Crooked House by Agatha Christie
What the Back of the Book Has to Say:
The Leonides were one big happy family living in a sprawling, ramshackle mansion. That was until the head of the household, Aristide, was murdered with a fatal barbiturate injection.
Suspicion naturally falls on the old man's young widow, fifty years his junior. But the murderer has reckoned without the tenacity of Charles Hayward - fiance of the late millionaire's granddaughter...
Why I Picked It Up:
A safe bet to start off with. You really can't go wrong with Agatha Christie.
What I Think:
I don't know about you but if there is one author who has never really let me down, it's Agatha Christie. Despite having a list of works to her name longer than most rivers run, I don't think I've ever read something by her that didn't live up to her reputation. I still remember the very first time I read a Christie book: I was in seventh grade and had been assigned the first third of the book And Then There Were None (the most recent and politically correct title of that book, despite many tries) to be read by Friday and somehow came to school the next day having finished the entire novel. To my delight, so had half the class. But you couldn't really blame us; the only books we'd really been assigned before that either had to do with medieval midwives or children smuggling Nazi gold out of their country under their sleds. A story where the characters dropped like flies was really up our alleys by that point.
A love affair with Christie was born from that moment and yes, this is seemingly relevant to my reading of Crooked House ten years after my first encounter. You see, my favorite Christie books are the ones that don't involve Poirot or Miss Marple but just a one off detective. I feel she's strongest when she has to create a whole character in one book instead of relying on past history and novels. I tend to like her older books better because of it. The point of this is, when I was in my early teens, I devoured these books like there were no other authors in the library. Perhaps you see where this is going.
Crooked House falls into my favorite category: the one off detective. Like many of Christie's novels, it has the just post-World War feeling, understandable as it was written in 1949. All the characters inhabit a bizarre Gothic-esque realm where there only seems to be one house and ten people in the entire world. Charles, our hero, appears to walk a strange line between the outside world and the miniature society of his fiancee Sophia and her strange family. In fact, only perhaps twenty pages of the entire book take place outside of the house itself. And thanks to this claustrophobic atmosphere, Christie is able to imply anything about her characters and, due to our unfamiliarity with their world, we won't know what to believe.
All the characters that inhabit this house have something slightly off about them, as the title of the book suggests and the only character that seems normal is our stand-in, Charles. The mystery of who killed Aristide takes a backseat to just what is going on in the household and each character adds to the mystery. The youngest child in the house, Josephine, in particular is interesting in her wise-beyond-her-years manner and penchant for investigating. Beyond just her, however, there are two brothers who are worlds apart in temperament and their wives, one overly dramatic and the other overly stern. There's the boy who just wants to escape to the outside and the two family outsiders, the young widow and the family tutor, who may or may not be having a secret love affair. And at the head of all this is Charles's Sophia, who might just be as crazy as the rest of her family.
You would think with all of these unique and memorable characters that I would remember sooner than halfway through the book that I had read it before. It all came back to me in a flash-- the strange, black-haired girl wandering around a big house, the fiancees that might not be together due to murder, the mother who fancies herself an actress. But strangely enough, despite having all the characters rush back to me in an instant (along with the vision of myself, age 14, reading it in the car, flying down Highway 26 with my mother), what did not return to me was the actual solution to the mystery or what the patented Christie Twist of this novel was. I had to read to the end, again, to remind myself who, exactly, dun-it.
And I think that says what I would like to say about Christie best: her characters and worlds are top notch. Even if you don't remember exactly what the twist was or who poisoned who, the raven-haired beauty or the cruel old man or that mysterious figure in the brown coat will stick with you. It's the atmosphere that Christie excels at and if you love that feeling, than you'll love this.
A few recommendations of my favorite Christie books: The Man in the Brown Suit, And Then There Were None, Why Didn't They Ask Evans?, Crooked House.
Christie fans out there, any more suggestions?