When we spoke to Rian Johnson regarding Knives Out and its origins within the works of Agatha Christie, he explained how her plots tend to get more attention than her characters. Still, it’s the oddballs who populate her whodunnits that inspired the mechanics of his screenplay. Without getting into spoilers, Johnson’s particular celebration of Christie’s weirdos over the actual mystery makes itself known fairly early on in the narrative. Even a glance at the trailer foreshadows Knives Out‘s proper intentions. That cast, right?
Trapping a group of potential maniacs in a room with one righteous detective sleuthing for the truth is a surefire way to ignite furious dramatic tensions. Knives Out thrives on its confrontation of dialogue and sends its audience skipping out of the theater with a desire to keep that aural rumble going. Considering the film was not swallowed whole by Frozen II during this past holiday weekend. It brought in a respectable $41.7 million, a hunger for sequels is not unreasonable.
Of course, theoretical sequels do not satiate your current appetite. You’re at peak craving now. You gotta hit the books. My recommended reading list begins with Christie, but like Knives Out, the further it moves along, the stranger it becomes.
And Then There Were None
On the Still Watching podcast, Johnson named And Then There Were None as Christie’s best book, but not his personal preference (skip to the next two selections for that honor). Eight strangers are invited to a palatial estate on an island off the coast of Devon. Through a bizarre (and racist, depending on which edition you read) gramophone recording of a nursery rhyme, an unseen host accuses each guest of a different murder. They are told that they must offer a proper defense to the charges. As the days pass, those that fail to provide resounding evidence of their innocence begin to perish. The stacking of corpses is an ingenious ticking clock, and as the reader selects their favorites from the bunch, they’re also gearing themselves up for a tremendous heartbreak by story’s end. Christie agonized over the construction of the plot, and it shows. And Then There Were None is an intrinsic whodunnit, encouraging its audience to participate in the guessing game, and even 80 years after its publication, still manages to surprise.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
While not as lauded as And Then There Were None, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd gains Johnson’s favor due to the “audaciousness of the solution.” Indeed, many accused Christie of cheating when the book came out in 1926 with a twist ending designed to infuriate the dutiful reader. Roger Ackroyd is a wealthy widower with doubts concerning his fiancee’s recent suicide. During a large dinner party, featuring a wide array of kooks very much in tone with Knives Out, Ackroyd admits to one guest that his fiancee confessed to the murder of her previous husband and that a mysterious stranger was blackmailing her. Suddenly, Roger Ackroyd turns up as a corpse as well. Christie’s subversion of genre conventions aligns perfectly next to Johnson’s own trickster personality. They both know what their audience wants, but they’re not going to give it to them in the way they expected. Some will cheer them on, while others will ragefully jeer.
When a series of murder suspects start dying themselves, a wheelchair-bound Hercule Poirot suspects the work of a serial killer (although not named as such). He tracks the five-time murderer to a familiar location, Styles Court, where Christie’s first novel also took place. Christie wrote Curtain in the 40s, but it would not see publication until after her death in 1975. What took so long? During the Blitz, the author feared for her life, and she didn’t want to shuffle off this mortal coil without supplying a fitting end for her star detective. Curtain was crafted as Poirot’s final send-off, but when Christie survived Hitler’s storm across Europe, she locked the book away. Johnson loves Curtain, calling it “equally audacious and crazy in terms of the gambit it attempts, and the solution is fascinating in the way it ties up Poirot’s entire arc.” As such, his end may not work for every reader. Again, that’s also the charm of Christie. She gives the reader what they want, but not necessarily in the way that they want it. Bonus: if you look at the original paperback cover for Curtain, you will also notice how its font is expertly replicated on the posters for Knives Out.
A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie
Now let’s have some fun. Agatha Christie knew her poisons. She was a nurse in Devon during the First World War. In the Second, she worked as a pharmacist’s assistant at the University College Hospital in London. Her knowledge of chemistry would inspire her to select various poisons as her go-to deadly instrument. She picked her poisons not at random but chose them for how they would service the pleasures of the plot. A chemist herself, Kathryn Harkup investigates Christie’s fiction through the murderous cocktails at the center of her plots. Each chapter explores a different Christie mystery, deconstructs the effectiveness of the poison at play, and whether or not such a plan would work in a contemporary context.
Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies
This one is for all you creative sickos out there. After devouring a few Christie books, you may feel inspired to craft your own devious schemes. The world always wants more foul-minded mysteries. Still, you probably don’t have the diabolical knowledge to concoct a perfect crime. Don’t worry, Dr. Kenneth V. Isserson is here to help. Death to Dust is a gory, honest look at the human corpse, explicitly written to inspire the artistically bent. The author examines every possible cause of death and how our bodies respond to each scenario. Also, Isserson discusses the folklore of death as experienced through multiple cultures and attempts to remove our fear from our inevitable end. Whether you’re looking to conceive an elaborate murder, or casually kill off a supporting player, a quick review of Death to Dust will lend credence to your writing. The book is never far from my desk.
You can’t read a review of Knives Out without a reference to the board game or the movie it inspired. I get it. Johnson’s collection of wacky characters shrieking at each other easily recalls the satirical mania between Colonel Mustard and the gang. The success of the 1985 film sparked a rapid series of novels for adults and children alike. Still, my favorite of the bunch was a comic book released by IDW publishing just a few years ago. Written by Paul Allor and illustrated by Nelson Daniel, the comic contains all the trimmings you would expect. The dead guy is Mr. Boddy. The suspects are Mustard, Scarlet, Peacock, White, Plum, and Green. However, there are a few new additions as well: Detective Ochre and Doctor Orchid. The tone is a touch grimmer than the ’85 film. Still, Allor and Daniel supply plenty of winks by freeing characters to break the fourth wall and, at one crucial point, suggesting multiple outcomes to a dastardly deed. Finding a solid whodunnit of the Christie variety in sequential form is difficult, and we must embrace the few that come along.
The Doughnut Cookbook
Knives Out is no simple mystery. It’s a doughnut hole in the middle of another doughnut hole. Or something. Whatever the case, listening to Daniel Craig‘s Benoit Blanc trap himself in one absurd metaphor after another got my stomach growling. I could easily satisfy the craving by swinging through the nearest Krispy Kreme, or I could follow in the sophisticated detective’s footsteps and respect my hunger by investing in the desired taste. The Williams-Sonoma Test Kitchen knows what they’re doing, and this book is another one of their massive tomes devoted to delivering culinary gratification. If all you want is a sugary glazy confection, no problem. If you’re longing for a more complicated pastry, then they can help you to that jammy joy as well. I’m talking about Funfetti doughnuts, maple-bacon doughnuts, peppermint bark chocolate doughnuts, and savory cheesy-jalapeño doughnuts. The Doughnut Cookbook has every possible taste covered. Even doughnut holes.