Monday, May 10, 2004

A Mystery and a Half

Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie, Read by David Suchet, The Audio Partners, 2001

4:50 From Paddington, by Agatha Christie, Read by Joan Hickson, Audio Partners Publishing Corporation, 2001

What makes a good mystery is writing something that the average reader might be able to solve. I’m not asking for easy-peasy stories in which you know from page one that the butler did in fact this time around do it. I’m talking about a tightly constructed puzzle that with sufficient brainpower and thought you could put together — or at least marvel at after the big revelation at the end.

What we have here are two books by the same author, one personifying that facet and one rather not. Agatha Christie is considered the queen of the mystery novel and until just this year I had never actually read her books, seen a film version of her books, listened to a radio adaptation play of one of her books, or experienced Christie in any form whatsoever.

This was quite deliberate on my part. There’s a species of facile armchair-detective novels, distinctly British, that for some reason I am predisposed to believe I dislike, my Anglophilia notwithstanding. I just don’t hold with pottering, doddy old spinsters and such poking their noses into murder and finding out “The Truth.” It’s a fantasy for the denture crowd, the type of crotchety folks who think they know everything simply from not having died yet.

A particularly vile American species of this can be found in the hamboned Matlock and Murder, She Wrote television series. These “mysteries” are so patently obvious a reheated plate of haggis could spot the murderer. They must write the teleplays for these shows with a trowel.

I chose these two books because of their superficial similarities (death on a train) and because of their differences (each book features one of Christie’s famous detectives). I thought it would be a nice introduction to the author and I thought I would be in a better place to decide if my dislike of British mystery writers would fall by the wayside (and on to Brother Cadfael!).

The results of my experiment were a mixed bag. One of the bonuses of my choices was that each book is read by an actor who essentially staked out a claim on the detective in question.

David Suchet has played Hercule Poirot in ten movies that were shown on A&E so he was an obvious choice to read Mr. Poirot’s most famous mystery, Murder on the Orient Express. He brought his famous character to life again and he fully inhabited all of the other characters with fully fleshed out, individual voices and characterizations. This is terrifically helpful when you have such a large cast of suspects all cooped up together. Christie must have felt that was necessary too in the writing of the book as we have such a motley assortment.

There is the Belgian protagonist, an American private detective, a Russian princess, a Swede — really, such a collection the book read like the UN banding together to snuff someone. Which is one of the flaws of reading such a well-known mystery—it’s the problem with lots of well-known mysteries. You go into the reading knowing the solution already. At least, I thought I knew after about half of the book had transpired. Vague recollections came to me. (I know who killed Roger Ackroyd without having read it and long before I read “Murders in the Rue Morgue” I knew whodunit.)

But the pacing is truly excellent. The intro moves along briskly, but with enough time to settle into the characters, the situation, the set-up. As the train comes to its halt due to snow on its run from Istanbul to Paris, someone on it stabs another passenger, the millionaire, Ratchett, twelve times. And here is where the book slows down, as it should. You can not tell a claustrophobic tale of a snowbound train at a brisk gallop. And here is where Suchet is at his most masterful.

One by one the various other passengers and train staff are interviewed by Poirot and you never lose sight of who’s talking. Suchet’s deft impersonations allowed me to form nicely held visual representations of each character, something I rarely do when reading by myself. I found myself grinning with enjoyment at the macabre tale and having no doubts in my mind as to why Christie is perhaps the best selling author of the 20th century.

And as each character was interviewed, and as Poirot and the conductor and the train detective discuss the interviews, small pieces of the puzzle are slowly slipped into place. A pattern starts to emerge, and even if you didn’t know who killed Ratchett beforehand, it’s possible that you could do the math and come up with the answer yourself.

Not so if you were to settle down with Christie’s Miss Marple mystery 4:50 From Paddington. It’s billed as a Miss Marple mystery, and if memory serves it is also her last case and her last novel. It’s almost as if Christie herself was tired of the old biddy as she is hardly in the book at all. The book could more accurately be described as a Lucy Eyelesbarrow mystery, as this younger friend of Miss Marple does all the actual legwork.

Miss Marple herself only appears to be in the book to play the role of deus ex machina so the mystery can be solved after all. There are no clues throughout the course of this novel to give away any possible solution to the reader as to whodunit. Not one. Some clues are dropped that eliminate certain characters from suspicion, such as their deaths, but little in the way of concrete clues.

In short, Miss Marple’s rather practically minded old friend Elspeth McGillicuddy witnesses a man strangling a woman on a train that briefly runs parallel to her own. No one believes her when she reports it, thinking she’s just a barmy old cow, but Miss Marple does. She calculates various trains and which ones could have possibly briefly been alongside Elspeth’s train (and for one brief moment I flashed on to Monty Python skit about the mystery writer obsessed with trains).

The body of the woman never turns up and it is the hunt for the body that leads Miss Marple to hire Lucy Eyelesbarrow to do all the hoofing it for her. At that point, Miss Marple disappears from the book until at least the halfway point. She shows up to make suggestions, the kind that forward the plot but do nothing to help the reader try to piece together the solution to the puzzle. Her appearance at the novel’s end unmasks the dastardly doer of the deed, but how did we get to that? The answer makes sense, but we’ve never been given a reason to take our explanation in that direction. It’s almost as if a new character were introduced on the last page that explained everything, like the grandstanding psychologist in the last reel of Psycho.

4:50 From Paddington is read by Joan Hickson and it’s read as though at any moment her dentures were about to fall out of her mouth. It’s a bit of a slurry performance and might work well in a film where there’s lots of other sounds going on, where you’re only responsible for your own lines, and where that kind of naturalism is perfectly normal and acceptable. When she’s right inside your ears, slopping away at it, it’s not a pretty sound. And every character apparently has the same problem with their dental appliances. Whether it’s young Lucy Eyelesbarrow or old Miss Marple, the dentures sluice the same.

So, all in all, a mixed bag for my second mystery double feature review. On the one hand, I will be definitely pursuing more Agatha Christie novels and have all the Poirot mysteries the library possesses on order. On the other hand, the Miss Marple books will be left by the wayside. As I intend to read long long long into old age, there may come a day when the adventures of old ladies proves more fascinating than heretofore. Until that day.

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