The late Agatha Christie is known the world over, having been published in over forty languages and having sold several billion books. Most readers know her, of course, as the creator of Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple. Miss Marple is, I confess, one of my all-time favorite amateur sleuths. I enjoy Poirot, but I adore Miss Marple.
Less well known, perhaps, are the standalone novels that Christie wrote; i.e., books that did not feature either Poirot or Miss Marple, or her other series characters, Superintendent Battle or Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. I was in a Christie kind of mood this past week and watched all of the Joan Hickson Miss Marples for the fourth or fifth time, and I started thinking about the standalones. I had read only a couple, so I thought it was time I gave some of the others a try.
I started with Crooked House, published in 1949. Such an intriguing title, don't you think? The book lived up to its promise. Christie focused a very keen eye on an eccentric family, and the result was a chilling story. The revelation of the murderer was beautifully done, and her characterizations of the members of the family were laser-point keen.
In 1951 Christie struck a lighter note with They Came to Baghdad, an entertaining twist on the espionage tale. Young Victoria Jones, who has a facility for coming up with plausible lies in a tight situation, meets a handsome young man in a park in London right after she loses yet another job. He's off to Baghdad and, convinced he's the man of her dreams, she contrives to follow him there. Unbenknownst to her, of course, she lands smack in the middle of a plot to cause tremendous havoc in the Cold War world. By turns tense and humorous, this was a fun read, a precursor, in its way, of the work of Elizabeth Peters.
I read two other standalones, Remembered Death (also published as Sparkling Cyanide) and Murder is Easy (also published as Easy to Kill). Both of them were clever, with that same intelligent insight into character, with clever twists and turns to the plots. I was reminded, four times over, of why Christie was so good at what she did -- and why, perhaps, she is the most fatale of all the femmes who have penned crime fiction.