My Favorite Agatha Christie Novels, for Reasons You May Not Expect

With her speculative murder mystery Station Eternity out now, Mur Lafferty visits the site to talk about her five favorite Agatha Christie novels.

When I started writing space murder mysteries, I went to the master for inspiration: Agatha Christie. I didn’t read all of her books, but I read my favorites multiple times, trying to coax out every clue, red herring, and other uniquely-Christie nuggets she slipped in. Her books are obviously brilliant, but as I delved deeper, I realized some are brilliant—or at least interesting—for reasons other than most people treasure them. 

Spoilers ahead, obviously.

 

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

I’ll start with the big one. Christie made a lot of folks mad with the genre-shattering hook in that the narrator himself is the murderer. Some people think it’s cheap, some think it’s genius, but it gets people talking. 

But what gets me is the actions of the sleuth, Hercule Poirot. It turns out the whole novel is the murderer’s suicide note, ending with Poirot’s solve and Poirot’s suggestion that he could either turn himself in, or to protect his sister’s reputation, he should kill himself.

While not a devout worshipper (in the books anyway), Poirot is canonically Catholic. Urging someone to kill themselves to protect someone else is mind bogglingly shaky ethics at best. I don’t think the courts these days would look kindly on someone doing that. 

We know Poirot thinks he’s smarter than everyone else, but this other peek into his psyche shows that he is driven by personal ethics that he would disapprove of in anyone else. Father Brown would probably have opinions. 

 

Curtain, Poirot’s Last Case

More morally gray areas ahead! 

Poirot is at the end of his life and meets his match in Norton, a man who is not a criminal at all, but a sadistic master manipulator who gets his kicks by finding folks’ weaknesses and subtly urging them to act on their violent desires. He gets a man to shoot his nagging wife. He gets a woman to poison her husband. He even gets Poirot’s friend Hastings to poison the dreadful man he thinks his daughter loves. (Luckily, Poirot stops him.) Poirot can’t get Hastings to follow his hints to stop the man, so as a solution, Poirot straight-up murders the manipulator and then dies of old man disease. 

(Aside: at one point Poirot offers Norton some hot chocolate, and Norton says “I think I’ll have yours instead.” Then he switches mugs, drinks, and falls over in a drugged sleep. In his flashback, Poirot explains he had developed a tolerance to iocane—I mean, sleeping pills—and had dosed both mugs. Norton clearly couldn’t choose the mug in front of himself.) 

It’s fascinating that the brilliant Hercule Poirot has multiple ways to catch murderers, but when someone isn’t a murderer, Poirot decides the only way to deal with him is murder. I wondered why the brilliant Poirot couldn’t have figured out a way to catch him another way, or encourage him to do a crime for which he could go to jail. Poirot was also a master manipulator, after all. 

My interest in this story is Norton himself. He’s very much a Moriarty character, pulling strings and making things happen, but not getting his own hands dirty. He’s also, if not as smart as Poirot in solving crimes, certainly as deft at dealing with psychology and people. Christie didn’t do the recurring bad guy thing; her sleuths always caught the criminal. But I think of Norton as an opportunity missed, someone it would take Poirot several stories to catch when he’s mopping up the actual murders that Norton inspired. 

I’m not one to tell the master how to do her job, not just because she’s sold billions of books, and not just because she’s dead. It is a real shock to the reader to realize Poirot committed a murder as his last desperate act to stop someone who’s not technically a criminal, but one of the most dangerous people he encounters. And I know no one saw that coming. But I’m still slightly disappointed that when Poirot meets his match, his response is, “well, I’m old, and you’re too sneaky to prosecute, so clearly murder is the best option.”

I wonder if there’s fanfic where Poirot in his young prime meets Poirot the old murderer. 

I wonder if I should write this. 

 

And Then There Were None

How is a murder mystery with no protagonist, no sleuth, and no actual satisfying solve one of the most famous murder mysteries of all time? Ten folks come to a distant island, are each accused of murder, and then are picked off one at a time. I don’t think there’s another Christie book with as much suspense as this one as people die one at a time, and we get several points of view, and the ending/mystery solved comes from a message in a bottle because everyone is dead. 

Look, I know we’re not supposed to talk about this, but it’s true: there’s a formula to most Western fiction written in the last century or so. Most successful stories involve things like a protagonist who has to change or die, and mystery novels need a sleuth and the sleuth has to actually solve the murder. 

ATTWN breaks all of those rules. You could argue that Vera is the protagonist because she’s the most frequent POV character and the last to die, but she has no growth, doesn’t even contemplate and then reject growing. Growing is never an option. She regrets only that her actions of sending a little boy to drown drove her boyfriend away. The judge, the grand manipulating murderer, isn’t the protagonist, again because he doesn’t really have a story with conflict and all those other juicy things readers like. He doesn’t even come across any problems, he just picks each victim off neat and tidy, manipulating from the background. Everything works out perfectly including convincing Vera to hang herself through gentle hypnosis. The mystery isn’t solved; sailors come across the judge’s confession long after he’s killed himself. 

And yet it’s an amazing story. Deft, suspenseful, intriguing characters (who end up monstrous when you find out their secrets) and yes, all the clues to this intricate mystery are there. If this book doesn’t convince you that Christie was the best, I don’t know if there’s any hope.

I get very amused when I imagine the judge as an old, murderous Batman, luring his enemies to an island for some vigilante justice. DC, call me.

 

Death on the Nile

More morally gray stuff! 

Super rich woman steals her poor friend’s fiancee and the friend stalks them through their honeymoon, and the bride eventually dies. Turns out it’s a complicated—very complicated—scheme by the original couple to get all her money. 

I gotta say, I love how this plays out, and I love the characters. I do wonder about the lengths they’re willing to go through for money. Jackie, the mastermind, sets her beloved up to marry someone else. She knows they are sleeping together, right? She’s cool with that? It’s never addressed, but damn, I’m always thinking it. Then he shoots himself in the leg to fake an injury alibi. Not a graze, but a bone-shattering shot. Dude, you could have just grazed your calf. 

But to the morally gray party: it ends with Jackie and Simon being escorted off the boat, and she pulls a gun and shoots him and then herself, and they die in each other’s arms. While the police are in a panic over where the gun came from, Poirot calmly mentions he knew she had the gun. He just… let her keep it so they could die together. That old romantic.

How he knows that she will do this, and not just go on a shooting spree to get away, is the real mystery here.

 

A Caribbean Mystery

I’m saving the best for last. While not listed as one of her best, it’s one of my favorite books, mainly because of the relationship between Marple and infirm, crotchety, rich Jason Rafiel. Not a romance, but a mutual respect on the level of him commanding his valet to do whatever Marple says (including physical violence) without question. One of those times when Christie could put action into the book about a little old lady sleuth. 

But the nugget that really gets me every time I read it is something small and mentioned offhand at the beginning, as Marple reads a terrible novel:

“‘Sex’ as a word had not been mentioned in Miss Marple’s young days; but there had been plenty of it—not talked about so much—but enjoyed far more than nowadays, or so it seemed to her.”

WHAT. 

Now my headcanon has Miss Marple having a youth much like Miss Fisher, sleeping with whoever she liked, not giving a care in the world what people thought of her, solving mysteries… I need this story of the young Marple. I must have it. We don’t need more stuffy Poirot mysteries, we need sexy young Marple adventures. 

Someone call the Christie estate.

(This has seemed to also include a semi-list of Agatha Christie Fanfic I Want To Write, but I’m okay with that.)

 

About Station Eternity by Mur Lafferty:

From idyllic small towns to claustrophobic urban landscapes, Mallory Viridian is constantly embroiled in murder cases that only she has the insight to solve. But outside of a classic mystery novel, being surrounded by death doesn’t make you a charming amateur detective, it makes you a suspect and a social pariah. So when Mallory gets the opportunity to take refuge on a sentient space station, she thinks she has the solution. Surely the murders will stop if her only company is alien beings. At first her new existence is peacefully quiet…and markedly devoid of homicide.
 
But when the station agrees to allow additional human guests, Mallory knows the break from her peculiar reality is over. After the first Earth shuttle arrives, and aliens and humans alike begin to die, the station is thrown into peril. Stuck smack-dab in the middle of an extraterrestrial whodunit, and wondering how in the world this keeps happening to her anyway, Mallory has to solve the crime—and fast—or the list of victims could grow to include everyone on board.

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Comments

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