I have one thing to say about Agatha Christie: I need to read more of her work. I have read three of her books now, and I am still unable to guess the culprit before the reveal. Her secret is simple: anyone and everyone could be a murderer.
While on vacation in Jerusalem, Hercule Poirot is requested to look into the seemingly natural death of Mrs. Boynton, an American woman on vacation herself with her children. The evidence is suggestive of a heart attack brought about by severe heat and exertion, but Hercule Poirot isn’t so sure. As he begins his investigation it becomes apparent that Mrs. Boynton was a horrible woman who took pleasure in the manipulation and psychological abuse of her children. The question is no longer who wanted her dead, but who was desperate enough to commit murder.
The best way to discuss this book is to go over some strategies for reading Agatha Christie mysteries. This may seem strange coming from a man who can’t guess the endings of her books, but perhaps these tidbits will help others succeed where I cannot.
First of all, it is never the person you expect. While reading the book keep track of whom the detective and side characters accuse. This is a common strategy to mislead the reader into creating assumptions and building false evidence, thus leading him or her away from the murderer and towards a crowded time-out corner for those who were duped. The best way to keep track is to use an index card as your bookmark and write down the names of all the characters. As they are accused, check them off the list. Those who are left are the most likely suspects.
Second, look for the person who has the most to gain. Motives are aplenty and many of them will seem the most likely option; however, this is another way in which Christie will try to lay down false trails and obvious options. Don’t accept the gifted horse. All too often the most crucial clue is hidden in a single obscure sentence. If you miss it, don’t despair; there will be other clues you can piece together as you go. Remember, the person you are looking for is never the obvious choice, so don’t let it distract you. Keep your eye focused on all the characters, not just the ones wrapped in pretty bows.
Third, don’t let characters slip into the background. A crime has been committed; the criminal isn’t going to want people looking at him or her too closely, reader included. This goes back to the importance of keeping a list of characters. With Agatha Christie, everyone is a suspect and all too often the one we’re looking for is the one who we are most likely to forget.
Fourth and finally, who can you rule out instantly? Those who seem to have an iron clad alibi are not always as they seem. If you think it’s impossible for them to have committed the crime, think again. This is Agatha Christie’s most powerful tool for deception. We may see an impossible option, but just wait. That impossible option may not seem as impossible when the detective explains just how the murder was committed and covered up.
There is a reason Agatha Christie is considered the Queen of Mystery. She wrote prolifically, yes, but she inspired many of the authors who followed her. Read a mystery novel written within the last ten years and you will see that these tactics for beating the author at their own game work remarkably well. Because in reality, every mystery novel is a chess game we play with someone through time and space. And so the real question remains: are you good enough to win?