Sunday, November 02, 2014

When Christie Was in Top Form, It Was a Pleasure to Read

I've always felt that "Cat Among the Pigeons," the Agatha Christie mystery that was published on this day in 1959, was among the better books of her latter years.

Christie was nearly 70 when she wrote it. Considering that she had been publishing mysteries for nearly 40 years, it was a pretty successful merging of a better–than–average thriller with a rather routine detective story. It had several unforgettable characters.

In fact, it could have made a first–rate movie if someone had adapted it for the big screen. But the only adaptation of which I am aware was made for TV and broadcast in the United Kingdom a few years ago. Some changes were made to the story. I have only heard of them, but I had no objections to most of the changes save one — the detective who resolved the case, Christie's signature detective Hercule Poirot, didn't show up in the book until about two–thirds of the way through. The adaptation changed it so that character was introduced at the beginning instead.

I suppose I would have to see the adaptation to decide whether I approve of that particular change or not. It worked in the book to delay Poirot's entrance. Christie needed that running start, I guess. She had so many interesting characters to introduce to the readers. If they were regular Christie readers, after all, they were already familiar with Poirot, but they needed a little time to get used to all the characters in this cast.

The story really was visionary for its time. It began with a flashback to three months earlier, when a revolution was about to occur in a fictitious rich country in the Middle East. (Keep in mind this was written more than 10 years before Middle Eastern countries began to flex their political muscle on the strength of their oil deposits. In 1959, most were likely perceived by the West as poor — which most probably were, except for their ruling elites.) A prince's jewels, worth a fortune, were given to his trusted pilot to smuggle out of the country, but they were observed by a shadowy, sinister woman and wound up dead in a plane crash soon thereafter.

The jewels were missing, launching a search on the part of intelligence officers, and the scene shifted to an exclusive British girls' school.

The espionage angle of the story was entirely in keeping with the time when Christie wrote "Cat Among the Pigeons." It was, after all, at the height of Cold War tensions.

I may have said too much already. Let me just add that Christie's decades of mystery writing experience showed in the telling of the story and the development of the characters. She was truly on top of her game when she wrote "Cat Among the Pigeons."