Agatha Christie 100 - The Big Four

The Big Four is Christie's first and only episodic novel. Published when Christie had become a household name after The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, readers flocked to buy her new novel.

Hastings returns to England again and finds that Poirot is getting involved with a world-encompassing crime syndicate, named The Big Four. He decides to stay and give assistance to Poirot. The pair are soon entangled in several episodes involving this mysterious organisation, and while Poirot often manages to right a terrible wrong, the persons responsible continue to elude capture.

This novel was the first after Christie's difficulties with separation and divorce from her first husband, as well as her disappearance for a few weeks in 1926. However, that doesn't mean it was written at that time - no, in fact this novel was fashioned out of a series of short stories that Christie published way back in 1924. Christie mainly created different openings to each short story in order to craft them into different chapters in this overarching story.

But that also means that we cannot blame this hodgepodge of evil superbaddies and secret hideouts on Christie's ordeals, as they were written before they happened. And this is by far the poorest story I've read so far in this re-read, so one has to wonder what on earth compelled Christie to write it. This is closer in style to Christie's adventure thrillers, but at least those other ones had some humour and lightness of touch - a simple sense of fun that this novel doesn't have at all.

Poirot hardly does any detecting like we're used to - there are a couple of episodes which resemble the mystery short stories Christie published in 1923 and which were later collected in Poirot Investigates (the oft mentioned A Chess Problem is one of them), but even those few examples pale in comparison with Christie's regular short stories.

I'll rate this a 12 out of 100. There are few Christie stories that are as bad as this one, though I guess we might find a couple of lower-rated novels when we reach the end of this re-read. Whenever someone tries to poohpooh Ronald Knox's rule "There should be no Chinamen", just direct them towards this story.
1929 1969

Reflecting this novel's standing as a minor work in Christie's catalogue, it only has two Swedish editions. There is a slight variation in the titles - De fyra means The Four, while De fyra stora is a literal translation of the British title.

The first of these covers is hideous in every way. It's quite apparent that a cover such as this one could never be used in these enlightened times, but even aside from that it's just plain ugly.

The Zebra edition from the late 60s is by comparison much better. Another example of that cover staple - a couple of items that signal excitement and mystery - I do wonder what that fetish (or whatever that face is) is doing on this cover.


Agatha Christie 100 - The Secret of Chimneys

In the early part of her career, Christie would often take turns between writing pure mysteries and adventure thrillers, often with a hint of romance in them. This novel belongs to the latter category, her third such novel after The Secret Adversary and The Man in the Brown Suit.

Anthony Cade, a man with a chequered background, undertakes to transport a manuscript of delicate nature from southern Africa to the publishers in London. Meanwhile, there is a political storm brewing in the state of Herzoslovakia, where the former king and queen have been murdered, but plans have been set in place to restore the monarchy again. All these plot threads centre on a meeting at Lord Caterham's manor, Chimneys.

I was looking forward to reading this one, because I had forgotten a lot about it since last time I read it. I still remembered the big reveal at the end, but most of the twists and turns on the way there were lost in the fogs of time. I can't say that it lived up completely to expectations. It was a fun read, an easy read and hard to put down. But it's also fairly silly, and everything just turns out conveniently for the best whenever Cade - our protagonist - does something. There's no clueing, really, and the reveal of the different villains doesn't really hang on anything that Christie has set up previously.

Inspector Battle doesn't makes a very deep impression here, leaving Anthony Cade to do most of the heavy lifting. Instead he's mostly there to confirm everything that Cade manages to find out, being the archetypal competent policeman - as opposed to the archetypal incompetent policeman that we so often get to see.

Anyway, Chimneys is decidedly better than its immediate predecessor, The Man in the Brown Suit. It feels a bit more assured, and at least you get the feeling that Cade knows what he's doing some of the time, in contrast to Anne Beddingfield in the earlier novel.

I'd rate this a 39 out of 100. A whole mess of fun, but perhaps not quite what you're looking for in a Christie novel. But sometimes you want a distraction from the meatier fare, an amuse-bouche, and then you could definitely do worse than reading The Secret of Chimneys.

1948 1960 1970
1981 1988 1991

The Swedish title is simply a literal translation of the English one. This was another one of those early titles that had to wait a while until it was translated into Swedish, but Bonniers has made up for that by publishing a number of editions since then. The first one from 1948 has a cover in that style that we're beginning to recognise from around that time.It's good enough, I suppose, though it could definitely be mistaken for a youth novel. The Zebra cover from 1960 is one of their worst. It looks like a James Bond novel or something, and it doesn't help that it's quite cartoony.

The first Delfinserien cover - the one I own.- features a crescent and some flowers, which isn't the most exciting of covers. The second Delfinserien cover from 1981 is another one of those pictures of vaguely sinister objects (I suppose the firearm is more than vaguely sinister...). I might just like that one a bit more than the previous one.

And hey, here comes another bookclub cover! It's not the worst such cover I've seen, but why does every woman on these covers have an 80s hairdo? Let's move our gaze towards the 1991 cover instead, which is kinda fun with that cartoony eagle and the bloodstain. At least it hints at the international adventure mystery we know the novel contains.


Agatha Christie 100 - The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

With this novel, we've reached the first of the milestones of Agatha Christie's long career. This is her first stone cold classic. Read on to find out what I thought of it.

Hercule Poirot has retired to a small village in order to grow vegetable marrows, but is soon roped into helping out with a murder investigation. The titular Roger Ackroyd has been stabbed in his study, with the window open and conspicuous footprints outside. Since Poirot is now retired and Hastings has moved to Argentina with his wife, he gets help from the village doctor, Dr Sheppard, who narrates this mystery in Hastings' stead.

Yeah, this is still a powerful story. It towers above everything else from Christie's first decade of writing. There are a couple of other Christie novels from the 20s that are perfectly fine mysteries, but this is the only one where you see why she is hailed as the best writer in the genre. It is interesting to note that it will take a couple of years after this one before she gets really going again - arguably not until The Murder at the Vicarage.

The misdirection here is rather wonderful - though if you read it with a knowledge of the solution there are one or two passages where you go "Hang on, does that really work?" - and while the village setting would later become Miss Marple's homeground, Poirot does well in this one.

I'd rate this a 93 out of 100, it's quite simply one of the better novels of the genre.

1927 1940 1952 1959
1964 1980 1982 1995
1997 2002 2005 2007
2009 2015
Okay, when it comes to Swedish editions of this novel, we've got a lot to talk about... First, this is the only novel of Christie's that wasn't published by Sweden's leading publishing firm, Bonniers. As I understand it, when it was offered to Swedish publishers, only two of Christie's novels had been translated (The Secret Adversary and The Murder on the Links), none of which had probably been tearing up the sales charts. Instead, this was picked up by a competing publisher, B. Wahlströms, who as you can see above have gone on to milk this novel to death. It is interesting to note, though, that the very latest edition is actually the same as the one we've seen for The Mysterious Affair at Styles. So maybe they have decided to align, or perhaps someone now owns all the Swedish rights to Christie novels.

Anyway, adding to this confusion, this novel has two different titles in Sweden. I said that the Swedish title for The Murder on the Links was the poorest ever, but it has stiff competition from the original Swedish title here: Hur gåtan löstes means How the Mystery Was Solved. Fabulous, no? No.

When the novel was published in the 40s, it received a new Swedish title, which has stuck with it since then. Dolken från Tunis (literally: The Dagger from Tunis) is also a much better one, better than the original English one, which I think is similarly bland to most of the other 20s titles.

Now let's move on to the covers, which are a mixed bunch. The first one is actually exactly the same one as the first British edition. It looks incredibly dated, and it's impossible to imagine a book today with that type of cover. As an exercise in nostalgia, it's fine, but not a favourite of mine. As for the cover from 1940, I think we have now established where Kenneth Branagh got his idea of Poirot's appearance from. If the Poirot depiction were better I'd like this a bit more.

If you've taken a closer look at the covers above, you've also seen that they are partly repeated over the years. Take the 1952 one, for instance. The same illustration appears on the covers from 1997 and 2002, though with different typesetting and colouring. The 50s one is definitely the best one of these three. I don't think it works anywhere near as well with the white and green of the later covers.

The 1959 cover is more in line with what covers looked like in Sweden around that time (see also the almost concurrent cover for Murder at the Vicarage), and I quite like it. Moving on, you can see another cover that was repeated, just with some design details changed. The one from 1964 is a bit more cluttered than the cleaner 1980s variant. The cover illustration gives vibes of a more hardboiled story, but at least it looks exciting.

And that's in contrast to the 1982 cover, which is the edition I have. Yeah, the dagger looks impressive, but why cover it with all that text? Bah. By 1995, the Suchet TV series is going strong, and therefore we need a tie-in cover, of course. This is the type of cover I hate the most.

Finally, let's take a look at the latest four editions. The one from 2005 has some design similarities to the 1982 one, though manages to both improve on it and make it worse at the same time. They've managed to separate the dagger and the text, but the dagger itself is just a silhouette and the font they've chosen is ugly. I also dislike that it's all in lowercase letters.

The 2007 and 2009 covers are a bit meh. The first one has a lot of flowers, while the later one at least manages  to indicate that this is going to be a mystery, with a dagger and a magnifying glass. And then we have the latest edition, whose covers I'm starting to warm to, funnily enough. They have the same style of design, and I like that they've managed to make the dagger part of the title. It's still not the most eye-catching of covers and doesn't scream "mystery!", but I'll try not to dismiss them out of hand henceforth.


Agatha Christie 100 - The Murder at the Vicarage

So, time for our first Miss Marple book in this re-read. This was published a little later than the others so far (1930), so Christie is more assured as a writer by now.

The cantankerous Colonel Protheroe has made enemies of all and sundry, and therefore it comes as no surprise when he is found murdered, shot to death in the vicar's study. Because of the Colonel's nature, there are plenty of suspects, but almost immediately his wife and her lover admit to the killing - separately! But there are inconsistencies in their stories, and any Christie reader will immediately guess that their confessions are not genuine. It is therefore fortunate that next door to the vicarage lives an old lady with a lot of common sense - Miss Marple.

I think one could call this Christie's first "standard mystery". She's beginning to hit her stride here, and from this point on and for up to 20 years she will be writing great mystery novels - some will push the boundaries of any rules you can think of, while others will just tinker around with the different building blocks that make up a mystery to confound the reader as much as possible.

As I said, this novel is the start of all that. It's very good, and even though I remembered almost all the big developments here, I enjoyed reading this story a whole lot. Miss Marple isn't really the character she would become in later stories, she is much more fearsome and more of a village gossip, like the other old ladies that we come across in this novel. There's nothing of the woolly old lady who can fool criminals with her innocent blue eyes.

I'd rate this a 78 out of 100. One of her finest mysteries, but there's still room for improvement before we reach the very tops of greatness.

1952 1967 1984
1987 1989 2000
2001 2005 2015

Again, the Swedish title is a direct translation of the English title (Mordet i prästgården = The Murder at the Vicarage), so nothing much to discuss there. More interesting is perhaps the fact that this title wasn't published in Sweden until 1952, well after three other Marple titles had already been translated into Swedish.

Despite the fact that Vicarage had to wait quite a long time before being published in Sweden, it has had a whole bunch of different editions since then, with as many as four coming this century. If we take a look at the first edition, it has a rather humorous looking cover. It's very typical of Swedish 50s covers. Its main drawback is that it says very little about the contents of the novel, but I like it anyways.

Come the 60s, and Delfinserien has a pretty good-looking cover with the Old Hall front and centre - another one of Per Åhlin's creations. Nowhere near his best, but still preferable to many of the others here. The two Bonniers editions from the mid 80s actually belong to the same series, but as you can see, they switched illustrators before the second one. While the first one is fine, if a little nondescript, the second one, again by Leslie Quagraine, is awesome in every way. Again, perhaps it doesn't say much about the contents, but doesn't that cloud look wonderful? I just wish it was the one I owned. (I used to have the earlier 80s version, but upgraded to the Delfinserien one some time ago.)

The edition from the late 80s is a book club version, as you can probably glean from that cover, which is pretty awful. It looks like the cover of a vampire story, to be honest. As seen before with The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the 2000 version has a photograph. This one is evocative but a picture of a tree doesn't really spell out "village mystery" to me.

The large print edition from 2001 at least has the clock, which was an important clue in the story, while the latest edition at least continues the same abstract stylings that the other publications in this series have. Note that they've incorporated Christian crosses in the title, which is kinda nifty.

Before coming to the 2005 cover, I might need to explain that in Sweden, we always have a "Book sale" period in late February. A lot of books are published in special editions for this sale. And this edition is just such a one. To be honest, I think it's a fairly evocative cover, much better than it has a right to be. And it helps that it actually depicts something important to the story. If only it weren't so very dark.


Agatha Christie 100 - The Murder on the Links

It is now time to take a look at the second Hercule Poirot novel, The Murder on the Links. It's one of the least spoken about in the Poirot series, perhaps because it isn't really outstanding in any way. But I was positively surprised when I read it.

Hastings has just returned from the continent, doing his regular job (apparently he has one), and he finds that Poirot has received an urgent message from a millionaire living in France, urging him to come. But when the two arrive, it turns out that they are too late - his wife has been tied up in their bedroom, and the millionaire is dead after what seems like a botched attempt at abduction. When later another body is found on the premises, the mystery deepens.

Of the books I've re-read so far, this was the one I had the least memory of, though I did have an inkling as to the identity of the murderer, and it turned out to be correct. What we have here is a pretty good detective story, where one of the clues is very similar to one in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Again, with Hastings as the narrator, we're always at a distance from Poirot, both because at several points in the story Poirot leaves Hastings at the scene of the crime, while he flits around trying to establish various things, and also because Hastings is so incredibly dim that he has no idea what Poirot is doing. As an aside, I didn't remember Hastings being this dumb, but I've had to revise my opinion of him...

The twists and turns towards the end are pretty good, and the surprising killer is well-hidden. If I had one complaint, it would be that it feels a bit as if Christie could have pinned the crime on several persons without there being anything in the cluing that contradicted it. But as I said above, I enjoyed this a bit more than I thought I would, and I will therefore rate this as 41 out of 100. Still below average for Christie, but a well-written mystery story that most other authors would have been proud to have produced.

1924 1941 1952
1969 1986
In Sweden, this was the second Christie novel to be translated, and it was published in 1924, just one year after the British publication year. While the British title is bland enough, the Swedish title was the incredibly unimaginative Vem var den skyldige? (Literally: Who Was the Guilty One?). It is probably the poorest mystery title I've ever heard of.

All Swedish covers feature the killing dagger, though in quite different ways. The 20s cover is quite typical of its time. Fairly charming, but not great. The later 1941 edition has a horrible cover of Poirot lecherously watching a couple of dancing showgirls! I can't imagine Hastings approving of that depiction of his future wife. The 50s cover is amateurish, but at least not sensationalist.

Which means that again we're left with the Zebra series and the 80s Bonniers editions to pick up the slack. Unfortunately, the 80s one - the one I own - is one of the worst of that series. It's just there, really. The Zebra edition is better and clearly the most evocative, managing to sensationalise a scene that really isn't too exciting in the book. Too bad that this one wasn't published in Delfinserien. Since the competition is so poor, they could have had almost any cover and yet it would have been the best of the bunch.

So an average book with a less than average title (even more so in Swedish) and some decidedly unexciting covers. I kinda feel sorry for poor Murder on the Links, really.


Agatha Christie 100 - The Man in the Brown Suit

The re-read continues apace, and we are now going to take a look at The Man in the Brown Suit. This novel, published in 1924, is Agatha Christie's second adventure story, following The Secret Adversary, which I will return to in a future post.

The novel introduces us to Anne Beddingfield, a young woman of no means whose father passes away in the early parts of the story. She is taken in by the family's London solicitor, and while in that big city witnesses a man falling onto the underground rails after which the body is searched by a man who claims to be a doctor, though Anne suspects otherwise. And then a murder takes place in a house belonging to Sir Eustace Pedler, a man of a lot more means who is just about to travel to South Africa. Anne manages to finagle her way into the coterie surrounding Sir Eustace and onto the ocean liner Kilmorden Castle where various mysterious events take place.

As mentioned above, this is an adventure thriller and definitely not a fair play mystery. This being Christie, there will still be some clues that will need solving, but even though Colonel Race - one of Christie's returning characters - is in this one, don't expect many deductions. Things just happen, mainly because Anne is a headstrong, impetuous character who's in a bit over her head. Though it has to be said that she learns from experience and by the time the novel ends she's come quite a way.

This is fairly typical of a 20s thriller, with lots of romance and incredible stuff happening over and over again. Though longer than The Mysterious Affair at Styles, it was a very quick read - a true page turner. A lot of fun, but on the whole fairly insubstantial. I'll give it a 30 out of a 100 - quite a bit below average for Christie. (Remember, the ratings only apply to Agatha Christie's works - if a novel gets a 30, it would probably beat a lot of non Christie works...)

1987 2003

The Swedish title, Mannen i brunt (literal translation: The Man in Brown), is obviously no improvement on the English - it's just shorter.

Fun fact: This novel was the last Christie novel to be translated into Swedish, and there are in fact only two Swedish editions of this story. (Yes, yes, if you want to count hardback and paperback as different editions, well, then there's more than two editions. But I tend to separate editions as publications with different cover art, and that is the definition I will use hereafter.)

I was actually not aware of the edition from this century before writing this post, but it turns out that it's a large print version published for some reason or other. It's as obvious and dull a cover as you can create, really.

The one I have is therefore quite obviously the earlier one, which has an evocative cover focusing on the elegant Anne and the ocean liner that features in more or less half the story. The covers for the 80s Christie publications in Sweden were created by an Englishman called Leslie Quagraine, and he has a fairly distinctive style which often produced fine results. This, for instance, is one I like.


Agatha Christie 100 - The Mysterious Affair at Styles

As most everyone in the mystery field will know, 2020 marks the 100 year centenary of the first publication of an Agatha Christie mystery. To mark this occasion, I have decided to try and re-read all Agatha Christie novels. If I am to read all 66 of them in a year I will have around five days for each novel. We'll see if I can keep up the pace throughout this year.

Accompanying this re-read I will try to make a post on each novel. I won't dwell too much on the contents - but I will give a summary and a short opinion with ratings out of 100 (very appropriately). Instead I'll focus on the Swedish editions of each story, the covers and some of the publishing history of Agatha Christie in Sweden.

My re-read will be in chronological order, however with a bit of a twist. As I mentioned above, there are 66 Christie novels. Exactly half of them are Poirot novels, so every other novel I read will be a Poirot novel.

As for the other books, I've divided them into three categories: Marples (12 novels), Tommy & Tuppences (4), and everything else (17). Hey, you say, why don't Battle or Race get their own categories? Just because. Race only has two starring roles, so that would be a pretty tiny category. And even though Battle has as many starring roles as T&T, I feel that the latter are much more distinct as their own thing. To be honest, the Battle stories could have featured really any copper and no one would notice any difference.

Anyway, I took these three categories of Christie novels and mixed them up, spreading out the two smaller categories so I never have to read two books from the "other" cathegory close to each other. Easy as a somewhat heavy pie.

And so, without further ado, let's get on with the first Agatha Christie novel ever published - The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

The story takes place during WWI, when Captain Arthur Hastings has been sent home from the front. He comes across an old acquaintance, John Cavendish, who invites Hastings to stay with him and his family at their family home, Styles. The mater familias, Emily Inglethorp, has recently married a much younger man, Alfred, much to the chagrin of everyone else in the family. One night, the old lady is found on the brink of death. She only manages to utter the name of her spouse before expiring. Luckily, in the village is an eccentric Belgian former policeman, Hercule Poirot, whom Hastings has had the fortune to meet some years earlier...

This is a very good debut from Christie. It's got a good cast of suspects - the whole family and friends living at Styles - and several good red herrings to divert suspicious towards many of them. It also has a very ignorant narrator in Hastings, who manages to misinterpret every situation it is possible to misinterpret. Poirot is fairly active in this one, running around and acting more eccentric than I remember him from other stories. The solution he produces is not bad at all and follows well from everything we've been told throughout the novel. I'd give this a 68 out of a 100. It's not absolutely top tier, but well above average. One of the best of Christie's first decade.

1929 1935 1953
1963 1972 1984
2000 2015 2020

Agatha Christie's early Swedish publishing history is a bit chequered. This novel was actually not the first to be translated - it had to wait until 1929, when three other novels had already been published in Sweden. When it finally appeared, it received the title En dos stryknin (literal translation: A Dose of Strychnine). If you ask me, the Swedish title is a bit better, though none of them are fabulous. The English one is neutral to the extreme, almost sounding like one of those Victorian melodramas. The Swedish title isn't particularly alluring or eye-fetching, but at least it still conjures up an image of a mystery.

In Sweden, Agatha Christie was often published in different series. The main ones are the mid 60s Zebra series, Delfinserien from the 70s, and the simple Bonniers editions from the mid 80s. We've had several titles in the mid 10s lately as well. Unfortunately, I don't think any of these editions feature the complete works of Christie, which means that if you want to collect Christie's entire oeuvre in Swedish, you'll have to put up with owning books in quite different styles.

In this case, the edition I own is the paperback from 1963 above. I like that cover quite a bit. Like the covers surrounding it, it focuses on Alfred Inglethorp's sinister appearance. The name of the series this edition belongs to is clearly indicated at the top of the cover.

The 1972 edition belongs to Delfinserien. As you will see in future posts, I will generally gravitate towards this latter edition, because they are to me the quintessential covers. Delfinserien often featured somewhat surreal covers, with a very distinct look. The mid 80s covers are also quite good with the very distinct style the author's name is featured in. This one is actually one of the most non-descript of this series.

The two earlier covers are quite generic in my opinion, and quite what that train is doing on the second cover, I don't really know. The mid 50s cover is more indicative of the contents, and while not a favourite of mine is still perfectly all right as a cover.

As for the first two covers from this century, they're not to my tastes. The 2015 one is indicative of modern book publishing and doesn't appeal to me much, while the 2000 edition has a photography, which can be an effective cover in some cases, but this one of some coffee cups is a bit meh. 

 Finally, an anniversary edition came out in 2020, celebrating the 100 years since the novel's first publication. I like this one better than the previous one, though I could do without the black anniversary circle.