Wednesday 26 October 2022

A joke of the first water

The A.B.C. Murders (Hercule Poirot #13) Sometimes you just want to read a page-turner, and you can't beat Agatha Christie for that. I've been working through John Curran's 2009 list of the best 10 Christie mysteries, and have reached number four: The ABC Murders.

One of the pleasures in reading Agatha Christie is that of getting reacquainted with old friends. In this case it's Hercule Poirot, the indomitable Belgian detective, installed "in one of the newest type of service flats in London" and exercising his "little grey cells" in investigating "only the cream of crime."

Poirot receives a letter warning him that a murder is about to take place. The writer is a serial killer who challenges the detective to use his skills to prevent crimes which have not yet occurred and in which random victims are chosen in alphabetical order: Alice Ascher in Andover, Betty Barnard in Bexhill, Carmichael Clarke in Churston. You get the idea.

Captain Hastings, Poirot's dimwitted sidekick narrates the tale. He explains that on being introduced to the detective, people "were always disposed to consider him as a joke of the first water." Inspector Crome, the arrogant Scotland Yard detective seems to be of this opinion. A motley collection of eyewitnesses complete the cast of characters. They are the relatives and friends of the murdered victims who will all be gathered together at the end of the story for Poirot's denouement.

A few years ago I saw an adaptation of The ABC Murders. I didn't remember 'who-done-it' but it wouldn't have mattered even if I had. I've lost count of how many times I've read and watched The Orient Express (I prefer Albert Finney to Kenneth Branagh). Is there anyone who doesn't know the outcome of the train-based investigation? The enjoyment is in following Poirot's methods and reasoning in what is always a baffling case. In The ABC Murders he gathers evidence in a circuitous way because of "the English reaction to a direct question. It is invariably one of suspicion and the natural result is reticence." He's not averse to presenting fake credentials and bribery in order to persuade people to talk, telling one woman, "I am on the staff of the Evening Flicker. I want to persuade you to accept a fee of five pounds". 'Plus ├ža change' as Poirot might say. French words and phrases scatter the detective's dialogue.

There's a surfeit of stereotypes in the story which date it, but it is what it is; a reflection of England in the 1930s, a classic cosy crime. Writers have criticised Christie's books as artificial and have described her prose as banal, but who cares? How many of her detractors can boast that their work is outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare?

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