Listening to Agatha Christie: The Takeaways

Part II: The Takeaways

My pandemic project is complete. I have listened to every Agatha Christie mystery novel and short story. Oh, except one Passenger to Frankfurt. I had started it months ago and didn’t like it so I returned it to I think I will stick with that decision. I have picked out of few of my favorites stories, characters, dislikes, etc. While Christie is formulaic in many ways, there are standouts and some not so hots. I must admit they do begin to run together if you listen to them all one after another.

My Favorite Christie Character: Mrs. Ariadne Oliver. While Mrs. Oliver is only in six books, usually as Hercule Poirot’s sidekick, she stands out to me as Christie’s best character. She is funny, frumpy, opinionated, addicted to apples, and not afraid of Poirot’s “little grey cells.” Most of books featuring Mrs. Oliver were written in the 1950s and 1960s when Christie had started to allow her characters to comment on social issues or current culture. Mrs. Oliver had only on stand alone book, The Pale Horse (1961). Elephants Can Remember, her last book with Poirot. is my favorite of their joint adventures. Critics has suggested that Mrs. Oliver is Agatha Christie’s send up of herself and her career.

My Favorite Character Who Gets No Credit: Captain Arthur Hastings, loyal sidekick and whipping boy of Hercule Poirot. We meet Hastings in the first Hercule Poirot novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920). Hastings narrates most of the Poirot short stories published the 1920s. After Murder on the Links (1923), when Hastings meets his future wife, he goes off to the Argentine. We see him in only six more novels, including Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case (1975), the last Poirot novel published, bringing their friendship full circle.

My Favorite Poirot Novels: After The Funeral (1953), The Third Girl (1966) and Death on the Nile (1937)

My Least Favorite Poirot Novels: Evil Under the Sun (1941) and The Big Four (1927).

My Favorite Miss Jane Marple Novel: While Miss Marple has become a staple for dramatizations of Christie mysteries, there really are only 12 novels featuring her character. Miss Marple’s character undergoes a distinct metamorphosis from the early set of short stories published in the US as The Tuesday Club Murders (1932) and in the UK as The Thirteen Problems, where she first makes an appearance. Her last case, Sleeping Murder, was written in the 1940s but not published until 1976. More on that in another post. I had to read The Tuesday Club Murders because the book is not available in audio format.

My Least Favorite Novels; The Big Four (1927), Passenger to Frankfurt (1970)(obviously because I didn’t finish it) and They Came to Baghdad (1951). The last two are stand alone espionage novels. The Big Four, which started as a series of short stories and were combined to make a novel, is about one of Christie’s favorite crime themes, the Master Criminal. Poirot and Hastings hunt for the four master criminals who control crime across the world. They are of four different nationalities. The only thing that saved the book for me was the presence of Captain Hastings, who happened to be in London on a trip from the Argentine.

My Favorite Tommy and Tuppence Novel: By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968).

Most Evil Character: Mrs. Enid Boynton, Appointment With Death (1938). Has there ever been such a wicked stepmother?

Most Misogynistic Male Character: Dr. John Christow, The Hollow (1946). He mentally and verbally abuses his wife Gerta, who is besotted with him. He is having an affair with Henrietta, a sculptor he resents because she won’t devote herself to him. He is obsessed with the memories of Veronica, an actress who left him to pursue a career.

Creepiest Short Story: “The Dressmaker’s Doll.” While Christie is known for her mysteries, she also wrote numerous stories dealing with spiritualism, the occult, ghosts, the supernatural, and just plain weirdness. “The Dressmaker’s Doll” falls in the last group. Included in Double Sin and Other Stories (1961) in the US.

Most Annoying Aspect of Christie’s Stories: Her attitudes toward women, which don’t improve over time. When a male character meets or discusses a female character, the first thing mentioned is the way a woman looks. And looks seem to be tied to success in life and mobility in upper class society. In her books in the 1960s when she describes the new fashion trends (The Third Girl, 1966), Christie says that young women with long greasy hair and relaxed clothing look dirty.

Listening to Agatha Christie, 2020

Part I: Introduction

Boredom can inspire. Covid-19 causes boredom. Logic would dictate, then, that Covid-19 inspires. Without realizing that 2020 was the 100th anniversary of the publication of Agatha Christie’s first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, last February I decided upon the lengthy project of listening to all of Christie’s mystery novels and short stories. I qualify this because she wrote several plays and six romance novels under a pseudonym that I haven’t included on my list. I am an audio book addict and opted to listen to, rather than read, her books. It helped that I already owned a selection of her audio books, and I could re-listen to them.

Between 1920 and 1976, Christie, or Dame Agatha as she is called by some, wrote 66 mystery/detective/espionage novels and 14 short story collections. The books were initially published in the UK and the US, sometimes under different titles. The short story collections vary in UK and US publications. To date, Christie’s books have sold over two billion copies. My impressions and comments are based on the audio versions sold on, mainly because I am a long term member. None of my comments relate to Audible.

Most of us are familiar with Christie’s two famous detectives, the Belgian ex-police officer Hercule Poirot and the “elderly” Miss Jane Marple, resident of St. Mary Meade. But she also developed a host of other characters, some of which weave in and out of her detective and espionage novels. Poirot and Miss Marple, however, never appeared in the same book. And she wrote a large number of standalone mystery/espionage stories that feature none of her recurring characters. Surprisingly, she was interested in the occult, the supernatural, and the unseen, which feature in many of her short stories.

My favorite character outside of Poirot and Miss Marple is Ariadne Oliver, a scattered, bewigged mystery writer who appears as a secondary character in several Poirot stories. She has some great dialogue. Check out Hallowe’en Party, 1969. Her only stand alone, The Pale Horse, is one of my favorite Christie books. Tommy and Tuppence Beresford are featured in six books dealing with espionage and crime. They are the main characters in Christie’s second novel, The Secret Adversary, published in 1922, and her last written novel, Postern of Fate, published in 1973. The final Poirot, Curtain, published in 1975, and the final Miss Marple, Sleeping Murder, published posthumously in 1976, were both written in the 1940s and locked in a bank vault for later publication.

Superintendent Battle of the CID also gets the starring role in a couple of books, as does Colonel Race, who has an undefined job in the British secret service. Both Battle (The Secret of Chimney’s, 1925) and Race (The Man in the Brown Suite, 1924), appear before Miss Marple’s first novel Murder at the Vicarage in 1930. Battle, Race, and Poirot are all featured in Cards on the Table, which was published in 1936. Colonel Race is also featured in Poirot’s Death on the Nile in 1936.  

Moving away from the mystery/detective genre, we meet two intriguing characters who appear only in short story collections. Parker Pyne, (Parker Pyne Investigates, published in 1934) styles himself as a detective, but considers himself a detective of the heart. He is a fixer for the lovelorn, for people trapped in loveless marriages, and for the unhappy. Ariadne Oliver appears briefly in a couple Pyne stories, as does Miss Lemon, who goes on to become Hercule Poirot’s secretary. The Mysterious Mr. Quin stories feature Mr. Satterwaite, who drifts through high society, and Mr. Harley Quin, who may or may not be a figment of Satterwaite’s subconscious. The stories are hard to characterize. The supernatural feeling is strong throughout.

Of course, we can’t forget Captain Arthur Hastings, who is predominantly featured in most Hercule Poirot short stories and in several of the novels. After Murder on the Links (1923) in which he meets his future wife and moves to the Argentine, Hastings appears rarely in Poirot novels. Poirot regards Hastings as a not too bright sidekick, though probably his best friend. Hastings is never featured on his own unless narrating the story of one of Poirot’s cases. He is, however, with Poirot at the end in Curtain (1975), Poirot’s final case.

I am almost finished with my listening project. I have three novels left, and I have to revisit The Mysterious Mr. Quin. My current listen, They Came to Baghdad (1951), I must say is not my favorite book in the Christie library. More on that and other meanderings on Agatha Christie’s books and characters in the future.

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