When an author becomes a publishing machine, he or she often ends up on a schedule of sorts (often dictated by contracts too) where their books will be released at roughly the same time each year. In the case of the late Dame Agatha Christie (1890-1976), that schedule eventually settled into a one book per year/released in time for the holidays pattern.
Christie is, of course, the creator of Hercule Poirot’s magnificent moustache and little grey cells and Miss Marple’s fluffy façade that hid a keen sense of observation and analysis. She began writing in the early 1920’s; by 1950, she was limiting herself to one book per year (for tax purposes) and that book became known as A Christie for Christmas. It was a brilliant promotional tool and increased her sales exponentially.
I actually own every Agatha Christie mystery (plus a few other things, like Come, Tell Me How You Live and her Mary Westmacott romances). In fact, as I mentioned in my last post, I own 88 books by Dame Agatha. And I do reread them, even though I know whodunnit. I appreciate her skill at plotting a mystery, and she is not without a sense of humor—Poirot’s little vanities about his moustache and his appalling taste in liquor, not to mention his too-tight patent leather shoes, are all amusing, as are Miss Marple’s analogies (“just like the time we found the missing potted shrimps in the aspidistra…”).
Dame Agatha actually wrote one full-length mystery set at Christmas; since it is the season, it makes sense to start there: Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (like many of Christie’s books, the titles are often different for the American editions—in this case, there are two alternatives–Murder for Christmas and A Holiday for Murder. They are all, however, exactly the same book). This is a standard locked room mystery, a trope Christie returned to frequently, involving the death of Simon Lee, whose throat is cut behind a locked door. It is Christmastime, and he has invited his entire family to spend the holidays with him, even though he has little to no use for any of his sons and has never met his granddaughter or one of his daughters-in-law. As it happens, Poirot is visiting the local chief constable for the holidays and comes along to “lend assistance”—given his complaints about the lack of central heating in the Chief Constable’s house, however, one suspects he goes along mainly to warm up a little.
Hercule Poirot’s Christmas dates from the first third of Christie’s career and it’s a strong offering. Poirot has jettisoned Hastings by this point as his Watson and is his usual vain, mystical self. The plot is solid and the clues are quite obvious–once you know the solution. This isn’t her best book, but it’s far from being her worst either, and the characters of the suspects are a little better developed than is usual with a Christie. It’s not very Christmas-y, though.
The other really well-known piece set at Christmas that she did is the short story “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding,” which can be found in various short story collections. The short story is not Christie’s forte—her strength was in twisty, clever plotting, and the short form gives her very little room to exercise her considerable plotting skills. But it’s pretty entertaining to watch Poirot be puzzled by typical English Christmas traditions, and of course he figures the whole thing out easily enough.
If you’ve never read Christie and you like a good mystery, you might try one of these as a holiday treat for yourself—sort of your very own Christie for Christmas:
* The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920): The novel that started it all for Christie, it introduces Hercule Poirot, a WWI Belgian refugee (who would spend the next 55 years of his literary career gently correcting people who think he’s French) and retired policeman. He is seconded by his friend and Watson, Arthur Hastings, and totally frustrated by Inspector Japp. Like most Golden Age detective novelists, Christie relied for a while on the structure of Great Detective vs. Bumbling Policeman that was pretty much invented by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but as she grew more confident, she was able to branch out a bit. Styles is a solid, competent mystery and is worth reading for its own merits, but it’s also fun to read it just so you can read the later ones and see just how much better she got—and she was pretty darned good to start with.
* The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926): six years after publishing her first book, Christie wrote what is probably the single greatest detective story ever, a book that was considered so outré at the time that there were debates about the fairness of the solution. Amusing moment—the idea that the great Hercule Poirot will be happy in a country village growing vegetable marrows is absurd.
* The A.B.C. Murders (1936): ten years after Ackroyd, Christie re-invented the wheel with this. It’s among her most puzzling plots, and the solution is both ingenious and kind of sad.
* Cards on the Table (1936): This is my favorite Christie for an odd reason—I’m a bit weird in that I like symmetry and order, and this book offers that in spades. A well-known personality invites 4 well-known private detectives to dinner and also invites 4 people he believes to have gotten away with murder. Funny enough, he ends up dead before the end of the evening, and Poirot figures out the whole thing just by looking at the bridge scores. No lie.
* Appointment with Death (1938): Christie was married to Sir Max Mallowen,the archeologist, and many of her mysteries feature Middle Eastern settings and archeological themes. This one is my personal favorite, although it’s unusual both for its setting (Petra) and because Poirot is a little less Poirot-like and more like an actual policeman checking alibis. But the victim totally deserves what she gets. Most critics recommend Murder in Mesopotamia for an archeological mystery by Christie—and it is also a great choice.
* The Moving Finger (1942): the third appearance of Miss Marple in a full-length novel (her second, The Body in the Library, occurred earlier that same year—in fact, 1942 saw Christie release three novels, with the devilishly clever Five Little Pigs separating the two Marples). This is my favorite Miss Marple, along with the later A Murder is Announced. The old gal is in top form here, even though it takes her almost half the book to put in an appearance. The story is one of the rare ones that can be actually anchored in time—the hero is recovering from injuries suffered in the war.
Later Christies (post 1960) are hit or miss propositions; as she got older, her prowess definitely weakened, and by 1970 she was pretty much past it. Poirot’s The Clocks isn’t too bad, and it’s actually kind of interesting because he never leaves his flat until the very end of the book—after he solves the crime simply by putting his little grey cells to work, thanks to the observant and engaging Colin Lamb (whom one suspects is Japp’s son, but no proof is offered). Colin does most of the legwork, with the help of the local Yard guy, but they’re completely puzzled until Poirot turns up and explains how it was done. One of the later Miss Marples, At Bertram’s Hotel, is a terrible mystery but a lovely wallow in nostalgia for the reader–and for the elderly Miss Marple, who is given a holiday by her generous nephew at the same hotel she stayed at when she was much, much younger.
But the best late Christie by far features neither of her regulars, but the irrepressible Ariadne Oliver, a character Christie based on herself. Mrs. Oliver is the apple-loving mystery writer who makes her first appearance much earlier in Christie’s career (in Cards on the Table) and she appears off and on right up until the end—Christie was obviously fond of the character, and with good reason. She’s somewhat scatter-brained, but also generous and kind and, in her own way, quite shrewd. The Pale Horse (1961) is her only solo appearance in the Christie canon (she always appeared otherwise in tandem with Poirot), and it’s a great mystery– creepy and well-plotted, it shows off Christie’s knowledge of poisons a little too well: at least two real-life murders were inspired by the book.
What I like best about Christie is that you know what you’re getting with her: ingenious plotting, with the clues fairly laid out but cleverly hidden, Poirot’s little vanities and Miss Marple’s gentle wisdom, and a solution that you probably won’t see coming. One thing you will never get is decent, in-depth characterization. It simply wasn’t her thing—she was way more interested in constructing fiendish puzzles so her readers could see if they had the skillz to out-detect Miss Marple or little grey cells on par with Poirot’s. Somehow, the lack of characterization, which normally bugs the crap out of me, doesn’t with her books. Sure her characters are all cardboard stock characters—the titled jackass, the occult-obsessed middle-aged woman, the “modern” girl who wants to think independently, the retired colonial soldier who’s fumbled his investments—but the characters for her are more like chess pieces than people. They’re to be moved around to suit what she felt was the true purpose of writing detective fiction: the plot. In that sense, they don’t need to be dwelt upon.
And no one holds a candle to the woman in that sense. Every time I read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, I marvel at how well she hid the clues to the villain. They’re literally right in front of your nose—but you never see them. Amazing.
I also think these books, or at least the very early ones, offer something else: a picture of a time period most of us cannot imagine. It’s that genteel time when there was such a thing as a country estate that was filled with servants, where people dressed for dinner, where there were such things as gentlemen of leisure—times that were actually almost over by the time she started writing. But it’s a world that is ordered, and a world where the disruption caused by murder is distressing, sure, but also a world where you know justice will prevail in the end. Sometimes—even almost 100 years later—a little justice and order, and a world where right triumphs over wrong, is a calming balm.