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.