Friday, March 29, 2013

Christie's Least Favorite Novel

"I saw a particular personage and I threatened him — yes, Mademoiselle, I, Hercule Poirot, threatened him."

"With the police?"

"No," said Poirot drily, "with the press — a much more deadly weapon."

Agatha Christie
The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928)

On this day in 1928, Agatha Christie was a rising young writer of 38.

She had published seven novels since 1920 — including some that are still considered among her best — but she didn't have much regard for the one that was published on this date in 1928, "The Mystery of the Blue Train."

Christie called it "easily the worst book I ever wrote," although she acknowledged that "many people, I'm sorry to say, like it." Count me among them.

I guess it was irresistible for me. I read it a year or two after I first saw "Murder on the Orient Express" — and read the book upon which it was based (which, as I understand it, was one of her favorites) — and I guess I had something of a weakness for a mystery that takes place on a train.

Before I say any more, let me say a few words about writing.

I've been writing most of my life, and I've always prided myself on being able to write about many different topics. But I've admired the ability to focus on a specific niche. I've always had too many interests, I suppose, which may well mean that, when I worked as a general assignment reporter, I was in the job for which I was best suited.

But it seems to me that the writers who find a specific niche are the ones who also find the greatest success in this business. Not so much the nonfiction writers. The nature of their work requires them to be curious about many things.

A niche is particularly important, I suppose, for writers of fiction, and when one discusses the writing career of Agatha Christie, it is hard to avoid certain conclusions.

Obviously, her niche was the detective novel, but she did write other things. Not many, but a few. Nevertheless, she is still known, more than 35 years after her death, as a crime writer — odds are, she always will be.

Within that genre, she focused on Britain's well–to–do, and her plot device frequently was to have her detective (more often than not, that was Hercule Poirot — although Miss Marple was another detective who was familiar to Christie's fans) either stumble onto a murder (or, on occasion, several murders) or be asked by an old friend/colleague to investigate an existing case that was baffling others.

That detective proceeded to question each of the suspects, which supposedly provided all the clues the reader would need to solve the crime. I say "supposedly" because there have been some who have suggested that prominent mystery writers have pulled some fast ones. Among those dissenters is playwright Neil Simon, who alleged, in "Murder By Death," that some of the greatest fictional detectives of all time deceived their readers with clues and suspects that didn't appear in the books until the final pages, if at all.

That wasn't entirely fair.

Quite often, Christie's stories would have another character killed near the end — but that was usually because that character had discovered something crucial and was silenced by the original guilty party. Furthermore, those characters weren't introduced in the final chapter. They had been around for awhile.

Christie wrote more than five dozen novels, many of which were made into movies or TV adaptations. Nearly a dozen of her books have inspired video games. Most of this has come since her death in 1976.

Not bad.

But "The Mystery of the Blue Train" has not been turned into a movie. It was an adaptation on the British TV series "Agatha Christie's Poirot" in 2005 — more than 75 years after it was published.

But that's it, and I find that surprising.

I'll grant you, I didn't think "The Mystery of the Blue Train" was her best book. But I wouldn't go as far in the other direction as Christie herself did. Neither would fellow English crime writer Robert Barnard, who has said that Christie is his favorite crime writer. Despite modest criticism, Barnard wrote in 1980 that "there are several fruitier candidates for the title of 'worst Christie'."

The victim in "The Mystery of the Blue Train" is a young heiress who is traveling to the French Riviera by train. She is found strangled in her compartment and a valuable piece of jewelry is determined to be missing.

Poirot just happens to be on the train and is approached by the victim's father and his secretary to investigate.

As usual, there were some modest differences between the book and the TV adaptation — and I say "modest" because, as far as I am concerned, they did not make significant changes in the story, only cosmetic ones designed to appeal to viewers in the early 21st century rather than readers in the early 20th century.

I'm inclined to think Christie would have approved.