On vacation over the summer I found a nice hardcover original copy of Christie's A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY (1964), one of the Jane Marple books. Such books are always "finds" for me, even though it's fairly easy to find Christies, simply because of the huge number of them that exist. I haven't read the entire Christie catalog (in fact, the only writer whose entire oeuvre I've read is Margaret Millar) so I wait unti l find a nice old copy of a book I haven't read, and then I buy it and read it.
By the way, I should mention that the publisher Black Dog & Levinthal does beautiful hardcover editions of the Christie books at an unbelievably low price. You can get most of them on Amazon for about $8.50, less than what you'd pay for many trade paperbacks. So, even though BD&L isn't really a "small" or "independent" press (they're a division of Workman), I encourage you to support their commitment to keeping the greats in print at reasonable prices by buying these books - if not for yourself, then for a friend or teenager who loves reading (or one whom you want to start on that path).
The book I bought is the Dodd, Mead American edition. The back cover is a salute to Agatha Christie by 7 Top American Mystery Writers. I reproduce it here because I think it's such a classy bit of marketing combined with good, old-fashioned literary criticism--as well as fertile ground for modern discussion:
ERLE STANLEY GARDNER: "Agatha Christie is tops in the mystery field. All of her stories have ingenuity, and in these days, when so many writers rely upon style and so-called motivation, it's a pleasure getting a yarn which puts your brains to work."
JOHN DICKSON CARR: "She has probably invented more ways of bamboozling the reader than any other living writer. Any young writer would find a whole course of instruction by studying her novels: watching the deft characterization while in full view she palms the ace."
GEORGE HARMON COXE: "In my opinion Agatha Christie stands alone among English writers of mystery and detective stories. No one I know of has done them so well for so long."
DOROTHY B. HUGHES: "My respect for Christie is boundless. She is certainly one of the all-time greats. I do not believe it possible to overestimate the debt that mystery fiction in general owes to Christie. She proves that quantity and quality can go hand in hand in peace."
HELEN McCLOY: "I have always enjoyed the novels of Agatha Christie. There is no other mystery writer who has maintained a greater output with a higher level of quality."
ELLERY QUEEN: "Agatha Christie has long been one of our favorite mystery writers. Surely she is one of the most imaginative and fertile plot creators of all time."
HUGH PENTECOST: "Like good wine, Agatha Christie improves with age. When she writes formula, it's the best formula; when she writes off the track, she keeps you, skillfully, from seeing round the curves."
Also of note is the back flyleaf. Have a read and think about the publisher's technique for stimulating readers to buy other books by Christie:
Three Complete Mystery Novels
by Agatha Christie
Here are three of Agatha Christie's breathless novels of mystery and suspense, set in the far reaches of the world in both time and place.
SO MANY STEPS TO DEATH
The disappearance of a famous British scientist introduces an exciting mystery with a spectacular Moroccan setting.
DEATH COMES AS THE END
A unique murder mystery, set in Egypt three thousand years ago, where the age-old violences of greed, lust and hate lead to sudden and tragic death.
EVIL UNDER THE SUN
Hercule Poirot, the famous Belgian detective, solves a baffling and macabre puzzle while vacationing at a British resort hotel.
I find many things discussion-worthy about the American writers' tribute to Christie. In no particular order:
1. It's interesting that the term "mystery" is used throughout, not the phrase "crime fiction," which has a more modern flavor. Writers of this generation seemed to have an attachment to that word and were proud purveyors of the genre.
2. Several of the admirers comment on Christie's story-telling and plotting abilities, her methods for crafting a puzzle. This is one area where I think public tastes have changed; it's as much about character these days as it is about plot. I wouldn't ever acquire a book that I didn't feel had both, but I think readers had different expectations in the 1960s than they do today.
3. I've seen a lot of commentary over the years dismissing Christie for what is considered her inability to develop character. And yet I gree with John Dickson Carr: she does have a psychological thread running through many (if not all) of her books. Try THE ABC MURDERS sometime; in that book, Poirot is fixated on figuring out the killer's psychology as a way of tracking him or her down.
4. We have a weird double standard today. On the one hand, writers who are too prolific come in for vicious criticism (I'm thinking particularly of Joyce Carol Oates). At the other end, given the short attention span of Americans, readers seem to want and expect a book a year by their favorite writers, which does not always lead to the highest quality output. Several of Christie's admirers point to the fact that she achieved both quality and quantity, no mean feat.
I would suggest to aspiring writers (some people call them the "pre-published") to take close note of the back flyleaf copy. Each book is described in a single sentence. This is something every writer should be able to do. Valuable not only for query letters and pitch sessions, but also for developing your message when talking to the book-buying public in libraries, supermarkets, and the like.
What I find particularly fascinating, comparing then and now, is the complete lack of chronology on the back flyleaf. Nowhere does the copy state that you should read book A first, then book B, then book C. In comparison, I was looking on the St. Martin's Minotaur Website recently, and I noticed that all of their series books now say "#4 of 22," for example, with 4 being the author's fourth book in a series of 22 novels. Plenty of publishers are also putting these numbers in large type on book spines, too, no doubt in reaction to the number of readers who want to follow a series in order. I have actually seen some comments on Amazon reviews by very irate readers who were annoyed that the reviewer had chosen to read a later book in a series first!
I'll admit this is a puzzle to me. In an age of the Internet, where people are hypertexting all over the place and seem to have maximum attention span of fifteen seconds, it seems odd that so many readers are adamant about reading a book series in order. Maybe it's a way for readers - who by definition have a higher attention span than average - to force some organization onto the chaos of the rest of the world. But I also suspect it has to do with the idea of grasping onto a character and watching him or her develop over the years. There seems to be the expectation that the chief character will grow, have new life experiences, develop wisdom, and so forth with each passing book - although I think there are as many examples of long-running series where this does NOT happen as series where it DOES.
With Dame Agatha's books, the order in which you read them doesn't matter much. Probably you wouldn't want to start with CURTAIN first, but even if you did, you wouldn't enjoy the earlier books any less. Some of the characters in A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY, it occurred to me, showed up in an 1971 Christie book, NEMESIS, which I'd read at least a dozen years ago. So clearly those recurring characters couldn't have been the killer in A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY, but hundreds of books have come and gone in the last dozen years, and I didn't remember any of it.
All of this said, I didn't think A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY was one of Agatha's best. It was a little talky and the story was only so-so. Still, I devoured it in a couple of nights, because that's what one does with Agatha, and that's why she still sells like hotcakes, 45 years after her death.
I also wonder which writers working today could achieve this level of tribute. Definitely P.D. James and Ruth Rendell, though I'm not much of a fan of the latter. Michael Connelly. Laura Lippman. Michael Koryta? The late Michael Crichton?