Agatha Christie Long Fiction Analysis - Essay

Agatha Christie Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Agatha Christie’s trademarks in detective fiction brought to maturity the classical tradition of the genre, which was in its adolescence when she began to write. The tradition had some stable characteristics, but she added many more and perfected existing ones. The classical detective hero, for example, from Edgar Allan Poe on, according to Ellsworth Grant, is of “superior intellect,” is “fiercely independent,” and has “amusing idiosyncrasies.” Christie’s Hercule Poirot was crafted by these ground rules and reflects them in The Mysterious Affair at Styles but quickly begins to deplore this Sherlock Holmes type of detecting. Poirot would rather think from his armchair than rush about, magnifying glass in hand, searching for clues. He may, by his words, satirize classical detection, but he is also satirizing himself, as Christie well knew.

Christie’s own contributions to the genre can be classified mainly as the following: a peaceful, usually upper-class setting into which violence intrudes; satire of her own heroes, craft, and genre; a grand finale in which all characters involved gather for the dramatic revelation of truth; the careful access to all clues; increased emphasis on the “who” and the “why,” with less interest in the “how”; heavy use of dialogue and lightning-quick description, which create a fast-paced, easy read; a consistent moral framework for the action; and the willingness to allow absolutely any character to be guilty, a precedent-setting break with tradition. Her weakness, critics claim, is in her barely two-dimensional characters, who lack psychological depth.

Christie created, as Grant puts it, a great many interesting “caricatures of people we have met.” Grant excuses her on the grounds that allowing every character to be a possible suspect limits the degree to which each can be psychologically explored. One might also attribute her caricatures to her great admiration for Charles Dickens, who also indulged in caricatures, especially with his minor characters. Christie herself gave a simple explanation. She judged it best not to write about people she actually knew, preferring to observe strangers in railroad stations and restaurants, perhaps catching fragments of their conversations. From these glimpses, she would make up characters and plots. Character fascinated her endlessly, but, like Miss Marple, she believed the depths of human iniquity were in everyone, and it was only in the outward manifestation that people became evil or good. “I could’ve done it,” a juvenile character cries in Evil Under the Sun. “Ah, but you didn’t and between those two things there is a world of difference,” Poirot replies.

Death Comes in the End

In spite of Christie’s simplistic judgment of human character, she manages, on occasion (especially in her novels of the 1940’s and later), to make accurate and discerning forays into the thought processes of some characters. In Death Comes in the End, considerable time is spent on Renisenb’s internal musings. Caught in the illiterate role that her time (Egypt, 2000 b.c.e.) and sex status decree for her, Renisenb struggles to achieve language so she can articulate her anxieties about evil and good. Her male friend, Hori, speaks at great length of the way that evil affects people. “People create a false door—to deceive,” he says, but “when reality comes and touches them with the feather of truth—their truth self reasserts itself.” When Norfret, a beautiful concubine, enters a closed, self-contained household and threatens its stability, all the characters begin to behave differently. The murderer is discovered precisely because he is the only person who does not behave differently on the outside. Any innocent person would act guilty because the presence of evil touches self-doubts and faults; therefore, the one who acts against this Christie truth and remains normal in the face of murder must, in fact, be guilty.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles

Although The Mysterious Affair at Styles is marred by overwriting and explanations that Christie sheds in later books, it shows signs of those qualities that would make her great. The village of Styles St. Mary is quiet, and Styles House is a typical country manor. The book is written in the first person by Hastings, who comes to visit his old friend John Cavendish and finds him dealing with a difficult family situation. Cavendish’s mother has married a man who everyone agrees is a fortune hunter. Shortly afterward, she dies of poison in full view of several family members, calling her husband’s name. Hastings runs into Hercule Poirot at the post office; an old acquaintance temporarily residing at Styles, Poirot is a former police inspector from Belgium. Christie’s idea in this first novel seems to be that Hastings will play Watson to Poirot’s Holmes, although she quickly tires of this arrangement and in a later book ships Hastings off to Argentina.

Every obvious clue points to the husband as the murderer. Indeed, he is the murderer and has made arrangements with an accomplice so that he will be brought to a speedy trial. At the trial, it would then be revealed that the husband had an absolute alibi for the time when the poison must have been administered; hence, he and his accomplice try to encourage everyone to think him guilty. Poirot delays the trial...

(The entire section is 2235 words.)