During her prolific writing career, Agatha Christie published a total of 82 detective novels and is rightly remembered and revered for her ability to craft ingenious murder plots. Many a reader, after finishing the detective’s denouncement at the end, have shook their heads and wondered why they hadn’t pieced it all together themselves, given the exact same clues. But what of these crooked masterminds who concocted and executed these diabolical schemes? Well, sometimes they have sympathetic motivations for what they did but most of the time they’re petty, greedy, downright sociopathic people who thoroughly deserve what’s coming to them. So in a category overrun with viable candidates, how does one determine who’s the most dastardly of the whole rotten lot? How do you quantify their villainy? Motive is a place to start. What drove them to commit the crime? Was it for personal gain? Was it to settle a grudge? Or did they do it for seemingly no reason at all? But more than motive, look at the effect their actions have on the people around them, the misery they bring to those unfortunate enough to make their acquaintance. The worst criminals, after all, don’t just hurt their victims. Using this criteria, I have compiled a list of the top five most despicable murderers ever conceived by Agatha Christie. So without further ado, here we go (warning, major spoilers ahead).
5. Nigel Chapman, Hickory Dickory Dock
Nigel Chapman earns a spot on this list not because of the number of people he’s killed or his motives for doing so, which basically amount to covering his own ass, but because of his willingness to discard the people who love and care for him without a hint of remorse. His first victim was his very own mother, who by all accounts was a kind, if overindulgent, parent. When she caught her son stealing from her, he poisoned her before she could report him to the police. His other most notable murder is bludgeoning his sort-of girlfriend to death because she wrote a letter to his father hoping to help the two reconcile…unaware that Nigel wants to avoid his father’s scrutiny because if his father suspects him of any wrongdoing, he will release the confession Nigel signed for his mother’s murder over to the police. Ultimately, Nigel gets his just desserts when his accomplice rats him out in retaliation for him impulsively murdering her own mother.
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4. Patrick and Christine, Evil Under the Sun
While murderous couples aren’t an uncommon trope in Christie’s work, (see The Body in the Library, Death on the Nile, and Third Girl) Patrick and Christine Reburn edge the other couples out slightly as they carry the distinction of having explicitly committed a murder before the events of the book, employing the exact same method no less. Their first victim was Patrick’s previous wife, Alice Corrigan, and their second victim was Arlena Marshall, a narcissistic but dim-witted woman. Patrick swindled a large amount of money from Arlena and to keep her quiet about it he and Christine arranged her murder together. But what really tips their crimes from deplorable to morally repugnant is that in order to cover their tracks, Christine convinces Arlena’s troubled step-daughter Linda that Arlena died as a result of a voodoo ritual she performed. The girl feels so guilty over her unwitting part in her step-mom’s death that she becomes suicidal and, taking all responsibility for the murder on herself, tries to overdose on the pills Christine all too readily supplies her
3. Dr. James Kennedy, Sleeping Murder
Dr. James Kennedy would come in first place, if this were a top five list of murderers with the creepiest motivations. See Dr. Kennedy had an unhealthy fixation on his younger half-sister, Helen Spenlove Halliday (née Kennedy). As she was growing up, he did everything in his power to isolate her, from cutting up their tennis net so she couldn’t invite others over to play to spreading malicious rumors of her being a nymphomaniac and turning the whole village against her (to the point that, even years later, people still disdainfully refer to her as a slut). When Helen tries to get away from him, rightfully fearing what he’s capable of, he strangles her and then drugs and gaslights her husband, Major Kelvin Halliday, into thinking he went insane and killed his own wife. Halliday died believing himself responsible for his wife’s murder. And when Helen’s grown up stepdaughter, Gwenda Halliday Reed, moves back to her childhood home and starts remembering bits and pieces of the night of Helen’s murder, Dr. Kennedy attempts to kill his step-niece too, first through poison and then by strangulation, in order to protect himself.
4. Nevile Strange, Towards Zero
Don’t be taken in by Nevile Strange’s boyish charms or his affable exterior, deep down the man’s a deranged murderer and has been since childhood. As a kid, he fatally shot another boy with an arrow and no one suspected it was anything but an accident, no one that is, except Mr. Treves. But that’s easily remedied when Strange deliberately induces a heart attack in Treves by tricking him into taking the stairs to his room instead of the elevator. But what really secures his spot on the list is the way he intends to “punish” his ex-wife, Audrey, for having the audacity to divorce him. Killing his own brother before they were to wed wasn’t enough but simply snuffing out her life wouldn’t suffice for him either. So instead, he frames her for the murder of his aunt, Lady Tresillian, who he had a good relationship with. Audrey, seeing no way out, tries to end her life by jumping off a cliff and, failing that, confesses to committing the crime. If not for the presence of Superintendent Battle, his daughter reacting in a similar way to a false accusation, Nevile’s plan wouldn’t succeeded and Audrey would’ve taken the fall for his crimes.
5. Stephen Norton, Curtain
What’s scarier than a murderer? How about a master manipulator who can get his victims to kill for him? Armed with a keen intellect and a silver tongue, Stephen Norton has the uncanny ability to sniff out a person’s weak spot (perhaps a husband’s resentment of his shrewdish wife or a father’s overprotective love for his daughter), and pokes and prods at it until they’re wound up and ready to kill. If not for Poirot’s timely intervention, in fact, Arthur Hastings, Poirot’s lifelong companion and friend, would’ve fallen prey to Norton’s sinister machinations and poisoned Major Allerton under the mistaken impression (planted by Norton) that he was taking advantage of his daughter. But why Norton does what he does is left unclear. Poirot extrapolates that it’s to get back at his childhood bullies for mocking him and calling him a “sissy” but even so that hardly justifies his actions. But even more maddening than his flimsy motivation is that while Poirot’s certain he’s responsible for at least five murders (that he knows of) and of attempting to orchestrate another at Styles Court, there’s not a shred of evidence tying him to the crimes. So, seeing no other option, Poirot is forced to take justice into his own hands and kill Norton himself. Which is a mark of how dangerous and brillant the man is, that he forced the great Hercule Poirot to abandon his moral code and take the life of another.