This has been sitting in my drafts forever as just a series of notes. Here it is, finally, as a series of slightly more-fleshed-out notes.
Before you enter, I highly recommend reading both Murder of Roger Ackroyd and After the Funeral. Though not quite as incredibly good, I would also definitely rec Murder on the Orient Express. There will be spoilers everywhere in here, and they’re finish-one-a-night kind of books, so really, read them.
FYI, I read these in chronological order, and that’s the order they’re in here.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles
This read like someone’s first novel. A first novel by a good writer with good ideas, but a first novel nonetheless.
The biggest issue was that it was just not plotted tightly enough. There were too many different plot threads, too many different sub-mysteries, and too many characters that were not fleshed out enough to be easy to keep track of. For instance, the whole thing with Mary being super-suspicious because she was doing something else uncouth that had nothing to do with anything we knew about. I don’t even think that was a fair play violation so much as a symptom of way, way too much stuff going on.
On the fair play note, Poirot kept a lot from the audience unfairly. I would also chalk this up to being a first-novel issue. It’s worth noting this happened in early Holmes as well. That said, it kind of takes the fun out of it when you don’t get the full scope of the investigation.
The most interesting thing here was the expectations inversion with the guy everyone suspected actually being the guy who did it. I talked a little about this somewhere else (probably multiple places), but if an author keeps insisting no this is actually what happened totally don’t worry in a mystery context, that’s usually a pretty good signifier that the author is lying. New and bad writers do this a lot because insisting something erroneous is the answer seems like a good way to throw people off, but in reality people are not dumb and it’s a terrible way. Taking advantage of that by making the super suspicious guy actually be the culprit was a brilliant way to screw with genre-savvy readers, and it confused the hell out of me.
That said, the way the plot was all over the place lessened the impact somewhat. Instead of letting expectation inversion speak for itself, she seems to have gone for all-out confusion, and the result wasn’t as good as it might have been. It would have been interesting to see what this story would be if written later in her career.
My least favorite part was freaking Hastings. He’s just too damn stupid– obnoxiously so. He crossed the line between the Watson needing to be an outsider and just straight-up being an idiot. His refusal to suspect the people he personally liked was too over-the-top and opaque, he was consistently twenty steps behind the reader (to say nothing of Poirot) and being stuck in his head just sucked. I initially thought this was a first-novel thing, and she was figuring things out, but Hastings was even more insufferable in Curtain, while none of the other narrators had this issue, so I think I just hate him.
All that said, it was still a damn entertaining read.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
Right off the bat, the writing here was more refined. There was a tightly honed and characterized narrative voice, the entire thing was tightly plotted, and it was just incredibly entertaining from start to finish.
In addition to the narrative just being much more expertly written, I also thought the characterization here was much more solid. Poirot’s whole character was very show-less-tell in Styles, while here I really found him charming and quirkily likable based on how he acted. Christie did a good job at making all characters well-rounded people and viable suspects (though this was good in Styles, too, despite the overcomplexity of things).
However! I’m sure you’re all raring to hear why I thought this worked when it’s technically rulebreaking, and I think the difference is simple: it was not trying to trick the reader. The whole point of the fair play rules is to stop the author from attempt to pull a fast one on the reader, but here all of the clues and even the narration lead perfectly to the solution. (I think my favorite part, actually, was how the narration got more and more hateful and angry as the book went on.) Unlike, say, the Bravely Default “twist,” the conclusion here is the logical conclusion, and all plot lines converge on the solution, which is exactly how fair play should be. Even if you don’t figure out exactly how it was done (I sure didn’t) you still slowly realize as things unfold who the actual prime suspect is. It was brilliant.
There were a few small details I’d change– the whole thing about him knowing mechanics should have been integrated a bit earlier so it didn’t feel so random, for example. But overall this was really an amazing book, and I’m glad I read it.
Murder on the Orient Express
I’d actually had the ending of this spoiled for me in an unrelated Let’s Read that wasn’t kind enough to put spoiler warnings, so unfortunately I can’t speak to whether or not I would have figured it out. That said, I think it accomplished the same fair-play feat as Roger Ackyord in that all of the buildup led logically to the ending and everything was properly hinted at and foreshadowed, so it in totally in the realm of fair play.
The other thing this book really brought to my attention is just how innovative each of these stories is. I really like that you can tell Christie sat down and said, “Okay, how can I write a fair mystery where the narrator is the culprit? How about a murder on a train, where everyone is a suspect? How about a murder without a motivation?” Each of these books tackled another genre subversion, and I thought that was a completely brilliant way to tell a mystery story. When everything in a genre has been done, why not start from the point of doing something else?
I didn’t feel this one worked. There wasn’t anything expressly wrong with it; it was well-written and engaging right until the end. But there’s a reason stories aren’t written about the mundane– that old adage of “just because it’s real doesn’t make it realistic.” In the same vein, a story that ends with a non-ending is by nature not a good story, and while I appreciate the effort, I’m just not sure there’s really anything that could make this kind of ending work.
Boyfriend and I were watching the X-Files, and they actually tried to do this exact thing, where it turned out the psycho murderer wasn’t supernatural, just a normal psycho, and the whole moral was that the everyday crimes are scarier than the supernatural. And I got what they were going for, but it was just a shitty episode. When you sit down to watch the X-Files, the implicit contract you have with the show is that things are going to be about batshit ghosts and aliens, and while there’s nothing wrong with a normal criminal, it’s just not why you watch it, and it can’t be anything but a letdown, even if it was written really, really well.
I think the exact same thing is true of this book. The promise of a crazy alien abduction motive had me engaged and drove the story, and it just wasn’t possible for the end reveal to be anything but disappointing, even if it made total sense.
I also wrote in my notes that “I suspected Clarke when he rounded up the search party.” This is kind of off-topic now, but I though it was too obvious a deflection maneuver, and tipped his hand.
Hercule Poirot’s Chirstmas
Unfortunately it’s been long enough now that I can’t remember the specifics of this one (I also suspect it’s because I didn’t care much for it), so here are my notes. It’s a good thing I did this:
I actually felt this one was cheating. Unlike the others, the reveal was bizarre and incongruous, and I didn’t feel like it was set up well. There were a lot of things that the audience couldn’t possible have known about the characters, like facial resemblances, and it made it unexciting at the end when everyone was revealing things. It had the same problem of ABC as not delivering on the promise of the setup, and the ending felt hollow because of it.
I also felt that the characters got out of hand a little bit. This was the only book where I had a hard time keeping track of everyone, but it wouldn’t have been too bad if hadn’t turned out that to top it off people were other people, and I just felt a bit lost.
It’s all a shame, because up until the denouement I was really enjoying it.
After the Funeral
This may have been my favorite one. It’s close with Ackroyd, but right now I think this one is edging ahead just a bit.
The best part of this was that I had that perfect, zen-like “Ah, I should have figured that out!” moment that is basically the detective-fiction Holy Grail. Everything makes perfect sense, and it was so obvious, but for reasons that are opaque to you having read the ending, you just didn’t put it together. It’s beautiful. I also liked the subversion-premise of this one, which was, “Can The Butler Did It be made to be a shock?” Yes, yes it can.
Part of what I liked so much about this was that Christie spent so much time on backstory. Poirot doesn’t come in until like a third of the way through the book, which is really cool. All of the family members had really well-rounded, well-fleshed-out personalities and situations, and it resulted in everyone having a believable motive and set of circumstances without ever feeling contrived. The result was totally valid red herrings all over the place, and I was constantly readjusting my guesses to suit new information. The characters just felt like real people, and it was great.
The family kind of wonderfully danced the line between being horrible but in that love-to-hate-them kind of way and being so shitty you didn’t like them at all, straight up, but I thought they generally fell on the right side of that line.
If you’re only going to read one or two of these (even though I told you to do it before coming in here, asshole) it should really be this and Ackroyd.
The entirety of my notes for this was as follows:
Even a few months later, that’s really all I remember about this one. Hastings is insufferable! He spends the entire time emotionally abusing his daughter for daring to have her own feelings, and then goes as far as to attempt to murder her boyfriend for the crime of being someone he doesn’t like, and it’s supposed to be some tragic downfall of a good man, but he’s just a lunatic!
I could see what Christie was doing here, and it was a really interesting idea. Can you write a story in which the person actually responsible for a murder isn’t committing them? But in trying to illustrate it, it just fails because Hastings is not a good person convinced to do something bad, he’s a horrible, stupid person from start to finish. Like, my dad has in the past not liked guys I’ve dated, but no matter how protective he is, he a) lets me make my own mistakes and b) DOESN’T TRY TO MURDER MY SIGNIFICANT OTHERS. In what planet is this a tragic downfall??
It’s interesting that despite the fact that the recs you gave me are Christie’s most famous and renown books, only two of them– the very first and very last– contain her Watson. Admittedly, I have not read any other books with Hastings. But I can’t help but feel as though he doesn’t pop up in the best-of because he sucks.
The most unfortunate part is that without the whole “must murder man who steals my daughter-property” thing, I actually think the idea works. I think it’s really, really contingent on us not knowing the actual perpetrator, because filling in the exacts ourselves is always going to be more believable than seeing it play out.
And I mean, there’s a for-its-time thing kind of going on here– shotgun wedding and all that– but I can’t help but think that even in 1940, Hastings would have come across as, at the very least, a complete idiot.
The other thing is that his relationship with Poirot is completely told. Poirot seemed constantly irritated and put out by him, but then would be like UR MY BFF LYLAS, and it was complete nonsense. Again, because the only other Hastings story I read was the first one, I can’t be sure if this is character derailment or Hastings has always been a royal pain in the ass to Poirot, but it was just bizarre.