“The Big Four” by Agatha Christie (1927)

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“I have met people who enjoy a channel crossing; men who can sit calmly in their deckchairs and, on arrival, wait until the boat is moored, then gather their belongings together without fuss and disembark.”

Famed for her murder mysteries, it’s not so well known that Agatha Christie also penned a few thrillers. Some of them I’ve covered before, and rarely are they among my favourites, but they’re generally still entertaining. They’re also important because Christie wrote some of them after a belief was shared in society that only men could write thrillers. She set out to prove them wrong and, as usual, did it with aplomb.

The Big Four opens with Captain Hastings returning from Argentina only to find that Poirot is on his way out to South America. However, when a man covered in dust and dirt appears at the door of Poirot’s apartment and falls down dead, Poirot decides he has to stay and is soon learning all about a shady cabal of criminal masterminds known as the Big Four. Everywhere he turns, he sees their handiwork and a number of supposedly unconnected cases begin to tie up together as he gets closer to unmasking the four.

What he, or indeed anyone, knows about them is very little. Number One is a brilliant Chinese man who is said to have the world’s greatest brain. Number Two is a very wealthy American with a stack of investments and an almost limitless supply of cash. Number Three is France’s most skilled scientist, a woman who makes Marie Curie look like an amateur. And no one seems to know anything at all about Number Four. Poirot and Hastings find themselves drawn deeper and deeper into a world of espionage, lies and disguises, and they soon learn that the Big Four will stop at nothing to get their nemeses out of the way so they can fulfil their plans.

Although Christie edited some of her earlier works to reflect changing times as the century drew on (see the original title of And Then There Were None, and her characters attitudes towards the Jews), it appears that The Big Four got missed out, or else progress didn’t come to quickly to racism against the Chinese. True, there’s nothing that declares them evil as a whole or anything like that, but the dialogue of her Chinese characters and their heavily cliched appearances, not to mention Hastings asserting that he could never tell any of them apart and Japp using an outdated racial slur about them, has definitely not aged well. It was the time, of course, but it’s damn jarring to read suddenly now.

Fortunately, aside from that, the book holds up. In other places it’s curiously modern and is perhaps the “biggest” story Christie ever told, being the novel that comes closest to an apocalyptic scenario. We’re far removed from a body in the parlour, as here we deal with potential atomic weapons (almost twenty years before they became a reality), international surveillance and an evil troupe controlling the planet from the shadows. Whether she can do these big blockbuster type stories remains up in the air, and personally I think she’s better when she’s dealing with the little people, but it’s still a fascinating tale that also plays fast and loose with the ten commandments of writing detective fiction.

Because it isn’t a traditional murder mystery, we also get to see a different side of Poirot. He seems a touch more emotional than usual here, and shows signs of a man who, despite constantly being surrounded by people who need him, has been lonely and feeling detached. The return of Hastings into his life, and later Japp, gives him a new sense of vitality and urgency, and despite his age, he is soon whizzing around the place once more, outsmarting everyone else. Although it isn’t my favourite Christie, it’s one for the completists and for anyone who tires of a necklace stolen from the drawing room and wants to see the world burn.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“The Murder On The Links” by Agatha Christie (1923)

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“I believe that a well-known anecdote exists to the effect that a young writer, determined to make the commencement of his story forcible and original enough to catch and rivet the attention of the most blasé of editors, penned the following sentence: ‘Hell!’ said the Duchess.”

Christie is always associated with having her detectives solve crimes in large English country houses, but we’re only two books into the Poirot series and she’s already broken that … by having us visit a crime scene in a large French country house. Establishing much more of the sort of writer she would become, The Murder on the Links is a speedy, moving take on the murder mystery.

On his way back to London, Captain Hastings meets a young woman on a train who has lost track of her sister. Instantly smitten, Hastings chats with her throughout the journey, but when they depart, she only gives her name as “Cinderella”. Realising he’ll never see her again, Hastings instead finds Poirot who has just received a letter from a Paul Renauld in northern France, who is convinced that his life is under threat. Wasting no time, Poirot and Hastings leave for France, but upon arriving at the man’s villa, they find they are too late – Renauld is already dead.

His body has been found in an open grave on his under-construction golf course, wearing a coat that’s too big and carrying a love letter. Apparently stabbed in the back, no one can account for his movements, except his wife who was gagged and bound by two assailants who dragged her husband off into the night when he wouldn’t tell him “the secret”. Poirot decides to do right by the man and stay to solve the case, which isn’t made any easier by the arrival of Monsieur Giraud, a young French policeman whose methods stand opposed to those of Poirot, leading to an unofficial contest between the two men to solve the murder first.

And that’s when the second body shows up…

The book seems primarily to reinforce the kind of detective that Poirot is, focusing on psychology and motive, rather than physical clues. Giraud, the French detective, is very much a Holmesian figure, believing that the answers lie in discarded match heads and specific types of cigarette ash. He openly mocks Poirot’s suggestion that a piece of lead piping or some footprints in a flower bed could be of any use to him, apparently simply because they’re too big. Poirot, however, admits that there’s no point him looking for tiny things as he wouldn’t be able to tell one kind of soil or ash from any other. Poirot, naturally, solves the case before Giraud, who returns to Paris with his tail between his legs. The reader is left in no doubt that the Sherlock Holmes style of detection will not play a part in Christie’s works. Although it could be seen as Christie insulting Doyle, I think it’s actually some gentle mockery, as the two both liked and respected one another’s novels, and Doyle had long been established as a mystery writer. Christie merely was, I think, marking the change as she began her career and Doyle ended his.

Similarly, Christie realises that she doesn’t need a Watson figure in all her books, as Hastings was originally introduced to be. Although this is not the last time that we see him, her original plan to have him narrate all the Poirot tales does not come to fruition and she shows this by ending the novel with Hastings finding a wife and therefore having something to distract him so he can’t be at Poirot’s beck and call at all times. He will return several times, especially in the early years, and he’s always a joy when he does. Here, he adds a good deal of comic relief, being sharp in some ways but utterly dense in others, driven by his emotions. This complements Poirot, who uses logic in almost everything he does.

As ever, the clues are liberally sprinkled throughout and you can see how you should have been able to work it out by the end, although perhaps a couple of them require a bit of reaching to solve. The evidence is all there though, you just have to know which specific bits of dialogue, exposition and description you’re meant to be picking up on. And that’s not always easy.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“The Mysterious Affair At Styles” by Agatha Christie (1921)

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“The intense interest aroused in the public by what was known at the time as ‘The Styles Case’ has now somewhat subsided.”

Ninety-eight years ago this January, a book was published that changed everything. It wasn’t the first murder mystery, and it wasn’t the first bit of detective fiction, but it would revolutionise the genre, introduce one of the most compelling and loved characters in fiction, and lead to its author staking her claim as the bestselling author in history. The Mysterious Affair at Styles is not just a great book because of its content, but what it stands for and what it led to. I begin my re-read of Agatha Christie the only place that is good and proper – at the beginning.

We find ourselves in England at some point during the Great War. Arthur Hastings has been invalided out of the army and is back home, at a loss, until he bumps into his old friend John Cavendish. Hastings takes up the offer of going to stay at his family’s country house, Styles, but when he arrives, things aren’t particularly rosy. Tensions are high as John’s mother, Emily, has recently remarried and her new husband, Alfred Inglethorp, isn’t particularly popular with everyone else, not lead Emily’s sons or her companion Evelyn Howard.

Things reach a head, however, when Mrs Inglethorp dies one evening, apparently having been poisoned. It seems now that several of the residents would happily have seen her dead, and no one knows who they can trust. Hastings calls in Hercule Poirot, a Belgian detective of his acquaintance who happens to be living nearby with some fellow Belgian refugees. Poirot is regarded as one of the sharpest detective minds in the world, and with his fastidiousness and gentle touch, he begins investigating the murder, taking into account far too much strychnine, a suspicious doctor, a burnt will, a broken coffee cup and a smear of candle grease. Can he bring the villain to justice before it’s too late?

As the very first time we meet Poirot, this book does have a little bit of early weirdness, such as when we see Poirot run and gambol across a garden, something he’d never do in later books – particularly without his hat on. He is already an old man here, which Christie would come to regret when she then continued writing about him for fifty years. It gives a little of his backstory though and explains what he is doing in England, although none of this detracts from the plot, which, as ever with Christie, is king. I hadn’t read this one for many years, so I couldn’t remember the entire solution, but I could pick out half of it, and when you know, you can see the clues more obviously. Everything you need to know to solve it is there, but emphasis isn’t necessarily placed on the most important clues. When you get to Poirot explaining his solution at the end, he ties up absolutely every clue, be them major or throwaway lines that you didn’t take notice of, into a neat answer.

Christie worked as a pharmacy dispenser during both world wars, and the influence of that is very clear here, as a hospital dispensary and a young pharmacist both feature somewhat prominently in the story. She naturally uses poison as her weapon of choice for her first murder, as she knows a lot about them, and would continue to do so through much of her career. The book also manages to tie in the Great War well, with even the setting providing more clues about the solution, and giving us an explanation as to why Hastings – who inexplicably is only thirty here, far younger than I recalled or the TV show suggested – isn’t currently on the front lines.

It feels neatly cyclical to be here again, as the last one I read was Curtain, which is Poirot’s final case and also takes place at Styles, with Hastings. It is a brilliant book, and the beginning of an unrivalled career. I’m so happy to be diving back into this world again. One down, seventy-nine to go…

Looking for something different to read in the new year? My second novel, The Third Wheel, is available to pre-order at Amazon and Waterstones now, ready for launch on January 17th. If you like tongue-in-cheek stories about aliens and the struggles of being single in a world built for couples, it might just be up your alley. I hope you’ll take a look and enjoy it! Thanks!

“Curtain” by Agatha Christie (1975)

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The end of an era…

“Who is there who has not felt a sudden startled pang at reliving an old experience, or feeling an old emotion?”

The exact date I first picked up an Agatha Christie novel is lost to me now; it was before I had started recording everything I read. 2009, most likely, as I was just finishing university and it was a lecture there that had inspired me to finally pick up one of her novels. It was Death in the Clouds, and I was hooked from the very first moment.

The world has changed since then, but my admiration and love for Christie and her work has only grown. I’m feeling very sentimental today because with this review, I have reached an end – having finished Curtain, I have now read all of her mysteries. Curtain is particularly notable. She wrote it during the Second World War, to be published in case she was killed during the war. She survived, but the book stayed locked in a safe until the 1970s. It was finally revealed to the world and told everyone how the story of Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings ended. She died a year later.

In this novel, the setting is a familiar one to her fans. It is set in the country house of Styles, which was the key location in her very first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which is now a boarding house. Hastings has been summoned to visit his dearest friend, Poirot. The famous Belgian, however, is not in a good way. Confined to a wheelchair, crippled with arthritis, and prone to heart problems, he is nearing the end of his life. Poirot, however, notes that all his little grey cells are still in tact, and has one final mission – he is at Styles to prevent another murder, as one of the other guests seems to be something of a serial killer. Hastings is employed as the detective’s eyes and ears, to study the residents and work out not only who the killer is, but who is going to be the next victim.

It’s a mixed bunch, as is usual for a Christie novel, including the Luttrells, the old couple who now run Styles and are usually bickering; the quiet birdwatcher Stephen Norton; researcher Dr Franklin and his hypochondriac wife; Hastings’ own daughter, the headstrong Judith; and Mrs Franklin’s nurse, the no-nonsense Nurse Craven. Poirot claims to know who the killer will be, but decides it is safer if Hastings isn’t told. The two must try and prevent another murder from happening, but an accident changes everything, and now they’re all definitely running out of time…

The plot is all we’ve come to expect from the Queen of Crime, but even more so. It has apparently been a long time since Hastings and Poirot have seen one another, and indeed, the readers hadn’t seen Hastings for quite some time now. It is wonderful to have him back, as he is easily one of the most charming and well-bred men in fiction, and such a sweet modest fellow compared to the arrogance of Poirot. The characters are all finely realised and it’s tragic to see Poirot in the state he’s in. The solution is inspired – I was wrong, as ever – and provides an utterly incredible end to the series. Given that the books Christie wrote towards the end of her life were, it’s fair to say, not her finest, it’s a thrill to get a snatch again here for her at the height of her powers. There will never be another like her.

It’s not really the end, of course. I’ve not read her romance novels, or her poems. There are still plays to see, adaptations to get hold of, and her autobiography still sits on my shelf awaiting consumption. But the mystery novels are at the core of who Christie was and the work she did. I’ve finished now, and I know for a fact that this isn’t the end – I’m coming back. They’re not all recorded on the blog for a start! You can only do these things for the first time once, though, and this has been an incredible journey.

So, as I say my goodbyes to the worlds that Agatha Christie created, I raise a glass to Harley Quin and Mr Satterthwaite; to Mr Parker Pyne; to Ariadne Oliver; to Miss Lemon, George, and Inspector Japp; to Superintendent Battle, and Colonel Race; to Tommy, and to Tuppence; to Captain Hastings; to Miss Marple; to Hercule Poirot; and, of course, to Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie herself. This has been the adventure of a lifetime, and to quote Poirot himself: “They were good days. Yes, they have been good days…

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

FILM: “Murder On The Orient Express”

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“My name is Hercule Poirot, and I am probably the greatest detective in the world.”

Trains. Humans have invented all sorts of ways to move themselves around quicker than by foot, but there is something oddly captivating about a train. In the real world, we have such famous vehicles as the Mallard, and the Flying Scotsman. In fiction, there’s the Hogwarts Express, the Ada Lovelace, and who could forget Thomas the Tank Engine? But there is, to my mind, just one train that hangs large in both the fictional world and our own. And as a Christie fan of the highest order, as regular readers of my blog will know, there was no way I was going to let this film pass without a review. Ladies and gentlemen, please, all aboard, the Orient Express.

For the few who don’t know, this story takes place aboard the Orient Express, a luxurious train that, for over a hundred years, ran travellers – usually wealthy ones – from Istanbul to London across Europe. On this particular journey, Hercule Poirot finds himself aboard with a number of passengers, all of whom seem to be keeping something quiet.

Along the journey, an avalanche derails the train and everyone is stuck in the middle of the mountains until rescue comes. To make matters worse, one of the passengers has been murdered. The stabbed body is surrounded by potential clues, and with Poirot on board, it seems inevitable that the moving finger will soon settle on the killer. But, the eternal question remains – whodunnit?

I’ll start positive. The film perfectly captures the lavishness and wealth of Poirot’s world. Christie almost never put him anywhere unsuitable, and he was forever found only in the most sumptuous surroundings, be they trains, boats or country houses. The Orient Express was the last word in luxury, and the beautiful scenery and set design of this film helps cement that. There are also some interesting directorial decisions made. The discovery and study of the body is filmed entirely from overhead. The film makes great use of the train’s length and the glass panels throughout the carriages. While in the novel, the drama takes place almost exclusively inside the train, here we venture off a couple of times, with each character questioned in different surroundings, leading to everyone lined up at a table in the snow like the Last Supper when the reveal occurs. Since the reveal is one of literature’s worst kept secrets, the real magic here lies in seeing how Poirot will solve it, rather than who is responsible. I will not, however, be revealing the ending here.

The characters are great, too, and while some don’t get quite enough screen time, everyone is pulling out the stops and many chew the scenery like there wasn’t time for lunch. Branagh, as Poirot, is still a decision I’ll never understand. The film industry apparently stopped saying “no” to him a long time ago. I like Branagh, he’s talented, but talent can only go so far and doesn’t mean you can play anyone.

Which leads me nicely onto my few very crucial complaints regarding the plot.

Firstly, Poirot is not an action hero. He does not run after criminals, and he does not engage first-hand in dangerous activities. He has never had a romantic relationship, and if he has, it is none of our concern and has no bearing on the plot. He is not as young as Branagh is playing him, and actually, whatever Christie herself said regarding the moustache, it does not look like that. It’s incredibly distracting.

Perhaps we were spoiled with David Suchet in the role for so long, but he provides, to me and many others, the pinnacle of a Poirot performance. Here, Branagh is not suited to the role. It’s a shame, because around him every single other member of the cast shines. The cream of the acting world is riding this train, including Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley, Derek Jacobi, Olivia Colman, Michelle Pfeiffer and Leslie Odom Jr. I confess that seeing everyone arrive one by one did give me slight goosebumps.

It’s not a terrible film. It’s beautiful, and Christie’s original, wonderful plot is still in place, but it lacks something. I was quite happy to accept it as a one-off, but I shouldn’t have been surprised when the ending provided a sequel hook. Of course this’ll be run into the ground all the while it can make money. But all the luxury of a stunning train and all the wise deductions of a mustachioed Belgian can’t quite save it. I’m sure the film will do well, and I hope it introduces more people to Christie’s amazing novels, but Branagh is not and never will be Poirot, and I’m afraid I’m finding it hard to look past the facial hair.

#NotMyPoirot

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over two-thirds of the way funded – we’re nearly there! – and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“The Hollow” by Agatha Christie (1946)

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“At six thirteen am on a Friday morning Lucy Angkatell’s big blue eyes opened upon another day and, as always, she was at once wide awake and began immediately to deal with the problems conjured up by her incredibly active mind.”

Fresh from exploring a fictional version of Christie’s life, I return to her invented worlds. Let’s dive right in.

Poirot arrives at the country pile of Sir and Lady Angkatell, The Hollow, to find himself immediately thrust into a strange sight. A man lies on the edge of the swimming pool, a woman over him holding a gun, and a crowd of onlookers staring in confusion. He’s convinced that this is a set-up, supposedly meant to entertain the famous detective, but he quickly notes that something isn’t quite right. That’s definitely not red paint dripping off into the pool – that’s blood.

The victim, Dr John Christow, was something of a ladies man. He was married to the slow and dim-witted Gerda, who is now stood over him, revolver in hand, carrying on with the sculptor Henrietta Savernake, and formerly engaged to the Angkatell’s new neighbour, Hollywood actress Veronica Cray. Any of them could have snapped and killed him, but then it could just as easily have been Edward Angkatell, who longed to marry Henrietta, or Lucy Angkatell herself, who absent-mindedly put a gun in her basket that morning, but can’t now remember why. The scene looks cut and dried, with Gerda literally caught red-handed, but when it turns out that the bullet that killed John doesn’t match the gun in Gerda’s hand, it becomes apparent that all is not as it seems…

I wasn’t especially taken with the plot of this one. It’s definitely clever, and there’s a lot going on that wasn’t apparent until the end, as everyone’s motives aren’t quite what you think they might be. Sometimes the answers are right under your nose. However, it is the characters that really stand out in this one. Lucy Angkatell is hilariously ditzy, but also shows a shrewd understanding of people, being able to guess things about their private lives with astonishing accuracy. John Christow, aside from his philandering, also appears to be a decent bloke, a very capable and respected doctor, and against all obvious evidence, seems certainly in love with his wife. She, Gerda Christow, in turn is a great character, with everyone thinking she’s slow and stupid but actually showing surprising depth when she’s alone. Henrietta Savernake is also a blessing, with her passion for art and sculpture eventually betraying her secret.

It’s really something of a tragedy, this one, with upsetting consequences for many of the characters, but still a couple of rays of sunshine push their way through. While not my favourite, it’s definitely a fascinating character study with some brilliant set pieces and very vivid scenes.

“Evil Under The Sun” by Agatha Christie (1941)

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“When Captain Roger Angmering built himself a house in the year 1782 on the island off Leathercombe Bay, it was thought the height of eccentricity on his part.”

Undaunted by a disappointing Agatha Christie last month, I press on with the final few novels. We’re much earlier in her career this time, 1941 to be exact, and back with Hercule Poirot, so there was a lot more hope that this was going to be one of the good ones. Indeed, it was.

We find our Belgian hero holidaying on a tiny island off of Devon at the Jolly Roger Hotel. His fellow guests are quite a jolly bunch, but one among them is causing quite a stir. Arlena Marshall is an uncommonly beautiful woman and all eyes turn to her as she makes her way down onto the beach every morning; the men look on with lust, the women with hatred and jealousy. She seems particularly intent on flirting with Patrick Redfern, a married man who follows her around like a loyal dog. With all this interest around her, it isn’t long before she’s found dead, strangled, on one of the island’s more remote beaches.

Ruling out the staff and noting it would be almost impossible for someone to cross from the mainland to the island unnoticed, it quickly becomes apparent that the murderer is among the hotel guests. Could it be that her husband, Kenneth Marshall, had finally had enough of her and the way she carried on and slipped off to murder her? Was it her step-daughter, Linda, who was seen that very morning with a bag of candles and no explanation? Is is Reverend Stephen Lane, convinced that Arlena was “evil through and through”? Perhaps Patrick’s wife Christie, jealous and angry? Not to mention Kenneth’s old friend Rosamund, athletic spinster Emily Brewster, or the garrulous Mrs Gardener? Everyone seems to have a perfect alibi, but Poirot is on the case, trying to work out what a bath, a bottle and a pair of nail scissors have to do with anything.

Fortunately, I adored this one. Poirot is on hand to help the local police, who are portrayed well and as a reasonably sensible group. The hotel guests are all interesting, and until the reveal, you could make quite a strong case against most of them. Liberally stuffed with red herrings, the story as usual has all the clues there, but it’s hard sometimes to even know what you’re looking for, or what offhand comment might reveal all. It’s a gorgeous setting too, and the novel includes a little map of the island, presumably added so Christie doesn’t have to provide a chapter of exposition on its shape and layout, and also to help amateur sleuths work out where everyone was when the crime occurred. There’s even a lovely little meta-joke: when one of the hotel guests asks Poirot to share with them his thoughts, he says, “I reserve the explanations for the last chapter.” And indeed, as usual, he does.

I’m going to be sorry when I’ve run out of Christie novels to discover for the first time. Undoubtedly a re-read of them all will have to take place. Still, until then, six to go.

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