Agatha Christie and one of her Toughest Critics

Yesterday on the blog I shared some of my favourite snippet reviews from The Saturday Review magazine on classic crime fiction (in their feature: The Criminal Record). But eagle eyed readers may have noticed that my last post didn’t mention any reviews of Agatha Christie’s work. However, today’s post certainly rectifies this omission…

What drew me into writing this post was some of the tougher comments this publication made against Christie’s work. After all this is what they wrote about And Then There Were None (1939): ‘Hair-raising and completely inexplicable build-up not matched by rather fantastic explanation – but most readers won’t mind that’ (24th February 1940). Seriously whose mind is not completely amazed and blown away by the solution of this book?

The tone of underlying criticism continues with a number of other well-known and much loved Christie novels. Take Death on the Nile (1937) for instance, where the plot is said to be ‘slightly transparent’ (19th of February 1938). Or with Evil Under the Sun (1941), where it begins with a number of positives: ‘worked out with characteristic Christie cunning and subtle deception. Poirot scintillates,’ yet feels the need to add on the end that the ‘crime itself may take a heap of believing’ (18th October 1941). Comments like this one felt a bit more unfair due to the fact that The Criminal Review didn’t pull other novelists up in the same way for their farfetched crimes. With The Body in the Library (1942), the review is fairly luke warm, with the verdict being that it is a ‘standard brand’ (7th March 1942). The Murder on the Orient Express (1935), another famous Christie novel is summarised as ‘sauce piquante of super-deduction brilliantly disguises fact that dish itself is largely moonshine’ (3rd March 1934). The Parker Pyne stories are classed as merely ‘readable’ (23rd June 1934) and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938) is said to be a ‘grade B Christie’ (11th February 1939). Poor old Death Comes As The End (1944) is described as ‘tough sledding at first’ and only ‘for the Loyal Christie Legion’ (14th October 1944). Ouch! And as for Appointment with Death (1938) it is said that it ‘starts well and progresses beautifully against rich background and interesting characters – but then the durned thing blows up in your face’ (10th September 1938). I could go on but I’ll stop myself.

Crazy right? Well what perplexed me even more were the novels The Criminal Record singled out for praise, (one wonders whether the person doing these reviews changed sometime in the 1950s). After all I don’t think anyone would say They Came to Baghdad (1951) was the ‘prize of the year’ (5th May 1951), nor that At Bertram’s Hotel (1965) is ‘one of the author’s very best productions’ (24th September 1966). I mean it’s not bad, but I doubt it would be in many people’s top 10.

I was also intrigued by their review for The A. B. C. Murders (1936), as they write that it is ‘Agatha Christie at her best, with a really ingenious idea […]’ (15th February 1936). What puzzled me was that they appreciated the more unusual premise and the killer’s elaborate means for committing murder, yet with stories such as And Then There Were None and The Murder on the Orient Express, the reviews were dismissive and critical of similar killer elaboration. Equally with Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (1934), the reviewer is quite maudlin, missing ‘the “little gray cells,”’ even saying in the verdict: ‘Hercule Poirot come home!’ Yet given the nature of the story I can see why comments might be made wondering why Tommy and Tuppence weren’t used, but am perplexed as to how well Poirot would have fitted into such a story. Thoughts anyone? My final moment of being intrigued came with the review on Lord Edgware Dies (1933), where Christie is described as ‘an uneven author’ and incidentally this is a novel they consider as one of her ‘better efforts’ (23rd September 1933). I wasn’t necessarily intrigued because I thought they were wrong about her being ‘uneven,’ but it was just that I hadn’t really considered it before. After all many of her better known novels were yet to come in the next two decades, though of course there was The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926).

However to be fair to The Criminal Record and its contributors they do get it right sometimes (in my opinion anyways). For instance it is hard to argue with their verdict on A Murder is Announced (1950): ‘author’s 50th mystery novel worthy to stand beside any of its major predecessors for plot and telling’ (17th June 1950). Nor is anyone likely to disagree with their views on Crooked House (1949): ‘Only A. Christie could handle such terrifying and inscrutably plotted affairs and make them real – especially that magnificently heterodox ending!’ (2nd April 1949). This one is probably just for me but I found my views tallied with those found in The Criminal Record for Murder is Easy (1939), as I too was rather unimpressed by it and found the ‘dunder-headed detective’ a bit ‘irritating’ (23rd September 1939) as well.

It has definitely been interesting and worthwhile looking at The Criminal Record’s reviews over the decades, seeing how they changed and developed and wondering how different or similar they are to modern day reviewing. The rise of the internet and the advent of blogs has meant that more people than ever before can express their opinions on and review books, which is quite a cry from the days of The Saturday Review. I did find I rather missed the caustic wit of the earlier reviews when reading those from the 1950s and 60s. For some reason there is always something rather entertaining about a comic negative review.

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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21 Responses to Agatha Christie and one of her Toughest Critics

  1. Really fascinating article…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. jcbernthal says:

    Thank you for yet another fascinating post! For what it’s worth I wonder if the (earlier) reviewer rushed their way through the books after the first few chapters and was therefore presented each time with an elaborate and and incredible solution? That would explain why they are particularly impressed by premises and think the solutions are a bit silly. If you skim through Murder on the Orient Express, it does look boring — just a load of conversations — and if you only pay attention to the beginning and ending of Death on the Nile then whodunnit is obvious (although the howdunnit is surely unpredictable!). BTW, At Bertram’s Hotel is probably in my top ten… at the moment. 😛

    Liked by 2 people

    • haha I knew when I wrote that sentence that at least one person would say they loved At Bertram’s Hotel (so thanks for filling the quota!). Rush reading is not a bad theory, as the reviewer in question would have anything from 2-7 books to review (averaging 3-4), so speed reading might have been necessary to get through them all. Glad you enjoyed the post.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. cmikolj says:

    What an excellent find, many thanks for highlighting this excellent site. I shall definitely be checking out these reviews! I’m a lifelong Christie fan but I have to admit that many of her plots do not reflect real life. But that’s part of their attraction; during the Golden Age, the puzzle was the point, and Christie delivered puzzles in spades. Maybe the reviewer for the Saturday Review wasn’t really a fan of that stream of crime fiction!
    I do quite enjoy At Bertram’s Hotel, straddling as it does the gap between Christie’s thrillers and her Miss Marple murder mysteries. I am not a huge fan of Lord Edgeware Dies; the main protagonist is a deeply unsympathetic character, and surely it’s obvious from the outset whodunnit? Poirot must have been having an off day!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I suppose the reviewer for Edgware was basing their views on what had already been published. There weren’t stories such as Evil Under the Sun, ATTWN, A Murder is a Announced etc. I may well re-read At Bertram’s Hotel. Been ages since I read it.

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    • Brian says:

      I think the main protagonist in Lord Edgware Dies is supposed to be unsympathetic. She’s selfish, cares all about herself, and is ego-centric. She’s only concerned about her own needs and desires and to heck with anyone else. Poirot says, “She appears to me of the type of women who are interested only in themselves.” With these characteristics alone, there’s no other reaction for the readers to have then find her unsympathetic. Lord Edgware is just as unsympathetic. He is such a cruel man, when he gets murdered we don’t really have any sympathy or empathy for him. Carlotta Adams is more sympathetic and it’s nice to see that Christie doesn’t have all her characters on the unsympathetic end of the spectrum.

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  4. Fascinating article. I was intrigued to note that two of my favourite Christies were at either end of their reviews – Death comes as the end (which I think is a good Christie) was damned by the review (sledding in Ancient Egypt, tut tut), while They came to Baghdad (which I love, but is more of a guilty pleasure) was praised. (I wonder what they would have made of the posthumously published Sleeping Murder, which was a clever modern day re-working of Death comes as the end?)
    I think they are right about Christie being uneven in her writing, but I think that’s more to do with the style of the books than a single novel being uneven. For example – the spy / adventure type stories never seem as convincing to me as her crime novels, which although sometimes repetitive (she does tend to re-use ideas that have worked well elsewhere) rarely let you down

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks. I’m not sure if they reviewed Sleeping Murder, the catalogue on the site is not perhaps the most user friendly it could be. Never thought of it as a reworking of Death Comes as the End – food for thought indeed…

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    • Brian says:

      Hmmm, looks like I need to read Death Comes As The End and see how similar it is with Sleeping Murder. Definitely food for thought 😉

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      • Originally I thought it was odd that there were such similarities but then realised that they were written very close together (Sleeping Murder, sometime around 1940, Death comes as the end published in ’44). She evidently liked the idea of the modus operandi and some of the characters surrounding it, but took it off in a completely different direction by adding the Ancient Egyptian element.

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  5. Brad says:

    I will definitely check out the site, Kate, when I want to get really teed off! Every time somebody throws out the question, “What’s your favorite Christie?,” you always see things like, “Oh, I love The Third Girl! (no “The” in the title, mate!), or “Is there anything better than They Came to Baghdad? Look above you: two otherwise perfectly normal people said they love At Bertram’s Hotel!!! Jumping Jiminy! It takes all kinds to make a world! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • haha well the site is also quite funny and handy for discovering obscure GAD writers so I don’t think it would tee you too much.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Noah Stewart says:

      LOL I won’t claim At Bertram’s Hotel is the best mystery Christie ever wrote, or even that it has what I’ll call an ending that is more active than perhaps it needs to be. But I’ve always thought it was superb in the way that Christie uses our sense of nostalgia — of HER nostalgia — to allow her to sidle the solution right past us. “Oh, poor old Agatha, reminiscing about the old days again, and the price of tea towels, and how servants used to wear starched dresses.” Yes, but it also serves a useful purpose to the plot and brilliantly misleads us. By pretending to be a bit past it, she makes it clear she’s not past it at all.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Glad I included a comment on At Bertram’s Hotel, as it’s been great getting different viewpoints on it as a text. It has its issues, but its good to see the positives it has.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Brian says:

        Concerning “At Bertram’s Hotel”, it’s not the best mystery in the world or on par with her other ones such as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The ABC Murders, or And Then There Were None, but it’s definitely not Christie’s worst. As you pointed out Noah, the book is steeped in Christie’s nostalgia. Though she delved into things of the past here and there, Bertram’s Hotel is a four-course meal nostalgia. What I rarely hear much about this book are some of the great characters that fill it out such as the exuberant and adventuress Bess Sedgwick, or the forgetful Canon Pennyfather, or Chief-Inspector Fred “Father” Davy. One of the best bits tucked in the book is the moment when Lady Sedgwick enjoys a jelly donut at Bertram’s:

        ‘Still there she was–no doubt of it. Hardly a month passed without Bess Sedgwick’s face appearing in the fashion magazines or the popular press. Here she was in the flesh, smoking a cigarette in a quick impatient manner and looking in a surprised way at the large tea tray in front of her as though she had never seen one before. She had ordered–Miss Marple screwed up her eyes and peered–it was rather far away–yes, doughnuts. Very interesting.
        As she watched, Bess Sedgwick stubbed out her cigarette in her saucer, lifted a doughnut and took an immense bite. Rich red real strawberry jam gushed out over her chin. Bess threw back her head and laughed, one of the loudest and gayest sounds to have been heard in the lounge of Bertram’s Hotel for some time. Henry was immediately beside her, a small delicate napkin proffered. She took it, scrubbed her chin with
        the vigour of a schoolboy, exclaiming: “That’s what I call a real doughnut. Gorgeous.”
        She dropped the napkin on the tray and stood up. As usual every eye was on her. She was used to that. Perhaps she liked it, perhaps she no longer noticed it. She was worth looking at–a striking woman rather than a beautiful one. The palest of platinum hair fell sleek and smooth to her shoulders. The bones of her head and face were exquisite. Her nose was faintly aquiline, her eyes deep set and a real grey in colour. She had the wide mouth of a natural comedian. Her dress was of such simplicity that it puzzled most men.
        It looked like the coarsest kind of sacking, had no ornamentation of any kind, and no apparent fastening or seams. But women knew better. Even the provincial old dears in Bertram’s knew, quite certainly, that it had cost the earth!’

        The writing is crisp and to my memory not wordy and repetitious as her later books would get. The mystery is intriguing but I wonder how the book would have been if it didn’t contain a murder at all?

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      • Brian says:

        I think a lot of us have times of reminiscing back to the good times in our life or the way things were from way back when. I’m 31 but there are times I look back at my childhood and see just how simple things were, though I would NEVER want to go back. And I’m sure I’ll be doing more reminiscing as I get older. But as Miss Marple says, “The essence of life is going forward.” And I intend to move forward, though I will keep those good moments in my life tucked away in my heart . . . . and maybe I’ll take them out and wrap them around me when I get too overwhelmed with some of the present goings-on in our world today.

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  6. Noah Stewart says:

    These are great, and thanks for bringing them to us, what a nice discovery! You’re very accurate to note that the reviewers were working in real time and didn’t have the benefit of books that hadn’t yet been published. Also — I’ve done some reviewing, and in my experience editors are not looking for comparative assessment but an in-depth look at one particular book, in and of itself. It might be that the reviewer actually had some perspective on Christie’s entire career but would not be encouraged to talk about it in print. Advertisers prefer it if you focus on products that are actually available for sale and didn’t go OP 5 years ago LOL.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hadn’t consider this aspect as fully as you have wonderfully described, but it does make sense now that I think about it. The trickier part for this particular reviewer was that they only got one sentence in their summary and one or two words in their verdict so I suppose they would be very limited in what they could say about the book yet alone the context in which it is situated.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Brad says:

        We Americans have certainly become cognizant lately of how much damage can be wrapped with just a few words (tweet tweet!)

        Like

  7. John says:

    “(one wonders whether the person doing these reviews changed sometime in the 1950s).”

    Yes, there were several reviewers for “The Criminal Record.” I left a comment on another of your posts, but I’ll echo here what I know. I’ve not been able to identify the authors form the 1930s, but in beginnign someitme in 1946 the “Sergeant Cuff” was mostly the work of John T. Winterich who was first consulting editor and then managing editor of The Saturday Review. For a brief period in 1951 the reviews were written (and signed) by Kathleen Sproul, a one time mystery novelist herself who turned to journalism in her late career. I wrote about her briefly in my review of her mystery novel DEATH AND THE PROFESSORS back on June 15, 2016.

    Liked by 1 person

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