Another of my favourite standalone Christie novels, this book also came with the author’s foreword calling it one of her own special favourites and a joy to write (according to Dame Agatha the usual ratio is one book that’s real pleasure to five that are hard work). It also boasts one of the most shocking endings Christie’s ever done, which is saying a lot. When you read a detective novel you’re supposed to suspect everyone, but when Christie said that everyone is a potential murderer she really meant it.
The narrator is Charles Hayward, a young man who, while in Egypt towards the end of the WWII, falls in love with a young woman called Sophia Leonides. Once safely back home in England, their plans to marry are thwarted by the murder of Sophia’s Greek grandfather, Aristide Leonides, a filthy rich individual who got wealthy by less than scrupulous means and was something of a benevolent family tyrant. War and other circumstances brought the Leonides clan under the same roof, the “crooked house” of the book title, and someone in the family is responsible for the poisoning. Sophia states bluntly that she will not marry Charles until the crime is solved, which is a major incentive for Charles to get involved into the investigation. Luckily, his father is Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard and he is allowed to tag along with the Chief Inspector who is dealing with the crime.
Bland Charles is hardly one of Christie’s most memorable protagonists and not much of a detective, but that’s fine since his role in the story is to merely be a window into the Leonides family drama. Christie clearly had fun imagining this colourful dysfunctional bunch, among them a favourite eldest son who can’t fulfill his father’s expectations and his scientist wife, a jealous younger son who’s retreated into books and obscure historical subjects, his flighty and childish actress wife, Sophia’s younger precocious sister and snobby younger brother, and an elderly great-aunt.
The family member everyone else would ideally prefer to be the murderer is Sophia’s grandfather’s young widow, who is detested by the rest of the family, but though she’s the most likely suspect things of course aren’t as simple. It becomes obvious that virtually everyone in the household had a motive and opportunity, including Charles’ own Sophia. The book also ruminates on different kinds of ruthlessness, and how much we inherit from our forebears. What if someone came to inherit the unscrupulous nature of Aristide without his kind heart, and combined it with the ruthless streak running on the maternal side without tempering it with a strong moral sense of right and wrong?
Re-reading the book, it’s obvious that Christie supplies the psychological explanation for the murder in plain sight long before the killer is revealed, in a conclusion that’s not necessarily unpredictable but certainly chilling.