Which crime novel would I read again? And again and again and again? I’ll admit, I’m a prolific re-reader even though I have recently discovered that I have only managed to work my way through 31 of the hundred “best” books as determined by the BBC. I’m even more of a dilettante if you check Radcliffe College’s list of the best novels of the twentieth century. No matter. I can’t help but seek the truly exceptional, amazing Christie.
I know. Except for maybe Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys, most mystery readers started with Dame Agatha. She was our entrée into the world of murder, safely ensconced in a billiard room or cozy seaside inn. There was death but little blood, lust while fully clothed and dark secrets that never included a dinner menu of fava beans and a nice chianti. By modern standards, Agatha’s locked door mysteries (now cozies) and purely intellectual sleuthing seem a little quaint. Yet for all the evil put in the world by some amazingly gifted writers, I count Murder on the Orient Express as my turning point – the place where I finally understood that no amount of logic or science could match the ability to make no assumptions and rethink the world. Sir Arthur Canon Doyle tried to describe it when he said when you’ve eliminated the likely, the unlikely and the highly improbable, what you’re left with – the impossible – must be the truth. Sherlock Holmes couldn’t have solved the Murder on the Orient Express. He’s brilliant. A clear match for his nemesis Moriarty. But in the end, once his suspicions have been allayed, he moves on. He’s logical and linear. While Agatha, in the guise of Hercule Poirot, was neither.
It’s literati Clue. List your suspects. Determine their location. Match a weapon. Determine a motive. And check them off your list in indelible ink. Narrow down to a single conclusion. Except Agatha doesn’t. She puts up every character, investigates and concludes only to reach an impasse of plausible deniability and viable alternative suspects. Then, she does the impossible. She makes it work. If it’s not someone, it could be, may be, is, everyone. Even more astonishing, she does what goes against the grain of every justice seeking self-righteous mystery buff everywhere. She takes the answer, by now obvious, and accepts that there will be no real world application. They won’t go to jail. They won’t go on to a sequel where they kill again and give Hercule another shot at the win. They will go on with their lives. Free of their tormentor, maybe even free of their torment. Amazing. Bold. Both unforgettable and fresh upon a new viewing. So, I can’t ride trains with relatives without keeping an eye open while I sleep. It’s a small price to pay.