Hercule P. is a Private Detective of some repute in London, so he gets threatening letters every week. His intuition sends warning signals, however, at one particular letter from a person claiming to want 26 people dead– in alphabetical order. Several bragging letters and corresponding murders later, our hero has no clues and fewer ideas. The family and friends of the first three victims get together to help Hercule solve the mystery, but how will they solve it without a single shred of evidence?
Good: I can see why Agatha Christie is so beloved: her writing style here really draws the reader in and makes them anxious to know more (even if they get irritated with Hercule alot, but more on that later). The whole question of who the ABC murderer is, and what his motivations are, is framed very convincingly. All the characters are well rounded, and make for convincing figures in the story. Every person who speaks is given a little bit of dimension, making for lots of believable rabbit trails. The story’s details dip into horror territory just enough to satisfy fans of that genre, but overall the structure is a very solid mystery. Some of the banter between Hercule and other people is really funny, but the plot never really deviates from its you’ll-never-guess-who-done-it focus.
Bad: Hercule’s desire to get into the mind of the bad guy, while the ultimate way he solves the mystery, results in some vivid recounting of a murder, more than anyone under 13 really needs to know. Also, there are anti-prison comments made by our sidekick that imply its better to kill someone than to bring them to justice if the result is a prison sentence. While it would be interesting to discuss the merits of execution vs. life in jail, the sidekick doesn’t frame it as an argument over what kind of punishment. Merely condemning the punishment itself implys that no punishment would be better, and the Bible is clear on the role of government in administering justice. Its a fairly minor series of comments, but worth noting as a heads-up.
Overall: I like three things about murder mysteries in general; a) I can figure out what is going to happen in the future because of the clues the main hero gets, b) whenever I can’t figure out what’s going on, the main hero can and thus earns my respect, and c) the significance of murdering another person is a major reason why the murderer being brought to justice is a good thing, regardless of why they decided to kill in the first place, and brings a strong sense of victory when they are brought to justice. While death has plenty of gravity associated with it herein, when we finally find out whodunit, its very casual. The reason it has to be so casual is that there is no evidence and thus no clues pointing to the murderer. Our hero’s intuition finally solves the case, (which seems kinda pointless since all the clues he cites are actually faked in order to obtain a confession). But for most of the book, no one has any idea what’s going on, and can’t find any evidence that would help them, so I never really developed any repoire with Hercule, as he never showed his famous intelligence until the last few pages. However, now I know what the classic cozy English murder mystery is like, and its not half bad. If I preferred to be surprised in the end, or to appreciate the hero because of his perseverance in the face of nothing to go on, then I would probably have loved this book. As it is, I enjoyed the chase part (and now, Stephen, you have permission to regale me on Agatha Christie in the comments section, since reading this was your idea), and the conclusion was a twist I never saw coming. If you like to be surprised, you’ll enjoy this book.