(This article discusses over a dozen novels by Agatha Christie and is rich in spoilers. If you are only a casual reader of her work, I would advise you to read on with great caution as numerous murderers will be exposed.)
A wise man once said, “We all go a little mad sometimes,” just before he donned his mother’s dress and hacked a girl to pieces in a motel shower. Some might argue that anyone who would conceive of and/or execute a murder has to be crazy. Those of us who read classic mysteries know differently: we have seen plenty of cold-blooded, rational and intelligent folks do away with their aunt or their boss or their neighbor. We don’t know how they managed to hide all their terrible secrets or the sense of guilt or fear that murder engenders; we just hope they do so until they are confronted in the drawing room on page 189.
As we read a mystery, we closely observe a small group of characters for any signs of guilt. If the author is good, we flirt at one point or another with naming any one of these characters the culprit. If the author is great, their killer has been so well-fitted with a mask of innocence that we barely, if at all, consider their possible culpability. Wearing these masks places a terrific strain on a murderer, which explains why their careful plans come undone due to a misplaced cufflink or a slip of the tongue. (Wax flowers on a green malachite table, anyone?)
Agatha Christie was a master at hiding guilt even as she provided us with clues to a killer’s identity. When confronted with the evidence, some GAD killers bluff and others break down. What they don’t do is act like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment or any of those neurotic Poe characters undone by a black cat or a beating heart. They play it cool. True, sometimes the tension leads to a sort of slip, but a master like Christie knows how to show these moments without giving the game away. Late in A Murder Is Announced, for instance, when Miss Blacklock is gripping her pearl choker after Dora Bunner’s death and causes it to break, it all seems like the tension of losing a friend has been too much for her. She clutches her throat with a great sob and rushes out of the room. The thing is – she has to do this or else everyone will see the goiter scar that proves she is Charlotte Blacklock, not Letitia. Charlotte really does feel shock and grief – and guilt – over the death of her only friend – even if she caused it.
These sorts of moments are rare, and most of Christie’s killers maintain their equanimity right down to the end. Her Deadly Couples are like that; perhaps, they take comfort working in a team! And think of those doctors, all bluff and hearty, who smile and pat you on the back right after they’ve spread something toxic on your shaving razor or poisoned your curry. Greedy killers stay the course by keeping their eyes on the prize, although some of them do fall apart in the end – like Miss Gilchrist in After the Funeral, who is not about to lose her dream of opening a new teashop, even if she has to do it in prison.
Today, we are not concerned with these supposedly “normal” folk who have followed a murderous course for what, in the realm of the genre, seem perfectly natural reasons. And we’re not going to bother with the decent citizen riled to the point of “temporary insanity” – like Rowley Cloade in Taken at the Flood, a kindly, plodding dullard who commits a murder almost accidentally, or Gerda Cristow in The Hollow, who for years endures her husband’s querulous nature and intense “friendship” with Henrietta, but snaps when John dallies for one night with – gasp! – an actress.
And since our topic today is not the overweening ego of the artist that only looks like insanity, we shall dispense with all those theatre and film folks who populate Christie’s novels and give the performing arts a bad name. Christie actually loved the denizens of the stage and wrote extensively for them. But when she wrote about them, she enjoyed depicting their charms as tools of the killer’s trade and their moral sense as practically nil.
Jane Wilkinson, (Lord Edgware Dies) and Sir Charles Cartwright (Three-Act Tragedy) both want to get rid of current spouses in order to marry a new love but run afoul issues of divorce. (Jane’s Catholic fiancé won’t marry a divorced woman, and Sir Charles’ wife resides as a patient in an asylum, thereby making divorce legally out of the question.) As a result, these thoroughly charming narcissists kill three persons each. Sir Charles’ reasons seem particularly mad: one kindly cleric is murdered as a dress rehearsal for the main event, and one totally innocent bystander is poisoned in order to provide a false trail. And yet, even though their egomania is rampant, even though Poirot, two decades later, would describe Jane Wilkinson as possessing “the extremely simple cunning of a vacant brain,” neither of them is insane or crumples into madness upon being unmasked.
One could argue that film star Marina Gregg does go temporarily mad in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side as a response to years of grief coming to a head. Unlike Jane or Sir Charles, Marina’s murder plot is a spur-of-the-moment affair, brought about by the rage that consumes her when she comes face to face with the woman who caused the loss of her child. Christie makes sure our sympathies land with Marina here, but then – how to explain the deaths of Ella and Giuseppe, two separate blackmailers? Has Marina “opened her heart to evil,” and allowed murder to become a handy tool when needed? Or are her multiple attempts at self-protection further evidence of an unhinged mind?
Agatha Christie created killers who are clever or cunning or daring or even stupid (but lucky). She put weapons in the hands of people who acted out of greed, revenge, self-protection, even love. Barring the “moment of madness” that might have seized some of them at the point of committing their crime, most of these people were completely lucid and ended up on the dock for their troubles. And yet, while putting this article together I came to realize that a surprisingly large number of Christie’s murderers – nearly 20% – are, from start to finish, completely insane.
Of course, we don’t know they’re mad until the end when the mask slips or the explanatory document arrives. And I’m pleased to say that most of these killers are just as capable of carrying out a clever, Christie-fueled puzzle-plot murder plan as her sane killers are. I can think of only two culprits who were so out of touch with reality that they could not possibly hide their madness from others. and Christie solves this problem in both cases by limiting our view of these killers.
In By the Pricking of My Thumbs, Mrs. Lancaster is spirited away early on, and all the evidence points to the theory that she is the victim of a conspiracy. It takes Tommy and Tuppence a while to learn that this has been a conspiracy of protection around Mrs. Lancaster, not against her. Elephants Can Remember goes one step further by making the killer a long-dead character so that we never get to see her trying to hide her guilt – something that Dolly Preston-Grey seemed pretty much incapable of anyway. Both these books have a lot in common: child-murdering women, horrors from the past revisiting the present. Sadly, in neither novel is the total effect particularly satisfying.
This leaves ten killers who represent the quintessence of madness in Dame Agatha’s canon. And because these have been crazy times and I just feel like it, today we attempt to rank the members of Christie’s Asylum for the Criminally Insane.
* * * * *
“There was only one person in the room and the only sound to be heard was the scratching of that person’s pen as it traced line after line across the paper.
“There was no one to read the words that were being traced. If there had been, they would hardly have believed their eyes. For what was being written was a clear, carefully detailed project for murder.
“There are times when a body is conscious of a mind controlling it – when is bows obedient to that alien something that controls its actions. There are other times when a mind is conscious of owning and controlling a body and accomplishing its purpose by using that body.
“The figure sitting writing was in the last-named state. It was a mind, a cool controlled intelligence. This mind had only one thought and one purpose – the destruction of another human being.”
The passage above is one of the most extraordinary and marvelous in Christie’s writing. Rarely does she take us so exactly into the mind of her killer; interestingly, most of the occasions where she does this involve people on the following list. Based shamelessly on my own preference, I would argue that such insight in the best examples of Christie’s deployment of mad killers. This makes total sense, since the inherent promise of all detective stories is that, by novel’s end, everything will be made clear. This is a sticky promise to keep when your killer is insane. “Why did he do all this?” “Well, he was mad . . . “ makes for a thoroughly unsatisfying solution. Having a psychiatrist show up at the end to explain the killer’s mindset – as Simon Oakland did at the end of Psycho in a way that mimics the gathering of the suspects in the drawing room (but was necessary in 1960 when most audiences hadn’t a clue about what was wrong with Norman) – may give us the knowledge we require but slows down the proceedings when we’re all looking to wrap things up.
But having the killer explain themselves is not only more interesting in a narrative way, it gives the author a wonderful opportunity, one of which Agatha Christie avails herself in the best of the cases below. Here is my list, with one proviso: I have never studied abnormal psychology and make no pretense of understanding what is wrong with these people. If this were being written by a clinical psychologist, it would be a very different article indeed. So let us look at each case, followed by an examination in an inverted sense (i.e. the murderer’s point of view), along with my personal take on each novel.
10. Death Comes as the End
The Case: We meet the household of a mortuary priest named Imhotep. His family is just as you might expect to find in an English country mansion: three sons, two of them married, his widowed daughter, his wise mother and querulous housekeeper. The only difference is that we are in Thebes, and the year is 2,000 B.C.. That means nobody bats an eye when Imhotep comes home from a business trip with a new concubine, a nasty bit of goods named Nofret. However, they are not pleased. The sons’ wives try and bully her, and in retaliation, Nofret sets their husbands against each other and generally makes life miserable for the entire family until, inevitably, she is murdered.
Nearly everyone had reason to want Nofret dead, and it seems her spirit is upset at this because very soon after, the members of the family begin to die. It is up to Renisenb, the widowed daughter, to figure out if the killer is a vengeful ghost or a hellbent creature of the flesh and blood variety.
The Inverse: It’s not a ghost. Eldest brother Yahmose, “slow, prudent and prone to look for difficulties where none existed,” is big and gentle and eager to please his father – the perfect sort of character to snap and begin mowing down his relations. He kills both brothers, his wife, his grandmother and the housekeeper and then comes after his sister, who has been doing very little detecting, having her hands full juggling the affections of two scribes. Luckily, she chooses the right one, for with his trusty bow and arrow, he rescues her from the murderous Yahmose in the nick of time.
My take: There’s little in the way of clueing or detection in this one, and the bottled down kindly killer is a trope so old you might have found it lurking in some ancient Egyptian tale. But I have always has a soft spot for this book. It has one of the largest body counts in Christie’s canon, and it’s jam-packed with historical details about life on an ancient Egyptian farm. It’s hard to be too surprised when Yahmose is unmasked – nearly everybody else is dead! – but he has a nice mad scene:
“This was not the Yahmose she knew – the gentle, kindly brother. His eyes were very bright and he was passing his tongue quickly over dried lips. His hands, held a little in front of his body were slightly curved, the fingers looking like talons. He was looking at her, and the look in his eye was unmistakable. It was the look of a man who had killed and was about to kill again. There was a gloating cruelty, an evil satisfaction in his face. Yahmose – the hidden enemy was Yahmose! Behind the mask of that gentle, kindly face – this!
It’s all a little corny but great fun to read – and far better than the low ranking my dear friends Kemper and Catherine gave it at All About Agatha. The women characters are all quite good, and despite the looseness of whatever passes for a puzzle here, there are some nice set pieces, particularly the murders of Yahmose’s wife Satipy, and the creepy housekeeper Henet.
9. Murder in Mesopotamia
“’A gentleman come to see you. Doctor Leidner.’
“Nurse Leatheran turned. She saw a man of middle height with slightly stooping shoulders, a brown beard, and gentle, tired eyes.
“Dr. Leidner saw a woman of thirty-two of erect, confident bearing . . . She looked, he thought, just what a hospital nurder for a nervous case ought to look. Cheerful, robust, shrewd, and matter-of-fact.
“Nurse Leatheran, he thought, would do.”
The Case: Nurse Amy Leatheran is hired by Dr. Erich Leidner, an esteemed archaologist, to act as companion to his wife, Louise at an archaeological dig in Iraq. Mrs. Leidner is certainly a handful: she knows the exact thing to say at dinner to turn her scientific companions against each other; she plays around with her husband’s closest colleague and flirts with the younger men; and she has a neurotic fear of her first spouse, Frederick Bosner, who years before was arrested for being a German spy, escaped custody, and then died in a train crash. Is Bosner’s ghost jealously watching her from beyond the grave? Or did he survive the crash in order to and warn off Louise from the love of any other man? Or did his younger brother William decide to exact revenge on Louise for . . . no really good reason??
Whatever the case, Louise is indeed murdered, in the sort of locked room situation that might suggest the ghost of her late husband had a hand in her death. However, there are plenty of other suspects at Tell Yarimbah, both male and female, who see in Louise an obstacle to their success and/or happiness.
The Inverse: Frederick Bosner did, indeed, survive the plane crash. I can see two possible scenarios from which he could choose. He could secretly make his way back to Germany to be of further use to his government, or he could find a nice, remote place to retire and live a quiet, new life.
Bosner chose neither: instead, he switched careers and built a fine reputation within the field of archaeology under the name Erich Leidner. Meanwhile, he followed the trajectory of his “widow” and sent her letters – written in her own handwriting in order not to give his identity away – that warned her she must never fall in love again. Then he inserted himself back in her life, got her to return his affections, and married her a second time. Unfortunately, her mercurial nature pushed Leidner to the brink, and he conceived of a crime involving a creepy mask dangled at Louise’s window and some dangerously heavy pottery. He also rather neatly manipulated the nurse he had hired to protect his wife to provide him with an alibi. When his female associate – who loved Leidner and for whom he had genuine fondness – began to put the crime together, he replaced her nighttime water with hydrochloric acid, causing her to burn out her throat and die.
My Take: Given that Bosner’s spying activities had been exposed, it was logical when the opportunity presented itself, for him to take on a completely different identity. What’s more, he turns out to be a very good archaeologist indeed, and a much-liked and respected one. One could also argue that he merely loved his wife, that when we read the statement, “Nurse Leatheran, he thought, would do,” that this referred solely to his desire to provide Louise with capable companionship and support, not a potential supplier of his alibi. At the end, when Poirot exposes him, Bosner/Leidner shows no sign of mental aberration. He admits his crimes, he shows special remorse for making Miss Johnson suffer (“That was fear.”), and he goes to his fate with tired grace.
In other words, we can argue over whether or not this killer was mad. Leidner claims that he acted out of love: “I loved Louise and I killed her. If you’d known Louise you’d have understood – No, I think you understand anyway.” Personally, I don’t understand a bit, but then I’m not sure how I would have felt about Katharine Woolley, the real-life inspiration for Louise Leidner, who was a complex and difficult person for whom Christie and her husband Max nevertheless had much fondness. Leidner’s interest in his widow’s post-Bosner life is understandable. Warning her off each man she dated is obsessive and cruel but not necessarily mad. Maintaining a different identity as he courted and wed her is not so much crazy as it is crazy mystery plotting! How could Louise not have recognized him?!? This is a question that, for many fans, represents a line crossed by the author that extends too far beyond believability – even the relative believability of Golden Age mystery plots!
I believe that Leidner’s actions following the train wreck reveal a troubled, dangerous mind, but I acknowledge that one could argue he was simply following the conventions of a fictional murderer in 1936. Wherever one comes down, the decision is made more problematic if you balk at the absurdity of the identity twist.
8. Sleeping Murder
The Case: New Zealander Gwenda Reed comes to England to buy a house in preparation for she and her husband moving there. She claims to have never visited the country before, so why does the house she finds infect her with enormous feelings of déjà vu and disturbing visions of a woman’s murder? And why does her attendance at a local production of The Duchess of Malfi trigger a massive panic attack?
Luckily, she meets Miss Marple who, all too quickly, turns the bizarre into the prosaic by uncovering some dark secrets Gwenda’s father had kept from her. Miss Marple and the Reeds team up to figure out who killed Helen, who turns out to have been her stepmother, largely to prove the innocence of Gwenda’s late father, who died believing he had killed his wife. They receive assistance from Helen’s older half-brother Dr. James Kennedy, who has held on to the belief that Helen had run away years earlier.
The Inverse: While this could be called “The Case of the Three Suspects,” corresponding to three men who in the past had shown an interest in Helen, none of these men makes for a compelling suspect or even an interesting character. The killer is ultimately revealed to be Dr. Kennedy, “a grey-haired, elderly man with shrewd eyes and tufted brows” (that’s all we get!). He was obsessively in love with the younger sister he had raised and refused to let any other man have her.
My Take: Frankly, I like Murder in Mesopotamia a whole lot better as a whole, but I have ranked this one higher because this time Christie makes the madness of her killer perfectly clear. We see this in the climax as he approaches Gwenda in order to silence her:
“He came up the stairs towards her – slowly – looking up at her.
“’Why couldn’t you leave me alone?’ he said. ‘Why did you have to meddle? Why did you have to bring – her – back? Just when I’d begun to forget – to forget. You brought her back again – Helen – my Helen. Bringing it all up again. I had to kill Lily – now I’ll have to kill you. Like I killed Helen . . . Yes, like I killed Helen . . .’
“He was close upon her now – his hands out towards her – reaching, she knew, for her throat. That kind quizzical face – that nice ordinary, elderly face – the same still, but for the eyes – the eyes were not sane . . . “
We fans talk a lot about the gamesmanship inherent in classic detective fiction and how ironic it is that this is a game most of us want to lose!! (My friend Scott K. Ratner uses this fact as evidence that GAD is not a game . . . ) It was with no pleasure that I figured out the ending to Sleeping Murder on page 24, a full thirty-five pages before the existence of Dr. Kennedy is made known. There had been a production of The Duchess of Malfi at my university, you see, and I understood the special relationship between the duchess and her killer. All I had to do was wait for a brother to enter the scene . . .
As in Mesopotamia, we have a killer obsessed with his victim, but the mask of reason and kindness Dr. Kennedy wears to disguise his madness is beyond doubt, not only from the passage above but to anyone who knows their John Webster. Sleeping Murder is a perfectly adequate book, but Christie will go disturbing relationships one better in Miss Marple’s true final case, Nemesis. While that late work is more inherently flawed, the central crime is far more gripping and worthy of our attention. Unfortunately, an examination of that killer reveals that obsession comes in many different forms and cannot always be easily equated with insanity.
The Case: After many years of separation, Captain Arthur Hastings, now a widower, reunites with his old friend Hercule Poirot. They meet together at Styles, the site of their first case, now turned into a hotel. Hastings also meets up with his daughter Judith, who works for an unhappily married scientist and is clearly in love with her boss. All the guests know each other, and some of them can be connected to one of the many local deaths that have occurred. Even though a specific culprit has been identified in each other the deaths (and all but one of these has died), Poirot tells Hastings that another person, X, has supervised each murder – for murders they were – and that this guiding hand is presently staying at the hotel.
Although old and infirm, Poirot is determined to bring X to justice, while Hastings is equally determined to reconnect with his estranged daughter. This brings Hastings under the sway of X, who causes at least one death and another attempted murder before Poirot is able to stop them in a manner well-suited to his flair for the dramatic.
The Inverse: The murderer turns out to be an unprepossessing bird-watcher named Stephen Norton, who uses a remarkable facility for psychological influencing to push his targets to commit murder. Poirot, realizing that he can never prove the intent behind Norton’s actions, personally executes the man before killing himself by not taking his heart medicine.
My Take: Curtain is a highly problematic book for me, but the central notion of an Iago-like killer who can influence others to do his dirty work is extremely clever, if rather unlikely. Iago acted out of ambition and anger at being passed over for a promotion. What was Stephen Norton’s motivation? That, alas, is never made clear, but it leads one to suspect that he was, at the least, a sociopath and a voyeuristic sadist.
The book is strange: it was written in the 1940’s when Christie had moved from pure puzzles to more character-motivated fiction, and yet this novel seems like a definite throwback. Everything – setting, characters – seems a bit flat; perhaps this was Christie’s memory of Hasting’s voice? And even though the people all know each other, most of their connections don’t make sense in any sort of social-emotional way. It’s also odd to me that Norton would choose to work his wiles on various members of the same social circle. The fact that he targets several members of the same household at once, laying the foundation for at least three separate murders in hopes that one would click (and in truth, all three of his ”victims” try but fail in their quest to murder someone else) suggests that Norton really enjoys plying his trade. Although we never see him “unmasked,” I would strongly suggest that the true Norton is out of his mind.
6. The Mousetrap
The Case: A serial killer is operating in England, a killer with an agenda for revenge. It seems this person is most likely someone connected with the infamous Longridge Farm case, where three children placed in foster care were horribly abused. None of this matters at first to Mollie and Giles Ralston, a young couple trying to live the dream by opening up a country inn. The couple has no real experience, and so they begin small by taking on four guests. Things get off to a shaky start, however: the winter weather is abysmal, pushing their ancient heating system to the brink. Then a broken-down car pushes their guest list up to five, and some of the guests are pushy and/or strange. Things get worse when the local police send an officer to Monkswell Manor to investigate a possible connection between the present company and that murder in London. Could one of the guests be that serial killer the police are after?
The Inverse: Weird as they may be, the guests are innocent – of murder, at least – even if most of them are hiding a variety of secrets. No, the killer turns out to be the visiting policeman – who is not a policeman but the youngest brother in the Longridge Farm case. In his final confrontation with Mollie, he reverts to his childhood state and tries to make her his final victim. Fortunately, the secrets of two other guests are enough to bring Sergeant Trotter down.
My take: Look, I’ve seen the play in London, I’ve directed the play, and next spring I’m going to direct it again! But even I can admit that, as Christie puzzlers go, this one is a bit dodgy. I like the idea of a murder set in a hotel because you can never be sure that the guests – even relatively “normal” ones like Major Metcalf and Mrs. Boyle – don’t carry big secrets (they both do!). And, of course, Christie has often had fun playing with our expectations by playing ordinary folks against people who are rather queer. And Monkswell Manor has its share of “queer” folk: Christopher Wren, who has every motivation not to call attention to himself but does so anyway; Miss Casewell, “a manly type,” and the bizarre Mr. Paravicini, whom Christie herself described as “a taller version of Hercule Poirot, which may give a wrong impression to the audience.” To her credit, Christie heaps a lot of suspicion on Giles and even tosses a dollop to the good Major.
Still, it’s a remarkable fact that five out of the eight have a direct connection to the Longridge Farm case and a sixth, Mr. Wren, matches word for word the case study of the actual killer. And the case is completely lacking in clues of any sort, so rather than play armchair detective here, audiences are expected to sit back and enjoy the ride, taking guesses along the way. (That’s what everyone was doing during the intermission when I saw the play – and they were all completely incorrect!)
So sure, maybe if she had given it some thought, Mrs. Christie might have -yuk yuk! – built a better Mousetrap. Just the same, the novella version of this play (which excises Miss Casewell, whose revelation at the end of the play is the hardest coincidence to swallow) was the third Christie story I read. I can’t help but have an immense fondness for it. I also think that the revelation of Trotter’s insanity plays well with audiences: I mean, you can’t argue with this being the longest-running stage play in history! I look forward to putting it onstage again. (And that’s why I rate it higher than Curtain.)
5. Murder Is Easy
The Case: In the charming village of Wychwood under Ashe, elderly spinster Lavinia Pinkerton looks around at all her neighbors falling off ladders, drinking hat paint and succumbing to infections of bacillus horribilus Wonky Poohtus, and she realizes that a serial killer is operating in their midst. On a train ride up to Scotland Yard, she meets policeman Luke Fitzwilliam, who privately scoffs at her tale of a person for whom killing is easy because they are the last person anyone would suspect of murder. But when Miss Pinkerton falls victim to a hit-and-run driver, Luke travels to Wychwood under Ashe to seek out this hidden maniac.
Actually, it’s rather easy to picture certain villagers in the role of murderer: the odd antiques dealer, the ambitious young doctor, the zealous cleric. But Luke comes to see a pattern: everyone who has died made enemies of Lord Whitfield, the fussy, vain local M.P., who also happens to be engaged to the young woman who has taken Luke’s fancy. As people keep dropping like flies, can Luke prove the squire’s guilt and find true love?
The Inverse: Well, no and yes. Luke can’t prove Lord Whitfield’s guilt because . . . he didn’t do it. The real murderer is Honoria Waynflete, the sharp spinster librarian who has been nursing a grudge against the good Lord ever since he threw her over decades earlier. (A girl strangles one canary, and her boyfriend gets all judgmental!) It isn’t Luke who figures this all out but his beloved Bridget, who sees in Miss Waynflete’s eyes the special lunatic look that Miss Pinkerton had described to Luke.
My take: The beginning and ending of this book are perfection. The scene on the train ride between Luke and Miss Pinkerton is one of Christie’s best opening hooks. The final confrontation between Bridget and Miss Waynflete, who goes quite beautifully mad, is exciting. And the murder method of extracting pus from Wonky Pooh, Miss Pinkerton’s cat’s infected ear to poison others is one of the grossest weapons in the canon!
I wish the middle section were more interesting. I blame some of this on the character of Luke, who’s rather a dud, and some on the fact that none of the villagers comes to life the way Bridget, her lord, and Miss Waynflete do. But boy! what a fine killer Honoria makes, licking her lips as she offers to dress Bridget’s cat scratch with . . . iodine!!!!!
4. Endless Night
The Case: Working class drifter Michael Rogers attends an auction for a property he wishes he had the money to buy and meets a beautiful woman named Ellie. He woos her for several weeks before she reveals that she is a fabulously wealthy American heiress. She wants Michael to marry her so they can build his dream house on the property, which she has bought for him, and live happily ever after. Despite minor obstacles, like Ellie’s family popping up to disapprove of the marriage and ask for money, Ellie’s heart condition, and the small matter of the gypsy woman who has cursed the land and keeps popping up to issue threats against the couple, Ellie and Michael seem happy . . . until she is thrown off her horse and dies. Poor Michael is left with nothing . . . except his late wife’s fortune and the house of his dreams.
The Inverse: Michael didn’t want the wife, just the money and the house. He also wanted Ellie’s “best friend” Greta, with whom he had concocted a scheme for taking her fortune. Unfortunately, Mike can’t keep his psychopathy under control: he murders Greta and ends up spending the rest of his days in an institution, wondering if maybe Ellie was indeed “the one.”
My take: I don’t like Endless Night nearly as much as everyone else seems to, but I place it high on the list because what Christie managed to do – and at a quite advanced age – was create a powerful character study of a monster. Michael Rogers is a fine early example of the unreliable narrator; later writers like Ruth Rendell and Gillian Flynn and countless others would populate their literary landscapes with such people.
People talking about this book often hearken back to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd for obvious reasons, but I think the technique of these two novels couldn’t be more different. In her 1926 classic, Christie provides marvelous written clues to her narrator’s true nature because Dr. Sheppard can’t help providing subtle hints to his own cleverness. (Ego is the murderer’s downfall – see above.) This is not something Michael Rogers is capable of, and while I’m sure many readers were stunned when he returned to the U.K. after Ellie’s funeral and fell into Greta’s arms, he actually barely tries to hide his deeply troubled nature. Anyone who has read The Mysterious Affair at Styles or Death on the Nile or Evil Under the Sun – or seen Diabolique or Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte – should be hip to what’s going on. This doesn’t lessen my admiration for the fully fleshed character of a psychopath that Christie has created; I just don’t enjoy him much.
3. Towards Zero
The Case: On a fine autumn weekend, a group of people converge on Gull’s Point, the seaside home of wealthy invalid Lady Camilla Tressilian. Due to unforeseen circumstances, the make-up of the party is tense: Lady Tressilian’s ward, professional tennis player Nevile Strange, has brought his wife Kay, but his ex-wife Audrey is also there. So is Thomas Royde, Audrey’s cousin, who has been in love with her for years. So is Mary Aldin, Camilla’s companion, who has a thing for Thomas. And then there’s Ted Latimer, an old friend of Kay’s who would like to be more than friends.
With all these romantic shenanigans going on, it’s a shock when a murder occurs and it’s Lady Tressilian who is the victim. Evidence points to Nevile, but it’s up to Superintendent Battle, in town for a visit with his policeman nephew, to figure out if Nevile is being framed. And it is up to a total stranger, a failed suicide named Angus MacWhirter, to prove that none of what has happened at Gull’s Point was fortuitous or done in the heat of passion; rather, this has been the carefully-laid plan of a clever psychopath, one who has been committing murder since they were a child.
The Inverse: Evidence shows that Nevile was framed for Camilla’s murder – evidence that Nevile planted himself! It turns out that Lady Tressilian’s death was a means to an end. The real victim was Audrey Strange, who Nevile planned to manipulate to the gallows as a frame-up in revenge for her leaving him for Thomas’ brother. (It is suggested that perhaps Nevile had something to do with the auto accident that put an end to that relationship, too.) Nevile’s true colors are revealed in a final confrontation on a boat with Battle and MacWhirter (“Flicked you on the raw, didn’t she . . . ?”), and after he is led gibbering away, everyone pairs up romantically (and a bit conveniently).
My take: Five years after chronicling the plot of a psychopath’s wounded pride leading to homicide in Murder Is Easy, Christie does it again in a much more grown-up way. This has always been a favorite of mine, and it fooled me the first time I read it due to the story that the old lawyer Mr. Treves tells (unwisely, it turns out) about a child with a physical kink who murdered their friend. We’re told about Mary Aldin’s tuft of white hair, Thomas Royde’s crooked arm, Ted Latimer’s funny skull, and Audrey Strange’s weird earlobes, but Christie manages to slip Nevile’s kink into perfectly ordinary conversation that – in her inimitable fashion – completely passed me by!
As seen in the passage earlier, we are told – by the author herself and later suggested by Mr. Treves – that a lunatic is staying at Gull’s Point. And even though the fur flies quite a bit, given the romantic hexagon being enacted, all of these well-drawn characters seem, well, normal. In the end, Nevile is a true monster, and his exposure makes for one of Christie’s best climaxes.
2. Crooked House
The Case: Charles Hayward and Sophia Leonides, two bright, capable young people who meet and fall in love in Cairo during World War II are separated when Sophia leaves her job in the Foreign Office and returns to England. When Charles comes home after the war, he wants to renew his relationship with Sophia, but there’s a catch: the Leonides patriarch has been murdered. Sophia tells Charles that she can’t marry him until the murderer is caught. Though disappointed, Charles understands – because the killer must be a member of Sophia’s immediate family. Fortunately, Charles’ father is the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, and he allows his son to provide unofficial “assistance” to the Inspector in charge of the case.
Aristide Leonides built his fortune in slightly shady ways. Three Gables, the home he built, is a rambling “crooked” house, and the family that lives within its walls is full of oddballs. Charles soon realizes that the sons, their wives and children, and eccentric great-aunt Edith all hope that the killer turns out to be Aristide’s second wife Brenda, a far too young common waitress who seems to have been dawdling with the children’s tutor. Indeed, at one point, Brenda is arrested, but Charles worries that the solution will be far less tidy – and far more painful. Things get more precarious when the killer strikes again, first almost killing little Josephine, a strange child and budding detective, and then succeeds in killing Nanny Rowe (who drank poisoned cocoa meant for Josephine.) What knowledge does Josephine possess, and how can it help Charles find the killer? Even more disturbing . . . do they even want to know whodunnit?
The Inverse: Of course, one must find out the solution to any sort of murder, but this time it’s going to sting. The killer turns out to be little Josephine herself: she murdered her grandfather when he denied her ballet lessons, then faked an attempt on herself (nearly killing herself in the process) and murdered Nanny because . . . well, because she was bored and wanted the story to keep going on. She is discovered not through deduction – although there is a small clue involving clumps of dirt on a chair – but because her family knows her, particularly Great-Aunt Edith, one of those Christie characters who has made a convenient trip to Harley Street and knows she has nothing to lose. She appoints herself both family protector and executioner and takes Josephine on a fatal car ride that assures an end to this horror and a new beginning for the beautiful Sophia.
My take: Josephine is the childhood version of Nevile Strange come to life. Highly intelligent and egoistic, she sees everyone and everything in black and white terms: what can this person give to me in terms of gain or excitement or pleasure? When she comes up against an obstacle, she removes it. (Her mother’s desire to send Josephine away to school would have been a death sentence if the girl had survived.) It’s quite clever that the detective notebook she carries around and guards so zealously turns out to be the diary of a young psychopath. In the end, we are fortunate that Christie takes us through that book, and the results are illuminating and fascinating.
Nobody is saying Christie originated the idea of a child murderer. Marjorie Allingham had done it in the late 20’s and Ellery Queen only a few years after that; Queen’s example is particularly creepy. But Josephine is the best of them all.
1. And Then There Were None
The case: Eight guests and two servants are invited to a modern mansion on an island off the Devon coast by a nebulous host. They soon learn that they have been brought there under false pretenses: a mysterious figure known as U.N. Owen (Unknown) accuses each person there of having gotten away with murder and then begins dispensing their own brand of justice as, one by one, the guests are killed. Plagued by suspicion and mounting fear, the survivors attempt to locate their assassin. Once they realize that U.N. Owen resides among their own party, they try and figure out which of them is the killer in a game where the only process of elimination is death! They die in this order: playboy, cook, general, butler, spinster, judge, doctor, policeman, soldier, secretary. With all of them dead and nobody else on the island, it looks like U.N. Owen is . . . a ghost!
The Inverse: I won’t belabor this, the best-selling literary whodunnit of all time. The killer is the judge, who decided to combine his sense of justice with a lifelong overwhelming compunction to kill by “executing” murderers. With the help of the unwitting doctor, the Judge fakes his death and can then move with impunity to get his final victims out of the way. The most delicious thing he does is replace the chair that Vera Claythorne kicked out from under her in order to hang herself. When the police officers investing the case mention this, it is a kick in the teeth to any reader who might have thought Vera, as “final girl,” was the killer. Fortunately for all of us, Justice Wargrave’s ego was too big: he had to leave a final account of his brilliant plan, although he put it in a bottle and threw it out to see, leaving his infamy in the hands of the gods. All hail Agatha Christie, Goddess of Mystery.
My take: I’ve written extensively about this book here and elsewhere, so I won’t go on about it. This was my first Christie, although that wouldn’t have been my choice. It is, in most ways, atypical of her work, possessed of a darkness you seldom find within her canon. It is, to my mind, a brilliant novel and its culprit her most accomplished madman. Although we sometimes see into Wargrave’s mind during the course of events, his thoughts are naturally not labeled, providing us with another great accomplishment by the author of showing the gradual breakdown of civilization as the party dwindles. In the end, though, we get a clearly delineated plan written out by Wargrave himself. He is totally aware of his madness – indeed, he revels in it – but he has no illusions about surviving this. (More Harley Street business, yes, but also a gun to the temple.)
The only sad thing is that Wargrave must crow about his brilliance, and a perfect little murder plot is exposed even after he went to all the trouble to rig his gun so that it would shoot him and then fling itself away from his body so that suicide would not be suspected. Really, Christie might have honored such planning by not giving the whole game away in the end. But then we would have been faced with a book where we never find out whodunnit in the end.
And that would have been crazy!
28 thoughts on “” . . . CRACK’D FROM SIDE TO SIDE”: Madness in Christie”
Utterly fascinating Brad. As you rightly point out, you expect this in a Robert Bloch or Fredric Brown (or a Margaret Millar or a Patricia Highsmith) but here it really deserves attention. I might have put CROOKED HOUSE first on the bonkers-ometer (and agree completely about the Queen version) but really intriguing to look at this in such detail. Thanks chum.
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I totally get putting Josephine at the top; there may be no more dramatic upset in all of Christie. I think ATTWN edges out Crooked House as a whole, but you can’t say Christie did not provide full documentation of her killers’ madness in both books – and quite magnificently!
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I read Murder Is Easy And And Then There were None when I was 8 (!), Curtain when I was 10 and Sleeping Murder when I was 11. When I think back on it I was being exposed to some pretty crazy shit, in modern parlance. By the way, I was 0-3 on spotting the murderers in those lol.
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What’s so fascinating is that I was exposed to And Then There Were None at 9 and Murder on the Orient Express at 11 and yet have no taste for vigilante justice. Reading Murder Is Easy and Towards Zero in my early teens actually helped me manage terrible anxiety. Hell! These books got millions of readers through terrible wars!! Go figure!
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I don’t know if you saw my mention at Facebook so am quoting here. Spoiler!
“One of the dumbest pieces of Chandler criticism of the GA and Christie in particular I think is when he says Justice Wargrave wouldn’t have picked cases like that, where the evidence is questionable. Im like, he’s a sadistic madman, Ray! Ray says he has a “touch of sadism but withal a passion for exact justice.” A touch of sadism! That’s what he calls it.”
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Wargrave’s death? See Doyle’s Thor Bridge and Allingham’s Police at the Funeral. Does Rowley actually kill anybody? There’s at least one child murderer in Mrs McGinty. Does she pop up again, like all the others?
Brilliant piece, and you can tell I’ve read every word.
Ted Lattimer is another sympathetic gigolo like Claude, Parker Pyne’s employee.
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Yeah, all the cops had to do is read the stories and they would be totally on to him.
I think in saying that Wargrave “decided to combine his sense of justice with a lifelong overwhelming compunction to kill by ‘executing’ murderers” the word “combine” somewhat suggests the common misconception that his motive was a matter of abstract justice (like the ‘
1945 film’s Judge Quincannon’s “search for perfect human justice”). But, as you know, that was not the case at all— the novel’s judge is driven only by bloodthirstiness; his sense of justice merely tempers that bloodthirstiness.
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“I meant what you said, and you said what I meant . . . “
I swore I wouldn’t go deeply into this in the article. I think Wargrave at the very least implies that by executing the guilty, he could freely indulge in his passion for killing without any qualms. He does cite the fact of his supposed “victim’s” guilt as a clue to his own. He never passed sentence in the innocent. I don’t think what I wrote was wrong, although perhaps I could have said it better.
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I’m certainly not denying that Wargrave’s sense of justice was a strong determining factor in his behavior. It’s just that he makes it very clear in his brief description of his motives that his sense of justice is what held him back, not what drove him. That is, he had a strong, restricting sense of justice, not a strong desire for it. His strong desire was merely to kill.
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That was exactly my criticism of Chandler’s criticsm!
It has been a long while since I actually read ATTWN (read most of the Christie books in my 20s and have only re-read a few). I think I may need to go back to this following your appraisal as I’ll admit, in my mind I was taking the Chandler line on the Judge. Must look again (I love Chandler’s books but have no problem disagreeing with him). I think my edition of ATTWN is so old it has the original title …
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I’m somewhat oblivious to the flatness of Curtain— I’m merely dazzled by the “best hits album” nature of the solution. Perhaps it comes from having a very weak grasp in atmosphere and characterization.
My primary problem with The Mousetrap (did you know I had a problem with it?) is an example of what I call short coffin syndrome (I’ve no doubt mentioned this before): an undertaker has an excuse for not being able to get the head or feet into a coffin too small for the corpse, but has no excuse not being able to get either one. Clueing makes surprise difficult, and surprise makes clueing difficult. But, like most Christie plays, The Mousetrap is almost entirely bereft of clueing (why couldn’t the missing S in Monkwell have some meaning?), and yet its surprise is also rather transparent. I will grant that there’s some lovely suspense in the mid section of the second act, but that’s a lot of buck for the bang.
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I never realized that Curtain was flat until I started reading other people say it. It’s say more it’s autumnal and melancholy.
An excellent leaf from the psychiatrist’s casebook!
The first one that came to my mind, actually, was in a short story: “The Lemesurier Inheritance”. There’s also “The Cretan Bull” (which you read earlier this year!).
The Big Four has a splendidly mad scientist: “There was a cold malignity about her that froze me to the marrow. It was so at variance with the burning fire of her eyes. She was mad – mad – with the madness of genius!” (That has to be a parody.)
And what about The Pale Horse? The villain there is a megalomaniac.
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Well, you know I love “The Cretan Bull,” and I think there are a number of examples from other short stories that I couldn’t get to.
The problem with all of these evil geniuses who want to take over the world or create a “kill-to-order” conspiracy is that OF COURSE they are as mad as their scheme. Mr. Osbourne even does a nice job of falling apart when Lejeune exposes him. I think, though, that I rate them differently because of the thriller element. And that isn’t fair, is it???
Brad – your knowledge and passion for Christie continue to impress. I have never seen anyone explore the recurring theme of off-balance / crazed killers. Brilliant.
Also, I am glad to see some love for Murder is Easy. Yes – Luke is insipid as is his romance with Bridget. But the culprit and motive were both sinister and inspired. I remember reading this as a ten year old at my grandmother’s house fascinated that so many murders could go undetected in a small village. Plus use of a cat’s infection as well as hat paint to commit murder are wickedly creative. I also wondered if this would have worked better with Miss Marple than Luke. Her knowledge of human nature and village gossip would have got her to the answer
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I think Miss Marple would have spotted Miss Waynflete in a hot second because she surely had AT LEAST as much understanding of human nature as Miss Pinkerton!! That said, I do love when Miss Marple faces off against another spinster: both A Murder Is Announced and Nemesis come to mind.
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A really great as always, Brad. I don’t think I ever considered just how many of Christie’s killers are insane from the start. I think that on All About Agatha, they often suggest that the purely crazy killer oftentimes negates the parameters of the puzzle plot acting as they do without reason, so it is interesting that you point out more than once that these tales are oftentimes the ones that feature the loosest cluing. Just an interesting observation.
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With few exceptions, I think all of Dame Agatha’s murderers are a bit mad. Love this piece, couldn’t have put it better. BTW The Mirror Cracked was loosely based on the very real life tragedy of Gene Tierney, who (unbeknownst) to her contracted Rubella while in early pregnancy, when a fan kissed her at the Hollywood Canteen. Happily, Gene did not murder anyone, although she suffered a mental breakdown later in life.
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Yes, I knew about Gene Tierney, and I think it was nervy of Christie to base her plot on Tierney’s tragedy. I believe Christie denied knowing about it, but she also wrote Murder on the Orient Express while the Lindbergh trial was still going on!
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Yes, but note that Christie never denied basing Orient Express on the Lindberg case. Yet Christie did deny the Tierney connection to her later book. I think it would have been more consistent with her usual use of real-life incidents if she had made Marina a famous stage actress, singer, or even writer. And while her denial is certainly not to be believed merely on face value, to anyone says the coincidence is too great for her denial to be believed, I would just say “Thomas Jefferson survives.”
I never connected MOTOE with Lindburgh but good point. I thought the Tierney case too sad for words as well. But Christie did it justice. She did both stories, justice I believe.
I just don’t understand why people are unwilling to accept the possibility that her claim of it being coincidence was true.
The idea that a fictional actress catching rubella which affects her child in the same way as the case of a real actress may be construed as a coincidence. Meeting the fan who gave you rubella at a party and hearing how joyfully she confides her “sacrifice” of leaving her sickbed to get an autograph . . . A coincidence? Not very likely!
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Take this backwards. An ingenious mystery writer is looking for an ingenious reason for someone to want to kill someone with whom they have no apparent connection (thus providing a particularly misleading motivational deception). For the victim to have unintentionally caused tragedy to their killer is a very good way to accomplish this, as it accounts for both the desire to kill and the not readily-apparent connection: the two characters may have only met once before briefly, which provides deception because the desire to kill someone generally necessitates long-standing and easily traceable associations (this fact forms the basis of the crime plot in Strangers on a Train, and the murder of Joseph Higgins in Green for Danger is another example of murder motivated by unintended tragedy brought about by a stranger).
That the tragedy in question is mental retardation of a child caused by a virus during pregnancy is also a very reasonable choice, as it was actually a fairly common occurrence (just as deaths caused unintentionally by strangers have been common in the last couple years), did not kill off the person who contacted the disease (a dead person is not in the position to subsequently kill the person who infected them), and caused a tragedy which has the greatest emotional effect (harm to one’s child is traditionally seen as the greatest of tragedies). Rubella was presumably among the most likely viruses to cause this (this I don’t know for sure, please correct me if I’m wrong).
Making the murderer a movie star and the victim a fan is also a reasonable choice, as it explains why two people who have never met before would find themselves in a level of temporary physical intimacy (“you let me kiss you”) that would not only allow for the infection, but also leave no doubt in the mind of the one that the other was responsible for the tragedy. The movie star-fan connection is also useful for End House-variety deception aspect, as it makes the one character a very believable apparent target (as all important personages are) while making the true victim believable as a non-entity that no one would have any reason to kill. And that the fan innocently brags to the movie star of their prior encounter seems among the only viable means by which to allow her to make the connection.
While all of the above provide reasons why Christie might create a plot such as The Mirror Crack’d, I’ll grant that it is a remarkable coincidence in light of the Tierney tragedy— admittedly enough to make one suspect that Christie’s denials might possibly be false. But such remarkable coincidences do occur… indeed, MUCH more remarkable coincidences occur. That the two men most associated with the creation of the Declaration of Independence (John Adams, Thomas Jefferson) died on the same day of the year is in itself remarkable. That they died in the same year is even more remarkable. That the date in question happened to be the nationally celebrated anniversary of the Declaration (July 4) is many times more remarkable. That they both died on July 4th, 1826 exactly one half century after the signing is staggering (made even more so because for this to happen also necessitated both men to live many decades past the life expectancy of the time [in Adam’s case it was past double that expectancy]). And that Adam’s last words (mistaken, as it turned out) were “Jefferson still survives” would place any oddsmaker in a looney bin.
And again, there were good reasons (noted above) why Christie might make the choices that paralleled the Tierney tragedy. On the other hand, the far less probable Jefferson -Adam’s coincidence can only be seen as that— PURE coincidence, and thus more astounding. Yet we don’t doubt the Jefferson-Adams coincidence… because we CAN’T.
As I say, the Marina Gregg / Gene Tierney parallels are remarkable. But while the coincidence is significantly extraordinary to justify suspicion of her denials, it is certainly not nearly great enough for us to dismiss the possibility.
I think it’s at least possible that you are both right. Christie was telling the truth, as she knew it, when she said she did not base the story on Tierney. But, I think it’s possible she had heard the story somewhere and forgot about it, but it was in her subconscious mind. Years later, the idea came back to her for The MIrror Crack’d, but she didn’t remember that it was a real life story. Also, consider that stories like that must have been much more common in Christie’s day-and it’s not that hard to believe that she could have come up with the idea organically, or at least not consciously known she was fictionalizing someone’s real life tragedy. (Hell, we just proved that even decades later in 2020, selfish people will still knowingly spread disease if taking reasonable precautions inconveniences them in the slightest way).
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