They are the solutions that you can’t forget, no matter how much you try. You desperately want to re-read and experience that delicious jolt you got the first time, but you can’t. There’s something so original or special or boundary-breaking about these books that often they end up at the top of many “best of” lists for the ending alone, whether the entire work is actually deserving of that accolade or not.
Scott Ratner, a fellow GAD enthusiast, who knows at least as much about Agatha Christie as I do (having written and performed for years the tour de force Kill a Better Mousetrap) and who likes to ask the bigger questions and wallow in the minutiae as much as I do, recently posted on the Agatha Christie Appreciation page on Facebook:
“Certain Christie works (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Peril at End House, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas,Crooked House, A Murder Is Announced, The Mousetrap, The ABC Murders) are dependent upon the reader never even momentarily entertaining the possibility of the true culprit’s guilt for their full impact, while others (Death on the Nile, Five Little Pigs, And Then There Were None, Cards on the Table) are not. For that reason, I consider the titles in the first named group more “fragile” and susceptible to transparency. Am I alone in this?”
Most of the responses skirted Scott’s point entirely; instead, people talked about being fooled by Christie whether the ending was tricky or not. Meanwhile, the post inspired such a rush of feelings and ideas in me and prompted me to prepare a response too lengthy to put in a comments section on social media. So here we go: a little biography, a little analysis. But first, a warning, inspired by the late, great Noah Stewart:
Please be warned that this essay concerns works of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, I’ll be revealing crucial elements of several books, sometimes including the identity of the murderer and other relevant plot details. If you come upon a title here that you haven’t read, it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read these books before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.
JAWDROPPERS AND ME
I started reading GAD fiction very early: I was nearly twelve when I picked up And Then There Were None in a drugstore. I didn’t seek out unusual plotlines or surprise endings. Since my little mind was not yet built for crime-solving, everysolution came as something of a surprise.
I had learned the basic structure of a classic mystery even earlier – not from books but from movies. The Saturday matinees on TV were full of old dark house mysteries and Charlie Chan films: a closed circle would be strictly drawn around a finite set of suspects, murder would be committed (sometimes a series of them!) and the hero/detective investigated, pondered over clues and testimony and alibis and such, and wandered around dark places until the killer was exposed in the final reel.
Quite often, the killer was of the genus “Least Likely Suspectus” in that they were quite likable, or they had an alibi, or they seemed to be on the side of law and order. In his excellent 1972 retrospective of classic mystery cinema, The Detective in Film, William K Everson discusses some of the oft-repeated tricks found in these movies, such as the romantic triangle, where the girl is torn between a kind suitor and a rude suitor. Clearly, the nice guy is more suitable, but for some reason the girl can’t commit to him. That’s because the girl is using an unconscious form of Mur-DAR – she senses instinctively that the “nice” guy is a dangerous lunatic. One should also beware the kindly guardian, the silly old woman, and the suspect in a wheelchair. In fact, the only character who could be 100% crossed off the list during the 1930’s would be the one played by the famous guest star villain (Lugosi, Atwill, Karloff, et al) who was there to foam at the mouth and be lurking at the scene of every crime and who always had a good, non-guilty reason for acting this way! Meanwhile, the actual killer had been mistakenly eliminated by the viewer on the basis of their personality or position in the narrative, setting up a lovely surprise at the end.
By coincidence rather than design, I cut my teeth on writers who specialized in the surprise ending. Nobody could do this better than Agatha Christie, but if you study her, you come to see that she actually worked variations on the same few themes. But if you read her casually or as a naïve child, or if you set out to not try and match wits with her, you can be fooled over and over. The titles that Scott references above, along with several others, are predicated on the belief that readers tend to cross certain characters off their list of suspects, including those investigating the case, the perceived intended victim, and the narrator of the story. A favorite trick of Christie’s is to pile suspicion on a certain suspect, only to pull the rug out of the case built against them at the last minute, leaving us to flounder for a replacement murderer . . . and then doubling back at the end to show us that the obvious suspect was indeed the killer!
When I decided to branch out to a second author, nobody told me that Ellery Queen could also provide a top-notch surprise ending. What stroke of fate made me peruse the bookstore shelf, with all its titles, and decide to begin with The Greek Coffin Mystery? I remember so clearly the moment I read the reveal, dropped the book and let out a cry! I was filled with a desperate need to share this experience, but I dwelled in a houseful of non-believers. I did not re-read the book for forty years, and when I did, I was . . . underwhelmed. The characters were wooden, all except for Ellery, who was obnoxious. The plot creaked, and while I could appreciate the detection, I didn’t particularly enjoy it. It was a profound lesson in the truth that sometimes a jawdropper is not enough.
When I started reading Carr, Marsh and Brand, I learned that surprise endings were perhaps the exception to the rule. Ngaio Marsh nevertraded in surprise, and this didn’t hurt her writing one jot. (Other things did, it turns out.) And while both Brand and Carr provided some wonderful shocker finales (Tour de Force, The Rose in Darkness, The Burning Court, She Died a Lady, Dark of the Moon), they were also going after other things. Brand actually preferred casting suspicion around, making you fall in love with her characters so that the final reveal would not so much surprise as hurt.
Compare her two arguably strongest titles: Green for Danger and Tour de Force. Both of them follow a similar pattern: a half dozen or so well-drawn characters in a closed setting (wartime hospital operating room, island getaway) are suspected of murder. Inspector Cockrill turns up the heat, trying to melt the characters’ reserve or turn them against each other. A second death ensues, and the suspicion is passed around like crudités on a tray. The reveal, when it comes, is satisfying on both a logical and emotional level. But only in Tourdoes our jaw drop when the truth is laid bare. (Not for JJ, alas.) This, I contend, makes Tour de Force a more fragile book, for it contains a secret you do not want to learn in advance.
Carr, with his Rube Goldberg contraptions and miles and miles of footprints, offered puzzles that stymied without necessarily shocking. Granted, you’re hearing from a reader who is unlikely to gasp in wonder when the “how” is revealed, and greater fans of impossible crimes probably have a stronger emotional reaction to the expose of a good method. (That may be why the Carr titles I selected above shock us not with the “how” but with the “who.” Another blogger would no doubt come up with a different list.)
The problem with reading as much classic crime fiction as I have is that one can’t help but begin to grasp certain techniques and patterns that narrow down the possible significance of events and clues. Impossible crime fans talk about this all the time: there are only so many ways a person can be stabbed in a locked room, die on a smooth, sandy beach, or make a house disappear. Sooner or later, the savvy reader starts to beat the author at his own game.
This is when detective fiction starts to become a fragile thing. My thoughts go back two years, to when I read Carr’s well-regarded non-series novel, The Emperor’s Snuff Box. Some call this the most “Christie-like” of Carr titles: it doesn’t rely on any locked rooms or missing footprints, but it trades in pure misdirection. I have to admit that I had saved up this title and was excited as hell to read it. Except, you see, I’ve read too much Christie. I solved this case, and I solved it immediately. It’s a good book, but it relies on a classic trick. Spotting that trick as quickly as I did ruined the book for me.
EXAMINING THE FRAGILE TITLES (Remember my warning about spoilers . . . )
Let’s examine the list of Christie titles Scott gave us above – and to this I will add Murder on the Orient Express. In four of these titles, Christie assigns the role of murderer to somebody that readers have been trained to exclude from suspicion: the policeman is a good guy, the child is an innocent, and as the storyteller, the narrator is essentially omniscient, nearly as much of an outsider as the detective, and has to be trusted if the story we’re reading is to be believed. Granted, in The Mousetrap, the killer is posing as somebody above suspicion, which cheapens the ultimate effect just a bit. Far more effective is the moment in another title when Poirot murmurs, “One forgets sometimes that policemen are human, too.”
There are two elements here that I feel lead to the sense of “fragility,” as Scott puts it. First is the fact that most readers, if you put them to it, will admit that they don’t want to solve the mystery. And in a case where the author spreads the wealth of suspicion with as much skill as she comes up with a logical solution that eliminates the possibilities to one, the reader is far less likely to come up with the right answer. And if he does come up with the right answer, his success is accompanied by a certain satisfaction that he has followed the clues, put aside the red herrings, and done an all-around good job. The lack of a twist actually supports this feeling.
When, however, the ending is a piece of trickery, everything works out well in the end for the reader – UNLESS he guesses correctly. Then it’s all ruined. Granted, we are all so deeply brainwashed into believing in the innocence of cops and children and narrators that it would take an unhappy accident to shake us of those beliefs. But if we pay too close attention to the dirt on the chair, or the laws of genetic inheritance, or the way a man throws back his head and laughs . . . well, then, we are left sitting there with a hundred pages to go, fuming at our own cleverness.
And as I stated above, the more you read, the more fragile the situation gets. The first time you follow the detective as he tries to figure out who is trying to kill X, you probably give little thought to why the attempted killings keep failing. You emit a gasp when you learn that the potential victim is actually the killer. If the author wants to try the same trick again – and Christie used it a half dozen times – she has two options: try and shake up the pattern so well that loyal readers don’t recognize it, or admit at the outset that the intended victim might be faking for some purpose. Of course, once that supposition is said aloud, most of us cross it right off our list. We count on Christie to fool us. But then, how often has she used the “Backtrack to the Most Likely Suspect” gambit?
A Murder Is Announced is one of my favorite Christies, and I’m pleased to say it fooled me entirely. Not only that, but I can re-read this title again and again because I’m so intrigued by how Christie clues the book. Peril at End House came nearly twenty years before AMIA and basically uses the same trick, right down to a few of the same clues! And yet, is nota favorite of mine, although many fans adore it, and I do not return to it often. I think it does what it sets out to do quite brilliantly, but if by chance you glom onto the truth early on, – and, really, the personality of the murderer makes this far more possible than AMIA– the novel is far less fun.
The other problem is that, all too often, the author places too much reliance on the trick ending to stamp the imprimatur of excellence on a title. The ending of Dark of the Moon is grade A, but it marks the finale of a grade C- Carr. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is justly famous, even if it was far from the first example of its kind. But the book itself is a pretty standard village mystery, right up till that ending.
When I first read Orient Express, I had no idea a mystery could end this way. I had no inkling of Van Dine’s Commandments (Christie breaks rules eleven and twelve here), and I dropped the book and cried out much as I did with the Queen. I still like the book, but if you re-read it, as everyone gets interviewed – twice! – you might find yourself asking why a jury couldn’t consist of six or seven people rather than twelve!
The ABC Murders plays a different sort of game, one that stands a better chance of not being seen through. Christie convinces readers that she is writing a different sort of book from her “typical” whodunnit. ABC describes a cat and mouse game between Poirot and a serial killer, whom the author “reveals” at the start. She underscores this “truth” by switching narrative point of view from Hastings to the killer. Christie relies – quite successfully here – on the reader making assumptions through this dual structure. She neversays that Mr. Cust is ABC; she doesn’t have to because we do that job for her!
THE STURDIER STUFF
Scott offers a list of “less flashy” titles in comparison to the shockers above. I think I disagree with his inclusion of Death on the Nile: maybe it’s because of the novel’s high place in my list of preference, or the movies or just the idea behind it. It’s a trick Christie had used before, going all the way back to the beginning of her career, and she would use it again soon after. I think what sets Nile apart from the other examples – and places it in this list of Scott’s – is that almost more than the success of the trick is the emotional power of the central triangle. This is something Christie experienced firsthand in her marriage to Archie Christie, and the effect it had on her writing – the realism in the 1930’s and 40’s with which she invoked the passions between a charming rotter and two women, one ruled by passion, the other by a ruthless pursuit of what she wants – elevates these titles above the norm.
Titles like Cards on the Table and Five Little Pigs– those novels where Christie presents a more relatively “straightforward” investigation – are few and far between. Seriously, I looked for the novels where the killer isn’t eliminated from suspicion early on through trickery, and there aren’t many: I came up with Dumb Witness, Appointment with Death, Murder Is Easy, The Moving Finger, Death Comes As the End, Sparkling Cyanide, 4:50 from Paddington, and Ordeal by Innocence. (Yes, there are others at the end of the canon, but I choose not to list them.)
There’s almost a sense of relief in a book like this for both author and reader. Any of nearly a dozen people could have poisoned Mrs. Boynton, or clubbed the Symmington’s maid, wiped out Imhotep’s clan, or slaughtered Rachel Argyle. Christie’s aim here is to misdirect, but to do so in a less flashy way than in Ackroyd. A murder that must be familial turns out to be the work of an outsider. Conversely, the death by an intruder turns out to be an inside job. The exciting aspect about these titles is how they focus on evidence both physical and psychological: the character of the victim provides the detective with important clues in Appointment with Death, The Moving Finger, and – if we consider Jacko Argyle a victim – Ordeal by Innocence. The endings to these books may not be fancy, but they are satisfying.
What I have come to appreciate about Cards on the Table and Five Little Pigs that I didn’t embrace when I first read them, due to my youth, was how brilliantly Christie works with a small cast of characters upon whom she spreads equal suspicion. Cards has a beautiful hook: the victim is a collector of oddities, and the four people in the room with him when he dies are his most bizarre set – four accomplished murderers. As the past lives of this quartet are slowly revealed, it becomes our job to try and match the correct killer to thismurder. As Poirot insists, we have to seek the psychology of the case. Sure, there are twists along the way, but they merely illuminate that each suspect is worthy of the suspicion cast upon him or her. No character is wasted.
What Five Little Pigs adds to this is depth of feeling that elevates this title to the top of the canon. To some extent, every character contributes to Caroline Crale’s fate; everyone is guilty of something, whether it’s sheer prejudice, or the hiding of a small fact, or the desire one person feels for another that causes them to mis-remember. The ending may not provide a twist in the manner of Crooked House, but what it lacks in shock value makes it no less effective, both as a logical culmination of the facts and as a powerfully emotional ending, one of the strongest in the canon.
I’ll let you in on a secret that proves And Then There Were None is brilliant: I went into my first Christie experience with full knowledge of who the killer was, and it did absolutely nothing to ruin the joy of this book. Sure, uncovering the identity of the monster slaughtering these nine fellow monsters is part of the joy of the novel. Honestly, though, it’s the characters themselves, along with the unbearable tension Christie creates over these chilling three days, that is the true accomplishment of the novel. That, and her ability to get us to feel for characters like Vera and Lombard, two of the most repellent murderers to spring from the author’s pen. There is nothing fragile here about the set-up or execution. No wonder this has become the mystery to enter the realm of cultural literacy, (Look up Hirsch!), the one book in the genre that we allmust read. Everything about it is dazzling. And while I would recommend newcomers going into it with as little prior information as possible, its fame precedes it, a fact that, to my mind, does nothing to mar the joy of experiencing it. When I produced the play, I all but ignored Christie’s script at first, concentrating on the novel. (It shocked me how Christie sacrificed the book’s all-consuming power to create a “lighter” entertainment.) I incorporated dialogue and action from the book to create what was, for me, a more satisfying experience. The audience gasped not just for the killer’s reveal but for the fate of the guests.
So there you have some thoughts. I would be fascinated to hear what other think. Do authors play with fire when they come up with surprise endings? Are there inherent risks at play, like the possibility that all is ruined if a reader susses out the ending? (Witness JJ and Tour de Force.) What if all that precedes the shocker is banal by comparison? Or must it be banal for the surprise to really work?
Let’s discuss . . .