Wednesday, November 16, 2011

reminiscing on my first time. (aka Thirteen at Dinner by Agatha Christie)

Nerd alert. (Like you hadn't noticed this already?)

(image -- her link totally doesn't work, which is too bad because I lurve this.)

So I decided to join up with a group of intrepid mystery novel readers and participate in the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge Monthly Carnival (say that ten times fast!). Kerry over at Mysteries in Paradise is the mastermind behind the project, which she started as a way to get herself inspired to read each and every book Christie ever wrote and record her progress along the way. I love that she invited us all to join her on her quest, and I'm pretty excited to see what everyone else has been reading this month once the results are published (November 22nd or 23rd).

Here's the the part where you learn just how nerdy I am: I've actually already done the challenge (well, part of it) on my own! I've been a Christie nut(case?) since the 7th grade. I own an entire hardcover set of her novels, and I also own a complete set in paperback. I'm missing one or two titles that were only published in England, but otherwise I've got 'em, baby. And I've read them all at least once -- but most of them multiple times. I treat them as palate cleansers between other things I read because I can whip through them so fast, so I read at least a dozen of them a year. And, to be perfectly honest, sometimes I forget who the murderer was so I get to enjoy the whodunnit aspect all over again!

So I decided to kick start my participation by returning to the book that started it all for me: Thirteen at Dinner. Ready to jump on in?

I can remember the first time I read "a Christie" so very vividly. I was in junior high and was home from school, sick. It was a lovely spring day and my mom propped me up outside (in the hopes the fresh air might do me good) with some blankets, tea, and a book she picked up for me at the library. "I think you'll like this," she said. And so I read. And read. And read some more. And I couldn't believe it: where had this author been my whole (short) life? And how did you pronounce Hercule Poirot?

So returning to the scene of the crime, as it were, was a pretty joyful experience for me. Thirteen at Dinner (also published under the title Lord Edgware Dies) is a fantastic mystery -- it's actually one of the slipperiest cases Poirot, Christie's famous mustachioed Belgian detective, ever had to deal with (and he admits that he almost let the killer get away with it!). The book begins with a desperately beautiful and narcissistic woman begging Poirot to help her divorce her husband so she can marry someone else -- a favor she demands he fulfill because, if he doesn't, she will simply have to resort to killing him to get her way! When the husband turns up dead shortly thereafter, it looks as if the police have our black widow dead to rights, but her airtight alibi throws everyone, including the brilliant Poirot, for a loop.

One of the things that struck me the most, upon reread, is that this is not a great book to start with if you've never read a Christie before. I am not sure how I managed to get hooked for life after reading this one! The narrator is Poirot's friend Captain Hastings, a sort of Dr. Watson figure, but their relationship is not made clear at all in this novel so it would be extremely confusing for a new reader to try to make sense of why in the world Poirot would bother spending time with someone who seems like such a bumbling idiot! (For the uninitiated: he's not really that stupid. Okay, a little bit. But he's really an endearing figure, and the friendship between the two goes back decades. Poirot says that having Hastings around is helpful because he reminds him of exactly what not to think about a given situation! Poirot, by the way, is not always the most tactful of men.)

Secondly, I was reminded just how literate Christie assumes her readership must be. To understand the full implications of the denouement here, you need to be well-versed in Greek mythology and conversational French. I was neither of those things in 7th grade, so I have no idea how I ever would have been able to follow along with Poirot's explanation (pretty much every novel ends with him gathering all of the suspects together into one room and revealing the identity of the murderer). Here's a helpful tip: pince-nez are also known as glasses (or spectacles, if you're feeling fancy), and do a quick wikipedia search on Helen of Troy before you start reading.

Those semi-complaints aside, I think the mystery here is a pretty classic Christie. It's not the easiest to solve, nor the most difficult. It has all the hallmarks of her novels: lots of guilt to go around, a little romance, funny scenes between Poirot and his usual sidekicks, Hastings and Inspector Japp of Scotland Yard, and of course that "big reveal" at the end where you realize that, if only you'd been paying more attention, you could have solved the mystery too. The letter included at the end of the novel is pretty chilling -- I remembered the last line of it pretty much word for word all these years later.

So, to recap: if you've never read a Christie mystery before, I might suggest starting elsewhere, with either the first Poirot mystery (also her first novel), her most famous book, or a personal favorite of mine. But Thirteen at Dinner will always hold a special place in my heart for being the book that started me on my lifelong obsession!

Verdict: ***1/2
and by the way, if you're not much for reading, check out David Suchet as Poirot -- nobody does it better.


  1. Oh my word! I love this idea. I would love to participate but I don't have every AC book at my fingertips to be able to read. Sadly. I've yet to read Thirteen at Dinner but now I'm kind of excited. Right now I'm reading Murder on the Orient Expess(again) with a friend who I have introduced to AC. I still think this book is one of her best as well. The ending is brilliantly done. Anyway now that I've finished babbling, yay for nerds and Agatha Christie!

  2. Katie, you should totally do it! Just start with the ones you have access to and go from there. Even the person running the carnival only reads 12 of them a year -- I'm sure your local library has at least that many. In any case, you should check out the carnival when it comes out! So fun to find other AC fans online...

  3. I haven't read all the Agatha Christie books, but I do enjoy my Trixie Beldens as a palate-cleanser between other books. In fact I've embarked on reading them all again this year to track the dates of each of the characters - I'm convinced they, like people in bad sitcoms, are in the same grade for years (books) on end.