the story. Most importantly there is the way that the various plot elements of the story do not add up to a consistent, coherent picture at first glance. There are many contradictory indications, and the plot as a whole just does not make sense. It is up to the detectives to provide new perspectives, a new way of looking at things, to make the events of the crime at all understandable, and eventually completely logical. This is the essential plotting style of the Old Man stories to a T. Christie's ingenious solution to the mystery also recalls Orczy's ingenious twist answers.
In 1931 Christie contributed two chapters to the Detection Club round robin novel The Scoop. The most personal thing of Christie's is Chapter 4. In this section, a young crime reporter and his girl friend come together at a restaurant to discuss the case and analyze the mystery. Their egalitarian relationship and analytical insight recall Tommy and Tuppence in Partners in Crime (1924), especially the story "The Sunningdale Mystery", which involves the couple solving a crime by discussing it in an ABC teashop. Just as in Partners, each builds on the other's ideas, and there is no sign of sexism, just mutual respect and intellectual equality. There is also a sense of light hearted fun and romance.
The House of Lurking Death. Christie picks up on the morbid atmosphere of horror, menace, and psychological abnormality in such A.E.W. Mason works as The House of the Arrow. Everybody likes Mason but me.
This story is one of a series Christie wrote about ingenious poisonings. They include "The Coming of Mr. Quin" (1924) (from The Mysterious Mr. Quin), "The Tuesday Night Club" (1927) (the first tale in The Tuesday Club Murders), "The Herb of Death", "How Does Your Garden Grow?" (1935) and Sad Cypress (1940). All of these stories' solutions contain features in common, and also new ingenious variations. Most of these poisoning tales are closely linked to the impossible crime tradition, even if they are not strictly impossible crimes.
The Unbreakable Alibi. "The Unbreakable Alibi" takes off on Freeman Wills Crofts' alibi stories. The tale disappoints: Christie creates an interesting "impossible to break" alibi, and then resolves it through a spoof solution that would be considered cheating in a non-humorous mystery. I was hoping for one of Christie's brilliant plot devices... Tuppence points this out herself at the end of the story. Christie occasionally wrote excellent straight detective stories in the Crofts tradition, such as "The Sign in the Sky" (1925) from The Mysterious Mr. Quin, and "The Blood-Stained Pavement" and "A Christmas Tragedy" in the Miss Marple book called The Thirteen Problems or The Tuesday Club Murders.
The opening portrait of rich young heir Montgomery Jones is amusing. Christie has no problem in completing a character sketch in just a few pages. Christie's skill with characterization is not always appreciated. Christie also succeeds at giving Mr. le Merchant's testimony the "ring of truth": something not easy to do. He sounds truthful to both Tuppence and the reader.
Such Poirot tales as "The Apples of the Hesperides" and "The Nemean Lion" open with Poirot being hired by rich middle-aged businessmen. The men are well-characterized in these opening encounters. Tommy and Tuppence being hired at the start by Montgomery Jones is similar. It too leads to a good character sketch. Another similarity: the businessmen in the Poirot tales and Montgomery Jones may start the story off, but they actually don't have much to do with the actual mystery in the rest of the story. There are differences: Montgomery Jones is a rich man like the businessmen, but he is much younger, and doesn't work - he's a rich young idler.
"The Case of the Missing Lady", "The Ambassador's Boots" and "A Pot of Tea" are other Tommy and Tuppence tales, which open with a prominent man hiring the pair, but then not playing much part in the subsequent mystery. "The Crackler" also has a similar structure. The Scotland Yard man in the opening assigns the case to the pair, then largely disappears from the mystery investigation. The Poirot tale "The Arcadian Deer" also has this structure, although its garage mechanic client is poor and working class.
Montgomery Jones and Mr. le Merchant are rich young men, fairly charming. But both have exploitative aspects to their character, where they use or condone using other people. This suggests disturbing aspects to rich people's moral character.
The two play titles in "The Unbreakable Alibi", involve pink and blue flowers. This anticipates the pink and blue flowers in "The Blue Geranium".
"The Unbreakable Alibi" appeared in 1928, four years after most of the other tales were published in magazines in late 1924 (September - December 1924). It was included along with the other tales in the 1929 book publication of Partners in Crime.
The Clergyman's Daughter. "The Clergyman's Daughter" is a routine hidden treasure story. A million kid's mystery novels have since been cast in this same mode. Christie's interest in mysteries centered around household economy will later find fulfillment in "How Does Your Garden Grow?" (1935).
SPOILERS. "The Clergyman's Daughter" has a brief but interesting episode about a man in disguise. Disguise will play a bigger role in other Christie works.
Christie makes this story be a spoof of Anthony Berkeley's detective Roger Sheringham, but its plot seems closest to H.C. Bailey's "The Violet Farm". Unlike the other authors parodied, Anthony Berkeley had not started writing mysteries when the stories first appeared in magazines: his first mystery novel debuted in 1925. Perhaps the idea that this tale is a homage to Berkley was added when the stories were collected in book form in 1929. This tale appeared a year earlier than most of the rest of the 1924 stories in Partners in Crime, in December 1923.
The Ambassador's Boots. Christie has noticed H.C. Bailey's way of having his stories start with small little unexplainable incidents, whose investigations gradually uncover grandiose and sinister conspiracies. This was one of the best episodes of the TV series.
Christie used a variation on this story, to provide a subplot in "The Girdle of Hyppolita" in The Labors of Hercules.
The Man Who Was No. 16. "The Man Who Was No. 16" spoofs Christie's own The Big Four. This is a 1924 story sequence that Christie in 1927 "fixed-up" to look like a novel; the stories appeared during the first half of 1924, just a few months before the magazine appearance of Partners in Crime. The most interesting character in The Big Four is the disguise expert known as Number 4, and Christie makes her spoof center on a similar master of disguise, No. 16. The calendar incident here is a take-off on the clock clue in Chapter 2 of The Big Four.
The disguises used by No. 16 actually more resemble those in The Man in the Brown Suit, rather than those used by Number 4 in The Big Four.
"The Man Who Was No. 16" recalls an era when both the police and the bad guys could afford an unlimited number of agents to go undercover in an immense variety of roles. One sees similar effects in Frederick Irving Anderson's Book of Murder (1923-1929) and Erle Stanley Gardner's Lester Leith tale "The Bird in the Hand" (1932).
Mainly, this tale is an exuberant addition to Christie's spy and thriller fiction, usually the least interesting side of her work. Plot elements in it anticipate Christie's only good book in the spy thriller genre, They Came to Baghdad.
SPOILERS. "The Man Who Was No. 16" has plot elements in common with the later "Miss Marple Tells a Story". Both deal with the intricacies of hotel room floor plans. Both works have links to the impossible crime tradition.
Spoofs. Partners in Crime is not the only Christie work of the mid twenties to spoof detective stories. The more serious in tone tale "The Love Detectives" (1926) (from The Mousetrap) also undercuts detective fiction conventions, as does The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1925).
What Christie Read. Christie's mystery reading as a whole is somewhat mysterious. In addition to the authors cited in Partners in Crime, her autobiography records inspiration from Anna Katherine Green and Gaston Leroux; she refers to writings by Maurice Leblanc in "Strange Jest", and Mary Elizabeth Braddon in "Greenshaw's Folly"; she gave blurbs to Margery Allingham, E.C. Bentley, Carr, Elizabeth Daly and praised Rex Stout in an interview (especially Too Many Cooks); and served on a jury that gave a prize to John Sladek's "By an Unknown Hand". Ragnar Jonasson, who translated The Body in the Library (1941) into Icelandic, has pointed out a witty passage in Chapter 8, where a boy has collected autographs from Dorothy L. Sayers, Christie herself, John Dickson Carr, and H.C. Bailey. This seems to be Christie's homage to her fellow Detection Club members. Carr's and Bailey's detectives are mentioned in "The Flock of Geryon", in The Labors of Hercules. Both The Clocks and Partners in Crime refer to G.K. Chesterton, and it is tempting to see him as a major love of Christie's. We know from Christie's letters that she read S.S. Van Dine. A Murder Is Announced (1950) (Chapter 8.2) unexpectedly pays tribute to Dashiell Hammett. It's possible that the secretary Mr. Selby in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (Chapter 5), is a tribute to Erle Stanley Gardner's series detective hero Doug Selby. Spy and thriller novelists E. Phillips Oppenheim, Valentine Williams, and William Le Queux are mentioned in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (Chapter 4), somewhat satirically. The opening chapter of Mrs. McGinty's Dead (1952) offers Poirot's negative impressions of what we now know as film noir. At one time Christie considered adapting Dickens' Bleak House to the screen, but gave up because the book was too complex to allow condensation without artistic damage. Christie's reading in the mystery genre was certainly broad, and she was clearly familiar with the history of the genre, although she rarely wrote about it, unlike many of her other colleagues.
Christie's favorite characters were the Watsons. She regarded Dr. Watson as Conan Doyle's greatest creation (see The Clocks), and she singled out Archie Goodwin for special praise in her interview about Rex Stout (quoted in his biography by John McAleer). Oddly, her own Watson, Captain Hastings, is one of her least successful characters. Maybe she was impressed with other authors' Watsons because she knew from experience how hard they were to create.
Comedy. All of the stories in Partners in Crime are explicitly comic, and are crosses between the humorous tale and the mystery story. Actually, most of Christie's works have large elements of comedy in them. Her books are extremely funny, and often gentle spoofs of their characters and their social milieu.
The Mr. Quin stories also seem influenced by A.E.W. Mason. The Watson figure in the stories, Mr. Satterthwaite, seems derived from Mason's Watson in his Hanaud tales, Mr. Ricardo. Both are middle aged, refined, cultured, unmarried men, who live for socializing. Both are aesthetes who watch others live their lives, instead of living their own. Both are knowing about such feminine matters as women's clothes and jewelry. However, both Mr. Satterthwaite and Christie seem much more knowledgeable about the arts than do Mason and Mr. Ricardo, who merely pay lip service to them. The casino scenes in "The Soul of the Croupier" remind one of those that open Mason's At the Villa Rose (1909 - 1910). And Mason's novella "The Affair at the Semiramis Hotel" (1917?) opens at that Christie favorite, a masquerade ball, and goes on to scenes at the opera, also a subject that runs through Christie. It includes a pair of bright young lovers, on the fringes of London Society - also frequent Christie characters. Christie's writing style in general often resembles Mason's, not so much in plot or mystery technique, as in such matters as characters, storytelling, and prose style.
Dramas. Unlike many mystery short story series, which are planned as a group and appear monthly in some magazine, the Mr. Quin stories appeared at irregular intervals, from 1924 to 1929. Complete dates for all their magazine appearances in Britain and the USA are difficult to track down. The last tale in the book, "Harlequin's Lane" (1927), has been wrenched out of magazine order, apparently because its supernatural aspects provide some sort of finale or thematic summing up of the stories as a whole.
The Mr. Quin stories mix genres and approaches to mystery. Some of the tales are romantic dramas, and have little crime or mystery elements. Among these:
Mystery. By contrast, many of the Mr. Quin tales are puzzle plot detective stories. "The Shadow on the Glass" (1924) and "The Dead Harlequin" (1929) show the influence of G.K. Chesterton. The tales are somewhat unusual among Christie's work in that the crimes have a supernatural appearance. See also "The Idol House of Astarte" in The Tuesday Club Murders. In both of these stories, Christie invokes a tradition of hauntings of Stately English Homes. They do not quite invoke the full supernatural mise-en-scène of a John Dickson Carr story. Instead, their invocation has an element of historic charm. Both stories were favorites of mine while growing up. Another Mr. Quin tale, "The Voice in the Dark" (1926), is also an impossible crime story with a fake supernatural appearance about its crime. But here the solution lies not in a Chesterton-like ingenuity about the crime, but in an exploration of the characters' past. This sort of detective work is more derived from the stories of Anna Katherine Green. One reason Christie's plots are so difficult to guess is that she uses such a variety of approaches in their solutions. The reader is not at all sure at the start of the tale what kind of story is about to unfold. In retrospect, after reading the solution, one can say that this or that story belongs among Christie's Chesterton like tales, or her Green like explorations of the past, or her Orczy like look at hidden relationships under surface appearances. But while reading the tales, the reader can expect Christie to unleash any or all of these approaches in her solution. It makes for a very baffling challenge.
Light and Color. The Mr. Quin tales often associate him with multi-color light. Similar light will return in the non-Quin tale "Sanctuary".
The Voice in the Dark. Several Christie mysteries start with the detective being hired by a man big-shot, to take on a case. "The Voice in the Dark" (1926) differs in that it starts with a woman asking sleuth Mr. Satterthwaite to investigate a situation. She's a sort of big-shot too, being rich and aristocratic, although she is not involved with business or government like the men clients.
Detective characters aside, "The Voice in the Dark" has nearly an all-woman cast. The heroine's sympathetic boyfriend Noel is talked about, but never shown "on stage".
SPOILERS. A brief episode has someone trying to kill someone by sending them a box of poisoned chocolates. This anticipates The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) by Anthony Berkeley. However, Berkeley uses this premise to spin a complex mystery that has no antecedent in "The Voice in the Dark".
The Labors of Hercules has a number of similarities to the earlier The Mysterious Mr. Quin:
A number of tales show aging women trying to make their way through a treacherous, male dominated world. Christie herself was around 50 when these tales were written. The opening story, "The Nemean Lion", deals more deeply with material of this sort which Christie first explored with "The Listerdale Mystery". Even a number of supporting characters who seemingly just appear in passing, such as the women who runs the boarding house in "The Nemean Lion", the dispenser in "The Lernean Hydra" and the school teachers in "The Girdle of Hyppolita", illustrate women making their way alone through the economy of the era. Some woman-run institutions that are more central to their tales, are the convent in "The Apples of the Hesperides" and the nightclub in "The Capture of Cerberus".
Early in "The Nemean Lion" characters make derogatory, stereotypical negative comments on women in general, then on single unmarried women. The story eventually shows that these stereotypes are completely false.
Politics is also a running theme throughout. "The Augean Stables" is a richly political story. The book version (published in 1947) condemns both Fascism and Communism; I have not seen the original magazine version of the tale. This story involves political corruption in the highest reaches of the British government. In this it resembles An Overdose of Death (1940), the classic Poirot novel that Christie was writing about the same time. That novel satirizes, but is ultimately sympathetic to, young socialists who want to build a labor government in Britain. We get some of the same satire, but with less sympathy, in "The Capture of Cerberus". The opening of "The Girdle of Hyppolita" reflects unemployment and protest in Britain of the era. Other stories paint a picture of corrupt business practices among the big rich: "The Nemean Lion", "The Apples of the Hesperides". And while "The Flock of Geryon" deals with a religious cult group, it can be seen as an allegory about the sinister lure of radical political movements, too. Miss Carnaby's pipe dreams involve a Utopian reworking of the world. Christie shows both sympathy and satire here, just as she will with the Utopian dreams of the young people in An Overdose of Death. All of this makes this book far more political than most of Christie's writings.
If Mr. Sattherwaite in The Mysterious Mr. Quin seems like a gay man, in The Labors of Hercules it is Poirot himself who can seem like a gay figure. Especially in "The Arcadian Deer", Poirot comes across as a figure steeped in the world of sophisticated culture, like Mr. Sattherwaite. This story comes close to showing Poirot directly attracted to a young man. So too does "The Cretan Bull". The ballet designer in "The Arcadian Deer" also seems like a gay man. In Hercule Poirot's Christmas (1938) (Part Three, end of Chapter 15) Poirot notices the "physique" of big, handsome Stephen Farr, and refers to him as a "magnificent specimen of humanity". In Murder on the Links (1923), Captain Hastings is attracted to a young woman, while Poirot is indifferent to her charms (Chapter Two), a situation that recurs in "Double Sin" (1928). H.R.F. Keating offers a detailed account of purported gay features of Poirot's character, in his essay in the critical anthology Agatha Christie: First Lady of Crime (1977).
Although Christie is often viewed by critics as a frivolous writer, these tales are vividly situated in contexts: political, feminist, religious, economic, different European nationalities, and involving the arts and culture.
How It All Came About. The book's brief introductory episode is titled "How It All Came About". Dr. Burton in this episode recalls Dr. Fell in the mysteries of John Dickson Carr.
We don't learn why Dr. Burton is associating with Poirot. Are they friends? Connected through a case? Who knows?
Poirot doing research in many books on Greek mythology, recalls the heroine doing research on castles from reference books in The Man in the Brown Suit (Chapter 7). The heroine's research is an outright failure and fails to discover anything. Poirot's research at least leads to results, but he is unhappy about what he learns.
Abstract Art. In "How It All Came About" we learn that Poirot has an abstract geometric sculpture at home. This is one of the few positive references to abstract art, or any sort of modern art, in Golden Age British crime fiction. Usually modern art is viewed with derision. Even here, a bit of fun is being poked at Poirot's love of all things geometric and orderly. Still the reference is atypically sympathetic for a classic mystery.
In the play version of The Hollow, Henrietta is a sympathetic sculptor who sometimes creates abstract works.
The Nemean Lion. "The Nemean Lion" has a mystery plot, in which an apparently straightforward crime was actually done in a more practical but cunningly concealed way. In this it is similar to the Miss Marple tale "The Herb of Death". These can be called tales of "concealed methods". Such stories are a bit related to the "howdunit" - a story in which the main mystery is figuring out the mechanism of the crime: how the crime was committed. Howdunits were a favorite of S.S. Van Dine, and others in his school, such as Ellery Queen and Stuart Palmer. Howdunits can be seen as related to the impossible crime, although this is a rather distant relationship in the case of these Christie stories.
In a different way, the tone and subject matter of "The Nemean Lion" recall "The Adventure of the Clapham Cook" in The Under Dog, both being comic tales in which Poirot takes on seemingly trivial domestic problems for women clients, and finds unexpectedly puzzling mysteries in the process.
"The Nemean Lion" contains that favorite Christie setting, a boarding house. Dogs are also a Christie favorite.
The Arcadian Deer. The young man garage mechanic in "The Arcadian Deer" might be a bit undervalued at the tale's end. He is working class - but is he really "simple"? Earlier we learn that he can repair not just cars, but also radios. So he has lots of skills.
Radios were a major symbol of Modernity in British mystery fiction of the era. See Genius in Murder (1932) by E.R. Punshon. Radio is also linked to the working class in Genius in Murder.
The hero is a garage mechanic, not a chauffeur. But he has features of the chauffeurs of that era's fiction, notably skill with machinery and sexual virility. He also shows dynamism and get-up-and-go.
The young man in "The Capture of Cerberus" who is a builder in America, is also an example of technological modernity.
The Erymanthian Boar. "The Erymanthian Boar" takes place in an isolated location where the characters are trapped. This recalls And Then There Were None and The Mousetrap. As well as Murder on the Orient Express.
SPOILERS. But "The Erymanthian Boar" has a mystery not present in those works: "why has the villain chosen this out of the way location?" This subplot in "The Erymanthian Boar" comes to a solution both logical and surprising.
"The Erymanthian Boar" shares analogous settings and characters, but not mystery plot, with Murder on the Orient Express. Both:
"The Erymanthian Boar" has a non-fair-play clue: Poirot has a reason to suspect a character, which is not shared with the reader. On the positive side, Poirot's reason is interesting and sound.
The Augean Stables. "The Augean Stables" opens with Poirot hired by two big-shot politicians. An earlier story "The Kidnapped Prime Minister" (1923) also opens with a pair of politicians coming to consult Poirot on a matter of national importance. In both tales, one politician is over-refined, the other one more down to earth, and wants to talk frankly to Poirot.
Two government officials hire Poirot to investigate in "The Incredible Theft" (1937).
A variant: two government officials press Sir Eustace Pedlar to take on a secret diplomatic task, in The Man in the Brown Suit (second half of Chapter 8). But the two meet with him separately, in two successive scenes. The older official is fussy, the younger one is forceful.
Behind all these political stories is Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Second Stain" (1904), which begins with two political big-shots hiring Sherlock Holmes.
The Girdle of Hyppolita. "The Girdle of Hyppolita" contains two linked mysteries:
The impossible crime subplot is an example of a widely enjoyed kind of mystery: a "mystery set on a train". "The Girdle of Hyppolita" is unusual among trains mysteries, in that we never see the train "on stage" in the story. The train mystery took place before the start of the tale, and we only hear what witnesses or the police say about the train. This does not limit the story's enjoyability at all!
The woman Miss Pope who runs the school is well characterized. These sections also offer a good portrait of the school. She anticipates an equally forceful, if less sympathetic schoolmistress Mrs. Lightfoot, in Through a Glass, Darkly (1949 - 1950) by Helen McCloy.
The Flock of Geryon. "The Flock of Geryon" brings back Amy Carnaby from "The Nemean Lion". She's a good character and her return is welcome. SPOILERS. Amy Carnaby is an example of a character familiar from Rogue stories: a clever non-violent criminal who reforms, and who uses their powers on the side of Good. This pattern was established before Christie, with examples in Maurice Leblanc. Amy Carnaby's statement, that she never really lived before her criminal escapade, recalls the finale of The Circular Staircase (1907) by Mary Roberts Rinehart.
"The Flock of Geryon" has more thriller and less mystery than many other Christie tales. SPOILERS. The main mystery is how the crimes have been committed.
During the cult ceremonies, both the leader and members wear brightly colored clothing. This anticipates the brightly colored nightclub clothes in "The Capture of Cerberus", and the flashy starlet victim's outfit in The Body in the Library. All of these color-filled costumes are seen as transgressive against standard upper class taste.
Amy Carnaby is a Vicar's child, like Tuppence, and Bobby Jones in Why Didn't They Ask Evans?. All three get involved in adventure.
The Apples of the Hesperides. The opening of "The Apples of the Hesperides" recalls the start of "The Nemean Lion". Both:
In all these tales, the elaborate openings allow Christie to characterize the clients in detail.
"The Apples of the Hesperides" contains a mystery which Poirot solves: "what happened to the stolen goblet?" This mystery has a simple puzzle and solution. Poirot does emphasize one clue, which indicates the solution. So the tale is a "mystery puzzle with a clued solution". Still the mystery and solution are simple by Christie's standards.
The Capture of Cerberus. "The Capture of Cerberus" is an impossible crime tale. Its mystery puzzle has a plot structure found in many authors, not just Christie: after the detective figures out how the impossible crime was committed, it leads to a clue about who the criminal is.
There is a second clue to the criminal. It has nothing to do with the impossible crime.
Undercover police play a comic role in "The Capture of Cerberus". SPOILERS. The policeman Stevens in "Cerberus" reminds one of the sophisticated Scotland Yard figure in Edgar Wallace's The Green Archer (1923), who also poses as a rich young idler of the most polished sort. This whole story "The Capture of Cerberus" has a Wallace-like feel, with a setting among cafe society permeated by big level crooks. It recalls the Wallace spoof "The Crackler" (1924) in Partners in Crime. Both tales involve crooks with criminal schemes at racy London night life spots.
The nightclub setting in "Cerberus" has some of Christie's richest mise-en-scène, a term she uses herself in "The Horses of Diomedes". All the settings in the book are characterized with care. The nightclub in "The Capture of Cerberus" mixes three elements:
Helped by Friendly Crooks. In a number of the stories, Poirot recruits low-level, friendly crooks to help him: "The Apples of the Hesperides", "The Capture of Cerberus". Similarly in "The Augean Stables", Poirot recruits a likable journalist who is not too scrupulous in his methods. All of these men have comic aspects.
The Tuesday Night Club. "The Tuesday Night Club" introduces Miss Marple. Marple recalls G. K. Chesterton's sleuth Father Brown. Both are people who at first glance, no one would take for a gifted sleuth. Also Chesterton-like: the clergyman's statement about unsolved mysteries.
Raymond West's solution to the mystery is pretty good. It is not as clever or complex as Miss Marple's though.
To solve this tale, the reader would have to have a good knowledge of British English. I don't, and failed to pick up on two key clues. This did not stop my enjoyment however. It is a cleverly plotted tale.
Ingots of Gold. "Ingots of Gold" has some of the best characterization of Raymond West in Christie. He comes alive, in this tale where he is the narrator.
Raymond West serves as an "unimpeachable" outside witness at a country house mystery. A similar role is played by a woman connected to West and his wife, in "Greenshaw's Folly".
The clue in this tale, about Whitsuntide, is now little known - a historical fact few if anyone now remembers. Once again, this does not at all interfere with this story's quality as a mystery, or its enjoyability.
The tale does a good job with its many different Cornwall landscapes. The story differs from quite a few Golden Age tales, in being based on not just one, but several different landscapes.
Prove It, Mr. Tolefree (1933) by R. A. J. Walling would soon involve elaborate Cornwall landscapes.
A garage and what neighbors witnessed about it play a role in the plot. The Four Defences (1940) (Chapters 11, 12) by J. J. Connington, will later have a garage and neighborhood witnesses.
Motive v. Opportunity. "Motive v. Opportunity" has one of the young male research scientists that show up as suspects in Christie. These men are always brainy.
Stories 1941-1942. In 1941-1942 Christie returned to writing about Miss Marple, after a seven year absence. She wrote four short stories, collected in The Mousetrap, and a novel, The Body in the Library (serialized 1941, in book form 1942).
Tape-Measure Murder. The best short tale was "Tape-Measure Murder" (1941). This tale places Miss Marple in the full context of her country village of St. Mary Mead. It is perhaps the Marple work that is closest to today's "cozy" writers in its emphasis on daily-life detail. However, it is also very plot oriented, and has a full murder investigation in its 16 pages.
It follows Anna Katherine Green's lead in having investigation both by the police and the amateur Miss Marple; each researches the sort of things that police and amateurs do best. It is also Green-like, in that it delves deeply into the past of the characters, and in the way it investigates a crime scene for clues.
"Tape-Measure Murder" shares many police characters with The Body in the Library. The Body in the Library also has both police and amateurs investigating a murder.
SPOILERS. "Tape-Measure Murder" has two characters who start in in similar life-positions - but one goes up and one goes down. A similar idea appeared in "The Voice in the Dark" (1926). It is a striking piece of imagery in both works.
The Case of the Perfect Maid. The rather grim "The Case of the Perfect Maid" (1942) is mid range in quality. It recalls Baroness Orczy in tone. Its mystery plot is especially close in approach to the Mr. Quin "At the Bells and Motley".
On the plus side: the accounts of the tenants at Old Hall are nicely done. And they provide a lot of characters, for such a brief story. They also form a cross-section of humanity, with many different kinds of people.
The brief look at the changes in Old Hall due to its remodeling, add a simple-but-nice architectural aspect to the tale.
The Case of the Caretaker. In "The Case of the Caretaker" (1941) Miss Marple functions as an armchair detective in the manner of Orczy's Man in the Corner, just as she did throughout The Tuesday Club Murders. Even before Miss Marple began her armchair detective career, some of the stories in The Mysterious Mr. Quin also took this form, notably "The Coming of Mr. Quin" (1924) and "At the Bells and Motley" (1925).
SPOILERS. The woman who issues supernatural threats and warnings that terrorize a woman victim, recalls "The Blue Geranium". Also related: the actual process of the killing in both tales. However, "The Blue Geranium" as a whole is far more imaginative than "The Case of the Caretaker". In particular, the impossible crime aspects of "The Blue Geranium" are much more creative. Also, "The Blue Geranium" has multiple suspects, while "The Case of the Caretaker" really just has one.
Strange Jest. "Strange Jest" (1941) is an uninspired "hidden treasure" tale. It is not a who-done-it mystery. Most of the characters, while honest, are not likable:
Sanctuary. Christie's Double Sin contains two fine stories about Miss Marple written in the 1950's. "Sanctuary" (1954) brings back Good Guy characters from the Miss Marple novel A Murder Is Announced (1950). These include amateur sleuth Bunch, who is the heroine of the story, and police Inspector Craddock.
"Sanctuary" recycles plot ideas from Why Didn't They Ask Evans? (1934). Like many Christie works, the tale is rich in humor. It also allows Miss Marple to become involved in intrigue and a police stakeout. It is a very satisfying piece of storytelling.
"Sanctuary" has a genuine fair play mystery puzzle, about a dying message. But the tale's other mysteries, such as who did the murder, are accidentally solved, rather than solved through detective work. This can give the tale the aspect of a thriller, rather than a mystery.
"Sanctuary" has many plot links to The Man in the Brown Suit (1923-1924). Both:
Why Didn't They Ask Evans? also adheres to much of the above template. It has a "regular" man hero, instead of a heroine.
The above template centers on plot.
The template mixes thrills with detective work (figuring out the dying message, deducing the mysterious people are phonies). In "Sanctuary" it is "regular" woman heroine Bunch who is the protagonist of the template - and who performs all the detective work associated with it. Miss Marple does little actual detection. Miss Marple does figure out the hiding place of the jewels, at the end.
There is a characterization element shared between "Sanctuary"and The Man in the Brown Suit. Both heroines have male relatives who live in a world of scholarship and who are out of touch with daily reality.
Greenshaw's Folly. "Greenshaw's Folly" (1956) is a genuine tale of pure mystery, like most of Christie's works.
Horace Bindler in "Greenshaw's Folly" seems to be a gay man. He calls another man "my dear". While humorous, he is mainly treated sympathetically. He likes to photograph architectural "monstrosities": really bad pieces of architecture that are humorously over the top. While the term "Camp" is not used, his attitude seems to be pure Camp. This was eight years before Susan Sontag's essay "Notes on Camp" (1964) made Camp well known to the mass public.
The discussion of James Barrie as a playwright in "Greenshaw's Folly", recalls the look at Somerset Maugham's theater work in "The Affair at the Bungalow".
Unlike contemporary detective fiction, there is not much about these characters' back-stories (earlier lives) in The Mysterious Affair at Styles.
We learn only a little about Poirot's background here. Mainly we hear about his brilliant work as a policeman in Belgium. This is typical of Golden Age depictions of detectives: they are shown at work, practicing detection, with their personal lives deemphasized.
What little we learn about Hastings' back-story establishes that he is firmly a member of the British upper class. We can deduce this from his childhood visits to country mansion Styles, and his friendship with a man in the upper class family there. We learn more about Hastings' desire to be a detective, and his uninspired work in that direction trying to solve the Styles case. Hastings too is mainly depicted as a detective.
Living Quarters. In most of Poirot's later cases, he lives in an apartment. In The Mysterious Affair at Styles he lives in a small house with other Belgian refugees. Poirot thus is usually seen in a building full of other people.
Green. Aspects of The Mysterious Affair at Styles recall the earlier mysteries of Anna Katherine Green;
Racism. The treatment of the Gypsy woman is racist.
The treatment of the Jewish character reflects anti-Semitic beliefs, such as the idea that Jews are permanently alien and have no loyalty to Britain.
Such racism is a strong reason not to recommend The Mysterious Affair at Styles.
Mystery Plot. The best feature of the mystery plot: how was the poison administered? This is an inventively detailed puzzle with a clever solution. SPOILERS. However, the plot depends on a little known scientific fact. Most of Christie's best works instead are based on facts well-known to educated readers. So this plot in The Mysterious Affair at Styles is a bit weaker than Christie's best mystery plots in other books.
Also good: the little subplot about the box of sleeping powder (set forth in the last part of Chapter 4, solved in the second half of Chapter 5).
Gender. The Mysterious Affair at Styles takes one into a heavily female world. The rich elderly woman, her daughter-in-law, her young ward, her companion and two maids are all women. There are four male suspects too, so this world is not exclusively female. Still, this domestic environment provides substantial representation for women.
Counterbalanced with this is the all-male team of detectives and doctors who investigate the case.
Reliable Narration?. Hastings is not an "unreliable narrator". Hastings always tells the truth, and the reader can rely on his narrative being factually correct.
However, Hastings is vain, and congratulates himself on his alleged abilities. These passages are meant to be taken humorously, showing Hastings making sincere but undeserved self-congratulation. In this Hastings recalls comic narrator Oswald Bastable in E. Nesbit's books.
The Man in the Brown Suit is seminal in Christie's work. Ideas and characters from it get echoed in transformed ways in later Christie tales. Please search this article for "The Man in the Brown Suit" for numerous examples.
Series Sleuth. Policeman Inspector Narracott from Murder at Hazelmoor reappears in Christie's short and uninspired radio play Personal Call (1954). The two works are thus part of a brief series. Personal Call is under half-an-hour, and Inspector Narracott's cameo appearance in it, is tiny and routine. By contrast Narracott in Murder at Hazelmoor is a well-developed character. SPOILERS. Murder at Hazelmoor and Personal Call do share a subject: spirits of the dead apparently contacting the living, about a violent murder. This is handled much more creatively in Murder at Hazelmoor.
There is also the sailor Fred Narracott, a supporting character in And Then There Were None. There is no sign that he is a relation of Inspector Narracott. However both Murder at Hazelmoor and And Then There Were None are set in Devon.
It has long been recognized that Murder at Hazelmoor contains references to Arthur Conan Doyle and especially Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901). See Wikipedia. One of Doyle's last works was The Maracot Deep, a novel starring Professor Maracot. One wonders if Christie's "Narracott" is a variation on Doyle's Maracot.
Green. Murder at Hazelmoor recalls several works of Anna Katherine Green, in having detective work performed by a mix of amateur detectives and professional police, all in the same book. In both Green and Murder at Hazelmoor, the amateur and police detectives each perform the kinds of investigation to which they are most suited. Amateur sleuth Emily recognizes this explicitly, saying a specific detective task is "a job for the police" and not for themselves (Chapter 19).
In Green's mystery novel Lost Man's Lane (1898), all the suspects live on a single, isolated street. This anticipates the even more isolated lane of bungalows in Murder at Hazelmoor.
Crofts. Inspector Narracott is a policeman very much in the Freeman Wills Crofts' tradition. Like Crofts' policeman Inspector French, he:
The ideas of amateur sleuths Emily Trefusis and Charles Enderby are also mainly shared with the reader throughout the story.
At the end of our introduction to Charles Enderby (Chapter 8), we see into his thoughts. He is wondering who did commit the murder. This establishes that Charles Enderby is innocent. He is not a suspect. Similarly Emily is established as a non-suspect. Narracott, Charles and Emily thus all fall into the category of "sleuths, not suspects".
The Clocks. Murder at Hazelmoor shares features with the much later Christie novel The Clocks:
Landscape. Murder at Hazelmoor shows the Golden Age interest in landscape:
Reporter. The young reporter Charles Enderby is a mainly sympathetic character (Chapter 8). Yet he recalls the villain known as Number 4, in The Big Four (Chapters 2, 4, start of 5, 7). Both men are sneaky, clever and manipulative in their work. Enderby's goals are much better: he just wants to get a story.
Number 4 is seen in a mystery in Dartmoor, in The Big Four (Chapter 4). This too links him to the Dartmoor-set Murder at Hazelmoor. SPOILERS. Boots play a role in the mystery plot of both tales. Boots are mentioned in the first sentence of Murder at Hazelmoor, and later a whole chapter is titled "Boots". The use of boots is quite different in the two books, however.
Christie contributed two chapters to the Detection Club round robin novel The Scoop (1931). Her sections include a young male reporter who discusses the case with his intelligent girlfriend (Chapter 4). They anticipate reporter Charles and amateur sleuth Emily in Murder at Hazelmoor. This was the same year as Murder at Hazelmoor. Christie's episodes of The Scoop were broadcast in January 1931. Murder at Hazelmoor was published in Britain in September 1931. Both of these male-female pairs recall Tommy and Tuppence. However, Emily and Charles have a less egalitarian relationship, than do Tommy and Tuppence, or the pair in The Scoop.
Rycroft. Mr. Rycroft is an amateur who thinks of himself as a scholar. He's a member of the Psychical Research Society (Chapter 2). This real-life organization tried to prove the existence of the paranormal. He also fancies himself a criminologist (Chapter 16). SPOILERS. By contrast, Miss Percehaouse is unimpressed with him, dismissing him as "cranky" (Chapter 17). She also disagrees with Rycroft's high opinion of himself. One suspects that Christie agrees with her.
One also suspects that this is Christie's negative judgment on a whole category of self-proclaimed "scholars" in marginal fields.
Characters. Murder at Hazelmoor is rich in characters, most of who come alive delightfully. There are eleven named inhabitants of the row of houses in Sittaford, ten more suspects down in the lowlands, and three main detectives. Plus various lawyers, police and a doctor. While not unheard of, this is an usually large number of characters for a Golden Age mystery. As in "Three Blind Mice", much reader interest focuses on our ever growing knowledge of these characters.
Working Women. Working women are prominent:
Table. One of the most unusual "characters" is the Table (Chapter 2). We're referring to the table that seems to communicate with knocks during the seance. The Table is vivid in its communication. It anticipates non-standard characters in later Christie books: the dog in Poirot Loses a Client, the baby in N or M?.
An influence from Thomson?. P.C. Richardson's First Case (1933) is a mystery novel by Sir Basil Thomson. It stars a young London Police Constable named Richardson. Some settings and characters in it anticipate The A.B.C. Murders.
The opening murder victim in both books is an older woman, found in a cheap, dingy shop. In both books the body is discovered by a Police Constable.
Witnesses in P.C. Richardson's First Case include two young sisters who work in a store. In The A.B.C. Murders a young woman employed in a tearoom is a main character. The young woman and another woman are both waitresses who work in the tearoom. Soon we also meet the young woman's sister.
The opening paragraph of The A.B.C. Murders mentions the Depression, and the financial problems it brought. A good deal of The A.B.C. Murders is set among financially modest characters. This includes the above people and settings, which perhaps echo those in P.C. Richardson's First Case.
The mystery plot of The A.B.C. Murders is utterly unlike that of P.C. Richardson's First Case.
Spinsters. Both Emily Arundell and Caroline Peabody are highly intelligent spinsters. They recall Miss Marple, to a degree. Although neither is a full-fledge sleuth, Emily Arundell makes a detectival discovery about an early crime.
Selling Houses. Poirot Loses a Client (Chapters 6, start of 7) shows an expert knowledge of selling houses, and the ways of house-agents. In real life, buying and re-doing homes was one of Christie's main interests. See also the energetic young house-agent in Murder at Hazelmoor (start of Chapter 7).
The Will. A will plays a prominent role in Poirot Loses a Client. Variations on this will-plot appear in "Greenshaw's Folly". The two versions have both similarities and differences.
Seances. Seances appear, recalling Murder at Hazelmoor. Once again, they are linked to an impossible crime mystery.
Links to N or M?. Poirot Loses a Client anticipates N or M? (1941).
Poirot spends much time questioning witnesses in Poirot Loses a Client. He frequently assumes new personas, that are completely fictitious. Some of these involve new identities. Others have him appear as Hercules Poirot, but with false goals. This anticipates the elaborate undercover roles of sleuths Tommy and Tuppence in N or M?.
During this sleuthing, Poirot does not call in the police. He instead investigates on his own. In N or M? Tommy and Tuppence are mainly on their own, too, because of national security aspects of the counter-spy mission they are on.
Both books have characters who are not the standard adults of most mysteries:
Both books have a young man who is a scientist, among the suspects. The two men are otherwise dissimilar.
Links to The Pale Horse. Poirot Loses a Client anticipates The Pale Horse (1961).
Emily Arundell in Poirot Loses a Client is a wealthy old woman whose life is endangered by greedy nephew and nieces. Such a set-up recurs in The Pale Horse:
Both Dr. Donaldson in Poirot Loses a Client and Dr. Jim Corrigan in The Pale Horse (Chapter 4.3) are young doctors who wish they had the funds to go into advanced medical research.
The two Scotland Yard officials in the Epilogue are detectives, in the traditional sense. They do some real detective work, especially in establishing the order in which some of the last suspects were killed. Still, they are far from brilliant. They fail to solve the mystery. And they cannot discover the truth about most of the crimes committed by the many murderers.
The actual killer has some features of a detective. Most importantly, the killer does unearth the hidden truths about the murderers' many crimes. The killer does this through genuine detective work. And this detection is explained to the reader at the book's end, just like the detective's explanations in a traditional detective novel.
Another way in which the killer's confession resembles true detection: the killer sets forth three clues, which indicate the killer's identity. Such clues are a major part of the detective's solution in traditional mysteries. They are far more rarely found in killers' confessions.
The killer also endorses reason and condemns emotion in handling court cases. This embrace of reason is also part of most traditional detective figures' outlook.
Learning about the Old Murders. It is "ordinary people" who happen to be innocently involved in the murder situations, that tumble to the fact that a murder has occurred, and who did it.
These people are sometimes in a subordinate social position to the killer: a nurse who figures out what a doctor has done, a young officer tumbling to a murder by a General.
The police at the book's end only tumble to a single hidden killing: the fact that Blore is a crooked cop. And they do this NOT by using police work. Instead, their method is just like the "ordinary" people who figured out crimes. Like these ordinary folks, the cops happen to be on-the-spot and innocently involved in the situations. Enough so they can realize that something is wrong. (Perhaps related: In "The Erymanthian Boar" Poirot tumbles to part of the solution, but not through detective work. Instead it is because ex-policeman Poirot has a lot of personal experience about cops, and understands things about them, almost intuitively.)
Such "ordinary people" who discover murders recall an earlier tale by Christie: the Miss Marple short story "The Companion" (1930). The doctor in "The Companion" discovers a murder and the murderer responsible for it, while no one else in authority suspects anything.
An Unusual Clue. The finale points out an unusual clue to the killer's identity. SPOILERS. This clue involves the innocence of one of the many otherwise guilty characters. In a broad way, this recalls the odd hunt for an innocent character by Poirot, in his solution to Murder on the Orient Express. In both works this has a paradoxical feel. These puzzles are quite unlike most traditional detective fiction.
Personal Sense. The book's killer claims to have a reliable sense of who is guilty and who is not, based on a personal encounter with a suspect. For example, the killer claims that the crowd's response to the record, revealed that they all were in fact guilty of the murders alleged on the record.
In general, mystery fiction is not kind to claims that people can intuit who is guilty, just by simple observation. For example, Archie Goodwin in the Nero Wolfe novels by Rex Stout, often observes suspects closely for signs of guilt. But Archie is usually disappointed - he rarely if ever discovers a suspect is guilty by observing them.
Police Corruption. The Blore subplot involves police corruption. This subject is more common than many people think, in Golden Age mystery fiction. Please see my lists of Civic Corruption and Police Corruption in Mystery Fiction.
Johnnie Waverly. "The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly" (1923) anticipates And Then There Were None (1939):
Hercule Poirot's Christmas. The structure of And Then There Were None (1939) broadly recalls that of Hercule Poirot's Christmas (1938). Both books:
Games Mistress. A character is a "games mistress": the British term of the era, for what Americans would call a woman "gym teacher". Golden Age mystery fiction has a surprising number of of games mistresses as characters.
The Invisible Host. The similarities between And Then There Were None (1939) and the earlier The Invisible Host (1930) by Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning are widely recognized. (For example, the similarities are cited in the Wikipedia article on And Then There Were None). I discuss the relationship between the two books in my article on Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning.
Philip K. Dick. Christie's plot in And Then There Were None has been much imitated, in books, films and TV. One of the best re-workings is A Maze of Death (1970) by Philip K. Dick. This is a science fiction novel using Christie's main situation. Dick comes up with a radically different solution than Christie's. His solution is not as ingenious as Chritsie's. But it has its own formal beauty as a pattern.
Matt Houston. The Matt Houston TV episode Whose Party Is It Anyway? (Season 1, Episode 14) (January 23, 1983) recalls And Then There Were None, both in its mystery premise and its solution.
A difference: the guests are locked into a large office. This recalls The Invisible Host more than And Then There Were None. So do the high tech devices killing people.
Glamorous detective Matt Houston investigates in white tie and tails. All the men are wearing them. That recalls The 9th Guest (1934), the film version of The Invisible Host. All the men are in white tie and tails in that film too.
Hardcastle and McCormick. The Hardcastle and McCormick TV episode Something's Going on on This Train (Season 3, Episode 4) (October 14, 1985) also recalls And Then There Were None, although not closely. Its characters are on a train, not an island or in an office. Like many train mysteries, it's fun. McCormick's not in tails. But he is in a black leather jacket.
Mystery Plot. There are many separate mysterious crimes throughout the book. But unlike many Golden Age novels, the various mysteries are NOT "subplots". That is, they are NOT logically distinct plots embedded in the larger book. Rather, all of the mysteries in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe turn out to be part of one enormous plot that stretches through the entire work.
Arranging the Characters. There are two parallel lists of clients, for the two dentists. Each client has an appointment at a different time. These lists recall the people spread out in rows in trains (Murder on the Orient Express) or in neighborhoods (Murder at Hazelmoor, The Clocks). Those people were spread out in space, while the clients in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe are spread out in time.
"Motive v. Opportunity" (1928) is an earlier tale, where the characters get lined up in time, one after another. That happens simply by chance, rather than being a series of appointments as in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe.
Murder on the Orient Express shows Poirot traveling, and gradually coming to get on board the Orient Express train. Similarly the opening of One, Two, Buckle My Shoe shows Poirot gradually getting involved with the people at the dentist's.
A Sequel. One, Two, Buckle My Shoe is in some ways a follow-up to The Labors of Hercules. Common features:
A Woman's Remains: Mystery. SPOILERS in this section. Eventually a woman's dead body is found. This leads to a complex, initially confusing mystery. Christie would soon write another novel with a similar premise: The Body in the Library (1941). It opens with a woman's body being found, leading to a complex, initially confusing mystery. In both books, the solution turns out to be elaborate and complex.
Class. The dentist's establishment involves a sizable cast of middle class and working class people, all of whom work for a living. It is utterly non-aristocratic, like the guest-house in "Three Blind Mice" and The Mousetrap. Christie shows her ability to look at more everyday people in both works.
In addition to their staffs, both the guest-house and the dentist's take on a sizable number of customers. Both staff and customers play roles in the mystery.
Office Boys. The office "page boy" Alfred Biggs, has a name that recalls office boy Albert Batt in the Tommy and Tuppence tales. Both are comic characters. Alfred Biggs both runs an elevator and announces people as a page boy. Albert Batt is first seen running an elevator in The Secret Adversary (1922), then announces people as a page boy at the start of Partners in Crime (1924).
Albert Batt is simply known as Albert, in his first two books The Secret Adversary and Partners in Crime. He doesn't get his surname Batt till his third appearance in N or M? (1941). This is a year after Alfred Biggs appeared in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940). In most ways, the earlier Albert influenced the later character Alfred Biggs. But Alfred Biggs' last name in turn influenced the name "Batt" in N or M?.
Alfred Biggs likes to read American mysteries, while Albert likes American movies in Partners in Crime. Both of these working class English youths like American entertainment. Albert is also shown as reading detective fiction in The Secret Adversary.
Architecture. The building with the dentist's office is set forth in detail. It shows the interest in architecture in much classic mystery fiction.
The wire cage outside for deliveries (last part of Chapter 4) anticipates the delivery system in Vegetable Duck (1944) by John Rhode. It also recalls the briefly mentioned "service lift" with its wire basket for food deliveries in "The Third-Floor Flat" (1929).
Religion. Poirot is inspired by a religious service to solve the case (end of Chapter 6). This recalls Miss Marple getting religious inspiration for her solving the problem in "The Thumb Mark of St. Peter".
Sanctuary. The opening sections of The Body in the Library share features with "Sanctuary" (1954):
Police. The Body in the Library shares several police characters with a Miss Marple short story of the same year, "Tape-Measure Murder" (1941). The two most important police shared by the two works, Colonel Melchett and Inspector Slack, appeared even earlier in The Murder at the Vicarage (1930).
"Tape-Measure Murder" and The Body in the Library benefit from being read together. The characterization of the police characters builds across the tales, and is richer seen as a whole.
In both The Body in the Library and "Tape-Measure Murder" the victim is strangled with a long piece of material.
Colonel Melchett's humorous dislike of his subordinate Inspector Slack (end of Chapter 4) recalls Sir Eustace Pedlar's dislike of his male secretary in The Man in the Brown Suit. In both cases this is due to the subordinate's ernest zeal. I like the secretary a lot. But have to agree about Inspector Slack: he's just obnoxious! All of these characters are comic. There is also strong class conflict, between the upper class superiors and their middle class subordinates.
The Earlier Case. The Body in the Library (Chapter 1) has the police refer to an earlier case, in which Miss Marple solved the crime before the police. In terms of plot, this could well be the mystery in either The Murder at the Vicarage or "Tape-Measure Murder". In The Body in the Library the earlier case is described as taking place in the "village": which fits the crimes in both The Murder at the Vicarage and "Tape-Measure Murder".
However, The Body in the Library was serialized in a magazine in May and June 1941. "Tape-Measure Murder" was published in a magazine in November 1941: five months later. This suggests that The Body in the Library was written before "Tape-Measure Murder". If so, the earlier case referred to in The Body in the Library would be that in The Murder at the Vicarage (1930).
Phones. The Body in the Library (Chapter 1) has an enjoyable primer about the telephone customs of the village. "Tape-Measure Murder" goes into greater depth about technological aspects of the local phone system.
Color. The Body in the Library breaks out into color imagery when describing the clothes of the flashy characters who've invaded St. Mary Mead: the victim (Chapter 1), the film employee Basil Blake (Chapter 2).
Sayers. Elements of The Body in the Library recall the earlier Have His Carcase (1932) by Dorothy L. Sayers. In both books, a nearby resort hotel and its dancers play a big role in the plot. The hotels are both respectable, and more than a bit lowbrow.
Both hotels employ professional dancers, who are available as dancing partners to the hotel guests. While nominally respectable, in both works these dancers are a bit doubtful morally and socially.
The Love Detectives. Christie wrote at least one earlier mystery where the body was found in the library - and by no less than the butler. "The Love Detectives" (1926) is a Mr. Quin tale. "The Love Detectives" satirizes two other standard mystery gambits, although not the "body in the library" motif. One of these gambits is the "clock that tells the time of death". Because of the gambits, the sleuths keep comparing the case to a mystery novel or stage play.
The County Constable in "The Love Detectives" is Colonel Melrose, a name that might have suggested that of Colonel Melchett in The Murder at the Vicarage (1930).
Yellow Iris. Poirot himself spoofed the idea of "the body in the library", at the start of "Yellow Iris" (1939). It is just a brief humorous aside.
Poirot (and Christie) use "the body in the library" to symbolize the traditional kind of mystery, which opens with a body being found, and proceeds on to figuring out who-done-it. By contrast, "Yellow Iris" has an experimental structure, in which Poirot tries to prevent a murder that hasn't happened yet.
Failed Detective Work. The police and other male sleuths fail to solve mysteries, in several Christie novels:
The police investigation in The Moving Finger is not just wrong - which would be bad enough. But it seems to be sabotaged by right-wing ideologies the police have. And which are shared by the book's male narrator. The police are sure the poison-pen writer must be a single woman: someone not having sex with men. Or perhaps the town's only gay man Mr. Pye: someone they also feel is more-or-less a frustrated "woman".
In the police's patriarchal world view, straight men are great. Women, such as wives, are OK as long as they have regular sex with men. Anybody outside these gender norms is emotionally disturbed, and capable of vicious crimes.
The police place limitless confidence in these ideas. As a consequence, the police are more enforcers of gender norms, than investigators of the book's serious crimes. Only Miss Marple at the book's end, actual investigates crime.
In the case of gay man Mr. Pye, the police have all the answers. They call him "abnormal". The book's male narrator soon calls Pye "unpleasant". He too judges people by gender. In actual fact, Mr. Pye seems friendly and harmless. He's not abnormal - unless you define being gay as "abnormal".
Endorsing the Police. When the narrator first meets head policeman Superintendent Nash, the narrator finds Nash instantly likable. The narrator's reasons are not explained. But it is likely that Nash embodies the hero's ideas about what masculinity should be. And also what the hero thinks a patriarchal authority figure should be.
The narrator's endorsement helps fool the reader (Christie is extremely good at fooling readers!) It helps disguise the fact that Nash will eventually make a complete botch of the case.
Balduin Groller. Balduin Groller was a mystery writer from Vienna, who wrote in German. His short story "Anonymous Letters" (in a book in 1910) deals with two unrelated cases where the sleuth investigates vicious anonymous letters: much like the letters in The Moving Finger. The culprits tuns out to be a sexually frustrated single woman in the first case, and an effeminate man in the second case. These are exactly the sort of people the cops suspect in The Moving Finger. These ideas have a history long preceding Christie's novel.
Dashiell Hammett. Dashiell Hammett wrote an "anonymous letters" mystery "The Nails in Mr. Cayterer" (1926). Unlike The Moving Finger, the letters in Hammett's short story are only sent to one person, and they demand blackmail money.
But the Hammett and Christie works do have a plot point in common. SPOILERS. The police discovery about the stamp in The Moving Finger (Chapter 8.2), is identical to a plot twist in the solution of "The Nails in Mr. Cayterer".
This might just be a coincidence. It is unclear where Christie could have read "The Nails in Mr. Cayterer". It does not seem to have been a widely available tale. Even today, it is hard to find a copy! It first appeared in the pulp magazine Black Mask (January 1926). And was reprinted in Hammett's collection The Creeping Siamese (1950) - much too late to influence The Moving Finger (1942). One might note that Christie admired Hammett: she praised him in A Murder Is Announced (Chapter 8.2).
BIG SPOILERS. The solution of "The Nails in Mr. Cayterer" has an odd effect, that reminds one of the modern idea of virtual reality. It's a virtual reality deliberately created by the tale's villain. All the characters are wandering around inside this artificial, virtual reality. This reality is not created by technology, as modern-day virtual reality is. It is instead created by plot machinations by the villain. The solution of The Moving Finger has a rather similar "virtual reality deliberately created by the villain" effect.
Anthony Gilbert. Anonymous letters in a small town, feature at the start of "Horseshoes for Luck" (1935), a short story by Anthony Gilbert. Unlike The Moving Finger and Balduin Groller, sex and gender issues play little role in the tale.
Christie picked Crooked House as one of her best books. And many of today's readers seem to like it too. But I don't get this. I think Crooked House is terrible.
No Detection. Crooked House is a murder mystery: it begins with a murder, and the killer is revealed at the end of the book. But Crooked House is hardly a detective story. The police and the amateur Charles who work with them, rarely do any good detective work. At the book's end, the killer is not revealed through clues or detective work. Instead, the killer obligingly leaves a written confession!
A guess: Christie did not make this a Poirot or Marple tale - because the awful detective work would have damaged their reputations! Poirot and Miss Marple always are brilliant in their detective efforts. And there is nothing brilliant in the detection in Crooked House.
The lack of detection in Crooked House is part of a larger problem: the book has very little plot of any kind.
Twist. The surprise twist in the solution, had been done before, by earlier mystery writers. And it wasn't all that great even when these earlier writers did it!
Profile. The narrator asks his policeman father what murderers are like (Chapter 12). The father gives him a psychological portrait of a typical killer. Today, we would call this a "profile".
The killer in Crooked House does indeed match this profile. However, I'd argue that this conformance to the profile is not an actual "clue". It is rather a meta-level concept in the book.
Mystery Subplot: The Will. The will mystery forms a decent subplot (set forth in the second half of Chapter 10, solved in Chapter 17). This subplot about the will, is related to an earlier Christie will mystery: "Motive v. Opportunity". The two mysteries have somewhat similar premises. These premises put them in the category of Impossible Crimes. The two mysteries have drastically different solutions.
Like the murder, the will mystery is only solved when a written confession by the culprit turns up (Chapter 17). The novel's detectives completely fail to solve it, before this.
Characters. I can't see anything interesting in most of the book's characters, either. The woman scientist Clemency Leonides does deserve some polite applause (Chapter 7). At least her presence recognizes that women can be scientists too. And after all the male scientists in Christie, a woman scientist is a good complement. Clemency Leonides' backstory is interesting (last part of Chapter 7). She shows both determination to pursue her career, and loyalty to her husband. The Hollywood film Madame Curie (Mervyn LeRoy, 1943) had told the real-life story of such a determined, happily married woman scientist.
Architecture. A mildly positive feature is the book's use of architecture (Chapter 6). The huge house is broken up into subregions, one for each subfamily. These subregions are connected by doors. An earlier book that has a mansion with far more elaborate subregions: Murder Among the Angells (1932) by Roger Scarlett.
Also pleasant: the austere decor of scientist Clemency Leonides' subregion (Chapter 7). This helps express her personality.
Portrait Painters. Augustus John and John Singer Sargent are actual real-life portrait painters (start of Chapter 8). Augustus John was very much alive at the time of Crooked House. Both were famous in their day. But Sargent's reputation is today much higher than John's.
In actress Tallulah Bankhead's book Tallulah: My Autobiography (1952), the frontispiece is the portrait of her John did. "My most valuable possession is my Augustus John portrait", she says in the book.
Architecture. A Murder Is Announced is unusually architectural for a Christie novel. The murder is firmly grounded in the architecture and floor plan of the house.
Ad. In "Finessing the King", Tuppence interprets a coded ad in a newspaper. This leads her to a specific time and place. And to a murder.
The ad in A Murder Is Announced is far clearer and more public. It leads a whole group of people, to what is specifically billed as a murder.
The early sections of And Then There Were None show the various invitations that lured the suspects to the island. These too bring people to a murder scene. And like the ad in A Murder Is Announced, are likely created by the killer.
Poirot in "The Capture of Cerberus" has to struggle to interpret the Countess' cryptic invitation. It too leads him to a crime scene.
Cast List. Near the start of The Moving Finger (Chapter 1.1), a list of people who've come calling on the hero, will be our first introduction to many of the book's suspects. Similarly, the list of newspaper subscribers on the first page of A Murder Is Announced will provide many of the tale's suspects.
To me, it seemed obvious that the list in A Murder Is Announced would soon be suspects. Whereas I did NOT realize this at first about the list in The Moving Finger. I'm not sure if these reactions of mine are typical of most readers.
Women and their Roles. The Moving Finger often focuses on single women: women living outside of the patriarchy. A Murder Is Announced has many women who work outside of social norms. Hinch, Murgatroyd, Phillipa and Mitzi all do jobs that their society didn't expect them to do.
Christie includes a major role for a beautiful young woman assistant for Miss Marple, someone not present in the earlier books. Christie perhaps felt that this would be a necessity for a movie. Ironically, when the book was indeed filmed a few years later as Murder She Said (1962), this young assistant was eliminated from the film version. This was the first of a series of Miss Marple movies.
Another odd sidelight: much of the novel takes place at Rutherford Hall. In the movie, Miss Marple would be played by Margaret Rutherford.
"Three Blind Mice" is notable among Christie's work for its detailed social observation of middle class life. Many of Christie's pre-war works had taken place among the upper or at least the upper middle classes. "Three Blind Mice" looks at a much more financially modest group of English people. The story is also carefully rooted in a particular time and place: virtually every detail of the plot and setting occurs against a background of the impact of World War II on English domestic and civilian life. World War II had just been over for two years when Christie wrote her radio play in 1947, and English life was still dominated by rationing and shortages. In some ways, the middle class characters and the World War II setting reinforce one another: had Christie tried to set this work among the upper crust, the wealth of the characters would largely have shielded them from England's war time problems.
"Three Blind Mice" is realistic in other ways as well. One of the characters, Christopher Wren, is a remarkably frank portrait of a gay young man. Christopher Wren shares many personality traits with earlier gay figures in Christie, such as Mr. Satterthwaite. However, Mr. Satterthwaite was a well to do, elderly man of wealth and social position, while Christopher Wren is a poor young man who faces prejudice and rejection from British society. Like the other characters in the novella, he is much more middle class than many of Christie's usual suspects. Christie wavered in her depiction of gays. Such characters in her mystery fiction as Mr. Satterthwaite and Christopher Wren are largely sympathetic, whereas her dismal non-mystery play Akhnaton (1937) is horribly homophobic. Both of the male characters in the Poirot tale, "The Double Clue" (1923), also seem gay, and they are of different social classes, rather like Mr. Satterthwaite and Christopher Wren, with hints of some sort of hidden relationship between them.
The last thing anyone should suggest is that "Three Blind Mice" is a sociological tract, where Christie lectures her readers while ignoring her mystery plot. In fact, it is almost the exact opposite of this. The biggest mystery in this story is not who-done-it, but what the characters are really like. Christie keeps us in suspense as she gradually reveals more and more of her suspects' lives, personalities, and social backgrounds. Consequently, each new detail about the characters' social experiences and sexual orientation serves to fill in another piece of the mystery puzzle. The reader has a burning desire to learn more and more about the characters and their lives, thus understanding these mysterious figures. The novella can be called a "sociological mystery", where the important facts are not physical clues, but an understanding of the characters' personalities, social background and lives. Christie is of course extremely expert at constructing mysteries, and this one is as well crafted as any of her less sociological tales.
Antecedents. "Three Blind Mice" has antecedents in Christie's work:
Crofts. Towards the end of "Three Blind Mice", policeman Inspector Tanner shows up. Previously Freeman Wills Crofts' had a series character Inspector Tanner. Crofts' Inspector Tanner appeared in a few books, starting with The Ponson Case (1921). Christie's "The Unbreakable Alibi" (1928) was a spoof of Crofts. Crofts was a writer Christie read.
Crofts was famous for his police detectives. In "Three Blind Mice", policemen are the sole detectives.
Post-War. "Three Blind Mice" (1948) is firmly set in the years immediately following World War ii. There are many references to this in the tale. We learn what four characters did during the war. A fifth character makes his living on the post-war situation. And Britain's food shortages and food rationing are repeatedly referred to. All of this is a plus. It adds interesting material to the story. And helps ground the tale in a concrete background. The people's reaction to the War and Post-War Britain is a main elements of their characterization.
Almost all of this has been deleted in the play The Mousetrap (1952). It's unfortunate. It makes The Mousetrap have a generic setting that could be Any Place, Any Time. It makes the suspects much more sketchily characterized. One can speculate on reasons:
New Mystery. The Mousetrap has a mystery subplot added to it, not present in "Three Blind Mice". This involves some disappearing equipment of the policeman. This plot is a small but solid addition to the play.
Unlike some Christie plays, Spider's Web is not primarily a romance. It does show the heroine's happy marriage to her husband. But mainly the play is full of crime, mystery and suspense material.
Women. Spider's Web is woman-centered:
Rinehart. Spider's Web shows the influence of The Circular Staircase (1907) by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Both have a plucky heroine who has recently rented a country house. SPOILERS. Both houses are under siege by bad guys who want something concealed in the house. The concealment took place during the time the house was occupied by the previous tenants.
These ideas were also used by Rinehart in her play The Bat (1920), which she adapted from The Circular Staircase. Christie could have gotten these ideas from either work.
Self-Borrowings. Spider's Web borrows mystery plot ideas from four earlier Christie works. The Wikipedia does a good job describing these self-borrowings.
The best subplot in Spider's Web based on an earlier tale, is the one based on "The Adventure of the Cheap Flat" (1923). In part, this is because the original plot in "Cheap Flat" is good. But it also is because Christie has taken this plot, and expanded it in creative ways. The plot has become detailed and multi-faceted. The plot is the best aspect of Spider's Web, considered as a mystery.
Most of the self-borrowings are of plots that don't involve murder. The self-borrowings are only loosely connected to the actual murder mystery in Spider's Web.
Who Done It?. The identity of the killer was a surprise to me: a Good Thing. Also good: the way the killer first learned about the events, and thus got involved with the crime.
However, there are only two clues to the identity of the killer - and both are weak. Neither shows ingenuity. And there is little ingenuity in the murder mystery aspect of Spider's Web.
The Star. Spider's Web was written at the request of its star Margaret Lockwood, who asked Christie to write a play for her. While Lockwood was famous as a dazzling villainess in films like Wicked Lady (1945), Lockwood specified she wanted to play a Good Gal in the play.
My guess: Christie did depict her heroine as Good. But Christie also preserved Lockwood's patented ability to scheme and carry out plots. In Spider's Web, Lockwood's heroine Clarissa lies, schemes and plots till the cows come home, all in the name of protecting the helpless. Speculation: Lockwood's fans thoroughly enjoyed this.
Non-Series. Near the start of Spider's Web there's a brief reference to Herzoslovakia. Herzoslovakia is an imaginary country invented by Christie. It plays a major role in her early (and poor) thriller The Secret of Chimneys (1925). Herzoslovakia is also the setting of the Poirot short story "The Stymphalean Birds" (1940). The mention of Herzoslovakia establishes that Spider's Web is in the same "universe" as most of Christie's fiction.
Beyond this, I can't see any series elements in Spider's Web.
International Intrigue. "The Incredible Theft" (1937) has government officials going to an English country house. The same gambit shows up in Spider's Web. However, in Spider's Web this does not lead to crime or intrigue, unlike "The Incredible Theft". The visit in Spider's Web is just a nice piece of plot, charming and entertaining. But not connected to any of the mysteries in Spider's Web.
Both Spider's Web and "The Incredible Theft" have a certain wholesomeness and likable quality to their government workers.
They Came to Baghdad also involves a memorable plea for humility, a virtue unfortunately not much recognized in modern literature. She makes a strong link between humility and democracy in this book, one that is much more convincing than some of her other political ideas. In the novel Lord Edgware Dies (1933), Poirot mentions in passing what he regards as great literature: Molière and Lao-tsu. Both of these writers stress personal humility as part of our humanity. In both of these Christie works humility is seen as religious: in Baghdad it is explicitly seen as a Christian virtue, and Edgware invokes Taoism's founder Lao-tsu.
N or M? (1941) also deals with themes of humility, politics and democracy. It suggests that many prominent Englishmen in the upper classes were secret Nazi sympathizers, and eager to collaborate in a Nazi conquest of England. Their motive: they were seduced by Nazi ideology, and hoped to be big shots in a future Nazi regime, where their actions would achieve, in their view, "personal glory". Christie views such people with extreme negativity, and states that they are the biggest menace facing England in 1941. Both They Came to Baghdad and N or M? compare such Fascist sympathizers to the fall of Lucifer, and suggest they they are motivated by the sin of pride. (See Chapter 1 and the end of Chapter 15 in N or M?, for Christie's look at Fifth Columnists and their motives in Britain.)
Christie's condemnation in N or M? of at least a substantial slice of Britain's upper classes is rarely noticed today. Also much overlooked: Hercule Poirot's endorsement of a left wing government for Britain, at the end of An Overdose of Death. While its political details are not spelled out, one suspects it is much like the Labour governments that came into power after 1945. Both of these books suggest that Christie's politics were actually fairly liberal.
Christie often expresses sympathy with people who are "discarded" from society. Many people dismiss Miss Marple because she is an elderly woman. And Hercule Poirot because he is a foreigner. No one wants to employ Tommy and Tuppence at the start of N or M?, because they are middle-aged. One suspects that many Christie readers are themselves social rejects - it is an all-too-common phenomenon in real life - and that they find such Christie books consoling. Christie always shows that such rejects actually have much to offer. Seeing value in such marginal people is perhaps related to the Christie theme of humility.
During her lifetime, Christie's American publishers produced "cleaned-up" versions of Christie's works, with most of the racism removed. Because these editions were produced during her lifetime and with Christie's contractual agreement, they are authentic versions of Christie's books. I greatly prefer these American versions. When I recommend And Then There Were None and An Overdose of Death, it is these American versions I am recommending.
I do not see the point of promoting racist works, by Christie or anybody else. Racism has caused huge disasters in human history - and its costs are likely not yet over.
One can enjoy almost all of Christie's artistry and best works - in versions that are racism free.
Some other points: Much, but not all, of the worst racism in Christie is in her thriller and spy works. These books are not much good anyway.
A detailed discussion of Christie and racism can be found in Victims or Villains: Jewish Images in Classic English Detective Fiction (1998) by Malcolm J. Turnbull.
After Christie's death, her novels began to be adapted en masse to film and television. Many of these adaptations, especially the early ones, although very popular with the public and the critics, leave me cold. They do not succeed at all in capturing the feel of Christie's works. The most overrated is Murder on the Orient Express.
The turning point for better adaptations of Christie was Why Didn't They Ask Evans? (1980). Evans was the first of the recent films to stress detection. Most of the earlier films avoided any sign of actual detection, perhaps because it was deemed of no interest to the public. A typical Christie novel begins with twenty pages, setting up a murder mystery. A hundred pages then follow of Poirot investigating the crime, trying to track down the killer. Finally, in the last thirty pages Poirot explains the solution. The central 100 pages of the sleuth detecting form the actual bulk of the novel. Early adaptations of Christie cut all this. The scenes leading up to the murder were stretched into perhaps an hour of film. Then there would be twenty minutes of melodrama. Finally, Poirot would offer his solution, also stretched out interminably, which he would seem to obtain out of thin air. One odd side effect of this approach, in addition to trashing Christie's storytelling, was to minimize the interest of Poirot as a character. Poirot is basically a detective. Stripped of any real detective work to do on the screen, his character becomes oddly non-functional. He becomes merely an eccentric man wandering around, talking with the other characters. The same is true of Miss Marple, and of the other Christie sleuths in the numerous bad screen adaptations of her work.
Evans changed all that. The early scenes of Evans set up the mystery, and the rest of the film shows the heroine and her friends trying to solve the crime. Like the novel, of which it is a faithful adaptation, it concentrates on the detective work done by the heroine. Evans is a long film: it was made as a two part TV movie, so it runs around three and a half hours. This gives the filmmakers leisure to explore every detail of the actual process of detection, as set forth in a Christie novel. Why Didn't They Ask Evans is in many ways a revolutionary film, with a radically different technique from most previous screen who-done-its. It is perhaps closest in feel to the RKO B-movie who-done-its from the late thirties and early 1940's, such as Two in the Dark or the Falcon films, which also concentrated on their heroes sleuthing. But Evans has a unique feel all of its own. A genuinely experimental film, its maximalist aesthetic ("Lets include everything, and explore it all in great detail") is aided by the Christie novel on which it is based, which contains one of Christie's most meandering and overstuffed plots.
The stars of Evans, Francesca Annis and James Warwick, and the producer-director Tony Wharmby, were reunited for a series of one-hour films based on the Tommy and Tuppence short stories in Partners in Crime. While less experimental than Evans, the ratio of one hour of film (actually around 50 minutes) to adapt a twenty page short story still gave the series plenty of leisure to explore characters, plot and detection. Aided by beautiful production values, that capture the clothes and lifestyles of the 1920's, this series formed a most entertaining adaptation of Christie. The same team also filmed the first Tommy and Tuppence novel, The Secret Adversary.
A similar approach is used for the TV adaptation of Poirot short stories starring David Suchet, that began in the late 1980's, and is still going on today. The Poirot series is shot on stunning Art Deco sets and locations, and furnishes a virtual primer on English Art Deco. It also has a first rate cast, and adopts a pleasantly non-campy approach to the characters, unlike many earlier screen adaptations of the Poirot tales. Oddly enough, Suchet once played Chief Inspector Japp in a Poirot theatrical film.
One has to point out that neither TV series, well done as they are, is entirely faithful to Christie's tales. In particular, both series try to dramatize elaborately each character in the story at hand, making them into detailed portrayals often way beyond their simple role in the short story. The effect is a "fleshing out" of the characters in the piece. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Film is a dramatic medium, and it functions best with strong characters. In addition, both humor, and political and historical material are often added to the pieces. The majority of the additions add a great deal of liveliness to the series, as well as being creative accomplishments in their own right. But they are not quite Christie, either.
There have been other pleasant recent adaptations of Christie, notably the TV-movie Murder With Mirrors (1985), and Appointment With Death (1988). The last substitutes 1930's Palestine for the novel's setting of Petra, but is otherwise largely a faithful adaptation.
Brian Farnham also directed some of the earlier TV series, The Agatha Christie Hour (1982). This adapted non series tales, such as those from The Listerdale Mystery. The best story in that collection is the exuberant jeu d'espirit, "The Manhood of Edward Robinson" (1924), and it similarly became the best episode in that TV series, under Farnham's direction. Farnham has also directed such Fay Weldon written TV scripts as "Heart of the Country" (1986) and "Growing Rich" (1992). He also works as a director on the British high tech mystery series, Bugs. This show is a big hit in Britain and France, but has not yet been seen in the US. I love high technology, and feel it is a pity that more American TV shows do not feature it.
The fashion show in "Wasp's Nest" is a very graceful piece of filmmaking. Similarly, "How Does Your Garden Grow" was opened out to a sequence involving a garden show. It has some extra Russian characters too who were not in the original story. Brian Farnham's technique in "Wasp's Nest" shows a Bazinian faithfulness to the technique of camera movement. A shot early on of Poirot and Hastings walking though the village, following a hedge, is a graceful tracking shot. The climax of the film makes dramatic use of the gate to the philosopher's house. The camera tracks Poirot as he walks through the gate, and implacably approaches the house. The scene inaugurates Poirot's final confrontation with the truth, and seems a prelude to this climactic event. The tracking shot fully establishes the spatial relationships in the garden, where the drama occurs. It also makes apparent the tremendous force of Poirot's mission. There are three regions in the garden - the house terrace, the lawn, and the gate. The terrace is where all the mystery plot takes place; the lawn is the locus of the characters' personal relationships, and the gate is where Poirot arrives and then leaves at the end - it is a site of his intervention - and salvation of the characters.
Christie's mystery plot here is not one of her best. Biggest weakness: why does the killer execute this elaborate plot? It hardly seems to buy the killer anything. And it is most unlikely that such a complex scheme could be pulled off. Just as in Murder on the Links (1923) of the same year, we have plot complexity without much logic or justification. Christie is at least in there trying: creating a complex plot is at least a sign of creativity. The plot does show strong personal qualities: it is her first centering around the Commedia dell' Arte, a personal obsession, and one that will become virtually a Christie signature in later works. Just one year later (1924) she will create her Mr. Quin stories, in which Harlequin comes to life and serves as her detective. The story is also rich in incident, much of which is visually striking.
The film version of the tale (1991) picks up on the visual character of the tale to a fare thee well. The opening Victory Ball, taking up the first 15 minutes of the show, is one of the great set pieces of the Poirot TV series. It shows marvelous mise-en-scène and production values, from director Renny Rye and production designer Mike Oxley, respectively. Andrew Marshall's script also extends Christie's story by giving it a subplot involving radio drama, allowing the show to be partially shot at the BBC Broadcast House, an Art Deco monument of the era, and one consistent with the Art Deco motif of the series. The radio background also allows for some well done humor and drama. All in all, visual values are so high in this work that the viewer almost neither notices nor cares about the plot's lack of rigorous logic.
This film version, like others in the series, follows some basic principles, somewhat altering Christie's storytelling technique. For one thing, Poirot is made to be present at the Victory Ball, whereas in the tale he merely reads about it in the papers. In the stories, Poirot is a consulting detective; he gains realism by being brought in to solve cases that have happened elsewhere. In a drama, you want your protagonist to be involved as possible. At a risk of seeming to invoke coincidence, Poirot is often made a direct participant in the mysteries. Secondly, the tales are told in linear fashion. In the story, Christie summarizes the double murder right away, then gradually explores its details. In the film, we see the events in chronological order. This too, is a reflection of the needs of the dramatic medium.
The highly complex plot makes little more sense on screen than it did on the printed page. At least it makes for a two hours filled with dramatic incident.
The film is entertaining throughout, and shows what a sincere effort in filmmaking can do, even without the best source material. The film has a lyrical quality, and reminds one a bit of Jean Renoir, perhaps because of its location photography and French period setting.
The tone of this film is a bit grimmer and more suspenseful than others in the Poirot series. It is a serial killer story, and the filmmakers have clearly been watching Silence of the Lambs. Fortunately, they never become too grim. A racetrack scene in the second hour shows some of this series' trademark visual style. I also thought it was interesting to see what an A.B.C. railway guide actually looked like, all these years after reading the book. The novel was a childhood favorite of mine, and I was surprised to see I could still remember all these details of the plot after first reading it circa age 12. It made a tremendous impression on me. Our next door neighbors took me to the public library one evening, and I can still remember getting the book off the library shelves. What a great thing libraries are ...
Christie published this 1926 novella the year after Roger Ackroyd. It is one of those tales in which all of the suspects have taken turns tramping around the crime scene, shortly before and after the killing. I always thought such tales were really implausible. Christie's main excuse here is that she seems to have come up with this plot considerably before most other people had worked it to death. All the same, the film version is most delightful. Pauline Moran makes full use of her dramatic opportunities as a hypnotist. The hypnotist in the story is a professional; here his plot functions have been transferred to Moran's Miss Lemon. The character of Miss Lemon scarcely exists in the stories; in the films she comes across as a person of unexpected depths of emotion and sensitivity. Here she hypnotizes; in "The Egyptian Tomb" she mourned the death of her cat. The supporting characters of the TV series each represent a different stratum of English society: Captain Hastings is upper middle class, Miss Lemon is modestly middle class, and the Cockney Chief Inspector Japp seems to have risen from a working class background. As a foreigner, Poirot himself is outside of the British class system.
The writer has added a great deal of political (the Hitler era) and scientific (the chemical formula) material not in the original story. Most of it works very well, and adds a great deal of substance and topicality to the plot. Christie's story centered on mining swindles in the British Empire; it is similar in this regard to "The Lost Mine". Most of the characters' personalities have also been changed, largely for the better, in the film adaptation. The film has "lost" the characterization of Lady Leverson, however, which was the best thing in the original story: both comic and intellectually acute. The movie has preserved the outlines of the murder plot, the idea of background investigation into a swindle, and the hypnotism from Christie's original story; but otherwise it is one of the freer and more transforming episodes of the series. Most of these changes are all to the good: it has taken one of Christie's most minor and uninspired works, and developed it into an excellent film.
One also likes the locations. The building playing the "role" of the Midland Hotel in the film is one of the best Art Deco buildings in the series.
Director Richard Spence is excellent at composition. His use of overhead shots that geometrize the environment is well done. So is all of his graceful outdoor shooting, which emphasizes fluid motion. This sort of "moving composition" was used by Orson Welles in Touch of Evil. It must be very hard to dream up, imagine, and diagram for future shooting.
I also like Miss Lemon going undercover as a reporter in "The Adventure of the Cheap Flat". The eerie delicacy of her character is always emphasized in her solo turns.