Agatha Christie’s Golden Age Volume II: Miss Marple and the Other Golden Age Puzzles (2021) by John Goddard

My blogging has continued to be a little on the slow side this month, but Classic Crime Calendars notwithstanding, I am now an Aunty to a nephew called Gabriel, who arrived yesterday. He is very sweet and even has a romper suit to grow into which has little moustaches on. Who knows he could be a Poirot in the making? Although I think at the moment his little grey cells are preoccupied with milk and sleeping!

On with today’s review, however. This has been the ideal book for me to read as my reading time has been somewhat fractured of late and Goddard’s latest work suited being consumed in small chunks. It was a pleasant surprise to find myself mentioned in the acknowledgements, a personal first. It just goes to show you should always look at that section of the book, as you never know if you might be mentioned in it!

As I wrote in my original review, in his first book, Agatha Christie’s Golden Age: An Analysis of Poirot’s Golden Age Puzzles (2018), Goddard ‘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.” These three sections ‘“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.’ To find out more about how the writer defines these terms, look at this earlier review.

In this second, accompanying, volume, Goddard adopts the same approach, but this time uses it to examine the following titles from Christie’s oeuvre: The Secret Adversary (1922), The Man in the Brown Suit (1924), The Secret of Chimneys (1925), The Seven Dials Mystery (1929), The Murder at the Vicarage (1930), The Sittaford Mystery (1931), Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (1934), Murder is Easy (1939), And Then There Were None (1939), N or M? (1941), The Body in the Library (1942), The Moving Finger (1943) and Towards Zero (1944). In the Preface Goddard gives his reasons for not including Death comes as the End (1944), writing that ‘even though it is a closed circle family mystery, it does not feel like a Golden Age puzzle. This is not because of the unusual setting but also because the story has very little ingenuity and almost no clues or detection.’

Like in the first volume, John Curran has penned an introduction for today’s read, which notes how Goddard’s work seeks to ‘understand’ Christie’s novels ‘as puzzles.’ Given how woolly the puzzle aspect can be in some modern crime fiction, being able to study Christie’s mysteries in this way, is a useful tool and would certainly help a budding mystery writer today see how to tighten up their plots and make sure effective cluing is put in place.

Before analysing the texts mentioned above, Goddard begins by dedicating a chapter to Miss Marple, followed by one on Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, and then one on thrillers and the differences between them and detective novels. Due to the time parameters, the author’s pen portrait of Miss Marple is focused on her appearances in The Murder at the Vicarage, The Body in the Library and The Moving Finger, although some of the early short stories are referred to. From these texts a picture emerges of what Miss Marple looks like, how others see her and why murder interests her so much. In particular Goddard focuses on how Miss Marple goes about solving the mysteries she is involved in. He begins by arguing that she ‘sometimes, but rarely, she uses logic’ and ‘on other occasions when she presents her ideas in a way that sounds logical, this does not always withstand scrutiny.’  These ideas are explored through examples in the texts and Goddard goes on to suggest that ‘she would appear more logical if she took us more carefully through the murderer’s planning in her explanations.’ The Body in the Library is a key novel in unpicking this idea. Following on from this, the author builds upon his initial ideas, by proposing that Miss Marple reaches her theories about a case by ‘an instinct for recognising evil and a thorough appreciation of human nature.’ Naturally, Miss Marple’s village analogies are woven into this discussion, and I was interested to note that Earl Bargainnier referred to this sleuthing method as ‘analogical reasoning.’ Of the first three Miss Marple novels, Goddard points out that it is The Body in the Library which has the highest frequency of these analogies. Intuition is another key component of this theme and how Miss Marple utilises it to ‘boost’ her skills. Goddard includes definitions of this word from characters in Christie’s books including Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot and Sir Henry Clithering. I enjoyed looking at the varying connotations achieved, depending on which words a character used to denote the term.

In addition, Goddard brought to my attention the following point:

‘…with her detection technique being so opaque, what she tends to do, in order to keep readers engaged in trying to solve the puzzles, is to give clues to them herself.’

This is not an idea I had thought about before and I wonder how prevalent a narrative device it is in classic crime fiction. Goddard supports this assertion with a good example from The Body in the Library and I felt he was thorough in the way he charted the example through the text. The author then concludes that: ‘The overall result of her style of detection is that she usually has a very plausibly theory rather than any proper evidence of the murderer’s guilt. What this means – in each of the three novels considered in this volume – is that a trap needs to be set for the murderer.’ This is a reoccurring facet in the Miss Marple books, yet not one I had dwelt upon very much. We also get to discover which Miss Marple novel Goddard thinks is the best. This accolade is given to A Murder is Announced (1950) and interestingly it came first place in the poll the Puzzle Doctor ran in 2016 for the Best Marple Novel.

The dedicated and thorough nature of the research the writer conducted is soon evident in his introductory chapter on the Beresfords, as he convincingly provides estimates for their respective ages in The Secret Adversary, with Tommy being 25 and Tuppence 19. I was surprised by the age gap, as it is not noticeable in their relationship overly, except perhaps for Tommy being the more cautious of the two. The equality in their detective work seems all the more remarkable in light of this age difference, as it would have been quite easy for Christie to have run them along more stereotypical lines in which Tommy was the out and out superior sleuth. The final surprise of this chapter was the fact that I learnt Tommy was a red head, a detail I had decidedly overlooked until now.

Whilst I have read other discussions about the differences between thrillers and detective stories, such as Dorothy L. Sayer’s thoughts on the matter, I found it interesting to read Goddard’s chapter in light of the state of mystery fiction in the present day. The author states that:

‘Detective stories are cerebral – requiring brainwork and intellect – and involve detectives, whether they be amateurs or policeman or a combination of both, seeking, usually to solve murder puzzles […] It is the detection, then, which is of prime importance in a detective story: the unravelling of the puzzle.’

He continues with a quotation by Marie Roddell: ‘The detective story’s success as a puzzle depends on the ingenuity of the crime and solution and on the plotting and clueing of the story.’

Goddard contrasts this with the thriller:

‘Thrillers are not generally cerebral. They classically comprise heroes hunting for, and/or being hunted, by villains. Those villains may be murderers or master criminals or conspirators engaged in crime or politics or espionage, while the heroes may not be detectives at all, but adventurers who enjoy sleuthing or innocent people who are caught up in events beyond their control. The essence of a thriller is the physical danger posed to the hero by the villain and a thriller’s success depends more on the menace, excitement and suspense generated in overcoming that danger than on ingenious solutions, tight plotting or deceptive cluing.’

I don’t disagree with these definitions, but I noticed how modern crime writing does not so neatly fit these two distinct categories, often blurring the two together. In some ways these texts have surface level nods to detective fiction, but their actual plot mechanics run along thriller lines. This led me to thinking how clear an idea the average reader has of the differences between the two subgenres, given the way the books they may read do not make those distinctions so readily.

One thriller plot mechanism which I think crops up more in modern mysteries purporting to be detective stories is coincidences. Goddard provides a good discussion on the role of these in thrillers. He concedes that they ‘can be frustrating but as indicated earlier, loose plotting is more forgivable in thrillers than in detective stories – especially where the purpose of a coincidence in simply to get the story under way and not to assist in solving the puzzle.’ Additionally, he also notes how Christie’s thrillers sometimes include prototypes for devices she would later use in much more well-known detective novels.

The discussion in third chapter then focuses on which subgenre And Then There Were None fits into or whether it needs a different category. I will leave you to read what Goddard’s conclusion is, but here is an excerpt of some of the points he raises:

‘Although the first victim, Marston, says “Whole thing’s like a detective story”, it is not because no one is a detective in the traditional sense and there is in fact little detection, although more cerebral readers will, of course, treat the story as one for exercising their brainpower to try to solve the apparently insoluble mystery. Equally, while the story undoubtedly has a thriller’s menace, excitement and suspense, it doesn’t feel like a classic thriller because there’s no hero to overcome the physical danger posed by the villain.’

John Curran, in his introduction, brings attention to this part of Goddard’s book writing: ‘John’s extended forensic analysis of this novel highlights some fascinating and hitherto neglected-points.’ In the first decade of her writing career Christie seems to have divided her time much more between thrillers and detective stories. Yet Goddard poses this interesting point: ‘Although she did continue to write the occasional thriller, her special talent of puzzle construction – mingling detection with deception so skilfully – was not as well developed in the thrillers, and, if she had written only those, we would probably not remember her today.’

From this point onwards the book takes each of its chosen titles and analyses them from the perspective of their solution, plot, and clues. Below are some of the ideas that stood out to me the most.

Beginning with The Secret Adversary, it interested me to see how Tommy and Tuppence do not do much sleuthing together and in fact the tasks involved in the case are shared between the two and are carried out independent of each other a lot of the time. This facet arguably reappears in N or M? and I felt this independent streak enabled Tuppence to be more involved in the detective work. Goddard also brings to the reader’s attention the issue that one of the deaths in this story is never properly explained. Yet when the writer examines these points, it is often done with a dry sense of humour, such as in his discussion of The Man in the Brown Suit. As such there is no feeling of the author trying to tear someone’s creative efforts down, but instead look at the separate components and see how they work or don’t work together.

When it comes to The Secret Chimneys, Goddard continues to demonstrate his skill in spotting small, yet interesting, connections between the texts. For example, he writes that:

‘This book is the author’s third thriller. In the first we searched for the secret adversary known as ‘Mr Brown’. In the second we searched for the man in the ‘brown’ suit. And here Prince Michael is murdered by Mademoiselle ‘Brun’ (the French for brown), not that this is seriously intended as a clue.’

My favourite section of each chapter in this book was often the clues one as I was fascinated with this focused study on how clues operate, reflecting on what they could reasonably suggest and how the type of clue used affects their success. Clues are explored in isolation but also as a cohesive whole and how they achieve the final picture, the solution.

Goddard’s conclusions as to whether the clues in a story were effective and whether they were too easy or too opaque were interesting, as I could reflect on how these conclusions matched or differed from my own reading experiences. They did not tally every time. For instance, Goddard comments on the inevitability of the guilty party in The Murder at the Vicarage, asserting that ‘the strength of the story comes not in providing a surprising solution to the puzzle but in creating a classic village setting inhabited by a cast of memorable characters, which the author conjures wonderfully well, helped by Clement’s easy, sometimes humorous narrative style.’ I cannot fault Goddard’s systematic proof of the inevitability of the guilty, but I guess reading experiences do not necessarily follow rigid logic!

One difference which struck me a lot was in the chapter featuring The Sittaford Mystery. The author explores some of the story’s weaknesses, including one of the pivotal characters: ‘Even Emily, despite her pluck and determination, is not only less engaging than the principal amateur sleuths in the author’s other detective stories but also lacks the appeal of some of the author’s thriller heroines, maybe because she has more common sense.’ I found this comment interesting as conversely, I find the less sensible antics of Anne Beddingfeld, (from The Man in the Brown Suit), far more enraging than engaging. I would almost say Goddard’s opinion makes me want to re-read The Sittaford Mystery to see whether I would like Emily more.

The publication of Goddard’s book is very timely in one respect, as the Dean Street Press have reprinted The Invisible Host (1930) by Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning, and this is a title Goddard discusses in his chapter on And Then There Were None. The earlier book, in some quarters, has been regarded as a precursor and possible influence on Christie’s later book, but in Goddard’s case he comes down on the side of Christie being unlikely to have been influenced by it, due to their not being a UK printing of the book. (Although the film adaptation might have come to Britain). Moreover, Goddard also sees Christie’s novel as the better mystery: ‘Readers of that novel will have wondered how the radio was rigged and how some of the deaths occurred. But otherwise there is no mystification about the howdunnit because no attempt is made to rise to the far superior plotting challenge which Christie set herself of concealing the murderer in a decreasing group of suspects which finally reaches zero, in accordance with the structure of a nursery rhyme, without the solution being apparent or absurd.’ This was an enjoyable chapter as it was interesting to see what the clues were. Some I was familiar with, others I was not, and I liked Goddard’s evaluation of them.

One final nugget I wanted to share with you comes from the chapter on The Body in the Library. Whilst discussing the merits of this title, the writer expresses the opinion that:

‘Chapter 1 then has an excellent opening in which Dolly’s “dream state” is well depicted before it is interrupted by Mary’s breathless, hysterical voice. It is certainly within the top three of the author’s best openings, perhaps even the best, and it provides an appetising start to the puzzle.’

This interested me, as whilst I am used to people discussing the best Christie novels, I have never thought about deciding which ones have the best openings, as arguably they might not come from the same books. I have come to no firm conclusions, but if you know your top 3 openings by Christie then please share them in the comments below. I am sure I will make my mind up at some point! Moreover, Goddard notes that Christie herself described The Body in the Library as having the ‘best opening I ever wrote,’ when she was interviewed in 1956 by Nigel Denis for “Genteel Queen of Crime” in Life Magazine.

So all in all another fascinating book by Goddard. There is always plenty to learn from them and it was exciting to see in the preface that there is the possibility of another volume in the series – Agatha Christie’s Modern Age.

Rating: 4.25/5

Source: Review Copy (Stylish Eye Press)

10 comments

  1. Congratulations on the new arrival! Being an aunty is great fum! Your new nephew is lucky to have you in his life
    And thanks, as ever, for the thoughtful discussion. I don’t often comment, but I learn from each of your posts.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I just finished The Invisible Host last night—a quick 3 night read before bedtime (just the right time for a ‘spooky’ story)—and I agree that the connection isn’t as strong between it and And Then There Were None (apologies for the lack of correct italics for the titles—I’m on a device that won’t do them) as some have suggested. Yes, there’s a group of people being killed one by one but that’s about it. And I always had the feeling that…well, that would be a spoiler. There was one real clue but that seemed so obvious. None of that diminished my enjoyment of it. Link or not to Christie, it was a cracking good book.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ordered this when I saw you tweet about it! Can’t wait for it to show up!
    I think you should definitely reread The Sittaford Mystery. It gets overlooked a lot but it’s one of my favourites. I think I’d disagree with Goddard, Emily is great in it, imo.
    Interesting the point about the detective being the one to give clues sometimes. I think it’s often true for Poirot as well, though. Thinking of the times where Poirot says he’s figured it all out, and so I look back to see what was just observed and inevitably miss the point. And as pointed out in the first book, he’s fond of making clue lists.
    It’s a shame that 1945 is the cutoff. A Murder is Announced he considers the best Marple, but doesn’t include… I’d prefer a bit of shifting the rules to drop the thrillers and add Announced instead.

    Liked by 1 person

    • If I read the hint in the book correctly, there may be a third volume which deals with Christie post 1945 titles, in which case A Murder is Announced will presumably be discussed there.
      I wish I could read whilst sleeping as then I could manage to read all the new to me books on my TBR pile and catch up on all the re-reading i want to do!

      Like

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