Golden Age of Mystery #3: Agatha Christie

With apologies to mystery fans and Mystery aficionadoes, this entry’s going to be about a real warhorse mystery author: Agatha Christie. Appearing in The Guinness Book of World Records as the bestselling author of all times is impressive enough, although I suspect that the sheer number of books and short stories she published over such a long period contributes to that. The fact that her books are still so widely held by libraries (and still being checked out, not to mention reissued frequently) should indicate that she remains far more popular than other more highly regarded mystery authors of her generation, even 35 years after her own death. It’d be interesting to come back in 50 years and see which current mystery authors are being read as avidly.

Of her two detectives, I have to confess I prefer Miss Marple to Hercule Poirot, despite the former’s flying in the face of many of the things I consider crucial for good detective and mystery series; as an examplo of what I usually don’t like, the protagonist detective is a little old lady spinster from a miniscule old-fashioned village in rural England. Not exactly the sort of character you’d expect to come across any significant number of corpses dead under suspicious circumstances, yet she does. She’s a particularly fluttery frail little old lady, not the sort of person you’d expect to survive for twelve mysteries and several collections of short stories over the course of forty years, yet she does. I did always find it interesting that Marple seems to get younger, or at least more vigorous, as Christie herself aged (and therefore presumably her perception of what being seventy was actually like). I’d have to read more of the Poirot mysteries to check whether she did this for him as well, but one of the things I appreciate the fact that Christie allowed Marple to change with the times, insofar as a twittery little old lady firmly rooted in Edwardian times might be presumed to be able to change. Certainly the world changes around her, from the prewar world of easily had servants, manor houses and Fashionable Hotels to that of the ’50s and ’60s, with its rationing, slapdash housing developments and Marple’s own physical deterioration.

Poirot novels outnumber Marples, 33 to 12, as Christie wrote a number earlier in her career featuring the Belgian detective before, like Doyle, wearying of her creation. Thankfully, Christie decided to create another detective rather than offing her first creation. Given her sheer number of novels, I can’t really pick the few sufficient to fill a review. Murder on the Orient Express? Possibly one of the best known and most popular mysteries, but implausible, relying as it does on an opportune snow storm in a remote part of the Balkans and the twelve “jury members” managing to pull off each stabbing the victim individually without being noticed by Poirot. A Caribbean Mystery is today more than slightly racist–the Joan Hickson TV version did something to rectify this by giving the local black population a much larger and more important role. That said, I think the reason for Christie’s continued popularity lies in her ability to make these and other similarly implausible books work, somehow, despite often flying in the face of literary design and rules of what make up a good novel and a good mystery.

As period pieces, I’d have to say that I like At Bertram’s Hotel and A Murder is Announced. Neither mystery is particularly plausible. In At Bertram’s Hotel, the plot hinges on a girl in her late teens having the freedom to travel from pillar to post at a moment’s notice AND there being a number of well known upstanding members of society who happen to have nearly exact doubles caught up in the international circle of criminals centering on the refurbished Bertram’s Hotel. A Murder is Announced hinges on the interchangeability of elderly ladies, as the reclusive sister successfully impersonates her sibling, who’d been employed as a financier’s secretary for some years, after the sister’s death overseas. Both serve as nostalgia pieces as much as murder mysteries; in At Bertram’s Hotel, Miss Marple reflects that the titular hotel is simply too good to be true, and indeed it is: it serves primarily as a cover for the crime ring’s comings and goings, with just enough Olde England to attract tourists. In A Murder is Announced, the story is held together by friendships rooted in the memory of better times but with no modern shoots to expand them into today: Miss Blacklock’s relationships with school chum Dora Bunner and with the widow of her former employer, now herself an invalid in rural Scotland, and the younger generations’ turning away to the present. It also touches on what life must have been like for the women left at home after World War II ended; the death of so many men during the war and the shortages of just about everything under rationing in the 1950s left women alone to patch a living together with very little to go on with. The thriving (and unofficial) black market dealings of the inevitable gossipy village ladies didn’t help the murder investigation in this case, but it makes for an interesting glimpse into small town life in England at the time, though I’m sure Christie wasn’t intending to provide Americans with a historical novel.

Taken in aggregate, it’s an impressive body of work. Individually, they may be fluffy mind candy–indeed even Christie herself didn’t seem to take her own work terribly seriously–but all together, the novels and short stories deservedly put Christie in the stratosphere of writing. Read them, enjoy them but don’t think about them too much or they’ll start crumbling. Keep firmly in mind that (so far as I know) a great many of Christie’s plot twists now seem tediously overdone because so many authors subsequently imitated Christie.


2 thoughts on “Golden Age of Mystery #3: Agatha Christie

  1. (sheepishly) I haven’t yet read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd; I suppose I’d better rectify that? I’d say discussing it at all constitutes a spoiler! That’s why I had such a hard time writing the entry for Monica Ferris’ “Crewel Yule”, as explaining why I preferred it would give away the identity of the murderer.

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