In the Preface to Agatha Christie's Golden Age I refer to commentators who assert that certain Christie novels are in, or not in, their ‘top ten’ but whose comments don’t allow that ‘top ten’ to be identified. I have not ventured a ‘top ten’ of Christie novels in my book but, in view of that remark in my Preface, I don’t think I can ignore the issue entirely.
Looking at the novels as puzzles, I think that seven Poirot Golden Age novels would get into my Christie ‘top ten’, namely (in publication order):
- The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
- Peril at End House
- Lord Edgware Dies
- Murder on the Orient Express
- The ABC Murders
- Death on the Nile
- Five Little Pigs
As for the other three puzzles in that ‘top ten’, one novel will presumably be obvious to readers (because it is generally regarded as her most popular novel) while the others will, in true Christie style, have to remain a mystery until they are analysed in a later volume.
In identifying the best of anything, it is always difficult to avoid an element of subjectivity. But, as I hope readers of my 21 commentaries will see, I have tried to be as objective as possible in them. I also believe that, as readers acquire a sense of the overall strength of each puzzle from the positive, or less positive, language used in the commentaries, they will regard the selection of the seven Poirot Golden Age novels listed above as a fair reflection of the detailed assessments in my book.
However, in trying to reduce the seven novels still further, the choice does become more personal. How can one say objectively that the solution in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is better than the solution in Murder on the Orient Express or Peril at End House; or that the murder plan in Lord Edgware Dies is more ingenious than the murder plan in Death on the Nile or The ABC Murders; or that Murder on the Orient Express is better plotted than The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or Five Little Pigs; or that the murderer is more unexpected in Peril at End House than in The ABC Murders or Lord Edgware Dies ?
Those are fine margins, which can only really be judged subjectively, particularly when readers will often be influenced by the impact which the novel had on them when first reading it. Allowing for that, therefore, I would make the following personal awards in relation to the three puzzle elements:
- Best Solution: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
- Best Plotted: Murder on the Orient Express
- Best Clue: The ‘Paris’ clue in Lord Edgware Dies
I would also make two special awards:
- Most mystifying puzzle: The true role and identity of Miss Sainsbury Seale in One, Two Buckle My Shoe
- Most suitable book to take to a desert island (if allowed only one): Five Little Pigs
The choice of Five Little Pigs may seem a bit derivative when Professor Barnard describes it as “the best Christie of all” and John Curran as “my favourite book” on his website. But I don’t think it’s the best, nor is it my favourite – although it would be very close on both those counts.
I would take it to the desert island because I still get something new from it, factually or emotionally, every time I read it. It probably contains more potentially relevant facts, described in more different ways, than any other Christie detective novel and I remember thinking, when embarking on my commentary, Where on earth do I begin? I eventually decided that the only thing to do was to create a large chart with columns for the five little pigs and with rows for the episodes in the story (I worked out that there are 14) and to complete it carefully with the verbal and written evidence of the pigs so as to get a proper timeline for all the evidence. It was the most intricate task of analysis that I undertook in preparing my book but my admiration for the quality of the puzzle only grew as I did it.