The 5 Creepiest Agatha Christie Books

Reading & Writing

Being a contrarian, I probably wasn’t the first choice to be placed on a crime writers’ panel dedicated to Agatha Christie. I wasn’t prepared to sit there praising her uncritically, but I figured her audience was there to hear exactly that, so when official Christie doyenne Sophie Hannah declared that there was no other author worth reading in the world, I admit I lost it a little and we argued – not a fight I could win with so many fans in the room.

I have enjoyed Ms Christie’s books very much in the past from around age ten to maybe seventeen, but they are mainly puzzle boxes that (I had decided) appealed to the adolescent mind – find the key, open the box, get the reward. Their very simplicity works in their favour – you can overlay your own ideas onto the books and reinvent them, should you so wish. You can do the same to the detectives, too. Miss Marple has marginally more depth of character than Hercule Poirot, who really has none at all – yet Christie’s characters are certainly better developed than say, those of John Dickson Carr, and her complicated plots are very easy to follow because they lead you exactly where you’d expect them to – until the reveal wrong-foots you.

However, not all of the books really work. While I love the set-up to the critics’ favourite ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ I’ve never believed the denouement. This is not how anyone sane would choose to get rid of an enemy, and suspension of disbelief only goes so far. The set-up is the author’s conceit – wouldn’t it be memorable to kill someone on a train? The better books for me are the quieter, more insidious ones. Christie’s clear, no-nonsense approach (which backfires when her detectives ‘read’ characters in what amounts to an exercise in eugenics) allows her to remain unsentimental, and sometimes downright disturbing. For example, ‘Witness for the Prosecution’ has a powerful sense of the noose tightening around its protagonist’s neck, and gains power from the fact that hanging was still in force at the time of its writing.

Here’s my selection of Christie’s creepiest…

 

By The Pricking Of My Thumbs

The only bearable Tommy & Tuppence mystery, this eerie tale of a murderer in an old folk’s home alarms because the helpless elderly victims are not being listened to, especially when one complains that there’s ‘something behind the fireplace’. There are hints of black magic, too, and a nicely macabre atmosphere pervades the proceedings.

Sleeping Murder

The ages-old plot of the house with a past crime hidden in it gets a fresh twist here, and an unusual one for Christie. Nothing is quite as clear-cut as usual – has there even been a crime? Imagination plays as much a part as factual evidence for a younger and more sprightly Miss Marple. Many readers dismiss this one for not being in her usual style, but that’s what makes it interesting. Christie’s fascination with misremembered pasts stands her in good stead.

The Last Séance

A bit of a cheat as this collection of 20 stories, mostly written early in her career, has been assembled to showcase her more supernatural leanings. A great many writers started in this way, but Christie’s stories, lightly cruel, are rather good and show her early interest in aberrant psychologies. Theatres featured here are: The Last Séance • In a Glass Darkly • The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb • SOS • The Fourth Man • The Idol House of Astarte • The Gipsy • Philomel Cottage • The Dream • The Lamp • Wireless • The Mystery of the Blue Jar • The Blue Geranium • The Wife of the Kenite • The Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael • The Call of Wings • The Red Signal • The Flock of Geryon • The Dressmaker’s Doll • The Hound of Death.

And Then There Were None

Hard to discuss this who-will-survive plot without giving too much away, but to me it’s the peak of Christie’s glittering career. Guests are invited to what is clearly meant to be Burgh Island (I’ve stayed at the hotel on the island, it’s mad) for a weekend, only to be bumped off – but there’s a genuinely cruel tone to the tale and an inexorability that drags the reader despairingly down with the victims. It’s also unique among the Christies for being – well, if you’ve read it you’ll know what makes it unique.

Endless Night

The darkest of all Christie novels is a dazzling three-card trick; I’ve read it twice and it wrong-footed me a second time – how is that even possible? The plot has a measured pace, unfolding its rural tale of love and property at a patience-punishing crawl (Christie was 76 when she wrote this in record time) but when the plot mechanics kick in you are jolted all the harder. I wonder if Christie had come to be cynical about humanity by this time, because it’s a sombre, unsettling tale that refuses to let in daylight. A film version was advertised with the tag line: ‘Only 3 people in 100 guess the ending!’

 

Your choices/criticisms welcome.

22 comments on “The 5 Creepiest Agatha Christie Books”

  1. Jan says:

    There was quite a popular theory kicking about at one time that Christies books had actually been written by a small group of folk. The tone and rhythm of her work does vary enormously. They were obviously written over a old long period of time these novels so there will obviously be variance but there really is more variance than you would expect. Even books that were written just two or 3 years apart are well different.

    In a documentary about Christie voiced over by Joanna Lumley she mentioned that as the books build toward their denouement the sentences shorten. Everything tightens up becomes more “sparsely” written becomes well defined and concise. The big reveal is handled very cleverly at many different levels.

    I always wanted one of her top tecs to get it completely wrong. Would be so funny if some fantastic, watertight well thought out puzzle solver was completely WRONG. Be great comedy and i would love to see it. (That’s more like what real happens at a real debrief. People put stuff forward and watch it go down in flames.)

    Imagine a group of bored archaeologists on one of her second hubby Mallowans digs putting their heads together and co writing an AC over a few nights on some dig out in Egypt now that would have been a story in itself….

  2. SteveB says:

    I agree about Endless Night, it’s genuinely unsettling

    She was a genius of plotting. Interestingly I think Ibsen was too. Watch something like Brand and think, how did he work all that out.

  3. Adam says:

    Her books are very readable, and there are some cracking whodunnits which I got completely wrong. Has any author had as many TV or film adaptations as Christie? I thoroughly enjoyed the recent BBC Christmas specials for taking a different approach, but my all-time favourite is the Peter Ustinov Death on the Nile film; perfect Sunday afternoon viewing.

  4. Liz Thompson says:

    I do agree on the teenage years being the best time to read her books. Later, I couldn’t stand Poirot. Miss Marple was better, but maybe that was because I was brought up in a small agricultural village! Tommy and Tuppence, well, I started one of them, and never finished it. I don’t often do that with fiction. I still love the ‘golden age’ writers though, however bizarre their plots and (frequently) their characters. Pure entertainment. And some are outstanding, even literature!!
    I prefer all of them to Dickens, but I was forced to read him far too young.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    We just had a Tommy and Tuppence on telly and I watched all the episodes but I wasn’t sure who I really wanted murdered, probably Tommy who is such an ass.
    I haven’t read a Christie for a long while and think you’re probably right about teen years as they make a good introduction to the mystery genre.
    John Dickson Carr not easily found these days but I remember oh so vividly reading The Devil in Velvet which was a time travel story into the 17th century. The characters seemed quite definite and dimensional, including the kitchen maid.

  6. Roger says:

    “Sophie Hannah declared that there was no other author worth reading in the world, ”
    Not even Ms Hannah?
    If so that shows a remarkable lack of egotism for a novelist!

  7. Helen Martin says:

    I was going to leave MS Hannah’s valuation uncommented on because she cannot have meant it seriously. I mean really!
    I think the first Christie I read was set in a girls’ school and it was mistresses that were dropping. It was where I first met the phrase “court shoes” and I finally gave up and figured you probably wore court shoes with a frock. (I was very disappointed to learn that a frock is just a dress.)

  8. Brian Evans says:

    I enjoyed Christie in my teen years, and they were still being written then and there was always a waiting list at the library for the latest. I never liked Poirot though as I found him two dimensional, whereas Miss Marple felt like a real person. I can’t read Christie now as whilst the plots are brilliant, if over convoluted, they are just such a dull read. Though I enjoy watching them on TV. Some years ago I discovered Nagio Marsh and preferred her as her characters, apart from the two detectives, where much more interesting and fun.

    I did read “By the Pricking of My Thumbs” about 25 years ago and enjoyed that. However, to me, the best read is “And Then There Were None” I do think, though, the denouement is much more effective on film and on stage than in the novel. “Witness for the Prosecution” is great film, and when I first saw it, the denouement was a revelation.

    “Endless Night” makes for a very good film, though I have not read the novel. It is said that this filming of the book was the only film of her books that satisfied her.

    As for “The Mousetrap” play in the West End, the least said the better. The production I saw many years ago was only one step above church hall amdram. Not only that, but I guessed who the murderer was after only 3 minutes the character first appeared. Not because I was clever, but the person playing the part was so hammy and played the character in a shifty way- as if the person had something to hide.

    I have not read any of Christie’s romance stories, written under a different name which I can’t remember. It would be interesting to hear what anyone thinks of those.

  9. Sarah says:

    Try “Ordeal by Innocence “.
    TV versions have never done it justice.

    Poirot may be irritating but he has a strong moral sense and can be imaginative and kind.

  10. Richard Brown says:

    I agree with much of the above.I used to read 5 or 6 of her books in a row through the summer, but I much prefer watching the TV dramatisations now, as the pace of her story telling seems so slow and with so much dialogue her books read like her plays.Her genius is her plotting tho and that is mostly faultless.I visited Greenway last year, you really get a sense of the real Christie there, fascinating.

  11. Andrew Holme says:

    I’m gearing up to my annual locked room symposium with our new Year 7s, and I’m using ‘Miss Marple Tells a Story’, a rather good exercise in timing and mis-direction to explain a locked room mystery. The English teacher who runs the event asked an interesting question, ” why do we take delight in being fooled by detective stories?” I suppose it is like close up magic, can we appreciate the trick even when we know how it is done? I think what is magic about ‘magic’ is the skill of the magician. I’m fascinated Chris, by ‘Endless Night’ wrong footing you on the second reading. Now that’s magic!

  12. admin says:

    I do think a great wrong-foot is one where you don’t notice you’re being fooled. The best one I pulled off was in ‘Psychoville’, but a couple of the Bryant & Mays still please me…

  13. Wayne Mook says:

    Not all of them are winners, I read one, can’t remember the name and it seemed like she was parodying herself.

    Brian I would give Endless Night a go as it’s not like her other books. Has admin ever steered you wrong.

    It shows with a few differences to the run of the mill, Poirot being Belgium and Marple being at first a young spinster after the great war, her characters stood out and she could highlight racism, sexism and ageism, even though she was guilty of it herself. Still it was the puzzle itself that was the thing. As you get older Christie holds here own if you like puzzles, they are in a way the purest form of plot driven stories.

    Anyone know any good articles on Erle Stanley Gardner, who is very popular in New York Times crossword puzzle due to the odd spelling of his first name. I was thinking of reading some of his non Perry Mason novels. Now here was a prolific writer.

    Wayne.

  14. snowy says:

    I find Orient Express creepy, for reasons around its conception.

    Is it a) a nasty piece of exploitation, b) a cathartic revenge fantasy or c) authors must take their inspiration from somewhere and anything is fair-game.

    For those already confused, the timeline:

    March 1st 1932 a crime was committed in the US that resulted in death of an infant, because the child had a very famous father, it made international headlines [and because this was 1932 it would have been in every newsreel in every cinema]. The story ran for months, every week there were new twists and turns, it was the ‘Crime of the Century’ admittedly quite a young century and it would be eclipsed by the ‘Gathering Storm’ in Europe.

    The standard line is the book wasn’t published until 1 January 1934 in the UK, with the US edition following at the end of February the same year. But the story had been serialised in the US in September 1933, just 18 months after the crime.

    September 18, 1934 there was an arrest in the US that would have fanned the embers of public interest back into a huge inferno, again, quite handy if you’ve got a book out.

    [I thought Sir Ken ‘Chuckles’ Brannah was going to do something interesting with it and the opening sequence showed great promise, but… well if you have seen it, you’ve seen it. Slave to the Rhythm text that one!]

    Those curious for a little Aggy in audio form, the BBC dug out a dramatisation of ‘None’ for the holiday, it’s rather good. [streamable from the BBC website, those that would swap audio quality for portability can find a downloadable version with a little perseverance on web archives.]

  15. Bruce Rockwood says:

    I’ve used John Dickson Carr’s The murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey in a course in law and literature. It’s his solution to a real historic who dunnit, and an overview of Charles II,s era.

  16. Serena says:

    Unlike so many commentators here I couldn’t get through one chapter of a Christie as a teen. However, as an adult after just one, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, I was spellbound for life. I have now devoured every single word Agatha has published, including her book of poetry, plays, and all 6 of her “romantic” novels which in my opinion are must reads. She has given me untold hours of pure cozy entertainment… However, people should check out a book/movie from the very early 30’s called The Ninth Guest. It was published years before Christie’s And Then There Were None, yet shares a plot/devices that are too coincidental. It would be very disheartening if Christie “borrowed” the plot of her most famous mystery!

  17. Helen Martin says:

    Bruce that tells me I should look a little harder for the Dickson Carr books set in that era and I think that one title I know was the Devil in Black Velvet (much more threatening sounding.)

  18. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – The British Library has released John Dickson Carr’s first novel. I hope that they release more. I’m very surprised that the usual outlet for a lot of forgotten authors, Wordsworth Editions, have not released a collection of his work. Their tracking down and compiling of some of the more interesting and esoteric authors has brought me great pleasure, and shown me work by master storytellers like Lafcadio Hearn, who was completely off my radar, although he is still majorly beloved in Japan.
    I do have some disintegrating copies of John Dickson Carr books, so I would like to see some nice new ones.

  19. Wayne Mook says:

    Carr is still under copyright Ian, it’s why so many very good mid-list authors become forgotten, although Carr isn’t too hard done by, the Murder Room imprint put out a number of his novels about 6 years ago.

    Another of his novels is actually due out this month from the British Library.

    He was responsible for Appointment with Fear on BBC radio & Suspense in the US, both featuring The Man in Black.

    Wayne.

  20. Wayne Mook says:

    Sorry that should be about 8 years ago, how time flies when your a miserable old bloke who can’t be bothered with such things.

    Wayne.

  21. snowy says:

    After Serena’s revelation, I’ve found a copy of ‘The Ninth Guest’ [1934]; finding the film was easy, [finding the time to watch it might be more tricky, but it will be done.]

  22. snowy says:

    “My, Aggy what light fnigers you have…”

    ‘The Ninth Guest’ a very brief outline.

    Based on “The Invisible Host” written by the husband-wife team of Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning published in 1930. Which was turned into a play under the new title of the “The Ninth Guest” by Owen Davis the same year. This was turned into a film in 1933, released Jan. 1934 US, Sept. 1934 UK. 5 years before the release of “And Then There Were None”.

    8 guests are lured by telegram to a party being held in their honour by a mystery host, once assembled a voice coming from the wireless tells them that they cannot leave. He also reveals that he has called them here to account for their past crimes.

    [Anybody who has seen ‘Murder by Death’/’Clue’ will know the setup.]

    Is it worth watching, well it’s quite short, 65minutes. The acting is of the period, rather stiff and the dialogue is quite clunky. But it works as a thriller, the outcome is not obvious, there are red herrings to wrong-foot you. There is a slightly odd comic turn along the lines of Askey/Ghost Train, but to say more risks spoilers.

    The sets are great, very high Deco and the frocks fantastic. Apart from the above flaws the only other thing that sticks out is the pacing is completely wrong, over-long build up and when the action begins it is overly compressed.

    “Did she nick it?”

    While there is very considerable overlap, Agatha has at least covered her ‘crime’ by ‘changing the plates’ and ‘giving it a respray’. If ‘None’ is a derivative work, very considerable work has been done to reshape the story, shift the location, expand the characters and refine the causes of death. There are points of similarity, but so many points of difference that it would be hard to hang her.

    [Tip of the imaginary hat to Serena for the suggestion.]

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