It’s a Mystery to Me

its-a-mystery-to-meMy first encounter with Agatha Christie was her novel, Murder on the Orient Express, which I read for one of my book clubs. I’m not usually a reader of mysteries unless by accident. John MacLachlan Gray’s two Edmund Whitty novels and Laura Joh Rowland’s Sano Ichiro series are among those happy accidents. Of course, there are the three Dorothy L. Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey novels my mother gave me for Christmas which prompted the purchase of the complete stories, so perhaps I occasionally, intentionally read a mystery.

With that being said, I approached Murder on the Orient Express with a titch of bias. I expected Agatha Christie’s writing to meet the standard set by the above-mentioned authors. In Mrs. Christie’s defense, I have read only one of her novels, and by the time I wrote this blog post, I also completed the short story, “Witness for the Prosecution.”

Charming but dull was the phrase that continually came to mind. Hercule Poirot didn’t do anything for me as a protagonist except manage to be cute and annoying at the same time and fusty even in the era for which he was created. The peripheral characters weren’t memorable; I had to keep re-reading their bios at the beginning to keep them straight. Only one of them had an interesting twist, and for all Poirot’s intelligence, how he managed to miss it until the end didn’t lend very much credibility to his detective skills.

I kept comparing Poirot to Lord Peter, who is more aware of his eccentricities, Chamberlain Sano, who accepts bad situations with great humility and presses on, and Edmund Whitty, who is a likeable loser right from the start. They are more believable as protagonists and detectives, more human in character and actions.

Then there was the prejudice of the author that comes through in the way she handled foreigners and the lower classes. Some of the things Mrs. Christie wrote would be considered intolerable today and were clearly the general opinion of her class. Dorothy L. Sayer’s tiptoed in this direction occasionally, but in my opinion, with much less offense. However, in the hands of someone like John MacLachlan Gray, these types of comments read harshly yet brilliantly. Perhaps this is because he’s writing an historical mystery, and I can trust he’s not wielding them for shock value.

As for the conclusion that everyone was guilty, I couldn’t accept that as a solution. Too many people who know the details of a secret are bound to screw it up without the help of Mother Nature. If not for the snowstorm, am I to believe all the suspects would have succeeded with their scheme? And perhaps I’ve watched too much Law & Order and Criminal Minds to accept that the head of the railway line, with Poirot’s apparent blessing, has the authority to let everyone off the hook because the man they killed was a kidnapper and murderer. Maybe I just wasn’t interested in debating the issue of justice in a book that in all other ways was simple and unengaging.

I probably wouldn’t have picked up another Agatha Christie book if it weren’t for the fact that my other book club is also doing Agatha Christie. My next purposeful attempt at a mystery will also be for book club. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles is on the schedule. I’ll be interested to see how he measures up to the other mystery writers.

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