Archives for category: book review
Agatha Christie Challenge: Book Number 9


The Mystery on the Blue Train is one of Agatha Christie’s lesser known works. Written shortly after Christie’s own sensational divorce, the novel uses divorce as an integral part of the narrative. It’s an entertaining read with a deftly drawn plot, comical asides, and engaging characters. 

The book had its origins in Christie’s 1922 novella, The Plymouth Express, which tells the story of a young heiress who is murdered while on board a train. Christie took that story and expanded it into this full-length Poirot novel. Like many of Christie’s travel stories, The Mystery on the Blue Train evokes an age when travel was a luxury. Images of the Riviera, grand hotels, witty conversation, and smartly dressed people punctuate the book giving it an elegant feel.

The book marks the first mention of the village of St. Mary Mead, the setting for many future Miss Marple stories; and introduces us to a minor character, Miss Viner, who is an unassuming yet crafty spinster with an uncanny ability to see through people. Many critics believe that Miss Viner was the prototype for Jane Marple.

Rating B

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Agatha Christie Challenge: Book Number 8


The Mystery on the Blue Train is one of Agatha Christie’s lesser known works. Written shortly after Christie’s own sensational divorce, the novel uses divorce as an integral part of the narrative. It’s an entertaining read with a deftly drawn plot, comical asides, and engaging characters. 

The book had its origins in Christie’s 1922 novella, The Plymouth Express, which tells the story of a young heiress who is murdered while on board a train. Christie took that story and expanded it into this full-length Poirot novel. Like many of Christie’s travel stories, The Mystery on the Blue Train evokes an age when travel was a luxury. Images of the Riviera, grand hotels, witty conversation, and smartly dressed people punctuate the book giving it an elegant feel.

The book marks the first mention of the village of St. Mary Mead, the setting for many future Miss Marple stories; and introduces us to a minor character, Miss Viner, who is an unassuming yet crafty spinster with an uncanny ability to see through people. Many critics believe that Miss Viner was the prototype for Jane Marple.

Rating B


Mark Twain said, he “[n]ever knew before what eternity was made for. It is to give some of us a chance to learn German.” Yet, despite his criticism of the German language, Twain loved Germany and especially Berlin. He called Berlin the “newest city I have ever seen,” and referred to it as the “German Chicago” because of its energy and sense of vibrancy. By the end of the 19th century, Berlin had transformed itself from a swampy provincial town into a thriving city where the arts, sciences and technology were flourishing. Berlin was soon to become the third largest city in the world and the center of the “new” Europe.

Twain lived in Berlin during the 1890’s, and wrote articles on his everyday life in the city. Many of those stories were never published until quite recently. Andreas Austilat has complied these stories in an insightful book, A Tramp in Berlin. New Mark Twain Stories: An Account of Twain’s Berlin Adventures. For Twain and/or Berlin fans, the book is a must read. 

Agatha Christie Challenge:  Book Number 7


Agatha Christie’s The Big Four (1927) is an unbelievable story of espionage, murder, assumed identities, and international intrigue. To say it requires a suspension of disbelief is to put it mildly. The Big Four is pure entertainment. It’s full of thrills and plenty of red herrings. This time the indomitable Hercule Poirot matches his wits against a diabolical international organization known as the “Big Four.” The story includes a femme fatale, a mysterious Chinese leader, and a secretive lair where criminal activities are engineered. It sounds like a James Bond novel, but it’s Christie, 25 years before the first Bond book. 

Christie was never taken seriously, and The Big Four was not well-received by the critics. Yet, like most of Christie’s novels, The Big Four rises above the typical potboiler. Christie knows how to set-up a scene and build tension. For example, her use of inner dialogue that quickly jumps to narrative action adds a sense of foreboding. This juxtaposition of mood is a quintessential Christie device that never fails to surprise. So suspend disbelief and enjoy The Big Four. It’s the perfect summer read. 

Rating: B

The Agatha Christie Challenge:
Book Number 7

The year is 1926. A milestone in the life of Agatha Christie. Her masterpiece The Murder of Roger Ackroyd has just been published, and she’s at the height of her literary powers. Yet, personal difficulties belie her success. Archie Christie, her husband of 12 years, has asked for a divorce, and her perplexing disappearance of 11 days has made headlines around the world. 

Nevertheless, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is Christie’s defining work, if not her most controversial. It’s considered by many to be one of the finest detective stories ever written. Of course, she employs some of her favorite themes such as blackmail, suicide, and poison, but its frank discussion of drug addiction and its use of “modern” technological gadgetry gives Roger Ackroyd a contemporary feel. It never seems dated. 

Christie’s conventional and deceptively simple writing style (almost cliche) can seem like a work of pulp fiction, but her careful pacing, effective use of humor, and keen psychological insights makes the book more than just a standard mystery.

Roger Ackroyd is foremost a Poirot mystery. Here, Christie shows us an unusually introspective Poirot. We understand some of Poirot’s pathos as he mournfully reflects on his retirement,

The chains of habit. We work to attain an object and the object gained, we find that what we miss is the daily toll.

Even her minor characters come alive. For example, Caroline Sheppard, the narrator’s nosy sister, is drawn as a believable and easily recognizable person, a person we’ve all known.  And unlike the Sherlock Holmes stories, which are almost unsolvable, Christie gives us all the clues needed to solve the mystery. Once the murderer is uncovered, we understand the book’s originality. 

Critics of the book have accused Christie of cheating, and to some extent, she did. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd violates many of the unwritten rules of the mystery-writing genre; yet, we don’t care. Christie has created such an original book that its ending still surprises eighty-seven years after its publication.

Rating: A+


The Agatha Christie Challenge: Book Number 6.


The Secret of Chimneys (1925) is an entertaining book that requires a healthy suspension of disbelief. There’s royal intrigue, blackmail, romance, dizzying plot twists, and a far fetched story line. It’s a witty exercise in puzzle solving that’s full of clever dialogue and red herrings. I enjoyed it immensely. 

However, the book has its faults. Christie’s use of stereotypes and ethnic slurs, suggests that she shared many of the prejudices of her time, including a skepticism of democracy. This was the 1920s. Mussolini governed in Italy, National Socialism was on the assent in Germany, and political unrest in Spain would eventually lead to civil war. Anthony Cade, the book’s central character, puts it simply:

You won’t turn people into angels by appealing to their better natures just yet awhile–but by judicious force you can coerce them into behaving more or less decently to one another to go on with. 

For some people of Christie’s time, the idea of a strong and authoritarian leader seemed like a logical alternative to the problems and uncertainties associated with democracy. For example, in Escape From Freedom (1941), Erich Fromm explored the psychological conditions that facilitated a retreat from democracy and a shift toward fascism in the 1920s and 30s. In The Secret of Chimneys, Christie reflects that shift with her implied endorsement of monarchical rule.

Rating: A-

The Dust-jacket illustration
of the first UK edition in 1924

(I guess this is how the publishers
envisioned Poirot.)

I’m generally not fond of the short story format and this may explain my reaction to Poirot Investigates (1924), the most recent book I’ve read toward my goal of reading all of Agatha Christie’s published works.

This was Christie’s fifth published book and unless you’re an ardent Christie fan, I would skip this collection of 14 unoriginal and flat stories (I suspect these stories were cliché even by 1924 standards). The writing is crisp and some of the stories even humorous, but the mysteries themselves are repetitive and uninspiring. Unlike The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which featured a uniquely developed and nuanced Poirot, this short story collection makes Poirot and Hastings seem like second rate versions of Holmes and Watson.

No doubt about it, Christie is light reading, but some of her works have imaginative and creative plots that account for her continuing popularity. Unfortunately, Poirot Investigates is not an example of Christie’s best work.

Rating: D

I’ve just finished book four of my Agatha Christie challenge, and already I am noticing recurring themes and devices. For example, travel is a key ingredient in many of Christie’s later books (The Mystery on the Blue Train, Murder on the Orient Express, Death in the Clouds, Murder in Mesopotamia, Death on the Nile, Passenger to Frankfurt, etc.) and is already an essential and recurring plot device in these earlier books as well. In Murder on the Links (1923) there’s a chance encounter on a train that is key to solving the murder, in The Secret Adversary (1922), the sinking of the Lusitania is pivotal to the narrative, and in The Man in the Brown Suit (1924) the protagonist witnesses a murder that leads to travel to South Africa. 

Another recurring theme Christie uses (like Alfred Hitchcock later uses) is to place ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Her focus on an ordinary character enables the reader (or the audience in the case of Hitchcock) to relate to the action. In The Secret Adversary, Tommy and Tuppence, two everyday people, become entangled in a spy ring. In The Man in the Brown Suit, an innocent young woman is witness to a murder that eventually leads to international travel. It makes me think of Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, in which Jimmy Stewart plays an average American vacationing in Morocco when his son is kidnapped, and Northwest By Northwest, where a New York businessman, Cary Grant, is mistaken for a CIA agent that culminates on Mount Rushmore. Yet, even though, in a way, they are using the same story over and over, these recurring plot devices never seem hackneyed. Both Christie and Hitchcock always make them seem fresh and new. 

Likewise, Christie employs geopolitical crises in many of her works, not just as background and commentary, but as essential elements in the narrative (South African unrest in The Man in the Brown Suit, and cold war intrigue in They Came to Baghdad).

As a mystery, The Man in the Brown Suit is weak and predicable. Nevertheless, I found the book amusing and funny. Moreover, there are a few interesting coincidental references in the book. For example, the protagonist is the daughter of a famed archaeologist (Christie would later marry an archaeologist). She also happens to have a wise great-aunt Jane (perhaps a forerunner to Miss Jane Marple, who was introduced two years later?)

Rating: B
I’ve just finished book four of my Agatha Christie challenge, and already I am noticing recurring themes and devices. For example, travel is a key ingredient in many of Christie’s later books (The Mystery on the Blue Train, Murder on the Orient Express, Death in the Clouds, Murder in Mesopotamia, Death on the Nile, Passenger to Frankfurt, etc.) and is already an essential and recurring plot device in these earlier books as well. In Murder on the Links (1923) there’s a chance encounter on a train that is key to solving the murder, in The Secret Adversary (1922), the sinking of the Lusitania is pivotal to the narrative, and in The Man in the Brown Suit (1924) the protagonist witnesses a murder that leads to travel to South Africa. 

Another recurring theme Christie uses (like Alfred Hitchcock later uses) is to place ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Her focus on an ordinary character enables the reader (or the audience in the case of Hitchcock) to relate to the action. In The Secret Adversary, Tommy and Tuppence, two everyday people, become entangled in a spy ring. In The Man in the Brown Suit, an innocent young woman is witness to a murder that eventually leads to international travel. It makes me think of Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, in which Jimmy Stewart plays an average American vacationing in Morocco when his son is kidnapped, and Northwest By Northwest, where a New York businessman, Cary Grant, is mistaken for a CIA agent that culminates on Mount Rushmore. Yet, even though, in a way, they are using the same story over and over, these recurring plot devices never seem hackneyed. Both Christie and Hitchcock always make them seem fresh and new. 

Likewise, Christie employs geopolitical crises in many of her works, not just as background and commentary, but as essential elements in the narrative (South African unrest in The Man in the Brown Suit, and cold war intrigue in They Came to Baghdad).

As a mystery, The Man in the Brown Suit is weak and predicable. Nevertheless, I found the book amusing and funny. Moreover, there are a few interesting coincidental references in the book. For example, the protagonist is the daughter of a famed archaeologist (Christie would later marry an archaeologist). She also happens to have a wise great-aunt Jane (perhaps a forerunner to Miss Jane Marple, who was introduced two years later?)

Rating: B
The Agatha Christie Challenge:

A chance encounter on a train, but where will it lead? So begins Murder on the Links (1923). It was Agatha Christie’s third published novel and the second one featuring Hercule Poirot and Arthur Hastings. Christie is still experimenting with plot and narrative techniques; yet, in this book, Christie’s classic trademarks are present: the marginalized woman, thwarted love, and unexpected twists. And even though Christie is still developing the Poirot character, Poirot is more multifaceted than in The Mysterious Affair at StylesHe’s funny, egocentric, compassionate, jealous, and petty. Likewise, Hastings is less a buffoon, and more the lonely heart in search of love. Women are also central to the narrative. Are they victims, murders, or possibly both?

It’s not my favorite Poirot mystery, but it has clever dialogue (especially the banter between Poirot and Hastings) and a surprise ending. It’s one of the few Christie books where I failed to guess the culprit. Overall, I enjoyed the book very much. It was fast paced, inventive, and spiced with humor. One criticism is the constant twists and turns. If anything, they were unnecessary distractions from the overall plot.

Rating: B+