As John Curran mentions in his introduction to this work, so many different themes for books on Agatha Christie have appeared over the years, that a new one may seem impossible. Whilst , this book does achieve such a departure, I stress the word book, as I feel that in the world of blogging and in magazines such as CADs, the puzzle aspect of detective novels, cluing and the fair play concept have been explored, often in regards to a Christie novel or two. Yet in book form this is something new and due to this format has a larger scope than say a blog post. Looking at the bibliography the sources are of a scholarly background so that may explain why Goddard’s makes the claim that based on his own reading, ‘no one seemed to have established and defined the elements that make a detective story work successfully as a puzzle.’
This quibble aside let’s take a look at the book. As Goddard writes, he set out to ‘attempt a comprehensive analysis of the three puzzle elements of Solution, Plot and Clues’ in 21 of Poirot’s cases up to 1942. ‘They reconstruct the murder plans and assess the validity of the clues in a more organised and complete way’ than how they are presented in the stories. However the book commences with a brief overview of Christie and her work, with particular emphasis given to the evolving nature of how Poirot tackles an investigation and the contradictions this process often throws up i.e. a stressing of psychology and armchair sleuthing on Poirot’s part, which contrasts with his actions of uncovering and deciphering physical clues and being quite active. Goddard for instance points out in one book that Poirot goes from being described as limping to having the agility of a grasshopper! I think perhaps the author is a little too sweeping and restrictive in his exceptions to the opinion that Christie’s characters are cardboard like, especially in light of a couple of novels he pulls up by Christie as examples of her ‘greater inconsistency in quality’ in the 1940s. The two examples are Sparkling Cyanide and The Hollow. Whilst in terms of the puzzle aspect I can foresee some weaknesses, I also know that these two titles are also quite well-loved among Christie fans, (*cue hoards of Christie fans who disagree), which leads to the conclusion that there must be something more to these books, such as characters and themes, for such readers to enjoy. However in Goddard’s defence this is truly a brief introduction, 12 pages in fact, so depth is perhaps not such a possibility.
One other point which piqued my interest from this chapter was how Goddard sees creating a puzzle in a detective story more like compiling a crossword than a board game as ‘the author cannot react to a reader’s developing thinking because the author’s moves were all played when writing the story.’ To an extent I agree with this but I do have some partial disagreement, in that the author might not react in real time to readers’ thoughts i.e. when the reading is taking place, but writers such as Christie were adept at manipulating their texts into making readers think certain things, thereby influencing how the reader develops their theories, which later prove erroneous. However other points involved in this theme do chime in well with what Scott K Ratner wrote in his two-parter in CADs last year (?) on the notion of fair play and rules.
So how does Goddard define solution, plot and clues?
Well below are his ideas in a nutshell:
‘Solution: Creation of an ingenious and satisfying solution involving a clever and convincing murder plan and a credibly motivated but unexpected murderer.’
‘Plot: Presentation of the murder and its suspects, clues, detection and solution in a well-paced, tightly-constructed plot, which engages, mystifies and deceives the reader until the denouement.’
‘Clues: Detection of the solution through an assessment of fairly presented but imaginative clues which intrigue or deceive the reader.’
One of the things I found most interesting about this study, which also surprised me to an extent, was how a book can have a strong plot and solution but the cluing can be weaker. Furthermore, as Goddard goes through each novel, it was engaging to see how each time the relationship between these three components varied. Due to this being an extensive study in book format I equally feel that this work makes it easier for Christie fans to see a bigger picture of her novels. Goddard’s thorough and systematic approach throws up patterns which develop over Poirot’s first 21 cases. It was when I got to The ABC Murders in this study, for example, that it dawned on me that one trope which comes up a few times in Poirot’s early investigations is his tendency to bluff in order to get an admission of guilt from the culprit.
It almost goes without saying that this is a book best approached by having read the novels under examination first, not just due to spoiler reasons, but in order to keep up with the detailed information you receive about each one. The range and number of loopholes, weakness or difficulties the author picks out in the solutions Christie presents, is impressive. It certainly hammers home the importance of how Poirot delivers his final solutions, as the way they come across often distract the reader from asking questions which might undermine the clues Poirot says showed him who the culprit was. Goddard’s cataloguing and judging of clues is rigorous and it is rapidly evident how much time and effort he has put into re-reading the original stories to pull together all the data. Hoping it is not just me who failed to spot that one character in Murder on the Orient Express changes names three times over the course of the story! Yet it is not just errors like that Goddard spots, nor are those errors the ones he spends much time discussing. Instead it is more to do with where clues are placed in the text and whether they are mentioned too early or not referred to again in the final solution etc. Contradictions in the dialogue stand no chance of hiding with Goddard around! I also enjoyed his questioning of the murderer’s plan in Sad Cypress, in that the killer could not be sure that a certain person, shall we say, would not also drink the tea. (FYI Goddard also notes a clue which Poirot does not mention in this book!) In contrast I am probably a mystery writer’s dream in terms of missing clues and loopholes, though I feel the same could not be said for Goddard, who must surely make them tremble in their boots! One question I would perhaps like to ask is whether having done this study has heightened the author’s ability to deconstruct other mystery novels, not necessarily through lots of re-reading, but on the first read? Also given the meticulous nature of the book as a whole I strongly hope Goddard does not turn to a life of crime. He would be far too good at hiding his tracks!
So overall I have found it delightful to see someone approach these books by Christie in a way that is fairly opposite to my own, as I happily acknowledge that writing style, humour, characterisation and themes, are much more my bag than checking statements about alibis all match up. This book is an easy one to read in chunks or in longer sittings and due to the nature of the book it is not one in which you have to carry extended and complicated concepts in your head. Again this makes reading in chunks a lot easier as months can pass and you can still pick up where you left off. I perhaps would have liked an epilogue of some kind to the piece, though I appreciate the author may not have wanted to have made the book longer than it is, but nevertheless it would have been nice to have finished with a few pages in which Goddard shared his favourite Christie novels in regards to the puzzle factor or perhaps even in despite of it. Curran is certainly correct though that you can’t look at certain novels or clues in the same way after reading this book. Yet I do also want to stress that having the loopholes pointed out in some of Christie’s most famous and/or most popular mysteries doesn’t leave the reader, well this reader at any rate, feeling as though they are now poorer reads. After all Christie’s showmanship means you’ll quickly forget such issues ever existed…
Finally I leave you with two statements to questions:
Is the true identity and involvement of Miss Sainsbury Seale in One Two Buckle My Shoe ‘one of the greatest puzzles in the Christie canon’? (Goddard presents a strong case in favour of it).
Is Five Little Pigs ‘the author’s best detective novel from a literary perspective’?
Source: Review Copy (Stylish Eye Press)