Agatha Christie: Career | Partners in Crime | Impossible Crimes | Experimental Mysteries | Other Kinds of Mysteries | Scientific Detection | The Mysterious Mr. Quin | The Labors of Hercules | Miss Marple Short Stories | Three Blind Mice | Christie Themes and Politics | Christie and Racism | Christie Films | 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 (1924)
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1925)
The Thirteen Problems / The Tuesday Club Murders (1927 - 1931)
The Murder at the Vicarage (1930)
Black Coffee (1930)
The Sittaford Mystery / Murder at Hazelmoor (1931)
Murder on the Orient Express (1934)
Death in the Clouds (1935)
The ABC Murders (1935)
Murder in Mesopotamia (1936)
Dumb Witness / Poirot Loses A Client (1937)
Murder in the Mews / Dead Man's Mirror (collected 1937)
Appointment with Death (1938)
The Regatta Mystery (1935 - 1939)
Hercule Poirot's Christmas / Murder for Christmas (1938)
Easy to Kill (1939)
And Then There Were None (1939)
The Labors of Hercules (1939 - 1940)
Sad Cypress (1940)
One Two, Buckle My Shoe / An Overdose of Death (1940)
Evil Under the Sun (1941)
The Body in the Library (1942)
Death Comes as the End (1944)
Sparkling Cyanide (1945)
The Mousetrap (collected 1950)
A Murder is Announced (1950)
They Came To Baghdad (1951)
Dead Man's Folly (1956)
Double Sin (1925 - 1960)
The Pale Horse (1961)
The Clocks (1963)
Elephants Can Remember (1972)
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 also 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 Night Club Murders. Especially outstanding among the many Poirot novels are The ABC Murders (1936), Murder for Christmas (1938), and An Overdose of Death (1940). But most of the 14 Poirot books of this period have virtues. Murder in Mesopotamia (1936) and Sad Cypress (1940) have ingenious solutions. Even a relatively "minor" novel like Death in the Clouds (1935) is just plain fun to read. While "minor" in the body of Christie's work, it would be considered "major" in the bibliography of most lesser mystery authors.
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.
Sometime during the early days of World War II (1939 - 1945), Agatha Christie wrote Curtain, intended as a farewell appearance for Hercule Poirot. It returns Poirot to Styles, scene of his first case, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. The two books together constitute one of Christie's high points. As per her instructions, it was not published till the 1970's.
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 (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.
"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" (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.
"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.
"The Case of the Missing Lady". This 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. Earlier, Christie's Poirot story "The Veiled Lady" also was constructed as an ingenious takeoff on a Doyle story, "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton". This earlier story is less of a parody than "Lady", but it still centers around a twist on the master. The introduction of Hercule Poirot's brother Achille, in The Big Four, also burlesques Sherlock Holmes' brother Mycroft. The introduction of the Countess Vera Rossakoff, a recurring character, in "The Double Clue" (1925), is an echo of Sherlock Holmes' meeting with Irene Adler in "A Scandal in Bohemia" (1891). The opening of Murder on the Links (1923) also has a Doyle-like feel, in which 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.
"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.
"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" 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 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". This 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).
Christie makes this story be a spoof of Anthony Berkeley's detective Roger Sherringham, 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". This story 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 book. "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. "The Man Who Was No. 16" also 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 F.I. 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.
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).
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 Allingham, 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 (1942) 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. 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.
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 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. But the murder is not presented as a locked room puzzle here.
A similar structure appears in the novel called Dumb Witness or Poirot Loses A Client (1937): there is an apparently supernatural subplot, and a conventional main murder mystery that is not really 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.
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.
The locked room aspect of "Dead Man's Mirror" (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 / Murder for Christmas (1938), although here the gimmicks are much more imaginative.
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. All three 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 definitive history, Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crimes.
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. "The Kidnapped Prime Minister" (1923) from the same book, also uses similar ideas - it is especially close to "The Girdle of Hyppolita".
All of these tales perhaps have roots in Doyle's "The Man With the Twisted Lip" (1891) from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
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, and "Four and Twenty Blackbirds" (1940) in The Mousetrap, 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 (1942) has links to "A Christmas Tragedy".
All the Christie stories about bad guys in disguise or in deceptive roles, from 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.
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.
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 strange tale, "The Companion" (1930) in The Tuesday Club Murders, reworks plot ideas 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).
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.
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). One can also mention The Sittaford Mystery / Murder at Hazelmoor (1931). 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.
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 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.
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".
Subverting Mystery Traditions. "The Third-Floor Flat" (1929) in The Mousetrap is one of the best Poirot short tales. It subtly subverts detective fiction conventions, the way The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1925) did. 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). The story exhibits the architectural interest found in Golden Age detective fiction.
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 (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 the House of the Enemy" (1924) in The Big Four seems ancestral to "The Four Suspects". Its mystery plot is simpler, but it has some engaging thriller elements as compensation.
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.
Twins and Doubles. "The Adventure of the Western Star" (1923) is an ingenious story about twin diamonds. The tale also contains a human double, in the second crime.
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.
Alibis. Christie would write some alibi tales, that have nothing to do with the techniques used in her Impossible Disappearance of People works. "The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan" (1923) is an early alibi tale. "The Sign in the Sky" (1925) from The Mysterious Mr. Quin is a gem.
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.
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 Under Dog" (1926) and the pair of related tales "The Submarine Plans" (1923) / "The Incredible Theft" (1937) 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. 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 whodunit!
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. The ABC Murders (1936), "The Affair of The Pink Pearl" in Partners in Crime, and Chapter 4 of The Big Four are examples.
Treasure Hunts. Also weak is the Miss Marple "Strange Jest" (1944), 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.
Romances. Christie wrote a number of romance tales. "The Lonely God" (1926) and "The Arcadian Deer" (1940) in The Labors of Hercules have related plots. These have twists that link them to the mystery story, unlike several of Christie's pure romances or adventures. These tales are also related to "The Listerdale Mystery" (1925).
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 1942 novel Five Little Pigs) are surprisingly absorbing. 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. Go Back for Murder has a clever if simple mystery plot twist solution. This solution focuses almost entirely on the romantic and personal relationships of the characters. It avoids the alibis and impossible crimes so important elsewhere in Christie. And The Hollow is almost pure romance, with only the simplest of whodunit features, and few mystery ideas. Both works show Christie's skill with romance.
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 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.
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, "The Soul of the Croupier" (1926) is especially satisfying. It reminds one of "The Listerdale Mystery" (1925) and "The Manhood of Edward Robinson" (1924), and is fairly light hearted in approach. Much grimmer, and with a definite feminist slant, is "The Man From the Sea" (1929). It is one of many stories in the mystery field that treat spousal abuse with seriousness - see also Rinehart's "Alibi For Isabel". The book's final story, "Harlequin's Lane" (1927), is the most supernatural oriented in the series. It anticipates Michael Powell's film The Red Shoes (1948) with its mixture of ballet and fantasy. Somehow, it is based on the same extremely dubious idea as that film, that a woman dancer cannot marry and have a family life. Why not, one might ask? I like this final tale much less that most of the Mr. Quin stories.
In addition to these three tales with little or no mystery in them, "The World's End" (1926) has only a small mystery plot. It too is a satisfying work. "The World's End" is especially good when it describes painting, especially the gifted woman painter, someone whose talents and aspirations are treated with complete seriousness by the author - another feminist story in Christie's oeuvre. It has a similar island setting to "The Man From the Sea".
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 Night 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.
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", and the school teachers in "The Girdle of Hyppolita", illustrate women making their way alone through the economy of the era.
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. Similarly, 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.
Concealed Methods. "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". Such stories are a bit related to the "howdunit" - a story in which the main mystery is figuring out the mechanism of the crime. 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.
Undercover operations. Undercover operations, especially by the police, are a running plot gambit. They are central to "The Erymanthian Boar", and Miss Carnaby's undercover work in "The Flock of Geryon" is notable as well.
They also play a comic role in "The Capture of Cerberus". The policeman in the latter tale 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 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 night club setting 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.
Paralleling the tales of police undercover work, are stories of criminals and their own undercover schemes. (SPOILER WARNING FOR REST OF PARAGRAPH) "The Stymphalean Birds", "The Horses of Diomedes" and "The Capture of Cerberus" form a series of tales, with some common approaches. These look forward to the Miss Marple novel At Bertram's Hotel (1965). "The Oracle at Delphi" (1933) in Parker Pyne Investigates is a related work, as is also perhaps "The Veiled Lady" (1923) from Poirot Investigates. The Miss Marple story "Ingots of Gold" (1928) from The Thirteen Problems (or The Tuesday Night Club Murders) perhaps also belongs to this tradition, and there are elements of it as a subplot in "The Regatta Mystery". The stories in this tradition have some plot ideas in common with the Mr. Quin tale "At the Bells and Motley" (1925) and the Miss Marple "The Case of the Perfect Maid" (1942), although these works are distinctly different in overall approach.
These tales also recall Number 4 in The Big Four (1924 - 1927) and his numerous disguises, which 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, 7. Then in Chapter 14, Poirot does some inventive detective work figuring out the disguises. Christie's own spoof of the book, "The Man Who Was No. 16" (1924) in Partners in Crime, also centers on disguise.
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.
In 1941-1942 Christie returned to writing about Miss Marple, after a seven year absence. She wrote three short stories, collected in The Mousetrap, and a novel, The Body in the Library (serialized 1941, in book form 1942). 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 domestic 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.
The other two tales in the series are mid range in quality. The rather grim "The Case of the Perfect Maid" (1942) recalls Baroness Orczy in tone. It is especially close in approach to the Mr. Quin "At the Bells and Motley".
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 Night 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).
Christie's Double Sin contains two fine stories about Miss Marple written in the 1950's. "Sanctuary" (1954) 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.
"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" (1925), 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 whodunit, 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.
"Three Blind Mice" has antecedents in Christie's work, and that of other people. The story resembles And Then There Were None (1939) in isolating a bunch of suspects in an inaccessible location, here a snowbound house. It also resembles that tale in that sinister secrets start coming out about seemingly respectable people. The snowbound setting also recalls the opening of Murder at Hazelmoor (1931). In tone and setting, "Three Blind Mice" also recalls Christie's "Sing a Song of Sixpence" (1929). "Sixpence" is also a story partly set among poorer people. It too has a domestic focus. Both stories are non-series works, without Agatha's series sleuths. And in both stories, the murder is a consequence of a previous domestic tragedy.
The plot of "Three Blind Mice" is perhaps closest to "The Erymanthian Boar" (1940) in The Labors of Hercules. Both deal with mysteries of identity, among a group of snowbound people. The final mystery surprise of "Three Blind Mice" and "The Erymanthian Boar" is borrowed from Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood's play The Bat (1920). The same plot idea was used in Christie's "The Adventure of The Sinister Stranger" (1924) in Partners in Crime. Christie had been influenced by Rinehart before - elements of the solution of Why Didn't They Ask Evans? (1934) recall Rinehart's The Door (1930).
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 whodunits. It is perhaps closest in feel to the RKO B-movie whodunits 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.
One wonders if Christie's What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw! / The 4:50 from Paddington (1957) was actually written with a movie adaptation in mind. Much of the imagery is strikingly visual, as if planned for a film. The opening murder concerns pure seeing, as the title suggests. Christie also 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.
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.
Murder on the Links, Christie's 1923 novel, was adapted into a two hour Poirot movie, one of the Poirot TV series. It was given beautiful location filming, apparently in Deauville, France, where the story is set. 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 A.B.C. Murders (1992), by contrast, is based on one of Christie's best books. The first rate film version preserves Christie's wonderful plot, which it unfolds with step by step logic and absolutely gripping clarity.
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 ...
"The Tragedy at Marsden Manor" (1923), is a brief, logical, and fairly minor Christie tale. It has been thoroughly gummed up in its movie adaptation. A great deal of mystical folderol has been added to Christie's plot, and the comedy relief involving Poirot and Hastings drags them seriously out of character. Most of the extra material added to the Poirot stories in this series has been excellent; this is one of the few complete misfires.
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.
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.