For years I’ve enjoyed one-off murder mysteries that friends recommended, but the genre hadn’t really gotten its hooks in me. I’ve simply never been the kind of reader who actively tries to solve the case. My friends who champion these books tend to care deeply about tracking red herrings and attempting to out-sleuth the author. I’m just as content to know whodunit from the very start, as long as the novel itself has enjoyable pacing and character writing.
All this is to say I’ve lived three decades without reading anything by the “queen of mystery” Agatha Christie, despite her being one of the best-selling authors of all time. But after burning through tons of romances this year and looking for other books with brisk pacing and a consistent ending, I gave in. I ended up getting so sucked in that I started a passion project of reading every one of Christie’s Hercule Poirot mysteries in order of publication. It helped me find commonalities in some of my favorite books, shows, and movies, and ultimately led me down a wormhole of so many others. I love to collect hobbies. In 2023, murder mysteries became my latest.
I started with the books friends most passionately recommended: And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express. They both thrilled me — the former with its macabre and perfectly calibrated deaths, themed to each of the invitees, building and breaking suspense. I understood, immediately, why And Then There Were None is considered one of her best. But Murder on the Orient Express stuck in my mind even longer, specifically because of its bombastic murder reveal at the end — and also because of the detective at the heart of the story, whose illustrious mustaches stole the show. This is, of course, the beloved Belgian mastermind Hercule Poirot.
In Orient Express, I got an immediate sense of his memorably peculiar habits: his need for order, his taste in clothes, and his sense of pomp (that he never owns up to). But I was struck especially by Poirot’s morality; his decision not to turn these people over to the police after having solved the crime, because the victim was himself a heinous murderer. Here was a train quite literally full of murderers, confronted by a master detective, and yet all of them walked away unscathed. Poirot, I immediately understood, was in this for the joy of using his little gray cells to solve the case. Is he in more of her books? I wondered, like a spring chicken. I was immediately rewarded.
Since July, my Libby app has been a long string of Poirot mystery holds. I made a list of the books in order so that I could strike them off with my handy highlighter. 20 books later, my hunger for them has only grown. I’m extremely fond of Poirot’s eccentricities: his continued attempts at retiring and growing vegetable marrows, his tendency to meddle when he can help two people find love, and his insistence on never explaining what he’s doing to his lovably dimwitted friend Hastings (the narrator of the early books in the series). Even if the murder mystery isn’t always resolved in my favorite way, I cherish passing time with Poirot so much it hardly matters. Luckily, Christie was masterful at plotting out her mysteries, and never seems to run out of inventive set-ups and solutions.
Reading through Hercule Poirot’s foibles has also been like opening up a skylight in my mind. Very early on, Poirot helped me realize I loved a locked-room mystery, and so I spent a month spiraling into other reading lists. Some of my favorites from Edgar Allan Poe belong in this legacy — which gave color to my memories of being the weird kid who carried around her dad’s battered Poe omnibus plastered in sticky notes. From there, I added tons of Dorothy L. Sayers to my library hold list, before getting into a pocket of Japanese Honkaku mysteries (Shimada Soji, Seishi Yokomizo). Impulsively, I looked for contemporary American authors who write locked-room mystery but for the Instagram era, and landed on Lucy Foley’s The Guest List. I don’t know that I would have found these authors otherwise, and enjoyed each of their unique approaches to my new favorite tropes.
I’ve also gotten distracted by hoovering up contemporary movies and shows that play with some of Christie’s most famous set-ups. Like a detective with red yarn and thumbtacks, I’ve taken notes while rewatching much of Rian Johnson’s recent work: Knives Out and Poker Face. I’ve honed a particular love for a pairs of colluding con artists like the husband and wife in Death on the Nile, in which a man marries a woman for her wealth and then works with his true beloved to murder said wife and share the newly inherited money. In Poker Face, I delighted at episode five, which similarly showcased a scheming pair — but in the form of two former activists in a retirement home committing a murder together.
Ironically, it’s the direct adaptations that I haven’t deeply engaged with. I haven’t yet watched any of the Kenneth Branagh movies, nor have I watched the beloved show Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Since Orient Express is what got me into Poirot, the one adaptation I have watched is the 1974 movie directed by Sidney Lumet, with an outrageous cast that includes Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins, Ingrid Bergman, and Lauren Bacall. It’s wonderful as a historical object, and as a film, it holds up as having a distinct perspective, with its memorably climactic stabbing scene, well-performed monologues, and beautiful establishing shots of the train chugging along. It feels distinctly like something that could not exist in the streaming era, where IP is increasingly recycled, and adapted so faithfully it seems to squish a director’s attempts at interpretation.
As I’ve read deeper into Christie, I’ve consistently found modern stories that pay homage to her work are more fun than those that approach it as straight adaptation. Why reproduce a facsimile of Christie’s work when her style and inventiveness leave so much room for play? She wrote in the 1920s through the ’70s — the world is so different now, and rife with opportunity for lighthearted sleuthing. I’m eager for the new stories her work will lead me toward as I keep reading into the new year. For now, though, I can be grateful for all the newly beloved stories my journey with Poirot has brought me — from Christie or those she directly inspired.