And Then There Were None (1939)
Author: Agatha Christie
Genre: Mystery/Suspense (Cozy/Whodunnit)
Also known as Ten Little Indians (for more on the history of the title, check here), And Then There Were None is considered the signature novel of Agatha Christie and is a classic whodunnit. In it, 10 strangers all respond to cryptic invitations to a party at a home on Soldier Island, a small isle about a mile off the coast of Devon. Some of the party-goers are somewhat familiar with each other, but most are strangers. Making the situation even more uncomfortable, their host has left a message that they will not be joining them until the next day. The note goes on to say that the party-goers should make themselves comfortable. The butler and his wife prepare a meal and cocktails, and soon the strangers relax. Then, just after dinner, a recorded voice accuses each party-goer of murder. Indeed, each party-goer does have a dark secret in their past. One last bit of groundwork for the story is laid: each party-goer has their own room in which they find an old nursery rhyme about "ten little Indians" who end up dead. Well, one of the party-goers ends up dead--in a manner quite similar to the demise of the first "little Indian". Then another. Soon it becomes apparent that there is a murderer among the group. But who? I won't ruin this story for you by naming the murderer, but I will offer a word of warning: do not look at the last page of the book until you come to it.
Geographical Setting: Soldier Island, a fictious island off the coast of Devon, England
Time Period: Contemporary (1939)
This is a classic cozy. There are no real red flags except for the obligatory dead body (all killing takes place "off-stage"). Christie crafts a wonderful puzzle that will have you guessing. I very much liked how she'd occasionally shuffle through the thoughts of the party-goers. The thinker was never named, so despite the inclusion of the thoughts of the murderer, there is no easy way for the reader to figure out what's going on. The story, of course, rest on a crafty twist, but it works. The tone and time frame place this mystery in the suspense genre. The rain and barren feel of the island come through in the text and create a claustrophobic atmosphere most suited to the tale. In addition, the action takes place in a three-day span, yet the pace is not hurried, and I found myself wanted to slow down and savor the book while fighting the compulsion to just read it start to finish.
Read-alikes: The obvious starting point is more Christie. She wrote 66 detective novels during her life. Many consider her best works to be Death on the Nile (1937), Murder on the Orient Express (1934), Evil Under the Sun (1941), Five Little Pigs (1942), and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926). Also try the Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple titles. Once you've exhausted her catalog, try titles by her contemporary, Dorothy L. Sayers. Sayers' main detective protagonist, Lord Peter Wimsey, has been compared to Christie's Poirot. The first Wimsey book is Whose Body? (1923). Contemporary authors of cozy whodunnits include John Dickson Carr (his Gideon Fell series features an obese, beer-drinking detective who is the cultural antithesis of Poirot--start with The Crooked Hinge, 1938, or The Three Coffins, 1935), Margery Allingham (whose myseteries are set in the same upper-crust cultural setting as many of Christie's books--start with Mystery
Mile, 1930), M.C. Beaton (the Agatha Raisin cozies feature a likeable, yet aggressive, amateur detective--try Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death, 1992), and Josephine Tey (which feature Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant--try The Franchise Affair, 1948, and The Daughter of Time, 1951).
Red Flags: Murders that occur "off-stage"
The Body in the Library (1941)
Author: Agatha Christie
Genre: Mystery (Amateur Detective/Cozy)
When a body is found in the Bantry's library, Mrs. Bantry calls in her friend Miss Marple to solve the crime. The Bantrys have never met the girl, but she is identified as Ruby Keene, a dancer from a hotel in a neighboring town. There are suspects, but those with motive to have killed the girl have alibis. Soon, another body is found--the badly burned body of Pamela Reeves. SPOILER: The two dead bodies have been misidentified. The first dead girl is actually Pamela Reeves, made up to look like Ruby Keene by the killer.
Geographical Setting: England
Time Period: 1941
Series: Miss Marple Mystery, #3
The pacing was unhurried, but the presentation of clues made it a compelling read. The storyline was complex. The tone was fairly light for a murder mystery. The characters weren't the main focus, but are probably built up over the course of the series. THe writing style was conversational.
Read-alikes: The Crooked Hinge by John Dickson Carr is a mystery featuring complicated plots like Christie's. Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death by M. C. Beaton is a mystery novel that is also set in a rural English village, like the Miss Marple series, though the main character is not as sweet as Miss Marple is. Dead Man's Isle by Carolyn G. Hart is set is the U.S., but the main character is very similar to Miss Marple: a sweet, witty older woman. Death is in the Air by Kate Kingsbury might appeal because it is a murder mystery set in WWII rural England, and features a female main character solving the crimes. Styx and Stones by Carola Dunn is another cozy murder mystery set in rural England that features a female protagonist.
Red Flags: Murder
Death on the Nile (1937)
Author: Agatha Christie
Genre: Mystery (Cozy)
Linnet Ridgeway is one of the richest women in Britain. Much speculation follows her about who she will marry, and it is with some surprise that she marries a relative nobody, Simon Doyle. Unfortunately for the two newlyweds, Doyle's former lover (Jaqueline de Bellefort) is following them all over the world, and they seem to be stuck with her while in Egypt, and she's got a gun. Luckily Hercule Poirot is also in Egypt, enjoying a long planned vacation. However, there are several other people sharing this tour of Egypt, each with their own quirks, and one of them is wanted for murder. Can Poirot diffuse the situation between Linnet, Doyle and de Bellefort? Will Poirot be able to help an old friend catch the criminal in their midst?
Geographical Setting: Great Britain; Egypt; Nile River
Time Period: 1930s
Series: Book 15 in the Hercule Poirot series.
Readers may find the character of Hercule Poirot appealing, as his intelligence, wit, and an outsider's perspective of the British make him a unique creation. The pacing of the story begins with a gradual build up, letting readers become accustomed to all the characters as they are introduced. Once everything is in place, however, the action is almost nonstop, with near fatal accidents, murders, and mysterious thefts around every corner. The setting of Egypt and the Nile River cruise provides an interesting backdrop to the events. Poirot is provided a Watson-esque sidekick just before the halfway point of the novel. Almost every character in the novel is a member of the upper class of British society. The murder, when it occurs, seems straightforward, but the carefully planned clues provided by the author begin to point to a far more complicated explanation.
Read-alikes: For readers interested in reading more novels that feature Christie's Hercule Poirot, it is suggested to start at the beginning of the series with The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Readers who interested in more mystery surrounding members of the upper-class should try Margery Allingham's Albert Campion novels; start with Mystery Mile. Another suggestion is Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey series. Readers can start with the first Wimsey novel, Whose Body, but for those turned off by his pretensiousness early in the series, try Strong Poison. For readers who desire another mystery title set in Egypt in the early 20th Century, try Michael Pearce's Mamur Zapt series (The Mamur Zapt and the Return of the Carpet is the first title in the series). Another suggestion is Jeanne M. Dams' Dorothy Martin series (The Body in the Transept is the first title in the series). Dorothy Martin is an American who moves to England, providing an outsider's perspective.
Red Flags: Some description of death and some blood.
The Moving Finger (1942)
Author: Agatha Christie
Genre: Mystery (Amateur Detective)
Mr. Jerry Burton and his sister Joanna move to Lymstock from London
in order for Jerry to recuperate from an airplane crash. Far from finding the country air
peaceful, Jerry and Joanna are thrust into the middle of a mysterious case of the Poisoned Pen
letters, that are later linked to the suicide of Mrs. Symmington and the murder of her maid
Agnes. Through Jerry's eyes, the reader is introduced to the many odd characters that make
up the community of Lymstock, such as the effeminate Mr. Pye, the doctor Owen Griffin, young
Megan, and Mrs. Dane Calthrop. The community's gossiping further adds flame to the fire,
causing speculation and distrust to run rampant among the citizens of Lymstock as to the
mystery of the identity of the killer. As the reader experiences the events unfolding in
Lymstock through Jerry, the reader can see that Jerry has a knowledge of the people of Lymstock
and the Poisoned Pen letters that even Jerry does not realize he has. It is not until Miss
Marple is brought in by Mrs. Dane Calthrop that the mystery begins to be solved. It is from
Jerry's observations and instincts that Miss Marple gathers the true identity of the killer
and the writer of the Poisoned Pen letters. SPOILER: It is young Megan, who in collaboration with
Miss Marple, plays a key role in unmasking her stepfather, Mr. Symmington, as the murderer
of his wife and the maid Agnes, as well as the writer of the Poisoned Pen letters. Mr. Symmington
was in love with the nanny Elsie Holland, and thought that the only way to keep his respectability
and marry Elsie, was to murder his wife. Unfortunately for the maid Agnes, she knew something
was wrong with Mrs. Symmington's suicide, and Mr. Symmington killed her to cover his tracks. In the
middle of the Poisoned Pen letters case, two budding romances are revealed. As the outsiders of
Lymstock, Jerry and Joanna are unattached, but both begin to have feelings for certain members
of the community. Oddly, Jerry finds himself defending the young Megan and caring for her when
everyone else has forgotten about Megan. Jerry impromptly finds himself bringing Megan with him to
London for a medical checkup and funds a makeover for Megan which transforms the awkward twenty
year old into a shy, young beauty. When both Jerry and Joanna offer marriage to their loved
counterparts, each are rejected, but resolve to continue to hope. At the end of the story,
the reader sees Jerry and Joanna both married and as permanent members of the town of Lymstock.
Geographical Setting: Lymstock, Great Britain
Time Period: 1940's
Series: Miss Marple, Book 5
Written in a first-person narrative, The Moving Finger is
a great example of Agatha Christie's popularity. A relatively short book, the story moves along
at a leisurely pace with easily identifiable characters. Miss Marple is another installment of
an amateur detective that the public will love. An elderly, smart, intuitive woman, Miss Marple
will remind readers of their grandmothers and elderly aunts. For a book written in the 1940's,
the story and setting of Lymstock are timeless, not seeming out-dated or unreal, but very
representative of small towns anywhere.
Read-alikes: Readers might want to try other books in the Miss Marple series. The first
book in the Miss Marple series is Murder at the Vicarage. When a unliked member of
Miss Marple's community is killed in the local vicarage, it is Miss Marple's love of gossiping
that helps her to solve the crime and unlock the secrets behind the murder. Not unlike the
Miss Marple series by Agatha Christie, the Murder, She Wrote series also features an elderly
woman as the amateur sleuth who solves mysteries. Based on the popular TV series, Jessica Fletcher
is brought to life in literature through the Murder, She Wrote series. In Blood on the Vine,
Jessica travels to Napa Valley for some rest and relaxation, when she finds that an old Hollywood
friend is dead. It is up to Jessica to determine whether or not her friend really committed suicide
or was murdered in the beautiful wine country. An American judge is the target of a killer in
Margery Allingham's Mystery Mile. Allingham's signature detective, Albert Campion, must
determine who is behind the attacks on an American judge's life before the killer mistakenly kills
someone else again. This is the second book in Allingham's Campion series and has become well-known
for its complex plot, characters, and British humor. Set in the English countryside, Ngaio Marsh's
Hand in Glove, tells the tale of a murder that has been committed and it is up to
Superintendent Roderick Alleyn to solve the crime. After a party, a man is found murdered face
down in a open drain, and the main clue to finding the killer is a missing pair of gloves. A
mystery that contains famous people as amateur detectives is George Baxt's The Betty Davis
Murder Case. This story features Bette Davis and her friend Agatha Christie as amateur
detectives trying to solve the murder of a famous archaeologist.. A great read if a person is
a fan of Agatha Christie's works and would like to see her brought to life in her very own
Red Flags: Suicide, Murder, Blackmail
The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1921)
Author: Agatha Christie
Genre: Mystery (Police Detective)
A classic locked room mystery. The book that started Christie's writing career. Hercule Poirot's first case! The elderly Styles matriarch, Mrs. Ingersol, dies painfully from poisen. What type of poisen was used and how was it administered? Who is the murderer? Suspects abound. There's a financially strapped step-son and his wife who is obviously hiding something. There's a gold-digging younger husband, a second step-son who is a failed poet, a penniless ward, and a volatile secretary. All these people live under the same roof as the victim and depended on her generousity. Can a Belgium police detective, who is currently a war refugee staying in a nearby village, find the culprit? It was the largess of Mrs. Ingersol that brought Poirot to England and he feels an obligation to bring the villian to justice. A wealth of clues and potentential murderers provide a complex puzzel for the reader to solve. The clues are presented in such a tantalizing manner that the reader cannot help but accept the challenge of guessing at the outcome. However, the ending can still surprise the most careful reader.
Geographical Setting: Village of Styles St. Marys, England
Time Period: During World War I
Series: First in a series of 39 books about Belgium police detective Hercule Poirot.
The action moves briskly. The reader will be reluctant to put the book down until the culprit is finally revealed. Wealthy, upper class, colorful characters in country setting. The narrator, Poirot's companian, brings a touch of humor to the story. Variety of characters. Characters dealing with internal conflicts as well as external conflict with the other characters. More conversation than description. Plot is the most important element in the story. Some romance but no sex. If some elements in the story seem familiar it is because this book set the standard for the thousands that followed and copied it.
Read-alikes: Other Hercule Poirot mysteries by Agatha Christie. Agatha Christie's Miss Marple mystery series would also be similar. Dorothy L. Sayers novels about Lord Peter Whimsey. John Dickson Carr's hero, Gideon Fell, is recommended by Agatha Christie herself. Josephine Tey's book, The Man in the Queue.
Red Flags: Slightly violent death scene.