Reviewed by Elaine Simpson-Long
When I was younger and read every Agatha Christie book I could lay my hands on, she always produced a book at the festive season and A Christie for Christmas was a marketing tool of which we can only dream. If the author was unable to produce a title then her publishers always had a book of short stories or a compilation to hand so that we were not disappointed. I bought the Agatha every year in hardback too, when they were expensive and ebooks did not exist, and as I was a teenager with very little money this shows my devotion in no small measure. So it makes sense that this wonderful book by Mark Aldridge should be this year’s Christie for Christmas and if you are an aficionado it will not disappoint.
It is a hundred years since the author wrote the very first Poirot book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which first appeared as a newspaper serialisation as was common practice during this era. It took a year before it finally appeared in print in the UK, being published in January 1921. It had been written five years before, but it found its audience, was popular and the initial run of 2,000 copies quickly sold out. Her second title was The Secret Adversary which did not feature any characters from her first book, and she soon found that the Belgian detective was ready to solve an even more complex case. Her publishers were keen, ‘So I went on writing detective stories. I found I couldn’t get out’.
Years later, Christie realised she had made a mistake in presenting Poirot as the age he was in Styles, and she also got rather tired of him, but like Mrs Ariadne Oliver with her Finnish detective, she was stuck with him as his popularity was enormous. In The Mysterious Affair at Styles he was an invalided captain recuperating in the locality, which meant he would have to be a middle aged man at the very least.
Hasting’s description of Poirot is definitive, and it never changes in all of the books in which he is featured:
He was hardly more than five feet four inches but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the same as an egg and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was stiff and military and the neatness of his attire was almost incredible. I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound.
This description never changed throughout five decades of cases and by the time Curtain (in which Poirot dies) was published, the general consensus was that he would have been over one hundred years old.
I loved reading this book. For an Agatha fan this is nirvana, a cornucopia, a sheer wallow in delight. The author’s note at the start of the book states that although arranged chronologically it is designed so that one may read it however one chooses, ‘cover to cover or dipping into sections’. Well, I read it cover to cover over two days and did not, as Mark Aldridge suggests ‘skip sections that you are less interested in’. I could not do that as there were none.
So we start in the 1920s and come right up to 2000 and beyond. Each book is discussed in order, with comments on the mystery, the clues, and its solution, though the author avoids giving spoilers, a courtesy that I think is probably unnecessary as everybody who buys this book is going to know the solution already. But best to be on the safe side I suppose, in order not to offend any sensibilities.
As well as discussing the books, Aldridge discusses the stage versions of Christie’s Poirot novels, ditto the various films. She was usually pretty dissatisfied with the way Poirot was portrayed on screen. Close attention was paid by Agatha’s daughter Rosalind during the filming of the hugely successful 1974 Murder on the Orient Express, with Albert Finney as Poirot; no rights beyond this one film were granted and included an emphatic banning of any merchandising. Dame Agatha was not sure about it at all: she wrote that
I hope I shall like it but anyway I have certainly got to go and see it as soon as I have the opportunity even if my feelings should not be as favourable as I would like them to be..
I am one of the few who did not care for Finney as Poirot and thought the film was overblown and top heavy with glamorous and famous actors all going through their paces and showing off. I thought Connery was miscast and how Ingrid Bergmann won an Oscar for it is beyond me. But this is purely a personal opinion.
In 2017 Kenneth Branagh essayed a new version of Orient Express and this leads me to the one paragraph of this wonderful book that I totally disagree with, and it is the assertion that ‘it has always been the hope that Murder on the Orient Express would not be Kenneth Branagh’s only foray into the world of Hercule Poirot…’
No thank you.
This book is all every Christie lover could wish for. Beautifully written, concise, total lack of hyperbole, a keen eye brought to every title and character and written by someone who obviously loves his subject. It is the go-to book if you wish to double-check on a particular title, and knowing the background regarding its production and sales when you read it does add to the experience. I can only hope that everybody who thinks Agatha Christie is a remarkable woman and writer will want this in their Christmas stocking.
A Christie for Christmas. How wonderful.
Elaine Simpson-Long blogs at Random Jottings.
Mark Aldridge, Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World (Harper Collins, 2020). 978-0008296612, 320pp., hardback.