How not to re-invent the wheel

The cover of my 1970's copy of Death comes as the end
I've been having a bit of an Agatha Christie fest lately. I decided to re-read Death Comes As the End, an old favourite of mine, and conveniently set in Egypt so just right for the 666 Challenge. Whilst re-reading it I was struck again by Christie's skill in using a tried and tested formula and re-working it into something completely different, and this prompted me to go on to read Sleeping Murder, another old favourite, and then, on a slightly different tack, By the Pricking of My Thumbs.

Christie used certain formulas throughout her life as an author. It's hardly surprising, when you consider that she wrote 80 detective novels alone, that set formulas would appear time and again. She would also often use ideas that appeared in, for example, a short story, and expand on them in a novel. In this way Evil under the Sun is closely related to its short story predecessor Triangle at Rhodes. Many critics have been dismissive of the use of formula, but I actually rather admire it. I specifically admire the way in which Christie can adapt a similar storyline, and turn it into something very different, and this is certainly the case with the three novels I have just read.

Death comes as the end is one of Christie's most unusual novels. Set in Egypt in 2000 B.C. Renisenb returns to her father's house following the death of her husband. Everything seems as it ever was, but the arrival of her father's new concubine sets members of the household against each other, and the situation soon explodes into murder. The background to the novel is beautifully painted with just the amount of care you would expect from someone who had been intimately involved with archaeological digs on ancient sites (see Come tell me how you live post), and the action itself is eerily haunting with a very unsettling denouement in which the mad killer is revealed.

I've always felt that this novel is very closely related to Sleeping Murder, on the surface this may sound odd, but there is a good reason for this. Both novels have murderers who are insane - one even attempts to drive an innocent party insane, both murder at least once by the same method, and both are involved in poisonous family relationships. And yet, they are as different as can be - Death was published in 1944, Sleeping Murder not till 1976, the one is set in the ancient world, the other in a 1930's seaside town with Miss Marple investigating. In spite of the seeming anomalies they are actually much closer in time. Sleeping Murder was originally written at some point during the Blitz. Legend has it that Agatha Christie wrote a final Miss Marple and a last Poirot Curtain, and then had them locked away in a bank vault to be published in the event of her death. Of course she, happily, survived the war, and so the books were not published until 30 years later around the time of Christie's death. However the time frame would suggest that the contents of one novel inspired another.

Sleeping Murder is a stunningly good novel, without a doubt one of Christie's very best. Eerie and haunting, a young couple investigate a murder that (like Christie's own novel) had been forgotten for many years. There are a few flaws but there is no better introduction to classic Christie than this wonderful posthumously published novel. Which brings me on to the third of my Christie trio.

By the pricking of my thumbs is also a last novel - in this case the last in the Tommy and Tuppence sequence. This was published in the late '60s, probably, I think, around the time that Christie was starting to re-examine Sleeping Murder with a view to publication. In Murder a woman in an asylum asks the heroine "Was it your poor child?", and this same comment will become very important in Pricking of my thumbs. This novel isn't as successful as the other two, as Tommy and Tuppence had rather more of an "action" background - albeit a rather twee one - there is lots more about criminal gangs and diamond smuggling and all that sort of thing. Something I'm never convinced that Christie does very well, it all reads rather comically. However the murder mystery at the heart of the novel is very good, and the claustrophobia of madness emanates from the pages. So, three very different Christies, but all linked by narrative formulas - why re-invent the wheel, when just by tweaking you can do it so well?


Popular Posts