In the Preface to Volume I of Agatha Christie's Golden Age I referred 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 did not venture a ‘top ten’ of Christie novels in that volume but, in view of the remark in my Preface, I felt that I could not ignore the issue entirely. Therefore, when preparing the text for this website to accompany Volume I, it seemed right to address the issue on this page.
I said then that, looking at the novels as puzzles, 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
I said that the other three would, in true Christie style, have to remain a mystery until they were analysed in a later volume. But, having received various requests to name them, I decided to do so in Volume II, as follows (in publication order):
- And Then There Were None
- Crooked House
- A Murder is Announced
In identifying the best of anything, it is always difficult to avoid an element of subjectivity. But, as I hope readers of my 34 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 and the murder mystery And Then There Were None as a fair reflection of the detailed assessments in my two Volumes. (The latter two novels, which were published in 1949 and 1950, will have to await analysis in Agatha Christie’s Modern Age).
However, in trying to reduce the ten novels still further, the choice does become more personal. How can one say objectively that Murder on the Orient Express is better plotted than Five Little Pigs; or that the murder plan in The ABC Murders is more ingenious than the murder plan in Death on the Nile; or that the murderer is more unexpected in Peril at End House than in Crooked House; or that Lord Edgware Dies is a better clued puzzle than A Murder is Announced; or that And Then There Were None is a better puzzle overall than The Murder of Roger Ackroyd?
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 puzzle elements:
- Best Overall Puzzle: And Then There Were None
- 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
I should explain both those choices:
In Adventure, Mystery and Romance (1976), Professor John Cawelti descrbes One, Two, Buckle My Shoe as Christie’s “finest” work (p.112). And in Agatha Christie; A Biography (1984), Janet Morgan uses the novel as her example to explain the genesis of a plot (p. 318-319).
Although this novel does not get into my ‘top ten’, it provides Poirot with what may well be his most complicated puzzle. The novel includes the following passage (fifth chapter, seventh part):
“And the most unaccountable obstacle in the way of clear thinking and orderly progress was what he described to himself as the contradictory and impossible problem of Miss Sainsbury Seale. For, if the facts that Hercule Poirot had observed were true facts – then nothing whatever made sense!”
As I said in Volume I, this is no exaggeration: the detection of the true identity and involvement of the person who appears to be Miss Sainsbury Seale is plotted so as to provide readers with one of the greatest puzzles in the Christie canon – though, just to be clear, I am referring here specifically to the very mystifying puzzle of Miss Sainsbury Seale, rather than the novel as a whole.
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 puzzle, nor is it my favourite one – although it would be close on both those counts. However, I think it would be top if I were choosing my favourite Christie novel rather than her best puzzle.
As such, it’s the one I would take to the desert island. That’s because, more than any of her other novels, 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 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 two volumes but my admiration for the quality of the puzzle only grew as I did it.
“Hooding his eyes, the judge smiled to himself. He’d cooked Seton’s goose all right!”
AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (CHAPTER 5 PART 3).