Agatha Christie was my first major experience with detective fiction, with A Caribbean Mystery launching a love of the genre that is still chugging along to this day. I’ve always had a soft spot for her, as when I was younger, I absolutely devoured her entire canon and then reread and reread almost every book. But then, I discovered other authors, chiefly John Dickson Carr, and the main focal point of my mystery reading shifted from Christie to the delightful and bizarre (at least in comparison) world of impossible crimes.
Over the past few years, I’ve neglected the great Dame. Yes, I have easy access to most of her works, wether it be from my own collection or through borrowing, but I’ve rarely revisited them, and mostly cast them aside, besides a few of my all time favorites (see Five Little Pigs and The Hollow). In fact, I’ve even replaced her status as the “Queen of Crime” with a contender of my own; Christianna Brand, who I’ve praised to heaven and back repeatedly here. Now, while this has afforded me the economy of forgetting many of her plots, it has also had the negative effect of making me diminish my own overall views on her bibliography.
Thankfully, in the past two or three months, I’ve started to revisit Christie’s works, after buying a lot or so of them off eBay (I was enticed by some gorgeous Pan covers!), and now I think I have an addiction! In that time period, I’ve read about twenty five or so books by her, and now I’m planning on simply rereading every book she ever wrote. I’ve forgotten the true mastery of prose Christie had – the ability to draw you in and keep you entranced, leading me to finishing many a story in a few hours or less. I’ve rediscovered so many favorites, and made a few more, and so I figured it was high time I discuss some of her work here!
I’ve always been fascinated by the connotations of what works are “underrated” and “overrated” in an author’s oeuvre. What are the books that are unfairly forgotten, and the ones that are praised to the heavens for no reason? Of course, discussion about this sort of thing can often surround the works of Carr, just look at some more modern assessments of books like The Crooked Hinge and The Hollow Man! I think Christie especially lends herself well to this, because her backlog is so varied in acclaim, but consistent in quality for the most part. She has books that are considered the pinnacles of the genre, and ones that I’ve seen mentioned a handful of times since I started reading these blogs. So, I’d like to try my hand at praising some books that I find criminally underrated, and discussing why others seem overrated to me. I hope you enjoy!
#1 – The Sittaford Mystery
Blasphemous hot take coming, I think this is a better Christie to read around the holiday season than the much more well known Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. I think this books setting, and the supernatural elements it contains, make it a book that I can clearly see being read during a snowstorm, while your curled up in a blanket next to a fireplace.
The Sittaford Mystery has so much going for it, especially it’s principal premise, which can be summarized as a mans death being correctly predicted by a seance. It’s just a really fun book! The central character of Emily Trefusis is one of Christie’s best, a young and independent woman who sticks her nose into the business at Sittaford in order to help free her fiancé, showing shades of many female characters to come. While a lot of the book does involve the interviewing of the suspects around Sittaford and those related to the murder victim, they make up a really interesting lot of people, and I can say that I was never bored as I read the account of all these investigations. I loved watching Emily travel from house to house, using the guise of casual visitation to gather clues. Rather like a younger Miss Marple!
The actual solution to the mystery makes this something of an impossible crime, and the motive is one of my favorite recent memories of a reveal in a detective story. It’s something that made me laugh out loud, before I marveled at what Christie had been able to do throughout the book. It’s one of those motives thats right in your face, and yet nine times out of ten, you’ll never see it coming. I think one of the only real flaws with this story is the fact that there isn’t enough focus on the residents of Sittaford, who are the most fascinating people in the book. But all can be forgiven in the end!
#2 – The Moving Finger
Poison pen letters are something of a favorite troupe within the genre, and yet I don’t think any other has, or ever will, top Christie’s use of it.
This a very short work, and one that lies smack in the middle of Christies peak in the 40s. I think it’s short length really works in it’s favor – because it perfectly suits the mystery it’s supposed to encompass. If it had been the length of, say, A Murder is Announced, we might get the upside of more Marple, but a book that feels like it’s stretched too thin overall.
The central conceit of the poison pen letters, and the motivation behind them, is so simple in retrospect, and every single piece of the puzzle presented here fits in snuggly. The reasoning for a murder that occurs at around the halfway points is one of Christie’s best revelations, a play on the evidence that is so utterly brilliant that it honestly made me consider putting this right next to the aforementioned A Murder is Announced in the tier of best Marple’s, and best Christie’s overall.
The village of Lymstock where this takes place is one of Christie’s best rendered, with all of its occupants, minor and major, being sketched deftly and lending to the creation of a growing atmosphere of tension and toxicity as the poison pen business escalates. The only real qualm about this book, and perhaps the only thing keeping it from being considered one of Christie’s greatest, is the late addition of Miss Marple. Marple could have very easily been in the background of this story from the start, but her late entrance about 75% of the way through is obviously something that’s going to leave a bad taste in some reader’s mouths, especially those eagerly awaiting her arrival.
However, I think that’s minor in comparison to The Moving Finger’s successes, and this is still a book that I will recommend without any hesitation!
#3 – Towards Zero
Of all the books I’m going to list here, this is truly the only one that stands in the real top tier of Christie – the masterpieces. The central idea behind Towards Zero is one of her finest. We watch people comes towards a murder, instead of starting off with it and going on from there. The gathering at Gull’s Point is a group of people that might be her best realized, with everyone coming across with pure, unadulterated humanity. As we approach the murder, and as Christie subtly hints at whats to come, you can’t help but constantly ponder the question of “who’s it going to be?”.
When we finally get to the murder, and the investigation starts, the book doesn’t falter. While it’s main concept is that we watch as the book heads towards a murder, the book manages to retain the high level of intrigue that the beginning had all the way through. This is one of the few Christie’s where we actually get a glimpse into the murderer’s mind, and the when we finally get to the denouement and see through all their plotting and conniving, it’s nothing short of chilling.
There is so much to love here, and so much to appreciate. It’s Christie at her most daring, and one that stands right there with books like Five Little Pigs and Crooked House. I have no idea as to why this one isn’t discussed with those, and many of her other more acclaimed works, because it’s just as good. If there’s any book I’d ask you to read after this post, it’s this one!
#4 – Sad Cypress
The first, and only, Poirot entry in my most underrated listing. This is the book where I think Christie’s development and focus on character truly begins, though you may argue that Death on the Nile holds that distinction.
I’ve seen people argue that Poirot’s inclusion into this story occurs way too late into the narrative, or doesn’t fit at all, as in The Hollow, but I disagree. I think Poirot comes in at a perfect time during the book, as it’s after the main mystery has been throughly told, meaning there’s this vacant opening for someone to come around and do some digging. I think the sequence of him going from cottage to cottage, eliciting information from villagers, is absolutely delightful, and him being called in by the young Dr. Lord is completely believable.
The characters of Elinor Carlisle and Mary Gerrard are both fascinating on their own, and even more so when they are juxtaposed to each other. The indictment of Elinor for Mary’s murder should seem unbelievable at the start of the story, but as we read on and learn more about the girls and their eventual relationship, doubts are quickly cast. I love the partial courtroom setting of this book, and the way the solution is slowly delivered piece by piece through court sequences.
The actual solution knocks everything out of the ball park. There’s a lot of wonderful clueing that comes full circle, and the central idea behind the how of the murder is something that makes perfect sense, and is easy to understand and even reach your own conclusions about. There really aren’t any obvious flaws here, at least from my point of view. If anything, it’s not in the top tier of Poirot’s simply because the other books are just better! I think this a book that only gets better and better every time I revisit it, and it’s one of her most imminently rereadable, if only for the wonderful court scenes at the end!
#5 – 4:50 from Paddington
This is my most recent Christie read, and so excuse me if my placement of it here is mostly based on recency bias.
The hook of 4:50 is one of Christie’s best, if not her best. I think it only really compares to A Murder is Announced or And Then There Were None in terms of how much it draws you in. A woman seeing a murder right through the window of her train carriage? Yes please!
Lucy Eyelesbarrow, the girl employed by Miss Marple to help conduct investigations about the body, is without a doubt the best Christie protagonist, and I can say that without hesitation. She’s just such a fun character, and someone who I could read books and books about. I’m sad that she was only a one off in the canon, but if the Christie estate decides to put Sophie Hannah onto some other novel using Christie’s name, maybe it’s high time she’s revisited!
The first third or so of this book, up until the body is discovered, is clearly the best. There’s so much jam packed in, and I could hardly put the book down to do anything. Afterwards, the story slows down a bit, until we’re treated to a second murder, and then a third, before everything wraps up. For later day Christie, this isn’t at all bad, and the plotting and handling of the central mystery isn’t muddled or anything, it’s quite strong in fact.
There are however, two flaws here, and they are inevitably what brings this book down from being a highly regarded Christie. The first is the inclusion of a third murder, which feels rushed and hardly does anything to the plot except to pad it for a few pages before the solution. The Joan Hickson adaptation of this book rightfully cuts out the third murder, and is all the better for it, giving the story a lot more room in it’s final stages. The second flaw is the actual solution. Miss Marple comes across the culprit and their motivation seemingly through a revelation from God, and both of those things are very unevenly hinted at in the actual story. It seems as if Christie wrote the last few pages in a rush, maybe due to a publisher’s deadline, and forgot to give more time to Marple. In my edition, the entire explanation is tucked into only three pages at the end!
Now, while it is flawed, this is still one of my favorite Marple’s. I love the premise and most of the characters, and even if the ending is a bit iffy, it doesn’t discount everything previous at all for me. It showcases how Christie was always wonderfully absorbing and readable, even if her career was on the “decline” by now.
And now, for the more controversial section, with three entries!
#1 – Ordeal by Innocence
Of all the later day Christie’s, this and Endless Night are probably the most praised, and it was one of the Dame’s favorites.
I like this book, I really do, but for all of the praise that’s heaped on it, I can’t help but feel like it’s not really all that. The premise is amazing, as most of Christie’s are. The portrait of the Argyle family at the center of all this is interesting enough, and Rachel Argyle is one of Christie’s most fascinating murder victims, but I really couldn’t find myself caring for most of them. The only one I had some connection to was Tina, and everyone else was either met with indifference, or even outright hated by me.
On top of that, a lot of this book actually feels sloppy, especially for one that’s as lauded as this. There are some really messy and unnecessary later crimes that fail to convince, and the central mystery was actually quite easy to see through for me. The biggest flaw might just be the actual solution, because it relies on a specific person acting so completely out of character that it basically means they’d have to become an entirely different person for it to even make sense. It just feels, as I said above, sloppy, and I really wish I could love this book more, but there’s a reason why I’ve put it here.
I will say that the actual culprit and their motivation has some true emotional impact, and in a way, it salvages this book’s ending. While I don’t necessary adore it, it’s still miles ahead of most of her work int he next decade or so, and like any Christie, it’s worth reading.
#2 – Murder on the Orient Express
So, I think this is probably a really controversial opinion, but this is a opinionated piece after all! I can acknowledge the importance of MotOE, and just how impactful and revolutionary it’s solution is/was. However, that doesn’t stop me from considering this book to not really be on par with the other extreme Christie classics, and while it’s definitely part of the trilogy of her best known books, I don’t think it deserves that spot.
You can easily see why this book is so well known. The setting, the central puzzle, the eventual solution, they all have the makings of a classic. However, the thing that makes this book fail for me, like the book I’m going to list after this, is how much it relies on the solution itself for it to be considered so gosh darn good.
I like MotOE, but the interviews that make up the central part of the story bore me, and while the clueing is top notch, it really doesn’t awe me. The solution is really the place where the story shines for me, and the proposition Poirot proposes, but even then, it’s a solution that has entrenched itself in popular culture by now, so when I first read it, it didn’t impact me in the same way that it would’ve a later reader. It’s just a book where I have these high expectations when I go into, and then I’m disappointed, no matter what.
Of course, me moaning and groaning doesn’t at all diminish the importance of MotOE. I know that I’m in the minority on this one, and that’s alright with me! If I was objectively ranking Christie’s works, without my personal bias creeping in, then yes, I’d place this book among her best ten or so, but that’s not what I’m doing right here. I think this book, above all others, shows how big a role personal preference plays into reading of any sort, and a variance of opinions is almost always a good thing when it comes to stories like this, because it only promotes invigorating discussion!
#3 – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
Now, before you get your pitchfork and come to burn this blog down, let me explain. My reasoning behind putting this book, which besides And Then There Were None is probably considered Christie’s greatest achievement, is because of one, really really really unfortunate thing.
The ending was spoiled for me.
I think so much of Roger Ackroyd’s greatness comes from the solution and it’s reveal. I can only imagine how incredible it would be to read the book, get to those last few pages, and have the rug pulled under from you in such a crazy way. I can only envision the pieces falling into place within the readers head, as you smack your forehead and just marvel at the misdirection Christie has woven before your eyes.
Unfortunately, I had that ruined for me, and so with every read of Roger Ackroyd, I was never able to experience that magic. I still think it’s a damn fine detective story, if just the slightest bit clunky, and for Christie to produce it so few years into her writing career is nothing short of incredible.
But sadly, whenever I do read it, it doesn’t rise to the rank of a classic. I know the solution, and never got to experience any initial magic with it, so while the book is enjoyable, I don’t really feel it’s acclaimed status. And really, that’s what this list comes down too for me. What are the books that are often praised and lauded by Christie fans that don’t hit the mark for me, and unfortunately, Roger Ackroyd is one of them.
And, that’s a wrap! Some underrated and overrated Christie’s, and a list that’s surely going to change as time goes by and I read more and more. In the meantime, share any thoughts you might have!