Thursday, September 17, 2009

Five Great Agatha Christie Novels

It's Christie Week, celebrating the life and work of Dame Agatha Christie, author of 80 novels and short story collections and more than a dozen plays.

Agatha Christie was my "gateway drug" into the world of crime fiction, and if you ask any group of mystery fans, I bet most of them would say the same. Some modern crime writers I know -- people I admire, respect and even love -- will occasionally dismiss Dame Agatha's books as formulaic, plot-driven, and not sensitive enough to the true impact of violence. Some of her books (the Tuppence and Tommy mysteries, in particular) warrant this criticism; but at her best, she was very good indeed, and acutely observant of the way that people behave.

You'll find lots of "best" lists out there, but these five are my personal favorites, in chronological order.

1. Death on the Nile, 1937. Obsessive love was a recurring theme in Agatha Christie's novels, and we see it at its most public and intense here. Simon Doyle jilted Jacqueline de Bellefort in order to marry her wealthy best friend, Linnet Ridgeway; Jacqueline shows up on their honeymoon cruise on the Nile. It's only a matter of time until Linnet is murdered -- but Jacqueline has an unbreakable alibi. Hercule Poirot, a passenger on the cruise, is the only man with the psychological insight needed to identify the killer.

2. A Murder is Announced, 1950. The quintessential Miss Marple novel, set in the village of Chipping Cleghorn. Miss Letitia Blacklock wakes up one morning to find a newspaper advertisement inviting people to her own house, Little Paddocks, for a murder on Friday night. People do show up, as does a man with a gun; the lights go out, shots are fired, and when the lights come back on Miss Blacklock has been wounded and the gunman -- an immigrant who worked at a local spa -- is dead. Miss Marple is the one who finds the truth buried in the secrets several people are hiding. Plot does trump character in this mystery, but the plot is so ingenious you can't help but stand back and marvel.

3. They Came to Baghdad, 1951. Anyone who faults Agatha Christie for character development hasn't read this delightful thriller, which stars young Victoria Jones. Victoria Jones, longing for adventure, pretends to be the niece of a prominent archaeologist and winds up in Baghdad at the same time as a secret summit of superpowers (the U.S., the U.K. and the Soviet Union). A man stumbles into Victoria's hotel room and dies, but not before gasping out three words that send her on a reckless journey into the desert. Implausible, silly, and just great fun.

4. Endless Night, 1967. Architect Michael Rogers tells the story of his courtship and marriage to heiress Fenella Goodman, which ends in tragedy. It's a rare first-person narrative, and completely different in tone from anything else Christie wrote; if you can finish this book without feeling shaken, you're stronger than I am.

5. Passenger to Frankfurt, 1970. I've written about this book before; it's another standalone, and more of a thriller than a mystery. British diplomat Sir Stafford Nye agrees to let a mysterious woman borrow his identity in order to escape people she says are trying to kill her; this launches him into an international effort to block a conspiracy for world domination. A spy novel for women by a woman, with a secret weapon only a female author could have devised.


Kevin Wignall said...

Very interesting. You might remember the post I wrote a while back in which I re-read "Murder on the Orient Express" to see if it still stood up since I first read it as a child - despite all the naysayers, I thought it stood up incredibly well. That would be among my favourites, as would "Evil Under the Sun" and the Tommy and Tuppence mystery, "Dial M for Murder".

Amazingly, of yours, I've only read one (Death on the Nile - superb) and started another (Passenger to Frankfurt - not right for me at the age of 11). But I've just noticed I have a copy of "A Murder is Announced" and with have to buy a copy of Baghdad.

I can also recommend her archaeological memoir "Come, tell me how you live".

Tom Ehrenfeld said...

Very cool! As it turns out, I'm reading And Then There Were None with Hayley at night, though each of us has read it before, this time we're marveling how well she constructs her books--even when you know how its going to turn out the book still works extremely well. Certain sections suddenly take on new meaning now.

I'd have to include this one among my top five. That, and Ten Little Indians. (Joke.)

There's some good stuff on Agatha Christie week to be found on the online Guardian site, including a quiz.

AnswerGirl said...

I need to go back to MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, which I haven't read since high school . . . I recently reread AND THEN THERE WERE NONE, and although the plot remains ingenious (and deeply creepy, and far more plausible than the film or theater versions), character development is not its strength.

Anonymous said...

Agatha Christie novels were my gateway too! It's been so long since I've read them that I can't honestly say which ones are my favorites. I do remember reading her autobiography and developing a made desire to track down some devonshire cream to have with scones at tea time. It wasn't something you could find easily in Cleveland and she made it sound so delectable.