Monday, 28 July 2014

Top Agatha Christies

I've been interested in two discussions in recent days on that perenially entertaining (if subjective and inconclusive) topic of "favourite books". Those excellent bloggers Christine Poulson and Clothes in Books started a thoughtful discussion about five favourite Agatha Christies, while Mike Linane, a very knowledgable Golden Age fan, drew attention on Facebook to the thoughts of yet another leading blogger, Crimeficlover, on "top ten Golden Age novels." I couldn't resist the temptation to join in. So today I'll focus on Christie. Thoughts on ten favourites from the Golden Age will follow on Wednesday. As Christine and others have said, however, not only do different people make different choices, one's own views tend to shift on these selections. And I expect mine will before long!

With Christie, however, I'm going to vary things a bit. I really want to choose six titles, rather than five (and I was very tempted to go for ten.) In reverse order, then:

6. Five Little Pigs - this is a Christie that I first read when I was young, and it didn't work especially well for me at the tender age of about nine. I was persuaded by the late Robert Barnard to revise my opinions, and I now think that the image of the murderer watching the victim die is one of the most chilling in  Golden Age literature.

5. Cards on the Table - this is a very clever story, and it's one of those Christies (Three-Act Tragedy, Why Didn't They Ask Evans? and The Sittaford Mystery are others) which strike me as surprisingly under-rated. The idea of confining the suspects to just four is a good one, and the detective work is very nicely done. Even though I don't like bridge, I've always enjoyed this book.

4. Peril at End House - a brilliant spin on a device that is now rather familiar. The clueing is excellent, and the way that suspicion shifts from one person to another - for me, that's one of the tests of a Golden Age classic - is splendidly done. I like the seaside setting, and Poirot and Hastings are in great form.

3. Curtain - because this book was posthumously published at a time when "mere ingenuity" was unfashionable, its cleverness has, I think, generally been under-rated. The central idea is fantastic and it influenced my otherwise very different book, Take My Breath Away. An extraordinary book in many ways, not least because of what Poirot does near the end.

2. The ABC Murders - the best Golden Age serial killer whodunit, and a book whose plot twist has inspired many other wirters, past and present. A gripping mystery, with neat clues and a level of tension and suspense that Christie surpassed only once, in my number one choice.

1. And Then There Were None - I've written several times about my admiration for this book. It is in many ways the ultimate Golden Age whodunit, and yet neither Poirot nor Marple appear. It was one of the first adult novels I ever read, and it made a lasting impression on me.

Yet somehow I've omitted The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder is Easy, Murder at the Vicarage, and Murder on the Orient Express. And... well, go on, then - what are your favourites?

20 comments:

Yvonne Eve said...

1. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
2. A Murder is Announced
3. N or M?

Then it gets trickier. The Mysterious Affair at Styles? The Murder at the Vicarage? Death on the Nile?

Daniel Sellers said...

Wow, this is a big ask, isn't it?

The mathsy/analytical part of my brain wants to construct an assessment framework to score each book for, among other things: cluing, characters, twist, atmosphere, humour, pathos etc etc. But it would be a false exercise -- my love of the novels is often very emotional, tied to the time I first read them, and what else was going on in my life.

I was first exposed to Agatha Christie the night they shot Ceaucescu and his wife. Death on the Nile was on the TV and it was such a joyful distraction from the news. I read the book shortly after Christmas and have always loved it, despite the writing being pretty plain. I even "honeymooned in Egypt", though thankfully survived.

Then there's Mrs McGinty's Dead. I bought it with my pocket money in Harrogate after tea at the Old Swan on her centenary in 1990. How could I not feel affection for that (particularly strong) later book?

Then there's The Hollow. A seemingly-very-aged teacher at school told me he read it in 1954, ill in the sick bay at his public school down south. He said it was the only one he never guessed the twist to. I'll always associate him with that book, and still love the early-nineties Fontana edition cover, with the mysterious clue of the dated eggs ... (I didn't guess the murderer!)

I could go on and on ... but won't.

I think my all-time favourite has to be A Murder is Announced, for its sweetly domestic clues: the oiled lock, the burn on the table, the changed lamp, and what I think is the best clue in all Christie: the emphasis on the word "there" in "She wasn't there!".

Bill Crider said...

I haven't read all Christie's work, but my choice of those I've read would be your #1 pick. I read this as a kid and thought it was just wonderful.

Elaine said...

My five would be

Five Little Pigs. One of her best
Crooked House. A stand alone book and rather chilling
ABC murders
Then there were none. Or whatever it is now called. First Christie I read and it chilled me to the marrow. I was eleven T the time
Cat among the Pigeons. One of her better later books

Neil C said...

Hi Martin,

It’s great to have your thoughts on this topic. Though I’m a big fan of Christie’s work, I’ve only read about half of her novels (so far), but like you I’d include 'Five Little Pigs', 'Curtain' and 'And Then There Were None' amongst my favourites, especially the latter. It’s a novel which still dazzles me with its brilliance after several readings; it’s bleak, chilling and, at times, surprisingly moving. The writing, especially in the first half of the book, is more careful and controlled than is perhaps usually the case with Christie; and the final two sections of the novel are extremely powerful and satisfying.

I’d also like to put in a word for 'Towards Zero'. I haven’t read it for a while, but it’s always struck me as strong and unusual — the mystery is gripping, and the novel gains a great deal from the patience of the writing and the depth of the characterization. When I finally get to the end of Christie’s books, I’d be surprised if this one wasn’t amongst my favourite five.

I’ve been enjoying your blog immensely for some time now. Thank you for drawing my attention to so many authors and novels that I’d never heard of, but now very much want to read —it’s much appreciated. And it’s fun finally to have a discussion that I feel qualified to join!

Neil C said...

Hi Martin,

It’s great to have your thoughts on this topic. Though I’m a big fan of Christie’s work, I’ve only read about half of her novels (so far), but like you I’d include 'Five Little Pigs', 'Curtain' and 'And Then There Were None' amongst my favourites, especially the latter. It’s a novel which still dazzles me with its brilliance after several readings; it’s bleak, chilling and, at times, surprisingly moving. The writing, especially in the first half of the book, is more careful and controlled than is perhaps usually the case with Christie; and the final two sections of the novel are extremely powerful and satisfying.

I’d also like to put in a word for 'Towards Zero'. I haven’t read it for a while, but it’s always struck me as strong and unusual — the mystery is gripping, and the novel gains a great deal from the patience of the writing and the depth of the characterization. When I finally get to the end of Christie’s books, I’d be surprised if this one wasn’t amongst my favourite five.

I’ve been enjoying your blog immensely for some time now. Thank you for drawing my attention to so many authors and novels that I’d never heard of, but now very much want to read —it’s much appreciated. And it’s fun finally to have a discussion that I feel qualified to join!

Jerry House said...

In no particular order, the novels:

THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD
DEATH COMES AT THE END
AND THEN THERE WERE NONE
THE A.B.C. MURDERS
THE BODY IN THE LIBRAY

And if one can pick from her collections, either THE HOUND OF DEATH or THE MYSTERIOUS MR.QUINN

And from her plays, either THE MOUSETRAP or AKHNATON

Martin Edwards said...

These are lovely comments. Thanks everyone. And special thanks to you, Neil. I'm delighted you like the blog. And you are right about Towards Zero - a very good book.

Kacper said...

It's interesting - I almost feel compelled to make two lists, one of the novels I find the most brilliantly constructed and adroitly clued, and one of the books I actually enjoyed reading most. I find that technical virtuosity is something that very many readers of Christie value, but personally cluing, no matter how clever, is seldom what stays with me and what makes me want to reread a particular Christie (though I pretty much reread them all!). I'm more drawn to interesting characters, atmosphere and mood, and inventive plots regardless of whether they're 100% fair play. Anyhow, if I was only allowed to ever reread five Christies, these are the five I'd pick:

1. Murder is Easy - for the atmosphere, the ingenuity, and one of Christie's most chilling villains
2. Crooked House - for the atmosphere x100, intriguing characters, and another chilling villain
3. Five Little Pigs - for the characters and emotional drama, as well as for the lingering winsome mood.
4. Dead Man's Folly - this is not a particularly well-regarded one, but I think it has excellent characterization and a certain melancholy mood that's very well done. I love returning to this one.
5. The Hollow - probably my favorite Christie of all, for the same reason as the others - characters, atmosphere, compelling solution and believable villain.

Honorable mention goes to By the Pricking of My Thumbs, which - like DMF - is not at all well-regarded by critics but I can't help loving it. It's such a creepy book and I think it's really well done.

Eli Ward said...

1. Five Little Pigs
2.Endless Night 3. Nemesis 4. After the Funeral and 5. Mrs McGinty's Dead

Martin Edwards said...

More enjoyable lists - thank you! Kacper, I like Dead Man's Folly very much as well, though it wouldn't make my top ten.

neer said...

Among the books not mentioned:

Evil Under the Sun
Hercule Poirot's Christmas
The Sittaford Mystery
Murder in Mesopotamia
Mysterious Mr. Quin

Long back, I made a list of my 12 favourite Agatha Christie's books. If anybody wants to have a look, here's the link:

http://inkquilletc.blogspot.in/2012/01/twelve-best-agatha-christie.html

Ann Cleeves said...

Sorry - just don't get And Then There Were None. Contrived and without any credible characters. An idea pretending to be a novel. I came to it late and was so disappointed.

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - Thanks for sharing your list. You've got a very interesting selection there, and certainly you show the breadth of Christie's reach, if I may put it that way.

Deb said...

When I think of "classic Christie," my choice for best book would be Death in the Clouds because of its fantastic use of misdirection. An extremely obvious, almost blatant, clue to the murderer's identity is provided, but it's so subtle that it goes right over the reader's head (well, it went right over my head). Then when you finish the book and go back to reread the clues-- there it is, right there in black and white.

However, if we're choosing our absolute favorite Christie, I have to go with the very atypical Endless Night, which is the closest thing to noir Christie ever wrote and features an amazing, totally unexpected (to me, anyway) twist toward the end. Great stuff!

Puzzle Doctor said...

I've yet to do an overall Top Five for Dame Agatha over on my blog, although I've done ones for Miss Marple and Poirot a long time ago. Having re-read some of the Marples recently, it's safe to say that the memory cheated on some of the picks.

I think it has to be for me:

1 The ABC Murders - the book that got me into "proper" mysteries

2 Five Little Pigs

3 A Murder Is Announced - a better use, I think, of the trick used in Peril At End House, which I found got a bit silly in the second half and makes Poirot a bit of an idiot for not solving it earlier

4 Mrs McGinty's Dead - it does use one of her standard tricks but it's very entertaining and a great example of a straight mystery

5 Death On The Nile - again, a very clever mystery.

I prefer the less gimmicky books - so no Ten Little You-know-whats or Murder on the Orient Express

Martin Edwards said...

More great comments, thanks. Neer, I like your list - Mesopotamia, though, is a book that disappointed me.
Ann, I don't really think of you as a Christie fan generally, but perhaps I'm wrong there. And Then...has, for me, a great concept, a lot of menace - and an island setting too, and we both like the latter!

Martin Edwards said...

Deb, I like Endless Night a lot too. It would be in my top 20.
PD, another good list.
Thanks.

Jacqueline Fiedler said...

So many of you mentioned Five Little Pigs, which I've never heard of, so had to look it up. Here in the United States, it was known as Murder in Retrospect.

christiefan said...

Great choice (and I like your blog). I agree on the underrated 'Cards On The Table' as I believe only vivid readers who could appreciate the cleverness of the plot.

My six favourites of Christie's are (in random order):

- Hercule Poirot's Christmas
- Parker Pyne Investigates
- After The Funeral
- The Man In The Brown Suit
- Dumb Witness
- Poirot's Early Cases