Today begins the Golden Age of Detective Fiction Classics Circuit, and I have the honor of beginning the tour with reviews of two mystery novels. See the full schedule to see where the tour goes next.
It is rather ironic that I get to start off this great tour, because after reading my two novels, I’ve decided pretty strongly that I am not a great fan of the mystery novel. Although I enjoyed both of them, I found myself a bit bored, I’m sorry to say.
That said, both novels actually were rather excellent, just not my favorite genre. If you, like me, do not normally read mystery and would like to try one, either Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express or Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers would both be great books to start with, although for different reasons.
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie is a novel that I read when I was younger (maybe age 13 or 14), and I’ve been looking forward to a reread. It was a quick and easy read, and while it feels a little superficial, Hercule Poirot was just a great caricature of a detective. Overall, the murder mystery seemed almost pleasant to read. I never thought I’d put murder mystery and “pleasant” in the same sentences, but there you have it! The victim was not a very likeable person, and Mr. Poirot was such a calm detective solving the mystery that it was amusing to read.
It was not simply that Poirot was a caricature: every person in the novel met some stereotype. The two-page summary “cast of characters” in the beginning of the novel pretty much captures all we learn about most of the passengers on the train, which had been snowbound in the night at the time that a passenger was murdered. The mystery is not one that could be accurately predicted by the reader, I don’t think, simply because there is enough left unsaid that Poirot just happens to observe. (These “conveniences” of detection are one reason I do not normally read mystery; it bothers me that the solution always happens to be something a little bit out of the blue.) But despite the fact that Murder on the Orient Express lacks depth of characters and has a convenient plot, it does not need either of those aspects. It’s a clever and satisfying story.
Strong Poison was my first Dorothy Sayers novel, and since I’d read Christie’s novel first, I was surprised, by contrast, of the depth of characters, the emotional struggles of the characters, and the intrigue surrounding the mystery in this novel. There was also a subtle romance in it, and I liked that (since I’m a romantic).
Lord Peter Wimsey is a complicated man enjoying detection as a hobby. In the first scene, he is watching the end of the trial of Harriet Vane, a mystery writer who is on trial for murder of her former lover. He’s decided both that he loves her and that she is innocent, and thus begins his quest to prove her innocence by finding the true murder. I really liked Lord Peter, mostly because he had a deeper personality than I’d expect (at least, compared to the first mystery novel I’d read). He struggled to appear happy, and Sayers shared some of his complex thought processes. He wasn’t the “whimsical” character he at first appeared to be, and I liked the added dimension. It made the novel feel literary, rather than simply a plotted story. It was a long read (I admit I got bored in places) but with red herrings and realistic motives, it seemed satisfyingly complex.
I also found the beginning scene in the court room to be quite interesting, since Harriet’s character is sullied by the fact that she had been living with the deceased man. The judge discussed this at length, and it apparently influenced the court case, which really surprised me. I had to stop and check when it was written (1930), and it reminded me that life for a single woman has certainly changed a lot in the last 80 years!
In sum, then, Strong Poison was certainly more satisfying as a cohesive novel, full of more complex characters and realistic motives as compared to Murder on the Orient Express. Yet, Orient Express had a great story, and because it was so superficially written, it moved quickly I was actively engaged for the whole read. If you are looking for superficial by wonderfully crafted story, I’d suggest Murder on the Orient Express. If you are looking for something a little more “literary” and deep in terms of writing, character, and plotting, maybe Strong Poison is for you.
I haven’t been converted to detective fiction, and I probably won’t read any more in the foreseeable future, but this was a nice change from my regular reading!
Are you a fan of mysteries? Why or why not?
Have you read Christie or Sayers? Which is your favorite novel by each author?