WARNING: If you have not read the following titles, certain facts are laid before you in the discussion below that give away all or part of the solutions: The Sittaford Mystery, Lord Edgware Dies, Dumb Witness, Death Comes As the End, They Do It With Mirrors. Don’t be a fool – turn back and read the books before you enter here. (The first part’s kinda charming, though; you can read that with impunity!)
When I was a kid, I played the game: you curl up with a good mystery, you memorize the cast of characters, you read carefully – both on the printed page and between the lines – you study the maps provided, you ruminate over that mysterious list of clues that the sleuth provides the Watson (“the shepherd, not the shepherdess . . . “ “enquiries?” “a sad affliction bravely borne . . .”), and by the time you get to the Challenge to the Reader, you lay your own cards on the table and hope you have solved this Mysterious Affair in Style!
Nowadays, I just want to be fooled.
I Don’t Have a Clue = Utter Happiness
It took me years of reading and wisdom-gaining to realize that it’s much more fun to not figure out whodunit than it is to beat the ace detective at her own game. Even as a kid, I can remember the jaw-dropping joy I felt at the climax of Murder on the Orient Express or The Greek Coffin Mystery, when I analyzed all the clues and found that I didn’t have a clue! These are, as my friend Scott K. Ratner would say, “high concept” mysteries because the shocking ending seems to come out of nowhere – and yet, when Poirot or Ellery explain matters, it makes all the sense in the world.
I was just as fond of developing grand theories in more run-of-the-mill mysteries and being proven wrong. One of my favorite Poirots is Cat Among the Pigeons. Maybe it’s not top-drawer Christie; maybe the whole revolution in Ramat is slightly ridiculous. However, if you don’t find the juxtaposition between two worlds – the domestic school mystery and the espionage caper – too jarring, then you can appreciate how Christie’s melding of the two contributes to some lovely misdirection. It certainly sent me off in the wrong direction, which is exactly where I want to go.
The problem with being old enough to understand this is that, at my advanced age, I am also far more likely to solve a mystery. You start seeing patterns repeat themselves, or you become less likely to fall for a trick. Last year, I started to read a mid-career Sir Henry Merrivale mystery that is considered by many of my cohorts to be one of his best. Very early on, a character made an entrance that I can only describe as “screwball.” It seemed to me that it was clearly meant to endear us to this person and perhaps strike a comical, even romantic note, and yet all I could think was: “This character just made THIS sort of entrance right before a murder; this character IS the murderer.” Sadly, I was correct, and it thoroughly spoiled things for me. (I do plan on re-reading the book as part of my Carter Dickson celebration, and now that I know the solution, the pressure is off, and I can find other things to enjoy.)
It happened again when I read The Red Widow Murders although since I happened to blog about this one chapter by chapter as I was reading it, you can see that my thought processes leading up to a correct assessment were not the work of a first-class logician! There was too much else about that book to enjoy to have my pleasure entirely spoiled, but it still would have been nice to be surprised.
I’m fond of saying how lucky I feel that I came upon Agatha Christie at the precocious-but-not-too-smart age of eleven because I was too young to look for or recognize repeated tropes or much used techniques. As a result, Christie fooled me every time.
Except five books.
On these occasions, I saw through the trick and solved the mystery. The result was that I glided through the rest of the book with a growing sense of impatience and sinking hope that somehow Christie would turn it around and not make it so obvious. I have since re-read all four books multiple times and have found other things to enjoy. But here I present Brad’s Big Five, or Christie’s Folly, or . . . . oh, just read on.
. . . SPOILERS AHEAD . . .
The Sittaford Mystery (1931)
I have a sneaking suspicion that this book is woefully underrated by fans, particularly those that give the non-series detective novels short shrift. (What’s wrong with you people???) Sittaford contains wonderful, almost Dickensian atmosphere, a panoply of good characters in a very different sort of setting, and an intriguing mystery. Even if you acknowledge that, in a good mystery, there’s no such thing as ghosts, you find yourself with a conundrum: one set of people were at the séance where a ghost announced that Captain Trevelyan was murdered, but none of them have either opportunity or motive, while a whole other set of people had reason to want the Captain dead but couldn’t have manipulated the séance.
This sets us up for the possibility of a conspiracy, but Christie doesn’t explore this much. Thus, young Bradley looked at the case and asked himself who, if anyone, was at both the séance and the village? The answer was Major Burnaby, but how on earth could he get from the top of a snowy mountain to the bottom in under four hours?????????????????
I kept waiting for someone – anyone – to mention the idea of skiing. We knew Burnaby excelled at sports, so why didn’t he ski down? Why didn’t any of the investigators think about that, especially when the issue of mismatched skis and hidden ski boots came up? It was all so much simpler than we had been led to imagine, and the motive was beautifully hidden. Here is a case where the correct guess spoiled little for me; I actually felt quite proud of myself. Alas, I can’t say that it worked out quite as well with other titles in my “Big Five” . . .
Lord Edgware Dies (1933)
I’ll say this right now: I like this one more now than I ever did for reasons that have nothing to do with the mystery plot. It’s one of those rare books that is set entirely in the city, and you feel it: the theatres, the clubs, the restaurants, the posh houses. I’m also rather fond of the three characters of Jane Wilkinson, Carlotta Adams and Lord Edgware. The two women demonstrate that Christie could vary her sights a bit when it came to actors. Jane epitomizes the supreme egoism that envelops the vast majority of Christie’s theatre folk, usually with murderous results. Over at the podcast All About Agatha, Catherine and Kemper set off a funny alarm every time an actor enters the scene, for they understand that Christie cannot avoid all that actors bring with them: a ruthless concern for themselves and a penchant for disguise.
Jane is selfishness personified from start to finish, while Carlotta seems to balance her talents with charming amiability and a big load of intelligence. We see many variations on Jane throughout the canon: the male version in Sir Charles Cartwright (Three-Act Tragedy) Veronica Craye in The Hollow, and a more tragic version in Marina Gregg (The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side) come to mind. Arlena Marshall from Evil Under the Sun is an interesting variation, the flip side of the coin in that one is a victim and the other a murderer. I like how in a future novel, Poirot reminisces about Jane and acknowledges that his peerless intellect was most challenged by a woman of limited intelligence but with the certainty that what she wants she will get.
I like Lord Edgware because he’s . . . well he’s dirtier than your typical Christie victim. He appears to be a polyamorous sexual sadist, and the world is well rid of him. He dies early because I can’t imagine that Christie, lady that she was, would want to write much more about him. The question boils down to this: was the woman calling herself Jane Wilkinson who entered her husband’s study on the night of his murder actually Jane Wilkinson, or was it an impersonator, most likely impersonator Carlotta Adams? And did the woman who showed up kill Lord Edgware, or was it one of a handful of fairly uninteresting suspects on the fringes of the case?
When I read this one the first time, I got to the point where Christie would have us believe that Jane Wilkinson could not have killed the man she said she wanted to kill because she had a perfect alibi, that it was Carlotta Adams impersonating Jane who entered Lord Edgware’s house, and that Carlotta was poisoned because she had some knowledge (i.e., someone might have hired or conspired with her) about the murder. And I asked myself, “Why must it be Jane who went to the dinner party? Why couldn’t it have been Carlotta providing the alibi while Jane went and murdered her husband? And then Jane would have to kill Carlotta to keep the reverse illusion intact!”
The major difference presented between the two women was one of intellect, and the addition of Donald Ross and “the judgment of Paris” confirmed that intellect was a significant clue. Which made everything else – the moral ambiguity of Bryan Martin, the secret love affair between Ronnie and Geraldine (two highly uninteresting people), the disappearance of Edgware’s hot butler – all of it felt more like padding than red herrings. And while red herrings are, more or less, akin to padding, they should stir the imagination and send you in the wrong direction. None of that happened here for me, and while I enjoy those three characters and the trappings of the milieu, I am baffled by those who think Lord Edgware Dies is top drawer Christie.
Dumb Witness (1937)
Not since The Mystery of the Blue Train has a Christie novel felt more like a padded-out short story (which it was), and while I always laud Christie for her opening hooks, the idea of Poirot taking on a murder case because the potential client’s request arrived late by post runs more to the ordinary than usual. There is something to be said for a mystery that generates suspense with a small suspect list; Carr was particularly adept at this, and Christie would ace it with Five Little Pigs a few years later. Here I feel for Emily Arundell, the victim, because the closed circle she surrounds herself with is not particularly interesting. In my most recent re-read a couple of years ago, I frankly found the early sections where Poirot interviews the village doctor and a wonderful neighbor/gossip to assess the situation far more interesting than the subsequent investigation.
Solving this case depends on your ability to do two things: remember family names and understand the properties of mirrors. “Arabella” is a distinctive moniker, and I noticed right off that Bella Tanios had been christened with this old family first name. I didn’t even think it of import; it just registered. Then when Miss Lawson described that horrifying moment when she woke up, gazed into the mirror and saw the woman with the brooch setting a trap on the stairs, I automatically reversed the initials. Doesn’t everyone?
Plus . . . come on, what woman in her right mind pins a brooch on her nightgown? Nobody really, but it’s less of a stretch to imagine Bella would do that than the chic young Theresa Arundell. After that moment, nothing, not even the death of Bella, could deter me from pinning the crime on her. Very sad. Let’s move on.
Death Comes as the End (1945)
I happen to be in the camp that really likes this book. Sometimes, Renisenb feels to me like a winsome English lass in a wraparound gown and papyrus sandals. And I embrace the complaints about a lack of clues or any real sleuthing, but come on! It would be ridiculous if Hori the scribe sent for his Greek cousin Hercules Poirot to solve the case! I think there’s lots to enjoy beyond the wealth of research Christie poured into this ancient Egyptian household. The characters Esa and Henet are wonderful. And who can complain about the deliciously high body count?
Christie even employs one of my favorite tropes here: the intense look. It’s used to perfection in Murder Is Easyand A Caribbean Mystery, in completely different ways, mind you, and its cousin, “the voice-raised-for-no-reason” provides a fine clue in Appointment with Death. In Death Comes as the End, Satipy looks over her shoulder, sees a ghost, and plunges in terror to her death. It’s a marvelous scene, my favorite death in the novel. (Well, death by unguent is pretty fabulous, too!)
Except, as I’ve already pointed out in discussing The Sittaford Mystery . . . there’s no such thing as ghosts. So if Satipy did not see a ghost, what could she have seen when she looked over her shoulder that sent her into paroxysms of terror? Simple – it was the man walking behind her. And from that moment, I just . . . waited. The fact that this character was poisoned caused hardly a blip, especially when he survived and his brother died. Surviving a poisoning in Christie? I’m onto your tricks, woman!
They Do It with Mirrors (1952)
I purchased this title with Dead Man’s Folly, and I have always preferred the Marple story more. I like the characters, I like the setting, and I love the information the novel provides about young Jane Marple. (The Hickson version which opens and closes with Jane, Carrie Louise and Ruth watching old movies of themselves as girls puts a lump in my throat.) The opening of Folly is clever, but then the mystery falls off in terms of interest and then all but falls apart.
The problem with Mirrors is that it’s all about illusions, and I saw through this illusion immediately. Maybe I had been trained by Roger Ackroyd or A Murder Is Announced to read more carefully, to understand that when Christie uses a metaphor, she just may be speaking literally. When Edgar Lawson traps Lewis Serrocold in the study and yells and screams and fires his gun exactly at the same time that Christian Gulbrandsson is being murdered and then nobody bothers to question Edgar or Lewis because, after all, didn’t they provide each other with mutual alibis – if you can believe your ears?
It was too late for me to fall for this trap: right after the study episode concludes, Lewis Serrocold comes out of the study “breathing hard, as if he had been running.” What if he had been running? Wouldn’t that change our entire perception about what went on in the study? Wouldn’t that give us a reason for this odd episode? It’s really just a variation on the trick used in a much better Christie of the late 30’s (one of my top ten), only here it didn’t fool me a lick.
Who can resist us??? (Well, it works for JJ with those damn dogs . . . )
Now listen, folks! There’s too much to like in each of these books to skip them. I would never tell a person who counts one of these titles in her/his top ten that they are wrong. (What am I saying? Of course I would tell them they’re wrong because they are . . . but what do I know?) However, if you come across a casual reader of mysteries looking for their first taste of Christie, I find it inconceivable that any of these would be mentioned. Even The Sittaford Mystery, my favorite of the five, should be read later on as something of an outlier. For a better list of where to start exploring the Queen of Crime, look here.
I know some of my blogging buddies have had worse luck figuring out the solutions of some of Christie’s best! They’re just too smart for their own good! I would love to hear about your own misadventures in solving in the comments below, whether it’s Christie or someone else. (If it’s not Christie, please try to keep your comments spoiler free. Yeah, I know how ironic that sounds, but you might ruin a book for me!)
And I would love to hear from my writer friends – Margot, James, Chrissie, et al., who take on the challenge every time to fool their readers. How does that work for you, and how do you feel when a reader tells you how well you fooled them – or brags about how they got the whole thing sussed out? Inquiring minds want to know . . .
15 thoughts on “THE BIG FIVE, or, Brad’s Smartass Quintet”
You ask a really important question, Brad. Just how important is it that a crime writer fool the reader. On the one hand, misdirection is a potent tool, and as a reader, I always respect it when an author uses it well. If I’ve been misdirected – even being alert to things crime fiction fans ought to be aware of – then hats off to the author. That’s all the more so if the misdirection has been neatly done (with no sloppy coincidences, etc..). And, as a writer, when people tell me I ‘got’ them, I am flattered. If you can misdirect an intelligent reader, that’s an accomplishment.
That said though (you did ask), it’s more important to me that readers enjoy the stories I write than it is that I misdirect them brilliantly every time. I remember a conversation I had with someone who’d recently read a book I wrote. ‘I worked out who the killer was,’ he said, ‘but I really enjoyed the book.’ That meant a lot to me. I also find that, if I focus too much on misdirection, I don’t do the job I should do creating characters and making the scenes believable. So, yes, I like fooling readers and I hope that I do. But I’d rather have a reader work out who killer is (and even feel smug about it) than be fooled, but not enjoy the story, if that makes sense. I actually feel that way as a reader, too. Thanks for giving me, as Poirot might say, furiously to think.
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As someone who has always had the dream to write and fervently hopes to make that dream both a reality and a success at some point, I grapple with the points you raise, Margot. So many of us who love classic mystery fiction dream of writing a book that offers modern readers a pure exercise in deduction. I love playing amateur sleuth (even though, as I have stated above, I’d rather be fooled than successful every time), and I want to create challenges like that for other readers (especially, I must admit, younger readers.)
That said, I also embrace the evolution of the classic mystery into something more character-based, and I think the importance of your point about characterization and believability can’t be over-stressed. Classic mysteries can seem nonsensical to modern readers: the set-ups are unbelievable and the weirdly non-emotional response to death from the fictional community leaves some readers cold. So here I am, trying to imagine how I could create a novel that bridges both the solidly emotional, character-driven novel and the logic-based mystery. I totally understand your desire to err on the side of the former: I think it makes total sense for the modern market and probably results in a more satisfying experience as you write. Still, I’m more than a little torn . . .
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Just as the solution of Ordeal By Innocence is based on a false dilemma (one is either a murderer or one is innocent), I think the same applies to the desires of mystery readers: the false dilemma that one either tries to solve the mystery or hopes to be fooled. I fall into a third category that I suspect covers a large demographic of readers. We actively try to solve the mystery AND hope to be fooled. That is, only by defying our earnest attempts to solve the mystery (which is, by the way, another of those frustratingly ambiguous phrases) can a work’s surprise solution provide its most satisfying experience. The whole reason for our investigation is to test— and therefore mostly deeply appreciate— the ingenuity of the author.
Your reasons for not putting those five on the top tier is similar to why I can’t put A Murder I’d Announced in my top ten. Perhaps due to Peril at End House, The Avenging Chance and several others (practically every GAD writer had their version) the culprit identity was immediately apparent To me— at least as a possibility… a possibility I really hoped wouldn’t be the answer. And it’s a particular shame, as I recognize that it’s a vastly superior work otherwise.
You always try to trip me up on semantics, Scott. The point is that I ALWAYS try to solve the mystery and yet I love when I get it wrong. If you put it more clearly than me, thank you. Same thing, different descriptors. And yes, I hate when that happens with a great mystery. When Ben at Green Capsule did the same with Death on the Nile, it broke my heart. He now considers that book “second tier” Christie.
I really wasn’t trying to trip you up on semantics— I actually thought we were conveying different ideas. Though you may approach these novels the same way I do, I’m still convinced that there are many people who think there are just two types of readers— those who take a book as a challenge and those who just enjoy reading it. And many of those in the second of those two categories, believing there ARE only two, are often condescending toward anyone who tries on any level to solve the mystery.
I’m somewhat surprised about Ben’s view of Nile, because I actually think it is among the most effectively “insulated” of Christie’s deceptions, consisting of three different fronts of deception: the apparent enmity of the conspirators, the strength of the time shift alibi, and the further obfuscation of the independent agent (Ferguson). The only thing I see working against the deception is the CONSPICUOUSLY strong aspect of the culprits’ alibis (being much robust than anyone else’s they are conspicuous). And I can see it being somewhat transparent if one has already read Evil Under the Sun. But generally I find it one of her more impenetrable solutions.
Crap! I didn’t mean Ferguson as the independent agent, I meant Pennington! I was half asleep when I wrote that.
I generally don’t try to figure out the solution while reading a mystery: I take it as it comes, trying to lose myself in it while remembering everything. The ideal outcome is then that I’m totally surprised at the end, despite fair play throughout, and I enjoy the full documentation of the solution.
Nevertheless, there’s one writer with whom I often saw the solution from the start, without even trying to: Ellery Queen. It was so long ago, I can’t remember the details, but in one case I kept thinking “but why didn’t he do X? don’t any of the other characters notice?” and in another I saw a clear clue that was impossible to ignore. In both cases it pointed clearly to the murderer, and I was right. On the basis of these and other experiences, I’ve never been able to rank EQ in the top tier.
I, too, try to figure it out while hoping I’m wrong. It’s for me part of the fun and the main reason, why I’ll never loved Columbo all that much.
The handful of Christie books I solved:
– They do it With Mirrors, because I read the 1930s novel that you mentioned in your post only a few weeks earlier and watched the movie Adaption shortly before reading the novel, and the parallel was obvious.
– Peril at End House: I read the Christie books out of Order and this was one of the last ones I read. Therefore I came across some similar ones before (I think you know, what I mean) and wasn’t fooled at all.
– Lord Edgware dies: And this one actually made me frustrated at the characters, especially at Poirot, while reading it. IMO, the solution is extremely obvious and I was extremely annoyed that nobody in this book even considered the possibility until the end.
– Five Little Pigs: I don’t think I really solved it as more correctly guessed it. But once I realized what this Story was About, it made sense for me if one particular character was the Killer. I formed this opinion early on and stood by it until the end. And then some lines like the “I’ll send her packing one” stood out.
– Oh, and I solved Appointment With Death when I watched the Ustinov-movie first, but I don’t think that really counts. They added a second murder in the movie and they didn’t hide the Killer during this second murder all that well.
Regarding actors: I think Lord Edgware dies really only works if Carlotta Adams is an actress. Jane actually doesn’t necessarily have to be an actress. But she needs to be famous enough for Carlotta to parody her.
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Great post Brad. As a youngster I too wanted to compete with the author and did crack a few, though the only Christie I now remember getting ahead of is DEAD MAN’S FOLLY. More recently I do remember cracking the big twist of Dennis Lehane’s SHUTTER ISLAND almost as soon as a particular name appeared on the page, and being massively disappointed that I couldn’t make myself forget it!
As I normally read quite quickly it has been interesting in my Christie re-reading where I have been deliberately reading more slowly that I have now noticed her whole “as if” thing. You mention it in “They Do It With Mirrors” but it also appears in “The Sittaford Mystery” where Major Burnaby “stood for a moment as though perplexed”.
In terms of solving mysteries I genuinely try not to. I never stop at the Challenge to the Reader and think it through – I don’t want to solve the mystery as I feel if I do then the author has failed.
I don’t think I ever solved a Christie but then I read most of them when I was a teenager. I did see where June Wright’s “Murder in the Telephone Exchange” was going because of a very Christie-esque device and in a more recent read I had the sudden realisation that Characters A and B had never appeared together and, coupled with other aspects of the plot, that meant they were the same person.
I’ve solved a couple of “Death in Paradise” episodes recently – once by properly picking up on the clues (although with an initial predisposition because the actor had been the killer in a different series) and the second time by a process of elimination based on previous episodes i.e. it couldn’t be one thing because they’d already done that and they hadn’t had one of this type and so that was most likely.
I remember watching a “Jonathan Creek” episode years ago and they picked the killer before the murder as they considered them to be extraneous therefore they must be going to do it.
I think if you want to solve a case, paring it down to its bare bones helps because then you can see what has actually happened, rather than what the author has attempted to show you. Twice my wife (who has seen a lot of TV detective shows) has asked what I’m reading, I’ve given her the gist and she’s put forward a theory which I’ve dismissed and then found out she was spot on.
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For Christie, I’ve solved — by legitimate reasoning — the following to date:
Three Act Tragedy (because it was the only way it made sense)
Death in the Clouds (because the killer had a key possession)
Dumb Witness (for the exact reasons, and with the exact response, as you outline above)
Death Comes as the End (because of a key…relationship)
Taken at the Flood (because, I dunno, it just seemed to be the only logical outcome)
A Murder is Announced (because, again, there’s no explanation that fits otherwise)
The list of books where she’s gotten one (or two or three or five) over on me is far longer. And in some cases — Sparkling Cyanide being the most egregious — my proposed solution has been so wide of the mark that I could almost turn it into a book on its own.
My favourite experience of being wrong is probably still either Peril at End House or Evil Under the Sun. Those are the books that really made me appreciate how being wrong is even more fun than simply not having any idea whodunnit. Not that they laid elaborate false solutions or anything, I’d just looked in completely the wrong direction both times, and got hit hard by the punch I wasn’t even looking for.
Really interesting, Brad! As a reader, I am disappointed if I guess the culprit early on and I even hope that I’m not right. If I work it out near the end, that’s Ok and I remember years ago being thrilled that I worked out whodunnit in Ngaio Marsh’s Dead in a White Tie – but I also loved being fooled, which doesn’t happen often, because I have read so much crime fiction now that I often see things coming.
As a writer, I agree with Margot. It is great if someone says that they didn’t guess the ending, but I aim to write novels that are more than a puzzle.
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Great post! Lord Edgware Dies is one where I also guessed the solution (who wouldn’t?) almost from the start. On the subject of The Sittaford Mystery, you could (should!) someday do a blog post entitled Cover Illustrations That Spoil The Ending. A perfect example is the 1980s Berkley paperback edition of The Murder at Hazelmoor (its American title), which features a picture that may as well be titled “He Used Skis, Silly”.
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There are many covers of Toward Zero as well that show exactly how the killer committed the crime! There oughta be a law against these “artists!”