Christie for Christmas

Desperate for more Agatha Christie? Now there are two "new" mysteries by the late queen of clues.

Published December 23, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

I hate clues. Too many people -- including crime writers -- think mystery novels are supposed to be built around clues, as if the ideal were some Encyclopedia Brown exercise inflated to grown-up size. (Encyclopedia Brown, the hero of the children's detective series, solves non-gory crimes by pointing out the inconsistencies in the guilty person's statement -- e.g., "With the sun in his face, Ringo Charlie's shadow would have fallen behind him!")

I do not like trying to figure out whether an author's mistakes are deliberate or not. I do not like timetables or floor plans. I do not want to have to pay attention to who calls whom what, where who was when or who knew what too soon. That is the author's job, and I do not feel like doing it for the author. I do not want my mysteries to feel like work.

Besides, you have to suspend so much disbelief to read a mystery novel that picking apart minor breaks in logic threatens to topple the whole edifice. (See Raymond Chandler's much-quoted, perfectly just yet irrelevant objection to one of Agatha Christie's solutions: so ingenious that "only a half-wit could guess it.")

Christie, like the other Golden Age detective novelists, is supposed to be good at clues. You know the drill: a genteel setting, a limited cast, a few pretty corpses and a final gathering of suspects at which the detective explains how the indentation in the corner of the rug led him to the murderer. In truth, the best Christies follow this pattern in only the most superficial sense. They do not depend on clues but on perfectly fair conjurer's tricks: Christie is an absolute genius at making you look elsewhere while the answer is right there in plain sight. That is one reason she is still read eagerly today while contemporaries like Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham are largely forgotten.

Christie's many fans were no doubt happy to learn that the writer, who died in 1976, has in the past two years started to publish anew. This return is thanks to Charles Osborne, a literary jack-of-all-trades, who has turned two of her plays into novels. The results are mixed. His efforts are certainly more successful than Robert Goldsborough's attempts to channel the dead Rex Stout -- the dialogue and structure are, after all, Christie's -- but there are difficulties in such a literal translation of a play. It is extremely odd to read an entire novel without modernist literary pretensions that is set in a single room. The prose sandwiched between the dialogue often reads like stage directions. And some of it will make your eyes roll back in your head.

"The Unexpected Guest," the most recent of these novelizations, starts out well. A man abandons a disabled car, peers through the French doors of a nearby house and finds a lovely young woman standing over a corpse in a wheelchair. She is holding a recently fired gun. When he quizzes her, she is ironical. Yes, that was her husband. He was cruel! He drank! She's hated him for years! But the stranger is smitten; he goes into action -- fooling with the evidence, coaching her on what to say, manufacturing an alibi for her. It's fun to watch the clues being manhandled in this fashion, and fun to watch them unravel. But the rest of the cast is less interesting, despite the presence of a slippery candidate for Parliament. The dead tyrant's idiot brother is especially tiresome. I would be surprised if any veteran mystery reader did not immediately pick out the killer.

Despite its lack of a bang-up beginning, "Black Coffee" is probably the better book. It takes place at the country house of a "leading scientist of the day," who asks the famed Hercule Poirot to safeguard a weapons formula from some unknown member of his large household. When the old gentleman is poisoned, the suspects include his breezy young niece, his spinster sister, his trusted secretary, his ne'er-do-well son, the son's beautiful Italian wife and a mysterious stranger named Dr. Carelli who claims to know her. The plot pretty much proceeds as you would expect, given this assortment of types. There are a few pallid reversals along the way. Early on, the spinster magnanimously tries to comfort the Italian wife for missing the sunny climes of her native land, which the young woman actually loathes. There are also, unfortunately, clues: A tin case of drugs has no dust on it.

What saves the novel is the ingenuousness of its atmosphere, which is straight from Christie. When the breezy niece teases Poirot's sidekick, Col. Hastings, about his old-fashioned rectitude, the whole exchange is sweetly old-fashioned itself. Even during her heyday, Christie was describing a world fast disappearing -- as she often reminded us. Her two most successful detectives, Poirot and Miss Marple, were old at the beginning of their 40-year-plus reign. (Poirot dates back to 1920, Miss Marple to 1930.)

The Victorian coziness Christie details is what Christmas is supposed to feel like. The day never lives up to these expectations, of course, making the corpses of family members strewn through the pages all the more welcome. There are few things as satisfying as reading about the horrible death of a tyrannical patriarch after partaking of a real-life Christmas dinner with just the family. But you're better off trying a real Christie than a Charles Osborne version. And there are probably a few old paperbacks of hers tucked away wherever you've landed for the holidays.

For the setting alone, you might try "Hercule Poirot's Christmas," in which such a patriarch gathers together various quarreling offspring for the first time in years. Naturally he ends up a bloody pulp. This book is a perfect example of how limiting clues can be. The puzzle is built very cleverly -- certainly it is the most successful of her mysteries so constructed -- but there is a resulting murkiness that is not found in her truly top-notch work. (All those men stroking their jaws! Throwing back their heads to laugh! You mean those were clues? And here I thought it was just the limited nature of the Christie style.)

My favorites are "Crooked House" and "There Is a Tide." A theater-reviewer friend likes "The Hollow" best. My cookbook-editor friend admires "Towards Zero" and "Murder in Retrospect." All of these books are classics. (I am confining myself here to the first American titles. Christie's mysteries have more assumed names than most criminals.) The prose is as easy to swallow as a nice cup of tea, and there are little O. Henry-type dramas along the way to amuse and distract you: One uncommunicative man in "There Is a Tide" assumes his wife married him for his respectable station in life, only to discover when he loses it that her feelings run deeper.

Instead of clues, we get a more seamless sort of information. Poirot tells us again and again in "Crooked House" what type of person kills: someone who boasts about it later. Christie trots out a character who exactly fits the description, but because of this person's position in the story, the possibility of guilt never occurs to us. Then the author reaches out to give the setup a single, graceful tug, and all of the game pieces turn over to form one recognizable pattern.

In setting up her schemes, Christie is ruthless. Ruthless with her characters: One reason she sent Colonel Hastings off to Argentina in mid-career is that giving Poirot a sidekick encumbered her -- she couldn't make him the murderer. Ruthless with romantic expectations: Love, like evidence, is often simply a matter of which way you're looking. And ruthless with reality: It obviously matters not an iota to her whether murderers actually boast a lot. Because each element of the novels is detached from everything but its place in the puzzle, the stories take on a really delightful suppleness and sinuousness. Her world was thoroughly made up from the beginning; in that sense it can never grow stale.

As you look through the cache of old Christie paperbacks, remember this: Pass up the thrillers; avoid the young sleuths Tommy and Tuppence at all costs; don't read anything written after 1963 except "Endless Night." And have yourself a murderous little Christmas.

By Jacqueline Carey

Jacqueline Carey is the author of "The Other Family," a novel, and "Good Gossip," a collection of short stories. Her book reviews also appear in the New York Times.

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