My wife and daughter put their heads together for a really excellent birthday present for me: bringing our collection of Agatha Christie books to completion, including her memoirs and the so-called “romances” published under the name Mary Westmacott.
I left the latter unread for years, thinking of Harlequin romances, but they’re not romances in that sense, nor even all primarily about a romantic relationship, and when I finally picked up Absent in the Spring I was delighted. I’ve read two more since, and like Absent, they contain some of her best writing. In them she goes into all the detail of characterization that she usually skips in the mysteries. With her whodunnits, she relies heavily on types–often playing them up in order to pull the wool over our eyes, but still, there they are: the likeable rake, the bright young career woman, the buttoned-up solicitor, the taciturn retired Army officer from the far reaches of the empire, the maid named Gladys with bad adenoids and nothing much upstairs. Writing as Mary Westmacott, she delves into character with surprising subtlety. Absent in the Spring remains my favorite of these so far, as it was Christie’s; she described it as “The one book that has satisfied me completely.” The Rose and the Yew Tree stands out for its treatment of politics, an area of life that, in her mysteries, Christie usually gives a comically cursory treatment. In the spy novels, especially, you can almost hear her shrugging her shoulders (“Must give them a bad guy”) as she dashes off a description of some dastardly (and unlikely) coalition of Communists, Fascists, and international drug runners. In The Rose and the Yew Tree,she actually gets into the dynamics of a political campaign, and seems to both respect those inner workings and know what she’s talking about.
We owned almost all of the mysteries already, but many were cheap paperbacks so decrepit that the covers came away in your hand and you would occasionally get to the final pages only to discover that they’d gotten lost. Munchkin helped Joy work through the list and pulled out books that needed to be replaced. She is so pleased with her role in this drama.
Instead of presenting me with the gift, they appropriately gave me a puzzle: “Your present is hidden in plain sight in the house.” It took a few hints for me to get there (“Okay, which room?”), and then I noticed something that I was pretty sure hadn’t been there before.
“Wait, did you buy all the missing Westmacott books?” I asked. “Is that my present?”
Joy said, “It’s not so much a book as a concept . . . ,” and the penny dropped.
So now I’m enjoying reading classics I had been reluctant to pick up because the pages didn’t stay put, and marveling at her genius. Often, some minor weakness obscures the excellence of the book; rereading it reminds me just how good the book is as a whole. Yes, What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw! relies on a Marple ex machina to extract a confession from the killer, so that the book ends on a whimper more than a bang, but the mystery keeps you guessing right up until that moment, leading us down the garden path and giving us one of Christie’s many pleasing non-recurring main characters, Lucy Eyelesbarrow. Yes, Poirot is incapable of going on vacation without stumbling over a corpse, but at least The Labors of Hercules does show that he is actually a private detective who occasionally learns about crimes from being hired to solve them. I love her short stories, and these are funny, full of twists, and completely devoid of Hastings. Hastings is such a Watson that he makes Watson look like a genius. Christie so longed to be done with the “insufferable” Poirot that she wrote the account of his death in the late ’30s, putting the resulting novel into a vault to be published posthumously (in fact it was published shortly before her death); I wish that she had given Hastings the push at the same time. It would have been a great gift to her devoted fans for us to see him die, preferably from his own thickheadedness, the same quality that inflicted so much pain on us. But again, the small weakness can make me forget, in retrospect, how great the book is. Even while I’m rolling my eyes at Hastings, his creator is doing some of her best stuff, as in Peril at End House and Lord Edgware Dies.
And as I’m reading, I’m noticing how many different ways she goes about the problem of narration, adapting it to the mystery at hand. Maybe she ditched Hastings early on (he doesn’t appear for 35 years) because, once having broken away from the tyranny of Arthur Conan Doyle, she realized she seldom needed a first-person narrator. She elevated the unreliable first-person narrator to the status of legend–anyone who thinks it’s “cheating” for the narrator to deceive the reader would be happiest staying away from Christie–but third-person narration also serves the aim of deception. In And Then There Were None, with no detective and every character very actively a suspect, being able to move from one character’s point of view to another, as third-person narration makes possible, allows her to suggest multiple red herrings (it’s also by far the best use of one of her favorite tropes, the nursery rhyme). Cat Among the Pigeons, which I recently reread, also moves quickly from one point of view to another, creating a sensation of having the magician flash a card just a bit too fast to be properly read. You know the evidence is right before your eyes, but you can’t quite see it. By the time I found out who’d dunnit, my paranoia had reached fever levels. It made the solution deeply satisfying.
And now we have them all (minus a couple of hard-to-find holdouts that the family detectives are still tracking down). Now, which one to read next . . . ?