Authors we love—Christopher Nugent re-reads Agatha Christie

I have a soft spot for Agatha Christie. Our life-spans only overlap by about 12 years, and she started publishing when most of my grandparents were still small children, so she is hardly a contemporary writer. And she is regarded a little ambiguously now, a popular writer of an earlier era, and like many of the greats, now so familiar that her influence seems almost like reverse plagiarism. I’ve never been any good with Whodunnits, and part of the pleasure of reading back in the last few weeks (The ABC Murders, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Poirot Investigates and The Murder on The Links) was the haziness of thirty-some years of distance from the first time reading and having very vague idea that All Was Not As it Seems, without really getting much a nudge and I was just as useless with the clues as previously. I would never have been a huge consumer of Christie, not of whodunnits in general, being more a thriller reader. Bear in mind my reactions here a mostly as a reader rather than as a rival writer 🙂

The ABC Murders

I was totally foxed. I vaguely remembered that Mr ABC was probably not the murderer. I had totally forgotten that Captain Hastings had moved to South America and wondered vaguely why his wife hadnt come back to England with him. The book is slick and fast and very practiced and the explanation was as usual a bit far-fetched. But then thrillers dont exactly cling to realism that much either so I cant throw stones. One thing that did strike me as it did when I first read it many years ago, is that there were a couple of times when Christie forgot that she was writing as a man and wrote Hastings too feminine. As before, I couldnt put my finger on this and will have fun tracking down the offending passages. As usual the badinage between Hastings and Poirot is the most enjoyable part of the book (You should be in a nudist colony Poirot says, rather shockingly for the time, when Hastings says he doesnt really notice what people are wearing)

The Mysterious Affair At Styles

A totally astonishing performance for a young pharmacy assistant with only a couple of sock-drawer novels under her belt. Was it really her first effort at a whodunnit? It is a very accomplished novel. I couldn’t follow the clues again. A few things stand out, in his first appearance, Hercule Poirot is described as being an old gentleman already with a limp, which is remarkable as he will be crime-busting from 1917 or so up to about 1975 if I remember correctly. However this is a problem a lot of authors of popular series have and don’t solve (no pun intended) very successfully. Spencer is frozen as a very fit forty-something despite having been in the Korean war, and Elvis Cole and Joe Pike similarly never aged beyond about 1986.

We never do find out how he knows Arthur Hastings, or what exactly he was in the Belgian police (presumably in a part of Belgium overrun by the Germans as he is a refugee in the English countryside). This doesn’t matter exactly right here, but in a long running series it could really have been fleshed out at some stage.

Interestingly in this book Hastings is plain Mr Hastings, no rank, despite the fact that WWI is raging in the background and you would have thought that he would be flashing his rank around to show that he wasn’t a profiteer or Conshie (ok Conshie is probably a WWII term for conscientious objector but the question as to why most of the other men of military age in the book don’t have to justify their non-combat status either, its a bit weird. Maybe people were just so sick of The Great War that they didn’t mind at the time, and that later on it became important for Hastings to have a rank.) Here, Hastings as narrator is pitch perfect as the stuffy block-headed male he should be, obtuse to clues and susceptible to romantic notions about beautiful ladies. He seems to have been insurance before the war and seems to be about thirty, which makes him a surprisingly young friend for Poirot who is presumably over 65. For now.

Presumably my lack of cultural background on the Whodunnit and English Edwardian country house high-society life are both telling against me here, but some of the social nuances were probably totally lost on me. Was the house-keeper/companion rather mannish and would this have been suggestive at the time, enough to help throw off any possible alliance with her cousin the murderer, while suggesting a motive for her having developed an otherwise unlikely dislike of him?

And was it really believable that there were no matches in the house for destroying incriminating letters but there was petrol for cars? The Germans were sinking all the oil tankers, but the match factories would have been on land.

Anyway, straight away from the off, the main enjoyment for me was the interaction between Hastings and Poirot, immediately the pattern and patter of the block-headed would-be sleuth and his bantering mentor is established, I haven’t read Holmes for a while but I suspect Hastings of being dimmer and less humble than poor Doctor Watson.

Poirot Investigates

An agreeable collection of short stories, fast fun to read, not too demanding, simpler and after a while even a Hastings-like dumb-bell like myself gets into the rhythm and vague recollections of long ago reading and the common structure of most of the ‘mysteries’ make them easy enough to guess. But the banter between Poirot and Hastings makes it all rattle along very enjoyably.

The Murder on the Links

I hardly remembered reading this one at all, and certainly not it being hard work. Certainly the weakest of the early novels I think, the plot is far-fetched in its convolutions and Hastings is dimmer and almost insufferable as a narrator and everything seems to be drawn out to the requisite length, it could have been thirty or more pages shorter, something you will not have seen me say about Styles. In fact, I found myself wondering as I closed the book, was it actually an early work than Styles, only published later? I found Hastings a little less convincing as well as irritating. And Poirot was so rejuvenated that he climbed a tree at the end of the book to attempt to stop a murder. Nice going for a over 65 guy with a bad leg don’t you think? What a writer might forget in the heat of the moment eh. Still some interestingly modern stuff – vigorous woman murderer, not afraid of physical violence, and a plucky female acrobat also. How the murderer ends up accidentally dead handily avoids certain tidying up, and everybody has botox-stiff upper lips as they dont even turn a hair at this turn of events. Eve3n as cosy mysteries go, this was all a little too cosy, As was the queue of people willing to volunteer to confess to the murder and risk a sentence of death by beheading in france, Again the Poirot -Hastings banter was the joy of the book.

Apparently AC in later life grew very tired of Poirot – this was probably because with Hastings off in South America or whatever, there was no suitable foil for Poirot and instead of altering his character to accommodate this change of circumstance and dynamic, she continued to make him insufferable and tired of the joke, which of course was no longer a joke anyway without Hastings. Hamlet without the prince and all that.

I haven’t read much of Miss Marple and would be keen to move on to reading her.

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