Category Archives: Agatha Christie Reading Challenge

Agatha Christie Reading Challenge – Update

In September 2008 Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise launched the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge to read her way through Agatha Christie’s novels, in the order in which they were written.  I joined in but decided to read the books as I come across them rather than in order of publication. There are 66 mystery and detective novels and numerous collections of short stories.

Up to now I’ve read 54 books and 4 short story collections. The list of the books I’ve read is on my Agatha Christie Reading Challenge page. Just 11 or 12 books left for me to read (plus the short stories!):

  1. 1925 – The Secret of Chimneys – I think I’ve read this one! But I can’t find a record of it or the book, so maybe I haven’t!
  2. 1930 – The Murder at the Vicarage
  3. 1931 – The Sittaford Mystery
  4. 1935 – Three Act Tragedy*
  5. 1938 – Appointment with Death
  6. 1940 – Sad Cypress
  7. 1942 – The Moving Finger*
  8. 1944 – Towards Zero*
  9. 1944 – Death Comes as an End
  10. 1945 – Sparkling Cyanide
  11. 1945 – Destination Unknown
  12. 1969 – Hallowe’en Party*

* books I own

I also have The Mouse Trap to read and some of the short story collections  – Wikipedia lists these and there are a lot! Then there are the books Agatha Christie wrote under the pseudonym of Mary Westmacott. I’ve read her Autobiography, but there is also an earlier book, Come, Tell Me How You Live under the name of Agatha Christie Mallowan.

Nemesis by Agatha Christie

Nemesis first published in 1971, is one of Agatha Christie’s later books written in her eighties. It is the last book she wrote about Miss Marple. There are two more books that were published later, but those were written earlier. It’s not among the best of her books, it’s slow moving, lots of dialogue, lots of recapping of events and clues, lots of moralising and social commentary. It follows on, although it is not a sequel to, A Caribbean Mystery in which Miss Marple met Mr Rafiel.

It’s slow moving because for quite a while Miss Marple doesn’t know what the crime is that she has been asked to investigate. Mr Rafiel, who she met in the West Indies, has left her £20,000 in his will on condition she investigates a certain crime, but doesn’t give her any details. He wrote that she had a natural flair for justice leading to a natural flair for crime and reminded her that the code word is Nemesis. Then she is invited to join a tour of Famous Houses and Gardens of Great Britain at Mr Rafiel’s expense. And off she goes.

As Miss Marple remarks:

Murders as reported in the press have never claimed my attention. I have never read books on criminology as a subject or really been interested in such a thing. No, it has just happened that I have found myself in the vicinity of murder rather more often than would seem normal. (page 90)

What an understatement!

Miss Marple has to first of all work out who she can trust.Very gradually through meeting people and talking to them in her usual rather scatty old-lady manner Miss Marple begins to uncover a crime committed years earlier, working largely on intuition. During this process Miss Marple ponders on a number of subjects from wondering how the three witches in Macbeth should be portrayed, during the visit Mr Rafiel had arranged for her with the three sisters at the Old Manor House, to her disapproval of the clothes young women wore. I suspect this was Agatha Christie using Miss Marple as a mouthpiece for her own views – just as this view of rape expressed by  another character, Professor Wanstead, a friend of Mr Rafiel may be her own thoughts too:

Girls you must remember, are far more ready to be raped nowadays than they used to be. Their mothers insist, very often, that they should call it rape. (page 182)

But I wondered about the whole premise of the book – would someone really ask a person to investigate a crime and not give them any details?  It seems highly improbable to me even if Mr Rafiel had wanted Miss Marple to approach the crime with an open mind. And surely if Mr Rafiel really wanted to discover the true facts about the crime he could easily have done so before he died.

I think Nemesis lacks tension and suspense. The characters are rather hard to differentiate, mainly because there are too many, and too many who have no part in the mystery. There are few red herrings to deflect the reader, just unexplained facts that Miss Marple clears up in the last chapters. But I think it is an unusual book and I quite enjoyed it.

The Big Four by Agatha Christie

I’ve read a lot of Agatha Christie’s books, most of which I’ve really enjoyed, but I’m not too keen on her books that involve spies and gangs of international criminals who are seeking world domination. And The Big Four, first published in 1927, is one of those books.

Basically it’s a collection of short stories (derived from a series of stories that first appeared in The Sketch, a weekly magazine) in which Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings lock forces with a vast organisation of crime led by four individuals, in the course of which they uncover the identity of the ‘Big Four’. The aim of the Four is ‘to destroy the existing social order, and to replace it with an anarchy in which they would reign as dictators.’  They are a Chinese man, Li Chang Yen, an American multi-millionaire, a French woman and ‘the Destroyer’, an Englishman. Poirot is convinced that they are behind everything:

The world-wide unrest, the labour troubles that beset every nation, and the revolutions that break out in some. There are people, not scaremongers, who know what they are talking about, and they say that there is a force behind the scenes which aims at nothing less than the destruction of civilisation. (page 25)

In the course of their investigations Poirot and Hastings find themselves in many dangerous  situations, all melodramatic and a little far-fetched, from which they miraculously escape certain death. The Big Four is action packed, with Poirot uncharacteristically chasing off after the criminals, still using his ‘little grey cells’ of course, whilst Hastings is knocked out and kidnapped, and Li Chang Yen threatens to abduct and torture Hasting’s wife, whom he had left behind in their ranch in the Argentine.

This is not one of my favourite Agatha Christie books. But perhaps it is not so surprising that The Big Four is far from her best. It was in  December 1926 that Agatha Christie disappeared after her husband, Archie Christie had told her he wanted a divorce and in 1927 she was still recovering from this. It was her brother-in-law’s suggestion that the last Poirot short stories she had published could be re-written to ‘have the appearance of a book‘ as a ‘stop-gap‘ – and the result was The Big Four, which, I think, suffers from being a loosely connected collection of episodes. Agatha explained in her Autobiography that Campbell Christie had helped her with linking the short stories as she was ‘unable to tackle anything of the kind.‘ (Autobiography page 365)

They Do It With Mirrors by Agatha Christie

I’m slowly reading my way through Agatha Christie’s books, not in chronological order, but just as I come across them and this month I’ve read They Do It With Mirrors which was first published in 1952.

I don’t think it’s one of her best, but I did like it. It begins with Miss Marple reminiscing with an old friend, Mrs Ruth Van Rydock, an American. Miss Marple has known her and her sister, Carrie Louise since they had been together at a pensionnat in Florence. Ruth is worried about Carrie Louise, who is now living in a country house in the south of England with her husband, Lewis Serrocold, which he has turned into a home for delinquent boys. She can’t put her finger on what is wrong, she just felt the atmosphere wasn’t right, whether it was the boys’ home – ‘those dreadful young delinquents‘ or something else and she asks Miss Marple to visit Carrie Louise to see if her fears are justified.

Miss Marple finds an unhappy household, including Mildred, Carrie Louise’s widowed daughter, Stephen and Alex, her stepsons, and Gina, her adopted daughter’s daughter, married to an American, Wally Hudd. Lewis Serrocold is Carrie’s third husband, described by Ruth as a

‘crank’, a ‘man with ideals’, ‘bitten by the bug of wanting to improve everybody’s lives for them. And, really you know, nobody can do that but yourself.’

All is not well with the boys either – one of them, Edgar Lawson is suffering from delusions, saying his father is Churchill and then that he is Montgomery. He loses control and Lewis takes him into his office, but their raised voices are heard by the others, culminating in the sound of gunshots. But it is not Lewis or Edgar who is killed, but one of the trustees of the home, Christian Gulbrandsen, the brother of Carrie Louise’s first husband who was alone in his study. So Ruth’s fears materialise when Christian is found shot dead and it seems that someone is trying to poison Carrie Louise.

As I expected from the title not everything is as it appears.  The layout of the house is of importance and there is a plan showing how the rooms are connected, but even so I was still in the dark. I hadn’t worked out who the murderer is and had even ruled out the person in question quite early on in the book. Miss Marple, however, was not deceived and had sorted out the reality from the illusion and seen through the misdirection.

… all the things that seemed to be true were only illusions. Illusions created for a definite purpose – in the same way that conjurers create illusions to deceive an audience.

There are a number of points that struck me as interesting as I read the book, not essential to the plot, but maybe revealing Agatha Christie’s opinions and her views of post-war society. There is the subject of self-help and the issue of expecting things to be granted as a right, focussing on providing education for the juvenile delinquents by men crazy with enthusiasm like Lewis Serrocold:

One of those men of enormous will power who like living on a banana and a piece of toast and put all their energies into a Cause.

 

She makes the point that just because a person comes from a deprived background doesn’t mean they’re going to turn into criminals and it is the honest ones who could do with a start in life – ‘But there, honesty has to be its own reward – millionaires don’t leave trust funds to help the worthwhile.’

There are comments on the oddness of the English, being prouder of defeats and retreats than of their victories, using Dunkirk as an example and the Charge of the Light Brigade. At the same time as I was reading this I was also reading Jeremy Paxman’s The English: a Portrait of a People, in which he also comments on this trait – turning the consequence of catastrophe into a ‘victorious retreat’.

On a more personal level there are her views on the vulnerability of women:

Women have a much worse time of it in the world than men do. They’re more vulnerable. They have children and they mind – terribly – about their children. As soon as they lose their looks, the men they love don’t love them any more. They’re betrayed and deserted and pushed aside.

 

I can’t help thinking that really was Agatha Christie speaking from experience.

Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie

There are many things I like about Five Little Pigs, a Poirot mystery first published in 1943. I like the plot and the way it’s structured, the characterisation, the dialogue, and Agatha Christie’s fluent style of writing. In addition the solution is convincing and satisfying.

Caroline Crale was convicted of the murder of her husband, Amyas and died in prison. Sixteen years later, her daughter, a child of five at the time of the murder, asks Poirot to clear her mother’s name, convinced that she was innocent.

Poirot checks the police records, talks to the lawyers who conducted the trial and to the five eyewitnesses, persuading them to write down their versions of events. He finds that she had ample motive for the crime, at no time had she protested her innocence, although she contended that he had committed suicide, and all the eyewitnesses thought she was guilty.

Inevitably there are different versions of the events and conflicting views of Caroline’s character, all very clearly set out. So what did actually happen? Was Caroline innocent or guilty?

Poirot, in his usual methodical manner, goes through the sequence of events, and having gathered together all the people involved, using logic and psychology to detect the incongruous he makes his dénouement.

The description of Amyas Crale’s house, Alderbury appears to have been modelled on Agatha Christie’s own house, Greenway, complete with a Battery overlooking the river, just as at Greenway. The book was written in 1943, making it 16 years after 1926, the year of her disappearance before her divorce from her first husband, Archie Christie, so I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that Amyas Crale, a womaniser who was proposing to leave his wife for another woman has the same initials as Archie Christie!

I think the nursery rhyme theme of the title and the chapter headings is rather forced, as it doesn’t really throw any light on the mystery. It seems that Agatha Christie was a bit carried away with her ‘crimes of rhymes’, just as Poirot was obsessed with the jingle:

‘A jingle ran through Poirot’s head. He repressed it. He must not always be thinking of nursery rhymes. It seemed an obsession with him lately. And yet the jingle persisted.

This little pig went to market, this little pig stayed at home…’ (page 33)

This is the first Agatha Christie book I’ve read this year and I’m pleased it was such a good one!

Five Little Pigs is my 8th TBR book I’ve read this year in the Mount TBR Challenge, and the TBR Triple Dog Dare, the 2nd for the My Kind of Mystery Challenge and the 2nd for the What’s in a Name 7 Challenge (in the category, a book with a number written in letters in the title). And last, but by no means least, it’s the 56th Agatha Christie book I’ve read in the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge.

A Year of Reading Agatha Christie: 2013

Agatha ChristieThe Agatha Christie Reading Challenge is run by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. I don’t think of it as a Challenge – it’s really a reading project, as it is quite simply to read Agatha Christie’s books. I’m not reading them in order of publication but as I come across them.

As I wrote in a guest post on Alyce’s blog for her series of Best and Worst earlier this year, Agatha Christie has long been one of my favourite writers. I first read some of her books as a teenager, but over the last four years or so I’ve been reading as many of her books that I can find.

She wrote over 100 novels, short story collections and plays and she is one of the best-selling (if not the best-selling) novelists of all time, well known for her crime fiction featuring Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple and other detectives, both amateur and police.

I like many things about her writing. Her style is light, humorous at times, but her writing can be dark creating a tense and menacing atmosphere. Her plots are often ingenious, intricate, complicated puzzles, with the clues scattered throughout the texts. Some of her characters are clearly defined and fully rounded, some are lightly sketched, and others are comic characters, caricatures presented satirically or even farcically. Her settings are often country houses in idyllic English villages, but also in exotic locations in the Middle East as in her archaeological mysteries.

The full list of the 55 novels and short stories that I’ve read is on my Agatha Christie Reading Challenge page. This year I’ve read 9 of her books:

My favourite this year is Cards on the Table, but they all make fascinating reading.

Cards on the Table

  1. Cat Among the Pigeons  (Poirot)
  2. Mrs McGinty’s Dead (Poirot and Ariadne Oliver)
  3. Murder in the Mews (Poirot 4 short stories)
  4. Cards on the Table (Poirot)
  5. Third Girl (Poirot)
  6. Ten Little Niggers aka And Then There Were None
  7. A Murder is Announced (Miss Marple)
  8. N or M? (Tommy and Tuppence)
  9. Ordeal by Innocence

I’ve also read two biographies:

  1. Agatha Christie: an English Mystery by Laura Thompson
  2. Agatha Christie at Home by Hilary Macaskill

There are still plenty of Agatha Christie’s books for me to read. The following books are the ones I own and will be reading next year (not necessarily in this order):

  • They Do It With Mirrors (Miss Marple)
  • The Moving Finger (Miss Marple)
  • Miss Marple and Mystery: Complete Short Stories
  • Poirot Investigates (short stories)
  • The Golden Ball (short stories)
  • Complete Parker Pyne (short stories)
  • The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding (short stories)

Ordeal by Innocence by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie wrote in An Autobiography that Ordeal by Innocence and Crooked House were the two books she’d written that satisfied her the best. Neither book features Poirot or Miss Marple, so maybe she had become rather tired of them and had enjoyed introducing completely new characters.

Ordeal by Innocence (The Christie…Summary from the back cover of my copy:

According to the courts, Jacko Argyle bludgeoned his mother to death with a poker. Sentenced to life imprisonment, he died behind bars following a bout of pneumonia. Tragically, it was not until two years later that Dr Arthur Calgary came forward with the testimony that could have acquitted Jacko. Worse the doctor’s revelations were about to re-open old wounds in the family, increasing the likelihood that the real murderer would strike again.

My view:

Ordeal by Innocence is thus a stand-alone novel, first published in 1958, unlike the TV adaptation that had Miss Marple (in the form of Geraldine McEwan), solving the mystery.

Dr Calgary was surprised by the reception he received from the family when he visited them to tell them that Jacko was innocent and why he hadn’t come forward at the time to confirm his alibi. Instead of relief he was met with wariness and suspicion as the family members realised that one of them could be the murderer. This is a cold case that they wish had never been re-opened; they had been happy to accept that Jacko, a thoroughly nasty character, was guilty. Only Philip the eldest daughter’s wheelchair-bound husband is keen to discover the murderer’s identity. So, it is up to him, Doctor Calgary, helped by the family solicitor and Superintendent Huish to carry out fresh investigations.

What I liked about Ordeal by Innocence was the way Agatha Christie delved into the family relationships and their characters. Mrs Argyle was one of those mothers who was always right and thought she knew best and at times all her children had rebelled or wanted to rebel against her authority, so all were suspects, along with her long-suffering husband, who since her death was planning to marry his secretary.

The novel is as much about protecting the innocent as punishing the guilty, and the fact that stating your innocence is not proof of it. Calgary has to find the murderer so that the innocent will not suffer from the taint of guilt. Without knowing who was guilty they would have all come under suspicion, destroying their love and trust.

I swung from believing first one, then another character, was the guilty person and was quite taken in by all the red herrings Agatha Christie threw into the book. All is made clear in the last chapter when Dr Calgary presents his findings and reveals the killer. Although I don’t think it is one of Agatha Christie’s best books, I still enjoyed its complexity and admired her skill in plotting this novel.

N or M? by Agatha Christie

N or M? is the third of the Tommy and Tuppence stories, set in 1940 and first published in 1941.  Agatha Christie wrote this at the same time as writing The Body in the Library. She explained the reason in her Autobiography:

I had decided to write two books at once, since one of the difficulties of writing a book is that it suddenly goes stale on you. Then you have to put it by, and do other things – but I believed that if  I wrote two books, and alternated the writing of them, it would keep me fresh at the task. One was The Body in the Library, which I had been thinking of writing for some time, and the other one was N or M?, a spy story, which was in a way a continuation of the second book of mine, The Secret Adversary, featuring Tommy and Tuppence. Now with a grown-up son and daughter, Tommy and Tuppence were bored by finding that nobody wanted them in wartime. However, they made a splendid come-back as a middle-aged pair, and tracked down spies with all their old enthusiasm. (An Autobiography by Agatha Christie page 506)

Tommy is asked to go under cover to track down members of the Fifth Column, two of the most important and trusted German agents, whose mission is to infiltrate British society, like the Trojan wooden horse. All that is known is that N is a man and M a woman and they are thought to be at Leahampton on the south coast. He tells Tuppence that he is being sent to Scotland and that she can’t go with him, but she surprises him by being at Sans Souci, a seaside guesthouse in Leahampton, when he arrives. So there they are, both under cover, Tommy as Mr Meadowes and Tuppence as Mrs Blenkensop.

There is definitely something not right about the guesthouse, it has the feel of something sinister, something evil. And it’s not long before Tommy and Tuppence are embroiled in a series of dangerous near-disasters, involving German spies, and Smuggler’s Rest, a cottage with a secret room, set on a cliff overlooking a little cove and ideal for enemy action.

N or M? is an easy book to read and not too demanding. Agatha Christie makes use, as in some of her other books, of nursery rhymes, in this one it’s ‘Goosey goosey gander’, which comes from a Mother Goose picture book Tuppence reads to little Betty Sprot. Of all the characters in the book (apart from Tommy and Tuppence) Betty, a toddler, who speaks her own baby language, is the most well-drawn, so much so that at one point I even found myself wondering if she could be M!!!

One of its attractions for me is its historical setting, although when Agatha Christie wrote this book it was very current, she did not know how the war would end. It is interesting to see how she portrays the general public’s attitude towards the war, about patriotism, and the fear of Fifth Columnists, of spies, and Fascists and Communists. Also of note is that whilst most of the characters thought the war would be over very quickly, which is what I thought was the general consensus at the time, one of them thought it would last at least six years.

Following the publication of N or M? Agatha Christie was investigated by MI5 because she had named one of the characters ‘Major Bletchley’ and MI5 suspected she had a spy in Britain’s undercover code breaking centre, Bletchley Park.

A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie

A Murder is Announced was first published in 1950. My copy is in a collection of four Miss Marple stories – A Miss Marple Quartet. I particularly like this cover, showing Joan Hickson as Miss Marple.

Synopsis from Amazon:

The villagers of Chipping Cleghorn, including Jane Marple, are agog with curiosity over an advertisement in the local gazette which reads: ‘A murder is announced and will take place on Friday October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6.30 p.m.’

A childish practical joke? Or a hoax intended to scare poor Letitia Blacklock? Unable to resist the mysterious invitation, a crowd begins to gather at Little Paddocks at the appointed time when, without warning, the lights go out…

Of course it isn’t a practical joke and someone is murdered. But the mystery is to identify the victim – it’s not as straight forward as it first appears and there are plenty of red herrings. I vaguely remembered seeing the TV version (with Joan Hickson, perfect as Miss Marple) years ago and although I couldn’t remember who did it knew that I had to pay close attention to the detail of where people were sitting or standing in the room at the Little Paddocks when the lights went out. But even though I read it very carefully I was still baffled. It all hinges on family relationships and details of the characters’ identities which are so skilfully hidden that I was kept guessing until very near the end.

It’s not without flaws, some of the characters are a bit sketchy, and some of the novel borders on farce, with Miss Marple imitating a dead person’s voice whilst hiding in a broom cupboard and Mitzi, the highly strung and paranoid cook, a refugee from Germany, screaming like a siren and insisting that the police will take her away and torture her. Still, I wish her recipe for the chocolate cake ‘Delicious Death’ had been revealed.

What I really like about A Murder is Announced is the picture it paints of life in post-war Britain, showing how society was in the process of change. Miss Marple is her usual brilliant self, now seeming very old with ‘snow white hair and a pink crinkled face and very soft innocent blue eyes’, chattering and fluttering, but still as sharp and observant as ever. As she explains the world has changed since the war when everyone knew who everybody was. But now people come and settle in a village and all you know of them is what they say of themselves – you don’t know who they really are! And so, she compares them to the people she does know, people in her village of St Mary Mead, which helps to throw light on the mystery. It’s a layered mystery involving past illness, identities, and questions of inheritance.

Ten Little Niggers by Agatha Christie

I wondered when I began to write this post whether to use the current title, And Then There Were None, for this book, but chose to use its original title, Ten Little Niggers as that is the title of my copy, a 1968 reprint of its first publication in the UK in 1939. Because of its offensive title it was first published in the US a few months later in 1940 as And Then There Were None.

Ten Little NiggersFrom the back cover:

10 people are invited to a fabulous mansion on Nigger Island off the coast of Devon. Though they all have something to hide, they arrive hopefully on a glorious summer evening… But soon a series of extraordinary events take place: the island is suddenly bathed in a most sinister light .. panic grips the visitors one, by one … by one… by one…

Eight people are invited to the island (based on a real island – Burgh Island off the south west coast of Devon). They are met by the butler and housekeeper/cook who explain that the owner, Mr Owen (U.N.Owen) has been delayed but has left instructions for their reception. In each of their rooms is a framed copy of the rhyme about the ten little nigger boys who all met their death. On their first evening they sit down to dinner in good spirits until, without any warning they hear a Voice accusing each of them (including the butler and housekeeper) of having caused the deaths or murdered a number of people. From that point onwards, one by one they are found dead, corresponding to the deaths in the rhyme and one by one a china figurine on the dining room table mysteriously disappears.

As the weather worsens they are stranded on the island and unable to leave or to get help from the mainland. Agatha Christie has created not only a ‘locked room’ type of mystery but also a mystery full of suspense, as the guests try to identify Mr U N Owen and become increasingly suspicious of each other. Their fear is further amplified by the house itself, which surprisingly is not an old Gothic house full of creaking wood and dark shadows –

But this house was the essence of modernity. There were no dark corners – no possible sliding panels – it was flooded with electric light – everything was new and bright and shining. There was nothing hidden in this house, nothing concealed. It had no atmosphere about it.

Somehow, that was the most frightening thing of all …

They exchanged good-nights on the upper landing. Each of them went into his or her own room, and each of them automatically, almost without conscious thought, locked the door … (page 52)

Despite their precautions the deaths continue, and each time no one sees or hears anything. I’d marked the page with the rhyme and kept flipping back to it to check how the next victim was going to meet with death, as I tried to work out who the murderer was and how he/she was able to carry out the murders unobserved. What makes it more tense for the reader (or at least for me) is the technique Agatha Christie makes of revealing the thoughts of the remaining characters, but without letting on who the thinker is.

In 1943 Agatha Christie adapted the book into a play, changing the ending, and there have been several film versions, none of which I’ve seen, so I didn’t know who the murderer was, although I knew the outline of the plot. Part way through the book I thought – ah, there is only one person who could be the murderer and I was right. I must re-read the book sometime to see if there were any clues, because if there were I missed them. My idea was based on the probability of that character being the murderer rather than any specific clues.

It is an ingenious mystery, revolving around the concepts of guilt and justice. There was no doubt that each of the victims had committed murder or caused/influenced the death of another person. But did the punishment fit the crime and could it ever be justified? As the murderer explains in an epilogue there were varying degrees of guilt among the victims and those whose guilt was lightest were killed off first!

This is possibly the most famous of Agatha Christie’s books. In her Autobiography Agatha Christie wrote that she had written the book because it was so difficult to do and the idea fascinated her. I found it fascinating too, but as an exercise and a puzzle rather than as a novel. Writing about the play and the book she stated:

I don’t say it is the play or the book of mine I like best, or even that I think it is my best, but I do think in some ways that it is a better piece of craftsmanship than anything else I have written. (page 489 of An Autobiography)

I agree.