#1920Club Classics of the Month: Agatha Christie and F. Scott Fitzgerald

I’m sneaking in a couple of quick reviews on the final day to join in with Simon and Karen’s latest reading week, The 1920 Club. Speaking of books that were published a century ago, I happened to review Chéri by Colette as one of my monthly classics last year, and I’m currently reading The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton in advance of our May book club meeting.

 

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

I don’t think I’ve read an Agatha Christie mystery since I was about … 13? (It was And Then There Were None.) But over the years I’ve watched countless Poirot and Miss Marple cases on TV with my mother. This was Poirot’s first outing, and it’s narrated by Hastings, the slightly dim Watson to the Belgian detective’s Sherlock Holmes.

One July, invalided home from the war at age 30, Hastings goes to visit old family friends at Styles, their Essex manor house: brothers John and Lawrence Cavendish and their elderly stepmother, who has recently (and somewhat shockingly) remarried. When old Mrs. Cavendish is found dead of strychnine poisoning, Poirot is brought in to sort through the potential suspects. Coffee and cocoa cups, a fragment of a charred will, a fake beard, a candle wax stain and a bolted door will be among his major clues.

Like Hastings, we as readers are quick to point to the obvious: hey, that foreigner who happens to be an expert on poisons, it’s him, right?! But as Poirot carefully explains, again and again, “If the fact will not fit the theory, let the theory go. … Real evidence is usually vague and unsatisfactory. It has to be examined, sifted. But here the whole thing is cut and dried.”

I rarely pick up a mystery novel, though when I can get stuck in I do tend to enjoy them. This was a super-quick read and I found myself turning to it more often than to other books on my stack that felt weightier in subject matter. In the end I find crime novels inconsequential, so can’t imagine needing to try another Poirot or Marple for another 20 years or so. But if you’re struggling to read in a time of anxiety, you could certainly do worse than a Christie novel.

My rating:

 

This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald has long been one of my literary blind spotsThe Great Gatsby is a masterpiece, sure: I studied it in school and have read it another couple of times since, as well as lots of background nonfiction and some contemporary novels that riff on the story line. But everything else of his that I’ve tried (Tender Is the Night was the other one) has felt aimless and more stylish than substantive.

Amory Blaine is a wealthy Midwesterner who goes from boarding school to Princeton and has literary ambitions and various love affairs. He’s convinced he’s a “boy marked for glory.” But Monsignor Darcy, his guru, encourages the young man to focus on developing his character more than his dashing personality.

Hugely popular at its first release, this debut novel won Fitzgerald his literary reputation – as well as Zelda Sayre’s hand in marriage. What with the slang (“Oh my Lord, I’m going to cast a kitten”), it felt very much like a period piece to me, most impressive for its experimentation with structure: parts are written like a film script or Q&A, and there are also some poems and lists. This novelty may well be a result of the author cobbling together drafts and unpublished odds and ends, but still struck me as daring.

In a strange way, though, the novel is deliberately ahistorical in that it glosses over world events with a flippancy that I find typical of Fitzgerald. Even though Amory is called up to serve, his general reaction to the First World War is dispatched in a paragraph; Prohibition doesn’t get much more of a look-in.

I understand that the book is fairly autobiographical and in its original form was written in the first person, which I might have preferred if it led to greater sincerity. I could admire some of the witty banter and the general coming-of-age arc, but mostly felt indifferent to this one.

My rating:

14 responses

  1. I’m pretty much like you here. I can take or leave Scott Fitzgerald, and I don’t know when I last read an Agatha Christie. Maybe it’s time for another quick read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It certainly was that, and a lot more gripping than anything else I was reading at the time. But I then tried to read a Louise Penny novel and failed, so it didn’t signal a rekindling of my interest in mysteries.

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  2. I love Gatsby. It’s my absolute comfort read – if I’ve hit a reading bad patch, I’ll reread it just to get back on track. But yeah, I don’t feel as excited by his other books – haven’t read any for a long time but the standout was a short story collection.

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    1. What an interesting choice of comfort read! I think it’s a novel I admire more than love — so flawlessly constructed and effortlessly meaningful. I wonder if I’d take to his short stories…

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      1. I guess it’s an odd choice 😬 I think it’s more about it being a book I know well (and therefore requires little thinking) rather than the content.

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    2. That makes sense. There is something comforting about rereading.

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  3. Thanks for joining in with the Club – great choices! I love the Christie (obvs) but I’m interested in your response to Fitzgerald. I’ve rarely got past Gatsby, and I’m beginning to wonder if it’s the books and not me! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for hosting — it was a great excuse to get some classics off the shelf. The Christie was among my last borrows from the library before it closed.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Ha ha ha! You won’t need to read another Christie for 20 years! That made me laugh for some reason. I love how different readers are, the things that we crave and the things that sustain and entertain us. I am glad you enjoyed it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can see why people would find Christie novels addictive as comfort / cozy reads (I know my mother does), but I fear I’d find them too samey.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I haven’t read Christie since I was about 13 either!😂 I love Fitzgerald’s writing style…maybe it’s time for me to delve back into the ‘who done its’ and the classics!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fitzgerald didn’t write that many books in total, so he’d be an easy author to read all of if you were so inclined 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Two good reads! I read all of Christie (except one; I don’t recall which!) in my teens and have never done since. I’ve been reading O. Henry’s “Penny Plain” but I won’t have time to finish it today, let alone review it. All because I’ve a) got too much work (and not stuff I can easily pass on – gah!) and b) I read Queenie when I shouldn’t really have!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No worries, and no need to apologize for what you read — this is definitely a time for reading whatever one likes!

      Liked by 1 person

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