MUST-READ AGATHA CHRISTIE BOOKS (II):
Celebrating 100 years of Agatha Christie:
People mostly know Agatha Christie for Hercule Poirot & Miss Marple. But there are certain other recurring characters, like the stolid Superintendent Battle or the mysterious Colonel Race forming part of some books. After Tommy & Tuppence, it’s time for having a look at these diverse characters in the second part of “Must-Read Agatha Christie Books”.
PART 2: Others:
There are over 20 novels and short story collections written by Agatha Christie which do not feature either Poirot or Miss Marple. Many of these revolve around espionage, huge criminal gangs or conspiracies taking international dimensions. There are also collection of short stories, ranging from mystery to supernatural, which I will discuss separately sometime. The rest are good-old murder mysteries, with dysfunctional families, peculiar motives or psychological angles. Below are my choices of these “Must-Read Agatha Christie Books”:
1. Death Comes as the End (1945):
How was life back in 2000 B.C. Egypt? Not of the Pharos or kings, but of ordinary people, their beliefs, their routines, the families.
Imhotep is a ‘ka-priest’ with a big family. He has power and money. No one in Imhotep’s family has the courage to disobey or question him. When he introduces the beautiful young Nofret to his family as his concubine, they obviously are not ecstatic. Their reluctant acceptance though is a sign of growing discontent and troubles (read murders) ahead.
Agatha Christie went with her husband on a lot of archaeological expeditions. Her knowledge and insights from this experience have been used in her writings more than once. But “Death Comes as the End” goes further and weaves the lives of people in 2000 B.C. Egypt in a way that we can visualise it. And yet the dynamics of love, jealousy, greed, power, emotions described reaffirm Agatha Christie’s notion that human nature is (has been) the same everywhere.
Call this one a period murder mystery or a psychological drama. But not a detective novel. Since Sherlock Holmes was, as far as I know, the first consulting detective.
2. Why didn’t they ask Evans (1934):
Why should anyone want to poison a clergyman’s fourth son (from a small, unimportant town) over an accidental death. That’s what Bobby & Frankie set out to find together.
Bobby & Frankie are childhood friends. Frankie or Lady Frances Derwent is an earl’s daughter bored to death of her routine. Bobby or Robert Jones is an ex-naval now out of job. He often quotes that most of his time is spent looking for a job.
An accident occurs on the golf links of their town and Bobby, being on the spot spends some last few moments with the man, who before dying utters a question- Why didn’t they ask Evans? A very extraordinary thing for a dying man to say. And it certainly went ignored until Bobby got poisoned a few days after the incident.
When one knows the conclusion or story, a book may become boring to read again. But not this one, nor the next one on my list.
3. The Secret of Chimneys (1925):
This novel introduced the character of Superintendent Battle.
Anthony Cade works as a tour guide in Africa when an old friend brings him a job. The job is to deliver the memoirs of a late Balkan statesman to the publisher before a certain date. Anthony takes up the job and travels to England. On his arrival, at least three separate attempts are made to take the memoirs from him.
A Balkan kingdom, a coupé, a prince, a country house, a jewel thief. This book has everything in it. Oh! and murder too.
As per the data available on the internet, there is a divided opinion on the book. But I have found that many times the language used by critiques is baffling. One cannot decide whether it is worth the read or not. But if you trust me (which is totally up to you) “The Secret of Chimneys” is worth one read, at the least.
The book does not try to be serious or dark. If you are in a mood to lay back and enjoy a weekend with something that is not too strenuous and yet fulfills the need for little mystery and thrill- “The Secret of Chimneys” will decidedly do.
4. And then there were none (1939):
What stands out in this book is the “motive”. Most peculiar.
There used to be a serial on DD called “Marshall” starring Mukesh Khanna. I saw one of its episodes first. Then I saw ‘Gumnaam”. After that, I read “And then there were None”. So “Gumnaam” is what they call inspired from the novel and “Marshall’s” episode was, more or less, a remake of “Gumnaam”. But while “Gumnaam” had a personal angle to it, “And then there were None”– has none.
As per reports, the book has been voted the best Agatha Christie novel in an online poll.
To write about the book will be too revealing. Besides I am sure being voted the best Christie it is fairly well known.
5. The Man in the Brown Suit (1924):
A professionally run criminal gang. Well, why not? Professor Moriarty did it before.
Anne Beddingfeld is left alone (and poor) after her father’s death in a small and dull town. When her father’s solicitor proposes to take her to London she grabs at the prospect. After all, if things happen anywhere, they do in London. And they do. And when they do Anne doesn’t lose her chance to get embroiled completely. So, get involved with Anne and meet some other interesting characters, including Colonel Race (in his first appearance).
Anne, the heroine, and the narrator, is the principal attraction of this book. Resourceful, spirited, longing for adventure, romance, and trouble.
Ideal for a relaxing weekend or holiday.
6. Parker Pyne Investigates (1934):
This is the only short story collection appearing on this list. I like Parker Pyne. More of a problem solver than a detective.
Parker Pyne is an ex-government official. His chief work was to compile statistics in the Government office and his insights on people come largely from these experiences. Dealing with all kinds of human troubles and unhappiness is his speciality.
Enjoy this variegated bunch of short stories, as Mr. Parker Pyne takes on cases of people suffering from different kinds of unhappiness. Which (unhappiness), according to Mr. Pyne, can be classified under no more than five main heads.
An amusing and novel collection of stories from the Queen of Crime.
7. Endless Night (1967):
An extension of a Miss Marple short story- “The Case of the Caretaker” (first published in 1942). Both stories run in flashbacks.
The narrator of the story, Michael Rogers, begins by telling us of his dream of buying a fabulous house in a small town and settle down with a girl. And to live happily ever afterward. It’s merely a dream because Michael is just a chauffeur in a car hire firm.
Once his work brings him to the neighbourhood of a property called “The Towers”. The land, sprawling and huge, is a subject of local superstition. The property’s original name was “Gipsy’s Acre” and it is rumoured to be cursed. A Gipsy woman tells Michael that nothing good ever comes out of that land. Indeed, when she takes his palms to tell his fortune she warns Michael harshly to stay away from the land. But will he? Read and find out.
This is one of Agatha Christie’s most appreciated novels and among her own favourites.
8. Ordeal by Innocence (1958):
A crime occurred three years ago. The guilt was proved, the accused, Jacko/ Jack Argyle, was sentenced to prison and died there. What new revelations can come after 3 years?
But new revelations come in the form of Dr. Arthur Calgary. And when they do, no one in Jacko’s family is too pleased. Which puzzles Dr. Calgary, since he had imagined an opposite reaction. What is the reason behind this reaction? Shouldn’t they be happy that the son of the family did not commit the crime for which he was imprisoned? And why did Dr. Calgary wait 3 years to prove Jack’s innocence?
As the police reopen the case, there is the real murderer, still free, also to be considered. Where will Dr. Calgary’s well-meant action lead to?
The story goes back and forth in time, dwelling on the relations and psychology of characters. One of those Agatha Christies’ book where readers have to remember too much.
9. The Pale Horse (1961):
What connects the murder of a priest, the death of a sick woman and the death of a 20-year-old (and healthy) heiress.
As Mark Easterbrook, a scholar and writer, gets the news of these deaths from varied sources he becomes interested slowly. There is no particular reason or motive for him to get involved. But his curiosity perhaps pulls him into investigating these seemingly unconnected incidents. And also, a chance mention of “The Pale Horse” by two very different people.
Mrs. Ariadne Oliver, another recurring character in Christie books appears here. In case you don’t know she happens to be a best-selling crime novelist.
The book does leave some loose-ends and feels slightly abrupt towards the end. But don’t let this slight hitch stop you from reading it.
10. Sparkling Cyanide (1945):
Sparkling Cyanide is an extension of Agatha Christie’s previous short story “Yellow Iris” (investigated by Hercule Poirot).
Rosemary Barton committed suicide at her own birthday party. A year later the people who were present that day remember her, sometimes feeling her presence around.
This novel is a kind of psychological drama. It grows slowly, with introspections and thoughts of several characters who are thinking about Rosemary and her death. In that, the actual mystery takes a back seat for a while. We get to know the dead person, Rosemary Barton, and the people in her life through these reminiscences. The mystery gets revived after another death occurs. This death also raises doubts about whether Rosemary’s death was a suicide.
“Yellow Iris” is a perfect Poirot mystery, albeit “Sparkling Cyanide” adds much more to the characters.
11. Crooked House (1949):
In the books’ foreword, Agatha Christie has called “Crooked House” her own special favourite. She writes: “I should say that of one’s output, five books are work to one that is real pleasure. Crooked House was pure pleasure.”
Charles Hayward meets Sophia Leonides during World War II in Egypt. He confesses his love to Sophia before taking his commission in the East. Sophia too accepts his proposal, but they mutually decide not to get engaged till his return to England.
Charles arrives back in England, two years later, to the news of the death of wealthy Aristide Leonides, Sophia’s grandfather. He learns from Sophia and his father (the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard) that Mr. Leonides’ death is a murder. Moreover, the poison used for killing him was his own eye-drop. Therefore, everyone in the family is a suspect. Sophia refuses to marry Charles unless the mystery is cleared and his father too asks him to help the Police from inside. Charles, therefore, has no option but to investigate the case along with the cops as it comes to a startling conclusion.
Being one of the author’s own favourites, it has to be on the “Must-Read Agatha Christie Books” list.
12. Towards Zero (1944):
…..and the last one on the list.
Angus MacWhirter attempted suicide, was saved and resented it. He tells the nurse that his life was his business. But the girl is confident that what happened was for good. She tells him that someday-someone might need him. Mr. MacWhirter does not seem it likely. But who knows?
It has Superintendent Battle in a long and more full-fledged role as a detective. Hence one of the reasons for being on this “Must-Read Agatha Christie Books” list.
So, these above are my top choice of “Must-Read Agatha Christies Books”, without Poirot or Miss. Marple. Amongst these I might have missed out on the novels that appear in your favourite Christie list. Or your ranking may be different from mine. So, please do add your choices and preferences.
In the third part of “Must-Read Agatha Christie Books”, I will take my favourites among the books featuring Miss. Marple.