You know you’re reading the worst Christie novel ever when you start wishing you were reading The Big Four or Passenger to Frankfurt instead, which I previously regarded as her absolute worst mysteries. It was hard to imagine that any other book of hers could usurp the top spot on the rubbish heap, but this messy, confused and terminally dull novel managed it.
Postern of Fate is the very last novel written by Christie, and also the last to feature her twee detective couple, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. I have to confess that I’ve always been rather lukewarm on the Tommy & Tuppence series to begin with, and throughout this reading challenge I’ve been consciously putting them off. Without a sentimental attachment, there’s not even a consolation of spending time with beloved characters who just happen to be in a terrible book.
Here, T&T are in their seventies and just moved into their new home in a quiet English village. Along with their new property, they also inherited leftovers from the previous owners, including a pile of old children’s books. While rustling through an antique copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Black Arrow, Tuppence discovers a disturbing coded message left by the original owner, a young boy named Alexander Parkinson. The seemingly random underlined letters spell out, Mary Jordan did not die naturally. It was one of us. I think I know which. Can Tommy and Tuppence crack this cold case dating back all the way to World War I? And are they getting in the way of some sinister individuals who are still anxious to keep the decades-old murder a secret at all cost?
While the premise is decent and has potential, I’m sorry to say that the execution is a total dog’s breakfast, and makes it hard not to see Christie’s own advanced age taking a toll on her skills as a writer. About 95% of the novel is conversations… meandering, vague, long-winded, boring conversations Tommy and Tuppence have with each other or other people, such as their new neighbours or Tommy’s old secret service contacts. Unless they’re by themselves, in which case they still manage to ramble on, speaking their thoughts out loud in the most bizarre and unnatural fashion.
An entire chapter can be nothing but endless waffle with maybe one meagre crumb of relevant information, and the same plot points get regurgitated over and over again because the characters seem to forget what they’ve previously discussed. It’s enough to make you feel like your brain is slowly curdling, and in some instances I simply started scanning through the paragraphs, though usually I consider it a disrespectful kind of reading.
The theme of aging is something that many of Christie’s later novels touch on, but usually it’s explored in her customary sharp and lucid manner. Reading this book though felt like wading through a thick fog. Eventually I was irritated with everything: the stagnant plot, the characters’ inability to get to the bloody point, the repetitive references to Tommy and Tuppence’ past exploits, and even the couple’s dog Hannibal, who in a better novel could have been a welcome humorous touch.
P.S. It never manifested to the same degree, but I did notice the similar tendency for rambling conversations in some of Terry Pratchett’s last books, though Christie was never formally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.