Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Tuesday Night Bloggers: The Problem of the Stand-Alones

It's Tuesday and it's time once again to gather round the table with my fellow GAD-ers* for a cozy session of The Tuesday Night Bloggers. We will continue our discussions of all things Agatha Christie throughout the month of October. Noah has suggested a year's worth of authors to keep us busy in the months to follow. If you're a fan of Golden Age mysteries, we'd love to have you join in. Please check out his post (HERE) for background and details.

This week I'm going to take a look at some of Agatha Christie's stand-alone novels. I'll be upfront--Generally speaking, I haven't been as big a fan of the stand-alones as I am of her series novels with Poirot and Miss Marple and Tommy & Tuppence Beresford.  This is due in part to my fondness for recurring characters, but it's my opinion that she did her most of her best work within the classic mystery mileau. Christie used a large number these stand-alones to explore the spy/thriller and suspense genres rather than the straight-forward detective novel with sleuth, suspects, and clues. There are, however, a few of these one-offs that I find particularly enjoyable and would like to highlight.

The Man in the Brown suit is her earliest effort and represents an attempt at light-hearted espionage. Yes, there are deaths and mysterious master criminals directing nefarious schemes and hidden diamonds and blackmail, but I found it hard to take seriously it all seriously. That doesn't make it any less fun or exciting to read, but it doesn't produce the edge-of-your-seat thrills that some espionage stories will. And while it may be a bit exasperating to watch Anne fall into the classic heroine trap of being tricked into coming to an isolated home alone and then bound and gagged to wait for the "Colonel" to come, it is also refreshing to see her use her resourcefulness to escape her captors. It is also nice to see her learn from the experience and not be caught napping again. Anne is a likable main character--smart, brave, and willing to learn from her mistakes. I enjoyed Anne very much. And I enjoyed the story for what it is--but, be warned, it's lighter than a lot of Christie's work and the emphasis is not so much on the mystery. 

So Many Steps to Death (originally published Destination Unknown) is another foray into spy/thriller territory.  This time we have scientists and chemists and medical researchers disappearing at an alarming rate.  In the Cold-War-Era climate, this is particularly disturbing and England's secret service becomes especially interested when a young scientist by the name of Thomas Betterton vanishes. Enter Hillary Craven, a young woman with no ties and who happens to look like Betterton's wife. She is asked by the secret service to her place and lead them to Betterton (and those behind the scientists' disappearances). Christie seems to have had a definite preference for placing the amateur in the world of crooks and spies. While the plot may require a bit more suspension of  disbelief, the story is good and makes for a fun, quick read.

Of course the most familiar and, in my opinion, the most successful stand-alone is And Then There Were None (aka Ten Little Indians, etc). It is one of my all-time favorite Christie novels. It is the ultimate locked room mystery (a "locked" island to be exact) or, in the broader term, impossible crime. ATTWN is Christie at her suspenseful best. The tension on the island builds and builds and each time the reader chooses a suspect the potential killer is killed. The story is a familiar one to most mystery lovers and certainly to all of us in the Tuesday Night Bloggers: ten people of various backgrounds are invited for a holiday on Indian Island and at the end of the holiday everyone on the island is dead. Who did it?  

Even though I've read it many times, I still get nearly the same pleasure from it each time I reread it. Of course, the pleasure would be complete if I could conveniently forget the solution--but the story is told so well that I don't mind knowing ahead of time what will happen. I have had an ongoing practice of telling my friends whenever I find out that they plan to read this one for the first time, "If you can honestly tell me that you figured out who did it before the end of the story, I will buy you dinner--wherever you want to go." Thirty years and counting....and I have not had to pay up yet. 


*Golden Age Detection aficionados


Anonymous said...

There are some standalones that it is hard to understand why they don;t feature a series detective but plenty that clearly could only work that way. CROOKED HOUSE is another that I would include among the ones that i think works really well as a solo experiment.

Bev Hankins said...

Sergio, I don't remember Crooked House well enough to have included that one (which tells me it's time for a re-read...).

Brad (ahsweetmystery) said...

I recently gave my teenaged niece ATTWN as her first Christie experience. She would text me during the day with, "I think it's Miss Brent!" or "The doctor did it!" When she reached the end, she texted, "oh....my....God!" My work was done. :)

Bev Hankins said...

Bradley: I just introduced a co-worker to Christie with ATTWN. She would come in ever day to give me her thoughts on how things were progressing and who she suspected. It's much harder to keep a poker face in person than through texts. :-) But I managed not to give anything away.

Helen said...

Isn't Colonel Race in The Man in the Brown Suit? Definitely one who turns up in several others.

Clothes In Books said...

I like brown suit very much, and like everyone else I admire ATTWN. It's a long time since I read your third one, so maybe it is due to be picked up again... In general I am not AS keen on the standalones.

LuAnn @ BackPorchervations said...

I just love he name, "Tuesday Night Bloggers". And, of course, Dame Agatha rocks.

Bev Hankins said...

Helen, yes, Colonel Race is in this one--but the focus of the story is really on Anne. Colonel Race seems a much more peripheral character to me.

The Passing Tramp said...

Brad, my nephew had the same reaction to ATTWN as well. The same I myself had, forty years ago! Such an awesome book.

I read The Man in the Brown Suit some time back and thought it was a lot of fun. Christie did create some really spirited heroines too, something that makes her books still appealing today.