Beginning Agatha Christie – A Request For Help

In lieu of a review for today – The Last Policeman by Ben H Winters will be coming along tomorrow, hopefully – a request for help. Don’t worry, it doesn’t involve money or time, just a quick question.

As you may have grasped from my ramblings, I’m a teacher and next term, one of the reading groups is going to be looking at detective fiction – notably, Dame Agatha herself. I’ve been chatting to our librarian about it and we’ve been discussing which book to use. Needless to say, I haven’t come to a conclusion yet. So here are the conditions:

  1. It needs to be accessible to bright 14-15 year old girls.
  2. It needs to be a page turner.
  3. It would probably help if it involved Poirot or Miss Marple.
  4. It would also help if the explanation wasn’t too technical.

So, much as I think that they are some of her best work, I’d eliminate:

  • After The Funeral as it takes a while to get going
  • The Murder of Roger Ackroyd as some of the final explanations get a bit fiddly – and they probably wouldn’t know what a dictaphone is.
  • Hercule Poirot’s Christmas as it’s a bit messy and gets a bit talky in the middle.

The books that spring to mind are The ABC Murders, Peril At End House, Lord Edgware Dies or, for Miss Marple, A Murder Is Announced or A Caribbean Mystery, the latter simply because it hasn’t been televised recently.

Any other suggestions – possibly, if I remove the known character condition, And Then There Were None – although not my amazingly racist copy – or Crooked House?

Ladies and gentlemen with better memories than me, which Christie’s got you hooked way back when? You have a chance to help me indoctrinate a new generation of mystery-lovers! Please help out with your thoughts!

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About Puzzle Doctor

I'm a mathematician by nature and as such have always been drawn to the logical side of things. Hence my two main hobbies being classic mysteries and logical puzzling. Oh, and cats. No logic there, I'm afraid.
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56 Responses to Beginning Agatha Christie – A Request For Help

  1. richmcd says:

    In terms of being hooked, I’m afraid I read Ackroyd first. So that’s already out. But from anecdotal evidence I’m not sure it matters. A lot of people seem to be hooked by the format rather than because the first detective novel they read was a belter. It’s hard to keep track of the number of times you see something like: “On rereading X it turns out it’s actually not very good, but I’ve still got a soft spot for it because it’s the first one I read.”

    Sorry for the complete non-answer.

    From a teaching standpoint, I think it would really depend on what the focus of the lessons is going to be.

    Are you going to be focusing on the puzzle aspect (i.e. How language can be used to both tell a story and craft/hide a puzzle)? Or societal context? Or are you going to be comparing different sorts of detective fiction? etc. etc.

    Without more specific criteria I think I’d go for Curtain. It’s under-rated, complex and more thematic than most of her stuff. It’s also her best stab at first person narration.

    Only problem is I don’t think it’s been adapted. I know at my school we always used to watch a film or something of the books we were studying. But on the plus side the kids can’t just go off and watch a film at home instead of reading it! (That may or may not be how I got my A* for Jane Eyre coursework!)

    • Probably looking at the combination of puzzle and story telling and I take your point about the TV adaptations – hence my Caribbean Mystery suggestion. But I think Curtain is not a good introduction to the genre – apart from the obvious “last case” issue, I don’t have many fond memories of it.

      In terms of comparisons, we might be doing a Sherlock Holmes book as well – I think that makes a nice contrast.
      Sent from my BlackBerry® smartphone on O2

  2. richmcd says:

    Oh it’s a shame you didn’t like it. I think Curtain’s her best book by a mile.

    Death on the Nile, then? There’s some good characterization and a proper Golden Age implausible puzzle. It’s also pretty prototypical Christie.

  3. Paul says:

    And Then There Were None was the first Christie book I read. It was 1983, I was ten and it had the N word in the title! It’s still a great book. However if you want a Poirot, then I would suggest Murder in Mesopotamia, Cat Among the Pigeons or Hallowe’en Party.

    • Definitely considering And Then There Were None. That’s the second vote for Mesopotamia. Cat… has the advantage of being set in a girls’ school so it has potential as well. I think Hallowe’en Party, given it starts with the drowning of a schoolgirl, is probably not under consideration…

  4. Paul says:

    Have you considered tackling Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham?

  5. I would dodge CROOKED HOUSE for its conclusion, which might be judged in poor taste given the target readership. Also maybe best to stay away from the ones best known from film & TV adaptations (I’m thinking ORIENT EXPRESS and NILE).

    I agree that ABC MURDERS and MURDER IS ANNOUNCED would be excellent choices. I would add EVIL UNDER THE SUN and APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH perhaps for Poirot and for Miss Marple maybe THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY. Of the non main detective titles, I would pick TOWARDS ZERO or the more light-hearted WHY DIDN’T THEY ASK EVANS? and, although you hated it, ENDLESS NIGHT, which might be an attractive alternative for a book that feels more update and less remote from modern times. Let us know what gets chosen!

    • I’ve got all summer to decide, so I’m having a bit of a Christie indulgence over the next couple of months. Just started A Caribbean Mystery which, unfortunately, has an extraordinarily un-PC first chapter. Dame Agatha showing her opinion of the youth of the sixties…

  6. Les Blatt says:

    My favorite is AND THEN THERE WERE NONE, but, as you point out, it’s not one with her main characters – and, of course, it’s something of a downer, although a useful lesson in misdirection. I do like THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY for Miss Marple, mostly for how she stands the titular cliche on its head. It’s been too long since I read A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED for me to evaluate it. THE A.B.C. MURDERS is another fine lesson in misdirection, as well as being an early “serial killer” book, and Poirot comes across very well, I think. For something light-hearted, of course, there’s either WHY DIDN’T THEY ASK EVANS or the equally enjoyable, light thriller, THE MAN IN THE BROWN SUIT. So many Christies, so little time…

  7. Skywatcher says:

    ABC MURDERS is a must. Clever puzzle, and the style is light and easy. On top of this, the serial killer aspect of the story makes it look rather more modern.

    MURDER IS ANNOUNCED has splendid, knotty problem, along with some clever sub-plots that are wound up in the end.

    MRS MCGINTY’S DEAD. Well plotted, and there is a nice sprinkling of humour.

    THE LABOURS OF HERCULES. The best short story collection. I know that you’re really looking for a novel, but some of the stories have links, and the over-arching idea gives the whole thing a unity that is missing from the other collections.

    THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY. Good puzzle, and the characters are interesting.

    THE MOVING FINGER. As well as a good main plot, there are some nice romantic sub-plots. The poison pen idea is out of the ordinary.

    SLEEPING MURDER. Good, average Christie, with some good characterisation.

    • Hmm. The Moving Finger – there’s a very nice motive for one of the murders, concerning what a character saw… very “classic” mystery. Might have to re-read it for the content of the poison pen letters though. Body In The Library is getting a lot of yay-sayers, so I’d better look again at that one too.

  8. OK, just started reading A Caribbean Mystery and I think it’s put itself out of the running in the first two pages. Dame Agatha expressing her opinions on the “young people of the day” again… Not that I’m stopping reading it, but not sure I should give it to 14 year old girls…

  9. richmcd says:

    Apart from my quibble that the Geraldine McEwan solution that everyone complained about makes just as much sense as Agatha’s, I think that BODY IN THE LIBRARY might be a good choice (although the second victim is a schoolgirl who seems to have been burnt to death…)

    ABC and AND THEN THERE WERE NONE are fine books, but I wouldn’t say they were really very “Christie-ish” in their plotting. THE MOVING FINGER or EVIL UNDER THE SUN seem more representative of the rest of her output.

    Perhaps DEATH IN THE CLOUDS? That’s pacy, simple and not too gruesome. And there’s some interesting stuff about how air travel has changed (without it being potentially confusing like the dictaphone stuff in Ackroyd)

    • Death In The Clouds… The reading list is getting longer. It does have that lovely very early clue, doesn’t it? A definite possibility.

      Definitely trying to avoid murdered schoolgirls – so Body might be out as well.

  10. I think FIVE LITTLE PIGS is one of her best, but it might not fit the bill of ‘page-turner.’ I think I’d go with A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED. Whatever you choose, I hope you produce some lifelong Christie fans!

    • A Murder Is Announced does keep moving – and the first murder is very early. Also, it’s not too hard to work out, I think, which might make it a good choice. Thanks for the advice.

  11. Karen Sterling says:

    Why not “4:50 from Paddington?” This is one of my favorite Miss Marple stories even though Lucy does most of the detecting.

  12. TC says:

    I definitely would suggest And Then There Were None. It has a high body count and I definitely would characterize it as a page-turner. It moves along at a great pace. My wife had never read Agatha Christie before meeting me and that’s the one I started her off with. She’s read it twice and lent it to her friend who also loved it. It’s a great book that has aged very well.

  13. Kingshuk says:

    There are so many books to choose from… I think you should pick one which is good, but not one of the best. That way, your students can be pleasantly surprised discovering them later. You can choose Cat Among the Pigeons, as it happens in a boarding school, and perhaps, they can also get a sense of how the educational system has changed (or not changed).

    • Thanks for the suggestion – I just need to check if the inappropriate school behaviour is the right sort on inappropriate behaviour. Definitely high on the list to check though.

  14. Risto M K Raitio says:

    Of the Marple books, I’d suggest The Mirror Crack’d, which got me hooked to the spinster sleuth of St Mary Mead at roughly that age (maybe a year or two earlier). With Poirot, I’m trying to connect with my younger self – and in that case, probably, Death on the Nile, or Three Act Tragedy. Of the non-series novels, you can’t go wrong with Murder Is Easy: a great opening, and enough murders to keep the teens riveted, I’d imagine. :D

    • Thanks for the suggestions. I agree about The Mirror Crack’d. That was an early one for me too. Somehow I’d dismissed it – maybe because the ITV version was so recent. I’ll need to give Three Act Tragedy and Murder Is Easy another look to remind myself. Death On The Nile is a distinct possibility but the Ustinov version does get a lot of showings on ITV3…

    • Peter says:

      Another vote for The Mirror Crack’d — the first Agatha Christie novel I ever read and I was hooked! I think girls today can still relate to it, given our ongoing obsession with celebrities. Also, there’s this nice little tie-in to Tennyson. Reading the original poem in class and discussing the thematic connection would be interesting.

      Since I first read this book 30+ years ago, it has stayed in my mind because I leaned a few things about human nature. Love. Loss. Longing. The idea that people who appear to have everything can be desperately unhappy.

      All wrapped up in a fun mystery with glamour and intrigue. What teenage girl wouldn’t enjoy reading The Mirror Crack’d ?

      • richmcd says:

        I think the problem with The Mirror Crack’d is that it really works best if you’ve read Body in the Library. I think the mystery is much less interesting than the changes that have happened at Gossington Hall, which are going to be lost on you if it’s your first Marple.

        Also I think there’s a real weakness in that Miss Marple only solves it because Cherry basically tells her the answer in an exchange that does no favours for either character. Christie was never great at writing servant characters but she makes poor Cherry seem impossibly stupid.

      • The other mild issue with this is that it uses one of Agatha’s overused ideas – no spoilers – but she has done it better elsewhere. A Murder Is Announced, for example.

  15. Noah Stewart says:

    I’ll recommend one that hasn’t popped up here yet — Murder At Hazelmoor (aka The Sittaford Mystery) — for some unusual reasons. One is that the students are not likely to be able to easily track down a video version and substitute that for reading the actual book. Another is that the ouija board section, which later proves to have been manipulated by a criminal, is a good object lesson. And the third is that the young woman heroine defies the romantic conventions and stays in love with a man whom she knows to have flaws, rather than switching beaux because of the attentions of a handsome reporter.
    I think an interesting consideration in the choice of a Christie novel in this precise context would be that it presents something to young teenage girls that might be valuable to them in later life. So, for instance, in Cards on the Table, a young woman is discerned to have stolen stockings from Poirot and has been easily detected. I think Peril at End House, as well as being a good mystery, has an interesting subtext about the evils of drugs for young women AND that it’s not a good idea to fall in love with someone else’s boyfriend to the point of obsession.
    Good luck with the project!

    • The problem with The Sittaford Mystery, as I mentioned when I reviewed it here, has a massive cheat in it at the start, IMHO. But I agree, the Marple version was almost unrecognisable… Cards On The Table, I think the central clue, via the bridge bidding, is far too into the unknown for teenage girls. Peril At End House is a distinct possibility, partly because I don’t recall it being that hard to figure out.

      Thanks for the recommendations.

  16. lydstone says:

    Definitely The ABC Murders. Poirot travels all over the country (tackling geography!) including down into deepest Devon, where Christie actually lived and had a holiday home. Plus there’s a steam train ride from Paddington, there’s a serial killer, there’s logical reasoning behind the murders and in essence the tale is quite simple but nevertheless evocative. I actually work on developing the Christie links on the English Riviera (Torquay and surroundings) and our literary trail details more about the books that have connections with Devon. Have a look here: http://www.englishriviera.co.uk/agathachristie. If fans are interested, there’s an Agatha Christie Festival each September in Torquay – more details on the same site.

  17. Nina says:

    Have you considered Ordeal By Innocence? Lots of room for discussion and obsessions. I enjoy your posts.

  18. Nina says:

    I just finished Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks by John Curran. I very interesting peek in how she plotted and made changes before the days of word processors. The book also told of how some ideas went used for years and some of the settings (relating to real places.)

    • I’m definitely going to have a look a these books, but I’m waiting to refresh my memory on some of her books before doing so. Unfortunately, I’ve re-acquired a bit of a Christie bug, so regular readers might be in for a bit of a shock, once I clear my backlog.

  19. Mieze says:

    I tried to remember which were the first Agatha Christie books I’ve read when I was younger, and I was suprised that it’s been in both cases the first book of the “series”: The Mysterious Affair At Styles and The Murder At The Vicarage. I loved Poirot’s first case, and my vote for a Miss Marple goes either for A Murder Is Announced or A Pocket Full Of Rye. The latter was the first book I read in English at school (German being my mothertounge) – I still remember the classes fondly. It was not too difficult to read, intriguing and not too alienate for me as young reader, the rhyme thing a nice touch which I appreciated then more then now (our teacher did an excursus about nursery rhymes in English/German – well, we’ve been beginners ;-) ). I also like some of the books were Poirot is partnered with Ariadne Oliver, because I like their contradictions and the added humour. But I have to admit I can’t quite tell which one of those I found best (probably Mrs McGinty’s Dead).

    • Completely agree with these suggestions – although I have a memory of struggling a bit with A Pocketful of Rye when I was young but have no idea why that was, as it’s a great Marple.

      I’m slightly wary of the Ariadne Oliver books, simply because they are mostly late-Christie and those can be coloured with Dame Agatha’s off-hand comments on “young people today” – see my upcoming review of A Caribbean Mystery – but – as you’ll see soon in my upcoming Mrs McGinty’s Dead review – that one is fine. Much more than fine, in fact…

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  23. sakura says:

    My favourite of Christie’s mysteries is still the first one I read when I was nine, Murder on the Links. She completely fooled me and I still remember my shock at discovering whodunnit!

  24. Sana says:

    One of my very favourite Chrisite’s is The Seven Dials Mystery. No Poirot or Miss Marple, but you’ve got an intrepid young lady trying to solve murders and busting a secret organization. It is an easy, lighthearted read.

    Love you blog, by the way!

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  27. Rach says:

    I was thrilled to see someone mention The Man In The Brown Suit – I thought I was the only person that loved that Christie! I always thought it would make a cracking film, as it had a bit of everything – mystery, romance, thrills, adventures, exotic locations…

    My other top choices have mostly already been mentioned: The ABC Murders, Death On The Nile, And Then There Were None (a total page turner! It still kind of gives me the creeps…). Cat Among The Pigeons was fun because of the setting and characters, and I loved Peril At End House but you’ve already gone back and reviewed those two! I remember really enjoying Cards On The Table too, but for the bridge reasons you’ve mentioned, I can see why that might not be the best choice. I’d personally pick a Poirot over a Marple as I just feel that Poirot is a much more active participant in the mysteries than Marple (I often forget she’s even there – I “get” that that’s her thing though!), and Poirot is just a more entertaining character in general.

    Incidentally, the first Christie I read was The Mystery of the Blue Train. DEFINITELY not her best, but it certainly got me hooked! Can’t wait to see which one you pick and if you manage to get a new batch of Christie converts.

    • I settled on Poirot very quickly, mainly for those reasons – and also the TV adaptations are, I find, a bit duller than the Marples and less likely to hold the attention of a 14 year old girl! I have decided and will be posting about it soon. Bit of a backlog of actual reviews to get through first though…

  28. Shivam says:

    Why not “The Mysterious Affair at Styles”?

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