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Crooked House by Agatha Christie Unknown Binding – July 12, 2009
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“Crooked House” take place in the English countryside shortly after World War II. A wealthy octogenarian businessman dies as a result of someone switching some eye drops for his insulin shortly before he received his daily injection. The man had a second wife some 50 years his junior, who quickly becomes the prime suspect, along with her boyfriend, and he also had a bunch of other relatives who all conveniently lived in the same house with him and who all possibly had financial and other motives to wish his demise sooner rather than later. Further, everyone in the house knew about and had access to the victim’s medications and that switching them could be fatal.
Despite Christie’s love for the book, “Crooked House” isn’t nearly as well known as many of her works, such as “Murder on the Orient Express.” The reason for this relative obscurity may well be that “Crooked House” does not feature either of Christie’s two famous detectives, Hercule Poirot or Miss Jane Marple. Instead, the narrator is Charles Hayward a diplomat who spent the war overseas and has just rekindled his romance with Sophia, the granddaughter of the dead businessman. Because Hayward’s father is a police officer, he is asked to stay at the house for a while and talk to the various witnesses in hopes of finding a clue.
Unlike many Christie novels, the solution to “Crooked House” does not depend on unraveling a lot of tiny bits of physical evidence to determine that Colonel Mustard was the only person who had access to the conservatory at the right moment. Instead, the clues are primarily psychological, and figuring out the killer requires figuring out which of the suspects has the temperament of a killer since pretty much everybody could have easily done it. Fortunately, Charles has one or two good scenes with each suspect, so he can make observations as to their guilty behavior or lack thereof.
With the clues primarily being psychological, “Crooked House” resembles one of those optical illusions that is impossible to spot unless you happen to look at it in just the right way. A number of people do figure out the killer’s identity, as judged by the reviews, while others it near impossible. No matter how adept the reader is, one thing is sure; like “Orient Express,” once readers finish “Crooked House,” it’s one they are almost sure to remember.
My admiration for the puzzle in “Crooked House” is tempered a bit by the book’s shortcomings as a novel. Charles is the epitome of the dull narrator—no exercising the little gray cells here—and his romance with Sophia, which other writers might take advantage to ratchet up the suspense is curiously tepid. The only function Charles serves is to provide the narration and give the suspects a shoulder to cry upon. And, although the characters are a bit quirky, readers never lose sight of the fact that “Crooked House” is essentially a book-length puzzle with characters that are given only as much development as needed to support the storyline.
“Crooked House” may only be a puzzle, but it’s a very good one, and one that readers will remember. Having read a number of Christie books over the years, I disagree with the author’s assessment that it’s the best of her work, but it’s still an enjoyable read for mystery fans.
The beginning tells how Charles Hayward met Sophia Leonides in war-time Egypt. When Charles returned to England to meet Sophia he read the notice of her grandfather Aristide's death. Sophia tells him her grandfather's death is suspicious. Charles' father is Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, and he learns of the facts in this case. Three Gables is a large home composed of three separate houses. Bombing had brought the family together. Inspector Taverner questions the family, and we learn about the events and their character (Chapter 7). Then about the young widow and the private tutor (Chapter 8). Charles talks to the widow Brenda Leonides and we hear her story (Chapter 9). Sophia explains her grandfather's cleverness. We meet Josephine, Sophia's young sister, who likes detective stories. Aristide's will was found unsigned! Next we learn that the family business is in difficulty, due to the error of mismanagement, nothing criminal. The death of Aristide prevented him from saving his son Roger (Chapter 11).
Sir Arthur Hayward gives his opinion on amateur murderers: they are vain and want to talk. What about heredity and additive weaknesses (Chapter 12)? Why did Aristide provide a blueprint for his murder? Charles attends a family meeting; nothing will be done to save Roger's business (Chapter 14). Charles looks around, and talks to Laurence Brown and the young widow (Chapter 16). The missing will is found, and it has a shocking surprise (Chapter 17). But another person is hurt, it is no accident (Chapter 18), Incriminating documents are found (Chapter 19). Aristide's will creates the usual turmoil when the heirs don't share equally (Chapter 20). The police arrest the obvious suspects (Chapter 21). Yet there is some doubt by the family - and the police. Charles discusses his observations of the family. Then an urgent telephone call has shocking news: another poisoning (Chapter 23). The final chapters have the ending to this story. It would be shocking if you did not pick up on the clues appearing near the end. The murderer was hidden in plain sight, like a sapling among trees. Like other stories, it is very intriguing even if implausible.
The final irony is that Charles Hayward will join the Diplomatic Corps and be sent to Persia. He will surely miss the peace and quiet of Swinly Dean.