Now, when I was a boy unsystematically working my way through the stacks of the Floral Park Public Library, I plowed through the fiction collection, laying waste as I proceeded. Among other things, I read pretty much all the Hercule Poirot novels and a fair number of the stories.
As I grew up, I confess I lost interest in Poirot and Christie generally. She was too much a puzzle-setter, and the characters in her novels too often generic pawns so that could each equally be guilty, or not. P.D. James, herself a formidably great novelist operating in Christie's genre but decades later, limned the flaws of Christie and her Golden Age peers well:
Agatha Christie has said herself that she makes no claim to be an outstanding literary novelist but she knew precisely the limits of her talent and her style was lively, the dialogue good and the story never falters in the telling. It is easy to criticise her as a writer, but someone who could provide relief, entertainment and excitement to millions of people throughout the world, in peace and war, cannot be dismissed as negligible.True enough, although--and I think I'm right here--there are one and a half exceptions here. The half exception is Christie's first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles and the true exception is Curtain, her farewell to Poirot, faithfully adapted as the end of the long-running series starring David Suchet.
The novels of the Golden Age were particularly strong on plot and puzzle. The nuances of characterisation, setting and any criticism of social and class inequalities were sacrificed to the originality of the plot and the ingenuity of the murderer. Bodies were found in trains and aeroplanes, in church belfries, buried in an already existing grave, and were frequently found in rooms where door and windows were firmly locked. Victims were killed in a number of unique ways including being precipitated down an iron staircase and hit by a stone propelled from a catapult. The world these writers portrayed was one which readers shared and understood, and any sense of the world outside the comfortable confines of conventional English village life was absent.
Styles gets a nod because of the gentle air of melancholy that suffuses the book, especially in its opening chapters. It's not a great book, or a great mystery, but there's a desperation and a threadbare pride animating Poirot, who is at the time (during WW I) of the events of the novel a refugee from occupied Belgium. That alone is enough to prevent the proceedings from wholly lapsing into the spot of coziness James deplores in Golden Age mysteries--a trap Christie fairly often falls into. (Not always, though. And Then There Were None ain't deep, but it's loaded with atmosphere, and claustrophobic dread.)
But Curtain, ah, Curtain--the novel that shows just how good a writer Christie could be. Hastings, a lonely widower, struggling with his inadequacies as a parent and a younger generation he can't understand; the Luttrells, so caught up in their financial anxieties that they've lost sight of the fact that they love each other; and Poirot himself, desperate again, struggling with his own physical decay and grappling with an adversary who has found a way to kill and kill again, while remaining untouchable. Poirot is wracked with self-doubt, ethical qualms, and outright fear. It's as if Thackeray's 'dolls" as he called his characters woke up as Trollope's much more deeply realized, psychologically thick people.
So in Curtain, Dame Agatha transmutes her dolls into people. Her characters--at any rate, most of them--come to life, because there are stakes, and they are not pawns on a board.
Christie famously disliked her most famous creation, and in some of his outings, the insufferable Hercule is just that. But, oh, how he shines when his back is against the wall.
I don't want to stretch it further than it will go. Christie is no James. But in this last novel (not the last written, but the capstone), she pulls off a literary coup, she punches above her weight, and retires as the Queen of Crime.