Agatha Christie and the Art of The Whodunit

There is no thrill quite like what I get when I read a good, old-fashioned whodunit. I love this genre with a passion that mystifies most people who know of my tendency to look down upon popular fiction. Why do I love whodunits? Simple…as Hercule Poirot says, they give one the illusion of living an exciting life.

This mention of Hercule Poirot brings me nicely to what is going to be the focus of this post – my abiding love for Agatha Christie and her unusual and idiosyncratic detectives – Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. It takes an original mind to make a little old woman and a rotund, ex-police detective the ‘heroes’ of some of the most thrilling mysteries ever written. Christie’s sleuths are not like your modern detectives – full of sex appeal and an appetite for action. They have a more cerebral appeal that the sleuths of today’s detective fiction do not. In fact, I strongly suspect this to be the reason why mystery writers today feel the need to inject the sex and action factors into their stories – their detectives simply do not have the ‘little grey cells’ which Poirot and Marple have. These two can solve mysteries simply by arranging the facts in order and never dirtying their hands. That’s true sleuthing!

Christie had a few special elements she used repeatedly – a secluded country house with a surprisingly large number of guests (but small enough to be a convenient group of suspects), murder by poisoning (favourites were Arsenic and Strychnine), the domineering and rich widow with a colourless secretary-companion and a host of preying relatives, the awkward ex-military man (Capt. Hastings being the most prominent) and the charming, irresistible rake. She used these elements often, but never to excess which is why her works are instantly recognizable as her works with their cozy, secluded atmosphere and the surprising number of people with murder motives.

I remember when I first read an Agatha Christie (The Big Four) I was very disappointed. I could not see what the fuss was about and I intensely disliked the pompous Belgian detective, Poirot. But then I found The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and there was no looking back. I fell in love for life. The Poirot mysteries are classics – one and all. They are studies in how a detective story should be written – Christie teases her readers with tanatalizing hints and clues throughout only to spring a complete surprise on them right at the end when Poirot makes his denouement. Even the most astute reader can only solve part of the mystery by the end – for clearing up the whole matter, the reader still needs Poirot.

Miss Marple is lovable for another reason – her methods are purely mental. Poirot at least re-enacts cases in order to solve them (The Mystery of the Blue Train, Death on the Nile). Miss Marple solves mysteries by simply sitting at home and using some good old common sense and a deep knowledge of human psychology.

I can’t finish this post without mentioning another character I’m secretly, passionately in love with – Captain Hastings. He’s Poirot’s closest ally and foil and is the narrator of most of the Poirot stories. He may not have the little Belgian’s grey cells, but he has his own peculiar charm – his unwavering loyalty towards Poirot and his deep sense of honour. What a gentleman! He’s got a witty, dry sense of humour and some of his observations about his clever and pompous friend are just brilliant!

I regret to say that I’ve still not read all the available Christie books…I’ve been ignoring them for the past couple of years in my pursuit of ‘higher literature’ (most of which cannot entertain as well as Agatha Christie). In any case, here’s a list of a few of my favourite Christie books.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (My favourite of all the Christie books)
Murder on the Orient Express
Sad Cypress
The Mousetrap
Dumb Witness
Endless Night
Murder is Easy
Hallowe’en Party
Elephants Can Remember
Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case
The Mysterious Mr. Quinn (Not a Poirot or Marple mystery; the brain here is Mr. Harley Quinn)
Towards Zero (One of Christie’s more disturbing books)
A Murder is Announced
The Witness for the Prosecution

Image from Wikipedia