Friday, February 9, 2018

Crooked House, by Agatha Christie

Bantam, 1999
originally published 1949
215 pp


"I think people more often kill those they love than those they hate. Possibly because only the people you love really can make life unendurable to you." 

As much as I value these beautiful leatherette editions of Christie's work, mainly because my husband bought them for me some time ago, the covers have absolutely no soul.  I have a deep love for vintage cover art, and the original cover of Crooked House really can't be beat: just looking at that picture conjures up something sinister and sort of whets the appetite for what

might be found between the covers, and since the bulk of the action takes place within the walls of this house, Three Gables, its distorted appearance here is beyond appropriate.

Crooked House is, according to Christie herself in An Autobiography (1977), one of two of her favorite books, the other being Ordeal by Innocence.  As she says, those two are the ones "that satisfy me best."  While maybe I wasn't as satisfied by Crooked House as Christie was, it was still a good read.  Last week I rented the recent film based on this novel but realized I hadn't read Crooked House in eons, and had quite forgotten the plot, so it seemed like a good time to refresh my memory.

I think more than in any other Christie crime novel, Dame Agatha takes us right to the heart of the matter from the very outset.  It seems that wealthy tycoon Aristides Leonides has died, and the doctor has refused to sign a death certificate until there is a post mortem.  His granddaughter Sophia pays a visit to her fiancé Charles Hayward, and tells him that she believes that his death was no accident -- that he may have been killed.  The need for a post mortem makes Sophia think that "It's quite clear that they suspect something is wrong," and that their plans for marriage have to put on hold since they "can't settle anything until this is cleared up."  She would like Charles to help her and to come to the house and to see her family "from an unbiased point of view," giving him access to everyone in the house.    She also reveals that even if her grandfather's death turns out to have been murder and not an accident, "it won't matter -- so long as the right person killed him."

Even his father, the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, echoes this sentiment, and Charles will hear it more than once from several Leonides family members as he enters Three Gables to hopefully get to the bottom of what's going on.  Most everyone already thinks they know who killed Aristides, and considering the obvious suspect(s), that statement seems like an obvious case of upper-class snobbery.  But wait.   Charles isn't so sure that he agrees with their idea of the murderer.   He can see both sides of the issue, but even more importantly, as he says, he can see the "human side of things," which the family could not.  He puzzles over the
"two sides of the question -- different angles of vision -- which was the true angle ... the true angle..."
because in a "little crooked house," one that "had a strange air of being distorted," Charles realizes that  trying to come up with the right perspective from "the true angle" will be difficult.  At the same time, he has to contend with the idea that if the murderer is one of the members of the family, as Sophia realizes, it would reveal a "crookedness" or distortion among one of their number.

from Deep Work

In a big way, this book is less about plot or solving the crime than it is about delving into human nature; because of Charles' relationship with Sophia, he is made privy to each person's particulars so we get to see each and every member of this household as an individual rather than just as a potential suspect.  We are also let into this three-generation family dynamic, which adds another dimension to this story. Normally this sort of "closed circle" form of mystery allows for the culprit to be caught and order to be restored, but then again, this is no ordinary mystery story.  Sure, there are more deaths, some strange goings on with Aristides' will, and other normal trappings but this one brings us right into the heart of human nature territory, and will lead to a most startling conclusion that was completely unexpected.

After giving it some thought, I've decided that I actually enjoyed this novel mainly because it is so very different from most of Christie's other work; it becomes much more of a personal story in the long run rather than just another detective tale and I think that's what sets it apart. And here, plot is much less important than the examination into human nature, although I have to admit that while it was a quick read, it moved rather slowly until we come to those last few eye-opening pages.

I enjoyed seeing this book come to life in movie form; it wasn't great, but it was definitely fun.

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