Christie is known for her crime-fiction novels, especially those that feature Poirot, introduced in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, or Miss Marple, an elderly spinster introduced in The Murder at the Vicarage (1930). Her other detectives include Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, Superintendent Battle, and Colonel John Race. Christie began writing during what has been called the golden age of crime fiction. This time period can be roughly defined as the years between World War I and World War II. It was a time of world recovery, tinged with hardship as well as a certain amount of optimism. People were anxious to forget their daily troubles, and crime-fiction novels often provided this escape. Following the publication of The Murder at the Vicarage, Christie was on her way to becoming a well-established author. At about the time of World War II, her novels became quite popular, and she firmly established her place as a leader in the genre.
Christie can be characterized as a traditional mystery writer, depending on imagination and intelligence, rather than technological marvels, to solve crimes. That is one of the reasons that she has remained popular. She was always careful to “play fair” and provide her reader with all the information necessary to solve the crime, plus enough red herrings to make this task challenging. By the time Christie died in 1976, many new scientific discoveries had revolutionized police departments around the world. While she did not ignore modern methods, she made it clear that all the scientific apparatus in the world would not solve a crime if there was not a thinking individual to work with the machinery.
One of her two most popular thinking individuals is Hercule Poirot, a fastidious and curious Belgian with a large mustache. Poirot is painted as a dandy, about whose appearance others often make jokes. Scoffers often find themselves rebuffed, however, because Poirot’s sometimes semicomical fastidiousness hides a keen mind and a nature that demands that he search for the truth in all matters. In this search, Poirot employs his “little grey cells” in order to distinguish the truth from fiction. He often accomplishes this by asking seemingly irrelevant questions. These questions, however, turn out to be relevant and often important in terms of uncovering information previously hidden.
Christie’s other well-known detective is Jane Marple, a spinster who resides in the village of St. Mary Mead. One of the characteristics that has set Miss Marple apart from other detectives is her age. She is in her seventies or eighties, but the reader should not underestimate her. Miss Marple uses her knowledge of human nature to solve crimes. In addition, Christie uses the anonymity that Miss Marple can assume. Miss Marple looks so innocent that no one could ever suspect her of having any dealings with the police. She is everyone’s old-fashioned aunt and blends in quite well with the scenery.
Several factors account for Christie’s popularity. First, her plots are well constructed. She takes the reader through a logical series of actions to an equally logical conclusion. In addition, enough red herrings are dragged across the reader’s path to ensure continued interest in the activities. Characterization is also an important factor. While Poirot and the Beresfords, especially, are occasionally parodies of themselves, they are still believable. Their eccentricities are not so outlandish as to be thought impossible. In addition, Christie has an ear for dialogue. Her characters consistently speak in a manner appropriate to their roles in the novels. Her characters also continually act in a manner consistent with roles created for them.
Christie was also interested in looking...
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at human nature in general; thus, her plots revolve around the motivations that cause people to act in a desperate manner. These include greed, jealousy, a desire for power, and revenge. This tendency to construct crimes around common motives rather than esoteric ones enables the reader to relate easily to the characters involved.
Through the course of her career, Christie developed a particular style and stuck with it. In her novels, the reader can expect a clever plot, believable dialogue, and engaging characters. This adherence to a pattern that worked has contributed greatly to the popularity of her novels.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
First published: 1926
Type of work: Novel
In this novel, Dr. James Sheppard leads the reader through an account of the murder of his friend, Roger Ackroyd.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was Christie’s sixth novel and was published in 1926. It was the third novel that featured the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Like many of her other novels, the book is set in a small town and focuses on the interactions between characters who are well known to one another.
When the novel was first published, critical reactions were mixed because of the unusual narrative structure. Christie chose to have the murderer tell the story from his point of view. This device caused some consternation because some believed that Christie was not “playing fair” with her readers. They reasoned that, in crime fiction, if the novel is to be fair, the reader should be able to follow the same path the detective does in order to solve the crime. Some believed that by having the narrator as the murderer, the reader would not be able to follow the path of the clues, since the murderer would, in order to protect his identity, conceal certain key pieces of information.
Christie circumvents this problem in several ways. First, Dr. Sheppard is an extremely believable character. Because of the remorseful tone he assumes at the beginning of the novel, the reader immediately trusts him and his observations. In addition, Poirot appears to trust Sheppard, including him in discussions with the police and, as Poirot admits, using Sheppard as a substitute for Captain Hastings, who had played Dr. Watson to Poirot’s Sherlock Holmes in previous novels. Thus, the reader is led to trust Sheppard because Poirot trusts him.
Sheppard also establishes an intimate rapport with the reader through the use of first-person narrative. The reader is privy to what are assumed to be the doctor’s private thoughts about Ackroyd’s murder. Poirot also confides in Sheppard and often asks his opinion of people within the town. Again, this action on the part of Christie serves to inspire confidence in the narrator; the reader does not suspect him because Poirot does not, and because Christie has, as in previous novels, established Poirot as a reliable source and a good judge of human nature.
Another aspect to the novel in regard to the narration is the comparatively small role that Poirot plays. The reader is accustomed to seeing him as the main character—almost as a master puppeteer who guides the movements of all around him. In fact, the readers expect Poirot to manipulate them, for this is the nature of crime fiction in general: The reader is manipulated by the detective to see things his or her way. Christie, however, chooses to radically depart from this formula. Instead of Poirot manipulating the reader, Sheppard manipulates both the reader and Poirot. The reader is unaware of this subterfuge, however, until the end of the novel, when all the other probable suspects have been eliminated and only Sheppard remains. The reader is then privy to Sheppard’s confession, and all the pieces to this very complex puzzle fall into place.
A Pocket Full of Rye
First published: 1953
Type of work: Novel
Jane Marple travels to Yewtree Lodge to try to discover who has murdered her former maid, Gladys Martin.
A Pocket Full of Rye opens with the death of Rex Fortescue, a successful but not universally liked financier. Curiously, rye is discovered in one of his pockets. In addition, it was not his afternoon tea that poisoned him but something that he had eaten at breakfast that contained taxine, a derivative of yew. Before long, Gladys Martin, the parlor maid, has been strangled, and Rex’s attractive second wife, Adele, has received a dose of cyanide in her tea.
The police are baffled, both by the methods the murderer has chosen to employ and by the number of motives. Adding to the confusion is the sudden appearance of Lancelot Fortescue and his wife Pat. Years before, Lance had moved to Africa after his father had turned him out of the house for ostensibly forging a check. According to him, he and his father had made their peace, and he has come back to enter the family business, much to the dismay of the oldest son, Percival, who resides at Yewtree Lodge with his wife, Jennifer. All parties stand to gain from the death of Rex Fortescue. Consequently, there are nearly as many motives as there are suspects, and no one can adequately account for his or her time. Adding to the confusion are the rye in Rex’s pocket and a clothespin clipped to the nose of Gladys Martin.
Miss Marple enters the Fortescue home as a former employer of Gladys Martin. She wants to see the girl’s murderer found. Inspector Neele quickly finds that Miss Marple is a valuable asset and asks that she lend a hand in finding out information about the family. Miss Marple is aided in her endeavors by Miss Ramsbottom, Rex Fortescue’s eccentric sister-in-law from his first marriage. She likes Miss Marple because Marple is sensible, and she insists that Marple stay at Yewtree Lodge.
The continued presence of Miss Marple unnerves the household, with the exception of Miss Ramsbottom, but greatly aids Inspector Neele, who finds her observations invaluable. In addition, Miss Marple is the quintessential objective observer. She does not know anyone in the household except the late Gladys Martin and so is in a position to evaluate objectively the various members of the family.
Throughout the novel, the reader sees Christie employ her own powers of observation to bring the characters to life. As in most of her novels, the setting is sketched and the reader is left to fill in the fine details. With the characters, however, Christie takes great care to see that all necessary details are supplied for the reader. Facets of the characters are often revealed through dress and everyday actions.
This novel also serves to give the reader a fairly complete portrait of Jane Marple. Christie herself described her as “dithery,” and that she is. This behavior, however, is more camouflage than anything else. Miss Marple does indeed take in everything around her. Christie also uses this novel to show the benefits of age. Inspector Neele does not see the significance of the pocket full of rye, the clothespin on Glady’s nose, or the fact that Adele was poisoned while eating scones with honey. Yet when Miss Marple reminds him of the rhyme from Mother Goose, several pieces of the puzzle fall into place.
The overriding theme of this novel is that justice must be served. Miss Marple gets involved in the murders because of Gladys Martin, a not-very-bright parlor maid. It is definitely Miss Marple’s belief that her murder deserves as much attention as the murder of a wealthy business executive. It is a theme present in many of Christie’s works: Justice is not simply for those who are privileged, but for all.