8 April 2013

W.W.R.G.: Five Classic Murder Mysteries by Agatha Christie

I've known Agatha all my life.

I first met her on the bottom shelf of my parents' library, next to the long-discarded vinyl records, where she appeared on a dozen spines among the books that belonged exclusively to my mother. I was initially fascinated by her name: Agatha... it looked so exotic to my young eyes!

I must have been about ten years old when I earned the privilege of peering between the colourful covers of her novels. What a strange universe I discovered there! A world where tea and vicars and knitting and church flower ladies and trains are perfectly commonplace. It was so far away from anything I had ever experienced! I suspect my delight in old-fashioned names — Lavinia, Constance, Letitia, Violet, Georgina — dates from this period.

I have a vivid memory of lying on my parents' bed at the cottage, snatching a few minutes of peace and quiet with Pourquoi pas Evans? (Why Didn't They Ask Evans?) while everyone else was out... After my mother's few volumes, I turned to the woefully incomplete collection at my town's small public library. For an entire summer, I sat in the shade in our suburban backyard, devouring one by one the tattered paperbacks I'd managed to snatch from under other eager readers' noses. Once I'd exhausted this resource, I had to find other ways to feed my curious mind. (Enter Sherlock Holmes, but that's another story.)

My Agatha-fever had lain dormant for a while when my high school's drama club put on one of her plays. I promptly checked the school library's catalogue (where until then I'd only searched for etiquette manuals and books about the Bermuda triangle). They had her entire bibliography! I think this was the happiest moment of the two years I spent at that school...

She made a number of appearances in my life over the following years. One of the first books I ever read in English was The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which I found while rummaging through the ragtag bookcase at our cottage on a rainy day. (I have no idea how it got there.) I accidentally caught sight of her autobiography sitting on a shelf as I reached the top of the staircase in my college's library, borrowed it, and fell completely in love with this remarkable woman. The next year, we were given the first few pages of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd to work on in a translation class. And there were, of course, the many adaptations of her works shown on PBS, which I wouldn't have missed for the world; to this day, I hear David Suchet's voice in my head whenever I read a novel featuring Hercule Poirot.

Agatha may have fallen out of favour with me when I later discovered her more literary crime-writing heiresses such as P.D. James and Dorothy L. Sayers, but I'll always love her for the compelling stories she wove. She's often been snubbed for not being "intellectual", and I admit I was guilty of this opinion for some years until rather recently, but she's clever. In addition, though many of her characters could be called stereotypical, many of the underrated women in her novels display hitherto unsuspected strength and courage.

I could go on and on about her: how I started drinking tea because of At Bertram's Hotel; how I feel no urge to "solve the mystery" of her 1926 disappearance and reappearance with apparent amnesia; how much I admire this shy, solitary child who invented stories for herself and became the world's most beloved writer; how her autobiography is the perfect volume to carry around and dip into at odd moments...

But what about the book, you may ask? I wasn't forgetting — no, really!

This omnibus edition is a wonderful way to get acquainted, or reacquainted, with her work, illustrating as it does her range as a mystery writer, playing with various investigators, settings, narrative points of view, and even historical eras!

In The Secret Adversary, as a last resort to earn a living after the war, ponderous Tommy and spirited Tuppence half-jokingly form a joint venture, Young Adventurers, Ltd. They find themselves in very serious danger as they attempt to locate the elusive Jane Finn and the vital papers in her possession, under the shadowy threat of a certain "Mr. Brown". There are a number of very ingenious misdirections, and Tuppence is a fine example of the "plucky" heroine that Agatha seems to be so fond of. (Some may find that word condescending, but I personally like it.)

I was so pleased to encounter The Murder of Roger Ackroyd once again in this omnibus edition! Hercule Poirot, having retired from his remarkable career as a private detective to grow vegetable marrows in a quiet village, teams up with the local doctor — his neighbour and our narrator — to solve a stabbing. There's the usual houseful of plausible suspects, but the culprit is a bit of a surprise.

The Boomerang Clue (a.k.a. Why Didn't They Ask Evans?) features another temperate young man/spunky young heroine pairing. Did the dying man Bobby found accidentally fall from a cliff, or was he pushed? Who is this "Evans" he mentioned with his last breath? And why is the photo presented at the inquest different from the one Bobby saw in his pocket? So many questions to answer!

The Moving Finger opens with a classic case of poison pen letters in a small community, which turns into a nasty case of suicide. The situation grows worse when a maid is found murdered. Fortunately, Miss Marple is on hand to untangle this knotty problem. This novel constitutes a perfect example of a seemingly powerless young woman, deemed a misfit by most others, coming into her own.

Set on the banks of the Nile in Ancient Egypt, Death Comes as the End was inspired by letters found by an archaeological expedition in the 1920s. Recently returned to her authoritarian father's house, a bright young widow probes the series of tragic events that follow the introduction of a concubine into what she believed was an unchanged and unchangeable setting. I found this study of psychological profiles and prevalent beliefs absolutely fascinating.


  1. Ah, Agatha... Moi, ça a été à la bibliothèque de mon école secondaire que je l'ai rencontrée. Je ne sais plus si on y trouvait sa bibliographie complète, mais je sais que j'ai lu tout ce que j'y ai trouvé d'elle! J'ai bien l'impression que j'éprouverais grand plaisir à me replonger dans ses univers.

    1. As-tu lu son autobiographie? J'adore sa totale franchise et la façon un peu décousue dont elle raconte ses souvenirs à mesure qu'ils refont surface.

      Je crois qu'elle gagne beaucoup à être lue en anglais, peut-être en raison de la qualité quintessentiellement British de ses romans.

    2. La bibliothèque de l'école avait quelques-uns de ses titres en anglais - je les ai aussi avidement dévorés que les autres, évidemment! Tiens, la bibliothèque municipale a une quinzaine de ses titres en anglais; j'en prends note pour mes prochaines visites. Le catalogue ne semble pas contenir son autobiographie, par contre; dommage. Je ne pense pas l'avoir lue et, d'après ce que tu en dis, je sens qu'elle me plairait bien. Le hasard me fera peut-être tomber dessus un jour...

    3. Peut-être en prêt entre bibliothèques (PEB)? Ça vaudrait la peine de t'informer!

  2. This was so delightful to read Danielle! I have to admit that my favourite Christie mystery is 'Murder on the Orient Express' - it made me fall in love with the idea of train travel and I've wanted to travel on the Orient Express ever since.

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed reading this very long-winded post, Hila!
      Oh, I loved that novel too, although the motive for the murder broke my heart.
      Ah, train travel... I hope you get the chance to experience the Orient Express someday! A short documentary was filmed when the recent adaptation with David Suchet was made, and it's an absolute delight to watch. Such luxury within such limited space!


Your comments are welcome, in English or en français.