Holiday Book Review: Hercule Poirot’s Christmas

I read this book because it is on “the” list of best Christmas books. Note: there are not that many books on this list. I have read one or two each holiday season since I started this list, and, quite frankly, it has not been full of winners. Yet. There is still hope. Which means, yes, I was not super impressed with Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie. Do I still want to read some other Agatha Christie down the road? Yes. But this one? Eh.

Image from Amazon.com

Maybe it’s because I’ve seen too many murder mystery movies, by which I mean not really that many but enough of the really popular/good ones to understand the genre and therefore know what’s up. As I was reading Christmas, in fact, I found myself wondering about readers who read mysteries and murder mysteries as a genre—as their genre—on a regular basis. I mean, doesn’t it get old? Repetitive? Doesn’t it become too easy to predict? Then again, I read all of Sir Arthur Conan O’Doyle’s Sherlock stories and books and I was still interested. It might be the faults of this particular book (and I’m sure many others) that I am feeling, here. I don’t know. My family often comments/jokes about how I almost always know how a movie is going to end from the opening credits (and sometimes the preview), including the twists. It is the writer in me, and also the deductive reasoner, the ADHD mind that never turns off even for a second. I understand story, so it is admittedly difficult to pull one over on me. I’m sure there are modern mystery writers doing amazing things with the genre (like Gone Girl). (I myself am writing a murder mystery but it is mashed up with YA, coming-of-age, and fantasy, so…)

Hercule Poirot (her-kyool pwah-roh) is the fictional detective cooked up by Agatha Christie in 1922. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas is number eighteen of thirty-three Poirot novels. Poirot is Belgian (Christie is English), where I had assumed he was French. There have been many spin-offs in radio, TV, and movies since he was retired in the seventies. The books were in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes, which was somewhat modeled after Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin. The real-life story of Poirot is remarkably similar to Sherlock, in that Christie tired of Poirot as O’Doyle had. Christie, however, kept writing him without ceasing because that is what the public wanted, and when she finally killed the obnoxious Poirot off, he received an obituary on the front page of The New York Times. Some of the more famous of the Poirot novels include Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile.

True to many Christmas books in series, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas leaves the more usual supporting characters that the Poirot books have for a “special” cast. Poirot is on holiday vaca, hoping to have a quiet time, when, of course, there is a murder nearby. But we don’t begin with Poirot, who many of the readers would already be familiar with. We begin briefly with two strangers on their way to the English countryside and then are ushered into the Lee family, a very wealthy and dysfunctional family. At the head is the really awful human being and now invalid, Simeon Lee. His wife is long-since deceased and he has had four legitimate sons and one legitimate daughter, who has also recently died. Two of the sons have been estranged for twenty years (as had the daughter), one is keeping up face to get his allowance, and one is the devoted eldest who now manages the estate. There is but one granddaughter. There are three daughters-in-law. And all of them have been convinced, in secret by old Simeon, to return to the family estate for a good ol’ fashioned family Christmas. (The book was written in the late ‘30s.) Many of them are suspicious (as they should be) of this, but they all end up there to dig up old griefs and secrets, fight, and wonder which one of them murdered their odd, crotchety, kinda evil father on Christmas Eve.

So did I know the ending from the beginning here? Is that my disappointment with the book? Yes and no and yes and no. I knew some of the how before I got to the end, but I did not know the who. So that’s something. I did feel a tad perturbed because I thought some of the clues were obscured a little by the writing style and also by the translation between an American reader, a British writer and setting, and the “background” of certain characters. And, quite frankly, this plot has been done to death (ha!) by writers and screenwriters since. A cast of crazy, mostly family characters are assembled in a big house (which becomes a character in and of itself and also a receptacle for family history) and someone is murdered. They all have to stay put until the bumbling police and whip-smart detective figure out whodunnit, chasing purposeful rabbit trails and a nasty nest of motives based on family secrets with the butler and other house staff in tow. This isn’t Christie’s fault, but by the time I read it, I felt like I’d rather watch the new sequel to Knives Out (Glass Onion) instead.

Here’s the thing(s). A) It is not Christmassy. The only way the reader really knows it’s Christmastime is primarily the section headings, which give the date, and then also the convo where the police officer says he’s looking forward to a quiet Christmas and maybe a few other mentions that it is Christmas. I was like, where the heck are the decorations? The snow? The traditions? The Christmassy foods? At the end, we see the manor’s storage closet full of the trappings of Christmas, not yet touched, but I don’t quite understand why none of them had come out before Christmas Eve, especially for the sake of the novel and the reader (and the guests!). It does not read at all like a holiday novel. B) There are a lot of people to keep track of, though I think Christie did a pretty good job here straightening out these characters for us. I was dubious, but she did it. However, C) We don’t get into the internal lives of any of the characters. We are very much a casual observer, or maybe like a private eye. Like the Sherlock stories, I would have been much more engaged if I was more engaged with Poirot. And like Knives Out, I would have loved to really sympathize with one of the characters in order to really know some of (or at least one of) these people. Perhaps that is a modern thing, especially for murder mystery. And D) It is strangely sexist in parts, which I suppose we can expect for 1939, even written by a woman. It feels like Christie is trying to imbue her females with strength and skills of their own, but they are often reduced, somehow, despite this. Even without the overt ridiculousness of the men who all throw themselves at the attractive women and largely ignore the less-attractive ones and also the assumptions about the physical strength of women (and the elderly) compared to men, there is something at the back of Christie’s interactions between the men and women that make me want to gag. Again, I’m sure it’s a product of the time, but something about it felt different to me than, say, reading a Victorian novel and understanding the mores and norms but also finding strong and sympathetic characters amidst the more “typical” ones.

I wouldn’t really say don’t read it, especially if you like reading murder mysteries, like reading older books, and are looking for a Christastime read. What you won’t find here is a saccharine Christmas story with a Hallmark moral, cute kids, or elves. Instead, you’ll find a pretty solid and basic 1930s murder mystery classic from a master of the genre using a giant of a character from the genre. It won’t feel particularly Christmassy, but it will feel very familiar as a crime novel, and you will be wondering who the murderer is, how these people fit together, who’s hiding what and why, and all that jazz, sniffing for clues from page one because you, reader, are the detective.

QUOTES:

“People who do not feel amiable are putting great pressure on themselves to appear amiable! There is at Christmas time a great deal of hypocrisy, honourable hypocrisy, hypocrisy undertaken pour le bon motif c’est entendu, but nevertheless hypocrisy!” (p87).

“And what was he going to get for it in the end? What the good boy of the family always gets. A kick in the pants. Take if from me, gentlemen, virtue doesn’t pay” (p117).

“If a human being converses much, it is impossible for him to avoid the truth!” (p148).

Mon cher, everyone lies—in parts like the egg of the English curate. It is profitable to separate the harmless lies from the vital ones” (p148).

“’Well, one never knows with girls! Lie themselves black in the face for the sake of a man.’ / ‘That does credit to their hearts,’ said Hercule Poirot” (p169).

“Justice is a very strange thing. Have you ever reflected on it?” (p169).

MOVIE(S): I watched the one movie based on this book that I could find: the 1994 (movie-length) episode from a British series, Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Well. It’s kinda old and kinda goofy, which you would expect from 1990s television. It also combines four of the characters into two and omits one other main character: in other words, there are supposed to be three more characters/suspects in this story. I think it actually works well, but I missed those characters since I had just read the book. Oh, and one of the characters is replaced by a regular. I forgot. There are changes in the plot, too, most notably in the origin story of Simeon Lee. And the wife/mother’s importance to the story was replaced by another woman, someone who is hinted at in the original. What I really didn’t like was that some of the characters’ personalities were changed. I don’t think the writer/director understood what Christie was going for in some of the big characters, especially Lydia. On the other hand, I almost always enjoy having actors give a face (and a setting) to the story that was being played out in my head. For the movie, too, many things had to be simplified, and the physical resemblances of the family were given much more weight in the movie than their personality similarities and also the web of secrets, lies, and grudges that they had built in reaction to their awful patriarch. Still, if you are interested in watching old murder mysteries, you might enjoy the whole series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot. For me, the sound, the style, all of it took me back to my childhood–not the content of the show, exactly, but the feel of it.

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