While the Light Lasts by Agatha Christie – Book Review

A collection of early short stories that I suspect would only be of interest to diehard Christie devotees and completists.

As a huge Christie fan, I mostly enjoyed this compilation for the informative afterword that accompanies each of the nine stories, contributed by Christie scholar and detective story writer, Tony Medawar. Taken by themselves, the stories are not exactly poor, but very few of them rise above average. An established Christie fan might find it interesting to visit her early writing, however I certainly wouldn’t recommend these stories as an entry point for anyone else.

The opening story, The House of Dreams, is a spooky supernatural tale that’s mostly notable for being a revised version of a story written by very young Christie – Agatha Miller as she was known then – that she later described as her first writing effort with any kind of promise. It does feel like a product of an immature voice, too light on subtlety and too heavy on the florid language in places, but also not without that special light charm that marks Christie’s writing.

A couple of stories are the early versions of the novellas, both featuring Hercule Poirot, that I’ve already read in another short story collection. Christmas Adventure, expanded later into The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, is a fun cheerful mystery set during Poirot’s uncharacteristic foray into typical English Christmas in the countryside, where the great man receives a cryptic note warning him against eating any of the plum pudding. I’m probably biased towards the longer version I read first, but it works fairly well in its original form.

The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest was later printed as The Mystery of the Spanish Chest. Though the plot involving a grisly discovery of a stabbed man inside a large chest after a house party is virtually identical, the story went through a narrative overhaul, with Christie giving poor old Hastings the chop in the later revision and telling the story in the third person instead. I wonder if it coincided with Christie’s resolution to use Hastings sparingly in Poirot novels, after deciding that Poirot didn’t need his own Watson after all.

The Lonely God is a purely fluffy, romantic story about a meet-cute at the British Museum, which Christie herself considered to be “regrettably sentimental” in retrospect. It’s mostly interesting for foreshadowing her interest in archaeology, which later on led to Christie meeting her second husband and provided material for novels like Murder in Mesopotamia. The other romantic stories in the collection, Within a Wall, The Edge and the eponymous While the Light Lasts, are much darker with more of a psychological edge. Christie’s dabbling in romance led to a few novels under the name of Mary Westmacott, which made her publishers less than happy but importantly gave her a chance to escape the detective world once in a while.

I regret to say that I skipped over Manx Gold, despite its undeniably unique place in Christie’s back catalogue. Unusually, it’s the first detective story that I know of written specifically for the sake of boosting tourism via the treasure hunt. It follows a couple of first cousins, Fenella and Juan, who race around the Isle of Man trying to locate the treasure left to them by their deceased eccentric uncle, with clues to the real-life treasure hunt hidden inside the story. Unique backstory or not, I very soon found the whole thing rather tedious; I might have had more enthusiasm for it had I actually travelled to the Isle of Man myself (I have to say that the photos of the place look inspiring – so quaint and pretty).

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