Crooked House (Agatha Christie)

  • First published: US: Dodd Mead, March 1949; UK: Collins, May 1949

In this stock account of the poisoning of a Greek tycoon by a close family member, there is far more conversation than detection, far more discovery of possible motive than ratiocination. Indeed, the identity of the psychologically abnormal murderer dawns on the narrator-hero only after the murderer’s diary falls into his hands. Not comparable to the best Christies.

The solution is unusual, but not original; Doyle, Allingham, Queen and Mitchell all used it.  This is one of the better uses.

Blurb (UK)

This is Agatha Christie’s 49th detective story.  It is 29 years since her first was published, yet custom cannot stale her infinite variety, and we have little hesitation in asserting that if this new story is not the best she has ever done, then it is second only to that classic of detection, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  It is certainly a remarkable witness to her unfailing verve, that when she is nearing her half-century she should still be able to knock one slap over the top of the pavilion to the fervent applause of her crowd of admirers.

The old jingle “all lived together in a little crooked house” here applies to the three generations of the Leonides who lived together under the sheltering roof of Three Gables – a large household over whom the very old and very rich Aristide Leonides had long presided; not that there was anything about the very respectable Leonides that was crooked in the dishonest sense, but nevertheless all its members had grown up a little bit twisted in their outlook on life.  But even now in death that little old man with the dark velvet skull-cap and the head sunken in his shoulders seemed to live on – a very real presence in that house of tragedy.  A poisoner’s hand had struck him down, but it was the old Greek himself who had supplied the blue-print for his own murder, actually suggesting the very method to be used – by the right person.  The murderer must have been one of the family, but who was capable of this cold-blooded and calculated poisoning?  Who was the right person?  As always, Agatha Christie shows herself to be still the master of her medium, the incomparable queen of mystery, and Crooked House adds another jewel to her crown.

Blurb (US)

A mounting terror had engulfed the normally pleasant household of the late Aristide Leonides.  Certainly one of his family had given him the fatal dose of poison.  Yet Scotland Yard could find no motive, no sign, no evidence pointing toward the killer.

Inspector Taverner was brilliant in his handling of the case but the solution came from another direction than he had expected.  Readers of Agatha Christie have come to demand something different in her solving of a mystery.  Perhaps never before in her extraordinary career has so daring and logical an answer been given to a baffling puzzle.  Here terror strikes like a stab of lightning – that illuminates, even as it kills!

Contemporary reviews

New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 3rd September 1949): …In self-defence, as they run out of mechanical plots, authors are taking to psychology.  (After all, the number of ways in which murders can be committed is somewhat limited, whereas the type of person liable to commit them is unrestricted.)  Some of the latest books to come under review have edged well over the borderline into character novels.  But there is danger in that direction.  The moment we can all see round a character as one can in a novel, we are liable to spot the murderous devil by the jib of his trousers, where the tail juts out behind.  It is safer to adopt Mrs. Christie’s technique, and line up the candidates for crime strictly facing the audience.

Mrs. Christie is a marvel.  Crooked House is her forty-ninth contribution to detection, and her sleight of hand is still impeccable.  When the old Greek financier is injected with eyedrops instead of with insulin she brings along the members of his family to meet us one at a time, and allows us a good stare at each in turn—and then she starts hanging motives round their uneasy necks.  Ten suspects, I make it.  Which do you fancy?  My favourite was No. 7, and I’m thankful to say I was right.  But I could never have plumped for that one, had I not been nudged by an echo from the past.  That is the penalty for writing forty-nine detective stories that Mrs. Christie has to pay.  She can no longer expect to win every game against all comers.

NY Herald tribune Wkly Bk R (Will Cuppy, 13th March 1949, 200w): Inspector Taverner thinks he has a case and sticks to it, when we could have told him otherwise.  You can take the finish as stuff and nonsense, an exciting if ghastly surprise, or what you will, and you’ll be ahead of the game, thanks to Mrs. Christie’s deft use of mystery material and her always readable style.

New Yorker (19th March 1949, 130w): Sticklers for mystery conventions will be disappointed to find that everything is finally explained by a series of documents rather than by any great amount of deductive work on the part of the enamoured detective.  The countryhosue trimmings are beautifully handled, though.

Sat R of Lit (2nd April 1949, 40w): Knock-out.

San Francisco Chronicle (E.D. Doyle, 3rd April 1949, 170w): Agatha Christie will keep you interested right up to the last page even though you decide, long before then, that Crooked House is not in the great Christie tradition.

NY Times (Beatrice Sherman, 17th April 1949, 150w): The Greek–English eccentrics in their prodigiously overgrown English cottage are entertaining, but the story moseys along at a mild pace with the thrills packed in the swift finish.