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Agatha Christie's Short Mysteries

Profile at MysteryNet: "Waste No Words" by Edward D. Hoch

One of today's most successful short story writers takes a look at Dame Agatha's work

Just in time for Christmas of 1984, Agatha Christie's lifelong American publisher, Dodd, Mead & Company, brought out Hercule Poirot's Casebook, the first collection of all fifty Poirot short stories and novelettes. It was followed late in 1985 by Miss Marple, the Complete Short Stories, which collected all twenty of the Marple tales and signaled a new interest in the author's shorter works. Agatha Christie's two most famous characters were probably more at home in full-length novels, but there are some high spots among their shorter cases as well--and in the non-series short stories that she frequently wrote.

What, then, is the very best Agatha Christie short story of them all? Opinions may differ, but I would join several critics in casting my vote for "The Witness for the Prosecution," her deft, surprising tale of a trial for murder. Leonard Vole's predicament following the murder of his elderly friend still involves us in the mounting suspense of his trial preparations, the trial itself, and the startling aftermath. Most amazing of all, Christie wrote this story for Munsey's Magazine in 1924, two years before The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Its later success on stage and in films (with an added twist at the end) has somewhat eclipsed the original story, but it can still be read with great pleasure. Without giving away too much of an extremely clever plot, I'd mention the early use here of disguise, a factor that plays a large part in the solution of some later Christie novels.

Those fortunate enough to own a copy of Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories also possess two additional Christie masterpieces in the short form--"Accident" and "Philomel Cottage." Both are stories of poisoning, and concern murders past and present, but no two stories could be more different in their plots or their outcomes. It should come as no surprise that some of Christie's best short stories concern poisonings, since it was the favorite murder weapon in her novels as well. There are said to be eight-three cases of poisonings in her works.

Not in the same league with these three stories but still deserving a mention is Christie's novelette "Three Blind Mice," which has since become the longest-running play in theatrical history, The Mousetrap. Readers and audiences love to be fooled, and Christie fools them quite nicely in "Three Blind Mice." The shifting suspicion among the guests and residents of a snowbound guest house is admirably handled, and the final unmasking of the psychopathic killer still manages to surprise one in an old-fashioned way. Because of the continued popularity of the play in London, "Three Blind Mice" has never been published in England, although an earlier version was broadcast there in 1947 as a radio play.

The remainder of Agatha Christie's non-series stories are fairly routine mystery, crime, or supernatural tales. For other high-spots in her career as a short-story writer we must turn to the series sleuths, beginning with Hercule Poirot. My own favorite among Poirot's shorter cases is probably the novelette "Dead Man's Mirror," included in the collection of the same title. The puzzle here, involving a murder in a locked study, a shattered mirror, and the sound of a gong, could easily have been expanded to novel length, yet it works perfectly as published, with Poirot unmasking a well-hidden killer. (A shorter and somewhat different version has been published as "The Second Gong," but the story works best as "Dead Man's Mirror.")

Poirot fans will also want to read "The Chocolate Box," the final story in Christie's first collection, Poirot Investigates, for an account of the master sleuth's only failure. For some of his more dazzling successes, the reader is directed to "The Third-Floor Flat" in Three Blind Mice, "Murder in the Mews," another novelette in Dead Man's Mirror, and "Yellow Iris" in The Regatta Mystery. This last story was later expanded into the novel Remembered Death (British title: Sparkling Cyanide), but with Colonel Race solving the mystery instead of Poirot.

The best all-around Poirot collection is without doubt The Labors of Hercules, in which he undertakes to solve twelve mysteries which parallel the mythological labors of Hercules in modern life. "The Nemean Lion" might be reduced to a Pekinese dog for purposes of the scheme, but the stories still work remarkably well--especially in the case of "The Lernean Hydra."

Thirteen of the twenty stories about Miss Marple can be found in The Thirteen Problems (Also published in the U.S as The Tuesday Club Murders), including three of the best: "The Tuesday Night Club," "Motive v. Opportunity," and "The Affair at the Bungalow." It's interesting to remember that their magazine publication predated the first Miss Marple novel. The spinster sleuth had her origins in the short story form.

In addition to Poirot and Miss Marple, Agatha Christie penned three volumes and a few individual stories about a trio of other series detectives. Tommy and Tuppence appear in Partners in Crime, a good-natured spoof of other mystery writers. Parker Pyne solves a dozen cases in Mr. Parker Pyne, Detective, notably "The House of Shiraz," and reappears for two further adventures in The Regatta Mystery. Harley Quin helps unravel twelve cases in The Mysterious Mr. Quin, and returns for another story in Three Blind Mice. A final Harley Quin tale recently made its first book appearance in the title story of The Harlequin Tea Set and Other Stories published in 1997 (British title: While the Light Lasts).

Agatha Christie published 150 short stories in her lifetime, in addition to 66 mystery novels, some romances, and nonfiction. If the short stories often are not the equal of the best of her novels, they still sparkle on occasion with her vitality and ingenuity, reminding us anew of the pleasures of a well-crafted tale.

Agatha Christie's Short Story Collections

Poirot Investigates (1924)

Partners in Crime (1929)

The Mysterious Mr. Quin (1930)

The Thirteen Problems (1932)

Parker Pyne Investigates (1934)

Murder in the Mews (1937)

The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories (1939)

The Labours of Hercules (1947)

Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories (1948)

Three Blind Mice and Other Stories (1950)

The Under Dog and Other Stories (1951)

Double Sin and Other Stories (1961)

The Golden Ball and Other Stories (1971)

The Harlequin Tea Set (1997)

An Ed Hoch READING LIST

• The Ripper of Storyville, 1997

• The Velvet Touch

• 12 American Detective Stories Edited by Ed Hoch, 1998

BIO
Edward D. Hoch is a past president of Mystery Writers of America and winner of its Edgar Award for best short story. He was the 1991 Guest of Honor at Bouchercon and won its Anthony Award for best short story in 1998. His most recent collections include Diagnosis: Impossible, The Ripper of Storyvilleand the forthcoming The Velvet Touch.