The Occasional Christie, Vol. 2

Title: Lord Edgeware Dies
No Thinking Please, We’re American: Thirteen at Dinner
Publication Date: 1933
Detective:
Poirot.
Hastings?
Yes
Milestones: None to speak of.
Trickiness level: Medium-high

This is Lord Edgeware. And in a very few moments, he will die.
Poirot (David Suchet), A&E TV promo

Right, so conformity or tidiness or something compelled me to start off with the first Poirot novel, but no way I’m going to keep that up for the duration. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd may be one of the most brilliant mystery novels ever, but it’s almost exclusively for reasons that it would not at all be cricket to discuss open forum. Besides that, we get into stuff like the justly-obscure Murder on the Links, and there are French maidens with heaving bosoms and Hastings falling in love (that these two concepts aren’t simoultaneous should give you some idea of the level of unintentional camp we’re dealing with here), and just…no.

So, on to the fun stuff. I adore Lord Edgeware Dies, I really do. It’s urbane and fast-paced and just generally packed full of all the deliciously over-the-top possibilities of a Roaring-Twenties-themed mystery story, wherein both author and reader can crib directly from Entertainment Weekly – or I suppose it would’ve been The Tatler back then – without guilt. More

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The Occasional Christie, Vol.1

Title: The Mysterious Affair At Styles
Duh, We’re Americans: No alternate title. Which is kind of surprising; you’d think an edition of The Mysterious Thing That Happened In an English Country House Called Styles, Which is a Habit the English Have, of Naming Their Country Houses would be kicking around somewhere. (No, I’m not a fan of the common publishing practice of retitling overseas imports. If you don’t want to think about the title, what business have you reading the book anyway?)
Publication Date: 1920
Detective:
Poirot.
Hastings?
Yes. In a rare moment of actually being necessary to the plot.
Milestones: First novel Christie ever published; first appearance of Poirot
Trickiness level: Medium

Interesting thing, this concept of ‘stock’ characters. When you think about it in terms of human nature, how largely static it is to begin with, a certain whiff of off-the-shelf is bound to creep into even the most dedicatedly naturalistic novelist’s output. The more I think about the literary process, the more I wonder if real originality may not involve inventing new modes of behaviour so much as finding clever things to do with the existing ones.
Agatha Christie, a novelist if not strictly speaking a purveyor of literature, was clever like that. She knew very well she was using types; and she played their very familiarity for all she was worth, using reader assumptions for and against them with the calm subtlety of real intelligence.

This signature self-awareness kind of oozes out around the edges of The Mysterious Affair At Styles, the first step on the road to immortality. More

In which murder can sometimes smell like hot buttered crumpets

So I was thinking about this Agatha Christie post thing – I do that from time to time, thinking – and decided that I wasn’t going to work my way systematically through the entire canon, a la fuzzy little Bully the Wodehouse-obsessed blogging bull. Just because others have heroically blazed the trail doesn’t mean I have to follow them down it, say I. If it means not having to go in-depth on the likes of Elephants Can Remember or The Big Four, I am all for standing off admiring from a distance.

(Truth in blogging: The Big Four isn’t all that bad a book. Just – well, sort of stupid, in that particularly quaint ‘pre-WWII spy thriller’ sort of way that some find totally endearing but which drives me straight up a tree.)

At any rate. What I decided to do, in the end – ie, once I discovered a workable spoiler script, thus eliminating my last hope of procrastinating further – was a series of light ‘appreciations’ of Christies I have known and loved, or at least liked quite a bit. The perspective of the Christie-reader-on-the-street, if you like. A grab-bag of review, comment, reference and snark. More

It’s a mystery to me

Every mystery fan operates off a set of ground rules, in re: what they want from their ideal thriller. There are so many ways to lay out a puzzle, in so many combinations, that it’s nearly impossible even to browse the ‘Suspense’ shelves of the local library without boundaries.

Mine are pretty straightforward: I like the classic stuff. Fair clues and fascinating suspects leading to a satisfyingly logical solution; rather like an old-fashioned garden maze. Years of nurturing my fanhood on an aunt’s Nero Wolfe collection has left me with a fundamental appreciation for the well-turned, economical scene, also the leavening of humour. Characterisation is important, and I will sacrifice clarity of plot to it to a certain extent, but Byzantine literary flourishes can be dispensed with thanks much all the same. Especially if the author is British.

Noting that Raymond Chandler’s books caught on much more quickly in the UK than in the States, Colin Watson in Snobbery With Violence speculates whether years of cozy mysteries ‘had left the British…in greater need of an astringent than the Americans’. Certainly something has happened to sour the national thriller-writing temperament.
I read only in English, so there may be some greater European point I’m missing here; but as far as I can tell the British really don’t seem to like each other much. Honestly.

I know smart, sensible, kind and attractive UK natives exist. I have met several of them personally. So I’m a little baffled by the vague sense of repulsion, both physical and emotional, that suffuses their modern mystery fiction. It’s too pervasive simply to be a stylistic flourish. Suspects are inevitably ‘lank’, ‘spotty’, ‘pasty’;  when confronted they are contemptibly hapless at best and unpleasant cowards at worst. All of which is mere grist for the mill of the starring detective, who is himself dragging around enough baggage to make cargo carriers weep with joy.

Barring Ruth Rendell, who has raised the banality of evil to a legitimate art form, it all just seems so spectacularly pointless. More