The Mastery of Agatha Christie

When I was in high school, I bought a sixty-cent paperback of Agatha Christie’s The A.B.C. Murders, perhaps intrigued after seeing the 1965 movie version, The Alphabet Murders, on TV. The movie did not take the story seriously and can be easily dismissed, but the original book was a revelation into the classic world of the murder mystery as presented by Dame Christie. I followed up by purchasing the sixty-cent paperbacks of Murder in the Calais Coach (more famously known as Murder on the Orient Express) and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I was amazed at how the revelation of the truth made perfect sense even though I had been fooled like millions of readers before me. I was hooked on the Christie style which presented the suspects and provided the clues fairly, but still misdirected me in trying to outsmart the detective in the story. I started adding to my paperback collection and now have all of Agatha Christie’s mystery novels in paperback in my library, all of them bought well over thirty years ago. There are a few of her short stories that did not appear in the collections I purchased, but I did add a collection of her plays which included The Mousetrap, a play that continues to be performed in London’s West End.

I cannot say that every one of her novels reaches the standard of a five star classic, but there is not a one that I did not wind up liking and the number of her novels that did reach the five star level far exceeded her contemporaries and the many that have since followed her. Her plots generally followed a set path, but this did not keep her from upending convention. The novel that made her famous, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, demonstrates this perfectly by subverting the Dr. Watson storytelling convention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. (For those few who have not read this book, I will not go any further on this point.) In general, the reader is introduced to a set of characters within an environment where a murder takes place. These characters may have quirks but they are never one-dimensional which makes us care for them throughout the story. There is a balance between characters who feel the seriousness of the situation and characters who comically accept the situation as a puzzle to be solved. This is a delicate balance at which I find many modern mystery writers fail. In The Body in the Library, a young blonde woman is found dead in the library of Colonel and Mrs. Bantry’s estate. Instead of having a lot of anguish and dread about the dead woman in her home, Mrs. Bantry quickly gets her friend, Miss Marple, to come over before the detectives arrive to show her how “unreal” the body appears. Readers eventually come to learn about the young woman and how she unknowingly became the object of greed and jealousy, but they are not dragged down by heavy emotional introspection as Miss Marple helps the police solve the case.

Perhaps the most interesting theme within Agatha Christie’s mysteries is her sense of justice and its value to social order. Two of her most famous novels reveal how she believes in justice – Murder on the Orient Express and And Then There Were None. In Murder on the Orient Express, a man is murdered in his cabin in the end railway coach of the Orient Express. Because the train was trapped by a snow drift, it becomes obvious to Hercule Poirot that the murderer was one of the twelve other passengers on the coach, but he also discovers that the victim was responsible for a child kidnapping and murder in America, yet avoided justice. When Poirot gives his dissertation about his investigation at the end of the book, he provides two solutions to the Orient Express manager and suspects – one true and one simplistically false. Since readers realize that the true motive for the murder is appropriate justice, they accept that the eventual authorities will be given the simple but false solution. In And Then There Were None, ten people are invited to an island for a weekend retreat and discover that one of them is out to kill the others one at a time. A recording that plays to them on the first night informs them that they have all committed murder which is why they have been sentenced to death over the course of the weekend. In the original novel, no one survives. A letter to the authorities later reveals who was responsible. (I find it interesting that Christie herself had to change the ending allowing survivors in order to adapt the story to the stage, which is the plotline seen in all of the movie versions.) The basic concept seems to be that murder in the role of justice was a valid concept to Agatha Christie, and considering some of the crimes with which her victims were accused in And Then There Were None, the level of culpability to be eligible for the death penalty was very low.