AGATHA CHRISTIE. Black Coffee (1930).

19 Jan

The thirst among publishers for titles to which they can attach the “Agatha Christie” brand remains as unquenchable as ever. To serve that thirst, a writer named Charles Osbourne took the raw material of a play that Christie wrote during her heyday and subjected it to a bit of benign violence; in other words, he novelized it.BlackCoffee.jpg The result, published in 1998, has a few charms and curiosities, but ultimately it’s devoid of the rich, world-building magic that Christie brought to her prose fiction. Try as Osbourne might to invest this treatment with light ironic touches and other writerly grace notes, he succeeds mainly in revealing the creaky, old-fashioned stagecraft that undergirds the original work. In a bid to “open up” the play, he launches his novel with a scene that features sleuth-hero Hercule Poirot in his Mayfair flat. Even so, most of the action here takes place in a single setting—the library of Sir Claud Amory, the victim of the piece. Stock characters, such as Sir Claud’s debt-ridden son and the son’s mysterious foreign-born wife, flit in and out of the room, uttering cliché-laced speeches that move the plot forward across an all-too-visible three-act structure. The murder puzzle hinges on several well-deployed clues (one of which, unfortunately, involves a bit of outdated household terminology), and Osbourne does capture some of the antic flair that marked Christie’s writing at its best. All the same, he fails to close the gap that yawns wide between a well-made play and a well-turned novel.


Posted by on January 19, 2014 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle


5 responses to “AGATHA CHRISTIE. Black Coffee (1930).

  1. Peggy Ann

    January 19, 2014 at 12:47 PM

    I read this several years ago. I would love for the local high school or the college drama team put this play on! I agree with your take on the book though.

    • Mike

      January 20, 2014 at 11:33 AM

      Thanks for your comment, Peggy Ann. I haven’t seen or read the play version of “Black Coffee,” but I agree (on the basis of reading the novel) that the story has the makings of an amusing work for the stage. There was also a movie version made in 1931.Given the creakiness of most celluloid whodunits from that era, I wouldn’t count on it being very good.

  2. John

    January 22, 2014 at 8:21 AM

    I saw this performed by a community theater back in the late 90s. I only remember the excellent portrayal of Poirot by an actor I have never seen since in Chicago and a young actress who I knew rather well who played the French maid. I vaguely remember the plot being pretty lame compared to most of her books. Creaky is an understatment. Christie must’ve written it for money.

  3. Yvette

    January 24, 2014 at 10:00 AM

    A finely-tuned review, Mike. Agatha Christie’s ‘world-building magic’ is just something that can’t be duplicated. I was thinking about this just the other day – why I keep going back to Christie, re-read after re-read. I think it’s precisely for that ‘world-building magic’ you mention. (Great phrase.) Maybe you have to be a certain age, but I like Christie’s world enormously.

  4. Mike

    January 25, 2014 at 8:52 AM

    Thanks, John, and thanks, Yvette, for your comments. The phrase “world-building,” I believe, comes from the discourse on science fiction and fantasy, genres that of course require authors to weave entire alternate worlds into being. And, yes, Christie did so, too. In fact, she created a world that’s practically timeless, which is why I tend to disagree with Yvette’s suggestion that “you have to be a certain age” to enjoy Christie. Again and again, I’ve watched as young nieces and nephews of mine get eagerly swept up in that world (in a way that they wouldn’t get swept up in the world of most other writers from her era).


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