Poirot

Last week I attended the Guardian Book Club where author Sophie Hannah and literary critic John Mullan discussed Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile.

You may not know this already but I am a huge Agatha Christie fan. I discovered her mysteries when I stumbled upon a copy of Murder on the Links hidden away on a bookshelf in my grandfather’s house in Sri Lanka one hot summer. It probably belonged to one of my aunts and uncles but I took it with me when I left. I never learnt who it belonged to but I still have my well-thumbed copy and it still remains my favourite mystery to this day.

What is it about Christie’s novels that has ensnared millions of readers? For me, it was the sheer shock of finding the murderer was not who I expected. Stunned, I can still remember wondering how she managed to fool me. And with each novel, I would make a guess and get it wrong. Sometimes I couldn’t handle the tension and would take a furtive peek at the final pages which would inevitably spoil the rest of the novel for me but I just couldn’t help myself. And so my love affair with Christie began when I was nine and I went through her entire crime oeuvre, spending hours in English bookshops in far flung Asian cities counting the titles I had and hadn’t read, waiting for the special days when I was allowed to buy a book. Admittedly I did get better at guessing the murderer as I went through her novels but it was more a gut feeling. And once I got over that, I really began to enjoy her cast of characters and unraveling her fiendish plots.

So I was excited to hear Hannah’s views on Christie. Most of you will know by now that Hannah was chosen by Christie’s estate to write the new Poirot novel, The Monogram Murders, which was published last year . I, like many, was nervous about reading it but was completely won over by her intricate plotting and handling of Poirot. And I wasn’t surprised to learn that Hannah is on her third re-reading of Christie’s crime novels. Impressive stuff. She has a great love for Christie and her work, although she admits she is not as knowledgeable as John Curran, Christie’s archivist and author of Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks and Agatha Christie’s Murder in the Making, whom she would phone with questions when writing The Monogram Murders for which he would have instant answers.

For the Guardian Book Club, Hannah chose to discuss Death on the Nile partly because she wanted something different to the usual choice which is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, probably one of Christie’s most infamous novels, but also because it is one of the few that is successful in all mediums – book, tv and film. It is also one where you meet the characters going about their daily business before the actual murder occurs.

As much as they were bestsellers, I recall most notably in an English literature class at school that Christie’s novels were considered derivative and her characters two-dimensional, criticisms which still echo in genre fiction today. As young as I was, I did wonder why books you could race through weren’t considered serious literature however well written. It didn’t stop me reading or loving her novels, and when I re-read Elephants Can Remember a few years ago, I was surprised at how dark the plot was and how tightly written the prose. Hannah does point this out saying it’s an unfair label. She believes the characters need to appear to be two dimensional at first before the unveiling of the third dimension by the detective.

Christie’s strength lies in her interest in the psychology of crime especially how we assess others. She lets the readers mislead themselves and only at the unmasking do you realise your error in judgement. And one of the devices she uses in her novels is that a large proportion of her subjects are hiding something, all are guilty of something but perhaps not the murder. No one is perfect, everyone has a flaw. Christie is unparalleled in her understanding of character, human nature and psychology.

On accusations of stereotyping and stylised settings, Hannah does acknowledge that Christie recycles setting and plot devices but her tales are so interesting that readers don’t mind. A reader pointed out that The Murder on the Nile was somewhat similar to Endless Night and Mullan clocked on to a similar echo of Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove which brought about a discussion on the limitations of plot. In some contemporary crime novels, the mystery isn’t enough to sustain the reader’s interest and so they pile on the bodies, but Christie doesn’t need to do this. However Hannah pointed out that Christie was fascinated by the possibilities of the crime novel and tried every possible permutation. She instinctively understood what every novel needed and was in total control. Christie is famous for being a meticulous planner before she put pen to paper and this can be seen in the very intricate way in which Christie manipulates her novels’ timelines. This was one aspect of the crime novel with which Hannah had difficulty and is also probably one of the reasons why she finds it so difficult to pinpoint Christie’s culprit.

For the serious mystery reader, the inability to guess the murderer is crucial. Christie overtly draws your attention to the clues, she is never sly or frugal in this, but still manages to fool you. You don’t know until the second Poirot or Miss Marple starts explaining who the murderer is. And she does this all the while increasing the tension bit by bit until you just have to know who did it.

The event ended with Hannah describing Miss Marple as a bit of a misanthrope and Poirot a romantic who liked to play cupid, often directing the attentions of a young lady away from a handsome rake to a slightly boring but more suitable man. Her favourite secondary character is Jane, Lady Edgware, in Lord Edgware Dies and one of her top ten favourite novels is After the Funeral as well as The Body in the Library which she says is flawless.

It was just a lovely evening to hear someone who loves Christie as much as I do talk about various aspects of her work and it has reawakened my urge to re-read some of Christie’s novels again as well as dip into John Curran’s books.

I hope this has whetted your appetite for Agatha Christie’s novels. If you have read them, which is your favourite mystery? And if you haven’t read any yet, which one would you like to start with?

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Monogram Murders

Please let no one open their mouths and find the gold cufflinks with the initials PIJ.

Poirot returns with a bang in The Monogram Murders set in 1929 amongst the sumptuous art nouveau backdrop of the fictional Bloxham Hotel. Agatha Christie’s mantle is taken up by Sophie Hannah, a contemporary crime writer with a substantial following. Anyone taking over from the Queen of Crime is facing a daunting task. And any lover of Christie’s work will inevitably read the novel with a fine tooth comb.

However, Hannah does Christie proud. Her Poirot is faithful, perhaps more to David Suchet’s portrayal, but when you start reading The Monogram Murders you feel you are falling comfortably back into familiar territory. His sidekick is Edward Catchpool, a young and inexperienced Inspector of Scotland Yard who is alternately frustrated and in awe of Poirot.

The mystery begins at Pleasant’s Coffee House, where Poirot takes his daily evening coffee, when a terrified woman known only as Jennie rushes in seeking refuge. Before she vanishes into the night, she leaves Poirot with the mysterious

Once I am dead, justice will be done, finally.

which sets him off on his new quest.

Poirot is recently retired and is taking a staycation at Mrs. Unsworth’s lodging house where Catchpool also resides. When he returns that evening, he witnesses Catchpool coming to terms with three murders he is investigating at the posh Bloxham Hotel. All three victims died at around the same time in different rooms but laid out in the same way and with a monogrammed cufflink in their mouths.

Poirot feels there is a connection with the mysterious Jennie but Catchpool is doubtful. And so the pair embark on their first investigation together as they uncover a wrong that was done 16 years ago and what looks like revenge finally being enacted in the present day.

Although I began the book with some trepidation, once the mystery gets going, I began to feel Hannah’s rendition of Poirot and the mystery approaching Christie’s hallmark darkness and complexity. Re-reading Christie, whom I’ve been reading since I was nine, I am always astonished by the real darkness and deftness with which she layers her novels. And I am glad to say Hannah’s version does not disappoint.

Poirot is a national institution and staying faithful to who he is may risk stereotyping him but deviating would be disastrous. All the elements are here in The Monogram Murders, the young lovers, a free artistic spirit, the vicar, the doctor and the maid.

I really enjoyed getting back into Christie’s world and I do hope Hannah will continue in this vein.

I think this was my third favourite novel by Christie (after Murder on the Links and The Mysterious Mr. Quin), but I couldn’t remember exactly why as I had read it donkeys years ago. So perusing my de-cluttered bookshelf at home I thought I’d do a little re-reading and sweep the cobwebs aside.

It’s a small novel in two parts featuring Hercule Poirot and his friend the crime novelist Ariadne Oliver. What I liked about Elephants Can Remember is the unorthodox structure of the novel. It felt very modern and then I realised that it was written in the 1970s so the feel of the novel, although retaining Christie’s trademark golden age crime flavour, was a bit more experimental. I liked it tremendously. In fact, it’s Christie’s last novel featuring Poirot, although Poirot’s last case Curtain, though written earlier, was published later.

The mystery begins when Ariadne Oliver is accosted by one Mrs. Burton-Cox who wants to dig up information on Ariadne’s god-daughter Celia Ravenscroft who also happens to be her son’s fiancé. Ariadne is repulsed by this woman and also does not want to dig too deep into Celia’s tragic past. A scandalous tragedy, both of Celia’s parents died in an apparent suicide 12 years ago. Or was it murder? What Mrs. Burton-Cox wants to know is whether the father killed the mother or vice versa. Although reluctant to snoop, Ariadne calls upon her friend Poirot to see whether he can puzzle it out. And when Celia herself wants to find out the truth of her parents’ deaths, both Ariadne and Poirot must go back into history and find out what really happened.

Christie has put together a cast of suspects from Mrs. Ravenscroft’s slightly unhinged twin sister Dolly, her son, two French governesses, a cook and of course Celia’s parents. Mrs. Burton-Cox is also acting rather suspiciously and before you know it, you are suspecting everyone, including Celia, who was then about 14 years old.

As usual, Christie always manages to astound me with the dénouement. I’ve read so many murder mysteries thanks to Christie that I can now spot the murderer from a mile away. But I still remember the thrill of reading this book as the tragic story unfolds. This time around, I noticed more the ingenious way Christie tries to draw your attention away, leaving a trail of red herrings, as you follow Ariadne and Poirot’s progress into the past. What startled me was actually how dark the story is, not something you would expect from a Christie novel. Of course, it’s a tale of murder, but we tend to think that compared to modern fiction, those written in earlier times are perhaps lighter and safer. Although there’s no gore or gratuitous violence, the themes underlying Christie’s mysteries are very dark indeed.

Christie used to be my favourite mystery author for a long time and although I hadn’t read her novels in years since I finished going through them, re-reading them is a true pleasure. She has been accused of having one-dimensional characters, stereotypes and following a formula, but she’s much more than that. What she’s good at is simply telling a damned good story. And I think few, even now, can compare.

I’m also a huge fan of the TV adaptations of her stories (even though some bear little resemblance to the books). To me, they are a comforting reminder of my childhood. Yes, I even got stopped at the airport once because I was carrying one of her novels featuring a gun on the cover (I think it was The ABC Murders). I think I was about 10 then. Oops.

So, have you read any novels by Christie? And if so, which is your favourite tale?

Agatha Christie

As you all know, Agatha Christie is one of my favourite writers and is probably solely responsible for my addiction to crime and mystery novels. No one forgets their first Christie, and the panel of writers at the Agatha Christie Night at the Southbank Centre were no different. And what a panel. Let me list them for you: Val McDermid, Jasper Fforde, Kate Mosse and chaired by Simon Brett. Out of the three, I haven’t read any books by Simon Brett, but I plan to remedy that as soon as I’ve made a dent in my TBR pile because he was an excellent chair. I jumped at the chance of going because of Jasper Fforde. His surreal crime novels (in Simon Brett’s words) featuring Thursday Next and the Nursery Crime Division (two separate series) are fantastically clever, funny and very thrilling. And his website is amazing. And have I mentioned how handsome he is?

All seats were taken and the audience was a very mixed bunch. What was clear was that everyone in the panel and audience loved Agatha Christie and was extremely knowledgeable about her books and her life. Val McDermid recently recorded a BBC Radio 4 Archive programme about newly discovered audio tapes of Christie speaking about her life for her autobiography. There’s only three days left to listen to it, so hurry! McDermid is a clear and brilliant expositor and I enjoyed listening to her comments. She is a charming, funny and erudite speaker.

We all laughed and nodded when each panelist spoke about their first Christie: McDermid’s was Murder at the Vicarage at age nine, Jasper Fforde’s was The ABC Murders at age twelve and Kate Mosse’s The Body in the Library at age fourteen. And like everyone, they spoke about how it was their first adult book, and how they were stunned by the red herrings and the dénouement. And what they were all adamant about was how good a writer she was. Christie has had her fair share of detractors but the panelists fiercely defended her work mirroring her popularity across the globe today. She even appears in a Dr. Who episode!

I haven’t read her novels for many, many years and after attending this talk I feel like going out and buying a handful just so I can reacquaint myself with her.

My first Christie was Murder on the Links at age nine and is still probably my favourite. What’s yours?

thehiddenstaircase murderonthelinks theroserent

My love affair with mysteries began with Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. I was living in Bangkok as a child, and opposite our street (Sukhumvit Soi 12) was a small English language bookshop called Asia Bookstore. I don’t know if it still exists but it was my favourite place in Thailand. Because English books were prime commodities in the thriving ex-pat community, I was rationed books. Luckily I went to a British school that had a huge library so I was well stocked.

I discovered Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie on a dusty bookshelf in my grandparents’ house on while on a trip to Sri Lanka when I was nine. The book was wedged between an old picture diary of my mother’s from when she was seven (I don’t know how it got there from Japan) and some Sinhalese books. Awaiting me at the end of the novel was the biggest shock of my life. I was totally flabbergasted and unprepared for the identity of the murderer. I went back through the book picking out the clues and red herrings and was hooked on Christie ever since. It was then only a matter of time before I started reading Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L. Sayers.

It was when I was at boarding school in the UK that I chanced upon Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael mystery The Rose Rent in the school library. Of course, what first drew me to the book was the title. How romantic and mysterious it seemed. I was then fifteen and was gutted that I was unable to study medieval and tudor English history for GCSE. Our syllabus was all about the two world wars. So I leapt into Peters’ medieval world and was entranced by the images and names from that period. And so my love affair with historical mysteries began. It’s funny how now I can’t get enough of the interwar period.

Crime and Mysteries

Ellis Peters (Brother Cadfael series)
Lindsey Davis (Falco series)
Paul Doherty (Brother Athelstan series, Hugh Corbett series, White Rose Murders – Tudor mysteries)
Elizabeth Eyre (Rennaissance series)
Candace Robb (Apothecary Rose – Owen Archer series)
Deanna Raybourn (Julia Grey mysteries)
Elizabeth Peters (Amelia Peabody series)
Susanna Gregory (Matthew Bartholomew series)
Dorothy L. Sayers (Lord Peter Wimsey series)
Agatha Christie (Poirot, Miss Marple, Harlequin)
Ngaio Marsh (Roderick Alleyn mysteries)
Margery Allingham (Campion mysteries)
Umberto Eco (Foucault’s Pendulum, The Name of the Rose)
Caleb Carr (The Alienist, The Angel of Darkness)
Eliott Pattison (Inspector Shan Tibetan mysteries)
Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child (Agent Pendergast series)
John Dunning (Bookman series)
Eleanor Updale (Montmorency series)
Christopher Fowler (Bryant & May series)
David Roberts (Lord Edward Corinth & Verity Browne series)
Seishi Yokomizo (Kindaichi Kousuke series – in Japanese only)
Akimitsu Takagi (The Tattoo Murder Mystery)

As I’ve been reading murder mysteries for an insanely long time, I’m sure I’ve forgotten some important titles. I think I caught the first wave of popular historical mysteries with Ellis Peters, Paul Doherty, Candace Robb and others. I spent many a happy hour looking for exciting new titles at the Murder One bookshop on Charing Cross Road which sadly closed it’s bookshop this year, but the business is still ongoing and they have an excellent mail order service. Now there’s a second wave with the rising popularity of C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Sheldrake series beginning with Dissolution. Who can resist such a great title? The word alone conjures such rich imagery. You know there’s going to be murder, darkness, fire and, of course, monks and you can almost hear the violent clashing of swords.

I also went through a heady phase at university when I was enamoured of everything Italian, especially Venice. Donna Leon, Magdalen Nabb and Michael Dibdin are all old favourites.

Reading my list of favourite books, it looks as though I have a thing for titles which feature the word rose. But then in the medieval world, the rose was not just a rose. It was a powerful symbol of Christian imagery especially the Virgin Mary, the universe, purity, loyalty and love.

theapothecaryrose thewhiterosemurders thenameoftherose