Christie Fan(atic)s

Of course I realize that I’m not the only one who loves Agatha Christie’s mysteries.  There are lots and lots of us around — that’s why her books have never gone out of print since her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles was first published in 1920.  She wrote her last mystery, Postern of Fate, in 1973, when she was 82 years old. And they’re all still in print, more than 35 years after her death.

For some reason, I’ve been thinking a lot about Christie’s mysteries on these rainy, weirdly spring-like days in Seattle. (Maybe it’s the grey skies.)  I just finished reading the last page of a “must read” for Christie fan(atic)s — Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks: Fifty Years of Mysteries in the Making (Harper 2010) by John Curran.  Did you know that, as Curran says, “It is possible to read a different Christie title every month for almost seven years … And it is possible to watch a different dramatization every month for two years.” 

Pretty impressive, isn’t it?

What especially interests me, though, is why people enjoy her books so much, and, more specifically, why I read and reread her mysteries on a fairly regular basis. (I’ve never read one of her non-mysteries, all of which were written under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott.)  The odd part for me is that her great strength, which is her genius at plotting, is something that is generally not important to me in what I read.  I’m always much more interested in character development and the quality of the writing than I am in what happens in any particular book. The books I love best tend to be character, rather than story, driven and always, always distinguished by gorgeous writing.  But Christie’s characters are as thin as paper; they tend to be stock characters — the dim-witted housemaid, the bluff retired army officer, the ne’er do well child who leaves home at an early age and returns as an adult.  Even her major characters, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, have no depth.  Poirot is always described in terms of his mustaches, his love of tisanes, his compulsive neatness, his egg shaped head, and the little grey cells he puts to good use for detecting.  And Miss Marple, dithery and a knitter, is a whiz at reading people.  But that’s all we know about them — there’s no inner life for us to discover.  And don’t get me started on Captain Hastings — I was very happy when Christie sent him off to the Argentine to raise cattle!  Plus, her writing, while hardly clunky, is not what you read the books for.  Her actual prose is serviceable and unobtrusive.  But her storytelling is brilliant, and her talent for writing the puzzler sort of mystery is unmatched. I can’t think of anyone else who can give the reader all the clues necessary to solve the case, and yet whose ability to disguise them in such a diabolical fashion means that you’re unlikely to guess whodunit before all is revealed in the last scene. 

Over the years I must have bought hundreds of copies of her books.  I’d start out by reading or rereading one of them and then feel compelled to read them all.  When I finished, I couldn’t imagine ever reading them again, so I’d donate them to the library book sale or give them to friends. Then, a year or so later, perhaps, I’d be lying in bed and a scene from one of her books would flash into my head and I’d want to reread it; so I’d have to buy a copy, since (sadly) it was unlikely to be in at the library at just the moment I wanted it.  Inevitably, after finishing that one, I’d want to go back and reread them all again (always, of course, having forgotten in the meantime who the murderer was).  Which meant I had to buy them all once again. This has happened too many times for me to count. I was very happy when the publishing company Black Dog & Leventhal reprinted several of them in hardcover, because, psychologically, they’re harder for me to give away.  I just went through this same process — obsessively rereading her oeuvre — and now have another complete set of her mysteries.  I sincerely hope that I’ve learned my lesson and will not get rid of any of these.

My all time favorite novel of hers is one in which neither Poirot or Marple appears. It’s called either Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? or The Boomerang Clue, depending on where and when it was published.

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26 Comments

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26 responses to “Christie Fan(atic)s

  1. Yvette

    I too, discovered Christie after exhausting Nancy Drew and The Dana Girls mysteries when I was just about 12 or so.

    I do know SECRET OF CHIMNEYS and have reread it many times. Love it. But my two very favorite Christies ever are:
    THE MAN IN THE BROWN SUIT and
    THEY CAME TO BAGHDAD.
    I never tire of rereading them.

    My favorite Hercule Poirot (s)?
    THE ABC MURDERS and MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS and CAT AMONG THE PIGEONS.

    My favorite Jane Marple(s)?
    A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED.
    (The Joan Hickson tv film version was
    also quite wonderful.)
    And NEMESIS. (Joan Hickson version also worth looking for.)

    I do like WHY DIDN’T THEY ASK EVANS? and also liked the tv version done
    many years ago with Francesca Annis
    (I think that’s her name.) as ‘Frankie’.

    Most of the Christie film versions are downright awful, but once in a while they get it right.

  2. Miriam Berkman

    Started reading Christie after finishing up Nancy Drew as a kid too. My all time favorite that a reread the most is The Secret of Chimneys. Very few fellow readers know this one.

    • Nancy

      I didn’t own Secret of Chimneys but ran out to the book store today and bought it and will start my rereading tonight. thanks for reminding me of it.

  3. Shannon

    I, too, tend to read Agatha Christie’s books all at once. In fact, a couple of summers ago I became positively obsessed! All sorts of wonderful books kept coming in at the library, but I didn’t read a single one. I couldn’t read anything but Agatha Christie. I don’t know of many authors or books that affect me the same way!

    • Nancy

      Yes, I’m afraid I’m in one of those reading Christie jags again – it’s a bit like having the flu every year or so, only much more fun.

    • Marcia

      I think we have appetites for books and that one gets a craving, so to speak, for a particularly salty style or somebody’s lyric passages. I reread Donna Leon and Andrea Camilleri at predictable intervals, and I used to read and reread Dorothy Sayers just for the dialogue.

  4. NancyBrant

    Dear Ms. Pearl, I saw you on an interview with Sarah Durant a few months ago. I enjoyed it so much I recommended the book she had written, The Company of the Courtesan to my book group. I Have book group on March 25th. Is there some way to get ahold of you for comments on that book? Sincerely Nancy Brant

    • Nancy

      I don’t think I have anything else to say except what’s in the interview! I thought the characters were terrifically well developed and the setting came alive for me.

  5. Marcia

    I think I began to pay more attention to Christie’s books after I had read a biography — which was an unplanned read, just something I ran across in the college bookstore when I was looking for some kind of work avoidance.

  6. Nancy

    I just reread Why Didn’t They Ask Evans and found that even on the 15th or 16th rereading (but who’s counting?) I still loved it.

    • Marcia

      I didn’t care a great deal about Christie’s novels when I first read them — I was much more intrigued by the Cadfael stories, though the two strands have much in common. But here I am years later, liking the Christie books much better.

      • Nancy

        Did you ever watch the Cadfael videos? I thought they were generally pretty wonderful.

      • Marcia

        The Cadfael videos were quite wonderful, though it’s hard to see how anything with Derek Jacoby could be bad.

  7. Nancy

    I’ve never read Agatha Christie (but I’ve read slot of Ngao Marsh, if that redeems me even if I can’t remember how to spell her name!) but now I’ll have to give her a try!

    • Nancy

      In many ways, Christie and Marsh are actually quite different from one another (I like them both); I’ll be interested in hearing what you think. –

      • Marcia

        I don’t think of them as much alike — well, maybe in the later Marsh stories. The earlier ones — I guess I’m taking for granted that the books that contain the early parts of Rory’s story, meeting Troy, etc., were written earlier — have all that romantic backstory — WW I shellshock alluded to but not spoken of, etc. That doesn’t seem to me to be particularly Christie-like. Come to think of it, the milieu seems different, too.

  8. Yes, I’m a huge fan too. So many of us around, as you say.

    I read one of her non-mystery novels many years ago, and have a vague memory of a dark and heavy story (I can’t remember the title). It gave me no inclination to seek out another one. But as you imply, her mysteries are wonderful. I’d like to differ with you slightly about her characters, though. Every now and then I find they show a flash of humour or pathos, or reveal something a bit deeper in their personalities. I agree, all the clues are there, in each book, but I couldn’t identify the murderer the first I read it. On re-reading, the fact that I know who the murderer is doesn’t detract from my pleasure in finding all the clues and re-imagining the characters’ lives.

    My favourite, if I were pressed to pick one, is Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case.

    Thanks for pointing out the Secret Notebooks, sounds intriguing!

    • Nancy

      Yes, I agree, occasionally there is a bit of depth to the characters, but I don’t think she cared a lot about that. I also find that even knowing who the murderer is doesn’t detract from a rereading, although mostly she still fools me the second (and third) time around. She was a wonder.

  9. Started reading Christie at age 11, after I finished the Nancy Drew series. Still love them – I think I’ll re-read them, too. Ten Little Indians was the first one I read – scared me silly.

    • Nancy

      Ten Little Indians totally freaked me out – I still think it’s one of my least favorite of her mysteries. Too scary.

  10. Micheline

    Just finished reading ” The Sittaford Mystery” and could not go to bed early enough to read it.
    I buy all my Christie’s books, used, and return them for credit at CouthBuzzard on Greenwood and 84th , next to the post office. No, I don’t work for them, I simply like to support used books stores.

    • Nancy

      Is the Couth Buzzard open again? I thought they closed.

      • Micheline

        The Couth buzzard has been reopened at its new location since december, next to the post-office on Greenwood, it now has a little cafe,Wi-Fi and it’s a big improvement from the old Couth Buzzard, the credits from the old store are still valid.

  11. I can’t wait to read Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks. I am almost through all of the Christie mysteries and am definitely getting that itch to re-read some of my favorites. Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? is one them as are the Mr. Quin stories.

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