Reading Agatha

“Who received the unprecedented honour of a book review in a scientific journal for the accurate descriptions of poison in their first novel?” was the question at the Christmas Book Club quiz night in December 2014 that initially got me thinking I should maybe read Agatha Christie rather than watch the dramatisations on TV.   I had hoped (and still do!) the Agatha Christie: Unfinished Portrait exhibition in the summer of 2015 would venture outside London and tour the UK.  I often found myself at the official Agatha Christie website checking for news of the exhibition and this is where I came across the reading lists.  Organised by character, these reading lists suggest a reading order which appealed to me and channelled my inner order and method.

After realising that ITV3 are in the habit of showing the same handful of Miss Marple episodes over and over again, I decided to take the plunge and pick up Murder at the Vicarage from the library where I work.  There are 15 Miss Marple novels and short stories.  Friends and family very kindly sent book tokens/gift cards when I fell and broke my arm in January 2016 which I spent on Miss Marple and got them delivered.  Agatha Christie’s books are roughly 300 pages in length and what I love about the Agatha Christie Signature editions I read, each chapter starts on the right hand page.  I don’t know the official reason why this is.  It makes me smile whenever I see this in a book, it’s like the book is giving you a breather to take in the events of the chapter you’ve just read before you start on the next.   My favourite Miss Marple is The Thirteen Problems which surprised me as I’m not usually a fan of short stories.  Something about a ‘Tuesday Night Club’ that meets for supper appealed to me.  Miss Marple’s stock and trade is the belief that there are a fixed set of behaviours and characteristics that people exhibit the world over.  She can read these behaviours and characteristics in any situation and apply her knowledge with precision to find the murderer under the disguise of a little old lady doing her knitting.  Whenever I finished a Miss Marple book, I’d add a tick next to the title on the reading list and go straight to the next one.

I was sad to finish Miss Marple’s Final Cases.  I’ve got 13 Miss Marple books on my bookshelf – I’m missing Murder at the Vicarage.  When I look at them, they remind me of the winter I broke my arm and I could do nothing more than eat sliced cheese sandwiches, drink cups of tea, sleep, read Miss Marple and repeat.  You’ll notice from the shelfie that The Adventures of the Christmas Pudding is in between 4:50 from Paddington and The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side.  Another collection of short stories, I bought The Adventures of the Christmas Pudding purely because it contained Greenshaw’s Folly.  Although at that time I had no expressed interest in reading Poirot.

Reading Agatha Christie’s autobiography, I learned she was dared by her sister to write a detective story and went on to create Poirot.  2016 saw the 100 year anniversary of Poirot’s birth.  I got to thinking it would be a nice tribute if I read them all.  I was missing my Christie fix on the commute to and from work by this time.  Poirot’s reading list is comprised of 43 novels and short story collections and starts with The Murderous Affair at Styles.  At the Christmas Book Club quiz in December 2016, I wrote on the answer sheet with glee the title of Poirot’s first adventure because I knew the answer and had read it!

Poirot’s reading list highlight’s that Curtains should be read last but also notes that Lord Edgeware Dies should be read before After the Funeral; Five Little Pigs should be read before Elephants Can Remember; Cat Among the Pigeons should be read before Hallowe’en Party; Mrs McGinty’s Dead should be read before Hallowe’en Party and Elephants Can Remember; Murder on the Orient Express should be read before Murder in Mesopotamia and that Three Act Tragedy should be read before Hercule Poirot’s Christmas.  This all sounded very complicated but as with Miss Marple’s reading list, there is a suggested order to keep you on track with order and method.  I invented my own rule that any book with train in the title – such as The Mystery of the Blue Train and Murder on the Orient Express – had to be read on a train.

Forty three books is a big commitment and I only have two bookcases.  I would need to do a major weed to get them all to fit!  I decided to source what I could both in the university library where I work and my local public library.   Annotated in pencil next to each title on my Poirot reading list is which library had what.  I carried my folded Poirot’s reading list everywhere last summer and brought it out whenever I passed a charity shop or second hand bookshop to see if I could spot the dozen or so titles that were left.

With the hashtag #poirotreadingchallenge on Instagram, I started posting a photo of #whatimreadingnow in July 2016.  I read more on the commute to and from work but as the challenge has gone on, I would get home and carry on reading.  The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is my favourite.  In her autobiography Agatha Christie describes how she slaved and polished it.  Reading it, I could imagine where she was when she wrote it but that’s not why it’s my favourite.  I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who’s not read it but there is a point in the book where I actually said out loud, “Holy Crap!  Did not see that coming.”

Having watched the same repeated TV episodes, I wrongly assumed that Hastings featured in more stories than he did.  Hastings narrates many – but not all – of Poirot’s adventures which felt like a nod to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Watson and Sherlock Holmes.  Like many fans of the David Suchet series, I watched the last episode in 2013 which saw Poirot and Hastings reunited and joined at Styles – where it all began – by Hastings daughter, Judith.  I couldn’t understand how that could be, when did Hastings get married?  All was revealed as I made my way through the reading list – Hastings marries Cinders and they move onto a ranch in Argentina.

It took a while for me to switch to the change of writing style when Hastings was no longer the narrator.  I wasn’t sure if I liked it.  I started to rate each book on Goodreads based on how long it took me to read and how invested I became in the storyline.  I got to know new characters and would smile as if greeting an old friend when I came across them in other books.  Most noticeably, aside from Superintendent Spence and Chief Inspector Japp, we meet the apple munching author Ariadne Oliver, the ever efficient Miss Lemon and Poirot’s trusted valet Georges.

We first meet Ariadne Oliver in Cards on the Table.   A successful novelist, she strongly believes in women’s intuition and that Scotland Yard would be better off with a woman in charge and is not shy in sharing this belief.   Poirot later sees Ariadne as his friend and she often requests his help when murder is afoot.  She teases him in Hallowe’en Party for behaving like a computer, rebelliously murmuring “The Computer Programme will go on” when she dares to suggest going off schedule and later when sharing some vital news tells Poirot to “put that in your moustache and smoke it”.  I warmed to Ariadne Oliver so much so that in Elephants Can Remember when she goes out sleuthing on her own, I seriously worried for her safety!

Poirot headhunts Miss Lemon from Parker Pyne.  He describes Miss Lemon in The Mystery of the Spanish Chest (a short story in The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding) as “a human machine – an instrument of precision”.  She dreams of creating the ultimate filing system that will one day bear her name.  Miss Lemon knows the answer to any question which is tested in The Capture of Cerberus (one of The Labours of Hercules) when Poirot asks her “if a friend asked you to meet her, or him, in Hell, what would you do?”  Miss Lemon replies without pausing that “it would be advisable, I think to ring up for a table” and immediately books a table for later that evening at the nightclub called Hell.  Priceless.

We get to know the trusted valet, Georges, little by little.  Georges is a mine of information for Poirot on social status, the aristocracy and all things English.  In The Under Dog (another short story in The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding) we see a more human side of Georges when Poirot asks if he is superstitious?  Georges replies that he prefers “not to sit down thirteen at table, sir and I am adverse to passing under ladders”.  Fantastic.

It’s hard to pinpoint what attracts me to Poirot.  He is very particular about his appearance and has a style that is all his own – from his uncomfortable black patent shoes to his immaculate moustache.  He lives for order and method and facts.  He has hot chocolate for breakfast every day and enjoys good food.  His green eyes sparkle and shine when he puts the pieces of a puzzle together.  I confess there are some of these characteristics that I see in myself – my green eyes do sparkle from time to time and as a librarian there is order and method to, well, a lot things! – and who wouldn’t want hot chocolate for breakfast everyday?!

Poirot’s stock and trade is simple, he listens.  He is a strong believer in sitting back and letting other people do the talking, unconsciously revealing facts that are brought into the puzzle that later solves the case.  I also believe Poirot is an incurable romantic, evidenced from his many turns as matchmaker starting in The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1920 and ending in Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case in 1975.  I felt many times that he was an early version of Cilla Black, waiting for the invite and an opportunity to wear a nice hat to a wedding that was all down to him and his matchmaking.

From Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead and Poirot’s London, I will readily admit to hankering after the bygone age when you were regularly invited to stay for afternoon tea, played bridge after dinner and travelling by train was a luxurious enterprise.  Reading Agatha Christie gave me back my love of reading that I had lost for a short while.  Poirot got me back into my local public library and had me scouring charity shops and second-hand bookshops doing my best J.R. Hartley impression.

Friends and family have joined in my reading challenge far beyond the loan of The Hollow when it couldn’t be sourced locally.  A creative Agatha Christie themed birthday card from my Auntie Eileen to my niece Lauren who decided to read Roald Dahl’s back catalogue in chronological order!  Poirot has been everywhere with me – even the hairdressers – and provided a topic of many conversations on the train and even at ParkRun when I had copies to return to the local library.  It has been a blast and a challenge I highly recommend.

by Laurie Roberts


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