In the foreword she wrote for this novel, Christie names Cards on the Table one of Hercule Poirot’s favourite cases. I guess there’s no arguing with the author who is basically God of her fictional universe, but even so it’s a plausible claim. This case depends almost entirely on psychological sleuthing, and there’s nothing that our favourite Belgian detective enjoys more.
In this novel, Poirot goes on a holiday in Egypt to escape dreadful British winter and has a nice relaxing cruise down the Nile, enjoying sunshine, tranquil balmy evenings and the ancient Egyptian temples. At least, that was the idea before he ends up investigating a murder onboard the river ship. Don’t you hate it when your job keeps following you around?
“Yet who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him?”
This Poirot novel was written as Christie’s response to her brother-in-law James, who had complained that her murders were getting too refined and anaemic. You’d hope that James’ craving for a ‘good violent murder’ was satisfied with this locked room murder mystery: its chief victim, a cantankerous wealthy patriarch, is found in a pool of his own blood, his throat cut, after making a noise described by witnesses as “a soul in hell” or “a stuck pig”.
An earlier Miss Marple murder mystery, this clever and engaging novel is, in Christie’s own words, a variation on an old classic scenario in detective fiction. It wastes no time and gets down to business right at the beginning of Chapter 1, where Colonel and Mrs Bantry, a wealthy and respectable couple, wake up one morning to the shocking news. A dead body of a young blonde girl in a white evening dress has been found in their most conservative and conventional library, an incongruous sight that upsets and puzzles the couple. The mysterious girl seems to have been strangled and neither Bantrys nor their servants have any idea who she is and how she ended up in the library.
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.
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.
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.