This novel, the world’s best-selling mystery with over 100 million copies, has recently been voted readers’ favourite Agatha Christie novel in a global poll. Though I’d probably struggle to name my own personal favourite Christie novel, I’m not inclined to argue with this honour. The book is a masterpiece of crime fiction whose power hasn’t diminished with years, and it’s said that Christie herself regarded it as her highest achievement.
It’s a testament to the Queen of Crime’s versatility that her best-loved novel doesn’t involve her best-loved fictional sleuths, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. Instead the story focuses solely on a group of ten strangers who all get separate invitations to Soldier Island, an isolated spot off the coast in Devon. Once there and secretly puzzled by each other’s presence, their cosy dinner on the first night is interrupted in a startling manner by a recorded message accusing each one of them of murder, and soon after one of the guests drops dead. Meanwhile their mysterious host, Mr U.N. Owen, is nowhere to be seen. The next morning they discover yet another dead body, and find themselves cut off from the mainland.
This Miss Marple novel has a couple too many convenient coincidences for my liking, but remains one of the most fun Christie mysteries to re-visit.
It surely has one of her best openings. In a small village of Chipping Cleghorn, the locals settle comfortably into reading their favourite local Gazette when they spot a most peculiar notice announcing a murder that’s about to take place that day at 6.30pm, at a place called Little Paddocks. Nobody takes it seriously and all assume that it refers to some sort of murder mystery evening, but all agree that they should definitely show up and find out. The announcement comes as a total surprise to Miss Letitia Blacklock, the owner of Little Paddocks, but being a practical woman she’s resigned to the mob of curious villagers showing up at her doorstep, and prepares drinks and suchlike. Things turn from frivolous to serious when the evening ends with gunshots and death of a stranger.
Now that I’m officially doing a Christie challenge I suspect I’m going to give preference to the novels that stuck in my head the most, and leave the least favourite or poorly remembered ones for last. This Poirot mystery is definitely up there with the best.
Our favourite Belgian detective is investigating a sixteen-year-old case on behalf of a young woman, Carla Lemarchant, whose mother Caroline was convicted for murdering her husband. Amyas Crale was a brilliant and egocentric painter with an appetite for affairs, and all evidence points to Caroline poisoning him when his latest passion turned serious enough for him to consider divorce. Years later, Carla receives a posthumous letter from her mother swearing her innocence, and now, her mind in turmoil, Carla wants Poirot to find the truth, whatever it might be.
Another quick re-read in between the book club. I’m actually thinking of doing an official Agatha Christie re-readathon challenge, where I read and review every novel by the Queen of Crime, yes all 66 of them. If I finish one each month, this should take me only five and a half years. Piece of cake.
Anyway, this novel is one of my favourite Miss Marple murder mysteries, partly for the mystery itself and partly for the observations of the social changes of the time. It takes place in Miss Marple’s home of St Mary Mead, but in this post-war era it’s no longer the same sleepy village. There’s a shiny new supermarket and a housing development referred to simply as the Development. Miss Marple, who was an old lady since her very first appearance, is now truly frail and has to put up with a live-in housekeeper, a capable yet annoyingly patronising woman who treats her charge as a feeble invalid. But of course Miss Marple’s mind is still as sharp as a tack.
I meant to get started on the next book for our club, but instead I got sidetracked re-reading this Agatha Christie mystery, a Miss Marple mystery to be precise. This book has an unusual history in Christie’s oeuvre – during her life it was locked in a vault on her request, to be published posthumously along with Curtain, Hercule Poirot’s last mystery. Unlike Curtain, which wrapped up Poirot’s life and work, there’s no such finality in Sleeping Murder and there are further Miss Marple stories that follow it chronologically, so the foreboding byline on the book cover is pretty misleading. No need for drama, Miss Marple is still alive and kicking at the end.
I was a true Agatha Christie obsessive in my teens, and I’m pretty sure I’ve read every single novel and short story she’s ever written, in Russian translation. Even now that I can see the flaws in her writing more clearly, her knack for plotting and the ability to construct an elegant puzzle of a mystery – and doing it fifty times over – is pretty phenomenal. When I’m in between books and don’t feel like digging into something brand new, I’ll often reach for an Agatha Christie detective novel for a quick and easy detour. It’s hard to pin down exactly what, among all the other crime fiction I’ve read, makes them so uniquely re-readable despite knowing the identity of the murderer. It’s part nostalgia, part the very simplicity of Christie’s writing, uncluttered and efficient and not without its own charm and wry humour. Hers is a cosy, old-fashioned world that is just nice to visit from time to time.