Three Grand Dames of Mystery: “The ABC Murders” by Agatha Christie

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The ABC Murders by Agatha ChristieHercule Poirot comes up against a serial murderer in The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie. Captain Hastings comes to England on another of his extended business trips to find Poirot upset over an anonymous letter he has received, taunting Poirot over a crime that will occur in Andover on a specific future date, signed A.B.C. When Alice Ascher, an old lady who owns a small tobacco shop in Andover, is found dead, hit from behind, on the reported date, Poirot hurries to the small town. Upon further investigation, he discovers that a railway guide has been left next to her body, the version organized in alphabetical order, which in England is called an ABC.

The second letter specifies Bexhill as the next location, and Poirot suggests that the victim’s name may begin with the letter B, which proves true when the young waitress Betty Barnard is found strangled with her own dress’s belt on the beach. Once again an ABC lies next to her body. Now the police make specific plans in anticipation of a third letter, but when Hastings reads the letter to Poirot after it finally arrives, Poirot realizes that the date named is that very day! A look at the envelope shows that instead of writing down Poirot’s correct address of White Haven Mansions, ABC has erroneously written White Horse Mansions, causing the letter to get delayed in the post. By now, Sir Carmichael Clarke has been killed, with yet again an ABC on the scene.

At this point, Poirot forms a “legion” of people interested in the cases to try to pool their knowledge: Mrs. Ascher’s niece Mary Drower, Betty Bernard’s sister Megan and fiance Donald Fraser, Sir Carmichael Clarke’s brother Franklin and secretary Thora Grey. While the Scotland Yard detective focuses on the question of “who,” Poirot becomes obsessed with the “why.” Why does the murderer send the letters to Poirot instead of somewhere like Scotland Yard or the newspapers? Why is the murderer killing people in alphabetical order? Poirot scoffs at the Scotland Yard psychologist’s comment that ABC has an alphabetical complex. That merely names the condition; it doesn’t explain why the condition exists.

The book shows Christie’s continued experimentation with different methods of narration. In this case, the chapters of Hastings’s narrative periodically alternate with third person narration about Alexander Bonaparte Cust, a traveling salesman who was mentally disabled during the First World War. So is this our murderer? Why is Christie then writing about him early in the book? And could this timid man really have written the bold and boastful letters that Poirot received?

The ABC Murders contains one of Agatha Christie’s most creative solutions. By the time Poirot finally gets the answers to his questions, the solution surprises us all.

On a fun side note, when Poirot shows his first note to Hastings, they get into a discussion of what each considers to be the ideal kind of murder to investigate. Hastings wants glitz and glamour, with a damsel in distress. But Poirot describes a room of four people sitting down beside the fire to play bridge, while a fifth man sits in a nearby chair. When the four get up at the end of the evening, they discover that the fifth man has been stabbed. The murderer could be any of those four but no one else, so the case will have to be investigated based upon knowing each suspect. And if you join us in two weeks, we will be reading the book that sprang from this discussion, Cards on the Table.

Hugh Fraser narrates the audio version of this book. Once again he does a fantastic job of displaying Christie’s genius in pulling the readers into the story.

When I think of Agatha Christie’s books, some are clearly highly unique and creative, but that isn’t enough to make me want to return to the book over and over again. The ABC Murders, however, has such a draw on me that I have listened to it at least a dozen times. The characters delight, and the narrative keeps pulling the reader more and more deeply into the book. So with all these positives, I heartily give the book five stars!

To purchase this book for yourself, click here on Amazon

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