For our second installment of Novellas for Monday, I give you Three Blind Mice, a murder mystery by Agatha Christie. The story started as a radio play, in 1947, and was later adapted into a stage play, in 1952 (the stage version is called The Mousetrap, and is famous for having run continuously since the opening).
Three Blind Mice is a rather typical murder mystery: several characters - Mrs. and Mr. Davis, Mrs. Boyle, Mr. Wren, Major Metcalf, Mr. Paravicini - find themselves isolated at a guest house during a snow storm; there is reason to believe one of them is a killer that plans to strike again; a detective shows up and starts investigating, suspecting everyone (and getting the reader to suspect everyone); new relationships form between the characters, old relationships are revealed; and, of course, there is a great unmasking at the end.
I am a big fan of Christie and I am always amazed at how she manages to make this formula compelling. I am also a bit of a deductive geek, and I spend a lot of time while reading mysteries trying to figure out as much as possible before everything's revealed. The reveal in Three Blind Mice took me completely by surprise (I am not a very successful deductive geek, turns out), but even if I had figured out the killer, I wouldn't have been bored. The way suspicion creeps between Molly and Giles, revealing the tensions and doubts in their marriage, for example, is a really interesting character moment that stands on its own even after the mystery is solved. So does Molly's choice to share her backstory with Christopher, or Mrs. Boyle's dissatisfaction with life's dullness during peace, after the excitement and authority she had gotten used to during the war.
There are two other aspects I like a lot: the use of weather as a narrative device, and the use of auditory imagery. The snow blizzard has a two-fold contribution to the story: it isolates the characters by having them snowed in at the guest house, and it creates suspicion, since everyone looks the same in heavy clothes.
Creating a convincing scenario to have the characters isolated is something most murder mystery stories need to do, in order to have a finite number of suspects and potential victims, and the way a story handles this task is, for me, the making or breaking of it. In the case of Three Blind Mice, snow works as a barrier that makes communication with the outside world difficult, but not impossible. Mr. Paravicini arriving in the middle of the night, the policeman arriving by skis, the phone working for a while, all illustrate that the isolation is not complete, which leaves room for the reader to wonder whether new clues or even new people will enter the story.
Using the fact that cold weather imposes a uniformity in appearance to create the slow buildup of mistrust among the characters has the double advantage of relying on an already established plot device (the weather), and of creating a memorable visual ("in a dark overcoat, with his muffler pulled up round his face, and his hat pulled down over his eyes"). This is another instance of Three Blind Mice taking a common trope in mystery books (suspicion among the small group of characters) and doing it well, in a way that doesn't strain suspension of disbelief.
Finally, the use of the nursery rhyme (Three Blind Mice) as a recurrent element (in almost every scene there is a character humming the tune or playing it on the piano) manages to be genuinely creepy and disconcerting. I imagine that in the radio and stage versions, this imagery is even more effective.
The Bottom line
I really liked Three Blind Mice, and I think I'd go so far as to call it one of my favorite mysteries stories. If you are into this sort of thing, then you should definitely read it (if nothing else, because it's the landmark for the specific twist that it employs, which has been used by others since).