“They say all the world loves a lover – apply that saying to murder and you have an even more infallible truth. No one can fail to be interested in a murder.”
The Murder at the Vicarage (1930)
Seventeen Novels (as Agatha Christie)
Peril at End House (1932)
Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (1934/5)
Three-Act Tragedy (1935/4)
Two Novels (as Mary Westmacott)
Giant’s Bread (1931)
Unfinished Portrait (1934)
One Novel (together with members of the Detection Club)
The Floating Admiral (1931/2)
Notable Short Story Collections
The Mysterious Mr. Quin (1930)
The Hound of Death (1933)
The Listerdale Mystery (1934)
Parker Pyne Investigates (1934)
Murder in the Mews (1937)
Two Stage Plays
Chimneys (written in 1931 but this play not performed until 2006; for all other plays in this series, the date listed is opening night;)
Black Coffee (1934)
Three Radio Plays
Behind the Screen (1930, written together with members of the Detection Club)
The Scoop (1931, together with members of the Detection Club)
The Yellow Iris (1937)
One Television Play
Wasp’s Nest (1937)
Were the 30’s Agatha Christie’s personal Golden Age? Many fans believe so, and many arguments will support their belief. There’s the sheer size of her output: twenty novels in ten years (on only one of which she received help from a few friends); the introduction in book form of three new detectives, including one for the ages; representation on the stage, the screen (both large and small), and radio; the creation of a literary alias and the branching out of her talents into non-mystery fiction, including supernatural fol-de-rol and “serious” novels (just don’t call them romances); and, for those who clamored most for M. Poirot, an even dozen novels and several novellas, not one of them – you should excuse the expression – a Lemon.
Personally, I would extend Christie’s Golden Age another ten years, but I’ll make my arguments for that in the next installment. One could easily write a lengthy analysis of the 30’s alone, but I will try to make due with a mere 5,000 words. And what better place to start than at the most auspicious beginning of the decade.
In February 1930, Christie accepted the invitation of Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Woolley, friends she had made in 1928 when she stopped in Mesopotamia at the end of a trip aboard the Orient Express. Woolley was a world-famous archaeologist, currently working on the excavation at Ur. His wife Katharine was a complex woman who gained some notoriety amongst Christie fans for inspiring one of the author’s most complex murder victims. They wanted their divorced friend to meet a young man working for them named Max Mallowan; six months after their meeting, Max became Agatha’s second husband and remained so until her death.
Unlike Archie, who had found himself at loose ends after fighting in the war and could not comfortably embrace Agatha’s success, Max had achieved considerable success in his own field, and their marriage had more of the easy comfort of a mutual admiration society. Although they sometimes spent long periods apart due to Max’ work (and especially during World War II), Christie often accompanied him to the Middle East where she would alternate helping around the dig with work on her next novel.
One can only assume that this improvement in her domestic life spurred Agatha on to more prolific and creative heights. She certainly embraced her identity as a crime writer. In 1930 she helped form The Detection Club and was, along with Anthony Berkeley and Dorothy Sayers, one of its leading lights, according to Martin Edwards, who in The Golden Age of Murder, describes her as “a quiet, pleasant woman who was easy to read unless you wanted to know what was going on in her mind.” Despite a lifelong reputation for shyness, here Christie found an end to her isolation as an author in the company of others like her, talented professionals who used their influence to elevate the reputation of crime fiction, maintain its high standards and stretch the boundaries of the genre.
1930 also saw four significant contributions to the canon. First, in April, she published what she would often insist was her favorite collection of short stories, an odd genre mash-up of mystery and the supernatural featuring an attractive ghoul of a detective named Harley Quin. Also in April, Christie stepped away from her identity as the Queen of Crime and published the first of six straight novels under the alias, Mary Westmacott. Giant’s Bread is set in the world of music (Christie had entertained early dreams of being a professional singer) and deals, among other things, with the intersection of the personal and professional in a young musical artist’s life.
I guess both of these works would be considered labors of love, while the mystery novels often became, to Christie, mere labor. I wish I could embrace these works, as well as the thrillers, if only in appreciation for the joy they brought their creator. I’ll be honest: I have yet to read a Mary Westmacott novel, and I’m neither here nor there when it comes to Mr. Quin.
The fourth significant event of 1930 connected with Christie’s writing was the premiere, on 8 December, of her first play. Black Coffee was, in some ways, the author’s response to her dislike of Alibi, Michael Morton’s 1928 adaptation of Roger Ackroyd. The play had a bumpy run, receiving lukewarm reviews and running for about 18 months in three different theatres. The one thing most critics raved about was the presence of Hercule Poirot (who has arrived with his friend Hastings at the home of Sir Claud Amory, a noted physicist, to discover who murdered the scientist and stole a hidden secret formula. It is therefore ironic that her experience with Black Coffee seemed to prompt Christie to place a ban on having Poirot appear onstage ever again in her lifetime, and in subsequent adaptations made by her and others of Poirot novels, he was nowhere to be seen, often to that story’s detriment.
But it was two months earlier in October – exactly ninety years ago – that Christie’s most significant work of the year appeared. She had created the character of Miss Jane Marple in a series of short stories published in various magazines (and collected in book form in 1932) as a result of, according to her autobiography, “ the pleasure I had taken in portraying Dr. Sheppard’s sister in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. She had been my favourite character in the book – an acidulated spinster, full of curiosity, knowing everything, hearing everything: the complete detective service in the home.”
What is so delightful about Miss Marple is that she operates on a such a different level from Hercule Poirot that her books are a completely different experience, more frustrating to the reader eager for clues and logical detection, but clever in their own right and often a much warmer, funnier reading experience. The words “fluffy” and “woolly” may be flung her way in an almost haphazard fashion, but if one lays the two detectives’ careers side by side, Miss Marple is more ruthless, darker in her vision of the evils of the world, and a fiercer stickler for absolute justice than “Papa” Poirot:
“Miss Marple was not in any way a picture of my grandmother; she was far more fussy and spinsterish than my grandmother ever was. But one thing she did have in common with her – although a cheerful person, she always expected the worst of everyone and everything, and was, with almost frightening accuracy, usually proved right.” (Autobiography, p. 422)
Murder at the Vicarage is the only full-length adventure of Miss Marple that we get in this period (“Certainly at the time I had no intention of continuing her for the rest of my life.”), but it is an auspicious debut. I like to lay it side by side with The Mysterious Affair at Styles and compare her first case with Poirot’s. One finds advancement in her skills as a plotter and writer, but one can also see how she recycles, albeit cleverly, tricks she has used before.
Like Styles, Christie employs the Deadly Duo in the form of a pair of lovers who murder the elderly spouse of one of them in order to live a life of wealth together. While the true nature of the relationship between the murders is kept secret rather clumsily until the end of Styles, the lovers in Vicarage flaunt their feelings. Christie succeeds in making both Anne Protheroe and Lawrence Redding sympathetic figures throughout, trading on the average reader’s tendency to root for true love, made easy here since the victim, Colonel Protheroe, is a truly unpleasant figure, unlike Emily Inglethorpe in Styles.
The murderers’ plot is to lead the police down a path of planted false clues and “fake” confessions in order to exonerate themselves. The problem is that, once Lawrence and Anne are cleared, they become almost extraneous: both of them commit acts that seem to aid the police in their inquiries, but other than that they don’t do much but act charming. As will tend to happen in all Miss Marple novels, once the killers are unmasked, their utter ruthlessness and disregard for human life is laid bare. In the dozen novels featuring the spinster sleuth, murderers kill for greed or to protect themselves from exposure of a crime; only one of them is a totally sympathetic figure, and that person is given a merciful end.
Set in a village, Vicarage is much more heavily populated than the country house-set Styles, and, by and large, the characters are much better drawn. Leonard Clement, the vicar, is, to me, a far more endearing narrator than Captain Hastings. One of the most subtle things that I enjoy about the Vicar are the many ways his life actually parallels that of the odious Colonel Protheroe. Both men have married much younger wives, and while Protheroe drives his wife to despair, Clement’s marriage to the delightful Griselda turns out to be a grand passion. At the start of the chapter he tells us: “I have always been of the opinion that a clergyman should be unmarried. Why I should have married Griselda to marry me at the end of 24 hours acquaintance is a mystery to me.” By the end of Chapter One, his wife reminds him:
“Do you realize, Len, that I might have married a Cabinet Minister, a Baronet, a rich Company Promoter, three subalterns and a ne’er-do-well with attractive manners, and that instead I chose you? . . . It’s so much nicer to be a secret and delightful sin to anybody then to be a feather in their cap.”
Christie, who was herself married first to a stunningly handsome ne’er-do-well and then to a man fourteen years her junior, knew that a marriage based on true love and friendship could withstand a great many strikes against it. Possessed of a beautiful wife and an adoring parish, Clement is becomingly modest about his success. Protheroe, on the other hand, is all ego; he lacks the ability to love and sees personal enemies everywhere. (He reminds me of Donald Trump.)
Miss Marple lays out a list of those enemies at the end, referring to them mysteriously throughout the novel as “the seven suspects.” As will happen time and again in Christie, the entire list is a red herring; the killers manipulate circumstances to allow them to hide on the side of the innocent. The main weakness of their plan is its over-complication. Certainly if Miss Marple is initially fooled by their machinations, Inspector Slack, who shares some of the victim’s irritating traits, would have swallowed their double alibi. So why not stop there? Why try to frame Mrs. Lestrange or Hawes instead of letting the police make their own mistakes?
One senses, at least on Leonard’s part, that he takes some pleasure in his own cleverness. So many masked phone calls, such elaborate trickery, like the exploding rock that simulates a gunshot and the faked suicide of Hawes. We will see these overwhelmingly attractive and ruthless men again and again in Miss Marple stories: Mark Gaskell, Lancelot Fortescue, Dr. Quimper, Tim Kendall – men reminiscent of her brother Monte or her first husband. Miss Marple’s strength lies in her ability, like Christie’s grandmother’s, to see the truth nature of all these men. What catches her up in this first go-round is Lawrence’s confession. It shocks her because, up till then, she is sure that he killed Protheroe. She takes great pleasure in sending men like him to the gallows, even when the victim is such a bugger. As Miss Marple’s career takes off (but not until 1942), she ends up drawn into the murders of more pathetic and/or sympathetic people, and the figure of Nemesis takes shape.
Miss Marple would not appear in novel form again for twelve years. The short stories from the 20’s were collected into book form in 1932’s The Thirteen Problems, but Christie’s next two projects took her far afield from her panoply of regular sleuths. If a reader tends to approach her non-series books with some trepidation as to which bright young thing will tangle with what political conspiracy or band of thieves, rest assured that The Sittaford Mystery is a straightforward whodunnit, and a cracking good one. Christie relaxes when she doesn’t have to check the boxes that inevitably arise when Poirot or Miss Marple make the scene, and she more often than not compensates by having a thrilling hook.
All four of the stand-alone novels of this decade share this quality: the stormy séance announcing murder in Sittaford, Bobby Jones coming upon a dying man while playing a round of golf in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?, the fateful meeting between Luke Fitzwilliam and Miss Lavinia Pinkerton on a train in Murder Is Easy, and the unveiling of the dramatis personae in And Then There Were None. For me, only Evans fails to ignite after Bobby hears the dying message, devolving instead into Seven Dials-style shenanigans that seem even more dated at this point. Sittaford is almost Dickensian in its gigantic cast of eccentrics and its moody Dartmoor flavor; plus, it has one of those eccentric murder motives that work so deliciously in Christie. Murder Is Easy has a chilling denouement and includes my favorite murder weapon in the entire canon, and And Then There Were None . . . well, what more must I say about that one?
Jumping ahead a few decades just to make a point: when ITV decided to revive the character of Miss Marple, they wanted the option of expanding the series beyond the twelve novels. They conceived the idea of shoving Aunt Jane into a bunch of non-series titles, including all of the 30’s stand-alones (except for ATTWN). Never mind how uncomfortably Marple’s character is made to fit in these tales; some introductions work better than others. What fascinates me is how badly the writers butchered all three of these adaptations, changing the killer’s identity in a nonsensical way in Sittaford and diving into murky sexual waters – and wholesale plot changes – in Evans and Murder Is Easy.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Mark Aldridge, author of Agatha Christie on Screen. The subject was adaptations, and we both agreed that to be a “purist” when it comes to Christie in other mediums is an exercise in lost opportunities. We who love her want to keep her alive for generations to come. Insistence on strict adherence to the letter of her books will only discourage new writers from approaching her work, seeking out its spirit, and finding new and exciting ways to tell her stories.
However, the adaptations we’re talking about here cross the boundaries of adaptation in horrendous fashion, and it’s made all the worse as their surface appearance suggests fidelity to the author. What the writers are saying here is that the killer and motive in Sittaford are too slight for modern audiences – except now the brilliant opening is pointless; that the Wodehouse-ian souffle that is Evans doesn’t make for enough gripping drama, so bring on the torture of war and the tang of incest to “make things better”; that the charm of an English village serial killer murder mystery must give way to something grimmer than Christie could have come up with in her worst nightmares, making Murder Is Easy anything but easy to wade through.
The 1930’s were certainly a time for Agatha to spread her wings. She invented three new detectives (only one of them stuck), she experimented with supernatural fiction (and thankfully left this pretty much behind at the end of the decade), and she dabbled in other mediums: the stage (although only one of the two plays she wrote was actually staged), the radio, and even the nascent television industry. But the public wanted Poirot, and boy – did Christie give them Poirot! If by this point she had any qualms about having made her sleuth a relatively elderly man, she compensates during the 30’s by making Poirot an action figure: hopping on trains up and down the countryside and literally travelling around the world to solve crimes.
One way Christie struck out on her own was in the matter of the Watson. Four of the dozen novels starring Poirot find Captain Hastings by his side, still remarkably stupid but more often than not a charming companion and chronicler. Peril at End House (1932) gives us the Hastings of the 20’s, with a nose for the wrong girl and a habit of incorrectly interpreting every clue. In fact, an astute reader could probably solve the case by simply disagreeing with every contribution Hastings makes to the case. It’s not a bad case, although I think it’s best read when one is something of a crime story neophyte. I’m always uncomfortable when a premise is accepted without argument from start to finish. Why not ask that one certain question that might then shake the true armchair detective from his suspicions?
The relationship between sleuth and his second is one of the high points of Lord Edgware Dies (1933). The same issue of the unquestioned premise arises here, and while I can’t say I solved Peril at End House, the solution to this mystery seemed obvious to me from the start, became a certainty as events unfolded and then sputtered into a reality at the end. I’ve said this before: I can play armchair detective till the cows come home, but I would rather be wrong every time! Still, Poirot has such fun with Hastings in this one, that you can read the book simply for their banter and have a good time.
The A.B.C. Murders (1936) is the masterpiece of the Hastings oeuvre because it is so different from anything else in the canon. It is an adventure, a manhunt, a battle of wills and still fulfills the qualifications of a satisfying whodunit. Christie’s thrillers often had some part of a standard mystery in them, yet these were diluted by the thrillerish elements. Here everything works together so well, with the ups and downs of the hunt ultimately becoming important clues to the solution.
I wish it had a more thrilling ending, rather than the standard “let’s gather everyone together so Poirot can talk” finale; the book deserves more. It also deserves a big goodbye from Hastings – at least until he comes back to Styles many years later to bid goodbye to an old friend. Instead, Christie expands on a perfectly adequate short story, “The Mystery of the Dog’s Ball,” plops Hastings into it, along with one of the author’s worst . . . clues . . . EVER! . . . and calls it Dumb Witness. It’s not . . . terrible; it possesses an opening and a climax that are better than the rest of the book. And the anthropomorphic doggie of the title is cute, even if he veers me more deeply toward being a cat person. And yet the novel reeks a little of anti-climax as far as Hastings is concerned.
What Christie establishes with the eight other Poirot novels of the 30’s is that the Belgian could manage perfectly well without a traditional Watson. In fact, I prefer the banter he had with a social butterfly like Mr. Satterthwaite (Three-Act Tragedy), a sharp-eyed nurse like Amy Leatheran (Murder in Mesopotamia), or a fellow sleuth like Colonel Race (Cards on the Table, Death on the Nile). Best of all is the repartee we find when Christie takes a minor character from the Parker Pyne stories and inserts her into a major mystery, incidentally auditioning her as a late-in-life Watson figure for Poirot. Ariadne Oliver is a remarkable pastiche of a mystery writer, a feminist, and she is, on the surface, just enough like her creator to be intriguing. I spoke recently on this site about my love of mysteries that include a “meta” aspect. Mrs. Oliver scratches that itch in spades, to the point where her antipathy for fictional sleuth, that “wretched Finn” Sven Hjerson, provides a comic mirror to Christie’s supposed feelings for Poirot, and where we are teased as to the quality of her books through the titles that are dangled before us: The Clue of the Candlewax, The Dying Goldfish, The Death in the Drainpipe. Christie must have been impressed by at least one of these, for she stole the title The Body in the Library and gave it to Miss Marple.
These eight non-Hastings Poirot tales show Christie at the height of her puzzle-making powers, even if all but a few of them stop short at offering us any deeper emotional resonance. I do like my emotional resonance, which is why you’ll probably find me waxing so positive when I get to the 1940’s. If you ask me to rate these eight titles in order of preference – and you do so at risk of having my answer change two days later – you’ll find that my enjoyment of the trappings of a mystery, which grows stronger with each passing year, have a strong effect on my choices:
8. Death in the Clouds – At least when I first read it, the identity of the murderer was a true surprise and a tribute to Christie’s ruthlessness. The beginning on the plane is great, as are most of Christie’s openings. I also think the whole bit of Poirot early on announcing he can name the killer (but not yet prove it) after a quick examination of the passenger’s luggage is inspired. Unfortunately, this is the least involving of the “transportation” novels, the characters are as thin as paper, and the whole thing devolves into a bit of a tawdry affair.
7. Three-Act Tragedy – This one gets multiple points for having one of those off-kilter motives I spoke about earlier. It’s feels so right for this killer, and in its banality it strikes a darkly evil note. But . . . almost all the characters are so cardboard as to be superfluous, which hurts the central deceit. And that very twist feels too much like a slight variation on something Christie used only a few titles earlier.
6. Appointment with Death – Some of the Boyntons are fine: the horrible mother, sad sack Lennox and his suffering wife Nadine, and the off-kilter Ginevra. Carol and Raymond are bland as white toast. The outsiders are even better, and the setting is great. I love Mrs. Boynton’s moment with Dr. Sarah King (“I never forget!”). Unfortunately, the middle section reads like the worst of Ngaio Marsh, with a dozen suspects interviewed to death. And while the solution works, it feels uninspired – so much so that Christie herself came up with something more intriguing when she dramatized the novel.
5. Murder in Mesopotamia – The setting here makes even better use of Christie’s extensive travels to the Middle East than Appointment with Death, and the picture of life on an archeological dig is fascinating. A few of the young men at the tell blend into each other, but most of the characters are fine, especially the women: Amy Leatheran is a perfect assistant to Poirot, and Mrs. Mercado, Sheila Reilly, and Miss Johnson have interesting neuroses. Best of all is the victim, Louise Leidner, based on Christie’s friend Katherine Woolley. She is a complex piece of work, and one feels genuinely bad when she is gone because her nervous energy imbues the early chapters with suspense. Unfortunately, you have to be willing to swallow such a whopping doozy of a twist to wholeheartedly enjoy this one, and I still have trouble with it, even though I know more now about Woolley’s life (and that helps, believe me!) It’s also an impossible crime, territory Christie didn’t enter very often, and she acquits herself well in that form.
4. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas – I consider this the last of Christie’s old-time family mysteries where time is irrelevant (this could have taken place between 1900 and 1930 just as easily; even the Christmas setting is a mere trapping) and where the focus is firmly on puzzle and not on character. Thus, if the Lee family is a bit more amorphous than usual, it can be forgiven as Agatha presents us with one of her only room puzzles. I also like this one for the butler Tressilian, around whom Christie plants some of her best clues. Another impossible crime, this one a locked room mystery even more audacious and dramatic than the one found in Mesopotamia. The ending is classic Christie – for good and ill: it surprises, but it rests on some highly dubious theories about genealogy. (SPOILER: can you really inherit a method of laughing?)
3. Cards on the Table – This one deserves more love than its detractors are willing to give it. It eschews the flashy surprise of other titles for something different. In some ways, it exemplifies the essence of Poirot in its purity, its combination of symmetry (four detectives vs. four murderers) and history (it presages Five Little Pigs by introducing four murders in retrospect). Mr. Shaitana is a marvelous victim. Edgar Wallace would have made him the star villain, but here we see only a shade of his immorality. He reminds me of General Zaroff from “The Most Dangerous Game,” even if his form of hunting is subtler. The novel is tight and depends on psychology rather than physical clues or extraneous action. With only four suspects, it still manages to give us three false endings and add a charming romance. And the piece de resistance is Ariadne Oliver, who starts to shed her role as silly feminist by the middle of the book and offers fascinating insight into the life of a mystery writer.
2. Murder on the Orient Express – You can argue that the middle section is stodgy due to the “dragging the Marsh” effect of interviewing thirteen suspects – especially since the plot makes it impossible to argue that the cast size could have been reduced. But one cannot argue against the significance of this novel in the canon. The crux of the plot is “plucked from the headlines,” and Agatha craftily utilizes world events to not only lead us along the track to a smashing climax (I’m not enough of a GAD expert to opine whether this was a first of its kind, or one of a kind, solution) but by the end of Part I, she imbues the story with an emotional resonance that, for reasons that become obvious, grows stronger and stronger to the end. I’ll touch upon filmed adaptations as they crop up, but we can blame David Suchet for initiating the mistaken idea that Poirot has qualms about the outcome of this case. In the end of the novel, he presents two solutions for consideration, but it is clear that he is steering his listeners toward accepting one of them. This is in keeping with the Poirot of Ackroyd, who plays a bit fast and loose with the meting out of justice. It isn’t that what Suchet was going for isn’t fascinating or effectively done – inspiring Kenneth Branagh and Ken Ludwig to do the same thing in subsequent adaptations – it’s just not in the book.
1.Death on the Nile – This one’s personal. Blame Jacqueline de Bellefort, the Otterbournes mere et fille, the wacky relationship between Tim Allerton and his mother, the unlikely romantic woes of the sheeplike Cornelia Robson (it’s a mini-mystery within a mystery as to who she will end up with!). Hell, I’d spend a week with these people, and I’m not crazy about the water! The brilliance begins with the inciting incident – a woman deeply betrays her best friend – and leads to a labyrinth of intriguing events that call everything that happened before to question. There are flaws, but I won’t hear a word about them. Christie is going for something epic here, and she achieves it, bringing a trick she’s used before to its apex, and leaving us tear-stained at the end and giving us an almost Dickensian panoply of travelers to enjoy. I’m still waiting for a film adaptation to get Linnet Doyle right; I’m keeping my fingers crossed over Gal Gadot!
The 30’s – in 5,000 words! See you in a few . . .