The question motivating Gillian Gill’s study of the reign of the Queen of Crime is, “What makes the created world of this eccentric and reclusive woman so popular?” Inquiring into Christie’s acclaim, Gill confronts paradox after paradox. A shy, self-effacing woman, Christie achieved celebrity status, as well as the female equivalent of British knighthood; she also found herself at the center of controversy over a highly publicized disappearance, which, more than half a century later, would inspire a novel and a motion picture. While Christie’s approach to writing the detective novel, according to Gill, owed more to gamesmanship and problem solving than to literary inspiration, her amateur sleuths Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple have attained a mythic dimension in the public mind. Master of a genre ostensibly committed to the realm of reason and logic, Christie appeals as a writer fundamentally to that archetypal region, the collective unconscious. Gill contends that Christie’s “unabashedly mass market art,” in its very contentlessness and anti-intellectualism, resonates on the level of fantasy; therefore it is able to express “powerful social and psychic movements.”
As she hints in the book’s title, Gill develops the case that the ultimate mystery is that of the human personality. She draws essentially a psychosocial portrait of Christie which proves intriguing if not entirely convincing. A specialist in modern fiction and feminism, Gill poses theories such as that of “hidden author” and female “anxiety of authorship” to account for Christie’s fittedness to the detective novel, with its formalized conventions and presumption to detachment. Furthering her hypothesis that Christie was motivated paradoxically toward self-concealment and self-expression, Gill focuses much critical attention on six novels published under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott.
Claiming to address the “Actively Detecting Reader” out to discover how Dame Agatha crafted her mysteries, Gill discloses techniques and delineates patterns of plot and character, as well as locates Christie’s detective novels within the tradition of the genre. Its style geared to the general reader, AGATHA CHRISTIE nevertheless betrays its author’s scholarly training; in addition to a foreword, introduction, and afterword, the volume includes endnotes, a bibliography, and an index.