AGATHA CHRISTIE – Appointment with Death. Dodd Mead, US, hardcover, 1938. US paperback reprints include many editions from both Dell and Berkley over the years, as well as other publishers. First published in the UK: Collins, hardcover, 1938. Published play: French, softcover, 1956. Film: Cannon, 1988 (with Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot & Lauren Bacall). TV movie: ITV, 22 September 2008 (Season 11, Episode 4, of the series Agatha Christie’s Poirot; with David Suchet as Hercule Poirot).

   The book opens thusly, with a quiet gentleman standing unseen in an open window above the following snippet of conversation:

      “You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?”

   It is night, the setting is Jerusalem, and among a group of tourists is the man who accidentally overhears this cry for help — for that is what it is — none other than Hercule Poirot. Among the other travelers are the domineering aged mother of three grown stepchildren, the wife of one, and a young daughter of her own. She is hated by all of them, but they are totally dependent on her psychologically as well as financially, and they cannot break away from her.

   A recipe for disaster, you think, and you would be right. The most common means of murder in Agatha Christie’s novels is poison, I suspect, and so it is here. A close reading of the timetable that Poirot puts together (pages 146-147), plus a list of ten Significant Points (page 180), along with a keen ear for the clues he gathers from everyone involved, and you may solve the mystery as quickly as he. Or not, as the case may be (mine).

   One by one each of the possible suspects are interviewed, and one by by one, each of the suspects is eliminated — or are they? From the facts, it is impossible for anyone to have killed her, but the primary fact is that the idious old woman is dead.

   What makes this particular case to be solved by M. Poirot so clever is that it turns out to be so simple — after he explains. Did I name the killer? No, but I did come close! I think this short novel (only 212 pages in the Berkeley paperback) qualifies as the best detective puzzle I’ve read all year. And it bears repeating. There’s nothing cozy about an Agatha Christie murder mystery. She was a keen sharp-edged observer of the human race, and she had the knack of making her characters as real as the people you see around you every day.

   Not only that, but she sure knew her poisons, too!