I know we have the same conversation every time some new contemporary author is compared to Agatha Christie but it’s the kind of thing that bears repeating. Modern readers really underestimate her skills. It seems as though all you need to do these days to be compared to her is either mention her/her books or write a small scale crime thriller. By small scale, I mean not one of these overly dark, psychological thrillers but more of a slow burner that revolves around a domestic or small setting. Here’s the thing: Agatha Christie knew what she was doing. She understood people, she understood motivation, and she understood murder. She had the ability to shock and she knew exactly what her readers wanted. Her books are light on detail and character study because they don’t need it. They do what they set out to do. She wasn’t an indulgent writer because she understood how to craft the perfect whodunnit. She didn’t need gimmicks or excess plot to distract her readers. She hid everything in plain sight. Something writers these days tend to struggle with.
Can we all come to some sort of agreement, please? That we stop comparing contemporary crime thrillers to Agatha Christie? I know that she still has a reputation as a cosy crime writer but Christie is the type of writer that very few can live up to. She has a deep understanding of human behaviour and knows how to mislead her readers convincingly. I blame her writing for the fact that I so often guess book twists. She, and to some extent Arthur Conan Doyle, has trained me to start thinking too critically about everything I read. I’m always disappointed by modern crime books. Especially those super hyped ones that everyone loves. Like The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley. I’ve heard so many people praising it but I was not blown away. I’d guessed who the victim was from the start and it was super obvious who had killed them. So, I hadn’t intended to read her follow-up The Guest List. Until the ebook was on offer. It might not be a great read but at least it would dull the boredom for a while.
If you were to ask me which Agatha Christie novel is my favourite, I would give you one of two answers. The first answer, and the real one, would be And Then There Were None. It’s an obvious choice but it’s the right one. It is the best book she ever wrote and is one of the best-crafted thrillers ever written. The twist has to be one of the best in literary history. It still gets me no matter how many times I reread it. Not in the sense that I forget but in the sense that I can’t see it coming. Her red herrings are perfect. It makes so much sense but it almost comes out of nowhere. So, yeah, that’s my real answer. However, I might also tell you that it’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Partly because the Indie Kid in me likes to be different and pretty much everyone says And Then There Were None. The other reason? Roger Ackroyd was iconic. It was groundbreaking. It was the first novel to do what it did. The twist might be a cliche now but you have to respect the book that started the trend.
Once again, I got cocky with my reading. I posted my review of My Sister, The Serial Killer on Monday thinking that I’d have no trouble finishing the book that I was currently reading. Cut to tonight and I’m madly trying to finish this novel so I can get this post written. I’m not sure why I picked up this book. It’s a YA crime thriller and I don’t exactly have a great history with them. I’m still haunted by One Of Us Is Lying and it’s been ages. But I found a copy of this for £3.99 and I was feeling reckless. What could go wrong? I guess it also spoke to me on a personal level. For my A-Level history coursework, I had set out to try and solve the murder of Thomas Becket. Yep, 17-year-old me had decided that I had what it took to decide who, other than the king, had organised the murder the Archbishop of Canterbury. I was an idiot and quickly realised that it was a stupid idea. I still wrote about it but in a much more vague and analytical way. It wasn’t my best work. I’m not a great historian. But, I at least had a connection to the main character in this book. Even though she would surely succeed where I failed.
My last read was one of the books I bought in my post-Endgame book trip. I had needed something to cheer me up and nothing cheers me up quite like looking at books. I’d been attracted to this cover for ages because I’m a sucker for anything yellow these days. But I had also been wanting to pick this up for a while. I’ve seen it around quite a bit and heard good things about it. So many people bring up Agatha Christie when talking about it that I felt I had to give it a try. I’ve been a Christie fan for years and admit that she is one of the few crime writers I never get bored of. I’ve never been a big crime fiction reader. I always find them underwhelming. The twists are too obvious and I guess them from the start. I know it’s probably not in the spirit of the book but if it’s staring me right in the face what am I meant to do? Maybe there just are no crimes to write about anymore? Has every possible murder been committed in literature? I kind of feel like it has because I get such a sense of deja vu whenever I read the next big crime novel. But, that also doesn’t stop me trying so I’ve got nobody to blame but myself.
Let’s look back to the end of 2017 when I foolishly decided that I would reread Murder on the Orient Express before I watched Kenneth Branagh’s film adaptation. Unfortunately, I started reading Autumn by Ali Smith and it took me all fucking month to get through it. So, I decided that this was the year when I would finally do it. And, today, nearly a whole month later, I closed the final page. I should just realise that December isn’t my reading month but, if I start doing that, I’d then have to admit that no month is my reading month. It’s why I can’t ever set myself a reading challenge unless it’s read 1 book. But, let’s not get too bogged down with 2019. We’re still in 2018 and, unless I miraculously gain the ability to read super quickly, this will be the last book I finish this year. So, let’s make this review a good ‘un.
Dear One Of Us Is Lying,
It’s books like you that make me say things like “I don’t like YA books. They’re all shit.” What I mean is, I don’t like shit YA books. Books like you. Books that, somehow, manage to get a load of hype around them even though they don’t deserve the attention. And what’s worse… you had the audacity to create a link between yourself and The Breakfast Club. As if you had what it takes to rub shoulders with pop culture royalty. As if you had any right to share in its flawless reputation. All you were doing was desperately trying to pass off its acclaim as your own. Because you knew you didn’t deserve to get any of your own.
I’ve read a fair share of crime thrillers in my time and, even if I do say so myself, have become pretty good at spotting who the killer is. I can, usually, see a big twist coming a fair few pages before it happens. Do you want to know when I spotted your twist ending coming? The first paragraph. I’m not even joking. On the very first page the killer, literally, announces his plans in front of another character. It’s so blatantly obvious that it’s not just annoying but insulting to your audience. You clearly think your readers are so fucking stupid that they’ll spend the next few pages really confused.
But you aren’t just guilty of bad writing. Oh no, you’re guilty of lazy writing. You don’t feature a well-crafted narrative that twists and turns its way to the end. Nope. You are chock full of YA stereotypes that have been done so much better elsewhere. The jock who is secretly gay but too afraid to come out? Seen it a thousand times. Do you really think you added to the debate? I don’t. It added nothing to the character and didn’t even feature an empowering ending. It was just an easy way to give a character depth. But you stopped there. Aside from their basic traits, your main characters have no personality. There is nothing interesting or realistic about any of them. They have even less depth than a supporting character in a romantic-comedy. I know fuck all about any of them.
You couldn’t be bothered to create realistic teenage characters or a realistic situation. You used real life issues and used them badly. You didn’t add any new insight into the narrative of suicide, homosexuality, or abusive relationships. Yet, you constantly used them as easy ways to progress your narrative. You carelessly throw these ideas around without any kind of care or attention. Yes, you are badly written, boring, obvious and lazy. But what is worse is that you don’t give a shit about your audience. You are potentially damaging. You are potentially triggering a whole bunch of your audience for cheap shocks and cheap emotional pull. It’s pathetic. You’re pathetic. You’re the worst book I’ve ever read… and I’ve read a lot of shit in my time.
Some [books] are too toxic to live
Dear Sherlock Holmes,
Back in 2012, you were awarded the Guinness World Record for the most portrayed literary human. According to the GWR people you have been depicted in film and television 254 times, What an achievement. Especially considering your own author was so sick of you that he killed you off in cold blood. But as we all know, you have always been a fan favourite and they campaigned to bring you back from the dead. And now, apparently, we still can’t get rid of you.
Now, I’m not trying to suggest this is a bad thing. I’m a big fan of your books and enjoy Benedict Cumberbatch’s face enough to watch the BBC adaptation. I get why the books have last as long as they have. Arthur Conan Doyle tackles each mystery with the same medical practicality that he would a patient’s ailment. He has written some clever, memorable, and exciting crime books. They aren’t exactly dark or, indeed, very taxing to read. They aren’t all that difficult to fathom in the end. But they are incredibly put together and you can all the pieces coming to place as you turn the page.
There is a great sense of nostalgia and British-ness within these stories too. It’s something that makes it so comforting to read. They totally encapsulate the period in which they were written. The stories set in London are such wonderful representations of society at the time. The characters all feeling real. You tell us so much more about the time in which you were written than you really do about your main characters. And that’s, really, how it should be. You represented the fear at the time for the growing population in London as it became the fastest growing city in the world (I think but don’t quote me on it). You’re well worth a read.
But, I don’t get what’s happening to you, Sherlock. You’ve always been a great detective who can pick up on subtle social cues to find out things about people. You’ve always seen things most people don’t. And you’ve always had amazing skills when it comes to disguise, weaponry, and self-defence. However, you’re an arsehole. A genuine, honest to goodness arse. But you’ve become a Hollywood hero. Women on Tumblr are obsessed with you. They want to try to change you. You’re up there with Mr Rochester and Heathcliff for most absurd literary crush. It’s all Steven fucking Moffat’s fault, of course. In updating you for modern-day you had to become someone capable of falling in love. Capable of feeling real feelings. It’s ruined you.
And, the worst part is, you’d mostly hate it. You did have feelings in the books but it happened so rarely. Rare glimpses of care and sympathy. The rest of the time you were just a brain. But not anymore. Now you’re a dynamic and sexy hero. A sexy hero that you either want to be or want to be with. The whole franchise has gone a bit insane and I can’t imagine what Arthur Conan Doyle would think. He hated you enough before so what the hell would he think about you now?
The problem with you being portrayed so many times is that each new time there has to be something unique. Something that makes you stand out from the rest. And with every subsequent adaptation we move a little further away from who you were. For proof, just look at this awful obsession people have about you and Irene Adler. Why is everyone so keen to make people fall in love? You met her once. She was in one short story. But suddenly, thanks to Steven fucking Moffat, she has become the love of your life. It’s so frustrating. I enjoy Sherlock as much as the next person but I don’t like it as a fan of the books. I like it in spite of being a fan of the books.
The distinction is clear,
Dear Agatha Christie,
I admit that I probably took a bit of time actually getting around to reading your books. There were so many times that I’d heard them dismissed as “cosy crime” that I thought they were beneath me. They definitely sounded like the kind of thing that I, a super serious and embarrassingly pretentious literature student, shouldn’t be reading. I was, to put it mildly, an idiot. I cared so much about the image I was portraying that I stopped reading for enjoyment. When I remembered that was the main aim I was able to see what I’d been missing. I’ve had lots of enjoyable reading experiences over the years but none compare to your novels. Even now, when I reread books I know the ending to, I still find myself utterly engrossed in your plots. Still convinced that the ending I know is coming will never happen. I was a fool to dismiss you. But, in my defence, it’s not like I’m alone. So many people see you in a nostalgic light. As something silly and old that takes them back. You’ve essentially been categorised as an old friend, which you are, but it’s not the end of the story.
The thing is, you aren’t just “cosy crime”. I mean you are when compared to the identical examples of psychological thrillers that are being churned out every few months. Books like Gone Girl and Girl on a Train. The ones that need to rely on unnecessary violence and supremely grim ‘reality’ because it’s all they have. The truth is, for all the sexual violence and pseudo-psychology of these books, I hated them. They bored me. They weren’t well written and they were super obvious. I could tell from the first few chapters of Girl on a Train who the killer was and I stopped reading Gone Girl because it was blatantly obvious where Gillian Flynn was going with it. These books are all style and no substance… but they have that high fashion thing that nobody in the real-world really likes but has to accept because they don’t get it.
You’re books are the real deal. To dismiss them as “cosy” is the biggest injustice of all time. To refer to them as casual reading that you do between heavy reads is an insult. You didn’t write to shock your audience or to make headlines. You didn’t need to be the next big sensation. You wrote for real readers. Readers who don’t need thoughtless melodrama to excite them. You wrote well-plotted stories about characters that seem realistic. You had such a sense of people. That’s the reason your books have lasted. You understand the importance of the plot and what drives the plot. At the heart of every one of your murder mysteries is the one piece that moves everything else forward: the body. Once that’s in place, you have all the pieces you need to explore all aspects of humanity. To dig deep into the effect that evil has on the world. To question why people would commit murder. There’s a lot of depth people often refuse to see.
And yes, you also happen to have written some of the most exciting and shocking plot twists of all time. I remember the first times I read The Murder of Roger Aykroyd and And Then There Were None. I was genuinely shocked by the twists. I pride myself on being able to figure out where mystery writers are going with their plots but, more often than not, you stump me. You’re so detail focused that the reader becomes embroiled in the mystery. They don’t have a choice but to take on the role of detective and solve the crime too. Some of your endings were groundbreaking and still haven’t been surpassed to this day. Roger Aykroyd changed literature for fuck’s sake. It’s changed my view of you and of the genre.
You have written some of the most deceptive plots in all of literary history but the biggest piece of deception you are guilty of is your own writing. You manage to create books that can be enjoyed by people of various ages. They are simple enough for a younger reader whilst still with enough depth for a seasoned one. You skirt on the edge of darkness and evil without every firmly planting yourself in it. These are books that are so easily dismissed as childish and simplistic. But there is so much hidden away beneath the surface. You just need to engage you little grey cells to see it.
Very few of us are what we seem.