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A blog for everything bookish

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Crooked House by Agatha Christie

In my quest to discover the best female writers it occurred to me that I’d never read anything by the Grand Dame of crime, Agatha Christie. Why is this? Perhaps Christie’s popularity had steered me away (sudden realisation of terrible book snobbery: popular = not very good. Bad me) or perhaps the sheer familiarity with Christie’s most well known characters (fondness for Margaret Rutherford’s Miss Marple, and David Suchet’s / Peter Ustinov’s Poirot. And who hasn’t seen Murder on the Orient Express?) led me to conclude that there was nothing to discover in Christie. Wrong indeed.

Anxious to correct my error, I set about doing a bit of research. The last thing I want to do is read a ‘bad’ Christie. Because anyone who’s credited as being the best selling novelist of all time (Guinness Book of Records), with 66 novels and 12 short story collections to her name (and that’s just the detective fiction) is bound to have written something bad or at the very least not so good. A bit of research led me to The Crooked House which instantly appealed both because of the excellent reviews, and because it features neither the familiar Miss Marple nor Poirot.

First published in 1949 The Crooked House is something of a lightweight novel, weighing in at an easy 160 pages. The story follows the death of Aristide Leonides, a rich, aged Greek patriarch who lives in a ‘crooked house’ with his extended family. Leonides is poisoned when his insulin is substituted for his serine eye drops and injected to him by his wife. Initial suspicions of an unfortunate accident are soon dismissed and the murder enquiry begins. The story is told through the eyes of Charles, son of the Chief of Police and fiancé to Sophia Leonides, granddaughter of Aristide Leonides. Charles needs to help solve the murder so that Sophia can be free to marry him.

Initial suspicion falls on Leonides's young wife, Brenda, who is suspected of having an affair with Lawrence Brown, a tutor engaged for Leonides’s grandchildren. The family are united against Brenda, seemingly certain (and at the same time uncertain) of Brenda’s guilt. And yet each of the Leonides is, as Sophia says, “ruthless in their own way” and each has a motive for murder. I won’t spoil the story, but it’s safe to say that no one is quite what they seem, no one is beyond suspicion and the killer is the last person you’d suspect...or is it?

Christie is certainly an entertaining writer; the story has a lightness and ease about it which, despite being over 60 years old, doesn’t feel particularly dated or awkward. The pace of the story flows just nicely and the characters, with the exception of Charles and Sophia perhaps, are well drawn and believable. With hindsight and careful reading, the identity of the murderer is identifiable and scenes which might have otherwise seemed frivolous are littered with clever little clues. The Crooked House is certainly an engaging read, the story carried me along and I found the 160 pages swallowed down in a couple of days. It was difficult not to skip to the end to find out ‘whodunnit’.

If I had any criticism of the book it would centre around the two characters of Charles and Sophia. Charles in particular, as a main character to the story, is something of a foogy, insubstantial character. Even the alleged ‘love’ he feels for Sophia is muted and unemotional and it lends an unbelievable tone to an otherwise character rich story. Equally Sophia, who plays such a key part to the story, is sparsely drawn to the point that she comes to feel somewhat unimportant. Had Christie brought into question Sophia’s involvement in the murder this could have introduced a degree of conflict to the Charles character that would have drawn him out more concretely. As it was the conflict arose around the detection only and it felt like something of a missed opportunity.

That being said, it was still an immensely enjoyable read. Not ‘great’ fiction (no Dostoevsky that’s for sure) but fun, clever, entertaining and easy to read. A great introduction to Agatha Christie’s impressive catalogue of works. I’ll be reading more.

The Crooked House scores a brilliant 8 Biis.