4.50 From Paddington probably sits squarely in the middle of Christie’s Miss Marple series – not a classic, but hardly one of the worst either. It certainly has a cracking premise at least. An elderly lady named Mrs McGillicuddy travels by train and shockingly comes face to face with a murder when she witnesses a woman being strangled in a train that briefly travels alongside hers. She promptly reports the crime, but no body is ever found and the officials dismiss her story as old lady ravings. The only person who believes Mrs McGillicuddy is her good friend Jane Marple, who knows that her friend lacks the imagination to make up a wild tale.
I’m a sort of reader who doesn’t like to give up on books easily, but this latest book club read, an acclaimed debut novel from a Serbian-born Australian writer, really tested my patience for a good hundred pages before I finally started to find it somewhat rewarding.
This classic Poirot murder mystery always hovers near the top whenever a discussion of Christie’s greatest novels arises, rightly so. Along with a handful of later books, it made her name and displayed her particular genius for a simple yet daring concept, and an ending that yanks the carpet from under the unsuspecting reader’s feet.
Christie dedication at the beginning of the book (to her older sister, nicknamed Punkie) playfully refers to it as orthodox detective story, murder, inquest, and suspicion falling on everyone in turn! True enough, until its startling conclusion the novel runs as a straightforward and seemingly conventional murder mystery, taking place in a small village of King’s Abbot.
Books are like cities. Some you only ever need to visit once and you absorb all they have to offer in one go, while others you could re-visit over and over, getting lost in its alleys and passageways and noticing new things every time. This book, not quite a traditional novel but more like a novel in short stories, about the community in a small coastal town in Maine, is so rich in detail and insight I can see myself picking it up from the book shelf a few times over.
Though Christie wrote a great many standalone crime novels, Endless Night feels like a true departure, different to everything else she wrote before or since. It’s not a classic detective story with classic detective tropes, there is barely any criminal investigation and the crime itself happens almost three-quarters into the story. Back when I first read it as a teenager my reaction was ambivalent, but even then this eerie novel imprinted on my brain as much as the haunting passage from William Blake’s poem it takes its name from. Revisiting it now has cemented Endless Night as one of my Christie favourites.
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.
Time for some classic French literature! I first read Guy de Maupassant while still in Russia, and the worn-out collection of his short stories was one of the few books I took with us when we emigrated to Australia. In addition to being one of the greatest short story writers of all time, during his tragically brief time on earth (42 years to be exact) Maupassant also penned a few novels, which I never got around to reading in either language. Published in 1885, Bel-Ami is his second novel. I still think that Maupassant’s short stories are the best display of his strengths as a writer, but I very much enjoyed this book.