The great Agatha Christie

I’ve been an avid fan of whodunits for most of my life. I especially like the ones from the 1920a until the 1960s, and especially Agatha Christie, though not only. I also enjoy most books by Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Carter Dickson/John Dickson Carr, Craig Rice, Patrick Quentin, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Margery Allingham, Ellery Queen, and many others. There’s just something about that era in whodunit history that speaks to me.

Of Agatha Christie’s whodunits, totalling some 80-ish novels, I’ve read all, and most of them several times. I’ve also read many of her short story collections, but I don’t think she excelled in that format as much as did Dorothy Sayers. I’ve read some of the novels she wrote as Mary Westmacott, too, but they seem a bit bland to me. It’s the whodunit genre that she excelled in.

Actually, the only reason for this blog post is to list some of my favourites. So here goes (in chronological order):

1922 — The secret adversary (Tommy & Tuppence)
1923 — The murder on the links (Hercule Poirot)
1925 — The secret of Chimneys
1926 — The murder of Roger Ackroyd (HP)
1930 — The murder at the vicarage (Miss Marple)
1932 — Peril at end house (HP)
1934 — Murder on the Orient Express / Murder in the Calais Coach (HP)
1936 — Murder in Mesopotamia (HP)
1937 — Death on the Nile / Hidden horizon (HP)
1939 — Ten little N—ers / Ten little Indians / And then there were none
1940 — Sad cypress (HP)
1941 — Evil under the sun (HP)
1950 — A murder is announced (MM)
1957 — 4.50 from Paddington / What Mrs McGilliguddy saw! / Murder, she said (MM)
1962 — The mirror crack’d from side to side (MM)
1964 — A Caribbean mystery (MM)
1966 — Third girl (HP)
1968 — By the pricking of my thumbs (T&T)
1975 — Curtain, Poirot’s last case (HP)

Perhaps the most surprising title in that list is Third girl, which many see as a weak(er) entry in Christie’s catalogue. I don’t. I’m not entirely sure why, but for some reason I just like it. The plot flows very nicely and despite a somewhat silly plot twist the resolution holds up pretty well.

By the pricking of my thumbs probably has *the* best 96 first pages of any whodunit in history. In those pages, Christie manages to create a tangible feeling of lurking and growing menace, without there being anything particularly nasty ever happening (until page 96, that is). It’s just Tuppence investigating something that looks like a mystery. The book is worth reading just for those pages.

With some 80-ish books, there’s bound to be some clonkers. Indeed there are. Christie’s absolute worst include:

1927 — The big four (HP)
1946 — The hollow / Murder after hours (HP)
1965 — At Bertram’s Hotel (MM)
1967 — Endless night
1969 — Hallowe’en party (HP)
1970 — Passenger to Frankfurt
1973 — Postern of fate (T&T)

Most of the above-listed books drag on endlessly without anything interesting going on at all. There are sections, sometimes whole chapters, that just feel like pointless padding. They’re ill-constructed and badly planned, especially Passenger to Frankfurt, which is probably the worst thing she ever wrote. It is confusing and illogical. Had it not been written by a major literary name, I seriously doubt any self-respecting publisher would have touched it.

The big four is an odd entry in Christie’s catalogue. I admit it’s a fun read. It’s a fast-paced romp, with a twist at the end. But still it fails. The characters are out of character, and the plot is way too fantastical. Luckily she never tried writing anything like it again.

I also must mention Crooked house, which seems to be rated highly in many people’s lists. I didn’t like it at all. That’s probably because it’s the only book in which I spotted the murderer immediately when s/he was introduced. It’s the only time I’ve been totally sure of who the killer is, and when it turned out I was right, I was left with a hollow feeling of dissatisfaction.

Agatha Christie elevated the whodunit genre way above Arthur Conan Doyle. Her plots and dialogues find no match in Doyle’s books. Although I have to admit that Sherlock Holmes is probably *the* most fascinating fictional detective of them all, especially on TV and film. But Doyle’s books feel stiff and stagey in many ways, and they don’t quite appeal to me. Nor are Doyle’s plots very well-constructed, even though they are fascinating. He relies too much on clues the readers are never served with. Christie had a sense of “fair play” towards her readers. That is, she allowed only clues that the reader had been shown (though usually in very subtle ways). She was a master of creating solid, consistent and overall-believable plots, and her dialogues are virtually always flowing naturally and seldom feel artificial.

I also much prefer paperbacks, especially pocket editions, to the hard cover ones. Granted, hard covers look nicer in a book shelf, but the pocket editions have much better covers. Sometimes they’re pieces of pure art, with hand-drawn little masterpieces. That, of course, doesn’t apply to Christie’s pockets only, but pocket books in general, especially the ones dating from prior to the 1980s. After that, their quality deteriorated dramatically, it seems.

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Spielberg’s Munich and Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia

After seeing Spielberg’s Munich, it suddenly struck me that the movie has many parallels with David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. The character development of the main protagonists, Avner in the former and Lawrence in the latter, is very similar, even near-identical, as are many other aspects of the films.

Both movies are based on books retelling (alleged) true events, though understandably dramatized, as movies tend to be. Avner and Lawrence are both low-ranking military servants who are sent out into the field. There they each lead their own small band of “bandits” in various guerilla attacks against the enemy. Their activities seem successful at start, but things don’t always go according to plan. Group members get killed. Moral doubt grows in the mind of both Avner and Lawrence. They are pulled out of the field before their jobs are finished. Their respective assignments leave them morally devastated, and they both feel manipulated by higher powers. When returning from the field, they are greeted by admiring strangers, but they themselves seem to be in a state of confusion and disillusion. Even though their field assignments are considered to be successes by the higher-ups, both movies end without offering any proper resolution or closure for the main protagonists.

There are indeed many similarities. Both Lawrence and Avner start from inexperience and enthusiasm, go through success and satisfaction, a phase of fanaticism, and they both end up with disappointment, disillusion and paranoia. There’s also the small guerilla group, the sporadic attacks against the enemy, the death of fellow group members, the revenge killings (the “No prisoners!” attack on the Turks, the killing of the Dutch girl), and there’s all the guns and the bombs.

Spielberg is a self-confessed Lean fan. He’s even stated that Lawrence of Arabia probably has the best script ever written for the movies (included in an interview accompanying the Lawrence of Arabia DVD). Perhaps he’s in the habit of making hyperbolic statements. I wouldn’t know. But it wouldn’t seem impossible to imagine that Spielberg did indeed use Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia as a vague blue-print for his own movie. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. We all seek our inspirations from somewhere.