Where To Begin?
Generally there are three authors I turn to when in need. That is the need to read something but don’t know what as well as something not too heavy going: James Herriot, Gerald Durrell and Agatha Christie. Fortunately between the three of them they wrote a lot of books. The most prolific was or course is Agatha Christie. With over seventy novels and lots of short stories there is plenty to keep a fan going; but this of course can be a bit disconcerting for a newcomer. I had read one once on holiday in Nice, France. I’d run out of the books I’d taken with me and there was a small English section in a second hand bookshop, I say small I think it was a shelf. There was not much on it that grabbed my attention but I saw a copy of this Murder On The Orient Express and thought I’d give it a go… I loved it.
Later in Ireland, where I was living at the time, I went to Easons (a chain of bookshops) and decided to buy another, the shelves was crammed with what appeared to be hundreds of different novels and I felt a bit lost. They were all the Signature editions, beautifully designed covers with simple images, so spent some time looking at them hoping to find the one I was going to buy. I don’t read the back of books, as mentioned elsewhere as I want no spoilers, but this can create something of a challenge. In the end I went with By The Pricking Of My Thumbs as it was a Shakespeare quote. I’ll admit I was somewhat disappointed when I read it because neither her great fictional detective Hercule Poirot, nor the wonderful Miss Marple appear in the book, instead were a couple I’d never heard of, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. The novel was enjoyable but it wasn’t the typical “I have brought you all into this room to announce who the murderer is” style I was hoping for for a second read. Still a good book, but maybe one for later on the list of reads; you don’t want the genre subverted when you are starting off.
The fact is with over seventy novels to her name she was brilliant enough not to keep writing the same tropes and so amidst all the posh country houses and bodies in libraries she creates other styles. Adventures across the deserts, isolated islands where everyone is murdered and solving cases from many years previous, to describe a few, she really goes for it.
Of course nothing is perfect and there are maybe some attitudes her characters have that today we would probably highlight a bit more as being “very not ok” and I think it is worth pointing that out as sadly some mindsets from years ago were not as they are today.
So what books would I recommend for someone wanting to start out? Personally I like her Miss Marple novels the most (I’ll do a Part Two more about this and adaptions etc) and surprisingly she only wrote twelve of these (plus short stories). I’ve read all but one (I’m savouring it as I don’t want to run out, therefore The Murder At The Vicarage may not be read for a while). Of the eleven I have read they are different enough for each one to stand out, and I’ve enjoyed them all but I would recommend A Murder Is Announced to begin with. It’s a clever concept as the murder really is announced beforehand and it’s nice to see Miss Marple put all the pieces together as the plot goes along. Once you’ve read this one, honestly take any of the others you will enjoy them.
“In an English village, you turn over a stone and have no idea what will crawl out.
― Agatha Christie, A Murder Is Announced
As for Hercule Poirot, there are… well the number of novels is debatable as some may not include plays etc, but over forty is a safe statement, so more than half Christie’s out-put. Of course Murder On The Orient Express is the obvious starting point for many, but actually I’d save that one for a bit later. I’d suggest Evil Under The Sun to begin with. It’s that traditional set up of a group of almost isolated people and one of them is murdered, you are left guessing who of the others did it and there are many possibilities.
“There is no such thing as a plain fact of murder. Murder springs, nine times out of ten, out of the character and circumstances of the murdered person. Because the victim was the kind of person he or she was, therefore was he or she murdered! Until we can understand fully and completely exactly what kind of a person [she] was, we shall not be able to see clearly exactly the kind of person who murdered her. From that spring the necessity of our questions.”
― Agatha Christie, Evil Under the Sun
What is interesting is that in both the Poirot and Marple ranges Christie uses her hero characters in different ways, in some they barely appear whilst in others the plot revolves around them, and then there is everything in between. This is brave and clever, but again if you are picking up a book in that range for the first time expecting Jane Marple to be central to it all and find she just appears near the end it might be a bit confusing.
These are my two recommendations but if you have others put them in the comments. In the next blog I’ll write about some of the adaptions and her non Marple/ Poirot mysteries.
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