Reading Agatha Christie: I can see the puzzle outline but the interior remains elusive.

ACAs is often the case with me, I was recently inspired by a movie opening to explore the literary source material.  I’m one of those people who assumes that if a movie is based on a book, the book is likely better.  In my experience that is usually the case.  The last time it was The Glass Castle, this time it was Murder On The Orient Express.  For such a famous mystery I couldn’t believe that I could approach the novel unspoiled.  Beyond the obvious murder on a train I had no idea what to expect.

My first experience with Agatha Christie was years ago.  I want to say I was in my late teens at the time but I’m not entirely sure.  I do remember being bored with the mainstream mystery novels of the day.  They were too predictable, with the endings telegraphed from miles away.  Given my decided lack of confidence in the popular mystery novelists of that time I decided to try my hand at mystery’s greatest writer, Agatha Christie.

The first of Ms. Christie’s books that I read was The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side.  Why did my teenage self choose this particular one?  I remember being disappointed by Ms. Christie’s “ancient” detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple.  If I was going to be stuck with an old fogy protagonist I figured the female option would be better.  Why would I want to read about an odd and somewhat frail Belgian whose main distinguishing feature was a huge mustache?

There are twenty-six Miss Marple mysteries so my next decision was which to choose?  I rather quickly settled on The Mirror Crack’d, probably because it centered on a beautiful American actress and Miss Marple didn’t make her appearance until mid-way through the novel.  I also vaguely remember being impressed by the cover.  In my memory it was bright pink and featured a jagged mirror shard that reflected beautiful blond woman’s face.  Though truly, was this even the cover?  I conducted a very brief and non-scientific Google investigation and none of the so-called eleven best The Mirror Crack’d covers fit my description.  I think my memory is a composite of several other covers I may have seen over the years.  Though another cover did look familiar.  This one featured a nice looking – but still elderly (!) –  Miss Marple, wearing a very concerned expression as she raised a pretty tea cup to her lips.  Her obvious distress sold me on the book and home from the library I went determined to crack (pun intended) this mystery.

Perhaps not surprising for those of you who have read Christie, I did not solve the mystery.  This very much pleased me, having grown bored with more obvious contemporary mystery writers.  But perhaps what impressed me the most about this story was how the answer to the mystery lay in plain sight.  I did notice one particularly telling clue, and intuitively knew it was important, by for the life or me I couldn’t figure out why.  When the solution became apparent I couldn’t believe I missed it.

Armed with this knowledge, and being quite a bit older, I tackled Murder On The Orient Express this week with the confidence I would resolve the puzzle before the end.  I did not.  Similar to The Mirror Crack’d I noticed some things that were unusual in the story, too unusual to be coincidental.  For a brief moment I even considered the actual ending, only to discard it because it seemed too ludicrous.  The thing is, that theory of mine was correct only I couldn’t figure how it logically fit into a framework for murder.  It was too fantastic, too far-fetched!  Not to worry, we’re talking Agatha here.  Again, once the complete solution was revealed I couldn’t believe I missed it.  All the clues where there, my instincts were correct, but it couldn’t put it all together.

Given my “near miss” with solving Murder On The Orient express I moved on to another famous Agatha Christie mystery And Then There Were None.  Can we just pause here and admire the brilliance of this title?  So simple yet ominous.  I don’t even need a story blurb to want to read this book.  If only I could come up with such evocative titles!

Similar to my previous two experiences I came close to deciphering what was going on but couldn’t tie it all together.  I will say that I guessed how the murders would occur, exactly who and how the last murder would unfold, an idea of what was really happening on the island, and a theory of how all the victims fit together.  There was a bit of trickery in the story, I thought as much, but failed at being definitive on who was behind the deception and why it was necessary.  I honed in on the murderer, but I also suspected just about all of the characters in the book at one point or another.  I’m not exactly sure how Christie did this but every time I thought I knew who the murder was that very suspect died next in the story.  Masterful!  Though I did have a vague inkling what may be happening, I couldn’t arrange the story into a cohesive whole.  Sound familiar?

There is a reason Agatha Christie is the most widely published author of all time, being outsold only by The Bible and Shakespeare.  Her mysteries grab your attention, are confounding, yet are solved elegantly and surprisingly.  The reader should have seen the ending coming, the carefully disclosed clues point the way, but somehow the solution remains elusive.  Even though she died in 1976 she remains the world’s best-selling novelist to this day.

If you’ve got a hankering for a good mystery you can’t go wrong with Agatha Christie.  Just don’t expect to be able to solve it!

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