Much has been said on this blog about the characteristics of a good detective fiction novel – whether it is a “whodunit” or a “howcatchem” – such as red herrings, suspense through climaxes and cliffhangers, and a logical sequence of events leading to a reasonable resolution. And while these characteristics too feature in Agatha Christie’s “Crooked House”, because the investigation is led and narrated by an amateur in Charles Hayward, who does not have the acumen of a Sherlock Holmes or a Hercule Poirot, the uncertainty intensifies for the reader.
But as it turns out right at the very, very end (minor spoilers ahead) – after a few dead-ends and a few false conclusions – Hayward’s father the “Old Man”, and also the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, had a hunch much earlier on. In a conversation with his son about what murderers are like, the assistant commissioner detailed a few interesting traits:
– “Some of them have been thoroughly nice chaps … Murder, you see, is an amateur crime … But some people, I suspect, remain morally immature. They continue to be aware that murder is wrong, but they do not feel it”.
– “Pure hate? Very unlikely, I should say … I think people more often kill those they love than those they hate. Possible because only the people you love can really make life unendurable to you”.
– “I’ve never met a murder who wasn’t vain … They may be frightened of being caught, but they can’t help strutting and boasting and usually they’re sure they’ve been far too clever to be caught”.
– “A murder wants to talk … Having committed a murder puts you in a position of great loneliness. You’d like to tell somebody all about it – and you never can. And that makes you want to all the more. And so – if you can’t talk about how you did it, you can at least talk about the murder itself – discuss it, advance theories – go over it”.
The significance of this conversation does not necessarily occur to the reader right away, even though the “Old Man” seems to be offering obvious clues to the murderer, and again it is the genius of Christie which makes one go, “How could I have missed that”? In this vein the surprise revelation provides an unexpected twist to a well-paced book – one that has developed the characters, and by extension the suspects, nicely, giving all of them a motive for murder – leaving the reader reasonably satisfied at the end.