Reading Lists

Christie in the 1960s

L Inline The1960s

Written by Agatha Christie expert Chris Chan

Few authors manage to publish bestsellers in one decade, let alone six. Agatha Christie managed to accomplish that feat, selling enormous quantities of her books throughout her career. Christie’s popularity kept growing throughout her life, but the settings of her novels changed with the times. When many people think of Christie’s books, they think of the interwar period, country estates, and quaint English villages; but during the 1960s Christie’s stories don’t fit these templates at all.

Many themes run through Christie’s 1960s literature. There are elderly people looking back on a past they think was kinder, safer, and more humane. There are young people who feel thwarted by a society that favours the older generations, and these youths seek money, power, and love, often through means that their elders would not consider acceptable. Social and sexual values are challenged and shattered, often with consequences unforeseen by those who break the rules, but sometimes anticipated by those who stand for the preservation of the standards enforced by society.

To celebrate A Haunting in Venice which was inspired by Hallowe’en Party, we take a look at Christie’s work during the 1960s.

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding [1960]

1960 was the first time in 13 years that Christie didn’t publish at least one novel. Instead, a collection of six short stories was released under the title The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding. The title short story was expanded from a 1923 piece, and describes in detail the perfect, traditional english Christmas (and the theft of a royal ruby). Evidence that a new decade has dawned is clear from the start; Poirot is facing the prospect of spending Christmas in a cold, draughty manor house when he is reassured that there is oil fired central heating and radiators throughout (which of course persuades him to accept the invite!). There is conflict among the younger members of the family when some want a “traditional” Christmas and others dismiss it as old-fashioned, and there is discussion of a new social phenomenon: the “coffee bar set” of Chelsea, with their unusual living habits and their eccentric clothes. These topics resurface the following year in the novel The Pale Horse.

This collection was not published in the United States. Instead the stories feature in The Harlequin Tea Set and Other Stories, The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories, The Under Dog and Other Stories, Three Blind Mice and Other Stories, and Double Sin and Other Stories. Notably, ‘Christmas Pudding’ was never published in a U.S. collection, though its expanded version, ‘The Theft of the Royal Ruby’ is.

Go Back for Murder [1960]

This is a dramatic adaptation of Christie’s Five Little Pigs, one of her greatest novels. A young woman learns that sixteen years earlier, her mother was convicted of poisoning her father. Convinced that her mother was innocent, she hires a private detective to investigate the long-cold case. But if her mother didn’t do it, then one of the five other people at the house must’ve been guilty. The narrative flashes back and forth between the present and the past, as the secrets and lies that have been buried for sixteen years are revealed.

As was Christie’s habit, she deleted Poirot from her stage adaptation. She replaced him with a lawyer character who develops a connection with the protagonist that Poirot never would…

The Pale Horse [1961]

From Bohemian coffeehouses to the flats of the wealthy, The Pale Horse explores a society in transition, as a palpable evil force wreaks havoc on innocent lives. When a Catholic priest is battered to death on the way home from giving the Last Rites, the police discover the late clergyman was carrying a list of names in his shoe. As an amateur investigator enters the case, it all leads to a coven of witches who claim to be able to commit the perfect murders through a killing curse. But are these deaths the result of black magic, or by very clever and twisted natural means?

Widely viewed as one of the best of Christie’s late novels, the vivid description of a particularly cruel murder method in the book has led to Christie fans saving the lives of at least two people and catching at least one serial killer in real life.

The Rule of Three [1961]

A trio of Christie one-act plays, first performed in December 1962. In Afternoon at the Seaside, a valuable piece of jewellery is stolen, and the people on the beach get more than they bargained for from their holiday. The Rats is the story of a clever trap to catch a killer, but what is the bait and who is set to be caught? Finally, The Patient, one of Christie’s finest yet sadly little-known plays, features a badly injured woman who can only communicate with a little device that lights up a bulb. Will she able to identify which member of her household tried to kill her before the villain seeks to finish the job?

In Afternoon at the Seaside we’re particularly immersed in the sixties, with a reference to the “Keep Britain Tidy” campaign (Bob picks up some litter that Noreen has discarded and puts it in the bin) and with Noreen wishing she had brought her transistor radio so they could have “had a bit of Adam”. Adam Faith, perhaps?

The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side [1962]

St. Mary Mead goes to Hollywood! Miss Marple’s quiet home village is turned upside-down when Gossington Hall, former home of her dear friend Dolly Bantry, is purchased by a couple of Hollywood power players. And that’s not the only change – a modern housing estate (‘The Development’) has sprung up, and there’s a “glittering new” supermarket where once Mr Toms had had his basket shop, full of “great packets of breakfast cereal” where – heaven forbid – you have to go round the aisles to get your own shopping.

When a guest is poisoned at a party and the life of a glamorous film star with a tragic past is targeted, Miss Marple must solve two problems – she must learn to survive in a rapidly changing and modernising world that often leaves elderly women behind, and identify the person who’s killing one villager after another.

The Clocks [1963]

Poirot only made a few appearances in the 1960s. In this story, narrated by a young spy whose father is an old friend of the great detective, Poirot investigates the case of an unidentified man who has been murdered in the home of a blind woman. With a terrified typist, a street full of odd residents, an espionage ring, and four mysterious timepieces involved, Poirot has to solve a particularly puzzling case.

We know we’re in the 1960s when a character comments on how she feels about England being in the Common Market – or the European Economic Community as it was at the time. Inspector Hardcastle sensibly declines to be drawn into politics!

A Caribbean Mystery [1964]

Blue skies, golden sand, shimmering water… Miss Marple is recovering from an illness and is supposed to be getting away from it all at a luxury island resort, paid for by her nephew Raymond West. The novel begins with Miss Marple bemoaning the modern novels that Raymond encourages her to read, and goes on to describe her thoughts on sex – something that was rarely mentioned in her youth, but nevertheless seemingly enjoyed more then than now!

A talkative fellow guest asks Miss Marple if she’d like to see a picture of a murderer, but before he can show her the photograph, her companion walks away, looking astounded. He is found dead soon afterwards. As the death toll mounts, Miss Marple joins forces with a cantankerous millionaire to figure out which person on the island has gotten away with murder multiple times in the past… and is trying to strike again.

At Bertram’s Hotel [1965]

As the world seems to have morphed into something unrecognisable, Miss Marple is thrilled to slip back to a comfortable, orderly world where everything is just how she remembers it decades earlier. Her nephew offers her a vacation, and she chooses to spend it at Bertram’s Hotel, a luxurious throwback to the Edwardian era that reminds her of her youth.

But times have changed on the streets of London, and shootings, disaffected young people, adventuresses, impersonations, robberies, shady marriages, and a well-organised criminal syndicate convince Miss Marple that you can’t go back in time to a more innocent era… no matter how much you’d like to.

Third Girl [1966]

There are some things that Poirot does not want to hear, and being told that he is too old to help someone in distress is right at the top of the list.

When a troubled girl visits him, confesses that she might have committed a murder and then runs off, he enlists the help of his dear friend, the mystery writer Ariadne Oliver, to help him find out who the victim might be and if the young lady is guilty or not. This takes the detecting pair into the unfamiliar art world, full of unscrupulous characters, suspicious models, and a greasy leather-clad painter. Is this a tale of madness, addiction, or cold-blooded manipulation? Is Poirot’s visitor a helpless innocent or a crafty villain? And is the greatest evil coming from the youth counterculture, or from the halls of supposed establishment respectability?

Endless Night [1967]

Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Boy marries girl. Spooky woman threatens the couple with a terrible curse. That’s the story of Michael Rogers, a broke young man who meets the girl of his dreams and starts living more happily ever after than he ever thought possible… until a series of terrible tragedies start shaking up Michael’s idyllic days, and a massive inheritance doesn’t provide the stability he expected. There’s a neat juxtaposition between the ultra-modern 1960s house that Michael commissions from a renowned architect, and the deep-rooted superstitions that permeate the book.

Unlike a typical Christie, death doesn’t enter the narrative until surprisingly late, and for much of the book, the story is a romance… with haunting supernatural overtones. But as is often the case in Christie’s fiction, true evil comes not from spells and witchcraft, but from the dark and selfish impulses of the human heart…

By the Pricking of My Thumbs [1968]

Tommy and Tuppence Beresford return after more than 25 years, to solve another case!

When they visit Tommy’s ailing aunt at a nursing home, another resident creepily asks ‘Was it your poor child?’ and hints at an unpleasant surprise behind a fireplace. As Tuppence begins her own personal investigation, she uncovers a long-forgotten case of a serial killer targeting children and a cache of stolen jewels, and realises that the murderer hasn’t stopped taking innocent lives, they’ve just gotten better at covering up crimes…

Hallowe’en Party [1969]

When Ariadne Oliver is roped into volunteering at a village’s party for kids, a girl with a reputation for fibbing claims to have seen a murder. No one believes a word of what she’s saying… until the self-proclaimed witness is found drowned in a bobbing-for-apples bucket. Poirot joins the investigation, and begins looking into every death and disappearance in recent memory in the hopes of identifying the crime that the dead girl witnessed. Along the way, Poirot uncovers about half a dozen potential homicides, and pieces together a tale of adultery, forgery, and murder. With the help of longtime allies and a couple of worldly teenage boys, Poirot must reveal the truth before more children are slain.

An amusing conversation between Ariadne Oliver and Judith Butler about hosting parties for teenagers roots us in the late 1960s – they discuss how there is always an undesirable friend that turns up, and that they do “peculiar drugs… Flower Pot or Purple Hemp or L.S.D… It’s very unpleasant, and Hemp has a nasty smell.”

Christie's 1960s reading is an eclectic range of stories, spanning genres, societies and themes that still resonate today. Agatha Christie's writing is far more varied than she is sometimes given credit for, and nothing reflects this better than exploring her full range of work from the 60s.

Sign up to the newsletter to receive The World of Agatha Christie magazine