#226: Spoiler Warning 2 – Death on the Nile (1937) by Agatha Christie vs. He Who Whispers (1946) by John Dickson Carr

spoiler-warning

In the second of my semi-occasional series where caution is thrown to the wind when it comes to naming names, we are here today to discuss the two finest detective novelists of all time at their popular peak.  Christie aficionado, good friend, and best teacher ever Brad of AhSweetMysteryBlog kindly agreed to go head-to-head over our favourite authors and then exchange some thoughts on aspects of the precise details and workings of the books, and the results of our efforts are below.  Suffice to say, if you click to read more of this, there are guaranteed massive spoilers from this point on; don’t say I didn’t warn you.

In keeping with our personalities, my demure, apologetic Englishness will be communicated in normal font such as this, whereas Brad’s strident, confident Americanisms will be in bold.  So, without further ado, here are our findings…

…on the books

This is the hand we’ve been dealt, but it’s inherently unfair to have to compare Death on the Nile — pure 1930s Golden Age stuff — with He Who Whispers, which is mid-1940s, a time when more attention was paid to character development. It would be much easier to compare Nile with, say, The Three Coffins (1935), while Whispers compares more easily to Five Little Pigs (1942) or even The Hollow (1946), which came out in the same year.

What we have here is at least thematically similar: two stories of wronged women in Linnet Ridgeway — who is more than a little complicit in her own downfall — and Fay Seton, who ends up being accidentally complicit in her own downfall, too.

And they both share — and this is to Carr’s credit — beautifully rendered female characters.  Though I would argue that there are two wronged women in Nile: Linnet, the “poor little rich girl”, is a victim of her father’s dominant personality and of the isolation that great wealth brings.  She knows she has done wrong by stealing Simon, and her insolence clearly masks a guilty conscience.  Jackie de Bellefort is also tragic figure. She loves her man enough to overlook his moral weakness and kill for him.

…on Plotting

Of the two, the scheme around Linnet in DotN feels more complete to me — I’m not convinced by the brevity of the vampirism thread of HWW, and the convenience of Harry Brooke spreading rumours that just happen to be exactly spot on feels a convenience too far — even if HWW is a better book overall…

DotN1Both books handle reversals of expectation, the hallmark of a good mystery, with panache. The reversal is singular in Nile: Jackie does not have a bone to pick with Simon; rather, they remain lovers out to get Linnet’s money.  Having that first chapter (that JJ dislikes) allows Christie to create the illusion of Jackie as woman scorned right away.  Christie builds on the obfuscation by placing this love triangle in an exotic setting and surrounding them with fake suspects.  True, there are far too many of these — the red herrings are jumping out of the Nile waters!

The thread of Johnny Race searching for his spy highlights what I think is a key weakness of DotN.  It’s very shallow in terms of its plotting: everyone has precisely one role — they are the spy, or the kleptomaniac, or the alcoholic…no-one is allowed to be that and the murderer…once Race identifies Richetti as his spy, Richetti is immediately out of the running for killing Linnet, for instance, with no real reason given.

DotN5This is illustrated perfectly by the case Poirot outlines against Tim Allerton towards the end, following the killing of Mrs. Otterbourne (which is never really explored or convincingly dismissed despite, I can’t help but feel, being very valid — the clue of the gloves is astonishingly subtle, and Christie through and through) only for Poirot to go “Well, but you’re the thief, so therefore you’re not the killer”.  What we have is three people involved in the killing, and everyone else is more or less just there as an accidental smokescreen.  Fine, but not difficult to construct.

The other passengers are (mostly) strangers and, by necessity, have only a passing relationship to Linnet. There are actually only a few motives to consider: Jackie’s thirst for revenge (which turns out to be a false motive), Pennington’s self-preservation, the theft of the pearls (the most wide-ranging one as anybody could be the thief), a disdain for rich heiresses, (Jim Ferguson and Rosalie Otterbourne), and that admittedly unfortunate motive — the spy whose message Linnet intercepted.  Simon and Jackie are playing with the cards they’ve been dealt, and their plan evolves from there. Christie uses all her savvy to distract us from the real motive — Simon’s inheritance — and I think she does that quite well.

Yeah, Christie has the upper hand in at least acknowledging possible alternatives and working in more of a traditional GAD tapestry, which is more than Carr does, and possibly a large part of DotN’s popularity.  I wonder if part of Carr’s falling from public awareness was due to his turning in so very few traditional whodunits, and the way he was always driving plots with a singular aim in mind.

HWW2To wit: I always feel Carr requires us to put too much faith in Rigaud’s version of events here.  There’s a perfectly valid case — Rigaud sends Harry away from the top of the tower, stabs Harold, throws the briefcase into the trees to salvage later (motive: money), wipes the sword off, and then follows Harry with excuses of talking to his father, only to misrepresent this timeline in his telling later on (there’s no-one else to contradict him, after all…) — that’s never acknowledged or confronted.  Rigaud is, in his first and only appearance, cast iron, beyond reproach, even though we have no reason to think him so (had it been Fell, that would be a different matter).

You make a good point about posterity, though I would argue (and you would agree) that Carr’s originality is what makes him so brilliant, and the fact that he can work from such a small canvas and still surprise us is part of that brilliance.  (I’m thinking of She Died a Lady, which I recently finished!  What an ending!)

HWW5Still, it’s odd that Whispers has virtually no suspects. Most of the characters here exist in the past; only Fay Seton seems to bridge the two eras.  Like you, I resisted accepting Rigaud on face value.  But we’re forced to do so since the basis of the whole mystery springs from the story Rigaud tells at the start.  It’s hard to credibly include Miles Hammond or his sister as suspects . . . suspects in what?!?  That leaves Barbara Morell and Stephen Curtis — but he disappears after one brief scene, and the murderer should be someone we see throughout the book. (Them’s the rules; I didn’t make ‘em up!)  So really, it all becomes a tale about Fay and her true moral nature.

It’s difficult to disagree.  Though I honestly feel that Carr does a better job with the plotting than Christie does, I’m not convinced this would make it into my top 10 Carrs any more; but it’s fascinating to get to the end and realise how nested and dense — how much depth, to use my terminology from the other week — there’s been throughout.  It doesn’t have the chapter-after-chapter revelations of proper masterworks like Till Death Do Us Part (1944) or The Problem of the Green Capsule (1939) — the chapter on the London Underground where Miles and Barbara follow Fay and fail to get off at the correct stop is…interminable — but once you realise how tightly everything is wound you can forgive this sort of apparent looseness.

Conversely, I think this might be why HWW has emerged at the most popular Carr book: it feels very traditional, and turns out to be anything but, which I think surprised a lot of people when the first read it.

I plumped on Stephen as the killer immediately because I know that Carr cares not a whit for the rule I named above.  His reaction to the news that Miles was bringing Fay down to the family estate was odd enough for me to figure that something was up. I never guessed Stephen would turn out to be Harry Brooke, and in a way I guess this eliminates the breaking of the rule.

HWW3This is sort of what I mean about the depth of it all — Stephen does stand out a mile as trying to avoid Fay, which is a weird piece of clumsy writing from Carr, especially given how well he usually hides his guilty parties — but that scene when he’s about to go into his room only to be told Rigaud is sleeping in there and so spins away apparently in irritation but in fact fear is a moment that plays over and over in my head when I think of this book.  It’s one of those tiny moments with huge implications that Carr does so well, and in retrospect gives the whole thing a much more dangerous atmosphere.  On which note…

…on Atmosphere

Carr wins here in terms of the sheer number of stunning reversals he gives us.  Rigaud manages to tell a completely honest story and be totally wrong about key characters and relationships.  We all know that Fay cannot really be a vampire, and yet it turns out that she is!  The vamp, the nymphomaniac, the femme fatale . . . they are all sisters under the skin.  Everything about Fay’s character works for me.  I love Marion Hammond as well, enough to feel true loss when she is attacked.  Only Barbara never comes to life, and her connection through her brother is the most tenuous aspect of the plot for me.

Oh, god, when the nature of the attack on Marion is revealed, I just felt sick with the horror of it…

DotN3Reading these two has really helped me compare just how wonderful Carr’s use of atmosphere is, and has brought out the simplicity of language that makes Christie so popular.  Consider the end of chapter 3 of DotN, when Jacqueline comes out onto the veranda and Christie says — apropos of almost nothing — “There was a feeling in the air of hush, of expectancy…like the moment on the stage when one is waiting for the entrance of the leading lady”.  Or chapter seven when Poirot is talking to Rosalie Otterbourne and Christie says “The whole scene had a melancholy, almost sinister charm” — we’re just told that this is the atmosphere, there’s nothing to build up to it.

Conversely, I think Carr — while a little muted here — does more to establish the sense of sadness or panic or malice without having to simply tell you: I love the opening of chapter nine: “Even more white, very white, glimmered Rigaud’s face under the rising moon, whose light now touched the water beneath them”, or the horrible callback in chapter 11 after the discussion of the vampirism for the first time of seeing Fay again when “in the uncertain light it seemed to Miles that she had put on a great deal of lipstick, which she did not ordinarily use”.  I feel Carr does a lot more to chip away at a sense of unease, where Christie simply says that you should now feel uneasy.

Points to Carr for atmosphere.  This is something he does well, yet it isn’t what Christie is about, so we’re talking apples to oranges!  Yes, the vampire stuff is ultimately nonsense, but that second attack on Marion totally scared me.  I also appreciate that Carr is willing to go to sexually frank places in his books, but Christie has done that too, only in a more genteel way as befits her style and the time in which she began to write.  Christie’s popularity springs from her ability to paint a picture for the average reader . . . of the aristocracy, of the common man, of lunacy. Rarely is someone suspected of being a monster — that atmospheric story in The Thirteen Problems set at an altar springs to mind — but for Christie, horror springs out of the everyday, and her style reflects that.

On that note, I think one of the most affecting images from this is the discovery of the body of the maid Louise Bourget under her bed, made by the sight of the shoes not quite properly lined up…easily the most chilling moment in the entire book for me.

…on Shortcomings

DotN2For all the masterful planning of Linnet’s killing, the plan itself is full of ineptitude.  For one thing, the red ink is kept in a bottle of the wrong colour — which is stupid and lazy — and then put among Linnet’s things rather than kept by Simon to pass onto Jacqueline later.  Better yet, why not throw the bottle away or throw it in the ship’s furnace at some point, since no-one would know to look for it?  And since Simon replaces one bullet in the gun to disguise the extra fake shot, why not have two spare bullets to put in the gun and then place the gun back under the settee after shooting himself in the leg?  That way, the gun never goes ‘missing’ and has only been fired once when discovered, so Linnet must have been shot by a different gun.  Thus, when the partner gun turns up later, that could be used as a bluff against someone else…especially if that had been fired beforehand.  I know it’s nit-picking, but the actions Simon undertakes with the gun seems to exist solely to cast suspicion on himself.

The lovers’ plan in Nile is hardly foolproof, and the schemes in Whispers rely too much on coincidence and luck.  Simon and Jackie had incredible bad luck in having Poirot on the same cruise — I’m not sure a typical Egyptian detective would have made much of the nail polish, and the gun had to be Jackie’s to build the case that she was being framed.  What is less credible is having two people witness their crimes, leading to two more deaths.  That is pure GAD hogwash!

Still, a reader can follow along as Poirot jumps step by step to the solution.  Dr. Fell’s understanding of the Seton case is almost supernatural, but then this series of reversals that make us jump with delight are all fairly unrealistic.

HWW1And then I really feel that Carr undersells the impossibility here.  Rigaud more-or-less says “I left him at the top of the tower and then later he was found stabbed and the briefcase had disappeared” and that’s it; this section — the impossible crime part of a John Dickson Carr novel — lacks for atmosphere for me.  It turns out to be ingenious (see my comments about depth above) but at the time I wasn’t convinced and there are cases not even confronted (the kids who discover him, for instance, are never considered, though this might be my ghoulish imagination getting away from me).

…on Endings

You are the impossibility expert here — sometimes in a locked room puzzle, I feel totally lost! But the last line of He Who Whispers contains a final reversal that destroyed me — in a good way — when Miles ignores the perfectly respectable Barbara and rushes to Fay in the end.  Given the chances of these two messed up people living happily ever after, I found his choice breathtaking.

And of course Poirot lets Jackie become executioner at the end of Nile.  His feelings for her are akin to fatherhood.  He feels he has failed her by not leading her away from sin, and so he lets her take control of her fate. It’s his gift to her.

In a way, this comes back to the idea of the wronged women I mentioned up top.  Fay Seton’s own moral lassitude is considered by far the least of her failings and she’s rewarded for her persecution with the love of a (possibly fanatically unbalanced) man.  I’ve never quite bought this, but then I think the vampirism/persecution thread is more something readers talk about from this book than experience in it.

DotN6Linnet Ridgeway is in many ways very culpable for what happened — she wasn’t in the relationship with Simon entirely against her own will — but the ending of DotN breaks my heart in so many ways.  The hopelessness of Jackie’s murder-suicide, the loss of everything they’d planned and schemed and murdered multiple times for, is actually kind of overwhelming, especially given the stark simplicity of Poirot’s reaction to it all.

Final Thoughts?

As Brad says up top, these books are really too different to make a direct comparison, but I can see how their popularity comes from how they represent a microcosm of their authors’ work.  On their own, they give a great overview of Carr and Christie, their faults, their strengths, and their approaches to the business of writing, but for my money they’ve each done better books than these…

I really do think He Who Whispers is one of my favorite Carrs because of the sheer humanity of it which, I’ll admit, transcends what may be a less technically accomplished puzzle than others he’s written.  And I believe Death on the Nile is a classic of its time, although JJ makes a strong case that its strengths lie not in the puzzle but in those human elements surrounding the two women at the heart of the case.  Without a doubt, these are two rare mystery authors who could make us both think and feel.

~

Well, that was disappointingly free of controversy, eh?  It’s almost like we’re grown-ups or something.  And in fact, we’ve enjoyed doing this so much that Brad has an idea for a follow-up…which I shall allow him to mention or not as he chooses.  Consider yourselves intrigued…

But, more importantly for the time being, what do you think (about the books, not the maturity Brad and I have displayed here — though feel free to commend us on that, too)?  We get so few chances to really cut loose with spoilers — the comments are a spoiler-encouraged zone, let’s pick these apart even more — go for it!

~

Previous Spoiler Warnings:

1. The Ten Teacups, a.k.a The Peacock Feather Murders (1937) by Carter Dickson (w’ Puzzle Doctor)

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53 thoughts on “#226: Spoiler Warning 2 – Death on the Nile (1937) by Agatha Christie vs. He Who Whispers (1946) by John Dickson Carr

  1. Thanks so much for accommodating readers like me with a spoiler-free conclusion. 😀 I look forward to reading this post in detail when I finish “He Who Whispers”. This will only happen when I find myself in the same country as my copy of the novel!

    I gather that Brad thinks “He Who Whispers” is one of the best – if not the best – Carr novel he has read, but JJ would beg to differ?

    JJ – which Carr novels would you rank above “He Who Whispers”? I’m guessing “Green Capsule” and “Till Death Do Us Part”? Would “He Who Whispers” snatch the no. 3 title in your top ten ranking?

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    • I mention at an earlier point — which you won’t have read — that I don’t even thnk HWW would be in my top 10 Carrs now that I’ve reread it. It’s very, very good, and does a lot of clever things with the genre, but Carr has such a strong catalogue that I could easily put ten books ahead of it.

      Not sure if you saw my response to your spoiler-free request before, but all the DotN paragraphs that will be safe for you I put covers of DotN next to (and the same for HWW); so if you want to read some of the thoughts on the Christie just look for the covers…should at least enable you to take part in a partial way if you so wish 🙂

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      • Thanks so much – I do appreciate the attempt at demarcating the post more thoroughly. 🙂

        Is your comment that you could find 10 books to rank ahead of “He Who Whispers” hypothetical? Or do you already have a concrete list of top 10 Carr titles? If it’s the latter, I would be most curious. 😀

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        • Aaah, de nada — you’ve bee with me since the start, and I appreciate the loyalty!

          My Top Ten Carrs is very theoretical, but I do know that there would be a good twelve or thirteen books that I’d wrangle with ahead of HWW.

          The seven that would probably definitely be in there are (going, I believe, chronologically):

          Death-Watch
          Plague Court
          Hollow Man
          Green Capsule
          Constant Suicides
          She Died a Lady
          Till Death

          And I’m aware that I still have He Wouldn’t Kill Patience, Nine Wrong Answers, Emperor’s Snuff-Box, The Reader is Warned, plus late classics like Captain Cut-Throat and Ghosts High Noon to get through. I’m not going to do a definitive top ten until I’ve read everything, and with about thirty-seven books (plus all these rereads I keep doing) to go, that ain’t gonna be any time soon…

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        • Yup, I love Death-Watch — it’s that model of later-early Carr where the first half is the crime becoming increasingly baffling and the second half gradually pulls it apart, and for my tastes it’s the one where he nailed the structure perfectly: there’s so much going on in that house that there’s simply no way it can be explained…and then, with amazing clarity, every facet of it (well, fair’s fair, every facet but one) is shaped into this amazing jigsaw.

          What I especially enjoy about it is how Carr manages to make it work without getting drawn into undeniable padding. The White Priory Murders, say, has an exceptionally clever solution, but the book itself is so bogged down in needless diversions that it becomes difficult to recommend to anyone who isn’t already convinced of Carr’s brilliance. Death-Watch, by comparison, is so tighly focussd and so brilliantly unwound that every word and phrase counts. It’s a genuinely masterful bit of construction and plotting, and doesn’t get the love it deserves.

          But, yeah, you’re neither the first nor the last person to have this response… 🙂

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        • It was an early read for me so maybe I need to give it another try. But I’ve got it mentally clumped in with the disappointing earlyish Fells, like Eight Of Swords and Blind Barber.

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        • Ha, I agree with you about The Blind Barber, but again there’s a huge amount of cleverness in The Eight of Swords that I feel goes unappreciated — it could do without those three chapters at the end where one guy essentially just follows another guy from place to place, but that setup at the house and how all the inconsistencies are explained is genius.

          So, y’know, maybe we just like different things… 😉

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  2. That was enjoyable. Yes, these are two very different books, undoubtedly influenced by the sensibilities of the times in which they were written, by two quite different authors.
    I think the comparison (contrast?) worked fine under the circumstances as there was a broad consensus that they represented the best of Carr and Christie – by looking at not only the areas of convergence but also those which pertain to the respective strengths of each. HWW comes out easily on top in terms of humanity and atmosphere because that’s what Carr did best, consistently, whereas DotN wins when it comes to the switches and turns of a tricky plot as this was Christie’s real forte.
    i couldn’t call one as better than the other as they both have differing goals and means of getting there; that both achieve their aims with some style is enough for me.

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    • I think what Christie achieves ahead of Carr is how delicately she leads you astray. I think Carr generally provides much more in the way of switchbacks than Christie does, but always with a sense of “Haha, this is going to turn out to be something clever”: locked rooms, someone poisoned with the parts of an alarm clock in their pocket, a man calling out that he’s okay every 15 minutes from behind a locked door only to’ve been dead for the last hour and a half…Carr wants you to know something celever is going to happen, and engages in that battle of wits in a very forthright, almost confronting, way.

      Christie, by comparison, wants to creep upon you: the ‘bee’ at the start of Peril at End House, the letters at the start of And The There Were None, the discovery of the body in The Sittaford Mystery…the cleverness is much more cloaked, much more ordinary. Brad has to spot on (of course, he knows his stuff) when he says that she deals more in the everyday — before you realise it, the sandwiches were more sginificant than you thought, or that fact that the washing up was done by two people rather than one. Stylisitcally they’re miles apart, but Christie nudges you gently off the rails where Carr just knocks you over.

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      • Yes, that sounds right. I reread A Murder is Announced not that long ago and was really taken by how the clues were presented in that one. Once you know what to look for it’s very obvious and yet everything is laid out in an extraordinarily and subtle, actually humdrum, way.

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    • You’ve made me want to go back and re-read He Who Whispers, just because of one phrase that Brad used: ” The vamp, the nymphomaniac, the femme fatale . . . they are all sisters under the skin.” It makes me wonder. My sense is that JDC was pretty good about allowing women to own their sexuality and not be ashamed of it, as in, for instance, The Reader is Warned or The Judas Window. But is Carr saying in He Who Whispers that Fay Seton is “vampiric” because she is sexual?
      Anyway, getting me to go back and re-read is pretty darn good writing, so thank you both for a job very well done!!

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      • With soooo many books still to read, it’s only because I know we’ll get into these in such depth that I’ve taken the time to read them again, and it’s a lot of fun being more analytical about them second time around. I mean, sure, it’s left me unconvinced about either of them as stone cold classics, but that in turn has helped me figure out what I am looking for in a classic.

        And, hey, they’re still very good, enjoyable, well-written, fast-moving, complex-plotted, devious, and inventive takes on the genre…so it’s not like I completely wasted my time. But I’d like to do a spoiler-heavy look at something new to me at some point, if only for the new experience of it.

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    • Very kind of you to say so, it was a lot of fun to analyse these, and while Brad’s right that the comparison is a little lopsided it’s given me a new appreciation of these two when drawn against each other. Always nice to have a change in perspective on something you feel you know well.

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  3. Pingback: THE 2017 CHRISTIE VS. CARR SMACKDOWN | ahsweetmysteryblog

  4. Great work guys! What a joyous read and yes, very little sparks for a one on one fight to the death!
    I need to take some more time to think about deeper responses but I will say right off the bat that both your comments on the DotN solution and set up pointed out for me what I felt was wrong with it.
    It seemed like the mystery of how it was done lead to it’s solution so easily rather than cloaking it. I think it was Sergio (or maybe even JJ), that wrote (years ago now before I started blogging), that if it was a Christie mystery about who stole a banana, then the one who was allergic to bananas would obviously be the culprit. But that if it was the same written by Carr, everyone would be allergic to bananas and the bananas would all be inside a locked safe.

    The moment that Christie told us that Simon was incapacitated I was like, well it was obviously him, and then therefore this is the only way it could have happened, and you would need to have Jackie involved so it all clicked too easily. However, I also guessed HWW fairly early on with the wacking great clue of the blood inside the scabbard, which felt so heavy handed on first read, and therefore kind of spoilt the build of the impossible element.

    And in a massive blow to my thoughts on HWW, I have never thought about doubting the tale of Rigaud before, it’s so obvious once you both said it! Maybe I am too trusting (of certain types of characters)?

    And man, the attack on Marion and the shoe out of line under the bead, wow, just both so chilling. Really glad that was drawn out by you both. I love how the first shows the deep terror that Carr can produce, and the second the domestic macarbe/horror that Christie so finally walks.

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    • It was Sergio who made that comment about the bananas, and he’s absolutely spot on (as Sergio usually is).

      For me, the moment it has to be a setup between Jackie and Simon is when she appears on the boat after Simon and Linnet have very visibly gone off in their car early in the day, heading in the other direction, leaving behind news of going somewhere completely different…and Jackie still knows. Not making it so otherwise impossible for her to follow them would have allowed for more doubt in this element, I’d say, but then I’m not the best-selling and most beloved detective fiction writer of all time. Or am I…?

      The only real doubt comes from the acceptance that Simon has to shoot himself in the leg, which is astonishingly badass and simply glossed over like he’s plucking a hair from his nose or something. I mean…sheesh, give the dude some credit!

      As for Rigaud…he might be the closest thing we have to a suspect, as Brad rightly raises that there’s really no-one else. It’s interesting, given how good Carr is at tying up all the loose ends, that no-one ever questions his involvement, though. As I said above, had Fell been on-hand to tell that story, you’d know full well that it was trustworthy, and since Rigaud is never even entertained as a suspect he just has to be guilty of someting…but then he’s not, and it feels a bit deflating.

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    • I don’t agree with the comment about the bananas and Christie because her mysteries are not that obvious or easy to point out who the culprit is. And if you can point out whodunit, can you guess how the murder was carried out? Maybe if you read enough Agatha Christie or mysteries over the years you can figure the solution to DotN and maybe you can guess some of the solution, but anyone who figured out half of the mystery only solved 50% of it. I doubt many people can guess everything in the solution correctly.

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      • Sergio was being deliberately simple, though — it’s not literaly the case, more just an exagerated example of the ‘least likely suspect’ that Christie deployed so well. All Carr did was take this idea and dress it up even further by adding additional complications and reversals, not least of which were the impossible crimes which tend to overshadow his equallt superb ‘standard’ detective fare.

        In terms of how much DotN can be deduced…well, it’s fruitless trying to apply an overall figure to it. Some people will get none, some will get most or all, but I’d argue that the complicity of Simon and Jackie is easy to spot early on, and once you know they’re involved it’s a half-hop to the how.

        As I acknowledged before, the main stumbling block would be believeing that a man would willingly shoot himself in the leg as Simon does. Very little is made of this in the book though — either through different timings of an overheard gunshot, or an acknowledgement that it would have been a staggering thing to do once it is uncovered as the final solution…it’s difficult not to feel that Carr would have done more with it, but such speculation is equally fruitless 😀

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  5. I think Death on the Nile can stand on its own as to character development. It isn’t as rich and it doesn’t expand to a wide range of characters as in Five Little Pigs or The Hollow. If it wasn’t for Jacqueline de Bellefort where a lot of good character development resided (aside from Linnet Doyle’s nuanced development) and as Brad said, “those human elements surrounding the two women at the heart of the case” who “makes us both think and feel”, I think DotN would have been one those stories with one-dimensional characters. Or maybe I should say characters who aren’t as well-rounded. They would have been good characters but it wouldn’t have resulted in a memorable story like the one we have. It’s been a while since I read DotN, but think about this, even though I like Salome Otterbourne and the aspect of her being a writer, and with some of her mannerisms and conversations, we don’t get an in-depth look into Salome and the effect alcohol has on her life (we don’t know how long this problem existed) or a subplot with how alcohol has on her relationship with her daughter. Many writers today would draw out this subplot. But I wonder, would this have enriched the story? Would it have an effect on the mystery itself? Every subplot doesn’t have to be drawn out to provide good character development. Maybe Death On The Nile didn’t need broad character development for all the characters. The book probably would have been the worst because of it.

    As I said before, I think DotN can stand on its own. Unlike Brad who thinks it was unfair to compare it to a book with more character development, it would have been more unfair to compare He Who Whispers to a Christie’s later mysteries like Postern of Fate or even Destination Unknown (though I think the first half has good character development, but that’s a story for another day). So I’m glad that early Christie is compared to early John Dickson Carr.

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    • You make an excellent point here, and I’d not appreciated how much Christie provides a lot of context and shape to characters without over-burdening it with things like the history of Salome Otterbourne’s alcoholism. Aspects of her conduct, and Rosalie’s responses to her mother, are explained retrospectively, and that’s sufficient.

      But, then, all we have is a series of mini-dramas — alcoholism, kleptomania, ‘proper’ theft — that are almost a series of unrelated short stories mixed into the brew around Linnet’s murder. At best, someone happens to see another character behaving suspiciously because they’re (for instance) buying illicit booze off a steward, but nothing more is done with that. A key clue is not stolen by the thief or the klepto, the alcoholic isn’t accidentally drugged because she helps herself to Poirot’s wine…there’s no real intersection fo these plots beyond them happening in the same place. Compare this to Evil Under the Sun and there’s just such a gulf in the plotting it’s almost a different author.

      My point? Well, I guess there had to be some character work to fill out the pages. Yes, we can be very thankful that Christie didn’t meader into longeurs about the effect of kelptomania destroying the natiure of trust in the affected household…but without her careful eye for characters there would be very little to compel this as one of her stronger works. I’m still a little baffled how it won, to be honest, and by such a large margin, too…

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        • I take issue with sbrnseay1’s assumption as to why I felt the comparison problematical. The 1930’s and 40’s were the apex of both Christie and Carr’s work. You could say, then, that Christie took a while to warm up, while Carr pretty much came out of the gate running. You could also say that Christie warmed up slowly, since there are fewer than ten titles to her credit before Roger Ackroyd, while Carr could almost be accused of overwriting since he had sixteen titles to his credit by his sixth year of writing, but it certainly trained him to be a master.

          Each title that was selected here comes at about the same time in each author’s career. But there is the issue of the era, and 1930’s novels were quite different from those a decade later. However, I am willing to acknowledge that we would always have a problem, since Christie’s casts were almost always larger than Carr’s, and their styles are so very different.

          I love Nile for many reasons, but I happily acknowledge its flaws. One of the points I tried to make here – and that I think JJ agrees with – is that the central relationship between Jackie and Linnet is so powerful, it raises the esteem of this novel, even if one wants to argue that the large passenger list isn’t adequately woven into the “real” murder plot. (I happen to like these passengers, especially the Allertons and the Otterbournes.)

          Christie certainly could create a classic on a large canvas (think A Murder Is Announced, ATTWN, or, imho, After the Funeral). She could populate a village with a large group of interesting people (AMiA, The Moving Finger), while Carr kept his focus only on two or three villagers.) Still, sometimes her large cast could be rather shallow (Three Act Tragedy, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas). I tend to champion the titles where she went small in terms of cast and puzzle. I don’t think I could be pinned down to a “top ten” list for Christie, but some of the titles with four or five suspects would rank high:

          The A.B.C. Murders
          Cards on the Table
          Sad Cypress
          Five Little Pigs

          These books are rich in plot and, especially in the latter two titles and, arguably in Cards, character.

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        • What you’ve made me realise is that I typically go for Christies with a larger cast: I love Three-Act Tragedy, Evil Under the Sun, Mesopotamia, her village mysteries, etc. I appreciate it’s not a hard-and-fast rule — Orient Express, for all its cleverness, is pretty much just a string of dull interviews — but I’m happy to spend the time with Christie giving us a wide variety of interlocking people and intentions — Taken at the Flood, After the Funeral, even Hercule Poirot’s Christmas — because Christie plays these notes so well.

          The smaller ensembles — 4:50 from Paddington, Death in the Clouds, Sad Cyoress, N or M? — while still having many very good things to recommend them, tend to be where I feel she comes a little unstuck. Maybe there’s less scope for the ‘normalness’ she spins so easily: a smaller cast invites a certain measure of artifice, what?

          And I think what we have with DotN is a fusion of these two and that’a part of why it doesn’t work for me — there’s a big cast, but they’re all involved in ‘small cast’ stories. Hmmm, I think you may have hit something here…

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        • I remember precisely two things about Murder in the Mews:
          1) I read it in the bath, so the pages have a yellow stain on the edges
          2) I remember nothing at all about it

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        • Haha, I have read it three times I think. But for me it just works, one location (pretty much) super small cast, 3 plus Poirot and Japp, and and some lovely, and beautifully subtle reversal clues. The involvement of the attache case is legendary.

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        • Well, it’ll definitely be one I circle back around to once I finish her ouevre. The book is three stories, isn’t it? I’m usually worse with the details of short stories than with full novels…

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        • Actually, I think it’s published with another novella and then one or two short stories. Dead Man’s Mirror is as long as MitM. Triangle at Rhodes is a short story – and a damn good one, the basis for Evil Under the Sun – and then the British publication added The Submarine Plans, which I think is a so-so short.

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        • My Penguin edition has MitM, The Incredible Theft, Dead Man’s Mirror then Triangle at Rhodes. They must have swapped out The Submarine Plans seeing it wasn’t as good.

          And MitM comes in at 67 pages.

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        • 1) Yellow stain? What do you bathe in? How dirty were you?
          2) That’s too bad because, as TRIW points out, the solution to that one is a keeper and one of only two times Christie ever did this particular thing! (The second time was Taken at the Flood, and the whole situation played out completely differently.)

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        • Reading Sad Cypress at the moment and it’s definitely rich in plot and character– there is more of a complexity. For a long time now I thought about creating a blog, devoting it to the Golden Age mysteries, comparing and contrasting the many different authors and I really thought hard about talking about Sad Cypress and how it stands in the Christie canon and in the Golden Age period as a whole.

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        • Did Carr write a vivid description of an English village in his books? Christie provided sparse description, but in a story like The Murder At The Vicarage, she made the English village of St. Mary Mead come alive mainly with the characters — the gossip, the secrets that they hold, and everyone who knows everyone else in the village. The reader can fill in the details of the village’s appearance in the theatre of their minds.

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        • I don’t think Carr ever quite worked on the Village Tale in quite the same way, though I could be wrong. Elements of, say, The Eight of Swords imply a strong flavour of countrified village life, but at the end of the day it’s more or less set in and around three houses…not enough to qualify.

          I get the distinct impression, now that I think about it, that Carr was always much more focussed on smaller locales. Part of this is necessary in capturing the geoography and fundamentals for his impossibilities, but I also feel he just liked working in a smaller area with a smaller cast. Sure, he’d spread his smaller areas over several countries or a whole county, but the sense of a cohesive area wasn’t his focus when it came to villages, though. The closest he probably got was Till Death Do Us Part.

          He bloody loved London, though. Mad Hatter, Hollow Man, Bride of Newgate, Devil in Velvet and others each paint a very vivid portrait of that city. So it’s not like he couldn’t give us a village, like it was beyond his abilities; we must therefore conclude that he didn’t want to…

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  6. No, YOU hit something, JJ! Trying to draw blood, are we? Now the smackdown truly begins!

    I love Christie’s large cast books, and of course you would prefer them because this is where the two authors are at their least comparable.

    I would venture that Christie’s small cast mysteries come closest to resembling mainstream novels, while the small cast mystery is Carr’s metier! Does that make him “better” at small cast mysteries, or is it a matter of taste? What I’ll give you is that the machinations behind any mystery plot or misdirection are much simplified in Christie’s small cast tales while they are thrillingly complex in Carr.

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    • What…I was…how did…wait, what? All I’m saying is what you made me realise is probably something true about the Christie books I’ve read. What happened?

      I do undeniably think there are ‘types’ of books Christie does better than Carr and vice versa, and — I agree, pay attention — that Carr always finds that additional +++ wrinkle of complexity that Christie rejects on the grounds of artifice, but as I’ve already said I also feel that Carr is more explicit about twisting and twiting you astray, where Christie — even in the smaller cast mysteries — manages to do so much more organically.

      The difference is that Chrisitie’s inherent organic plotting doesn’t befit the smaller cat for thie reason; you need much more in the way of coincidence and convenience, and I think she was trying to avoid that as much as possible. One is only ‘better’ if you ignore the virtues of the other, but since we’ve such broad-minded 21st century folk we’re not going to do thar, are we?

      Are we?

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      • The first paragraph was a joke, son, I say a joke! Any further snarkiness was the result of someone responding to an early post of mine about Carr with a whole lotta negativity that hit me the wrong way. (He called Poirot “a bore and a prig!” And he suggested that I didn’t respect Carr enough! Say wha – ???) Plus, I had to administer this stupid online test at school when I was trying to focus on the blogs. Really, the interruptions that your job throws at you . . .

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        • Poirot, a bore and a prig?!?! WHAT?!?!?! Poirot is anything but a bore! He’s a very exciting and interesting character. I can’t believe someone would say that. Well . . .everyone has their opinions don’t they? I know Agatha Christie got sick of writing Poirot but I don’t think she ever considered him a bore!

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        • I’m going to sic you on that guy!!! I welcome differing opinions, but that would be like me coming onto JJ’s blog and saying, “All locked room mysteries are stupid, and I demand you retract your praise of them!”

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  7. This comparison of Carr and Christie in terms of cast size is very interesting. And these two almost in some sense show Carr and Christie’s rare weakness in these areas. As was brought out in the post you have very ‘single roll’ characters in DotN, and I confess to getting people confused – apart from Linnet and Jackie which as Brad has been saying are the crux of this work, and so well developed. And then with Carr I have no problem remembering where I am and who’s who, and reading it for a second time it was amazing how much of the atmosphere I remembered and came straight back because he explains these tight situations, characters and locations so well…. but, as was also brought out, there are no suspects, and I have never really thought about that with HHW.

    In a way I was thinking, well it’s a Carr so I begin to suspect these people, but then realising from the post that we aren’t really led by Carr to suspect anyone.

    What these two seem to do, and possibly why they ranked so high, is smash the tension down so hard through their central women, so much so that it’s often horrific.

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    • I feel with Carr that I remember more during the book, but then retain fewer details as time passes once I’m done. There’s a lesson there, I’m sure, but I don’t know what it is.

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  8. Speaking of Murder In The Mews that was discussed earlier, there’s an earlier version called “The Market Basing Mystery” which is included in the U.S. collection “The Underdog and other stories”. The Market Basing Mystery is a shorter version. I guess A.C. was so fascinated with the plot and liked it so much she felt that the premise needed to be reworked. What I love about Christie is that she reuses and expands on her plots turning them into a novella or a novel. I guess some would say she recycles her plots and thumb their nose at that but that is a talent and a skill unto itself. And a lot of times the reworked versions are just as good or even better than the earlier one.

    Which of Christie’s short stories do you think she should have rewritten and reworked into a novella? A novel?

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    • Gotta be honest, I remember very few of her short stories; nothing about Christie per se, I’m just bad with short story recall. Only ‘The Dream’ springs to mind — boom, cha — and that was fine as it was.

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  9. I think that most of her short stories are very much short stories in that they are single-minded in terms of plot. Pad them into a novel and you basically get what happened when the new Marple series “beefed up” the short story, “The Blue Geranium.” (I think they added another story to the mix, with, er, mixed results.) “Yellow Iris” is a perfectly good short story. I think the murder plot part of it is better than Sparkling Cyanide. But the novel allowed Christie to delve into character more, which is a good thing. I’m not as big a fan of Endless Night as some, and I think that part of the reason is that most of the additional “stuff” that was added to “The Case of the Caretaker” is, frankly, dull, or at least uninteresting to me.

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  10. Pingback: CHRISTIE/CARR SCATTERGORIES | ahsweetmysteryblog

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