4. Crooked House (1949)

When his fiancee’s grand-father is murdered, Charles Hayward determines to find out the truth, entering the unnerving, bitterly divided home shared by three generations of an Anglo-Greek family.

As we speed through the Top Ten, we reach one of my utter favourite Christie books, filled with dynamic characters, a claustrophobic setting, and a truly startling denouement. I won’t go into much detail, because you should read this one unawares. Suffice it to say, Dame Agatha extensively planned this novel, a non-series excursion coming after Poirot’s heyday, and just before Miss Marple’s most prolific period. She remained proud of it throughout her life, and fairly so. Crooked House is a cruel, insightful tale of family drama, of the sadistic and jaded side of human nature, and of carefully-concealed murder. Any dialogue or atmospheric flaws can be forgiven, as – by this point – Christie was indisputably the ‘Queen of Crime’. She had been churning out murder mysteries for three decades (often more than one a year, as well as her short stories and plays), and – although there would be a gradual decline in quality over the coming decades – Crooked House is a highlight of Christie’s innovation within the formula. Rumour has it that Neil LaBute will be directing a film adaptation of Crooked House in 2012, with Matthew Goode, Gabriel Byrne and Julie Andrews amongst the cast. I look forward to it, and Christie’s long-awaited return to the silver screen.  (Although the small screen has served her very well in the last few decades.)

In my heart, it’s a four-way tie for the #1 position, but I’ve decided to leave Crooked House here at number four. Christie’s audaciousness and puzzle-making abilities are present in those I’ve assigned positions one and three, while her greatest character study is at number two. Crooked House doesn’t lack for any of those elements, but – whether it’s subjective taste or simply nostalgia – I just love the other three that tiny bit more.

Rating: 10/10

Next time: Dame Agatha’s most cleverly constructed murder mystery receives the Christie bronze medal, and the Poirot silver.