Agatha Christie Short Fiction Analysis
Agatha Christie’s enormous popularity must rest on some sort of measurable talent. While no one would disagree that she had a faculty for witty—if at times overly homely—dialogue, and that she could contrive numerous amusing plot twists, surely her singular ability was in her talent for creating memorable and unique characters to inhabit her stories. When any avid Christie reader is asked to name a favorite story, the reply must invariably contain the name of a favorite character as well. The answer will never be “The Eymanthian Boar” but stories of Hercule Poirot, or stories with Tommy and Tuppence in them. The devotion of the reader settles on a hero rather than on certain types of stories or even on the author herself. Christie’s plots pale perforce to the cunning, charm, and cleverness of her characters.
“The Mystery of the Blue Jar”
Admittedly, however, some of her short stories do not have well-known protagonists in them. In fact, some focus on the source of evil instead of good. In “The Mystery of the Blue Jar,” a pair of thieves utilize the current fad of occultism to perpetrate a clever ruse on a gullible young man. Jack Hartington persuades himself that he hears cries of help—presumably from a future crime—emanating from a pretty French lodger. She and her accomplice, who poses as a “Doctor of the Soul,” convince Jack to hand over his uncle’s priceless, and recently acquired, Ming vase. Christie pokes fun here at those who are quick to believe what they wish to be true. The reader is taken in neither by the obvious attraction that Jack has for the girl nor by the trust that he has in the false authority. Christie, however, is determined to teach a lesson to those easily duped by con artists and spiritualists, human forces working for evil ends.
A very pedantic and accurate medium appears, however, in “The Red Signal.” Mrs. Thompson gives a horrific warning to one of several people during a séance, then, shrugging and yawning, trudges off into the night “dead beat.” She is a most unconvincing spiritualist, yet she warns the victim truthfully of impending danger, which is narrowly averted.
The two stories serve as foils for each other, creating a kind of awareness of evil as a person or palpable existence to be taken into consideration. It is not to be thought that Christie either believed or disbelieved in communication with spirits. She did, however, infuse her stories with the ideas of wrongness as a guiding force, and it seems that her characters were moved to use this sinister ability to their advantage or to their defeat. This was clearly shown in “Where There’s a Will,” which was originally published as “Wireless.” Here, the nephew needlessly engineers his wealthy aunt’s death only to have her accidentally destroy the will made in his favor. In most less heroic tales of the occult, Christie points out that manipulation of fate with intent to harm results in moral disaster.
“In a Glass Darkly”
She takes a different tack with “In a Glass Darkly.” Fate reveals itself in a mirrored act of murder to the narrator. He uses this glimpse of the future to break up the engagement of a young woman who later becomes his wife. Years later, to his surprise, the premonition that he had received turns out to refer not to his wife’s ex-lover but to himself, perhaps because he has allowed his feelings of love for her to fester into murderous jealousy, into something evil.
Clearly, Christie’s characters were not to be left to their own devices. They needed a firm hand to show them the path to righteousness: enter the Christie sleuth/hero. Not the first but certainly the most provocative of these is Mr. Harley Quin. After nearly two decades of writing Harlequin and Pierrot, it should come as no surprise that Christie would name her detectives after her favorite characters—poirot roughly translates as “buffoon.”
Harley Quin Stories
Most of the Harley Quin stories appear in The Mysterious Mr. Quin, a title that is no doubt meant to lend an air of the supernatural to the detective and to his familiar, Mr. Satterthwaite. While initially appearing to be a normal human, Mr. Quin is thrown into odd lights by sunlight through stained glass windows or lamps with colored shades. The reader comes to look for—and becomes affected by—Mr. Quin’s transformations because they indicate not only a magical solution to the crime at hand but also a magical resolution: Everyone lives happily ever after. Eventually, Satterthwaite absorbs some of his friend’s abilities and attempts to solve crimes on his own. This is encouraged by Mr. Quin as, perhaps, his overriding mission is not simply to return the world (or at least Europe) to a happier, pre-Fall state but to teach its inhabitants how to do so also.
This probably reflects Christie’s own astonishment at the outbreak of World War I and her desire to return her life to its prewar state. Prior to the war, Christie had been living the carefree life of a much-sought-after British belle. She had had...
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