I picked up my first Agatha Christie novel – I think it was Murder at the Vicarage – when I was still at school, and I’ve read, and often re-read every book I could find since then.
I’ve watched many film and television adaptations too.
I find that the first time around I’m bedazzled by the mystery, second or third time around I’m recalling details that slipped my mind the first time and admiring plot mechanics, and after that I am simply enjoying the company of an old friend and appreciating just what makes that particular book special.
The ABC Murders definitely had old friend status when I picked it up for a re-read last month. I’ve read it several times over the years, and I have watched the excellent ITV adaptation with David Suchet more than once.
As I read this time I was able to stand a little further back than I had before and survey the proceedings, and that allowed me to see just how this particular book weaves its spell.
I don’t want to say too much about the plot – if you don’t know it already, you should discover it with as little foreknowledge as possible. So I shall simply share the words that appeared the dust jacket of the first edition back in 1926.
“Agatha Christie, “the best of all crime novelists,” has, as one critic truly says, “set herself such a standard that even she will scarcely excel it.” Yet year by year, book by book, her ingenuity increases, her power as a novelist develops, and her wit becomes keener. Now with The ABC Murders, her own greatest triumph and a classic of crime fiction, she sets a new high-water mark in the history of the detective story.
The idea of the story is as brilliant as its execution. The murderer in this case is evidently a maniac, for he seems bent on working his way through a whole alphabet of victims. Beginning with A, he murders a Mrs Ascher at Andover. Proceeding to B, he strangles Betty Barnard on the beach at Bexhill. For C, he chooses as his victim Sir Carmichael Clarke of Churston. And as a sign of his method he leaves beside the corpse on each occasion a railway ABC open at the name of the place where the murder has taken place. ABC….. how far through the alphabet will he get. It seemed that nobody would be able to catch him. But he made the mistake – the one that every murderer makes – when, out of sheer vanity, he challenged Poirot to frustrate his plans.”
And so to what I noticed this time around – it’s time, I think, for a list!
- The story is one that could only ever be fiction, but it is as the jacket says: “The idea of the story is as brilliant as its execution.” That I still firmly agree with that statement after re-reading a story that I already knew inside out is, I think, testimony to the quality of this book.
- Hastings returns! After appearing in the first few Poirot novels he was despatched to the Argentine, returning for just a few more appearances in later novels. His appearance in this book was very well judged. It needs him as narrator, and Poirot needs him as a foil. I noticed this time around that friendship rang true, and I understood its dynamic!
- Unusually, Poirot finds himself working alongside the police trying to catch a serial killer. Elements typical of more modern police procedurals are present, and reports of incidents that the narrator has not seen but has had reported to him when he puts together his final account after the case is closed. None of this is the norm for Mrs Christie, but she handles these strands well, and they make the ABC Murders seem more modern than many of her works.
- The story holds its grip to the very ending with the plot ticking over nicely and key characters simply but effectively drawn. It’s an ending that has many of the traditional Christie elements – a gathering of interested parties, a single, seemingly obtuse question to each – and yet there is something different too, and a very different feel ….
And now, I think, I cannot say more without saying too much as I am heeding the more words from the original dust jacket.
“In recommending this story to your friends, please do not hint at anything that might spoil their pleasure in reading it.”
My most recent re-read was definitely a pleasure.
The Crime Fiction Alphabet is hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.
“Each week, beginning Monday 10 January 2011, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”
So next week, B is for … ?