Part Two of Carolyn Raship’s series of posts on Agatha Christie. For Part One, go here.
Agatha Christie’s invention Hercule Poirot could only exist in harmony during the interwar years. He, like Chaplin’s Tramp, is a perfect construct, melding modernism with the still largely prevalent Victorian mores and tastes into a perfect whole. The small, neat figure. The mustaches. His gods of order, method and psychology (he paid lip service to being un bon catholique, but there is very little evidence of this aside from the occasional assertion). His delight with the design school championed by the Bauhaus. The books themselves, with their emotionally chilly, crossword puzzle plots and 1920s and ’30s glamour, could have been filmed without a hitch on the Art Deco sets of RKO musicals. It’s one of the great losses in cinematic history that Hollywood never got their paws on early Christie at the dawn of the sound era.
Years ago I read an article in which the writer reported a conversation with her grandmother where she explained that our generation would never understand the pure enjoyment of travel. We likely travel more frequently and farther, but standing in a security line wearing yoga pants, holding one’s shoes in order to spend six hours in an uncomfortable metal tube, is not glamorous or fun. My childhood dreams of seeing the world were influenced by the books Christie wrote during the golden age of mysteries set on trains and ocean liners and I’ve never really recovered. I know the combined glamor of dusty, threadbare Edwardian interiors combined with the clean perfection of Art Deco is pure fantasy, but a version of this imaginary world, where one is always in transit, never at home, wrapped in Marlene Dietrich feathers stepping on a train to Shanghai, or finding a body in the lounge of a small hotel in Crete, looking out the window as one’s train chugs through the Balkans imagining disembarkation points and new lives in Venice or Istanbul or Damascus.
I’m going to discuss stage and screen adaptations in these posts, but please take it as a given that every novel and short story mentioned below was featured on Poirot, the long running series starring the delightful David Suchet. If I don’t mention the episode under the novel’s entry, you can assume what I have to say is, “It was fine”.
NOTE: Spoilers are highlighted in yellow. Select with your cursor to read. Please be aware the spoilers marked as such aren’t necessarily for the work under discussion. You have been warned.
The Mysterious Affair At Styles (1920)
Agatha Christie didn’t invent either the classic English country house mystery or the first modern detective story (these honors go to Wilkie Collins and E.C. Bentley respectively), but she did arguably perfect both. Written during the war, at least partially at the provocation of her sister who bet she couldn’t, it’s a remarkably solid debut. First mysteries are rough and it usually takes a book or two for even the greats to figure it out: the working out of a twisty (more or less) fair-play puzzle along with the regular novelistic elements is really difficult. John Dickson Carr’s first couple of books are borderline unreadable, same for Margery Allingham. Only Dorothy L. Sayers, two years later, might rival her in debut success. But, of course, every subsequent mystery writer has the advantage of being able to read Christie and see what is possible, while Agatha had to hammer out a lot of things herself that are now taken for granted.
Poirot isn’t quite himself yet, he runs around excitably (“Mon Dieu!”) and even once capers. The plot is a little over complicated and clunky, the misdirection is heavy handed. But, the faults are those of someone with too may ideas, which always bodes well, and her knowledge of chemistry provided her with the answer to the“How?” which is always fun. There is antisemitism and xenophobia voiced by characters which is offset by Poirot’s more worldly outlook. On the plus side, there’s a gorgeous sense of time and place. If you want to know what life in a country house was like during the First World War, this isn’t a terrible place to start. Hastings has been invalided out of the war, and is staying at Styles to heal from injuries. Poirot is a war refugee from Belgium who has been assisted by the murder victim – her kindness to him partially serves as his motivation to solve this crime. Christie later bemoaned the fact that she made him so old – but when she created him at twenty six or seven she had no idea she’d be writing about him for 50+ more years. Interestingly, all the women characters are industrious and have strong personalities – one works in a hospital dispensary (as Christie did), one is a Land Girl, another nurses, and as indicated above the murder victim worked tirelessly for charitable causes. The men are mostly weak, sad nonentities or villains.
Hastings who was to become Poirot’s occasional assistant/stooge/amanuensis and housemate is almost unbearably stupid. He’s stuffy, sexist, xenophobic and distrusts men with beards to a point that feels almost pathological (it’s maddening that he’s correct on both counts in this early outing, a mistake Christie never made again as it’s Hasting’s job to be continuously wrong). But Poirot is delightful in his debut and aside from the previously mentioned capering, he exhibits his trust and belief in psychology, justice, orderliness and (more questionably) romance. I don’t know that I’d recommend that anyone read Styles first, but it’s a fascinating look at Christie if not quite in embryo, then starting to emerge from her chrysalis. With this book, she provided a template that she herself would both perfect and subvert in the coming years, that would be borrowed and adapted by countless other authors and screenwriters, and parodied and deconstructed and criticized and loved.
Murder On The Links (1923)
I always think of this as one of Christie’s lesser efforts, but there is a lot to recommend it. The French setting is well realized, and all the interactions with the odious detective from the Sûreté are fun. Poirot is 100% himself. It’s the first of her books in which a past crime influences and drives the story. The book itself is really solid, but the denouement feels a little arbitrary and doesn’t really resonate. It ends with an action sequence during which Poirot climbs a tree. You don’t experience that little pleasurable Christie click in your brain as the answer falls into place.
Most notably, Murder On The Links is the book where Christie tries to dispose of Hastings, as she didn’t much enjoy writing him. Hastings’s behavior is totally unforgivable in this book. He lets a pretty girl flirt her way into the crime scene. Predictable disaster ensues. Hasting, you’re cancelled. Alas, marrying him off and shipping him out to South America didn’t work and he would emerge to creep on pretty suspects occasionally throughout the years.
Poirot Investigates (1924)
A series of early, fairly rote short stories, all narrated by Hastings. All were adapted for the Poirot series starring David Suchet. They seem more influenced by Holmes and Conan Doyle than anything else she would write subsequently. Of particular interest to readers of Travalanche is the first story, “The Adventure of the Western Star” which has characters who were clearly modeled on Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, although the story itself is marred by the continual use of a racial epithet (though it is mostly presented as a classless thing Americans would say). It also features the first Christie story set on an archaeology dig (this one in Egypt), the first of many.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926)
Note: It is impossible to talk about this book without extensive spoilers. If you would like to avoid reading the solution to this 90+ year old mystery novel, please skip this entry!
This is the book that made Christie a star. It’s been debated, yelled at, deconstructed by the French, parodied relentlessly, dismissed in essay form by Edmund Wilson in The New Yorker, adapted into every possible medium and of course, enjoyed by all sorts of different people for ninety plus years. What stands out to me, particularly as I’ve been patchily rereading these books more or less in order, is how restless Christie’s imagination was. It was only her third Poirot novel and she exploded what was already perceived to be a formula, particularly as it was a formula borrowed from Conan Doyle and thus taken as more or less a given by the reader.
In some ways, it reminds me of Psycho. Modern viewers aren’t shocked when Janet Leigh is killed a third of the way through, but that’s just because we’ve all grown up with Psycho and its dozens of knife-wielding progeny. The same goes for Ackroyd. We’ve read and seen every possible permutation of murderer. But Christie’s first readers had not, and they were shocked, and when the stand in for Hastings, the stand in for their beloved Watson, the first person narrator turned out to be the murderer, they were surprised in a way we couldn’t possibly be.
Another misconception is thinking of Christie existing in some perpetual little old lady-hood. In 1925 Christie was a bored young suburban wife and mother who wrote mystery novels while her husband was at work in The City and out playing golf. She was alive to the cultural influences of her time and was extremely bright. It’s interesting to me that she was excited about playing clever games (essentially clever modernist games) with narrative. Some people complained that her solution wasn’t “fair”, but it’s no more unfair than any of her previous puzzles. The real innermost thoughts of her killer are masked from us, but that doesn’t differ from any of the characters in her previous books (she’d already played little games with killer POV in The Man In The Brown Suit, but in a more lighthearted setting). All characters in her fair play novels are wearing one kind of mask or another. They have to be shielded from the reader, all possibilities remaining open until the denouement. It’s an intensely artificial form at first glance, but one might ask how much do we really see behind the mask of people we know and love in life? Isn’t seeing into people’s private thoughts a far more fantastical construct?
In Ackroyd, Poirot has retired to the charming village of King’s Abbott to grow vegetable marrows. This seeming idyll is slowly proved to be false: poisoning, blackmail, drug addiction, adultery, and murder exist beneath the pretty surface of village life. One can’t help but think of Kyle McLachlan finding an ear in the manicured lawn.
Ackroyd was the first of Christie’s novels to be adapted for the stage as the play Alibi in 1928, with Charles Laughton as the very first Hercule Poirot (how perfect is that?) and it was a tremendous hit. Alibi also served as the first Poirot movie adaptation starring Austin Trevor, which is now sadly lost.
Dramatizing Ackroyd seems impossible to me, as the whole thing is about the experience of reading it. Dramatized, it’s just like any other reasonably well constructed mystery. Though obviously it’s impossible to judge the dramatizations of the 1920s and 30s. I’ve seen the David Suchet version, and again it’s FINE, but it feels incomplete or, rather, pointless.
The Big Four (1927)
This is easily the worst of all thirty three Poirot novels, but really, I have nothing but sympathy for Christie on this one.
After the creative and popular success of Ackroyd, her beloved mother passed away, her husband began an affair and asked for a divorce, she caused an international tabloid scandal by mysteriously disappearing, either because she was having a Britney level meltdown, or to embarrass her soon to be ex-husband. Basically, she was having a nervous breakdown while suddenly finding herself unexpectedly famous and owing her publishers a book. It was adapted with the help of her brother-in-law (who sounds like he was much, much nicer than Archie Christie) from a series of already published short stories.
This isn’t really a mystery, it’s an adventure story with an off stage villain cribbed from Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu. There are little mysteries interspersed throughout from the original short stories, but the thing is nearly unreadable. Christie herself called it a “rotten novel” and said it was torture to write. It was adapted during the last season of Poirot by Mark Gattis who referred to it as an unadaptable mess. Many changes were made.
The irony is, it outsold Ackroyd two to one because of Christie’s sudden tabloid notoriety. People, as always, are awful.
The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928)
The Mystery of the Blue Train was Christie’s least favorite of all her novels (I think she discounted The Big Four entirely), which is something I’ve never understood, as I think it’s enjoyable. It’s the first Poirot novel with third person narration. The plot is set mostly in France, on the Riviera, in Paris and in transit on Le Train Bleu. It’s not a seamless mystery, a few too many suspects wind up on the titular train in time to be suspected of murder, but its setting among the worthless rich on the Riviera, its greedy Russians and the criminal demimonde of Paris is glamorous and fun.
The plot swirls around the theft of a storied (no doubt cursed) ruby necklace and discovering the identity of a legendary, homicidal thief. One of my favorite pulp trends in the first few decades of the 20th century is its obsession with jewel thieves. The popular novel Fantômas begot a craze for the French criminals known as apaches and for jewel thievery in general. Arsène Lupin was probably the first of the glamorous, gentlemen jewel thieves (Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief was the last). Father Brown’s nemesis turned BFF Flambeau was a philosophical jewel thief. The famous French serial Les Vampires told the adventures of cat burglar Irma Vep and her mysterious associates. An Apache dance was popular early in the 20th century and Apache style was aped by the upper classes. This popularity goes through the 1930s with probably the greatest example being the ultra-glamorous Ernst Lubitsch film, Trouble In Paradise. Blue Train shares this louche, very European setting, a place Poirot fits into well, though all the characters are exceedingly unpleasant.
I’m assuming Christie disliked it because she was unhappy when she was writing it and this possibly contributed to how nasty the characters are. It’s the first novel she wrote from scratch after divorcing her husband and she had to write it because she needed the dough.
Peril At End House (1932)
With Peril At End House, Christie came back to Poirot after a break of four years, in the middle of the greatest run in mystery novel history. Her previous three books, The Mysterious Mr Quin, Murder At The Vicarage (the first Miss Marple book) and The Sittaford Mystery (all to be discussed later in subsequent posts) are all terrific. End House easily goes in my top ten, possibly in my top five.
It’s so well constructed, it’s almost agonizing to reread it. I think it’s the first one one in which she’s so confident in her abilities, she straight up tells her readers who the murderer is early in the book but makes sure no one pays any attention. It’s like a magic trick.
People complain all the time about her thin psychology (something I probably don’t have a big problem with because I’m notoriously terrible at people, feelings, etc.), however, I think she’s very, very good at psychopaths and narcissists and this is the first book where she really demonstrates this. The whole story is constructed around the character of this adorable little broke flapper who tells lies and kills a nice innocent somebody to get what she wants. It is a perfect thing.
The “Poirot” episode based on End House, the first full length novel they adapted for the series, is easily one of the best. I also played the hidden object game based on it because I’m a ridiculous person.
Lord Edgware Dies (1933)
I’ve been threatening forever to write a book called “Everything I Know I Learned From Agatha Christie Novels” and there’s a prime example in this one. A plot point centers around a character not knowing the mythological reference, The Judgment of Paris. I first read this book when I was twelve or thirteen, and I didn’t know this either, so I looked it up. Later, my theater company had a one act festival called Kallisti, so there you go. Considering how we later ended, this was probably a bad omen.
What I mean is, Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers (even more so) wrote as if their readers knew as much as they did and didn’t do a lot of explaining. I love this. It makes you search things out, research and then remember them. Particularly in the days before a quick Google search was a thing, this was how we learned stuff. As my brother once said, “I didn’t learn about the Taj Mahal from school, I learned about it from reading Scrooge McDuck comics.”
Lord Edgware Dies is about a beautiful actress and the dual murder of her creepy, sadistic (he literally has the works of de Sade and historical texts on torture displayed in his office) soon-to-be ex-husband, the titular Lord Edgware, and an American quick change monologist modeled on Ruth Draper. This book is pure FUN. The killer is another gleeful narcissist with an iron cast alibi, who wonders if the hangman will let her practice as Anne Boleyn did with the block. After the killer’s unmasking, they finally explain a particularly troublesome clue, “I added that to make it more difficult”, cheekily speaking for Christie herself.
This novel was first adapted in 1934, the third of the Poirot films starring Austin Trevor. It’s the only one of the three that survives, but I can’t find evidence of it anywhere. If any of Travalanche’s film scholarly readers have any intel, I would LOVE to see it.
It was then adapted in 1985 as one of the strange, late period Peter Ustinov Poirot TV movies in a contemporary setting. It costars Faye Dunaway in a dual role. It’s pretty terrible, with added surrealism as David Suchet plays Chief Inspector Japp .
Again, the Suchet version filmed for the Poirot series is fine. But this is such a fun, glamorous Christie, I would love to see it adapted properly which I don’t think has happened yet.
Murder On The Orient Express (1934)
One thing that will be evident to readers of this blogpost is the cliché of Agatha Christie as the inventor of the country house murder is a little unearned. The trope was already becoming tired by the time Christie began publishing in 1920, which makes sense as the book that established it appeared in 1868 and it was in continuous use throughout. Christie used it sparingly, and usually pointedly, often using this most traditional of settings for her most innovative plots.
Murder On The Orient Express is likely her most famous book to modern readers. Based on an idea sparked by the Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping, its solution is innovative, but very neat and clockwork like. I enjoy my Christie a tiny bit messier. It shows Poirot at his glamorous best, being told in third person, sans Hastings.
My argument with so many Christie adaptations is they fall short on glamour: generally the BBC just doesn’t have the funds. It’s pretty universally acknowledged there is only one version that gets everything right (thought one or two others do come close). Sidney Lumet is to date the only first class director who has tackled Agatha Christie (suck it, Branagh). Lumet’s 1974 adaptation is a perfect thing and achieved the pulp goal of being better than the book. Albert Finney is bizarre, glamorous and funny as Poirot – Agatha Christie loved his performance. The film hits the sweet spot of ultra glamor, camp, good story telling, the starriest, most scenery-chewing cast imaginable and it’s a perfect dream visually. The costume design was helped along by the early 70s fashion for 1930s influenced clothing, so the period sat a little more comfortably on the actors than it has in other adaptations.
There was also a 2001 adaptation starring Alfred Molina as Poirot which I’m pretty sure only I have seen (you’re welcome). I have no idea why someone felt the need to film a contemporary, bargain basement version of this story.
The David Suchet version of Orient Express is really lovely and the only version in which Poirot visibly struggles with his famous decision. It lacks the hard precision and starry glamour of the Lumet movie, but is totally worth a look. It features actors Jessica Chastain and Hugh Bonneville among other more middling stars.
The recent Kenneth Branagh version is terrible. His mustache is hostile. It makes no sense.
Three Act Tragedy (1935)
I just realized this is the third Poirot novel in a row in which a famous actor is the murderer.
This mystery is essentially two separate country house murders rolled into one and also solves the problem, “How do you make the butler do it and have it not be cheating?”. This book is notable for including the delightful Mr. Satterthwaite, the star of the Harley Quin stories as Poirot’s sidekick. Josephine Tey (who Christie did not like) is gently parodied as playwright Anthony Eden – this was written before Tey started publishing mysteries of her own.
Of note is the first adaptation – one of the preposterous modern dress Ustinov outings of the mid 1980s. What distinguishes this version is the casting of Tony Curtis as aging, handsome, batty movie star and matinee idol Charles Cartwright. I truly believe that the only people who can believably play star actors are other stars. I don’t care how wonderful the performance – it never lands. Needless to say, Curtis is essentially playing himself and it’s kind of riveting. I’m not saying it’s any good, but it’s fascinating to watch.
The ABC Murders (1935)
The A.B.C. Murders is the one where Agatha Christie invents the modern serial killer novel.
I know I’m going to get a lot of pushback on this one, but I think it stands. Prior to the Whitechapel Murders, there was Gothic fiction and Penny Dreadfuls, some based on real crimes such as the truly horrific Ratcliffe Highway murders in 1811. In the 1880s, the market exploded with dime novels based on Jack the Ripper along with some more respectable offerings such as Marie Belloc Lowndes’s The Lodger which has been adapted numerous times since its publication in 1913.
But none of these grisly explorations of multiple murder possess any of the current hallmarks of serial killer fiction. In this book, one of Christie’s best, a killer is preying upon England, committing a series of seemingly motiveless crimes, following the letters of the alphabet. The discussions of compulsion and of psychology feel reasonably modern. The police work and the resulting manhunt also presage many of what are now the standard clichés of serial killer fiction. The second narrative, following someone we think might be the killer also feels both modern and of a piece with the genre. The solution and double bluff of this one is truly ingenious, and one might argue it doesn’t “count” as the first of the genre as it contains a fair play mystery, but solution aside, it’s all there.
If anyone has been dying to see Tony Randall take a swipe at Poirot, one can do so in the 1965 Frank Tashlin directed The Alphabet Murders. It’s hallucinatory and owes more to The Pink Panther than to Christie.
The Suchet version for Poirot is sadly weak. Its gentle, drawing room tone doesn’t really suit the darker material.
Upcoming, as a part of the current darker BBC series of adaptations is a version in which John Malkovich (!) plays Poirot. I remain skeptical.
Death In The Clouds (1935)
I think we can forgive Christie for a Poirot novel that isn’t better than average considering the streak she’s had and this being her third Poirot novel released in 1935.
The thing that stands out most to me in this one is it’s depiction of 1930s airline travel. Other than that, the murderer turning out to be a dentist will come as no surprise to anyone who has spent time in the chair!
This book is referenced in the Doctor Who episode, “The Unicorn and the Wasp”.
Murder In Mesopotamia (1936)
Another middling but enjoyable Poirot entry. The most exciting thing about this one is its setting in an archaeological dig in Iraq, based on the Ziggurat of Ur. Agatha Christie’s happy second marriage was to Max Mallowan, an archaeologist 14 years her junior. I love the story of their first meeting as she tells it in her autobiography – she was traveling around the Middle East and after visiting the site at Ur in 1928 it was arranged for Max to drive her to her next destination as he was going in the same direction. While they were in the middle of the desert, the car broke down. They easily could have died as it might have been days before another vehicle came along to rescue them. Her reaction was to go, “Oh well, I can’t do anything to solve this, would you mind if I took a nap?” And she did. He decided that this was the person he had to marry because she was so unflappable. Luckily they were rescued fairly quickly and the story has a happy ending. You can see much of the results of Mallowan’s work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This is also the first of Agatha Christie’s novels to be narrated by a middle-class Hastings stand-in with the young nurse, Amy Leatheran being the reader’s guide to both Iraq and the dig near Kirkuk (another thing the novels of Agatha Christie taught me was a reasonable familiarity with the geography in Iraq, which was very useful in later life). Amy is very British and very downright and Christie uses her to poke gentle fun at both English insularity and nurses in general. This is essentially an English country house mystery in form, with a closed set of suspects in the expedition house, but with a broader range of types. I found the solution to this one a little preposterous even when I was a child, the setting is the real star here, even more than Poirot. And for all the people who complain about Christie’s academic, bloodless murders, this book contains the most horrific description of a death in her oeuvre.
Cards On The Table (1936)
Cards on the Table is one of Christie’s all time greats, playing to her mathematical strengths. The set up is so much fun: glamorous and macabre collector (and fellow mustache aficionado) Mr. Shaitana hosts a dinner party, to be followed by bridge in which all the guests are either detectives or murderers. The detectives are Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard, who had previously made appearances in The Secret of Chimneys and The Seven Dials Mystery, mystery author (and Agatha Christie stand in) Ariadne Oliver making her first of many appearances in person, after being referred to previously in Parker Pyne Investigates, Colonel Race, first introduced in The Man In The Brown Suit, and, of course, Hercule Poirot. Only Tommy and Tuppence were left out.
The second bridge table is full of what Christie referred to as successful murderers (something Dorothy Sayers also discussed in Unnatural Death, a novel with a slightly queasy Christie association as she described Agatha’s house after her disappearance exactly in a scene in the book). Christie asserts through Mr Shaitana that the most successful murders aren’t those that are unsolved, but ones that are undiscovered. Christie would come back to this idea again and again. Needless to say, Mr Shaitana doesn’t survive the evening and the only people who had opportunity to commit the crime were the four murderers.
It’s a perfect Christie set up, requiring the detectives to investigate the four previous murders and for them to examine the bridge game being played as their host sat in front of the fire with a knife in his heart.
I really disliked the changes made in the BBC’s Poirot adaptation, but the book itself is so ruthlessly academic it’s not the easiest to dramatize.
Dumb Witness (1937)
The Dumb Witness in the title is a very charming terrier, later adopted by Hastings.
As with nearly everything else, my first introduction to mediums and spiritualism was through Agatha Christie novels, and this is a prime example. And as Christie never wastes anything, the thrilling appearance of ectoplasm is a major clue, offered to Poirot by the silliest and most unreliable of witnesses.
Death On The Nile (1937)
I’m unshakable in my belief that this is the greatest and most perfect of all the Poirot novels. If you’ve never read one, and want to know what they’re all about: start here.
Here she perfects the ideal Christie set up of a tricky and complicated puzzle obscuring a very simple and obvious murder. The set up is a long, slow burn: we meet most of the suspects long before they arrive in Egypt to take a dreamy trip on a barge down the Nile from Aswan to Wadi Halfa (now in Sudan). Sadly, it’s impossible to recreate this journey as the damming of the Nile, the creation of Lake Nasser and the moving of various temples to avoid the flood waters has rendered the geography as it was in the 1930s unrecognizable.
Christie manipulates an enormous cast of passengers, suspects, subplots and romances. In addition to the murder itself (and the subsequent two murders to cover up the initial crime) there is a jewel thief, a kleptomaniac, blackmail, financial skulduggery, a terrorist (accounting for the appearance of Colonel Race) and an attempted murder unrelated to the central crime. It’s some cruise! Throughout, she does a terrific job of making the characters distinctive and stage manages the complicated action on board the barge clearly. This is a true fair play mystery and it is my favorite of her precision engineered plots.
The famous 1978 movie adaptation with Peter Ustinov in his first outing as Poirot is an utter delight. The plot and characters are (understandably) streamlined, but it’s handled pretty seamlessly and works well. The real fun is in watching Bette Davis and Maggie Smith snipe at each other and Angela Lansbury steal scenes.
Kenneth Branagh is threatening to film this one as well.
Murder In The Mews (1937)
In this book of four longish short stories collected into one volume, the fourth (and shortest) is the most interesting. It’s a fairly simple murder story involving a love triangle among the vacationing English (and one Belgium) on the island of Rhodes. What’s interesting about it is we see Christie working on the idea that will later become her novel Evil Under the Sun. The solutions are different enough, that I don’t think the story works as a spoiler, but you can feel the wheels turning and ideas beginning to take shape.
Appointment With Death (1938)
This book was where I first learned about Petra, the glorious abandoned financial center of the ancient Arab world. Poirot, alas, remains a comfort embracing urbanite and misses it entirely. Apparently with no regrets.
The action begins in Jerusalem, where Poirot meets both the bizarre American Boynton family and the charming young British doctor, Sarah King. The book is told in the third person, but the bulk of the story (particularly when Poirot is out of the action in Petra where the murder takes place) is seen through Dr. King’s eyes. Again, the mystery itself is solid, but the travelogue aspects are the most memorable. The murder victim is so odious, Christie had to do a lot of work to come up with a murderer who we wouldn’t simply applaud for doing the world a favor. I also think Christie deserved more credit than she gets for populating her novels with bright young professional women in a time when this was far from common.
Appointment With Death was the very last of the Peter Ustinov modern dress Poirot adaptations. The cast of this one is surprisingly great: Lauren Bacall, Piper Laurie, Carrie Fisher, Haley Mills, John Gielgud (who looks about 300 years old) and David Soul (who plays an identical character in the “Poirot” version of Death on the Nile).
This is one of the late season Poirot adaptations where they change the plot so much one wonders why they even bothered. It’s over complicated and doesn’t make a great deal of sense.
Neither filmed version used Petra as a setting.
Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938)
In some ways, this is Agatha Christie taking an early swipe at the idea she wound up using in The Mousetrap.
A classic locked room mystery as well as a classic English country house mystery (which in Christie land usually means there’s going to be some kind of trickery afoot). There had been some complaints that Christie’s murders were becoming ever more academic and bloodless, so she responded by bathing her murder room in blood. For Christmas!
Another monstrous rich old patriarch surrounded by his greedy offspring is offed. For all of Christie’s snobbery, the truly rich in her books are typically odious.
There is a recent adaptation of Poirot’s Christmas (with Poirot omitted) which was made for French television – I haven’t seen it, but it’s supposedly great, so I’m looking forward to tracking it down.