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the abc murders

24 may 2017

"More and more I interest myself in the human developments that arise out of this tragedy" (147) says Hercule Poirot halfway through Agatha Christie's A.B.C. Murders (1936). Though he'd just been saying of the title serial-killing case "It is like the jig-saw puzzle" (126), and indeed The A.B.C. Murders is one of the cleverest of its genre, a murder mystery where all the victims and suspects are two-dimensional cutouts. So which is it – human-interest story or puzzling pastime?

Perhaps Poirot is voicing Agatha Christie's ambitions to move out of the sphere of pastime and into that of literature. The fiendishly intricate complications of the "A.B.C. Murders" don't leave much room for character development – certainly not in the 250 pages Christie devotes to them, too few to wear on the reader's welcome. A master criminal writes to Poirot that he will be up to something in the town of A___ on such a date. On that date, a person with the initials A.A. is killed in A___. Another note, and someone named B.B. fetches up dead in B___, and so forth. Each corpse is festooned with an "A.B.C." railway guide. The characters who populate this outlandish plot – the drunken estranged husband, the diffident servant, the "modern" woman, the jealous boyfriend, the hearty adventurer, the careerist cop, the "alienist," even the narrator, Captain Hastings – are all taken from open stock. As so often, only Hercule Poirot is memorable. But Christie has Poirot assert, memorably enough, that he is actually interested in these stick-figure people.

With maddening memorability, Poirot and Hastings open the novel by laying out a scenario for a "red-blooded murder— with trimmings" (15). Some "American millionaire" or Prime Minister gets it, in the library, with a "carved stone idol"; the suspects are some beautiful girls, a dangerous older woman, a quiet secretary, "a hearty man with a bluff manner" – "a very pretty resumé of nearly all the detective stories that have ever been written," Poirot sighs (16). But while they are sending up the cozy genre, our heroes are just a few chapters away from investigating a murder very much like that, with characters just as described, and just as two-dimensional.

One suspect is not a stick figure, though he is a bit of a cartoon. We see Alexander Bonaparte Cust in occasional alternating third-person chapters, marked emphatically as "Not From Captain Hastings' Personal Narrative." It's a classic device – for all I know, invented by Agatha Christie for this novel, as she invented so much else in the detective genre: the serial killer seen from the perspective of his own prowl, as the detectives scramble to anticipate his next move. And she would not be Agatha Christie if she had not rung a postmodern set of changes on this device the moment she'd invented it.

How can Hercule Poirot, of all people, be interested in the human element of such a story? Are we all merely stick figures in somebody else's story: the jaded novelist, the addicted reader, the introverted mailorder bookseller who ships you your Agatha Christie, the brassy flight attendant who tells you she loves to read mysteries, too?

Christie, Agatha. The A.B.C. Murders. 1936. New York: Morrow [HarperCollins], 2011.