By Barbara Peterson

Memories of a Mousetrap

The first 'adult' mystery I ever read (graduating from The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and my favorite, The Three Investigators - which I still continue to read today!) was The Secret Adversary, by Agatha Christie, which got me hooked on Christie. The first play I ever saw was her The Mousetrap in London's West End; even when I first saw it over fifteen years ago it was the longest running play in the world - and it got me hooked on the theater.

Agatha Christie is known as the Queen of Crime, her novels have been dramatized on tv. The series Poirot starring David Suchet, and Miss Marple starring Joan Hickson, not to mention the movies with Margaret Rutherford, Peter Ustinov and Albert Finney's excellent Murder on the Orient Express, and my favorite Christie movie, Rene Clair's 1940 version of And Then There Were None.

But, Agatha Christie wrote over sixty books, and filled twenty volumes worth of collected short stories, and in her later career I believe her quality declined. She always turned out a 'Christie for Christmas' - one a year. Having to write with such speed took its toll. Not all of these later books are bad, I quite like some of them, but below I've chosen what I consider are the best. They evoke the spirit of the times - the '20s and '30s.

I'll start with four collections of short stories that I feel are the best she's ever written.

Parker Pyne Investigates
The title of this compilation of short stories is misleading. Parker Pyne isn't really a detective. He's the forerunner of Mission: Impossible! His newspaper ad reads, ''Are you happy? If not, consult Mr. Parker Pyne.'' A middle-aged wife does, and gets a 24-hour romance' to secretly cherish. A bored soldier does, and gets to rescue a woman from gangsters and make her his wife. A city clerk, happy at home and work, nevertheless would like to have one adventure to remember for the rest of his life. He rescues a Russian emigre and her jewels, but of course there's a twist. A rich woman wants to be told what to do with her money. She ends up being transported into the body of a farm-girl. (Hey - this is a good story!). There are 12 stories in the book. The last five follow Parker Pyne around the world as he tries to take a vacation, but keeps getting mixed up with people who need help. These five are more detective-story oriented than the rest, and suffer for it, I think, but they are all good stories.

Order Parker Pyne Investigates : HERE.

The Mysterious Mr. Quin

Little Mr. Satterthwaite is a looker on of life. He's not a detective, but fate has chosen him to be present at times when his help is needed by the ephemeral Mr. Harley Quin. Events occur around him, Mr. Harley Quin comments significantly, and Satterthwaite takes action to save someone from suicide, or prison, or murder. These stories written in the thirties are a forerunner of the Highway to Heaven type stories. My favorites are World's End where a young painter is debating suicide because her boyfriend has been jailed for a crime he didn't commit, and The Man From The Sea, about a man who, after being told he has cancer, returns to a Meditteranean village where he'd been happy, and a woman there who is contemplating suicide to save her only son from the disgrace of being illegitimate. Not all of the stories have happy endings; some are thought-provoking. They are all well written and memorable.

Order The Mysterious Mr. Quin : HERE.

Partners in Crime

These short stories feature Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, whom we first meet in The Secret Adversary (described below). They are now married, and Tommy has a minor job in the secret service. In the 'framing story', his boss wants to enlist Tuppence to aid them in capturing a 'Mr. Big' super spy. The rest of the stories feature mystery stories in which Tommy imitates the detecting style of one of the well-known detectives of the day (in the '20s). For example in one story he wears dark glasses so that he can't see, a la Max Carrodos, in another he has an execreble French accent and a passion for neatness....Fun stuff.

Order Partners in Crime : HERE.

The Labors of Hercules
These short stories feature Hercule Poirot. They all follow a theme, so I'd say they almost classify as a novel. Poirot plans to retire, and go out in style, so intends to take only 12 cases that can be made to fit the mythological adventures told in 'The Labors of Hercules''.

His first case, The Adventure of the Nemean Lion, involves the kidnapping of a Pekinese dog. It's not the kind of case he'd promised himself, but he is interested in it...My favorite is The Stymphalean Birds - an innocent Englishman who speaks no languages other than English is at the mercy of the Stymphalean Birds - black-mailing women who intend to take him for everything he's got. Christie's ingenuity in designing stories to fit the mythological labors is amusing, and the stories are all well designed and told.

Order The Labors of Hercules : HERE.

Destination Unknown
Although most famous for her creations of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, Christie wrote several books without them in it, most of them not adventure/suspense rather than detective stories. In Destination Unknown, the heroine is a young woman named Hilary. She has taken a round the world tour in order to forget a child dead of meningitis and a husband who has abandoned her - but different surroundings haven't changed how she feels - depressed and suicidal. Then, she misses her flight - and hours later the airplane crashes. Most of the passengers aboard are dead. One of them, dying but not yet dead, is a woman who looks remarkably like Hilary. She's the wife of a British scientist who has disappeared.

A British secret agent sees Hilary and prevents her from committing suicide. Instead he offers her a more sporting chance at death. Scientists have been disappearing all over the world, no one knows how they disappear or where they go. The secret service had been following the wife of one of them, hoping she would lead them to her husband. Now she is dying, will Hilary impersonate her, follow the 'escape route', and find out what is happening to the scientists?

Order Destination Unknown : HERE.

And Then There Were None
The first couple of chapters introduce the characters - eight people travelling to an isolated island to spend the weekend. On the island wait a butler and cook. They are to be the guests of a Mr. U.N. Owen, whom none of them have ever seen.

They aren't permitted to enjoy the ambiance of the island for very long. The butler plays a phonograph record. He thinks its just a piece of music. Instead, it's an unknown voice accusing each of them of having committed murder and gotten away with it....until now.

After that, things start happening fast and furious. One by one the guests are killed...but who's doing it?

Agatha Christie dramatized this into a play, and it's been made into a movie at least three times. The first one was the best, Rene Clair's And Then There Were None starring Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Huston, Louis Hayward, Mischa Auer, Judith Anderson, and Richard Haydn. Queenie Leonard (the wife of George Sander's brother Tom Conway) plays the cook. If you get a chance to see this on AMC or TNT or wherever it's being shown, watch it!

Order And Then There Were None : HERE.

The Man in the Brown Suit
Anne Beddingfeld, the heroine of this story, lives in a small English village. She's kept house for her father, an absent-minded professor, for over ten years; he's just died and she's alone in the world with no money. She accepts her father's lawyer's offer to come live with him and his wife in London. The older couple expect her to find work as a governess, but she wants adventure! And she gets it, when she witnesses a man accidentally fall onto the train tracks in the Underground. A man in a brown suit pushes forward to examine the body, as he hurries away he drops a piece of paper, upon which are the words, 'Kilmorden Castle'. These words catapult Anne into a new world of adventure, as she takes a ticket aboard a luxury liner bound for Africa in order to investigate the man in the brown suit and a cache of stolen diamonds.

Order The Man In The Brown Suit : HERE.

One of Agatha Christie's firt adventure stories, as always light-hearted and fast paced.

It's right after World War I. Soldiers have been demobbed (demobilized) and are having trouble finding work. Women have had to give up their jobs in the factories. Tommy and Tuppence, old friends, meet in the Underground, and go to a tea shoppe to catch up on old times. There, they overhear a conversation at the next table. The words that intrigue them: ''Who is Jane Finn?'' Tuppence is an adventuresome woman, and Tommy is game, they form 'The Young Adventurer's Ltd.' on the spur of the moment and decide to find out who is Jane Finn. They place an ad in the newspaper, and the responses catapult them into the world of espionage.

This is a fun read. The characters of Tommy and Tuppence are likeable, it's well written, and you want to know what happened to Jane Finn! Order The Secret Adversary : HERE.

4:50 From Paddington
Most of the Miss Marple books are very good, beginning with Murder at the Vicarage. At Bertram's Hotel is the only one I really don't like. However, my favorite is 4:50 From Paddington (perhaps because the detective work is actually accomplished by a young, capable, likeable woman named Lucy Eyelsbarrow).

Miss McGillicuddy, a friend of Miss Marple's, witnesses a murder aboard one train as her own passes by. Since she's an elderly woman, no one believes her, except her friend Miss Marple. Miss Marple and Miss McGillicuddy retrace the train ride, and Miss Marple deduces where a body could be thrown from a train, and then taken somewhere and hidden. After this deduction, she enlists the aid of Lucy Eyelsbarrow to go to work at the house and see what she can find out. What Lucy finds out, of course, is a house rife with tension and reasons for murder.

The characters are likeable, the mystery is well constructed. It's a good book.

Margaret Rutherford made several Miss Marple movies. Of course she did not resemble Miss Marple in any way, shape, or form, but if you're a fan of Rutherford you would like these movies and just accept them for what they were. However, the movie she made based on this book was the best of her series, and closest to the book.

Order 4:50 From Paddington : HERE. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
The best Hercule Poirot is a tough choice. The A.B.C. Murders, Five Little Pigs, and Evil Under the Sun are also my favorites, but here I'm only going to cover The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Cards on the Table and Murder on the Orient Express.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd takes place after The Labors of Hercules, Poirot has retired to a country village to grow vegetable marrows. Hastings is no where to be found. The narrator of the book is a Dr. Shepherd, and it is his friend, country squire Roger Ackroyd, who is murdered. The narrator is likeable, comic characters abound, the mystery is well-constructed.

And, of course, it's ending makes the book infamous. Did Agatha Christie play fair, or didn't she? I think she played fair.

Order The Murder of Roger Ackroyd : HERE.

Cards on the Table
Hercule Poirot, Police Superintendent Battle, Detective Novelist Ariadne Oliver, and Colonel Race (all characters Christie had introduced in other books) are invited by Mr. Shaitana to a bridge party, in order to meet four of his friends....each of whom is a murderer. Or at least, so Mr. Shaitana suspects. And he's got to be right in one case, because by the end of the bridge party Mr. Shaitana has been murdered, stabbed in the back.

The detectives team up to solve the murder. It's fast paced, purely a puzzle problem, with not much character development, but that doesn't matter. You don't need to know bridge to solve the murder, but this book will intrigue you to learn bridge.

Order Cards on the Table : HERE.

Murder on the Orient Express
The movie based on this book, starring Albert Finney, was one of the first Agatha Christie movies in a long time to be relatively faithful to its source material. And I loved the star-studded cast. This book is perhaps one of Christie's most famous.

Hercule Poirot is travelling around the world on holiday, but is called home, so makes an emergency booking on the Orient Express. He has a problem getting a first class coach - despite the time of the year the train is booked solid. But fortunately he's friends with one of the directors of the Wagon Lit line, and so he does get on board the train.

During the night, the train becomes snowbound, but that doesn't prevent murder from taking place. A Mr. Ratchett is cruelly done to death, but who done it, and did he deserve it?

Again there's no character development here (there's little character development in any Christie book, the puzzle's the thing. Nevertheless she creates many likeable characters). Poirot interrogates the passengers of the Calais coach, and learns of a past crime (based on the Lindbergh kidnapping case). The ending is emotionally powerful.

Order Murder on the Orient Express : HERE.

Admirers of the author will also want to check out Agatha Christie: An Autobiography : HERE.

Go to Dated Death book reviews:

[Leonidas Witherall] [Georgette Heyer] [ Sounds of Murder][Agatha Christie] [As My Wimsey Takes Me] [Richard III][Sebastien Japrisot][Helene Hanff] [B&W Mysteries

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