By John Goddard

Wimbledon, UK: Stylish Eye Press, 2021. $68.99 ($18.99 paperback)

A little more than two years ago, I reviewed John Goddard’s terrific book Agatha Christie’s Golden Age: An Analysis of Poirot’s Golden Age Puzzles (2018). It’s a fantastic, thoughtful analysis of the Hercule Poirot novels from Christie’s debut of 1920, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, through World War II. Now, in the second volume of what will likely be a trilogy, Goddard covers Christie’s novels from that era that do not feature Poirot. (The anticipated final volume, currently titled Agatha Christie’s Modern Age, will likely cover all of Christie’s remaining crime novels, unless there’s a change of plans.)

As with the first volume, this book is full of spoilers, and chapters should only be read if one is familiar with the novel in question. This is therefore a seminal work for Christie fans, but, as I noted in my earlier review, it should also be a textbook for aspiring crime writers who seek to learn how to polish plots and arrange clever clues in order to create effective fair play mysteries. All too often, when reading books by less skillful writers or watching sloppy adaptations of Christie’s work, it’s blatantly obvious that the authors or screenwriters simply don’t grasp the basics of structuring a well-crafted mystery. It’s analogous to a surgeon who gained knowledge of the human body from Pablo Picasso’s paintings rather than Gray’s Anatomy. Goddard’s work is a welcome antidote to sloppy understandings of mystery craftsmanship.

The book concisely summarizes each novel, explains the solution, and then lists and evaluates the clueing and plotting. Goddard’s work shows keen attention to the mysteries, close reading of seeming throwaways that are actually filled with critical clues, and a fair scrutiny of potential plot holes. (Goddard’s skepticism over whether or not a key can be turned in an old-fashioned lock from the other side with pincers is understandable, but I can assure readers through personal experimentation that such a method of locking and unlocking is completely plausible and easy, given the right kind of lock and the appropriate tool.)

The early Miss Marple novels—The Murder at the Vicarage (1930), The Body in the Library (1942), and The Moving Finger (1943)—are included, as are the first two Tommy and Tuppence tales (from 1922 and 1941), the early “thrillers” (which are less tightly plotted and clued), and the nonseries mysteries such as Murder Is Easy (1939), And Then There Were None (1939), and Towards Zero (1944). Goddard’s analyses of And Then There Were None and Towards Zero are particularly good, as he perceives how carefully Christie set up misdirection and simultaneously obscured the identities of her killers while marking a clear path for the discerning reader to identify the villains.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that I have corresponded with Goddard in the past, and he has included in this book’s endnotes my information about some late-twentieth-century U.S. editions of Towards Zero missing a closing line whose absence adds an unnerving note to the final conversation between two characters.

Goddard’s work is highly recommended for Christie fans and scholars of classic mysteries.

Chris Chan