Easy as ABC

I like Hercule Poirot much more when he has room to spread out. I listened to an audio version of The A.B.C. Murders on my iPod recently, and though I embarked with a little trepidation, I found I enjoyed the story.

I’d guess that Poirot has made most of his appearances in short stories — or at least most of my experience of him has been there — and I guess the constraints of that method had tainted my experience. (Those short stories always seemed to rely on a gimmick, some fact about train timetables or such, that lead to the resolution of the crime. They seemed like stories that were constructed rather than told.)

With the expanse of a novel to fill, Christie made me enjoy her Poirot character and his mannerisms better. There was room for more psychology in the story and characters who were more than mere sketches.

I was surprised to find that I had figured out who the murderer was just as soon as I spotted the motive. I even puzzled out how the murderer had covered his or her tracks once I understood the motive. (Oddly, I’ve read some reviews of the novel made at the time it was published, and they all said that no one will guess the culprit. Was that just book cover blather or did I somehow rise above my usual limitations?)

I guess this was one of Christie’s weaker mysteries (since I can never figure them out before the big reveal). She made an effort to misdirect the reader (or listener) by throwing in a likely suspect as a red herring. This lead to some awkward narrative problems because she had to write a few chapters that were outside the narration by Poirot’s affable sidekick, Captain Hastings.

She also had too many instances of Poirot going over all of the facts as he knew them at given points in the story. I could have done without those, and I suspect they were used to pad the word count.

I realize the role of the sidekick is often to be the foil for the hero, supplying a certain level of stupidity to serve as a magnifier for the hero’s genius. There were one or two places, though, where I thought Hastings’ reactions to Poirot’s behavior didn’t ring true. These men had worked together closely for decades, so when Hastings is startled by some familiar mannerism or statement of the detective, I was a little surprised.

I was also surprised at what may have been an intentional inconsistency in Poirot’s character. He speaks forcefully about the falseness of intuition, at least in the way most people understand it. He defines it more rigorously as the things that you know that you don’t know that you know. This is rational and even scientific in context. Yet he also goes on at length about the good luck that the murderer is experiencing and how his or her luck will soon turn. There is nothing less rational than belief in luck, so I don’t know why Poirot was favoring it unless it was Christie’s attempt to humanize her character.

The A.B.C. Murders is a fairly simple mystery that is wrapped in elegant characterizations, which have always been a strength of British writers.

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