It’s been years — no, decades — since I’ve read a mystery by Agatha Christie. I can remember quite vividly when I first discovered her: it was about the time I started to read adult fiction at all, when I was around eleven or twelve. I devoured her mysteries one after another, the world of 1930s Britain as mysterious and exotic to me as any historical novel about ancient Egypt or Genghis Khan’s Mongolia could possibly have been. (Why did everyone in the seaside mysteries bathe before lunch when they could have gone swimming? What exactly did a cruel mouth look like? Why did the Americans say “I guess” all the time?)
In any case, after I discovered Dorothy Sayers, I lost my taste (perhaps unfairly) for Agatha Christie. Her neatly-plotted mysteries seemed too tidy for me: a jigsaw puzzle with a difficult solution. I wanted some angst and some deeper characterization, and since then I’ve only encountered Christie in the superb ITV/PBS television series about Poirot and Miss Marple.
Recently, however, I found myself with an unexpected couple of hours I needed to fill, and nothing to read. (!!!) I browsed a small bookshelf in the room, and chose my first Agatha Christie novel in almost thirty years.
Evil Under the Sun is a perfect example of everything there is to like and to dislike about Agatha Christie. Hercule Poirot is on holiday at a select resort. One of the guests is a sort of incredibly gorgeous man-trap who is having an obvious affair with another guest, under the nose of her thin-lipped husband. It is to the surprise of precisely no one when this guest turns up strangled on the beach, but Poirot must investigate: was it the husband? The lover’s wife? The stepdaughter? The religious maniac, who called the woman Jezebel and Aholibah?
The pleasure of this novel is the beautifully-crafted plot. Christie never puts so much as a doily on the back of a chair that she doesn’t intend to use later, and every detail is wonderfully serviceable. If this is a jigsaw puzzle, it’s a very good one; following the line of Poirot’s detection is a joy.
But the cast of characters is much too large to get to know any of them very well. Almost all of them are types and caricatures rather than real people, even (and perhaps especially) the victim. The woman we get to know best is a lovely, successful fashion designer whom Poirot admires for her elegance and neatness. The resolution of her story is, I have to say, ultimately disappointing (if, I suppose, typical for the 1930s.) I did enjoy the company of Poirot himself, the great detective. Humility isn’t his first priority. Lovely man.
I think, in the end, that Christie is never going to be my favorite mystery author. Her plots cannot be bettered, but I need more. What about you? Where do you turn to while away a couple of hours?