Agatha Christie. Illustration: Guardian Design
Kicking off our new monthly guides to an author’s work, crime novelist Janice Hallett puts the spotlight on the creator of Miss Marple and Poirot
The Guardian-Janice Hallett
What with the chart-topping success of Richard Osman’s novels, and a new series by the Rev Richard Coles due later this year, cosy crime fiction seems to be having its moment. If you’ve already raced your way through The Thursday Murder Club and The Man Who Died Twice, why not try picking up a novel by the original queen of crime herself? Janice Hallett, whose bestselling crime novels The Appeal and The Twyford Code have seen her dubbed “a modern Agatha Christie” has put together a handy list to help you choose which one to pick.
The entry point
Famous largely for being Miss Marple’s first appearance in a novel, The Murder at the Vicarage sees thoroughly disagreeable chap Colonel Protheroe murdered, Cluedo-style, in his library, with a gun. Surrounded by villagers who all have an axe to grind with Colonel P, Miss M uses her famous nous to eliminate seven suspects. I’ve seen it dismissed as having dated poorly, but for me this is a funny, witty and sharply observed Christie classic.
The best one
The only thing off about And Then There Were None is its original title. Otherwise, this dark and menacing story of attrition is as brilliant a Christie as you’ll ever hope to read. Ten strangers come together on a windswept island, all with apparently nothing in common. One by one, they meet their various gruesome deaths according to chillingly accurate predictions … The final denouement is as satisfying as it is shocking.
The one to drop into dinner party conversation
What better dinner party fare than Sparkling Cyanide? A group of high-society friends gather for a meal at the same table where exactly a year earlier an heiress died dramatically, apparently in a suicide by poisoning. A lesser-known Christie, it’s adapted from a Poirot short story called Yellow Iris. As your guests check their glasses, be sure to tell them cyanide is not necessarily detectable by its odour.
Murder on the Orient Express has been adapted for the screen no fewer than four times and for good reason: it’s the classic Christie whodunnit in structure, pace, character and mood. It’s also the 10th appearance in a novel for the author’s iconic Belgian detective Poirot. His job this time is to winkle out the guilty party from a bunch of eccentric first-class passengers. The ingenious and unparalleled plot is inspired by two real-life events: the stranding of an Orient Express for six days in Turkey in 1929, and the kidnap of the Lindbergh baby in 1932.
The one for armchair travellers
For an author synonymous with cosy English village mysteries, Christie frequently ventured abroad and takes us with her. For instance, we can wander the nooks and passageways of an archaeological excavation in 1930s Iraq, thanks to Murder in Mesopotamia. For atmosphere and authenticity this title is hard to beat – Christie would accompany her husband on his archaeological digs and knew her sherd from her microlith – even if its plot stretches credulity.
The odd one out
Its distinctly un-Christie-like tone was instantly criticised on publication, but when reading The Seven Dials Mystery today, we are bound to remember that Christie was a contemporary and mutual admirer of both Evelyn Waugh and PG Wodehouse. Her suspects in this laugh-out-loud, upper-class jape all hail from a previous novel, The Secret of Chimneys, and caper across a landscape of stately homes, London pads and exclusive shady clubs littered with as many dead bodies as champagne corks.
The dark one
A later novel, published in 1958, Ordeal By Innocence is a nagging, tragic tale of missed opportunity, a miscarriage of justice and family wrongs that can never be righted. It’s as much a psychological thriller as a murder mystery, with elements that make for uncomfortable reading. Christie herself cited it as one of her favourite titles.
If you’re looking for an ending that shook contemporary readers and is still capable of jolting the unsuspecting reader today, then settle down with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The eponymous victim is a neighbour of Poirot’s and his sudden, violent demise brings the detective out of retirement.
The one that influenced the rest
You’ll probably be familiar with the structure of Five Little Pigs even if you’ve never read the book. It’s a Poirot murder-romp in which the story of a woman convicted of murdering her artist husband is told multiple times from multiple characters’ points of view. The result is a cracking mystery, perfectly balanced and highly sophisticated. Its influence echoes down through decades of detective fiction on page and screen. The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, Vantage Point, Knives Out … to name just three brilliant 21st century tributes to the legacy and genius of Christie.
And, if you like Christie, which other authors should you try?
Anything by Dorothy L Sayers (especially Strong Poison), Sophie Hannah’s Hercule Poirot series and The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo.
The Twyford Code by Janice Hallett is published by Profile (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply