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....
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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 many suitors and had spent her time going from one house party to the next, from Great Britain to the rest of Europe. The war marked the end of her happy youth and her unhappy marriage to Archibald Christie. The Harley Quin stories came at a time when her mother had passed away and her husband had left her for another woman. Christie must have felt as though only magic could set her life to rights, and she seemed to resolve her personal problems in these short stories, making them her admitted favorites.
Parker Pyne stories
In contrast to this dark detective, cheerful little Parker Pyne never fails to provide a happy ending when none is available. He pines to bring happiness into the world, and very often he is extremely successful; other times, he fails. Pyne is not, technically speaking, a detective, but in some stories he does serve in this capacity. Primarily, his vocation is to replace sadness with joy, a kind of watered-down form of the labors of Poirot, who challenges evil with goodness or justice. Sometimes, Pyne’s mission is to provide this happiness by finding a lost object or person, but for the most part, his stories involve contrived adventures for his clients that provide an outlet for their craving for excitement. In “The Case of the Discontented Soldier,” Pyne casts two clients as hero and heroine in one of his little melodramas, thus raising his level of productivity. This victory is offset, however, by a very expensive failure in “The Case of the Discontented Husband.” Here, when Pyne employs his regular vamp to spur jealousy in a languid marriage, the husband contracts a fatal case of “Madeleine-itis” for Pyne’s femme fatale and actually leaves his wife. The reader must assume that—in this case at least—a refund was provided.
Tommy and Tuppence Beresford stories
Another pair of characters who cannot be classified as detectives are Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. They are so delightful and provide so much entertainment, however, that they must not be ignored. They are evidence of Christie’s mastery of bantering dialogue as well as her otherwise subtle ability to poke fun at not only herself but also other mystery writers. The most recognizable example of this is the short-story anthology Partners in Crime, in which Tommy and Tuppence deliberately set out to solve mysteries in the style of well-known sleuths of the day. Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown, and even Christie’s own Hercule Poirot all appear for their turn in the dunking booth of Christie’s wit. While these stories are accused of being shallow, they do demonstrate her unflagging ability to see with a fresh eye and to rewrite a tired plot. In addition, the dialogue between the two heroes is extremely amusing. They are more like two sides of the same coin than a married couple who might normally display a sense of sexual tension in their speech patterns. In “The Case of the Missing Lady,” Tuppence demands that Tommy—like Holmes—“leave that violin alone,” hardly loving spousal words.
Miss Marple stories
Many other minor heroes appear in Christie’s works, including the semiautobiographical Ariadne Oliver, but among the more famous are Jane Marple and Hercule Poirot. Jane Marple is an ever-aging spinster who sits as an oracle in mythic St. Mary Mead, waiting, for the most part, for crimes to come to her. (A criticism of Christie’s works is that given the age of some characters in original works, they must die at double their three score and ten. The only excuse might be that Christie did not expect such long-lived popularity for them.) Like Poirot, Miss Marple has an unerring eye for what is truly evil in people and keeps files on them by constant comparison to natives in her village as well as flowers in her garden. She is most at home in her flower-strewn sitting room, with maids whose given names (for example, Cherry) and states of mind are vegetative, or in her (or other people’s) gardens, ruthlessly pulling up bindweed, choke weed, and other destructive vines. Miss Marple is also often observed knitting for infants; perhaps she is trying to protect them from harm with woolen chain mail, or perhaps she is merely trying to knit up the raveled sleeve of mystery. The reader is never quite sure.
Jane Marple is a very human character, often drawing on great inner strength to carry out her missions. She is very successful at convincing people of her authority. Unlike Poirot, she stops a crime from being committed in “The Affair at the Bungalow.” While usually busy training servant girls, Miss Marple often stops to solve a crime through the use of her infallible logic and prodigious memory. The reader often stops and remembers with Miss Marple the details from childhood of sprinkles or jimmies called hundreds and thousands or of disappearing ink made from kitchen chemicals. It is this believable association with her that lends credence to mysteries solved by what can only be attributed to comparisons to known criminal types or to intuition, although the latter may be defended by Miss Marple’s long experience with the evil side of people.
Earlier, Christie had completed a series of stories featuring a rotund Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, for Sketch magazine. He proved to be her most popular figure, and she brought him into her writings for the rest of her life. Unlike Mr. Quin, Poirot does not try to entrap the wrongdoer but lets him or her advance carefully watched, until the villain finally stumbles. In “Triangle at Rhodes,” one of the characters demands why Poirot did not act to prevent a murder. He replies that to warn the police without physical evidence would be futile. He does warn the murderer to leave the scene before the crime is committed, but Poirot’s advice is ignored.
Even Poirot’s friends often ignore his advice, relying instead on their own faulty intuition. This is the case with Captain Arthur Hastings. Hastings does not appear in all the Poirot stories, but when he does, he becomes an integral part of the plot. He is a general dogsbody for Poirot, consistently pointing out the obvious—but wrong—conclusion to the mystery at hand. Poirot’s task is to put him and the reader to rights by carefully examining the crime for evidence of evil. It is this element that is overlooked by Hastings, and it is the nearly faultless ability of Poirot to recognize wickedness instantly that leads to an accurate solution to the crime. In “The Second Gong,” Poirot diagnoses an apparent suicide as murder even though almost all the physical evidence has been destroyed by the murderer.
This singular ability to spot the genuine article was something Christie loaned her characters from her own store of skills. She had a good eye for furniture, houses, clothing, and people. Since most of her characters were compilations of people she had heard about, known, or observed, the reader must surmise that the evil as well as the good were all apparent to Christie. She saw the petty jealousies and envies that could fester into larger sins and wrote about them in a very believable and entertaining manner. This was the crux of Christie’s talent, and this is what led to her greatness.