My review of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders

The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Before starting Christie’s The ABC Murders, I made the mistake of opening another book, Win, by the much overrated Harlen Corben. I abandoned after only 20 pages, and frankly only got that far because I was intrigued to know if a bestselling author could sustain that incredibly low level of writing beyond one ill-conceived chapter. So it’s probable that my high opinion of The ABC Murders is somewhat flattered by this comparison.
Still, the contrast between what sells today and what sold 70 years ago could not have been more apparent. Both Christie’s and Corben’s protagonists are cliched and superficial. Yet whereas Hercule Poirot’s arrogant self-importance is tongue-in-cheek (the reader is in on the joke), Win is simply insufferable. Christie’s characters lack depth because they are clever and deliberate illustrations – line art that indicates form rather than creating true texture. Corben’s characters, on the other hand, lack depth because they are badly painted hyperreal portraits, a poor likeness of actual human beings.
But where Christie really shows her mastery is in the pacing of the plot. I’m curious to know if she mapped out the sequence of murders and events carefully, the way an animator plans his drawings from pose to pose. Or did she just let it flow – frame by frame – and was so adept at feeling her way that the result was perfect timing – landing on the beats without the aid of a metronome?
Whether deliberate and practiced; or innate and lucky, the effect is that the reader feels loved by every page. Christie knows how to write with her readers in mind. You cannot hear the pounding of her fingers on the typewriter. There are no painfully obvious sequences of the otherwise cynical title character funding a shelter for battered women, sardine-packed in there by an editor because someone felt the protagonist had to be made more ‘likeable’. With the Queen of Crime, there is a simple love of the story, and a flair for sketching human beings – not perhaps as they really are, but with enough truthful lines that we, the reader, can fill in the gritty details with our imagination.
Hercule Poirot remains in The ABC Murders as he always is – larger than life. Preposterous, even. A shared joke between Christie and the reader. And yet he is as alive as any hero.
Agatha Christie will never be the Rembrandt of literature. But she is perhaps the Norman Rockwell, and that is a wonderful thing in itself.

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