The Lady Writes: “Crooked House” + “Frankenstein”

Ego is a funny thing. Recently I’d been thinking about how much of my life has been spent reading (spoiler: a lot). I was patting myself on the back for how many Classics and Important Books I’ve read. I was on the verge of declaring myself a Well-Read Person.

This sentiment lasted approximately three minutes.

Then two things happened, one right after the other, that made my self-congratulatory acclaim collapse into a heap of dismay & humility:

1. I found out that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein turns 200 this year. I’d never read it.

2. The Misfit Book Club chose Agatha Christie’s Crooked House as their January read-along. I’d never read that either.

These are huge titles by huge authors. That they both happen to be women makes it all that much better. Mary Shelley was a major romantic figure and a professional writer, known in her day for much more than a single monster story. Agatha Christie is the most widely published author of all time, outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare. These are not obscure, hipster titles. This is Bookworm 101.

Suitably chastened, I hit the books.

book cover, frankenstein by mary shelleyThe shadow of Frankenstein’s monster is so ubiquitous over modern society that everyone is pretty familiar with the story whether or not they’ve actually read the book or seen a movie adaptation. But just in case…

Frankenstein tells the tale of Victor Frankenstein, a brilliant young man who becomes obsessed with the idea of creating a living being. He pieces the creature together from corpses and succeeds in giving it life, but as soon as he achieves his goal, he is revolted by his monster & abandons it. The monster begins stalking Frankenstein, demanding that he make it a companion. Should he comply? Either way Frankenstein chooses, bloody consequences are certain.

“No creature had ever been so miserable as I was.” – Victor Frankenstein

As a horror story written in 1818 by a 19 year-old girl as part of a contest, this book is a masterpiece, & its imprint on modern society is undeniable. But as a 21st century reader, I struggled with this one. Hard.

The above quote is basically a summation of the entire story. Frankenstein is miserable with regret over creating the monster. The monster is miserable in his abandonment, so it begins to take revenge on everyone his creator holds dear. Frankenstein feels guilty & is more miserable. The monster’s situation has not changed, & so he is still miserable. During the entire book, these two characters (who have never been beaten or starved or ever had to work for a single meal in their entire life) constantly try to out-misery each other.

They are in love with their misery. Drunk upon it.

A general interpretation of the story is often that the creature is not the real monster, but rather Frankenstein is. I disagree. I think they are both selfish monsters that hardly notice when they destroy every single thing they touch.

book cover, crooked house by agatha christieAnyways, enough misery. The other book I read this week was one that Agatha Christie called “one of my own special favourites.” Published in 1949, Crooked House tells the story of the wealthy Leonides family–one member of which has recently poisoned the family patriarch, Aristide. It’s up to Charles Hayward to find the culprit so he can marry the love of his life, Aristide’s granddaughter Sophia.

I’d read several of Agatha Christie’s books as a child, so I was fairly familiar with her style, but this caught me off guard nevertheless. This is peak Christie. It’s not a Poirot or Miss Marple mystery; it’s a standalone, & it’s better. I’ll try to explain why without giving anything away.

I think people more often kill those they love, than those they hate. Possibly because only the people you love can really make life unendurable to you.

Each member of the strange Leonides family is written in great detail, & the list of possible suspects gets no shorter as the book progresses. At every turn, Christie laces the book with red herrings, but she’s also fair. There are clues there, too, if you can see them. This is definitely one book that I think would be an entirely new experience the second time around; you would see everything in a new light.

By about 2/3 of the way through, I had correctly pegged whodunnit, but Christie still had one more trick up her sleeve. Not since Shirley Jackson’s The Road Through the Wall have I read such a shocking ending. Seriously, I have a whole new author crush now (well, #2 anyways; my girl Es-Jack is always #1).

So what’s my final verdict? If you’re interested in its contributions to modern culture or if you’re a 16 year-old goth, read Frankenstein. Otherwise head over to Crooked House.

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