I love reading mysteries. Lately I’ve been on an Agatha Christie jag — bought many of the titles that were not already in my collection.
Her approach to plot is somewhat formulaic, though there are often surprising twists. (That’s part of the formula.) The murderer is usually the person you least suspect. Even if you try to guess based on knowing that’s what she’s going to do, you’ll still guess wrong.
The difficulty with this kind of writing is that in real life, most murders are not very interesting. In order to keep the reader guessing and the police baffled, the author generally has to come up with a truly far-fetched scenario. Sometimes the scenario, when the details are eventually revealed in the last five pages, makes sense. Often, however, it doesn’t withstand even casual scrutiny.
Crooked House is one of Christie’s best. The murderer is, as usual, the person you least suspect, but at least the murderer’s psychology and methods make sense.
On the other side of the coin, we have What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw. If you plan to read it, you should proceed no further. Spoilers follow.
Still here? Okay. Leaving aside, for the moment, the business of what Mrs. McGillicuddy saw — it was entirely coincidence, and not part of the murderer’s plans — here’s what the murderer thinks and does. He is estranged from his wife, who is Catholic and won’t divorce him. He wants to marry another woman, who is destined to inherit, sooner or later, a pile of money. In order to avoid bigamy, he decides to murder his wife. This is morally repugnant, but it’s an entirely sensible basis for a mystery plot.
There are any number of ways in which he could accomplish his nefarious ends. He could stab her and bury her in the basement. He could invite her for a weekend at the seaside and push her over a cliff. He could send her a box of poisoned chocolates. But no. He invites her on a short train trip (outward from London) in the direction of his home. He then strangles her on the train and tosses the body out of the railroad car. They’re traveling in a first-class no-corridor coach, so there’s no one to see what he has done.
Mrs. McGillicuddy, however, happens to be looking out the window of a train traveling on a parallel track at nearly the same speed, and she sees the murder committed. She duly reports the crime to the police … but no body is found. Her tale is dismissed by everyone except her friend Jane Marple.
But enough of that. We were talking about the murderer. He has cleverly tossed his wife’s body from the train at a point where it will roll down an embankment onto the country estate where his lady friend lives. He then calmly disembarks at the station and travels back (it is now late at night) to the country estate to dispose of the body. How does he do this? He can’t very well bury it, as there’s a gardener, who would certainly notice a fresh excavation. Ah, but there are quite a lot of ancient, run-down outbuildings on the estate, some of them filled with odd bits of junk. In one barn is a Roman sarcophagus that one of the ancestors brought home from Europe. So the murderer drags or carries the body of his deceased wife into the barn, deposits it in the sarcophagus, puts the heavy lid back on the sarcophagus, and goes home. Mission accomplished.
Of course, Miss Marple’s clever young assistant will eventually find the body. But the murderer has no expectation that that will happen at all — nor, if it is found, how soon that will happen. What if it’s found within days, and can be identified by circulating a photograph, or through fingerprints? (The story takes place in 1957. No DNA.) In that case, the murderer will have some explainin’ to do. Like, how did your wife’s body end up on your lady friend’s property? That’s not the kind of question for which a murderer is likely to have a pat answer.
In fact, his lady friend doesn’t know he has ever been married. If the body is discovered and identified, his romantic plans will go up the spout even if the police can’t prove he murdered her. Yes, this qualifies as poor planning. Nothing in the book suggests that he is impulsive or overly optimistic. He’s a country doctor, not a used car salesman.
Presumably, he intends the sarcophagus to be a permanent, undiscovered resting place for the corpse, though it’s not a very reliable one. He does, however, take precautionary steps. He concocts a fake trail of evidence suggesting that the murdered woman (whose corpse has not yet, at this point, been found, and as far as he knows may never be found) was somebody else entirely. This red herring, which of course fools the reader and also Miss Marple for many pages, directs suspicion at members of the family that owns the country estate. One of whom is his lady friend. But suspicion of what? As far as he knows, nobody even suspects that there has been a murder.
Already his actions are seeming very counter-productive. Rather than dispose of his wife in a sensible way, he has gone far out of his way to involve his lady friend … because, of course, if he didn’t do that, Mrs. Christie wouldn’t have a story to tell. But wait — it’s about to get worse. Much worse.
The provisions of the will and trust under which his lady friend will inherit are, as often happens in Christie’s novels, convoluted. Father (who is elderly and cantankerous) has the estate only in trust, from his father. When he dies, the estate will be divided among his six children, two of whom died years ago. One of the surviving children being, of course, the murderer’s lady friend. But the murderer is not content to expect that his wife-to-be will inherit one fourth of this handsome estate. He wants more. (Why does he want more? Don’t ask.) So he sets out to murder her brothers. The idea is, he has to murder the brothers first, because if they’re still alive when the father dies, the estate will be divided amongst them.
So what does he do? He puts arsenic in the cocktail shaker, of course — at a family dinner party where he is conveniently not present, a detail that I don’t think Christie ever clears up. Everybody gets sick, but only one of the brothers dies. Naturally, suspicion is thrown on the other members of the family. That’s Christie’s plot. But look at it from the murderer’s point of view: One of the people who will drink the poisoned cocktails is his lady friend! If she dies of the arsenic, his whole plan goes belly-up. And if the father is the one who dies, the murderer’s hope of increasing the size of his lady friend’s inheritance will go belly-up. He will have undermined his own grandiose hopes.
This is the fatal flaw in murder mystery plotting. In order to make a good mystery, you need the murderer to act like a total yutz.