Monday, September 24, 2012

Masterpieces of Murder, by Agatha Christie


I can rarely pass up the opportunity to browse through books that are just sitting around.  When I was out visiting my dad a few weekends ago, he had to take a phone call, so I took the opportunity to peruse through the leather-bound books he keeps on display in his living room.  Besides all the Homer, Dickens, and Plato, there are some more readable books in his collection, and I gravitated towards the Agatha Christies.  Having read Murder on the Orient Express, but little else of Christie’s, I wanted to see if she was just as good of a teller of tales when you don’t know who the killer was.  This experiment manifested itself with a collection of her books in a single volume – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, And Then There Were None, Witness for the Prosecution, and Death on the Nile.  The genius of the publisher in choosing these particular stories didn’t become clear until I had finished the entire volume.  And here’s why…

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a classic ‘who-done-it’ tale.  The main character, James Sheppard, the town’s doctor, is called in to help a family discover who it was that killed their patriarch.  Assisted by Hercule Poirot, Sheppard is introduced to all the characters in the play, observes their motives, and does a thorough examination of the crime scene.  Fitting all the puzzle pieces together, we finally learn who the killer is in the last pages of the last chapter.  The reveal is exactly how you might expect it to go down – the intrepid investigator (Poirot) calls all the suspects together after dinner in the drawing room, and makes certain shocking revelations. Am I going to tell you who done it?  Of course not!  That’s half the fun!  I will say, however, that because the reveal only happens in the last pages, it is quite a slog getting through this one.

However, this lagging method of story telling is not repeated in And Then There Were None.  I was actually familiar with this story, though I didn’t know it until a certain poem was used in the tale – this is what is often referred to as ‘the Ten Little Indians’ story.  I first became familiar with it through the John Cussack movie Identity (which is an awesome flick, btw).  This story takes a different approach from The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – in it, all the characters are invited to an island retreat by a mysterious stranger… then they start dropping dead.  The mystery for the reader is in not only trying to figure out how the guests are all connected, but also who the murderer is.  We get some clues from the poem itself, but the entire thing isn’t quite revealed until the epilogue.  Lots of twists and turns, and lots of fun!

The next part of this compellation, Witness for the Prosecution, is a complete departure from the first two in this volume.  It’s a short story about a man following the trail of evidence for his client in en effort to get him out of a murder conviction.  While it is fun, and there’s a great ‘gotchha!’ reveal at the end, I don’t have much of an impression of this one.  I was suffering from a book hangover from And Then There Were None, so don’t think I fully appreciated the nuances of this read.  (For those who need a definition, a book hangover is when you’re still immersed in the world and doings of your last books, and are unable to get you mind wrapped around you new book.)

Finally, we come to one of Christie’s flagship tales, Death on the Nile.  This is another Hercule Poirot tale, but one in which the investigator plays a major role.  The story is split into two – the introductions to all the characters take place in Europe, where we meet the main plot movers of Lynette, Simon and Jacqueline.  Simon and Jacqueline are engaged until Simon meets Lynette, falls in love, throws over Jacqueline, and marries Lynette.  This drives Jacqueline a little crazy, and she follows the newlyweds around Europe and into Egypt on their honeymoon as part of a ploy to make them regret screwing her over.  We’re also introduced to several characters that have close connection with Lynette, and other who have no connections…  I was starting to think that this would be like Murder on the Orient Express, where everyone was connected somehow, and it was Poirot’s job to figure out how to reveal a murderer.  But, that wasn’t the case.

The actual murder on the Nile doesn’t happen until well past the half-way mark of the book, and with such a large cast of characters, I wasn’t sure who was going to bite it until the deed was done (though I had my suspicions).  Since the victim isn’t clear until well into the plot, the culprits are hard to guess at.  But, the final reveal (after Poirot sloughs away all the extra chaff of the side-mysteries that have been unfolding on the boat), is well worth the read.  I think I liked Orient better, but this one was a wicked read too.

So, presented in my volume of Christie tales were four stories, all with different plot structures and d√©nouements.  What this compellation did was show the versatility of Christie as an author, and the range of her skills.  It also shows how influential she was on the modern literary mystery-scape.  It can’t be ignored that many of the devises she used show up in mystery stories by current authors, in contemporary movies, and on our TV screens regularly.  Christie not only left us a large collection of literary works, but she was also a major contributor to our cultural zeitgeist.

Final verdict?  Read Christie.  She’s a great writer, and an important part of our shared experiences.  While some of her stories are stronger than others, they all have something to add to a reader’s personal experience.  I fully advocate that Agatha Christie become one of your go-to mystery writers.  

(** While I’m sure it would be hard to find/order, for clarity’s sake, my volume of Christie stories is called Masterpieces of Murder, by Agatha Christie, and was published by the International Collectors Library from Garden City, New York in 1977.)

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