Daring to Rank the Queen of Crime

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The best and the worst Agatha Christie books, according to All About Agatha's ranking system

Written by Kemper Donovan, mystery author and host of the All About Agatha podcast

The rankings discussed below reflect the opinions of the All About Agatha podcast only, and are in no way endorsed by Agatha Christie Ltd, who would never be so foolhardy as to choose favorites when it comes to the Queen of Crime…. Such endeavors are best left to upstart, American podcasters such as myself.

In 2016, two Christie superfans began an audacious project: the reading, and ranking, of all 66 of Christie’s full-length mystery novels. I am one of those two superfans, and this project formed the backbone of the All About Agatha podcast, which I co-hosted with my dear friend, Catherine Brobeck. Together, Catherine and I devised a system whereby we evaluated each of Christie’s novels by certain criteria while reading through them in publication order. Our analysis consisted of five categories, each of which received a score from 1 to 10 based on how well a title acquitted itself.

1) Plot Mechanics, which probably should have been called Puzzle Mechanics, evaluated the relative neatness and complexity of the mystery’s central puzzle.

2) Plot Credibility went to the question of whether the machinations required to pull off this puzzle stretched credulity or not. Many a mystery lover will tell you the outlandishness—even absurdity—of a puzzle’s solution is part of the fun, but we held that the best Christie puzzles are believable, through and through.

3) Series-long Characters. Here we considered the characterization of our beloved detectives Monsieur Poirot and Miss Marple, as well as more minor characters that span books, such as Captain Hastings, Inspector Japp, Ariadne Oliver, Superintendent Battle, Colonel Race, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, and many more.

4) Book-specific Characters dealt with the characterization of those who appeared solely in the book being evaluated. (For standalone titles that didn’t feature any series-long characters, we weighted this category twice.)

5) Setting and Tone was admittedly a bit of a catchall category, in which we debated Christie’s evocation of setting both as to place and time, the book’s pacing and readability, and any stray, ineffable reactions.

There was also a bonus category called Depictions Stuck in Their Time, for whenever the text felt old-fashioned in its depiction of intimate aspects of human identity (race, gender, religion, sexuality, disability, among others). The purpose of this category was never to judge Agatha Christie, who lived and wrote in an earlier time, but to give an accurate sense of what it’s like to encounter these books in our present day. The more a book felt “stuck” to us, the more points it received, though for this category, the points functioned as deductions.

This means the highest possible score was 50 (tens in all categories with zero deductions), while the lowest was negative (ones all around, with greater than five deductions). You can view the full results here and on my website.

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The best and the worst Agatha Christie books, according to All About Agatha's ranking system

The Findings

In practice, our highest-ranked title (Five Little Pigs) scored a 43, while our lowest-ranked (Postern of Fate) had a 14. Many titles ended up tying. For instance: we had a three-way tie for tenth place at 35 points (Peril at End House, The ABC Murders, and The Murder at the Vicarage). In such cases, we ordered the titles on instinct, rather than relying on a quantitative standard—a reminder that reading is an inherently subjective exercise. Our imposition of objective standards was always meant to be fun more than anything—and it was! But it also generated a number of insights, a few of which I’d like to share with you now.

1) The books we ranked two through seven overlapped with Christie’s personal top ten, as identified by her late in her career. I cannot think of a better validation of our results! (And for the record: I have no qualms about Five Little Pigs taking the prize. If you think we’re wrong, just read it again, and let its brilliance wash over you….)

2) That being said, it’s undeniable that Christie wrote some clunkers. For us, it was her thrillers that tended to falter, as evidenced by the fact that there are seven of them in our bottom twelve. Unlike the whodunits, the thrillers lack puzzles, which made them easier to write (Christie talked openly about how they were a break for her), and I would argue the relative laxity of her approach comes through in the finished product.

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The best and the worst Agatha Christie books, according to All About Agatha's ranking system

3) I say this with a heavy heart as one who firmly prefers Miss Marple to Poirot, but there is no question the Poirot novels are ranked higher. Sure, there are 33 Poirots and only 12 Miss Marples, but even if we look at it in terms of percentages, the little Belgian wallops the dear lady. Among titles 1-22, for instance, there are 16 Poirots and 2 Miss Marples. In other words: nearly half of all the Poirot novels are in the top third of the canon, whereas not even a fifth of the Miss Marples make the cut. Perhaps the most obvious reason for this disparity is that many of Christie’s best puzzles appeared in her Poirot novels—especially those she wrote early on, in the 1930s.

4) And yet! It is an old chestnut trotted out frequently that Christie’s novels declined in quality toward the end of her career. But if you take our rankings and graph them in publication order rather than rank order (yes, we have done this; look us up on Twitter!), you will see there is no such decline. Christie put out some of her best material in the 1960s (The Pale Horse, Endless Night), and acquitted herself well even into the 1970s. I will never tire of defending Nemesis, for instance, as featuring some of her finest writing—not as to the puzzle, but as to character. Speaking of….

5) Yes, Christie is renowned for her puzzle-making prowess, as she should be. But she is so much more than her puzzles. The brilliance of Endless Night lies in the way she captured the voice of a twentysomething working-class male—when she was in her late seventies! And The Hollow features some of the more exquisite characterization I’ve encountered in any book, regardless of genre. Perhaps more than anything, it’s the ease and simplicity of her prose that sets Christie apart: give her a few sentences, and she’ll give you the world. It’s a quality often misapprehended by those who dismiss her.

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The best and the worst Agatha Christie books, according to All About Agatha's ranking system

In November 2021, Catherine Brobeck passed away before we were able to read and rank Christie’s final six novels. I am eternally grateful to my fellow Christie enthusiasts, who came to my aid in the wake of this tragedy and co-hosted the final six episodes with me, thereby completing the journey Catherine and I started. Now that it’s done, I find that my greatest takeaway is the real joy to be had in treating Christie’s work seriously. The community of Christie fans that Catherine and I built over the years has been a source of great comfort—and pride—to me, particularly in her gaping absence. I became a mystery writer myself over the course of our experiment, and it’s no exaggeration to say I wouldn’t have gotten there without our close analysis of Christie’s work, over hundreds of hours’ worth of podcast episodes.

Even though the ranking project is over, I’ve continued making new episodes of All About Agatha. The truth is I have no intention of stopping. It seems there’s always something new happening in the world of Christie: new editions, new continuation stories, new adaptations, new critical approaches…. And of course, the debate rages on as to which Christies are the best Christies. I would never pretend that Catherine and I came close to settling this debate, but I like to think we added something substantial to a conversation that will continue for a long, long time to come.

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The best and the worst Agatha Christie books, according to All About Agatha's ranking system

About Kemper Donovan

Kemper Donovan is the host of the podcast All About Agatha, dedicated to the one and only Agatha Christie. His mystery novel The Busy Body will be published in January 2024, and may be pre-ordered in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia and New Zealand. Visit his website here.

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