The 5 Creepiest Agatha Christie Books
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.
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.
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.