Book #16 (April 30, 2010): And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
Book #17 (May 10, 2010): Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie
Book #18 (May 17, 2010): The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie
Time was I used to have a couple of dozen Agatha Christie paperbacks on my bookshelf and would pull one down periodically for a bit of light reading. And light reading they were: Christie’s novels tend to be so airy and insubstantial that if you don’t hold on to them with both hands there’s a genuine danger that they might float away before you have a chance to turn the page. Not that this is bad. In fact, I think much of Christie’s charm was that she perfected a form of murder mystery in which murder didn’t have to be taken the least bit seriously. I mean, quite honestly, can you imagine anyone shedding a tear for one of her fluff-headed murder victims?
It had been a while since I’d read one of her novels, though, and I thought it time to read several in a row, to see if they still went down as easily as they did when I was in my 20s. The answer is that, yes, they do, but they don’t seem quite as much fun anymore. The fault isn’t really Christie’s. It’s that the form she invented has been so relentlessly imitated and parodied over the years that even reading a Christie novel you haven’t read before is like reading a book you’ve already memorized, if only because you’ve seen all of the movies and TV shows that have done her plots to death.
That, in fact, is why I wanted to read And Then There Were None. Although I’d never read it before, I knew the basic story pretty well, because there was a time when it was repeatedly pastiched in any number of media. In fact, a friend of mine pointed out that it’s the basis for most of the slasher movies of the last 30 years, as well as for the 1976 musical Something’s Afoot. (True confession: I ripped off the basics of the plot for my second Hardy Boys novel, The Dungeon of Doom.) It’s the one where a group of seemingly unrelated people are invited to a remote location and then killed off one by one, in imitation of the old nursery rhyme “Ten Little Indians.” (Interesting side note: The original British title of the novel was “Ten Little N–gers.” You can see why that was changed for the American editions.) As much as I wanted to enjoy this one, because I think it was at one time an immensely clever idea, I felt that Christie bit off more here than she could chew. The short length of mystery novels in the 1930s and 40s (the book was originally published in 1939) allows Christie very little room for characterization, so much so that even though Christie has the sense to hang easily identifiable labels on the ten characters — the hanging judge, the Bible-thumping spinster, the carefree bachelor — it’s sometimes hard to tell the characters apart. And the action is so rushed that there were times when I wasn’t even sure what was going on. But worst of all the convoluted nature of the story requires not one but TWO lengthy (and, frankly, boring) epilogues just to explain how the hell the book’s many mysterious contrivances could have taken place.
Appointment with Death is a considerably better novel. Christie creates a rather compelling setup about a family under the psychological domination of a monstrous mother, who not surprisingly turns up dead about halfway through. (Honestly, that’s not much of a spoiler. If you can’t see that coming from the first page, you must be a complete newcomer to the mystery genre.) Naturally our old friend Hercule Poirot is in the vicinity and is called in to consult. The situation is interesting enough to keep the pages turning, but…am I the only person on earth who finds Poirot an unbearably pompous jerk? (I’m probably not, because I think it’s his pompous jerkiness that makes the character so popular.) Presented with the bare facts of the case he promptly announces that he will have it solved, without the slightest possibility of failure, within 24 hours — and, of course, he does. This makes Poirot a fantasy character because such elegant solutions aren’t possible in the real world, where Christie isn’t pulling strings to make the clues fall together so neatly. But nobody reads Christie for realism, do they?
The Body in the Library is a Miss Marple story and it’s about as formulaic a drawing room mystery as I can imagine. Heck, it begins with a body turning up, quite literally, in a drawing room. Christie as always seems to have her tongue in her cheek here and you sense her winking at the reader and saying, “I know you love every one of these cliches as much as I do and that’s why I’m giving them to you in the most straightforward manner possible.” Fortunately, Miss Marple is the anti-Poirot. Where Poirot has an ego as large as Europe, Miss Marple fades into the wallpaper for much of the novel and only emerges politely at the end to explain the details the police have missed. She’s very sweet about it and you really can’t hold it against her that she’s every bit as much a fantasy being as Poirot is.