Tag Archives: Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie, Crooked House

Sometimes, as I browse the internet, an article or a blog post syncs up eerily with a book I’m reading. Most recently it was a post by Doctor Science at Obsidian Wings, who created “the John Donne Test”:

At some point in there I came up with what I’ll call the John Donne Test, because he said “Any man’s death diminishes me.” The Test is very simple:

Is there a second murder? (a second incident; two people murdered at once doesn’t count)

If the answer is “Yes”: you fail.

If it’s a mystery story without any murder, you get an A.

There’s nothing wrong with telling stories about murders. These are, after all, fictional people. But, argues Doctor Science, there’s something squalid about stories that don’t treat death as a tragedy–that casually kill characters off merely to raise the stakes, push the story along. Which is not only a problem in mystery stories. (And is, maybe, another example of a tendency I’ve noticed for some stories to treat background characters as literally less important than protagonists.)

I like mysteries but I’ll admit it’s odd the genre is so murder-centric. It’s not like there’s no potential for drama in fraud or embezzlement or a good old-fashioned jewel heist. And Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night, possibly the greatest mystery novel of the “Golden Age,” is murderless. But sometime between Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie the genre decided murders were the only proper subject for detective novels.

Speaking of Agatha Christie, early 20th century mystery novels are comfort reading for a lot of people, me included.[1] Which is a bit weird, and I don’t think it’s necessarily a criticism or condemnation of the genre to acknowledge that. Lots of good things are a bit weird. Mulling over and poking at the weirdness of things, even things you love, can be fun.

Mysteries aren’t the only genre built around grim subject matter. There’s horror, and grimdark fantasy, and dystopian science fiction. But those are genres people go to when they want to be in some way unsettled, whether that means being kept in suspense, being made to think about difficult subjects, or just having their heads enjoyably messed with. (The thing I like about horror movies isn’t the horror, exactly; it’s the surrealism.) The audience is having fun, yes, but it’s fun discomfort. No one talks about “cozy horror” or “cozy dystopias.”[2] But there are “cozy mysteries.”

As to what kind of comfort can be found here… well, it’s a cliché and a truism that the detective novel offers a restoration of order, the rebuilding of a community thrown into turmoil and uncertainty. But in this case I think the truism is, well, true. For myself, given the failures of America’s justice system–the false convictions, the police departments that function as racist protection rackets–imagining some quixotic amateur swooping in to sort out its mistakes is a satisfying wish fulfillment fantasy. (Granted, usually the problem in real life isn’t that prosecuters missed some vital clue, but that they faked forensic evidence; or ignored exculpatory evidence; or, alternately, deliberately let a killer off the hook because he happened to have a badge. Sherlock and Elementary notwithstanding, a modern Sherlock Holmes’s greatest challenge would be less explaining the facts and more shaming the authorities into doing the right thing.)

Cover of Crooked House

When I came across the Donne Test I was reading Agatha Christie’s Crooked House. Christie’s books are synonymous with the cozy mystery. But Christie herself was less cozy than we remember. As I reread her work in recent years I noticed many of her novels are shrouded in a pall of unease never entirely removed by the neat solution. Christie’s most famous novels, remember, include (Spoilers!) The One Where Everybody Dies, The One Where Everybody’s Guilty, and The One Where the Killer is Your Pal, the Narrator. Some of the Miss Marple novels in particular are practically noir.[3] For all that Christie’s books were the kind of mysteries Raymond Chandler hated, I suspect if Philip Marlowe met Miss Marple they’d exchange knowing nods, each recognizing a kindred spirit who’d also Seen Too Much. Crooked House is another unsettling novel, particularly considered in light of the Donne Test. Christie considered it one of her favorites, which is interesting because here she seems to cast a jaundiced eye over her own literary career.

Crooked House doesn’t star any of Christie’s recurring characters but looks like a typical Christie. The title is taken from a nursery rhyme. The narrator is a statistically average bland detective novel love interest.[4] The ending might be considered a twist in that the killer (who I will soon reveal) is a character most mysteries wouldn’t normally lump in with the suspects. And the grasp of proper police procedures on display here is sketchy. The elderly head of a household has been murdered, apparently by his much younger wife. Narrator Charles Hayward is both the fiancé of the old man’s heir and the son of the Scotland Yard commissioner in charge of the case, which is totally convenient and not a conflict of interest at all.

Charles, naturally, does the amateur detective thing, snooping around and interrogating the family. And at one point he finds himself using the phrase “the fun will start,” and thinks to himself:

What extraordinary things one said! The fun! Why must I choose that particular word?

Well, there’s your question. Charles isn’t the only one having fun. His fiancé’s young sister, 12-year-old Josephine, loves detective stories. She’s been spying on everyone, collecting secrets and writing them down in her notebook, and she knows how this situation is supposed to go:

“I should say it’s about time for the next murder, wouldn’t you?”
“What do you mean—the next murder?”
“Well, in books there’s always a second murder about now. Someone who knows something is bumped off before they can tell what they know.”

And, sure enough, someone unsuccessfully tries to kill Josephine, and later successfully poisons her nanny. And Josephine knew it was coming because she arranged it herself. She killed her grandfather, for entirely childish reasons. Then she sets up her own death trap because she’s read a million detective novels and now, as a newly-fledged author, she knows it’s time to raise the stakes. And she adds another successful murder to make things more exciting, because the nanny’s just a background character, right? You can just kill background characters off. You know, for effect.

It’s impossible not to read Crooked House as Agatha Christie interrogating her own formula, complicating the entertainment we get from her novels, owning their weirdness. It’s a reminder that detective novels fail when they forget murders are tragedies as well as puzzles. At the end Josephine’s dying great-aunt deliberately wrecks her car with Josephine in it and it’s as though Christie is trying to symbolically dispose of the temptation to focus so thoroughly on the puzzle that the people disappear.

Christie was particularly proud of Crooked House; she wrote an introduction explaining that she saved the idea up for years and worked on it extra-carefully. The people who adapt her novels into films and TV shows have not similarly embraced it. According to Crooked House’s Wikipedia page, this is one of only five unfilmed Christie novels–a movie was planned a few years ago, but so far hasn’t gotten off the ground. Maybe they’re afraid the audience would walk away feeling a bit ghoulish.


  1. Christie’s not my favorite; Dorothy Sayers, Edmund Crispin, and Margery Allingham are all more lively.  ↩

  2. Although I’d argue they exist… think of all the dystopias designed expressly to get knocked down by Very Special teenagers. Or the old Universal horror movies where the monsters were lovable and charismatic and the heroes always got away safe in the end.  ↩

  3. For instance, speaking of the Donne Test, A Pocketful of Rye includes what may be the saddest and most unfair secondary murder of any Christie novel.  ↩

  4. Characters weren’t Christie’s strong suit–she wrote types. This is why Miss Marple is such a great detective–her criminological methodology is entirely about recognizing types which, as a Christie protagonist, she’s surrounded by.  ↩

Recent Reading

I have several half-finished book reviews sitting on my hard drive, all of books I liked quite a bit. They’re unfinished partly because my attention span for writing hasn’t been great, but mostly because of impostor syndrome: I’m having a hard time convincing myself these potential posts say anything intelligent or interesting. Since I ought to be getting some practice in, I’ve written a few paragraphs on books about which I have much less to say:

Agatha Christie, Appointment With Death and Murder in Mesopotamia

Christie’s second husband was an archaeologist and she often accompanied him on digs. Occasionally she worked her archaeological experience into her novels by sending Hercule Poirot off to stumble on murders in random middle eastern countries. She didn’t use nearly enough of her experience for my taste–for all that she knew her stuff, the settings of these novels read like a generic archaeological dig and foreign tourist site and could have been set anywhere in the world.

Trevor Baxendale, Fear of the Dark

This Doctor Who tie-in novel was first published in the years before the current series began. At the time BBC Books published one or two Doctor Who novels every month. I skipped this one at the time because Trevor Baxendale’s novels were always terrible. This one is a short story’s worth of secondhand ideas padded out to a 300 page novel. Here we have all the laziest clichés of late 1990s-early 2000s Doctor Who: Grimdark cynicism. Corporate space marines. Incessant deaths (all so grotesque I’m surprised the BBC republished this book in this more family-friendly era). An alien planet in the far future inhabited by people who talk and think like they’re from 20th century London (and who include, between a starship crew and a mining expedition, exactly one woman). A half-assed monster that is literally called “The Dark” and does evil things because it’s evil.

There used to be a Doctor Who novel just like this almost every month. So much nostalgia. I almost enjoyed it.

Various authors, “Time Trips”

The BBC has been releasing Doctor Who novellas as ebooks under the name “Time Trips.” They’re all very weird.

“Into the Nowhere” is about a planet of traps and walking skeletons controlled by a grotesque nerd caricature who turns out to be guarding all the knowledge in the universe, man, which manifests as the tree from the Garden of Eden because it pulled the image from Clara’s mind. The Doctor, while bleeding from his palms, tells Clara not to eat the metaphorical apple because “the entropic chronicle of perpetuity” would depress her.

“The Death Pit” is a fourth Doctor adventure on a golf course with a deadly alien sand trap. It’s perhaps trying just a little too hard to be Douglas Adams, but it’s charming and at times genuinely funny.

“Keeping Up With the Joneses” is about a sentient time war weapon that turns the interior of the TARDIS into a temporally indeterminate English village with occasional giant monsters. The strangest thing in the book is that the owner of the bed and breakfast is patterned after Lady Christina from “Planet of the Dead,” for all the world as though the Doctor might have had her on his mind. Or even remembered her at all. (When I wrote this review for a post on a mailing list I had to Google the episode to remember her name.)

These novellas are the product of writers who are doing their own thing rather than delivering a “standard” Doctor Who story. That’s fine by me regardless of the quality of the results (not that these three are bad). We have all the standardized, formulaic Doctor Who stories we need at this point.

Avram Davidson, Masters of the Maze

Like a lot of SF, this is the story of a young man discovering he has a hidden destiny and saving the world from an alien invasion. Because Avram Davidson wrote it, it is much better than that description makes it sound. Also much weirder. There’s an other-dimensional maze that runs all across space and time. At the center the hero has a philosophical discussion with Lao-Tze, Apollonius of Tyana, and Benjamin Bathurst. A villainous John Birch Society-type teams up with the aliens to take over the United States, cut taxes, destroy the welfare state, and outlaw milk pasteurization; he has the idea that he might then use them as contract labor to keep wages down. We get chapters from the point of view of the aliens themselves, humanoids who live and think like hive insects. Plus Ambrose Bierce turns up. It’s all as well written as you’d expect from Davidson. The most significant flaw is a lack of important female characters, but that’s sadly common with older SF.

David Edison, The Waking Engine

Portal fantasies have been out of style for a while but I’ve seen a few new ones lately. This is one of them, as well as an afterlife fantasy–the idea is that when you die you’re serially reborn on a series of China Miévillesque worlds until you finally reach the place that offers True Death.

I found this novel paradoxically both too weird and not weird enough. Too weird because the afterlife world seems like a collection of grotesque and baroque images that give very little idea of how people in this world would actually live their day-to-day lives. Not weird enough because the hero is almost as bland as an everyman can get. It was several chapters before I even had an idea of what he looked like, or what he was wearing. (The book described him lying down after work and waking up dead; I assumed he was wearing a suit and had to rapidly readjust my assumptions when the book mentioned a heavy metal t-shirt.)

The Waking Engine also suffers from a problem common to afterlife SF, the temptation to pack the story full of celebrity guest stars–here we get Richard Nixon, Cleopatra and Walt Whitman, with a cameo by Kurt Cobain. The end leaves plenty of plot threads hanging, so I’m sensing yet another series; I’m not sure whether I’ll try the next one.

Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being

Like Masters of the Maze this is really good, but not in a way that inspired me to try writing a full review. I read it a few months ago and at the time I was finding most novels hard to get into, but this one eventually built momentum and I finished the last hundred pages in an evening. It’s a discursive, essayistic novel, which is something that’s appealed to me lately.

It’s published as mainstream but is arguably SF in that it plays with scientific concepts in support of a sort of magic realist narrative, and would probably have been a better Hugo award candidate than most of what ended up on the ballot.

Agatha Christie, At Bertram’s Hotel

As a Miss Marple novel, At Bertram’s Hotel is a dud. It’s a detective novel that doesn’t allow its hero to solve the crime. Miss Marple does some eavesdropping and makes a couple of deductions at the same time as a police detective, but never gets to tell him anything he doesn’t already know. At one point she plays the role of the witness amazed when the brilliant detective explains the surprising truth behind what she saw. That’s just backwards.

What makes At Bertram’s Hotel interesting is what Miss Marple does while she’s failing to detect. Bertram’s Hotel caters to elderly guests who want an environment that reminds them of their youth, and tourists who want to see the London of fifty years ago. Christie belabors how Bertram’s serves proper muffins and poached eggs and seed cake. The rooms are done up in tasteful archaic styles, camouflaging their modern fittings. The staff resemble the happily efficient servants who only ever existed in P. G. Wodehouse novels. The guests resemble the aging gentry who only ever existed in… um, Agatha Christie novels. During her stay at Bertram’s Miss Marple shops for the plain old-fashioned dish towels she has trouble finding nowadays, and visits places she remembers from her youth.

But Miss Marple finds that most of the places she remembers have changed or been built over. Bertram’s out-of-time fittings begin to look unnatural. Even the guests don’t look quite how she expects elderly people to look in the world of 1965. She concludes “that one should not ever try to go back–that the essence of life is going forward.”

It’s generally an error to assume an author’s biography has anything at all to do with her writing. But in this case it’s tempting to draw conclusions from the fact that, when At Bertram’s Hotel was published, Agatha Christie was 75 years old, near Miss Marple’s age. At Bertram’s Hotel feels like Christie letting herself indulge in nostalgia for the old days, then spending the rest of the novel gently scolding herself for doing so.