Five Agatha Christie Mysteries Everyone Should Read

During the Golden Age of mystery fiction, four women—Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, and Margery Allingham—were dubbed the Queens of Crime. But let’s be honest, we all know who among that group really deserved the crown. No other mystery writer before or after Agatha Christie can match her literary reputation when it comes to commercial sales or creative plots.

Over her long literary career, Christie came up with an astounding number of cleverly conceived crime novels that have thrilled and delighted generations of readers. Today, with more than two billion copies of her books sold around the globe, Christie is still the world’s best-selling novelist. In fact, she is only outsold by the Bible and Shakespeare. Between 1920 and 1975, Christie wrote 66 crime novels, 14 short story collections, a half dozen or so romantic novels, as well as number of plays, including Mousetrap, which began its run in London on November 25, 1952 and continues to play to mesmerized audiences today.

Agatha Christie c.a. 1965

No author before or since has been able to match Christie’s skill at constructing ingenious mystery plots. From the least likely suspect to the most likely suspect, she excelled at cooking up some of the most deviously crafty mysteries ever devised. As if this were not enough, Christie further demonstrated her literary prowess by deftly seeding the clues to solving the crime into her plots in such a way that even if the reader doesn’t successfully guess the identity of the murderer, when presented with the solution to the crime, they still wind up saying “I should have thought of that!” Or, as noted Christie critic and award-winning mystery novelist Robert Barnard put it, “You always want to kick yourself at the end rather than the author.”

Critics of Christie often target what they like to call her unembellished brand of characters, but in doing so, these same critics miss how brilliantly Christie uses this “flaw” as a way of further pulling the wool over readers’ eyes. When presented with one of Christie’s stock characters—like the hale and hearty military man or the gossipy village spinster—readers will fill in any blanks with their own expectations. This then allows Christie to later turn the tables on the reader by giving this selfsame stock character some unique twist the reader never expected.

Other critics, up to and including Raymond Chandler, have tried to marginalize Christie’s literary output by describing her as a “cozy” mystery writer. It is true that Christie did much to popularize the concept of murder most civilized, be it in a small village or an exotic foreign locale. However, while Christie did eschew the use of graphic language and gritty violence in her novels, she had a very clear and concrete understanding of just how high the societal stakes were when it comes to murder. Seeing that justice was served is at the heart of each and every one of her books.

This isn’t to say that everything Christie wrote was pure literary gold. Christie admitted herself to churning out a few clunkers; she was particularly vexed over the course of her writing career with the end result of The Mystery of the Blue Train. But given the prodigious number of her novels,  not to mention plays and short stories, she wrote over almost six decades of work, one or two less-than-stellar efforts can easily be forgiven and forgotten.

In the end, I believe the key reason for Christie’s amazing success with mystery readers is that she never forgot exactly why she wrote mysteries: to entertain readers. Unlike some of her fellow crime novelists (yes, I’m talking about you, Dorothy L. Sayers), Christie had no interest in trying to marry a detective tale with a literary novel. All Christie wanted to do was come up with a story that would keep someone happily turning the pages whether they are sunning themselves on the beach while on vacation or comfortably ensconced in their favorite armchair at home. Given this objective, Christie succeeded beyond her wildest expectations.

With that said, I offer five Agatha Christie novels everyone should read. Given the extraordinary volume of mysteries she wrote, combined with the ever-shrinking amount of reading time we all now seem to have, I am going to make it easy for Christie novices by giving what I believe to be her top five works (or, in other words, la crème de la crème of Christie’s literary oeuvre).

 

And Then There Were None (1939)

If you have already read one Christie novel, this is probably it. If you haven’t read anything by Christie, this is the one you should absolutely read. Eight people are invited by a Mr. U. N. Owen to stay with him at his home on a small, isolated island off the coast of Devon. Greeted by their host’s butler and the butler’s wife upon arrival, the guests soon discover they each share something in common: every one of them has successfully gotten away with a crime. However, that is about to end as, one by one, the guests begin dying. But who is the killer? Published under several different, wildly racially insensitive titles over the course of the 20th century, And Then There Were None may surprise many readers with its darker tone, but the ending is Christie at her most brilliant, twisted best.

 

Murder on the Orient Express (1934)

 

While traveling back home on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot finds himself once again investigating a murder when the body of millionaire Samuel Edward Ratchett is found dead in his compartment while the train is snowed under in the Balkans. The real life kidnapping / murder of the Lindbergh baby served as a source of inspiration for Christie while she was coming up with the fiendishly clever plot of this case for Poirot, whose ending may surprise some readers but clearly demonstrates the author’s commitment to seeing to it that justice is served.

 

The Murder at the Vicarage (1942)

When Colonel Protheroe is found murdered in the small village of St. Mary Mead, spinster sleuth Miss Marple soon discovers there is no shortage as to the number of suspects, who would like to have seen the Colonel dead. The Murder at the Vicarage introduced readers to the estimable, tart-tongued Miss Marple, who applies the knowledge she had gained by observing decades of human behavior in her village towards successfully solving a number of murders committed by complete strangers.

 

 

 

 

Five Little Pigs (1941)

Originally published in the U.S. in 1942 under the title Murder in Retrospect, this is Poirot case begins when Carla Lemarchant implores the Belgian sleuth to reopen the investigation into her father’s death. Sixteen years earlier, Carla’s mother Caroline Crale was convicted of murdering her husband, artist Amyas Crale, and was sentenced to jail, where she died soon afterwards. Carla is convinced her mother was innocent of the crime, and she wants Poirot to find the real killer. Five Little Pigs is a dazzling tour de force of Poirot’s deductive skills as he is forced to rely on the memories of the case’s five witnesses—as well as his own knowledge of human psychology—to solve the murder, since any physical evidence is now long gone.

 

A Murder is Announced (1950)

Christie’s 50th mystery was published in 1950 (what great timing!), and is fascinating look at what changes World War II had wrought on the traditional British village, in this case Chipping Cleghorn, whose residents can’t believe the notice they all read in their local paper that announces a murder will take place at home of Letitia Blacklock on Friday October 29th at 6:30 pm. Christie actually tested out some of the mechanics of some clues on her neighbors in Wallingford to be sure that they would work. Put these carefully worked out physical clues together with some of the author’s infamous verbal clues and a clever premise—what if someone put an announcement of murder in the local paper instead of an engagement or wedding announcement—and you have all the ingredients Christie needs to fashion one of her most ingenious puzzlers.

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About the Author:

The Romance Writers of America 2002 Librarian of the Year, Charles has been reviewing romances for Booklist since 1999 and is the author of Romance Today: An A to Z Guide to Contemporary American Romance. After working for the Scottsdale Public Library System for 30 years, Charles retired and went to work for Scottsdale's independent bookstore the Poisoned Pen, where he still gets to push books but has to deal with far fewer computer questions.

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