Sunday, December 13, 2009


More than forty years I've been reading, yet I'd never read an Agatha Christie mystery until just this month.  "They're too innocent," I thought to myself (when I bothered to think about it at all).  Too naive, I naively believed.  What could a traditional mystery give to me that I couldn't get--and with more gristle, gore, sex, and rough language--from a thousand more contemporary sources?

Originality of thought, for one thing.  Purity of execution and elegance of style.  Crystalline characters written with swift, spare strokes of the pen and plot devices that, although they have long since become hoary and cliched, because of Christie's mastery read as fresh as the day she invented them.

Last year when I read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo I was blown away by what I perceived to be a modern twist on the traditional locked room mystery.  It was set on an island, and during the commission of the crime there was no way on or off the island.  Not only that, but none of the characters was particularly sympathetic and pretty much any of them could have done it. How embarrassed was I to discover that Agatha Christie did it in 1939 in And Then There Were None?  And better.

Sure, Raymond Chandler, offended to have been compared to her on at least one occasion decried her work as contrived, overly mannered, unrealistic.  So?  It's fun.  It's well-written.  It's clever.  And, when you get right down to it, the dirty little truths of human nature as revealed by Dame Agatha are just as hard-hitting and incisive as those revealed by Chandler...and might even be a bit more shocking, when hidden deep within the psyche of a spinster school teacher, a judge, a doctor...


Try Stieg Larsson's modern take on the locked room mystery, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Vintage).  Whodunit and howdunit on an inaccessible Swedish island.  If you're interested in the Golden Age of British detective fiction, try some of Christie's contemporaries.  The novels of Josephine Tey, while not as widely read as Dame Agatha's, are brilliant,  more finely honed and beautifully written.  To Love and Be Wise is a good place to start.  And the very prolific Georgette Heyer, well-known for her elegant Regency romances, also wrote wonderful mysteries.  Why Shoot a Butler? is a sly, extremely class-conscious, eminently readable mystery.

1 comment:

Amit Agarwal said...

This was a book which I picked up randomly totally unaware of its fame and cult status so I had no pre monition and expected it to be another typical investigative thriller.No book dashed all my standards of how a detective suspense thriller should be written and was ...I have no words for it.

There is one suggestion that I would like to make.Make sure you start reading on a very calm and free day because once you start it then there is no stopping.You wont be sleeping again untill you finish it and even after that also you stay awke thinking of all those distinct characters and their unique stories each of which deserves to be in a seperate book and their eventual end.