The Hound of Death by Agatha Christie – Book Review

Halloween was the perfect time to check out this curious collection from the Queen of Crime: twelve short stories tinged with the fantastical and supernatural.

Haunted houses, psychic powers, ghosts of dead children, seances, premonitions and bodily possessions are not typically the things you associate with Agatha Christie, which makes this book a rather delightful oddity, even if the quality of the stories varies.

The best story actually has nothing to do with the unexplained phenomena, though it still sets itself apart by leaning into a courtroom drama rather than a typical detective story. In Witness for the Prosecution, a young man named Leonard Vole is arrested for the murder of a lonely rich old lady, who took such a strong fancy to him that she left Leonard everything in her will. He protests his innocence to his solicitor, and confidently expects his wife Romaine to back his alibi… except that Romaine instead seems to relish the chance to send Leonard to the gallows. Witness for the Prosecution is a perfectly constructed, top-shelf Christie; it’s no surprise that the story, later adapted as a play, is still getting new onscreen versions as recently as 2016, with Kim Cattrall as the unlucky rich victim who’s probably a great deal sexier than the original.

The rest of the stories certainly demonstrate a different side of Agatha Christie’s writing talents, at times quite successfully so. It’s still fair to say that this brief, little-known foray into the fantasy and supernatural genre is a nice bonus for a dedicated Christie fan, rather than proof that the world has missed out on the next Lovecraft. Some of the stories dealing with spiritualism reminded me of the short stories by Arthur Conan Doyle I read as a teenager, which are very much of their time and feel rather dated and naive by today’s standards.

I rather enjoyed the fact that in some stories the supernatural elements were eventually exposed as a con, while in others they remained unexplained and ambiguous – and that you never knew which kind was coming up next. The opening story that lends the collection its name is a good example of the latter, with the narrator left to ponder the truth behind the explosion that killed dozens of people at a convent during World War I, and whether it was really caused by a Belgian nun who inherited powerful psychic abilities from a long-gone civilisation. The Fourth Man is an effective, creepy story about a toxic female friendship and multiple personalities, with a memorable chilling ending. On a less successful end, The Lamp is a story about a lonely child ghost that’s too simple and predictable.

Other stories add an otherworldly flavour to the more conventional crime mysteries that display Christie’s traditional skills at misdirection and red herrings. Wireless is another short story in which a wealthy old lady develops a fondness for a younger man (a nephew in this case); despite the ghostly trappings it has a pretty straightforward crime plot and a darkly satisfying ending (let’s just say that karma bites back in this one).

By far the weirdest story in the collection is The Call of Wings, about a millionaire whose materialist views are challenged by an encounter with a mysterious legless street musician, who plays a tune so transcendent, enchanting and literally uplifting it sparks a struggle between the flesh and the spirit. It’s a surreal tale with mythological elements that deserves props for originality, even if I thought that Christie’s execution was a tad clunky. Though still not as clunky as The Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael, a ridiculous story about a spirit of a dead cat that made me think back to Halle Berry’s Catwoman stinker, of all things.

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