Monday, 28 September 2009

Murder On The Orient Express (1934)

PLOT: Seriously - have you not seen the film? Businessman found dead on famous train.

Is this the most famous Christie because of the film? It certainly has to have one of the best plots or plot twists.

But it also works on several other levels. The setting is fabulously exciting, and the snowdrift strands the suspects strangely outside time. The feeling is that the murder has placed everyone beyond the world, and they can't be reached until Poirot has solved the crime. Which makes it sound like Donnie Darko, but still...

Christie has gathered together a wild variety of exciting characters as suspects. Death On The Nile will see an even wilder bunch of travellers, but we've still got everything from Russian Princesses to Indian Colonels, all drawn remarkably vividly and somehow fitted into the world's most famous train.

The book's only problem is THAT film. The film is so memorable, the denoument so striking that, wonderful as the book is, it's a bit of a plod.

Other twist novels repay re-reading just to see what's going on. But this one somehow fails as the enormity of what Christie is doing hangs over it like a flashing neon sign saying "Get On With It!".

It rewards perseverance, however, as the subtle knitting of the wool that's being pulled over Poirot's eyes becomes more apparent - sometimes in lines of dialogue so thunderingly obvious you wish you could slap the Belgian for not solving the crime at once... and sometimes in details so gently subtle that you praise Poirot for picking up on them.

The curiosity of the book is that the solution is so ingenious that it is merely Poirot's presence that solves the crime. It would be impossible otherwise... and yet Poirot himself makes some remarkable leaps.

For instance, in a room full of dummy clues he somehow seizes on the one real one and uses it to unpick the case by a bizarre series of flea-like intellectual leaps. As a reader you do sometimes feel like crying "oh, come on now", such as when he unmasks someone as a secret cook.

Poirot is at his most admirably ludicrous in this book. When asked "Do you belong to the United Nations?" he responds "No, I belong to the world." And so it goes on - this remarkable character carefully concealing any impossible leaps of logic under those brilliantly waxed moustaches.

Poirot again acts almost as an agent of fate. When he turns down Mr Ratchett's offer of work ("I do not like your face"), the millionaire's fate is sealed, just as happens to Linnet in Death On The Nile. The difference between the books is that in Death On The Nile, Poirot wants justice. In this book the detective is simply consumed by solving the puzzle - justice comes second to proving his own brilliance.

It's also a remarkable book in that, complex as it is, Christie is able to withhold the solution until a mere five pages from the end with Poirot's genre-tipping exclamation of "This is extraordinary - They cannot..."

And, once Christie has torn up the rule book, she jumps very neatly on the pieces with a final twist that is as morally satisfying as it is unusual, both for Christie and for the golden age of crime. "I have the honour to retire from the case..." remarks Poirot, as though he senses this is his finest hour.

NEXT: Bridget Jones meets James Bond in They Came To Baghdad.

Monday, 21 September 2009

The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928)

PLOT: Divorse! Diamonds! and Dead Heiresses on the Blue Train to Nice.

James: Written when Christie was going through her divorce, this book suffers as a consequence. It's not that it's bad, but that the events were perhaps preying on her mind.

On the one hand it's a dry run for Murder On The Orient Express and Death On The Nile - glamourous setting, a background of intrigue, a doomed millionaire, suspicious supporting artists... and yet...

At heart it's a tale of two heiresses. There's Ruth Van Alden the tough woman of the world. And then there's Katherine Grey (note the name) - the dull one. Is Christie working out her complicated feelings towards her first husband through these two women?

Poor Ruth has been trapped in a messy marriage with a philandering husband and is trying to escape for a little happiness. Of course, she is one of Christie's doomed heiresses, and she won't trouble us for longer than to convince us of her flaws.

By contrast, Katherine has come into some money and is learning how to live. She's almost impossibly saintly and forms an instant rapport with Poirot over romans policier, as he calls them. She's striving to fit into international society but her heart belongs in... St Mary Mead!

St Mary Mead is another strange trace element in the book, which takes a while to get going and then goes all over the place. We open with mysterious jewel thieves and international assassins. Then we've Ruth's domestic drama, then St Mary Mead and the questions over Katherine's inheritance, then the Blue Train and then it's villas and hotels and police stations and beaches and Moonbase Alpha.

Murder on the Orient Express makes much more use of the single setting of the train and the restrained approach makes it a claustrophobic book, whereas Mystery Of The Blue Train plays out rather like a holiday novel with a bit of crime nibbling at the edges.

Similarly, Death On The Nile does all its set up in the first chapter and dumps us straight in Egypt, compared to Blue Train's hundred pages of set up before "And then the train started."

It's full of loose ends, or ideas that will be made more of in later books. The double-whammy of jewel theft and heiress slaying will reoccur in Death On The Nile, but this time as part of a triple twist.

When we next see St Mary Mead, there will be no mention of inquistive Katherine Grey, nor of her old lady friend Amelia Viner, who has a sharp understanding of human nature and a wicked intelligence... but we can see where this one is going. We'll even see Poirot taking on another female sidekick who is an Agatha Christie figure, but we'll have to wait a while for that.

This is nowhere near as bad a book as Christie makes out. Written at a time when she was having understandable trouble trusting men, it does have a strangely dual approach to them. The main suspect is a no-good toy boy who is undeniably attractive - and he's by no means the worst man in the book.

Poirot himself does all right here (even getting the attentions of a lady). He is on fine form, but sadly missing the narrative skills of Hastings, all pomposity without the leavening that Hastings provieds. He's really just there to solve the mystery. He doesn't feel like a super brain with the wings of fate beating at his shoulder. He's simply the world's greatest detective.

NEXT: Shall we have another go at that? It's Murder On The Orient Express

Monday, 14 September 2009

Death on the Nile (1937)

PLOT: An heiress is slaughtered on a Nile Cruise.

Death on the Nile an obvious place to start a detour onto International Christie, a world of luxurious hotels and outrageous travelling companions.

It's as though Christie has suddenly realised the marvellous variety of people you can meet on holiday (indeed, she even admits so in the preface to the Penguin edition), and that foreign travel allows an easy jamming together of murderers, terrorists and jewel thieves in a way that would seem improbable in St Mary Mead but is somehow excusable on the Nile.

This isn't the first time Christie has tried this, but it's a great place to start as it's just so confident.

We start with a dazzling first chapter that reads like a film script as we leap from scene to vivid scene - hopping across characters and continents, setting everything up like a complicated jigsaw.

When we reach Egypt a sharp reversal has taken place. The loveable heiress has become a man-eater, her bumbling best friend a spiteful stalker. Shcok reversal! What looked to be the story of how Linnet marries the wrong man and covets her best friend's husband has instead become the fallout from Linnet stealing her best friend's man.

This clearly places Linnet as The Victim. She's nice, she's generous, she's clever and witty, but she's made a fatal error in stealing Simon. Curiously, Poirot gives her a chance to confess her sin to him, but she refuses, and so is marked for death.

The first half of the book is full of scenes like this, where Poirot almost begs people not to commit crimes. Whilst priding himself on his deductive brain, he shows himself as keen a student of human nature as Miss Marple. If only they would listen to Poirot then nothing would happen, and this would be the dullest Christie, rather than one of the greatest.

Immense machinery is being wheeled into place that only Poirot can sense. Everyone else is looking at the historical wonders of Egypt, but Poirot is looking at every one of his fellow passengers and thinking Very Carefully about them. Thank god he never flew by RyanAir.

A secretive novelist, a shady lawyer, a communist, a financier, a society boy, a wise traveller... the list of characters rolls out and out, and must eventually be reeled back in at the end of the book in a way that is slightly maddening but also immensely satisfying. This is a book where almost anyone and everyone could have done it... which is an idea for later.

Once the murder actually happens (and it takes forever) a whole whirl of seemingly unconnected events are unleashed, and the buildup pays off greatly. There's an enormous sense of "well, since X and Y can't have done it, then that means..." which is quite thrilling.

An early review demands you read it twice ("Once for enjoyment and once to see how the wheels go round" The Times), and this is as rewarding a read if you know who did it. The first time is about Agatha Christie's intelligence, the second reading flatters the reader's intelligence. The sheer impossibility of the crime plays off against the "no, now hang on, so the maid's actually... ah....".

That said, there is a moment where Poirot is wrong. He claims to have misattributed overhearing the phrase "We've got to go through with it now", but, if you check he hasn't (It's in Chapter 7, and Poirot's recollection is in Chapter 29).

The "funny little man" is seen through the eyes of other characters, as for once, Captain Hastings isn't here. The poor fellow would muddle things too much, and his chances of managing to solve a murder and a terrorist conspiracy are doubtful. But dear old Colonel Race is allowed to show off his intellect, so long as he constantly defers to the cleverness of Poirot, who, in his own quiet way, must defer to the cleverness of Miss Christie.

NEXT: The wheels come off The Adventure Of The Blue Train...

Monday, 7 September 2009

The Mirror Crack'd From Side To Side (1962)

PLOT: A filmstar moves to St Mary Mead, sees something awful, and it's not the lower middle classes.

James: As a Late Marple this is a smart contrast to Murder At The Vicarage, and proves that, whatever telly people think, Christie moved with the times.

St Mary Mead now has a modern housing estate and a supermarket. Jane Marple is forever starting stories about "how this is just like when the parlourmaid..." and then realising that no-one knows what a parlourmaid is.

This isn't a book about nostalgia, it's about the importance of Moving On and Letting Go, both for the murderer and the hero. Miss Marple may be very old, but she's determinedly "with it". Not, perhaps, as with it as Swinging Dame Margaret Rutherford, but quite determined to go and find out about the Housing Development. No sooner has she been introduced than she's off there on a visit and smartly prevents a murder.

Reassured that times may change, but human nature doesn't, Miss Marple sails through the rest of the book. This may be a story where Miss Marple takes a back seat, but she's the best back seat driver in the business.

Dear Dolly Bantree and Inspector Craddock rush around doing her work for her. Where Miss Marple used to rely on spying things from her garden and nipping out for gossip, now she must wait for events to be reported to her over sherry. She barely even meets the principal cast, but that doesn't stop her from Knowing Them.

The story itself (What Did Happen At The Village Fete?) rolls on without her. In another late book we see Miss Marple as Nemesis, and here she is the gentlest kind of Avenging Fury, popping round for a spot of tea and unravelling at the very end when events have played themselves out.

A big joy for the book is Miss Marple's live-in carer, Miss Knight. Jane Marple may have defeated serial killers and gun-wielding lunatics, but she's almost outwitted by dreadfully nice, frightfully mumsy Miss Knight. Against the patronisingly jolly tide of cushion-plumping and forced naps, we see Miss Marple at her most acidly rebellious. Oh, if only she could get away with pinning a murder on Miss Knight...

Miss Marple is as complicated as ever. Like a rural Buddha she dispenses wisdom ("People aren't really foolish. Not in villages"), but she's also not above dismissing best friend Dolly Bantree for extolling the virtues of marriage "with a spinsterish cough". Despite now having a reputation as The Old Lady Who Solves Murders, she's still the same sharp, practical woman, easily sidetracked from solving murder by an interesting dressmaking problem.

Despite being dedicated to Margaret Rutherford, this book is about a film star as unlike Rutherford as possible, the kind of fragile beauty David Niven wrote about. Christie depicts a *very* 60s world of pill-popping filmmakers living on nerves and cocktails. It's a milieu she depicts sharply but without ever going into great detail (Does she ever write about films elsewhere?).

This is also a book with a great number of villains. One doesn't even break the law, another commits a horrific crime accidentally, one goes on a killing spree, and yet another may even get away with murder. Above them all is Miss Marple who sharply and immediately understands each of them - indeed, spends a large amount of the book being oddly cruel about one character who we can only think quite fondly of.

There's some oddness here as well, most of it to try and make a fairly simple mystery more complicated - there's a remarkable coincidence about ex-husbands, abandoned children, some casual racism, and a good deal of talk about interior decorating, but the main thrust of the book is about Miss Jane Marple solving a crime without ever meeting the murderer.

NEXT: All abroad for Death on the Nile