It’s that time of year again. Crispy leaves, chilly air, grinning pumpkins; the perfect time to shut out the world and become unhealthily obsessed with a 125-year-old* English Dame.
Though by now I’ve worked my way through the main body of her work, I was reluctant to read Agatha Christie as a teenager because I was rebelling against a family jam-packed with mystery fanatics and book hoarders.
One game I played as a small child was taking every book out of the shelves of my house and stacking them on the floor, then reorganizing them all according to my own unfathomable logic, taking a good long look at the seemingly endless parade of lurid paperback covers. The Christie ones always seemed to have an extra dose of drama; a leather-gloved hand about to close over a hapless canary, a gemstone with a dagger through the middle leaking impossible gouts of blood, a noose encircling a still life of handguns and flowers.
As a teen, these books seemed boring. They looked simple and vaguely trashy, difficult to separate from the Ellery Queens and Dick Francises. I came around after college, when I was looking for something to scratch a particular itch; a comforting book, but still exciting, and missing the gross-out torture and assault scenes suffusing so many modern mysteries.
AC (I call her AC, we’re tight like that) has written approximately ten thousand books. One of the multitude of good things about these books is that there are so many; they’re basically a renewable resource. If you’re a fan of Harper Lee or Sylvia Plath, you’re kind of out of luck, but every bargain bin at every library book sale has at least three Christies I’ve never heard of, especially since each book changes titles every few years.
Other good things: The murderer always gets caught. Children are usually safe. Nobody rapes anybody, and no one’s a serial killer. Plus, her descriptions of food make me nostalgic for bygone days when a normal lunch had four meat courses and a liqueur chaser, followed by a leisurely pot of tea while you read the entire newspaper.
Not all of them are gold, naturally. Anything with spies in it is a waste of time. Some follow the formula of “Murder... but on a golf course” or “Murder... but on an airplane.” But her batting average is extremely high, and there isn’t a single Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple mystery that I don’t adore.
The shorter your memory, the better. Once you read through the few dozen or so best mysteries, you can just start over at the beginning. And if you’re not in the habit of re-reading, the pages of timeworn used paperbacks are the perfect texture for lining a cozy winter nest.
Of course you should read them all, but for starters here are my top seven, organized by which holiday they’re most appropriate for. All of these take about the length of a long plane ride to finish, and they’re small enough to slip four or five into a carry-on pocket and still have room for your TSA regulation 3-ounce whiskey flask.
And Then There Were None
I accidentally spoiled this one for my boyfriend recently, but seriously, it’s right there in the name of the book: EVERYBODY DIES. Don’t get mad, there’s a statute of limitations on this stuff and the book has been out for about a trillion years.
Honestly, all of these books are pretty ancient; if you were going to read AC, you probably already have. Why am I even writing this article? Why are you reading it? Go out in the sun and stop reading about old crumbly books you’ve already read. Or, indulge again in the satisfaction of reading about a bunch of terrible people getting mysteriously knocked off while trapped in a claustrophobic island prison.
Cat Among the Pigeons
Didn’t you kind of want to go to an all-girl boarding school as a kid? You probably did, unless you actually did, in which case I’m sure you can imagine no fresher hell. This one’s set in an eminently respectable school with a brand-new gym and a problem with teachers getting brutally bludgeoned to death.
Bonuses: Mostly female characters not very concerned with men, a cool traveling mom. Drawbacks: Poirot says something about being able to identify the age of a woman by her knees, which has fucked me up re: my knees for many years.
A case of deja vu turns out to be a case of MURDER after a woman accidentally moves into her forgotten childhood home. How do you forget the location of your childhood home, you ask? Shhh. It’s not important. Focus on the poison and the strangling and the untrustworthy relations.
A Holiday for Murder
Statistically, there is at least one member of your family you would like to garrote. That’s just math. AC is here to let you live out the fantasy of poisoning your racist great-great-uncle without going to jail.
In this book, a crusty old miser laughs uproariously as he cuts his increasingly desperate family out of his will, and then everyone is sooooo surpriseddddd when he gets stabbed right to death and nobody is sure where the new will got to. Is it in his desk? That’s weird, he always keeps things in his desk.
Appointment with Death
I wonder what it would be like to be related to good old AC. The number of characters who kill their relatives, or who are suspiciously relieved by the death of a relative, is ponderously high.
In this one, it’s a Momzilla who gets injected to death while on vacation in the Holy Land. What do you think your mom would think if you wrote a mystery story where everyone desperately hated their subsequently murdered mother? I think I could say goodbye to inheriting thousands of musty mysteries.
For the Winter Religious/Secular Holiday of Your Choosing
Murder on the Orient Express
I’ve never wanted anything as much as I want to be snowed in on a train with all the power on and someone bringing me tray after tray of tea and buttery crumpets.
There’s a murder on the train, sure, but can you imagine spending the holidays peacefully watching snow flutter by the window, a fire going in your own personal sleeping compartment, without having to grin and bear it as your twin nephews openly discuss whether your boobs are bigger than Katy Perry’s while you wait for your grandmother to be done burning the ham?
Short Story: The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding (found in the collection Double Sin)
Don’t be disarmed by the jovial title; this short story features priceless rubies, cryptic warning messages, and (of course) THE BLOOD OF A CHILD ON THE SNOW. Haha, just kidding, AC doesn’t kill kids. It was just an elaborately staged prank to force someone to do something. (I’m blessed with the short memory that makes it possible to read these books again and again.)
If you’re looking for an escape from your stressful job and you’re tired of reading about people getting their eyelids cut off, immerse yourself in a fantasy world where every crime has a solution, the right person is always brought to justice, and tisanes are plentiful.
*As of September 15th! This article, in the proud tradition of my family, celebrates her birthday a month late.