There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile…. And they all lived together in a little crooked house.

Like Five Little Pigs; One, Two Buckle my Shoe (also published as The Patriotic Murders); and A Pocket Full of Rye, among many others Crooked House (1949), a standalone Christie novel too, takes inspiration from a nursery rhyme in its scenario. Compared to most of Christie’s other novels (which I have read so far), this one is to me the most unsettling in terms of its solution. So much so that, despite this being a reread, it gave me the shudders when I finished.

In Crooked House, our narrator, Charles Hayward (wrongly described in the blurb of my 2002 St Martin’s Press edition as a criminologist) meets and falls in love with the attractive and intelligent Sophia Leonides when the two are posted in Egypt during the war. He plans to marry her when he returns to England from his next posting. When he arrives in England some two years later, he finds a newspaper announcement to the effect that Sophia’s eighty-five-year-old grandfather, the self-made tycoon, Aristide Leonides has died. But when he meets Sophia, he finds that Aristide has not died a natural death but was poisoned. Charles’ father is the Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard while Chief Inspector Taverner is investigating the case. As a person who is an outsider (who doesn’t know the family), and yet an insider (as Sophia’s fiancé), Charles is asked by both his father and Sophia to be involved in the matter.

At the Leonides home, Three Gables (the ‘Crooked House’ of the title), Charles finds a set of curious residents. Aristide has only recently remarried a much younger woman, Brenda, an obvious gold digger, who seems fairly happy spending his money. Also living in the house are Sophia’s parents, Philip who writes obscure history books and Magda, an actress given to treating even real life as a performance (and dramatizing it whenever she can). Sophia’s younger brother, the good-looking but irritable Eustace is being educated at home having suffered paralysis. There is also her younger sister Josephine, a twelve-year-old who makes rather macabre observations and has a great interest in playing detective (and is something of a snoop). Philip’s older brother Roger, who is good natured but has a poor business sense, and his wife, a scientist, Clemency also live in the house. These living arrangements are a consequence of the war. There is also Miss Edith de Haviland, the sister of Aristide’s first wife who pretty much brought up the children, the children’s old nanny, and the mousy conscientious objector Laurence Brown, tutor to Eustace and Josephine. The family surprisingly are close (none of the usual hate and fights here), but while old Aristide was not controlling, his powerful personality has had its influence on the family.

Most of the family want Brenda and Laurence who are rumoured to be in love to be the culprits but Charles senses that none of them believe that this is actually the case. He accompanies Inspector Taverner and also spends time speaking to the family members searching for which of them could have had a strong enough motive. Flaws and underlying issues are uncovered. But does Charles find the answer?

While this was a reread for me, other than whodunit, I remembered pretty much nothing—not the victim, not how it was done, nor other details about the family so it was good as new, except for the surprise at the end.

I enjoyed the set of characters that Christie has created in this one; each of them is well drawn out and each has a distinct personality; be it the overdramatic Magda, the repressed Philip, the cold Clemency or even Eustace (who I think we see the least of in the novel). I liked that while Christie used the scenario of a powerful parent (as she has in some of her other books), Aristide is not one who tries to control his children—he has instead given them enough money to be financially independent and does not expect them to do his bidding. Yet his powerful personality ties them all. Charles himself is interesting to observe as well. He is trying to understand each of them, and get both sides of the picture, and in the process, his views seem to change often. This is something that comes across as rather realistic and I felt for him especially when he was caught between Sophia’s and Brenda’s versions.

The mystery is a rather complex one for all the characters had the necessary knowledge and opportunity to commit the crime; and when Charles starts looking into it, all of them did have a motive in some way or other. There are all the usual possibilities from money to love, and indeed hate. The answer when it is revealed is bound to shock one, and not one I would have seen coming at all (had I not known it already). I read in the background to the discussion the Goodreads group I read it for was having that Christie’s publishers wanted her to change the ending but she didn’t. And I am glad she didn’t because frightening though it was, it was also one of her most surprising puzzles.

Overall, a very satisfying read; though I wouldn’t call it my favourite because of the creepy feeling it leaves me with.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Crooked House by Agatha Christie

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