The A.B.C. Murders – Agatha Christie

 

What: paperback
What else: First person narrative
Wherefore: it was on Mount TBR, and my Kindle was acting up

Hastings: “I admit,” I said, “that a second murder in a book often cheers things up.”

Poirot has semi-retired, but has discovered he is no better suited to the state than Holmes is said to have been, and so lets it be known that he is available to take those cases that interest him (again, like Holmes). At the beginning of this tale Hastings has come home to England from his ranch in Argentina, and expresses his hopes that some interesting case might pop up while he’s there. And, of course, it does. Though it does not necessarily seem that way at first.

Poirot receives an odd letter – printed, in common ink on common paper, and a postmark unremarkable – which proposes a challenge for the great mind. It’s cheeky, and mildly insulting to the famous detective, and is signed “A.B.C.”, and indicates that something is going to happen on a specific day in a specific town, and let’s just see how clever you are! Hastings pooh-poohs the letter as one of those things written by some random crazy person, but Poirot is troubled by it.

Something does indeed happen on that day in that town: an elderly woman is found murdered in her tobacco shop. Poirot, uneasy, heads to the crime scene. Hastings makes no bones about how utterly bored he is with the mere “sordid murder of an old woman”. It’s because the killer seems to be obvious – if Poirot hadn’t received the letter there would never have been any question about it. And it’s also because the victim is dull. A sordid domestic dispute is the only reason an older woman would be murdered. Bo-ring. This was about when I realized how little I like Hastings. I don’t know if Christie was purposely using the smart Holmes-stupid Watson template, but Watson was never this thick, and would have given a damn about the death of an old woman, whether it was a case deserving of a great detective or not.

As it turns out, this is deserving: the woman’s name, her shop name, and her town all begin with “A”. Then another letter comes directing Poirot’s attention to a town beginning with “B”. Uh oh. And sure enough, the victims begin to pile up, in strict alphabetical order.

I’ve never been a big Poirot fan. I don’t know if it’s the prissiness or the accent or the little grey cells or the mustache or what, but I’ll take Miss Marple any time, scary as she can be. In fact, I pulled this off the shelf because I would have sworn it was a Miss M. Oops. Still, the story was fun – except for one thing, which will be a spoiler I’ll mark as such in the last paragraph of this review. It was as though Christie made up her mind to make this a very thorough departure from the usual plot, and had some fun playing with her serial killer.

She also had fun with her secondary characters. A few of them – one victim’s sister, another’s niece, the official investigators – were lovely, with a surprising amount of life for minor characters in a fairly short book. I liked the attitudes taken toward the string of crimes. Poirot is grave; Hastings is confused (no surprise there); Japp and the other professional investigators are grimly determined to stop this string of sequential murders before it gets too far into the alphabet. “I”, they figure. Hopefully “H”. They’re just being realistic, but the apparent callousness of it is breathtaking, like the tv crime shows where the detectives are seen joking over the corpse (*cough*Rizzoli and Isles*cough*).

The solution is the part that bothered me – and here comes a big fat spoiler (though it’s who the killer is not rather than who it is). -> -> ->

The actual identity of the actual murderer was fairly satisfying. It was the fact that the narrative often broke away from Hastings’s first-person journal entries to follow an unknown about for a little while in the most incriminating manner – that was what annoyed me. In a way, the poor man was so obviously the murderer that it was obvious he was not the murderer, if you know what I mean; however, it felt like being lied to when it became clear just how innocent he was, and I’m not sure if there was any evidence that would lead an armchair detective to figure out who, in fact, dunnit. I generally dislike murder mysteries in which the narrative departs from the usual point of view to show the story from the killer’s angle; on the whole I’d rather stay with the hunters full time. When the breaks turn out to be not so much a red herring as a red humpback whale, I just feel like Dame Agatha was snickering up her cardigan sleeve at me.

All in all, though, this was more fun than I expected, and made me glad I’ve picked up a healthy stock of Christies to fill in any gaps in my reading schedule. As if there were any of those.

 

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