Agatha Christie mystery book covers

HarperCollins is giving away a great mystery ebook for free. It’s a 380-page novel by Agatha Christie — the first mystery novel that she ever wrote with her famous detective character, Miss Marple. And it’s one of three other Agatha Christie mysteries which have turned up for free in Amazon’s Kindle Store.

But this one is different. The Murder at the Vicarage isn’t an old, early effort that’s inadvertently slipped into the public domain. Harper Collins just published a new paperback edition of the novel in April, and normally its ebook edition would sell for $6.99. The publishing house even commissioned a fun new cover illustration, displaying the book’s title on a tombstone, with Christie’s name appearing as a handwritten signature (under the words “The Queen of Mystery.”) “[A] dead body in a clergyman’s study proves to Miss Marple that no place, holy or otherwise, is a sanctuary from homicide,” they tease in the book’s description.

It’s being sold at a temporary discount, presumably to publicize the new edition, so if you’re interested in reading the book, download it now before the price goes up! I like how Amazon’s page automatically performs the math on the discount, helpfully explaining to anyone confused that “You save: $6.99 (100%).” And if you need more information about the book’s plot, here’s how they described it on the Harper Collins web site.

“Anyone who murdered Colonel Protheroe,” declared the parson, brandishing a carving knife above a joint of roast beef, “would be doing the world at large a favor!”

It was a careless remark for a man of the cloth. And one which was to come back and haunt the clergyman just a few hours later – when the Colonel is found shot dead in the clergyman’s study. But as Miss Marple soon discovers, the whole village seems to have had a motive to kill Colonel Protheroe…

There are two other Christie novels which have fallen into the public domain (at least, in the United States). One of them is Christie’s first published novel ever — The Mysterious Affair at Styles — which is also her first story about detective Hercule Poirot. (At a mysterious estate, a wealthy woman is poisoned shortly after drawing up a new will, and Poirot is asked to investigate.) And I’ve actually started reading the other free Agatha Christie novel. Secret Adversary opens on the Lusitania — a British mail ship that was sunk during World War I. “The Lusitania had been struck by two torpedoes in succession,” Christie writes in an exciting prologue that opens the book, “and was sinking rapidly, while the boats were being launched with all possible speed…”

This feels like a big event, because Agatha Christie is acknowledged as the best-selling novelist of all time, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. (In fact, according to Wikipedia, even outside the novel-writing genre, Christie’s tied for the title of best-selling author of all time with one other author…William Shakespeare.) In fact, there’s now over two billion copies of Christie novels scattered around the world — and she’s also earned another very important distinction. She’s one of a handful of authors who you’ll see in a screensaver image on the Kindle!

And Agatha Christie also had a cameo appearance in one of my all-time favorite articles about the Kindle. “Before I first acquired a Kindle, exactly one year ago, I didn’t usually buy books while under the influence of alcohol…” confessed author Elif Batuman. But a couple of glasses of wine lowers her inhibitions, opening up a whole new world. (“Until technology empowered me to order books while drunk, I didn’t realise the scope and diversity of literature that I wasn’t reading purely out of embarrassment.”)

A few months ago, my drunk reading tendencies converged upon a single author. The Kindle actually made the suggestion itself, in the form of one of its standard issue author screensavers: a portrait of Agatha Christie that I found staring up at me, half-obscured by a pile of bills. She was represented, as always, as elderly, wearing a scarf with a brooch, her gray perm etched in meticulous detail. Beneath remarkably heavy brows, her eyes were shrewd and weary, as with the knowledge of countless unravelled mysteries.

The last time I had read Christie novels with any regularity was between the ages of 10 and 13, when I used to borrow them from my mother’s little sister, the most beautiful and lively person in my family, then in her 20s. I read them obsessively, one after another, either despite or because of how much they frightened me. Although the style was simple and readable, not unlike that of the Baby-sitter’s Club books, and although the detectives, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, were twinkly, grandparental types, nevertheless, everywhere these gentle souls went, someone was killed in hatred.

Suddenly I was seized by a desire to revisit Poirot, the charming Belgian with his weird moustaches. Thirty seconds later, I had clicked on “Buy now”…and there would be no physical book to reproach me the morning after.

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