What to Read Next (No. 149): more Agatha Christie // interview with Bob Drury

Got my bookshelves re-organized after getting new carpet and donating about 500(!) books to our local library. Presidents on the left; other bio/history in the middle; everything else on the right; collector stuff up top.

This week I’m digging a little deeper into Agatha Christie; our book club met last week and largely enjoyed our reading of one of her more well-known novels. I also thoroughly enjoyed the chance to ask Bob Drury some questions about his favorite reads. I added lots of books to my list.

More Agatha Christie

A few weeks ago I wrote a bit about Agatha Christie without getting too much into the books themselves. Let’s do just that, so you know where to dive in should you be interested. Here’s what I’ve read of hers in the last month or so:

The Mysterious Affair at Styles (Hercule Poirot #1)

One hundred years ago this fall, Agatha’s first published novel introduced her most famous detective, Hercule Poirot. Poirot is a Belgian refugee of WWI — a former police detective — who winds up in the same town that Capt. Arthur Hastings is recuperating in. In the affair at the Styles estate, Christie introduces a number of themes that the reader will find throughout her work: there’s a murder fairly early on, the cast of characters and possible criminals is fairly small and tight-knit, there’s a focus on motive and psychology as the mustachioed Belgian does his work, and of course the grand reveal at the end lays out what happened step-by-step, with some guaranteed twists along the way.

While not the best developed of Christie’s plots, the characters — though understandably not as polished as they will be in later novels — are nearly instantly likable and the book serves as the perfect introduction to her canon and style.

Peril at End House (Hercule Poirot #8)

Poirot and Hastings are vacationing when they stumble across young Magdala “Nick” Buckley, who reveals she’s survived a few death-defying accidents in the previous days. Poirot’s spidey sense goes off and he quickly comes to find that those accidents weren’t so accidental. Someone wants to off Nick.

Will Poirot be able to follow the clues in time? It’s a fight against the clock that includes inheritances, explorers, and inevitably in a murder mystery, tragedy. Christie delivers an ingenious plot in a tightly written and marvelous novel. This was the first Agatha I read and was hooked right away.

Death on the Nile (Hercule Poirot #17)

Death on the Nile, along with Murder on the Orient Express, are probably Christie’s best known mysteries. Our book club’s November pick was enjoyed by all, even if the plot takes some slightly ridiculous turns. Poirot — without Hastings this time — goes on an opulent cruise down the Nile (which made everyone in our club want to travel…) and, as usual, ends up in the right place at the right time to investigate a murder. The boat setting for a murder mystery is always fun, as there’s not only a limited cast of characters, but no obvious escape routes either. The murderer is on the boat.

This novel is a little different from other Poirot tales in that there’s a long list of characters (and possible culprits) and there’s far more backstory than usual. The climactic crime doesn’t happen until about halfway through. I liked Death on the Nile well enough, but wouldn’t recommend it as your first Christie novel to wade into.

Five Little Pigs (Hercule Poirot #23)

In one of Christie’s most unique tales, Poirot takes on a case from 16 years in the past. In some editions, this one was actually titled Murder in Retrospect, which tells you a little bit about the style here. Again working alone and at the behest of a young truth-seeking woman, Poirot looks to find out what really happened with a case of inter-family poisoning. Interviewing the major players and suspects (except the one who died shortly after the murder…), Hercule works to piece together not only the facts of the case but the varying 16-year-old memories of what happened.

Five Little Pigs seems to be a favorite of a lot of Christie devotees, and I can certainly see why. It’s Poirot, and Agatha of course, at their very best and the format is absolutely unique among all the detective novels I’ve read. Superb.

The Murder at the Vicarage (Miss Marple #1)

Poirot isn’t Agatha’s only famous detective: Miss Marple stars in her own series of 12 novels. Not the globe-trotter that Poirot is, Miss Marple’s mysteries tend to take place closer to her sleepy English village.

In this introduction to Marple, there’s been a murder at the vicarage (i.e., parsonage), and the Bishop is on record saying he wanted the victim dead. As with all of Christie’s novels, the real conclusion isn’t so neat and tidy. This tale of full of false confessions, dastardly deeds, and an old gossip who proves she’s one smart cookie. This one started a little slow for me, but gained steam in the second half.

A Few Bookish Questions With Bob Drury

Bob is one of my favorite history writers in the biz right now. (Though not mentioned below, Lucky 666 might be my favorite.) He has a new book coming in the spring that you’ll definitely hear about then. In the meantime, here’s some of his favorite reads:

1. You write history books across a wide range of eras, which may strike some readers as unusual. Many of your peers concentrate on an era or even a single person. How do you find the stories you feature in your books?

My longtime co-author Tom Clavin and I have what you might call an ... eclectic method of sussing out our book subjects — we wing it.

I'll give you an example: After finding success with several "ordinary men rise to extraordinary circumstances during war" narratives — Halsey's Typhoon, The Last Stand of Fox Company, Last Men Out — we took to dinner a Marine Corps historian at Quantico who had really helped us with the latter two books. Over after-dinner drinks he asked us if we'd ever heard of the only American Indian to ever win a war against the United States. At first we were taken aback. What was he talking about? There was Pontiac and Little Turtle and Tecumseh and Sitting Bull and Geronimo ...

He eyed us with some mischief. "I said a war, not a battle." And it was that comment that led to The Heart of Everything That Is, our best-seller about the Sioux warrior Red Cloud.

Similarly, our Valley Forge began its existence with a cursory look into how little most Americans know about the huge role the French, and particularly the Marquis de Lafayette, played in the American Revolution. But when we started really digging into the horrid conditions of the Continental Army's winter camp of  1777-1778 — Lafayette was there by George Washington's side the entire time — we realized how little most Americans, including us, really know about those iconic seven months. We kind of looked at each other and said, "Yup, there's a book there."  

2. Are there writers or books that have particularly shaped how you view history, and/or how you write history?

I guess here's where I owe a shout-out to peers such as Hampton Sides, Peter Cozzens, Sam Gwynne, and ... well, too many more to name whose substance and styles will always  influence me. Back when I was a newspaperman and then a magazine foreign correspondent — thank God I no longer have to run away from people shooting at me — I always admired war chroniclers from William Shirer to Tim O'Brien to Phillip Caputo. I was so jealous of they way they expanded their stories to twenty times the length that even the most generous magazine editors would allow me. It made me want to do the same.

[Couple notes from Jeremy: Sides’ On Desperate Ground was one of my favorite reads of 2019; I also love Gwynne’s writing and interviewed him a couple months back.]

3. Given your job, I imagine you mostly read history, and a lot of primary sources. What do you read to get away from that? Do you have any escapist or comfort reads?

I just turned to look over my shoulder at a book case whose shelves are piled high with Irish literature (Edna O'Brien), Irish poetry (Seamus Heaney), Irish reporting (Pete Hamill), and even Irish escapism (Morgan Llewellyn). I also have the softest spot for mid-Twentieth Century European noir; you know, the night train from Istanbul to Paris filled with French Resistance Fighters, Gestapo assassins, burnt-out Spanish Civil War veterans, and British spies all circling each other. Alan Furst just does that stuff so well, and when Philip Kerr passed (much too early) two years ago, I was devastated that the Berlin Murder Squad Detective Bernie Gunther died with him. 

4. Favorite books? Are there any you find yourself recommending or thinking about over and over again?

Can't go wrong with Graham Greene's The Quiet American; I re-read it every couple of years to remind myself that the more things change ... same with Beryl Markham's West With the Night; it just grabs me. My tastes also run to just about anything from Hemingway or Jack London. Funnily enough, I used to feel the same about Hunter Thompson, but I'm now finding that one of us — either he or me — isn't aging well.

5. What are you reading and enjoying right now? What's next on your list?

Hoo boy, you mean aside from the nine-foot pile of research for the next Drury/Clavin opus? I just finished Harvey Araton's Our Last Season and it was lyrical. I'm re-reading Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man (perhaps four years too late). A friend whose taste in books I really respect strongly advises that Volker Kutscher's Babylon Berlin — Book 1 of Kutscher's Gereon Rath series — will fill the hole left by Philip Kerr's departure. And just this week I called my local bookstore and ordered Ian McGuire's The Abstainer based solely on Roddy Doyle's NY Times review.

That’s all for me this week! I really hope you all have a good Thanksgiving, and thanks so much for the time and inbox space.