The ABC Murders


Agatha Christie’s 1936 novel The ABC Murders (also known as The Alphabet Murders) is her first stab at a serial killer story. Sorry – couldn’t resist the pun.

She followed on from Philip MacDonald’s opening foray into the sub-genre X v Rex, published in 1934 under the alias of Martin Porlock. This book, written from the perspective of the killer – the so called inverted style in which the suspense is generated by whether or not the killer, whom the reader already knows, will be caught rather than trying to solve whodunnit – begins to explore the psychology of the murderer. In this it has similarities to the earlier Malice Aforethought by Anthony Berkeley, writing under his Francis Iles pseudonym, in 1931.

Christie also purported to examine the psychology of the criminals – indeed, you could argue that much of Miss Marple’s detecting follows a psychological profiling approach – finding similarities in patterns of thought or behaviour that follow archetypes she has observed in her village of St Mary Mead. However, Christie never felt the explication of the criminal psyche should ever be anything but subordinate to the plot.

But then Christie only used her own name for her detective fiction (she reserved her alter-ego Mary Westmacott for romances), so she was to an extent hidebound by the public’s expectations of “the next Christie”. Both MacDonald and Berkeley made use of pseudonymous novels to explore new avenues to writing detective fiction in a way that Christie chose not to. They were thereby freed from the constraints of audience expectations by taking this approach.

In fact, Christie’s approach in The ABC Murders is innovative, mixing conventional first person narrative through her usual character of Captain Hastings, with narrative from the perspective of the killer.  She finesses the latter sections through the device of a purported reconstruction of the killer’s perspective after the fact by Hastings (with the benefit then knowing of Poirot’s solution) for his telling the story in the book. This is mixed with the introduction of actual letters from the killer addressed to Poirot, which give the killer a voice on the page. Such a mix of narrative perspectives had been done before – as early as 1868, Wilkie Collins was experimenting with this approach in his detective novel, The Moonstone.

What makes Agatha Christie’s entry into this multiple-perpective, serial killer world more significant than the more ambitious works of Anthony Berkeley/Francis Iles and Philip MacDonald/Martin Porlock is the size of her market. She was selling vastly more books than the others. Therefore he influence was commensurately greater.

I would argue, therefore, that The ABC Murders is one of the most significant Golden Age novels and a vital step out of the cozy and into the murkier, much more sinister world of the serial killer. Without her breaking the ground with the mass audience, the seeds could not have been sown which later bore fruit in the multitude of later novels which we see now featuring serial killers driven by innumerable warped psychotic impulses.

So it’s Agatha I have to thank for the sleepless nights I now endure having been “creeped out” by the visceral, nightmare visions I have subjected myself to, reading the likes of everything from Mark Billingham’s Tom Thorne books to the gruesome finds of Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta.


So many maps

One of the great delights of golden age detective fiction is the plethora of maps that appear.

As I read through the recommended list of books from our conference speakers, three of the books I have just completed, Overture To Death by Ngaio Marsh, Look to The Lady by Margery Allingham and The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers feature maps (and sometimes more than one such map) of the locations where the crimes take place. And one need look no further than Agatha Christie’s first Poirot novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles to complete your full house of all four Queens of Crime including a plan of the setting for the action. They are, of course, not alone in having this feature.  Fully half of the books I have been reading in preparation for the conference, by almost any of the golden age authors, have something of the kind.

This fascination with pictorial representations of the scene in no way indicates shortcomings in the descriptive powers of the writers. This is far from the case. It appears more to be adherence to a convention and bowing, therefore, to their audiences expectations.

It does make for an interesting diversion from the main business of reading the story to check the maps to follow routes taken by characters – do they seem to be sensible ways to get from A to B in the time available? Will the alibis stand up?

But sometimes, the layout is not significant to the plot. In that case, is the presence of the map in itself a giant red herring, implying that character’s movements around the setting for the events is of greater importance to the solution of whodunnit than is in fact necessary?

Perhaps this is why two other books I have also read recently, X v Rex by Philip Macdonald (writing as Martin Porlock) and Malice Aforethought by Frances Iles (aka Anthony Berkeley) do not use maps. Each is, in its way, consciously breaking with the traditions and conventions of the genre.  Neither is a classic whodunnit puzzle to be solved. The former is arguably the first attempt to portray a serial killer and reveal something of the killer’s psychology that drives them to commit the crimes; the latter is an inverted tale where you know the identity of the killer and the question is whether or not he will get away with the murder or be caught (wherein lies the suspense).

Golden Age part of Modernist literary movement

When you think of Modernism in literature the names that come to mind might include James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, T.S. Elliot, Franz Kafka or Marcel Proust, depending on your preferences and native language. The names Anthony Berkeley, Edmund Crispin, Freeman Wills Crofts and Michael Innes may not be at the forefront of your mind. Yet I have just finished books on the Bodies From The Library recommended reading list by each of these authors and think there is at least a case to answer.

The evidence I put forward for inclusion of these, and other authors of the Golden Age, in the modernist literature movement alongside the more academically and critically acclaimed authors listed above is that they display a characteristic trait of modernist novels – namely a conscious playing with form, an acknowledgement of the artifice in their art, and a willingness to break down what in the theatre is known as the fourth wall, the “window” through which the audience sees the action but is separated from it.

In Berkeley’s Jumping Jenny, the scene is a party given by a writer of detective stories and Berkeley’s series protagonist, Roger Sheringham, in a deliberate and playful inversion of the genre’s expected form, engages in wilful attempts to obstruct the police investigation and prevent them discovering the identity of the person whom he believes has committed a murder on the morally somewhat dubious grounds that they are a nice person whereas the victim was not.

Crispin goes further in The Moving Toyshop and has a character, who happens to be a poet currently suffering from writer’s block, cry out during a car chase:

“‘Let’s go left,’ Cadogan suggested. ‘After all, Gollancz is publishing this book.”

It could be argued that as far back as 1924, Freeman Wills Crofts invented the police procedural though his Inspector French’s Greatest Case at times reads like a travelogue of some of the finest holiday destinations in Europe (I can vouch for the accuracy of the description of Murren in Switzerland which appears to have changed little in the intervening 90 years). He too refers to the world within the novel as:

“In this world the ordinary, natural and obvious thing happened. A man who secretly visited the scene of the crime at about the hour at which it was known to have been committed,…such a man, in ordinary, prosaic, everyday life was the criminal.”

Furthermore, he refers to the fictional world of Conan Doyle when the detective’s wife says to him:

“‘…Why, a child could guess that, Watson!’ When Mrs French called her husband by the name of the companion of the great Holmes, it signified two things…” Notably that Freeman Wills Crofts expected the reader to cheerfully blur real world in which they as readers were themselves likely to have read Conan Doyle and the world inhabited by the characters of the novel where fictional characters have a fictional place in that fiction. I hope you’re still with me on this one.

And finally Michael Innes in Death At The President’s Lodgings has one of the suspects, an Oxford Professor, moonlight under a pseudonym as the author of detective fiction, of which he is slightly ashamed. The book conludes with the Inspector Appleby telling the professor:

“‘I have a parting present for you… A title for the book you may never be able to write: Seven Suspects.” Which, of course, is the alternate title under which the book was published (and Innes was the pseudonym of Professor John Innes Mackintosh Stewart of Christ Church College, Oxford).

Make of that what you will.

I should also point out that I got hold of these titles, not available through my local library service (cries of shame go up but, in fairness, they are pretty old and obscure even if classics of the genre), through the wonders of Amazon Marketplace. I am indebted to Karl Eynon Books, Tree Savers, World of Books and Brit Books whose online stores were where I found the books discussed this week and so give them a shameless plug here.