Agatha Christie’s book, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, was the very first murder mystery I ever read!
It’s not surprising I took to Christie’s work. The Guinness World Records lists Agatha Christie as the best selling novelist of all time. Her books have sold roughly 2 BILLION copies! Only the works of William Shakespeare and the Bible outsell her.
This makes me wonder: What is the secret to Agatha Christie’s success?
There has been talk of a formula but I think Christie simply had a handle on the structure of a good story and, specifically, the structure of a great murder mystery!
Beyond that, I think her phenomenal success can be traced to two things:
1. Christie introduced ROMANCE into the murder mystery.
2. Christie was very good at hiding the identity of the murderer. And she usually did this cleverly and fairly.
Today I’m only going to concentrate on (2), above. (If you would like to read more about including romance in a story, see: The Structure of a Romance Story.)
How to Make Readers Think the Murderer Couldn't Have Done It.
There’s no other way to say it: Agatha Christie deceived her readers! And we loved it. How did she do this?
7 Ways to Disguise a Murderer:
1. Agatha Christie made readers think the murderer was a victim. (Peril at End House.)
Examples: Peril at End House, The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor, And Then There Were None.
In PERIL AT END HOUSE Nick—the eventual murderer—convinces Poirot that someone is trying to kill her. She is subtle and drops clues she knows the great detective (who loves clues!) will pick up on.
In reality, she’s setting up her friend (Fredricka 'Freddie' Rice) to take the fall for a murder she is preparing to commit.
The following summary of Peril at End House (this is from the televised version starring David Suchet) contains spoilers.
Hercule Poirot and his loyal companion Captain Hastings are vacationing at a Cornish Resort: The Majestic. Hastings tells Poirot about an explorer—Michael Seton—who is attempting to fly around the world but who has disappeared. Shortly after this we are introduced to one of the main characters of the story: Magdala ‘Nick’ Buckley (Magdala is a family name). When Nick and Poirot meet she tells him in a casual, offhanded way that she has come close to death three times in the past few days.That’s the description! Sorry for the length. Peril at End House is, IMHO, one of Christie’s most clever mysteries.
After finding various clues, Poirot comes to believe someone is trying to murder Nick. But who? And why?
Maggie Buckley, Nick’s cousin, travels to Nick's home, End House—a gorgeous old place that Nick loves but which is mortgaged to the hilt and in desperate need of renovation—to help watch over Nick. Tragically, the night she arrives Maggie is shot dead. Since the two girls were both wearing black dresses, and since Maggie was wearing Nick’s fur wrap, the two girls would have looked almost identical. Everyone believes Maggie was killed because the killer mistook her for Nick.
After Maggie dies Poirot comes to believe Nick was engaged to Michael Seaton, the deceased world explorer. Michael Seton has left a will that leaves everything to his fiancee, Magdala. Nick is set to inherit millions! Now that Poirot knows why someone is trying to kill Nick the only question left to answer is who?
Strangely, the answer to this seems straightforward. Nick’s best friend, Freddie, is Nick’s primary beneficiary. If Nick dies, Freddie gets everything! The only trouble is, Poirot doesn’t believe it. Freddy is not stupid and the latest attempt on Nick’s life was facile. Besides that, Freddy had no clear motive. She didn’t need the money. She wasn’t desperate. The psychology was all wrong!
It’s here, about three-quarters of the way through the book, just after the all hope is lost point, that Christie gives Poirot the clue which reveals everything. It all hinges on a name. Nick’s given name is Magdala. Further, we know it’s a family name. At this point Miss Lemon and Hastings engage in silly wordplay, wondering what the nicknames are for various given names. Hearing them, Hercule Poirot asks himself: What is Maggie’s given name? What if it were Magdala ...? And, of course, it was. Magdala ‘Maggie’ Buckley was Michael Seton’s fiancee, not Nick!
Nick had killed Maggie so she could pose as Michael Seton’s fiancee and inherit his millions.
Her immediate motive: Nick was fanatically devoted to End House, and she would lose it if she didn’t get quite a lot of money very soon.
You see the pattern? The murderer tries to be clever, sets themselves up as the victim and in so doing misdirects both Poirot and the reader.
The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor
When the BBC did their adaptation of this story they changed it a wee bit. It is the BBC version I’m referring to. Here’s a brief summary:
Mr. Maltravers has a weak heart, a failing business, a young wife and quite a lot of life insurance. Not the best combination! It is perhaps no surprise that soon after we meet Mr. Maltravers he is found dead of an apparent heart attack. His body is found under a tree said to be haunted by the spirit of a girl who committed suicide decades before. Mr. Maltravers' face is frozen in an expression of shock and agony.
The victim's wife of two years is convinced that her late husband saw the girl’s spirit and was, quite literally, scared to death. She SEEMED devoted to her late husband, but appearances can be deceiving. Could she have had a motive for killing him? Or perhaps it is exactly as she claims, that a spirit inhabits the tree and it frightened her husband so much his heart gave out.
Mr. Maltravers’ had a brief dalliance with his secretary years before but his secretary—a severe woman of middle-age—still cares for him. Might her caring have turned into something darker?
Mrs. Maltravers is an attractive, intelligent woman apparently devoted to her elderly, ailing husband. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that one of her old friends, Captain Black, still carries a torch for her. He seems honorable, but what might he do to win her heart?
At first it seems as though Mrs. Maltravers is a victim. She sees a ghost in the big spooky tree and no one believes her. The ghost makes her mirror bleed and tortures her with visions of death and blood. At first it seems as though Poirot is nothing but solicitous toward the young widow but it gradually emerges that he suspects her.
Perhaps this particular story is a bit dated in that it relies on the reader suspending disbelief in ghosts and the like, but I found the adaptation convincing.
2. Agatha Christie made readers think the murderer was dead at the time of the crime. (And Then There Were None)
Christie makes the reader think that a certain character is dead and so, when another murder occurs, we think THAT character can’t have committed the murder.
And Then There Were None
And Then There Were None is Agatha Christie’s best selling book and probably one of the most popular novels of all time. Reading what follows will reveal the ending, so—if you haven’t yet—go read the book, then come back!
Okay. Here’s the plot:
Ten very different people are lured to an island by a variety of pretexts. Here’s the Wikipedia summary:
“All have been complicit in the deaths of other human beings, but either escaped justice or committed an act that was not subject to legal sanction. The guests and two servants who are present are "charged" with their respective "crimes" by a gramophone recording after dinner the first night, and informed that they have been brought to the island to pay for their actions. They are the only people on the island, and cannot escape due to the distance from the mainland and the inclement weather, and gradually all ten are killed in turn, each in a manner that seems to parallel the deaths in the nursery rhyme. Nobody else seems to be left alive on the island by the time of the apparent last death. A confession, in the form of a postscript to the novel, unveils how the killings took place and who was responsible.”
The murderer is one of the 10 (the classic closed society). He/she succeeds in convincing one of the other guests on the island, a doctor, to help him fake his death. The doctor—a man too trusting for his own good—agrees.
Every guest of the island—well, every guest except for the murderer!—is a victim. So we, the reader, see the culprit as a victim for most of the book. It is only at the very end, when everyone is dead, that Christie reveals the secret to the puzzle.
I think And Then There Were None was one of Christie’s best books. It was clever, filled with twists, and the whole thing held together after you read the solution.
3. Agatha Christie made the reader think the killer had a cast iron alibi. (Evil Under the Sun)
Christie tricked the reader into thinking the killer couldn’t have done it. Why? Because he/she had no opportunity.
Briefly, in Evil Under the Sun the murderers pose as a young married couple with more than their share of problems. He is carrying on an affair with Mrs ???, a wealthy movie star and she—delicate flower that she is ("I must get out of the sun, I burn so easily...") is devastated but tries to take her husband's philandering in stride.
The truth is that nothing is as it seems. The movie star is their mark, they've arranged to strip her of her wealth then kill her before she has a chance to protest. They work together to give each other an alibi for the crime. Mrs. R. makes it appear as though she was swimming with another guest at the time of Mrs. R's apparent death while Mr R is one of the two people who (apparently) found the movie star's body.
In reality, the 'body' Mr. R found was Mrs R playing dead. After the time of discover is set then Mr. R kills the movie star in his own sweet time. This was crusial because at that time Mrs. R had an alibi (she was swimming with ???) and Mr. R had been with other peole at every second up to that point. Afterwards (it was thought) it didn't matter where he was, but in reality it was after she was 'found' that the true murder occurred.
So you see, Christie made readers think that Mr R wasn’t a member of the closed society, that his name wasn't on the list of possible killers (for more about 'closed societies' see my article English vs American Murder Mysteries).
4. Agatha Christie made the killer the narrator. (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd)
Making the narrator the killer isn’t considered fair play. Even though The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was one of Agatha Christie's most successful books, the writing club she belonged to—the Detection Club—(Dorothy L. Sayers, Baroness Emma Orczy and G. K. Chesterton were also members)—explicitly forbid its members from employing this technique. That said, Christie got away with it! Why? Readers, even though they grumbled a bit about it not being quite fair, LOVED the book!
(For more on Agatha Christie and the Detection Club: Agatha Christie's Secret: Break The Rules.)
That said, I’m not sure I’d recommend anyone else try making the narrator the killer, although I wouldn’t be surprised if someone gave a young Christie that very advice!
5. Agatha Christie made each suspect the murderer. (Murder on the Orient Express).
This was truly clever. What’s an implicit assumption readers make? That one (or possibly two) of the suspects are murderers. We don’t think: They all could have done it! At least we didn’t up until Murder on the Orient Express!
6. Agatha Christie made the murderer a police officer. (Hercule Poirot's Christmas)
In an English cozy police officers can be incompetent, arrogant, rash or stupid but they are not murderers. So Christie decided to make a police officer the murderer in Hercule Poirot's Christmas. And it worked beautifully!
7. Agatha Christie made the murderer a child. (Crooked House)
Kids are sweet and innocent, right? This is an Agatha Christie novel so ... not necessarily!
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As I said at the beginning of this post, the trick to keeping your readers from guessing the murderer is to—in the fairest possible way—trick the reader. Part of this is making the murderer the sort of person we tend not to suspect. Someone we trust.
Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.
Treat Yourself: 70 Classic Snacks You Loved as a Kid (and Still Love Today), by Jennifer Steinhauer
I LOVED Twinkies as a kid, how about you? Or maybe you preferred Oreos or Fig Newtons? Here’s a book that will helps us recreate the classic oh-so-bad-for-you snacks! I haven’t tried any of these recipes myself—not yet! As soon as I get a kitchen, though, I’m making my own Twinkies. :-)
1. Here I’ve only given one story as an example, but Christie used each of these techniques in many of her books.