Neither S.S. Van Dine’s Twenty Rules nor Ronald Knox’s Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction were manifestos so much as commentaries on what constitutes a good crime novel. Written in 1928 and 1929 respectively, halfway through the Golden Age, these documents reflected with some mirth the “authority” bestowed upon two authors who were at the height of the short span of their powers and were certainly intended to be read with tongue in cheek. Still, these thirty statements of varying length covered what many authors and fans deemed to be the “essentials” of the genre at the time.
There is quite a bit of overlap between their work, but Van Dine and Knox managed to provide an effective outline for the classic mystery. The rules cover the concept of fair play, both in how an investigation should play out and what tricks and cliches must be avoided at all cost, and delineate the expectations of the murderer and the detective, who both figure prominently in a great many of the rules, including a commandment shared by both men that these two stalwarts of the mystery must never be one and the same.
There is, however, only one mention of the victim.
Van Dine’s Rule #7 states:
“There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice. Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder. After all, the reader’s trouble and expenditure of energy must be rewarded.”
There is no mention of any qualities the victim must possess, no discussion about the timing or placement of the body, nothing of a personal nature. It is simply a means to an end: it must exist (or there’s no tale), and it must possess enough qualities or backstory to inspire a motive or two. But the victim can – and often is – dead before the book begins, and there is nothing to say that the living embodiment of the victim ever has to be introduced to us, through flashbacks, letters, or home movies. Mrs. McGinty’s Dead at the start of that novel. There’s a man already heading to the gallows for her murder before we even begin! Mrs. McGinty, in fact, turns out to be a fairly dull charwoman; it is her propensity for blackmail that is the highlight of her existence, but that fact merely provides the jumpstart to a whole lot of scenes with far more interesting people.
Lots of victims are dead before a book begins, even ones for whom the book is named. Others, like Roger Ackroyd or Colonel Protheroe, appear in a couple of brief scenes at the beginning and then disappear forever. Oh, people talk about them, but only so that their opinions can establish motives or reveal clues that the corpse conveniently kept in their pockets or their stomachs. And these are the main victims! Don’t get me started on the myriad of nosy servants, buttinsky neighbors, and pesky tontine members who hardly rate a few pages of mention before they are bumped off.
Agatha Christie had her share of these, of that there is no doubt. Particularly in the last decades of her career, she favored pushing things along with a second or even third murder. Blackmail runs rampant in the later books; The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, bumps off two of them. Still, as the puzzle-centered focus of the 30’s gave way to a more psychologically and emotionally realistic approach to the genre, the idea of who the victim was and, conversely, how the motive for their death said as much about them as it did about their killer became more and more prominent. Better yet, there is no set moment when Christie gave her victims the spotlight. From the very beginning, she heightened the drama by fleshing out those characters who were doomed to die. If one examines the people who Christie killed off, one finds several fascinating categories populated by complex people, some of whom you almost wish would never die.
I went through the sixty-six novels and looked at all the victims. For the most part, I ignored the thrillers, most of which are remarkably bloodless, except for the occasional dying stranger staggering into the hotel room, or a series of nameless bodies that turn out to be secret agents. For these purposes, I looked at the whodunnits, and I still came up with well over a hundred dead bodies. It would be impossible to cover all of them exhaustively without running into the tens of thousands of words. (Let me know if you want me to write a book called Whoitgotdunto.) It gets easier when you ignore most of the extraneous murders, but still . . . I also want to warn you about spoilers. You would be better served reading this if you are familiar with the canon. There are more spoilers here than there are stab wounds in poor Mr. Ratchett’s body.
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In Chapter 9 of Peril at End House, Hercule Poirot lectures Hastings on the possible motives for committing murder. Poirot rattles off six:
- Hate/ Love that has turned to hate
- Homicidal mania
- Unplanned crime in the heat of passion
Figuring that motive often leads us to a better understanding of the victim, I compiled a list of victims in Christie and noted the motive for each crime. I wouldn’t dare share that list with you here; even I have some scruples when it comes to spoiling things, and the most stalwart fan sometimes forgets those little killings in the final third of one title or another. But I will share my results as to motive:
Out of 109 considered deaths, 41 of them – or 38% – were committed due to fear, usually fear of exposure for some past or present secret. The next highest category, as you might expect, was gain: thirty people died so that their fortune, whatever it represented, could pass into the hands of their killer. That’s another 28%, which leaves just under 40% of the victims to be divided among the other four motives. That said, I think Christie had a far more fertile imagination than her creation: where on this list, for example, do you assign a murder committed as a rehearsal for the real killing?
In Christie, nearly every victim falls under one of the following scenarios:
- The victim’s identity when discovered is initially unknown or uncertain;
All too often here, the victim is indeed nothing more than a catalyst for the murder plot, and their own personality and background hardly matters. A perfect example of this is The Clocks, and I have to confess, Christie maven that I am, to always forget who this person turns out to be. I know who killed them and why, so I can give you a general description based on motive. Other than that, we learn next to nothing about this person, nor do we need to. Still, Christie can do better than that: in Taken at the Flood, the initial victim assumes the ironic handle of Enoch Arden, but his true identity becomes a real surprise and a significant clue to his killer.
- The victim is dead before the novel starts;
I mentioned Mrs. McGinty, who could have just as easily been anyone! It’s her function to the plot rather than her identity that matters. More often than not, however, as in The Murder on the Links or The Sittaford Mystery, the victim looms large over the investigation, and elements of his character become integral to solving his murder. My favorite use of this is also one of the most devious because, in After the Funeral, Christie tricks us into thinking we have met Aunt Cora Lansquenet. It’s not just in the delightful opening scenes where her killer impersonates her for the family’s benefit; it’s also in a short solo scene where Christie convinces us that she is sharing Cora’s inner thoughts. Absolute brilliance!
- The victim gets a few chapters to establish their ultimate victimhood;
The most common method of introducing a victim before one, er, disposes of him. Most authors recognize the dramatic viability of seeing the victim contribute to their own death through a series of scenes that represent a metaphorical “kill me” sign planted on their back. This is how Christie began, with Emily Inglethorpe in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and there are too many examples to mention. It can usually be said that we don’t need much more of the victim as living person than we get: characters like Mr. Ratchett and Rex Fortescue die dramatically and then serve a stronger purpose as corpses. And this isn’t just dramatic choice. Ratchett is not important as Ratchett; he needs to become Casetti, and he can only be exposed as such through his death and the discovery of the threatening letters that the killers meant to burn. And if we see Rex Fortescue in action for too long, we’ll know that something is up
- The victim’s character is falsely presented to obfuscate the murder plot (“false” can mean two things: person X is actually person Y, or person X is presented as one sort of individual and is actually quite another sort.)
This is not my favorite sort of murder plot from any author. Perhaps the most noteworthy example in Christie is the late title, Elephants Can Remember, where the author tries to hide the tired identical twin cliché from us by focusing our attentions on the question of which spouse killed the other before killing themselves. We also get a number of smashed-in faces that should always make us sit up and take note.
- The victim is a fully-fleshed character.
It is this last category that I wish to focus on. As I’ve suggested, of all the characters in a mystery, the victim is the most functionary. He or she doesn’t need to be a fully realized character for their existence to work within the confines of the plot; all they have to do is die and thus serve as the entrance point for the detective to do their thing. Still, while even Christie killed off characters who, by and large, existed only to be killed, she also created a panoply of rich and varied victims whose character became an integral part of determining who killed them. They run the gamut from monsters to saints, but the most interesting among them cannot be easily categorized in terms of morality. I would suggest that, with few exceptions, the richer the portrait of the victim, the better the title.
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For most authors, it is a common trope to spend a few chapters with a character as he slashes and burns his way through every interpersonal relationship and then retires to his study (ostensibly to finish the Bruckmann contract but really to be stabbed with an ivory dagger and then left behind locked doors). And yet there are surprisingly few monsters in Christie. We don’t really meet one until 1930’s The Murder at the Vicarage, when Colonel Protheroe goes out of his way to vex, annoy and torment all who stand in his path: he makes his wife and daughters’ lives miserable, he targets some poor sod named Archer for poaching on his land, he grouses at his dying ex-wife – he even goes after the Church. We never get a clue as to why he’s so damn mean. He simply obeys a law of mankind that has proven to be fodder for mystery writers everywhere: power corrupts the spirit, especially in a tiny English village where there’s nothing much to do. Protheroe is neither sensitive nor bright, which gives us little impetus to study his psychology. Despite being the squire of the land, he holds fast to his disappointments, and turns his rage on others.
We find an even darker monster four years later in Murder on the Orient Express. Mr. Ratchett is one of the few professional criminals that figures in a Christie whodunnit, and in a sort of stereotypical way he physically exudes evil – so much so that he repels even Poirot, who refuses to accept a retainer from Ratchett because “I do not like your face.” Like Protheroe, Ratchett ultimately is a cipher, defined by his actions alone. There are no scenes of him interacting negatively with the passengers on the Calais coach because, for the sake of the murder scheme, there can’t be. This is what comes of more than one character operating under an alias, and of present murders being linked to past horrors. Orient Express, as a result, is a brilliant mystery, but not a mystery of character. Here is the monster, and there are those who are drawn to monstrous acts because of him.
1938 was a good year, as two of the most memorable monsters appeared side by side. In Appointment with Death, we are introduced to Mrs. Boynton, step-mama to a very unhappy brood of grown children, followed by Simeon Lee, the decrepit patriarch of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. Both these characters are devout sadists, inspiring fear and loathing from every member of their large families. They are also, without doubt, the most dynamic and entertaining characters of their respective stories.
I have no doubt that age and infirmity play a part in both characters’ actions, both of whom are addicted to power. Mrs. Boynton misses the good old days of running a prison and amuses herself by torturing those around her. Simeon Lee’s delight in tormenting his sons and their wives is even more connected to his invalidism. In his youth, he lived a riotous life of sowing his wild oats, cheating his business partners, and making his late wife’s existence a miserable one. He is frankly contemptuous of the relative tameness and/or inconsequential nature of his own children’s lives, and he gives them hell for it.
Although the nature of both of these characters is fairly simple, it is in their psychology that Hercule Poirot finds the path to solving their murders. This leads to a great twist in the case of Simeon Lee, where his rampant sexual escapades come back to haunt him. In Appointment with Death, however, the solution is, at best, anti-climactic after all the family drama we’ve witnessed. When she dramatized the book in 1945, Christie upped the game by completely changing the solution in a way that more powerfully reflected the victim’s personality. It’s the rare case where the author is trumped by the playwright, for the play’s denouement allows one of Christie’s best monsters to have full sway even after her death.
HONORABLE MENTION: Mr. Shaitana, the victim in Cards on the Table is almost too charming to be called a monster, even if his name and appearance give him almost satanic overtones. His very reason for being seems to be to collect information about other people and hold it over their heads. Like Mrs. Boynton, Shaitana greatly enjoys wielding his power over the people he knows. It’s interesting that, even though he is far more subtle about it than that good lady, Poirot excoriates him as a stupid man. Given that he ends up staging his own murder, and absent any evidence that he wanted to die, one must conclude that Poirot was correct. Perhaps this prevents his full ascension into monsterhood, so let him stand as the epitome of the ruthless blackmailers who heavily populate the canon, from Mr. Amberiotis to Miss Springer and beyond.
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THE BENEVOLENT TYRANTS
Murder aside, Christie derived much drama from the social make-up of the British upper middle-class household, especially as it pertains to the holding of power and to inheritance laws. Two of her best benevolent tyrants – both dead before their novels begin and neither one even murdered – are Gordon Cloade (Taken at the Flood) and Richard Abernethy (After the Funeral). In their lifetimes, both men assumed the reins of family patriarch and believed that, by doling out monies and favors, they had the best interests of the family at heart. Upon their deaths, both families are left in a frozen state of emotional turmoil. The Cloades, especially, appear helpless to sort out their own affairs without Gordon’s firm hand guiding them and are torn asunder when he falls victim to a bomb attack during the blitz. Richard Abernethy at least realizes to some extent the lack of fortitude in his heirs that his benevolence has wrought, and his search for a worthy heir ultimately bears fruit, but not before a murder wreaks havoc with the clan.
In a typical country house mystery, you would expect both of these men to be bumped off for their money. Indeed, that expectation is cleverly used by Christie in Funeral, and the Suchet adaptation of Flood gives in to the temptations of cliché and changes Gordon’s fate.
Fortunately, Christie offers several benevolent tyrants who are murdered, and if we look at two women and two men, we find that each has a unique tale to tell.
Christie’s debut as an author introduced her first benevolent tyrant. Emily Inglethorpe (The Mysterious Affair at Styles) is no wicked stepmother, but the machinations of her late husband’s will have given her authority over her stepsons’ fortunes. It is Emily’s intent to make life pleasant for them, but John and Lawrence chafe at their dependency on her. Emily exudes beneficence – on her family, on her ward Cynthia, and on the village dominated by her lovely mansion where she sits on committees and opens fetes.
Roger Ackroyd (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd) also has a stepson, as well as a path he expects that stepson to take. If Ralph Paton and Roger’s niece, Flora Ackroyd, chafe at their arranged marriage, Roger takes no notice, for he knows what’s best for them. He shares with Emily Inglethorpe a sense of moral rectitude, seeking the severest punishment for those they feel have committed moral turpitude. For Ackroyd, it is the blackmailer of his late lamented lover, Mrs. Ferrars, while Emily bristles upon learning that her beloved husband has betrayed her. In both these cases, the weight of suspicion falls on the stepsons until Poirot unmasks the moral usurpers who committed murder, one for gain, the other for self-protection.
We can connect our third tyrant, Aristide Leonides (Crooked House), to Emily Inglethorpe in a number of ways. He has made his home a haven for his children – even if they don’t want to stay. He has found an unsuitable, and much younger, new spouse, and his marriage has thrown the household into an uproar. Unlike Emily or Roger Ackroyd, Aristide tries to give free rein to his sons; unfortunately, this only serves to heighten Roger and Philip’s inadequacies. Like Richard Abernethy, Aristide has made his fortune as a retailer and closely observes his relations in order to find a worthy successor; in fact, both men choose a young woman for the part.
Written in 1949, nearly three decades after Styles, Crooked House is richer in psychology than both of the 20’s novels. Although Aristide is the only one of the three who dies without making an appearance, he is so well delineated as a character that he leaps off the page. He is the most admirable of the three, despite the repeated mention of his questionable business practices. He was an immigrant who overcame adversity and built himself an empire. He withstood the loss of his beloved wife and most of his children to war and illness and offered his family solace and a roof over their heads during wartime.
In the end, Emily and Ackroyd are not killed because of their position as tyrants. Emily makes the mistake of falling in love with a bad character, and Ackroyd has the misfortune to confide in the wrong person. As for Aristide, one could call his decision to deny Josephine ballet lessons tyranical rather than practical. One could even say his honesty over her lack of talent was a bit harsh. One would have still been surprised to think it would be a fatal mistake.
Like Aristide Leonides, we never meet Rachel Argyll in 1958’s Ordeal by Innocence but she casts a double shadow on her family. The title refers to the ordeal faced by Rachel’s husband and children when they discover that her son Jacko – a nasty youth whose conviction for her murder was the best, most convenient solution for all – was actually innocent; now the Argyll’s must face a new investigation that threatens to tear them apart.
But there is another ordeal to consider, and this emanates from the character of the victim. Rachel sees herself as a loving mother, but she operates out of an innate selfishness. She never considers the emotional fallout of snatching her children from their natural families, and she can’t see the effect her single-minded need for a “family” has on her husband, Leo. While Rachel ultimately is killed for gain, this isn’t a bloodless inheritance story; rather, it is one of Christie’s most physically and emotionally violent. Rachel’s intent that Jacko (or any of her children) should feel gratitude and let that morph into love is hopeless, partly because she has confused the roles of mother and savior and elevated herself into a position that is easy to admire but impossible to love.
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Over the years, Christie created some good, lively characters, mostly women and children, who served a heroic function, even if they occasionally doubled as suspects. Think Katherine Grey, Sarah King, Lucy Eyelesbarrow, and Julia Upjohn. These are characters you would want to follow, even if there were nary a murder in sight. Occasionally, however, Christie comes up with a character who is too good for this life, and so they are bumped off. These are the Saints, and, to be honest, they are amongst Christie’s least interesting characters. They usually die because they stand in the way of something someone wants (an inheritance, a lover, a need for silence). Their appearance is usually quite brief, and it may make you think less of me if I say it, but they are hardly missed after they’re gone.
In Peril at End House, Maggie Buckley arrives to protect her cousin Nick. Maggie is quiet and pretty, always thinking of others, and yet she is shot down like a dog in what we are meant to believe is a case of mistaken identity. But gentle. kindly Maggie is the intended victim. In The Body in the Library, Pamela Reeves, an innocent Girl Guide, is strangled and placed on a hearthrug in an intentional plot to mix up identities. Another innocent caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The same must be said of the Reverend Babbington, in Three-Act Tragedy, whose only “sin” was that he allowed himself to be convinced to try a cocktail – liberally laced with poison. He had to die – for one of the cruelest, most chilling motives in the entire Christie canon. Another chilling motive leads to the death of Verity Hunt in Nemesis, and although we never get to actually meet her, we are presented with the memory of a young woman who seemed to inspire love wherever she went. Unfortunately, that included love from all sorts of unpleasant people.
We also never meet Pamela, and Maggie and the Reverend pass through their respective pages so quickly. At least we get a fabulous scene at the start of Murder Is Easy that allows us to know, love, and sympathize with Lavinia Pinkerton, whose sole purpose in the book is to lure Luke Fitzwilliam into investigating the serial killings at Wychwood-Under-Ashe. She does this brilliantly and then is run down in the street (like a dog, folks, like a dog.) Plenty of innocent people are bumped off in Christie because they knew too much, and yes, I might be pushing it to suggest that the Lavinias, or the Edna Brents or Donald Rosses of the canon are Saints. A saintly character is often less interesting than the circumstances that bring about their death, making them, more than other types, a catalyst to action rather than a fully-fleshed character. At best, they might be given the Christie treatment as she does with so many of her servants and smaller characters, and they emerge like a burst of energy on the page (like Miss Pinkerton) before they are sadly snuffed out.
One exception to this would be Mary Gerrard in Sad Cypress. Her appearance is not brief, and her death is no accident or switcheroo or means of self-protection; it’s a result of greed, pure and simple. What makes Mary’s death special is her innate goodness and her helplessness in the face of fate. She reminds me a good deal of Esther Summerson, the madly put-upon and utterly saintly heroine of Dickens’ Bleak House. Mary has no control over her parentage and no understanding of the future in store for her as her family plots, either to amend the wrongs done to her or to wrest her future fortune from her hands. So many mysteries begin with a series of scenes where a pernicious victim-to-be wreaks havoc upon their own little closed circle (can we just call it The Perry Mason Effect?) We see this in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in The Murder at the Vicarage, in Death Comes as the End, and so on. We think, “Oh, girl, you’re gonna get it but good!” But Mary? She suffers and suffers so: her father is cruel to her, her boyfriend accuses her of infidelity, her boss’ niece despises her, and the niece’s boyfriend hits on her, even her best friends prove false.
The odd thing is that, even after Mary is poisoned, our sympathies remain with the pouty, frustrated niece, Elinor Carlisle, who is on trial for her murder. And that’s the problem with saints (it is with Esther Summerson, too): we may admire them, or pity their sufferings, but we rarely identify with, or embrace them, as people. Sometimes, in fact, they get on our nerves, making us react with as much relief at their demise as at the death of a Monster.
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THE GODS AND GODDESSES
The naysayers who insist that Agatha Christie was a prude of the cozy variety have never met Miss Marple OR the six people on this list, who are some of the most compelling characters in the canon. They are attractive and provocative, inspiring powerful emotions, both positive and negative, wherever they go. They can also be neatly divided in half: in one group, the allure that stirs so many emotions leads to the victim’s downfall; in the other, it proves to be a red herring. Allow me to spend a little extra time with this half dozen; after all, sex sells . . .
“Six people were thinking of Rosemary Barton who had died nearly a year ago . . .”
Interestingly, Christie does not make this the first sentence of her novel Sparkling Cyanide; rather, she elevates its importance by creating it as an epigram to introduce the whole affair. She then divides the book into thirds, and Book I, “Rosemary,” is to me the most compelling section of them all. This is because Rosemary engenders so much feeling in the circle that surrounds her. The three men have been drawn to her sexually, while two of the three women count themselves as her rival. Only her sister, Iris, loves Rosemary unequivocally, and Iris is the least interesting character here. Despite being given the largest section, she turns out to be more of a witness to events until the end.
Like Agnes Huston, the victim in Anthony Asquith’s fine 1950 mystery film The Woman in Question, Rosemary is different things to different people, but to this reader she comes across as manipulative and difficult. She loves her sister. She probably loves her husband. She wants to possess her lover – maybe more than one lover. She cares not a jot of what her actions do to the women who love her lovers and possibly the effect of her passions on British politics. In short, with all the bedding and betraying going on, Rosemary is ripe for succumbing to a crime of passion.
Except that’s not what happens at all: instead, a relatively minor character bumps off Rosemary in order to move up the inheritance chain. And then, to make matters more interesting, a second murder occurs which has every sign of being the typical “he found out too much and must be silenced” affair. But again, the motive was gain, and this victim died by mistake. There’s a lot to complain about with Sparkling Cyanide, including the fact that two murders set a year apart happen only through a confluence of luck, both good and bad. The whole thing feels incredibly artificial, even more so since the characters are rendered especially realistically here. But the best part of this novel is Christie’s manipulation of our expectations over why these people are killed. She succeeds here because she renders the characterizations of a society vixen and her doting husband so well.
“That woman is evil through and through. Do you doubt it?”
Evil Under the Sun introduces us to Arlena Marshall, a retired musical theatre star and a fulltime vamp. Christie hammers home Arlena’s credentials as a femme fatale in Chapter One, as Hercule Poirot’s fellow vacationers call her “beast,” “menace” and “the personification of evil.” Major Barry condemns her because she is a redhead and gives us a template for what to expect in his reminiscence of another auburn beauty he knew in Simla:
“Did she set the place by her ears? I’ll say she did! Men went made about her! All the women, of course, would have liked to gouge her eyes out! She upset the apple cart in more homes than one.”
Major Barry equates Arlena with other “women of her type” that he has known; in doing that, he falls into the trap Christie has laid for all of us. This is how she uses character “types”: she imbues a person with familiar qualities and lets us jump to conclusions. By 1941, when the book came out, the femme fatale was emerging as a popular villainess in film, a descendant of the sexual vamp of the 20’s and 30’s. And there certainly is a voracious quality about Arlena’s desire to be loved by men.
Still, “vamp” is short for vampire, and the essential vamp saw men as her prey, lured them into her spell, sucked them dry and abandoned them. The great twist here is that it’s Arlena who’s the prey. Almost immediately, Poirot recognizes that the evil in the air hovers around her rather than emanating from her. She is a beautiful woman who recognizes the power that her beauty bestows upon her to attract men, and she uses it instinctively. What she cannot understand – and I think that this is a result, not of stupidity, but of an over-developed romanticism, possibly as a result of her life as an actress – is that there is no guarantee that the men she attracts are worthy, or helpless, or looking out for her best interests.
The great tragedy of Arlena is that she finally married a good man who looked past her seductive charms and saw in her a woman in need of a good, loving man – and she didn’t know what to do with that. Again, this is sometimes the mindset of an actor: to be continually the focus of attention and acclaim. Arlena is fed that attention by an opportunist, and it seals her fate.
“Money and looks – it’s too much! If a girl’s as rich as that she’s no right to be a good looker as well. And she is a good looker . . . Got everything, that girl has. Doesn’t seem fair . . .”
There have been two film adaptations of Death on the Nile, with a third on its way, and I wonder if anyone will ever get Linnet Doyle right. Both Lois Chiles and Emily Blunt have played her as a voracious bitch; Chiles, especially, takes great delight in antagonizing everyone around her, although, to be fair, the 1978 film is going for the most unsubtle tropes of classic detective fiction that it can find. Screenwriter Anthony Shaffer assigns motives to characters that don’t exist in the novel, and Chiles treats each fellow passenger who confronts her as an obstacle to her having a good day.
It is clear, both from the novel and from the play that Christie wrote soon afterwards (and which I will have the opportunity to direct next year), that Linnet is a complex woman. She is alternately savvy and naïve, altruistic and self-serving – sometimes to the same acquaintance! “You are the most practical creature!” says her friend Joanna Southwood, just before Linnet proves to be anything but. Like Arlena Marshall, Linnet is a mark for a variety of ruthless souls – not just the murderer, but a thieves, embezzlers, and terrorists who all gather aboard the Karnak, along with a gaggle of young people who either adore her with movie-idol fan zeal or despise her as a spoiled brat or a leech upon society. Everyone has an opinion about Linnet, and despite the alterations in the movies, she does little to provoke or respond to their attitudes.
Linnet’s focus hangs on two people: her husband and her best friend. What makes the mystery work and provides it with a devastating ending is how Christie establishes that the bond between Linnet and Jacqueline de Bellefort is real. Jackie’s fortunes have gone up and down, and Linnet has never deserted her. The scene that Poirot witnesses at Chez Ma Tante between Jackie and Simon resonates with pathos, both in the moment – where Poirot sees clearly that she loves him more than he loves her – and during the denouement, where we realize that Jackie had pinned all her hopes on Linnet making her marriage possible. Once Simon met Linnet, his rotten core began to assert itself, and Jackie was forced to make a choice in order to keep him. The movies like to portray Linnet as having stolen Simon from Jackie because it was another chance for her to exercise her power and her wiles. But Christie imbues Linnet with stronger feelings than that, feelings of passion and love, but also of guilt.
If one carefully reads the early scene between Poirot and Linnet where she asks him to save her from Jackie, a couple of interesting points emerge. Linnet comes off as cold and practical, insisting on focusing on the facts, rather than the emotions, that her marriage has engendered. Poirot suggests that she is steeling herself against the feelings she has about “stealing” her best friend’s fiancée, an idea that Linnet tries to brush off rather than deny. Then she tells a story of how Simon was already growing wary of Jackie before they even met. How does Linnet know that? We can assume that she is so self-centered that she would dismiss the earlier engagement as a minor romance compared to her love with Simon. The truth, however, is that this is the pack of lies that Simon has fed her. She had flirted during repeated contact with this handsome young man, and he had nurtured it into a murder plan.
Before I end with a plaintive “poor, poor Linnet,” however, I want to suggest one other thing: there is an allure to Linnet to which not even cold, cruel Simon is immune. On an expedition to view the temple of Ramses, a rock is dislodged by a hidden enemy – and what does Simon do? He saves Linnet’s life. Now, he might have done that to save himself, realizing that ditching his wife to face the rock would have looked bad. Or he might have done it because he realized that it muddied his own possible motive and gave an alibi to Jackie. And yet I don’t buy that Simon had the time or the brain power for such speed analysis. He acted on instinct, and his instinct was to save his wife. I also believe that Jackie’s meetings with Poirot indicate actual ambivalence over ending the life of her friend, even if Linnet has betrayed her. Jackie is aware enough of Simon’s allure to understand that Linnet didn’t have a chance to do the right thing. And she remembers the kindness Linnet had shown her when her life took a dark turn. All this says something for the attraction Linnet held – even for her murderers.
“She wasn’t a bit like I’d imagined her! . . . and if I say that she had an air of intense weariness and was at the same time very much alive, it sounds like nonsense – but that’s the feeling I got. I felt, too, that she was a lady through and through. And that means something – even nowadays.”
It makes sense if the most dramatic entrance in a mystery is reserved for the victim, as often happens in Christie and elsewhere. Arlena Marshall grabs everyone’s attention when she first appears on the beach, while Linnet’s purchase of a country home causes a stir amongst the villagers. In Murder in Mesopotamia, the characters talk about Louise Leidner before she finally makes an appearance. Nurse Amy Leatheran, the book’s narrator, is hired by Louise’s husband to be her companion and, basically, check out her mental health. To Amy’s credit, while she is bombarded with information about her new employer, both laudatory and disparaging, she reserves her opinion until the ladies meet. The good-hearted Amy notes Louise’s attractive and vulnerable qualities and concludes, “I liked her. She reminded me of a matron I’d had in my probationer days whom we had all admired and worked hard for.”
The fascination of Louise Leidner partly stems, for the reader, at least, from the fact that she is based on a contemporary and well-known acquaintance of the author. Katharine Woolley, who worked as a nurse and archaologist with her famous husband, had hosted Christie at the dig at Ur and introduced her to her second husband, Max Mallowan, who worked for the Woolleys at the time of their meeting. Christie speaks tellingly about Katharine in her Autobiography:
“Katharine Woolley, who was to become one of my great friends in the years to come, was an extraordinary character. People have been divided always between disliking her with a fierce and vengeful hatred, and being entranced by her possibly because she switched from one mood to another so easily that you never knew where you were with her. People would declare that she was impossible, that they would have no more to do with her, that it was insupportable the way she treated you; and then, suddenly, once again they would be fascinated. Of one thing I am quite positive, and that is if one had to choose one woman to be a companion on a desert island, or some place where you would have no one else to entertain you, she would hold your interest as practically no one else could. The things she wanted to talk about were never banal. She stimulated your mind into thinking along some pathway that had not before suggested itself to you. She was capable of rudeness, in fact, she had an insolent rudeness, when she wanted to, that was unbelievable but if she wished to charm you she would succeed every time.“
Woolley sounds like the perfect fodder for a murder victim in a story, and to be honest, Louise Leidner is not nearly as fascinating a figure. At this point in her career, Christie eschews the psychological for the more typical tropes of character and motive: Louise’s mercurial temperament inspires lust, rage, jealousy, and frustration in the team of scientists around her. The utter ridiculous of the solution can only be explained by embracing the willing suspension of disbelief necessary when reading a number of Golden Age titles, but if we’re looking for clues as to how Louise could have found herself in the situation that leads to her murder – that of remarrying her presumed-dead first husband without recognizing him – one has to turn to Woolley, who rumor has it was frigid with her husband. I imagine that anyone would have to be 1) hopelessly self-centered, and 2) never intimate with her spouse in order to not see – or feel – in him any of the qualities of the hidden foe on whom the rest of her energies are totally focused. To be fair to Christie, she does display some of this in her portrait of Louise. The book may be ultimately flawed; the character is fascinating.
“He had affairs with women – they stimulated him – but he left them high and dry when he’d finished with them. He wasn’t a sentimental man, nor a romantic one. And he wasn’t entirely a sensualist, either. The only woman he cared a button for was his own wife.”
I’ve focused with more detail than before on the four women whose allure either proved their undoing or offered no protection from an unscrupulous enemy. The two men in this category operate differently, at least in Christie’s universe. Their magnetism is no red herring; in fact, the books in which they appear contain no red herring motives regarding gain or some hidden motive. Both Amyas Crale (Five Little Pigs) and John Cristow (The Hollow) stir up passionate feelings in every member of their inner circle, and it is their unwillingness to play fair with the feelings of others that leads to their deaths.
While these novels have contrasts – one is a mystery told in retrospect, the other a vivid country house crime story, Pigs is arguably a much better Hercule Poirot mystery, while Hollow is a stronger novel with murder in it – I find it remarkable how much these two books parallel each other. If I knew how to draw illustrations on WordPress, I would present you with two triangles, side by side. Husband, wife, and mistress: the man is murdered in both books, while a different side of the triangle kills him. Both men are geniuses, Crale a great painter and Dr. Cristow a brilliant scientist and compassionate doctor. They share the quality that, for both of them, their work is their prime motivation.
Crale is a sensualist: he adores his wife and daughter but – as the quote above suggests – is “stimulated” by his affairs with his models. Some witnesses suggest that Caroline understood this or that Amyas took lovers as muses for his art, nothing more, but Christie has a job to do and cannot stress Amyas’ good qualities too much. For ultimately, it is these qualities that lead us to his killer. Despite the repeated suggestion that Elsa Greer was different – that she alone had the capacity to displace the wife – we ultimately realize that most of this theory came from Elsa herself and that finally Amyas has become involved with someone who will not play his and Caroline’s game.
Similarly, John Christow compartmentalizes the different aspects of his life, although he ruminates more intellectually than Amyas about work, wife, and mistress. He wants to cure a terrible disease. He wants his wife to be less compliant and his mistress, the artist Henrietta, more so. Despite his apparent dissatisfactions, he has achieved a greater balance in his life than Amyas. He is helped in this by the circle in which he revolves: the Angkatells and their kin are proper British country folk and crave stability in their relationship to their beloved family and friends. There are no confrontations here: everyone worries behind his back about John and his women, while John, Henrietta, and John’s wife Gerda alternately suffer in private and count their blessings. A balance of sorts has been achieved between the three of them; Gerda may not be totally aware of Henrietta’s true relationship with John, but she has great affection for the other woman. Certainly, she is happier with John than the others who are affected directly by his and Henrietta’s affair, namely Edward, who loves Henrietta, and Midge, who loves Edward.
All of these people might have remained in a sort of stasis if not for the appearance of a total sensualist in the form of actress Veronica Craye. For such a naturalistic Christie novel, Veronica comes off as an over-the-top cliché, slightly reminiscent of Jane Wilkinson in Lord Edgware Dies but belonging more to the world of hard-boiled dames. She needs to be this big, for she serves less as a character or even a viable suspect and more as a catalyst to propel the murderer into action. She causes John to lose his balance and upset the system that he, wife, mistress, and family have allowed to serve as the template for their lives. It takes a shock the likes of Veronica to stir John and Gerda into the blatant crime story behavior that propels wives to murder their unfaithful husbands.
Amyas and John’s murders are crimes of passion and, to a greater or lesser degree, unpremeditated. In terms of plotting, this works better in Five Little Pigs because the mystery is better layered with a wonderful set of interlocking circumstances clouding the truth. I also think Christie better establishes Elsa’s potential as a scorned lover capable of murder than she does with Gerda. This is not to say I don’t love The Hollow just as much, and a lot of that has to do with the way Christie draws a circle around these two fascinating men. But in the end, I think it’s significant to note that, while both novels end brilliantly with a final ironic twist, in Pigs that irony centers around the killer while in Hollow it focuses us on not Gerda, but Henrietta. And in a powerful allusion to the earlier mystery, once again Christie shows us an artist for whom her work trumps everything, even grief for the dead.
*. *. *. *. *. *
A SPECIAL CASE
No genre exists with a more proscribed set of characters, each with their own solid purpose. The detective stands supreme, as both protagonist and outsider, the only one capable of putting the broken society of each case back into some semblance of order. The sleuth is charged with the highest calling in a mystery, that of giving ultimate satisfaction to the reader by providing a solution that makes sense out of the delicious chaos. The murderer stands opposite the detective, the only antagonist in fiction who remains hidden from his enemy until the final confrontation. That hiding place, more often than not, is among a group of suspects: the more varied and interesting that closed circle, the more gratifying our reading experience will be.
And, finally, we have the victim. “Finally” may be the wrong word, since the victim tends to begin the story proper. As Van Dine commanded, there must be a corpse, but neither he nor Knox nor anyone else has ever decreed what qualities were required for such a character, beyond being dead as the proverbial doornail.
As we have seen, the best of Christie’s victims don’t merely serve their purpose of springing Poirot or Miss Marple into action. They are vivid characters, like Mrs. Boynton or Simeon Lee. Or they are morally complex, like Rachel Argyll or John Cristow. Some are even essentially good people with a fatal flaw. I’m thinking of Heather Badcock (The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side) who views dragging herself out of her sickbed to get Marina Gregg’s autograph as an homage to her favorite actress, never mind the consequences.
Or poor naïve Gladys Martin (A Pocketful of Rye), whose ideas of love, borne out of reading movie magazines, lead her to become complicit in a murder.
And last, we come to a special case – so special that it remains for me the one must-read mystery for every person who loves books. For the ten characters who come to an island off the coast of Devon in And Then There Were None, there are no proscribed roles; instead, this cast of characters fulfills all of them. They are all murderers, a fatal flaw that has put them in the position of becoming the victims of a supreme murderer. As their numbers fall, they come to realize that they are all suspects, for the killer must be one of them. And so, what do they do? They detect! They all play amateur sleuth, seeking to unmask the monster among them before it’s too late. Ironically, the most effective detective here is the actual murderer. He is even given the spot usually reserved for Poirot, that of delivering the final speech that reveals the truth.
A special mention must be made for Vera Claythorne, whom I consider to be one of the most fascinating victims in the canon. She is a young career woman, like so many before and after her, who becomes the “Final Girl” in this serial killer’s plan. Unlike Anne Beddingfeld in The Man in the Brown Suit or hairdresser Jane Grey in Death in the Clouds or Dr. Sarah King in Appointment with Death, Vera’s career hasn’t gone to plan. Tragedy haunts her like no other girl before her, but Christie teases us in her portrayal of Vera as to whether the tragedy was of her own making.
Even though she is the last to die, for much of the novel we can cross Vera off our list of potential U.N. Owen. Part of this is simply a matter of page time, as Christie takes us into Vera’s head more than the others. We learn a lot about her – about Hugo and Cyril and her dashed expectations of love – and Christie makes it seem a sympathetic story, sympathetic enough, at least that it’s tough to equate her with the killer.
When we get to the final five survivors, plot takes over, and it becomes utterly impossible for Vera to be the killer. She is upstairs getting strangled with seaweed when the Judge is shot. She is locked in her room for her own protection when the Doctor is drowned. And she is on the beach with Philip Lombard when someone sends a marble clock crashing on Inspector Blore’s head. And so, even as we watch her shoot Philip point blank, we know in our hearts that she is simply following a pattern laid by another. Except we’ve run out of people, and so we are riveted on Vera as she goes back into the house, finds it empty, and makes her way to her room where she discovers the noose and chair awaiting her. “One little Soldier boy left all alone . . . “
And that is when we learn that, in our frequent visits among Vera’s memories, she had tamped down some important facts, like the one where she had murdered little Cyril so that Hugo would inherit a fortune and deign to marry her. And as she steps onto the chair and places the noose about her neck in order to fulfill the final verse of the rhyme, we sit there, helpless and horrified in the realization of Vera’s notions of love. The truth about Vera, and the fate she suffers for it, are as brilliant a surprise ending to a novel proper as Christie has delivered. And even though the Epilogue that follows restores the limelight, as mysteries always do, to the murderer, Vera, along with her fellow guests, provides a perfect homage to the power and importance of the victim.
Rest in peace.
15 thoughts on “CORPUS DELECTABLE: Giving Agatha Christie’s Victims Their Due”
Well, my options are go re-read the entire corpus and try to find a flaw; or just bow to the inevitable and agree with you. 😁 Having just rewatched the 78 movie of NILE I really want go read the novel again as you sound very right indeed. And don’t forget to send invites for when you do the play, sounds great!
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It’s not a very good play, for a wealth of reasons, but if I lie and say it’s brilliant, does that mean you’ll fly out and see it???
Who could resist the combo and you and Agatha! Match made in theatre heaven 😁
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What a fascinating post, Brad. You shed some incredible insight onto the role of the victim in Christie: a role that is perhaps more interesting and diverse in her hands than in a lot of the other GAD writers (not a slight against them in any respect, however). Seeing as Christie was always so focused on character in her books, the relationship between victim and killer – in many respects the true core of the mystery novel – is at its most developed and poignant in her hands. Even in the puzzle mysteries that populated the first part of her career, the victim-murderer relationship was of more importance then, say, a first period Queen book or a John Dickson Carr mystery. And the economy with which she sets up the points of this relationship is really to be marveled at too. I love P.D. James, but in (at least) one of her books, the reader must sit through over 100 pages of scene-setting, forcing it down our throat that so-and-so is going to be murdered, and then, unsurprisingly, they are. (The way she writes it all though is really second-to-none.)
As you have touched upon, one of the aspects of the victim character I find so interesting is the effect that they have on the killer. Though the portrayals of “The Saints” may be lacking in depth, they do add many layers to the role of their killers. As you said, the death of the Reverend in Three Act Tragedy is one of the grimmest in the entire Christie Canon, and it is only after the motive has been revealed do we see just truly how twisted the killer is. The same goes for The A.B.C Murders , The Body in the Library and Hallowe’en Party . These books may not have the most interesting or most fully-developed victims in the Canon, but the identity of the killer in each will never fade away simply for how evil each really is.
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I’m finally getting back to my Carter Dickson celebration, and the one I’m reading now highlights your point perfectly: the victim (who is dead at the start) seems to have been a fascinating character, but we learn so little about him and what we do learn is purely in service to the mystery. Maybe by the end, I’ll think differently- but I don’t think so!
Lovely post, Brad. As you suggest, the character of Christie’s victims shapes the plot; she was as interested in living people as she was in dead ones – perhaps, even, the detective story provided a structure in which she could examine and depict character. At the height of her career, in the ’40s, she remarked that she was increasingly concerned with “the preliminaries of crime. The interplay of character upon character, the deep smouldering resentments and dissatisfactions that do not always come to the surface but which may suddenly explode into violence.”
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I totally agree with you, Nick. The 30’s were prolific and puzzle-wonderful, but from And Then There Were None through Crooked House, she was onto something else, and her output was largely brilliant. Her victims either died much later in the book (SadCypress, Toward Zero, The Hollow) or they were dead at the start but were made vivid through the investigation (Five Little Pigs, The Body in the Library, Crooked House). This happened to others in the 40’s as well, like Ellery Queen, while some, like Ngaio Marsh, stayed pretty much as they had always been. Part of it might have been “rolling with the times,” but the change, for me and I imagine for you as well, was highly satisfying.
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But did Ngaio Marsh stay pretty much as she had always been? She sharply improved after her rather dreadful first works! By the late 1930s (circa Artists in Crime, Overture to Death), her books open with a long, character-driven introduction (sometimes half the book). She very rarely opens with the murder already done. (See below.) She even tells the first part of one of her 1930s books from the (charming, sympathetic) victim’s perspective.
Actually, Died in the Wool might be Marsh’s response to the Five Little Pigs approach – a grim, subdued work. The murder was committed in the past (a few months rather than a decade), we never see the victim alive, the suspects write statements of what happened, and we see different aspects of the victim.
The problem with gobbling down an author’s work at a young age is that 1) I read them too quickly, 2) time passes and we forget. I know Christie so much better than any other author because I keep re-reading her and reading about her and seeing all those damned adaptations, and so on . . .
WIth Marsh, I’m sure there were changes, certainly in quality and then in style. I mostly remember that “long, character-driven introduction” pattern you described – it was always the best part of the book because I liked her characters and writing style. The biggest shock in all her works for me was the death of that “charming, sympathetic” victim you alluded to; other than that, I don’t remember a single solution making me gasp. But it’s unfair to compare anyone to Christie on that score (although my other favorites – Brand, Carr, and Queen – contributed a fair share of gasp-inducing solutions.) I simply don’t have enough sharpness of memory to discuss Marsh with enough vigor to make it worthwhile. (I remember hating her use of twins and loving the killer piano . . . )
I still think Christie had more distinct “periods” in the manner of Ellery Queen: the 20’s to mid-30’s were puzzle focused, (intermixed with those thrillers – all that time wasted!), late-30’s through the 40’s were her most serious, novelistic period, and the 50’s contained her funniest, most sparkling books. There are strong and weak entries within each period, and strong and weak elements within the books. (A Body in the Library is delightful in so many ways . . . it’s just not a riveting mystery! Neither is Sad Cypress, whose qualities are maybe the exact opposite of those found in the library!!)
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How do you manage to rererereread Christie? I started reading her when I was ten; I’ve read some of them at least half a dozen times – and with TV and radio adaptations, etc., I know the stories back to front. (I’m pretty sure I could give you a summary of the books – characters, motives, alibis, scenes – off the top of my head.) Maybe I should get hypnotherapy to make me forget…
I’ve listened to a lot of the BBC radio plays recently; John Moffatt really is the definitive portrayal. He’s wise, empathetic, and he has a sense of humour (which Suchet doesn’t). His Poirot is a bigger, warmer, worldlier personality than Suchet, I think.
I read most of Marsh when I was 13; she was the detective writer I moved onto after Christie, so she will always hold a special place in my heart. When I reread them a decade later, I was surprised to find a lot of the early ones didn’t stand up; the plots were a bit thin, and too many were solved by reconstructing the crimes and finding a character lying about their movements, rather than by more sophisticated clueing. But a lot of the ones from Overture to Death on really are rather good. Can’t remember any of the joyous shocks Carr administered, though.
(But does Period 1 Queen bear rereading? Logical, yes, but rather dry.)
And, yes, the change was highly satisfying, on the whole. Some of my favourite Christies are those where she balances mystery and novel / character, like Nile. But many of the ’40s novels are less *clever* than the ’30s books. (Swings and roundabouts.) The Hollow is a very good novel, but a weaker mystery. Still, I prefer that to, say, The Body in the Library (where whodunnit isn’t rooted in character at all, as the ITV adaptation showed), Death in the Clouds (a plane full of suspects but few people), or Appointment with Death (great build-up and characterisation, anticlimax least likely person ending).
And, yes, Towards Zero is excellent!
Sad Cypress (and Taken at the Flood) for some reason has always struck me as a minor Christie; it’s very pleasantly characterised, but the situation, the murders, aren’t very striking. Maybe because it’s a minimalist work, in the line of Sayers’s Strong Poison – one obvious suspect – and the situation is similar to Dumb Witness (poisoning old ladies in quaint villages). But the rose clue is lovely.
So many things to respond to!!!
1) I don’t know if “how” is the right start to that question so much as “why?” I’ll freely admit that Christie brings me comfort, in the same way that certain old books and movies do for me. Feed me a double bill of Now Voyager and Casablanca, and I feel like I’ve been wrapped in a warm blanket. (My lips also tend to move as I know some of the dialogue!) That said, every time I re-read a Christie, I find something new, usually something that has nothing to do with the mystery. It happens when I re-read Edward Eager’s children’s books, too. It has also helped that audio books were invented. This is how I often “re-read,” and it is certainly why I love Jane Austen more and more. I read nearly all of Dickens in my 20’s and 30’s, and I loved him – but I’ve only re-read a couple of my favorites (Bleak House, which is my #1, and Great Expectations, which I taught a couple of times.) Dickens is so dense that a re-read takes this slooooww reader too much time.
2) John Moffat was the BEST Poirot. I’ve said it several times on my blog. Look for it! I totally agree with you – and with the fact that some of those radio adaptations are the most faithful and loving renditions of the tales. (Death on the Nile is a special favorite, including more of the original passengers and subplots than any filmed adaptation, both so far and to come, if I know my Kenneth Branagh!!)
3) I read Ngaio Marsh as a teenager and into my 20’s. I think that I was trying to extend my “Christie fix” to another prolific crime queen whose books were readily available. The fact that the books included a list of characters helped; I have always loved that feature. I thought her writing style was charming, and I loved when she spent six or so chapters introducing the suspects and setting us up for the murder. It’s not that Alleyn wasn’t attractive, but the character stuff was always more interesting. These were solid mysteries, but like you, I never was blown away by the detection or the endings. I felt the same way about Patricia Moyes (right next to Marsh in the bookstores then, so . . . ) and Marsh is more fun to read than Moyes.
4) Don’t tell JJ, but I have re-read some of the early Queens, and the writing doesn’t hold up for me. I agree: a little too dry, with no characterization to speak of. I still laud him as a master of his day, and some of his books are magnificent.
5) I think it’s very difficult for any mystery author to write a compelling novel that is also a solid puzzle mystery. Something from one always seems to get in the way of the other. I think Five Little Pigs and maybe Towards Zero accomplish both in the 40’s. Yes, The Hollow is a better novel than it is a mystery, but boy is it a good book! The same goes for The Moving Finger, which I re-read not to spot the clues but because I love the folks of Lymstock. Evil Under the Sun is a fine mystery, but it feels in many ways like a 30’s novel slid over to the 40’s. Of course, I’m being silly to divide Christie’s periods strictly by decade. As you noted, Death on the Nile does this in ’37; so does ATTWN in ’39.
And while we talk about the great puzzles of the 30’s and the great novels of the 40’s, I’m starting to relish the light humor of the good 50’s novels – and there are quite a few great ones there, even if Laura Thompson says that after 1949, Christie began to devolve into pastiche of her own work. Her one truly heavy novel of the 50’s, Ordeal by Innocence, isn’t a lot of fun to read. By contrast, the Miss Marples of the period, while – with the exception of A Murder Is Announced – lacking much in the way of cohesive detection, are a delight, and Mrs. McGinty’s Dead and After the Funeral are the last two great Poirot’s until we get to Curtain.
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