Agatha Christie: 5 Novels that were Almost Perfect
I love Agatha Christie. I may have made that clear from my numerous mentions of her work throughout my postings. She wrote a great number of mystery novels throughout her career and there exists a list of staple classics that people associate with her.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
Murder on the Orient Express
And then There Were None
Death on The Nile
Five Little Pigs
Evil under the Sun
These are almost unanimously voted as her greatest novels: works of pure ingenuity. But I have my own list: a list of works almost as brilliant but fail to be deemed ‘classic’ due to one or two small failings. Below I’ve compiled my list of what could have been Christie’s best works, and what’s stopping them from being so.
Three Act Tragedy
How to fix it: Make the motive solvable.
This is one of the most original of Christie’s works. It features not one but two unique motives for murder, a very clever plot, a cast of interesting characters, and yet this is all let down by the ridiculous reveal of the murderer’s motive. There is simply no reason for suspecting the murderer because there is no way of discovering the motive. The motive itself isn’t awful (it’s certainly not one of the best) but it relies on the existence of a character that wasn’t mentioned until the reveal of the murderer. Even worse is that Poirot withheld this information from the reader: a big no-no in detective fiction. If Christie had given even the tiniest clue as to the motive, this could easily have found itself on the above list of works. But instead it finds itself here.
An extra point for those who know the ending: (Warning! SPOILERS! If you don’t want details revealed skip to the next title.)
With Mrs De Rushbridger (the third victim) being in a sanatorium, it would have made much more sense for her to be Sir Charles’ wife. It could then have been written to include some possible detail that would link her to Sir Charles, rather than the never-before-mentioned Gladys Mugg.
Dead Man’s Folly
How to fix it: Cut the conversation.
Christie wrote this novel in 1956, when her knack for plotting had not yet begun to slip but perhaps her writing had. The plotting is quite brilliant, quite original and quite-well executed, except that it is totally lost amongst the banality of the investigation. Poirot becomes bogged down in lengthy interrogation with the characters, of who provide scant important details and many unnecessary ones. There is also too much focus on unsavoury and unlikely motives for the murder. Due to the young age of the victim (unusual in Christie’s work) the investigators involved continually push the angle of the murder being sexually motivated, which is far too tawdry for a Christie. No reader actually believes it was a sex-crazed lunatic so stop bringing it up. (The same goes for Evil Under the Sun, where Poirot proposes for the entire novel that two of the only four possibilities for the murder was that it was either perpetrated by a gang of smugglers or a ‘religious lunatic’. Murders in detective novels are never committed by outsiders!)
How to fix it: Remove Poirot.
As shocking as it sounds, this novel would have worked far better without her famous Belgian detective. Indeed, her play adaptation removed him and was far better from it. His inclusion is unbelievable. Poirot, the fastidious man who hates dirt and uncleanliness has moved to the country next door to where a murder is to take place. He also has little to do. The book focuses much less on the mystery element than the majority of books written at the same type and subsequently has little detective work for Poirot to do. As a detective novel it is fairly weak but as a novel in its own right it is one of Christie’s best. The novel would work far better as a psychological analysis of people affected by murder than as a whodunit.
(Warning! Possible Spoiler!)
Also, the murderer is one of the most sympathetic Christie has ever written and Poirot effectively killing them at the end is quite jarring and very out-of-character.
Murder in Mesopotamia
How to fix it: Change the motive
This book is technically flawless. It works brilliantly as a plot but as a novel it begins to fall apart. The problem lies in the reveal of the murderer’s true identity. It is just totally unbelievable for the character to have gone unnoticed for so long. A simple change of motive would have made the fake identity unnecessary and thus credible.
The second problem is how the murder is conducted. Again, as a bare plot it is genius, but totally unrealistic. There are too many possibilities for error and it unbelievable that a person would ever plan to commit murder in this way.
The murderer relies on the victim holding their head out a window to be bludgeoned to death. The victim then seems to defy physics by being knocked back through the window and into their room rather than slumping over the window. It is then vital to the murderer’s alibi that no one discovers the body for over an hour. And there is apparently no blood spatter anywhere near the window. Why would a person ever plan a murder like this? Egad!
Elephants Can Remember
How to fix it: Write it 30 years earlier.
Elephants Can Remember is one of the last books Christie wrote, and while her grip began to slacken towards the end of her career, Elephants Can Remember is uncharacteristically clever and original. In it, she makes a final and original reworking of the love triangle theme that she used for some of her greatest novels. It is also well-clued and solvable: a rare feat amongst her later works. The problem lies with the writing. Christie was 82 at the time of writing and the writing is rather slack. Similar to Dead Man’s Folly, characters waffle on about irrelevancies for much of the book. Details are hazy and often confused. The death being investigated is sometimes said to have happened ten years ago, other times it is fifteen or twenty.
It is also irritatingly unbelievable that all along there was one character who knew exactly what happened. They are brought in at the end to confirm Poirot’s theory but after the reader has had to sit through so much unnecessary questioning of people who knew nothing why was this the last person they asked?