Agatha Christie Illustration: David Cowles
It’s exactly one hundred years since Agatha Christie published her first detective novel. The Mysterious Affair at Styles introduced to the world not only the most successful detective novelist of all time, but also one of fiction’s favourite detectives, Hercule Poirot. Poirot (modelled on a real-life Belgian war refugee) had already retired from the Belgian police force but proceeded to enjoy a new career of dazzling success in Britain.
Poirot was to an extent inspired by Sherlock Holmes, just as his friend (and narrator of the early stories) Captain Arthur Hastings was modelled on Dr Watson. But the dimunitive and egocentric Belgian was distinctive enough to stand on his own two feet. He appears in several of the finest detective stories ever written.
Discovering Agatha Christie at the tender age of eight caused me to dream of becoming a detective novelist myself. You can discern her influence in several of my novels, including Mortmain Hall, which is (among other things) a country house mystery in which the great detective gathers the suspects in the library to reveal whodunit. Agatha was a founder member of the legendary Detection Club in 1930 and for the last twenty years of her life she was the Club’s fourth President.
The Detection Club is celebrating its 90th birthday this year with the publication of Howdunit, a masterclass in the art and craft of crime writing, which includes a short piece by Agatha herself. As the eighth and current President, I’m thrilled to be following in her footsteps.
Here are my ten favourites among the Poirot novels (and let me add a consolatory mention for Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, which narrowly failed to make the cut!)
The Mysterious Affair at Styles
This is where it all began, as Hastings renews his acquaintance with Poirot. The classic Christie ingredients are in place right from the start of her career. This is a domestic poisoning mystery with enigmatic clues, an assortment of plausible suspect, superb detective work, and a dramatic final revelation. A brilliant debut novel.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
Hercule Poirot has taken to growing vegetable marrows in a small English village when he is prompted to investigate a murder in collaboration with a local doctor. Controversial in its day, this is the detective novel that shows you really do have to suspect everyone. The plot has been borrowed plenty of times by other writers, but never improved upon.
Peril at End House
Christie specialised in stories in which the ‘least likely suspect’ proves to be the murderer. Her skill at misdirecting the reader is seldom more evident than in this clever mystery, set on the English Riviera. Suspicion shifts around an intriguing cast of characters until Poirot makes the final shocking revelation.
Murder on the Orient Express
One of the most famous detective stories of all time, this train-based mystery defeated the legendary private eye writer Raymond Chandler, who complained that ‘only a half-wit could guess it.’ He shouldn’t have been so grumpy. All the clues are there, if only you can spot them.
Card on the Table
Mr Shaitana ‘collects murderers’ – a dangerous pastime, because one of them kills him during a bridge evening. Poirot has four possible suspects for the crime, but even he is sorely tested by a determined and crafty killer before his grasp of psychology enables him to deduce the culprit’s identity.
The ABC Murders
A sequence of killings linked by the alphabet seems to be the work of a deranged killer who is determined to taunt Hercule Poirot about the crimes. But of course the contest is one in which there can only be one winner. The superb idea at the heart of the plot makes this one of the most influential of all detective novels.
After the Funeral
This is the first Poirot novel I read and, having a soft spot for it, I paid tribute to it in one of my early novels, The Devil in Disguise, which offers a fresh take on Christie’s central idea. The central deception in the storyline is especially ingenious.
Death on the Nile
Christie’s love of the Middle East meant that she often used it as a setting for her stories. This classic cruise mystery involves (like Evil under the Sun, a definite contender for a place in my top ten) a tangle of romantic relationships which conceals the truth to a sinister murder plot. Fortunately, Hercule Poirot is on board…
Five Little Pigs
Poirot investigates a possible miscarriage of justice. Was Caroline Crale, who died in prison, really the killer of her artist husband? This is a classic cold case mystery with a limited pool of suspects – but Christie still manages to spring a surprise in a chilling finale.
This dark if low-key story marks Hercule Poirot’s final appearance as he returns to the scene of his first recorded case and reunites with Captain Hastings. The plot is one of Christie’s finest, and most extraordinary. Surely her most under-estimated novel.∎
Martin Edwards is the latest recipient of the CWA Diamond Dagger, the highest honour in UK crime writing. He is the author of nineteen novels, most recently Mortmain Hall and Gallows Court. He also conceived and edited Howdunit, a masterclass in crime writing by members of the Detection Club ranging from Ian Rankin to John Le Carre. He has received the Edgar, Agatha, H.R.F. Keating and Poirot awards, two Macavity awards, the CWA Margery Allingham Short Story Prize, the CWA Short Story Dagger, and the CWA Dagger in the Library. He has twice been nominated for CWA Gold Daggers and once for the Historical Dagger; he has also been shortlisted for the Theakston’s Prize for best crime novel of the year for The Coffin Trail. He is consultant to the British Library’s Crime Classics series, a former chair of the Crime Writers’ Association, and current President of the Detection Club. His novels include the Harry Devlin series and the Lake District Mysteries, nine non-fiction books and seventy short stories; he has also edited over forty anthologies. Learn more about Martin here.