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AGATHA CHRISTIE: An Appreciation

There is only one Queen of Crime, and Agatha Christie is her name.

From The Mysterious Affairs at Styles (1920) to Sleeping Murder (1976), she wrote.  Think of it, more than fifty years of writing.  Not only novels but plays, short stories, her biography, romances under the name Mary Westacott.  She began when there were probably more horses than cars in England and you needed an operator to make a telephone call and finished when men had stepped onto the moon and satellites spun around the earth.

Not every book she wrote was great.  Actually, on the advice of a friend I’ve never read Nemesis, because she told me it was so bad I’d never want to read another Christie afterward.  And I never liked Tommy and Tuppence, a married couple who seemed outdated to me even after Mrs. Christie tried to modernize them in the 1970s.

But, when she was good she was great.  If I had to choose one mystery to take along on the proverbial desert island, there’d be no hesitation…And Then There Were None.  I must have read that novel at least five times, and each time I’m amazed by it.  How did she do it, I’d ask myself.  The identity of the murderer is right there, it’s clear from the first chapter, and yet the reader is totally surprised at the end.  You may think that a mystery is a “beach read,” to use the popular phrase, but that’s not true for a really great one.  You need to read every word if you want to catch the villain.  And in Mrs. Christie’s books, to coin a metaphor, the floors are slippery with red herrings…you need to watch your step or you’ll fall into the trap she sets for you.

Monsieur Hercule Poirot was her masterpiece.  Ms. Jane Marple, the elderly lady from St. Mary Mead, was featured in a number of outstanding books (At Bertram’s Hotel, A Pocket Full of Rye, The Murder at the Vicarage), but it is Hercule Poirot who brought the author her greatest fame.  In 1975, the year before her death, Mrs. Christie released Curtain, which told the story of Poirot’s last case and his death.  I remember reading his obituary in The New York Times that day, the first (and maybe to this day still the only) time the death of a fictional character was headlined in that newspaper.

If you haven’t already read them, or even if you have, please do yourself a favor and (re)read the following:  And Then There Were None, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, and The ABC Murders, just to (re)discover what outstanding storytelling is.

You can read more about Agatha Christie at her web site.

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