Agatha Christie: Clues and Surprise Endings
Along with millions of other mystery readers, I’ve smacked my head at the end of Agatha Christie’s books and thought, “I should have figured out who the murderer was. All the clues were there.” How does Dame Agatha pull off a surprise ending time and again while playing fair with the reader? Three of her strategies for putting us off the scent start with “s”: Sidetracks, Stereotypes, and Sympathy.
Dame Agatha leads us away from the correct solution by playing on our sympathies. A person subjected to poison pen letters, threats, or narrow escapes from death arouses compassion rather than suspicion. The surprise ending reveals the would-be victim as the murderer.
We also sympathize with anyone who appears to seek truth and justice. The character who asks for the detective’s help in solving or preventing a murder sits at the bottom of the suspect list. Christie’s ultimate sleight of hand is making the murderer the character through whose eyes we view the action, the narrator. She pulled this off spectacularly in the book that made her reputation. But that wasn’t the only time she used this device.
The next time I read an Agatha Christie , I’ll watch out for the three S’s—Sidetracks, Stereotypes, and Sympathy. Even so, I probably won’t figure out whodunit. As Robert Bernard writes in A Talent to Deceive, Christie can use the same trick “a second time and we are still deceived”--and entertained.