In 2013, when I was first asked by Agatha Christie’s family to write a new Hercule Poirot mystery (I have since written three more), I decided I needed to set myself the incredibly enjoyable homework of rereading all her books – not only the famous titles that are talked about all the time, but also the ones that don’t get mentioned so often, some of which are wonderfully enjoyable and memorable, and deserve more attention.
Everyone already knows that Christie is the unsurpassable godmother of crime fiction, whose twists have not been bettered in 100 years, and whose plotting acumen is legendary, and most of us are familiar with the Christie novels that make all the best-of lists: Murder on the Orient Express and And Then There Were None are usually the frontrunners, with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Death on the Nile following close behind.
All of these novels are brilliant, of course, and sales figures show that they are undeniably Christie’s most popular books. However, I have a theory: if everyone would read (or reread) the entire Christie oeuvre and give each novel a fair chance, irrespective of its fame and reputation, I suspect that they would discover, as I did, some unfairly neglected and underrated gems. Such as …
1. The Big Four
This novel, in which Poirot and his best friend Captain Hastings become embroiled in international intrigue as they race to stop four super-baddies in their quest for world domination, doesn’t sound like standard Christie and it isn’t. And although it is much maligned for its melodrama and implausibility, it is nevertheless hugely entertaining and full of joie de vivre. Also, this book contains one of the best portrayals of the relationship between Poirot and Hastings, whose affection for one another is tangible throughout.
2. Death Comes As the End
The trouble starts in this Ancient Egyptian mystery when a priest moves his mistress into the family home. She is soon found dead at the bottom of a cliff, and the priest’s daughter suspects foul play. The brilliant podcast All About Agatha gave this novel a very low rating, and I don’t quite understand why. It’s a gripping story, elegantly told, with a strong, likable main character, intriguing family dynamics and some excellent and subtle misleading of the reader: one very visible but inexplicable detail snags in the reader’s brain but remains baffling right up until the wonderfully simple solution is revealed.
3. By the Pricking of My Thumbs
A visit to an elderly aunt in a nursing home sets Tommy and Tuppence Beresford off on an investigation involving black magic and strange disappearances. Tommy and Tuppence might not be Christie’s most famous or popular detectives, but I love them, and this novel has one of the best and most creepy openings I’ve ever been hooked by – an elderly resident of the nursing home unexpectedly asks Tuppence: “Was it your poor child? There behind the fireplace?” What follows is an irresistible, and highly suspenseful, adventure that is a joy to read. I also strongly identify with Tuppence – we both enthusiastically pursue real-life mystery investigation against our more sensible husbands’ advice.
4. The Pale Horse
A Catholic priest is murdered after hearing a dying woman’s confession, and the disturbing events that follow take protagonist Mark Easterbrook to a village that might or might not contain witches and spells that cause death. This is a standalone novel unadorned by a beloved Christie detective, and it’s absolutely wonderful on all fronts. The atmosphere of supernatural nefariousness is strong, but there’s also plenty of the usual human bad behaviour that Christie wrote about so well. The clues fall neatly into place as the plot unravels to provide a very different picture from the one we first saw.
5. The Unexpected Guest
Seeking help at an isolated house after a car accident in the fog, Michael Starkwedder stumbles on a murder and decides to help the killer to cover up the crime. This is a novelisation by Charles Osborne of a Christie play, and I’m including both the novel and the play in my praise here. Christie at her best does high concept better than anyone, and both book and play are based on one of the cleverest ideas I can imagine a writer coming up with, an absolute stroke of genius that both Christie and Osborne handle so well.
6. At Bertram’s Hotel
Miss Marple doesn’t expect to find that the well-to-do Bertram’s hotel is a nest of shady and criminal goings-on, and her holiday in London is greatly enhanced by the cast of eccentric characters she meets there. The plot of this novel belongs more to the thriller than to the mystery genre, and though I personally prefer a traditional mystery puzzle, the lovingly detailed descriptions of the hotel and what it means to Miss Marple make this a wonderful read and a perceptive character study.
7. Halloween Party
Teenager Joyce is found drowned in an apple-bobbing tub just hours after the Halloween party during which she confessed to having witnessed a murder. This novel includes one of my favourite minor Christie characters – mystery writer and friend to Poirot, Ariadne Oliver, a character who, Christie claimed, was created with “a strong dash” of herself added to the mix. Poirot and Oliver are on fine form as they work together to solve the mystery, and I was completely fooled. This novel contains the very best kind of clue: one that seems obvious and unmissable only once the solution has been revealed.
8. Murder in Mesopotamia
On an assignment at an archaeological dig in the Iraqi desert, Nurse Amy Leatheran needs Poirot’s help when her troubled patient is found murdered. This novel is underrated in a different way from the others on this list. There is one aspect of the story that simply doesn’t work – it is not plausible – but since every other detail makes this is a stellar Christie novel (the wonderful narrator, the setting and atmosphere, the murderer’s ingenious method, the suspense, the sheer enjoyment) I think it should be granted an official pardon for That One Implausible Detail.
Related: Sophie Hannah's top 10 pageturners
9. Cat Among the Pigeons
The death of a prince fleeing Ramat causes dangerous ripples at an exclusive girls’ school, where pupils and staff are terrorised by a prowling killer known as The Cat. Poirot doesn’t appear until towards the end, but this is nevertheless a fascinating story about the festering undercurrents that can cause murder and mayhem in a boarding school. I love stories set in schools – it’s a hangover from my Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers days – and this school, believed to be based on Benenden where Christie’s daughter Rosalind was a pupil, springs richly to life.
10. Sparkling Cyanide
Six friends sit down to dinner at a table laid for seven. The empty place is a reminder of the beautiful heiress, Rosemary, who was poisoned at the same table exactly one year earlier. Christie superfans rate this passionate and dark standalone novel highly, but it’s not so well known among more general readers. There’s real psychological perception here, and depth of character – and there’s also a brilliantly pedantic and peculiar clue that revolves around grammar and parts of speech that turns out to be the key to unlocking this incredibly well thought out and satisfying mystery.
• The Killings at Kingfisher Hill, the new Hercule Poirot mystery by Sophie Hannah, is published by HarperCollins. To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com.