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Three and one half moon gifSt Martin's Press (Paperback), ISBN 0312975120
The Mistress of Mystery has done it again! Raise your hand if you're surprised.

I thought not.

Book: Agatha Christie, The Unexpected GuestOn a deserted, foggy stretch of road one night in southern Wales, a man runs his car into a ditch. Fortunately, a nearby manor house offers the prospect of assistance. The driver traverses the grounds to the French doors of a ground-floor study. After knocking fails to rouse a response from within, he tries the doors. Finding them unlocked, he cautiously lets himself in -- and comes face-to-face with an invalid man slumped in his wheelchair, sporting a bullet hole in his head. The corpse's attractive young widow stands in a corner holding a revolver and readily confesses to the deed.

End of story? Not by a long shot (pun intended). The unexpected guest, moved by the woman's tale of emotional abuse at her husband's hands, decides to manufacture evidence to point the police to a different suspect. But even that doesn't play out in an expected manner as other members of the household take the stage. Several harbor their own reasons to see their cruel master dead.

Book: Agatha Christie, Black CoffeeWho is this unexpected guest and how did he happen to strand himself near that particular house shortly after the murder? Why did he knock at the study rather than the front door? And why, against all logic, did he choose to help the widow, risking implication as an accessory after the fact?

The answers to those questions and many more, dear reader, I leave for you to discover.

The Unexpected Guest began life as an original play at the Duchess Theatre in London, where it opened in August 1958 and enjoyed a respectable 18-month run. This novelization, the second by world-renowned theatre and opera critic Charles Osborne, continues the series he began in 1998 with Black Coffee. With 19 original plays to Christie's credit, ample opportunity exists for extending the series beyond Osborne's third installment (Spider's Web).

Book: Agatha Christie, Spider's WebAt first the book's artless prose, curious dearth of descriptive passages and detached viewpoint annoyed me. However, I came to realize this is the best approach for adapting a stage play. It allows a reader who saw a live dramatization to relive the experience. For those like myself who missed the show, it allows us to cast our own actors and mentally supply the props. Most importantly, the style allows Ms. Christie's brilliance -- especially with respect to dialogue -- to shine through.

I knock off half a point, because in spite of a couple of twists as unexpected as the guest himself, the plot unfolds in a simplistic manner. The book's 258 pages of relatively large type hardly provide a meaty read. Unless I were a collector, I wouldn't bother purchasing the hardcover edition.

However, if you seek a quick diversion into Christie's fascinating world of murder and mayhem, where appearances are guaranteed to deceive, this paperback well rewards the investment of your pence.

Kim D. Headlee

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