Given that’s it’s 100 years since Agatha Christie published her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles in the US (readers in the UK would have to wait another year to meet Hercule Poirot), I’ve put together a list of my five favourite Christie novels today. Admittedly, this is not quite as exciting as the news of the new £2 coin, but what the heck.
Styles doesn’t appear in it – when I went through my ‘Christie’ bookcase (yes, that is a thing) – I was reminded that I actually preferred Miss Marple’s mysteries overall. If I were to pin this down, I’d say that I found the character more believable (although the recent BBC adaptation of The ABC Murders starring John Malkovich was excellent in rounding out the character of the Belgian detective). The Marple stories are usually far less glamorous, far more familiar in their locations and characters.
In order of publication, my Top Five are:
The ABC Murders (1936) – ‘ A is for Andover – and Mrs Ascher battered to death.’ Set in pretty unremarkable towns across the UK, a murder is working his way through a railway guide in alphabetical order. I liked the tension that the structure behind the murders created. Knowing that this was all part of an elaborate game was far more exciting. Only a fool pits themselves against Poirot.
And Then There Were None (1939) – This, in my mind, is the perfect crime story – ten strangers trapped on an island are murdered one by one. The structure is tight (I particularly like the disappearance of one of 10 little figurines each time there is a death) and the resolution very clever indeed. Dispensing with a detective this time, it’s a claustrophobic story where all are hunted.
N or M? (1941) – Tommy and Tuppence Beresford are now middle-aged and chomping at the bit to do something useful for the war effort. It’s very much a period piece and the historical context is far more evident than in the Poirot or Marple books. I wasn’t a fan of the recent-ish TV series, although Tuppence’s wardrobe was rather fab. What I like about this pair is their relationship, something which adds a different dynamic to Christie’s other novels.
A Murder is Announced (1950) – The idea that an advert in a local gazette makes just an announcement draws you in from the start. I loved this novel because of the characters (particularly the hapless Miss Bunner), because of the clue hidden in the seemingly innocuous statement, ‘She wasn’t there’, and because of the final revelations. I helped direct a version of this as a school play years ago because I love it so much.
A Pocket Full of Rye (1953) – ‘…there’s one thing that’s odd. The suit he was wearing – I checked the contents of the pockets. The usual stuff – handkerchief, keys, change, wallet – but there was one thing that’s downright peculiar. The right-hand pocket of his jacket. It had cereal in it.’ As she has done elsewhere, Christie takes the familiar, in this case the old childhood rhyme, and gives us a killer who uses it in a chilling manner to structure their murders. Again, it is Miss Marple who arrives to solve the case.
Christie’s more minor characters are often drawn by shorthand for the reader – glamorous secretaries who might benefit from a rich lover’s death are usually discounted by the end – but she puts together ingenious plots, which sets her apart from many who followed, and the reader never feels cheated – she always ties up loose ends. An Agatha Christie novel can be (and usually is) read cover to cover in one sitting and is always a highly satisfying experience.