The A. B. C. Murders (Agatha Christie)

  • By Agatha Christie
  • First published: UK: Collins, January 1936; USA: Dodd Mead, February 1936

Rating: 4 out of 5.

One of Christie’s triumphs: an original plot, a masterpiece of telling the truth and making it lie, and a successful application of Anthony Berkeley‘s favourite gambit (similarities to The Silk Stocking Murders and to Chesterton‘s “The Sign of the Broken Sword” are obvious; comparisons, however, are not only obvious but odious). Poirot is in magnificent form; with the (limited) help of Captain Hastings and the victims’ relations, and spurred on by rivalry with the obnoxious Inspector Crome, he investigates a series of seemingly random murders across England and in various social milieux (working-class Andover, middle-class Bexhill-on-Sea, the gentry of Churston), linked only by the presence of the A.B.C. Guide and of the sinister Mr. Cust. The grisly series comes to its close in the melting-pot of Doncaster.  Perplexed by a psychological anomaly in Cust, and his cast-iron alibi for one of the crimes, Poirot reasons from psychological clues to solve the riddle.

Blurb (UK)

Agatha Christie, “the best of all crime novelists,” has, as one critic truly says, “set herself such a standard that even she will scarcely excel it.”  Yet year by year, book by book, her ingenuity increases, her power as a novelist develops, and her wit becomes keener.  Now, with The A B C Murders, her own greatest triumph and a classic of crime fiction, she sets a new high-water mark in the history of the detective story.

The idea of the story is as brilliant as its execution.  The murderer in this case is evidently a maniac, for he seems bent on working his way through a whole alphabet of victims.  Beginning with A, he murders a Mrs. Ascher at Andover.  Proceeding to B, he strangles Betty Barnard on the beach at Bexhill.  For C, he chooses as his victim Sir Carmichael Clarke of Churston.  And as a sign of his method he leaves beside the corpse on each occasion a railway ABC open at the name of the place where the murder has taken place.  A, B, C…how far through the alphabet will he get?  It seemed that nobody would be able to catch him.  But he made the mistake—the one mistake that every murderer makes—when, out of sheer vanity, he challenged Poirot to frustrate his plans.

Blurb (US)

There was something about that first anonymous letter that worried Poirot.  Nothing very definite, but enough to stir those famous “little grey cells”.  Scotland Yard was polite but obviously not deeply interested…  And then the crime occurred, just as “A. B. C.” had said it would, and the letter took on a new significance.  Not only did it cast a peculiar light on the brutal murder of a shopkeeper; but, far more important, it pointed to a new menace – possibly a whole series of murders.

Readers have come to “expect the unexpected” from Agatha Christie, and she has never failed them.  And this latest story will arouse anew the most enthusiastic admiration.  For here is a brand new, never-before-hinted-at plot in a story which has all the best Christie points.

Hercule Poirot, who has retired and will consider only the “cream” of the criminal crop, meets here a situation which taxes even his superhuman brilliance.  Indeed, at one point, the famous moustaches go for a short period untended.  And then, at the end, when the reader and the police have the whole amazing situation solved to their complacent satisfaction, the little Belgian produces one of the greatest surprises of his career!

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Torquemada, 5th January 1936): CRIMINAL NEW YEAR

The Crime Club has started the year well; for if the murders selected by it for January have little to give us in the way of literature, all four of them are workmanlike and show ingenuity far above the average.

Ingenuity, indeed, is a mild term for Mrs. Christie’s gift.  In The A.B.C. Murders, rightly chosen by the club as its book of the month, she has quite altered her method of attack upon the reader, and yet the truth behind this fantastic series of killings is as fairly elusive as any previous truth which Poirot has had to capture for us.  The reader adopts two quite different mental attitudes as he reads.  At first, and for a great many pages, he is asking himself: “Is Agatha Christie going to let me down?  Does she think she can give us this kind of tale as a detective story and get away with it?”  Then the conviction comes to him that he has been wronging the authoress, and that he alone is beginning to see through her artifice.  In the last chapter he finds, because brilliant circus work with a troop of red horses and one dark herring has diverted his attention from a calm consideration of motive, he has not been wronging, but merely wrong.  It is noticeable, by the way, that characters break off at intervals to tell us that we have to do with “a homicidal murderer”.  We are ready to take this for granted until Mrs. Christie (I wouldn’t put it past her) gives us one who isn’t.

Times Literary Supplement (11th January 1936): “Reader,” begs the dust-cover, “when you recommend this book to friends, don’t tell them the secret.”  The reviewer is bound to obey.  But why?  Surely the authoress herself is letting it out after each murder, in those short parenthetic chapters about Alexander Bonaparte Cust, the unnoticeable little epileptic stocking hawker with an inferiority complex.  But the reader had better wait a little before complaining that a half-mad criminal is against the rules of detective fiction.

Mrs. Alice Ascher of Andover was killed in her little shop.  Betty Barnard of Bexhill was strangled on the shore.  Sir Carmichael Clarke was clubbed near his house at Churston, near Torquay.  And each time Hercule Poirot received a bragging letter in advance, telling him which town would come next.  Obviously a madman who murders for no reason but alphabetic order is difficult to detect, and Poirot deserves credit for ending the series with Doncaster.  But he deserves much more for discovering the real motives behind the murders.  If Mrs. Christie ever deserts fiction for crime, she will be very dangerous; no one but Poirot will catch her.

New Statesman & Nation (Ralph Partridge, 25th January 1936): POIROT AGAIN

Once more our half-yearly homage is due to Mrs. Christie, who has held the throne of detection for the last ten years, and brooks no rival near her.  There have been Old Pretenders, Mr. A.E.W. Mason for instance, and many Young Pretenders, but where are they now?  “Where (gaudy) Night and Chaos hold eternal anarchy.”  The A.B.C. Murders is not constructed on such rigorous chess-problem lines as Death in the Clouds, but in the more flamboyant style of Mrs. Christie’s earlier works.  There is, however, such a severe warning to reviewers on the dust cover not to reveal by any hint the solution that the plot had better be left to the publisher’s blurb.  There we read that the murderer is evidently a maniac bent on working his way through a whole alphabet of victims, who leaves a railway A.B.C. beside each corpse, open at the name of the place where the murder has been committed.  The one mistake he or she makes is to challenge Poirot to frustrate this alphabetical complex before it reaches Z.  I have condensed the blurb deliberately because in my case the publishers by their prolixity had already done what they entreat the reviewer not to do, and given away the solution.  But the consequences were not nearly as disastrous as they imagined.  This reader’s pleasure was not in the least spoiled by their betrayal; and that I believe to be one of the few irrefutable proofs of a first class detective story.  Provided the garden path is laid out on ingenious enough lines, who minds whether they are led up it by Mrs. Christie or follow it of their own accord to its foregone conclusion?  Allowance had better be made for personal bias, as this particular garden path, although I shall never be allowed to divulge its beauties in print, is one I am especially fond of.  If in doubt, the dust cover should be destroyed before reading, and the rest can safely be left to Mrs. Christie.  Once she starts her beguiling tricks nobody is going to find the solution as easy as ABC.

Spectator (Nicholas Blake, 14th February 1936, 300w): The characters, particularly that of the murderer, are rather too perfunctorily sketched.  Apart from this, one can have nothing but praise for The A.B.C. Murders, which is really a little masterpiece of construction.

Boston Transcript (C.W. Morton, Jr., 15th February 1936, 220w): It seemed to us that the murderer’s characteristics were just a bit too firmly postulated by all concerned, for things to turn as they did, otherwise it’s one of those beautifully put-together Christie yarns with the stamp of the expert, sound taste and intelligence on every page.

Sat R of Lit (15th February 1936, 40w): Agatha Christie at her best, with a really ingenious idea, plenty of action, humour, and expert sleuthing.

Books (Will Cuppy, 16th February 1936, 300w): The slickest baffler we’ve read in months.  It’s Agatha Christie at her best, than which there isn’t anything superior in the mystery racket.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 16th February 1936, 320w): This story is a baffler of the first water, written in Agatha Christie’s best manner.  It seems to us the very best thing she has done, not even excepting Roger Ackroyd.

Chicago Daily Tribune (Mortimer Quick, 28th March 1936, 140w): Poirot and Mrs. Christie are one of those pairs unlikely to let you down.  They annoy at times, but an ever-fertile fancy devises new complications which must not be hinted at or you will guess too much and spoil your fun.

Morning Post: An Agatha Christie triumph.

Bystander (A.G. Macdonell): Vive Hercule Poirot!  He is back again…and I, for one, am thrilled to the marrow bones…the most amazing finale for sheer ingenuity that I have ever come across…  Mrs. Christie has pulled it off yet again.

Sunday Referee: The best thing she has ever written, compact, witty and horribly exciting.

Daily Telegraph (Francis Iles): An entirely original idea.

The Times: Mrs. Christie has invented an entirely new plot for a detective story—a difficult thing in these days; she is to be congratulated on the perfection of her invention.

Bristol Evening Post: Her best yet.  Where does she get hold of these brilliant notions?