The A.B.C. Murders by
hbk out August 98
Published by Collins Crime
This is, quite simply, one of the cleverest whodunits that Agatha Christie ever wrote - or, indeed, that anyone has ever written. The central plot idea is so ingenious that it has been much copied by other mystery novelists, including not only those who work in the classic "fair play" tradition but also one or two hard-boiled American thriller writers.
The basic idea is one that has become very familiar in the modern age. A serial killer is on the loose; at the scene of each crime he leaves a
bizarre calling card - in this case, an ABC railway guide. The alphabet
theme is significant, it seems. Alice Ascher is beaten to death in
Andover, Betty Barnard is strangled in Bexhill, and so on. The structure of the book helps to build suspense. Captain Hastings' account of Hercule Poirot's attempts to unravel the mind of the murderer is interspersed with enigmatic third-person sections recounting the mysterious activities of one Alexander Bonaparte Cust. Soon there is a race against time: to catch the culprit before he can add another victim to his list.
There are many incidental pleasures in the book. Although Christie was not a writer who overdosed on realism, there are enjoyable sidelights on life in England in the mid 1930s - and one character's personal taste in fiction gives the dapper Belgian a clue to the solution of the puzzle. Christie was a conventional middle class Englishwoman of her time, but it is also interesting that with typical perception she identifies a certain insularity in some of her fellow countrymen which manifests itself in a tendency to sneer at foreigners - and the murderer's racist contempt for Poirot is a key factor in his eventual downfall. If there are any fans of the Golden Age detective story who have yet to read this classic novel,
they have a treat in store.
- author of the highly acclaimed Harry Devlin Mysteries)