Wednesday, June 7, 2023

The Murder on the Links (1923) by Agatha Christie

I’ve found that it’s easy to forget about an author’s early works. Often, they are seen as inferior 

compared to later, more polished works. In the case of authors like Agatha Christie, who shuffled genres and produced what is to my understanding some subpar works in her early career, it’s even easier to overlook their early stuff, especially if there isn’t an obvious hook for the reader. The Murder on the Links went under my radar for years, but after really enjoying The Mysterious Affair at Styles, I decided to give this a shot. Does it actually deserve to be forgotten?

The book opens with Hastings meeting a mysterious young woman who charms him instantly. Thankfully for those fearful of a romance plot, the romance is mostly handled well, and “Cinderella” (as she calls herself), is fun to watch in action. The meat of the story begins later, when Poirot receives a letter from millionaire Paul Renauld, claiming that his life is in danger. Intrigued, Poirot goes off to France…only to learn that his client was stabbed to death the night before, his body dumped in a shallow grave on his unfinished golf course. The victim’s wife tells a story straight out of a sensation novel: two masked men barged into her and her husband’s bedroom in the night, threatening him with a knife and demanding he give them “the secret” before escorting him off into the night. A broken watch that’s two hours fast, a piece of lead piping, and (the lack of) footprints in a flower bed are just some of the many clues that Poirot has to interpret.

Links is more focused on the puzzle than later Christie novels. Clues fly thick and fast, and only a very attentive reader will be able to piece together the truth. I'd say it's possible, but you do have to be paying close attention. Also, this time Poirot has competition in the form of Giraud, a French detective who elevates physical evidence above all. Of course, Poirot insists that the physical clues don’t matter nearly as much as the “true psychology of the case.” Frankly, I didn’t find the competition between the two very impressive because Giraud is so off-base from the start. Sure, I know that Poirot will win, but I’d like a little more back-and-forth.

As I said, the mystery is quite complex. This leads to more of a focus on that than on the characters. They’re all very generic. There’s the victim’s wife, his son (who made the murder weapon and quarreled with him the night of the murder), and the secretary. There’s also M. Daubreuil, “the girl with the anxious eyes” who is in love with the victim’s son, and her mother, a strange woman who Poirot cannot place, but he has the distinct impression that she was involved in a murder case…

I admit, I had to read this book twice. I did not read it the first time in the best mindset, and the book mostly didn’t stick well in my head, and what did stick I found disappointing. This is Christie showing her technical complexity. She gives a very well-worked out mystery, but it doesn’t stick well in the reader’s head. My second read-through went much better; the plot gelled together and felt more coherent. That being said, I do have a couple of major issues with it. (ROT13: Svefg, gurer’f ab jnl guvf cyna jbhyq unir sbbyrq jub vg jnf zrnag gb sbby. Lrf, Puevfgvr qbrf frg vg hc ol fnlvat gung “Zna vf na habevtvany navzny,” naq gung ur’yy pbcl jung ur'f nyernql qbar, ohg gurer’f n qvssrerapr orgjrra “Ercrngvat gur fnzr orngf sebz n cerivbhf, fhpprffshy pevzr,” naq “Ercrngvat nyzbfg gur fnzr cyna lbh pbbxrq hc jvgu na nppbzcyvpr naq rkcrpgvat vg gb sbby fnvq nppbzcyvpr.” Frpbaq, gur zheqre uvatrf ba gjb crbcyr qvfphffvat gurve snxr zheqre cynaf va gur bcra, arkg gb gurve arvtuobe’f lneq.)

Hastings is not on good form here. I admit, I like Hastings more than most; him rolling his eyes at Poirot’s latest boast makes the great detective much more tolerable. But this book justifies the complaints that people have against him; he makes mistake after mistake, seems to have forgotten every other case he’s seen Poirot solve (which, okay, aren't many at this point, but it should be clear to him that Poirot knows what he’s doing), and makes such a gaping error near the end that Poirot himself is dumbfounded.

Despite my complaints, I ended up enjoying this book in the end. It’s a breezy, fun, and complex murder mystery that might slip under the radar of Christie fans. I would still label this a B-tier Christie, but definitely upper B-tier. Recommended.

Other Reviews: In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, Mysteries Ahoy! The Green Capsule, Countdown John's Christie JournalAhSweetMysteryBlog (contains spoilers), crossexaminingcrime (contains spoilers)

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