Christie, Agatha 1890?–1976
An English novelist, short story writer, dramatist, poet, and essayist, Christie is celebrated as one of this century's foremost mystery writers. She has written over 100 novels, firmly establishing her character Hercule Poirot as the antithesis of Sherlock Holmes in the annals of English detective literature. Jane Marple is another of her memorable creations. Christie has also written under the pseudonyms of Mary Westmacott and A. C. Mallowan. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)
It would be nice if one could say that ["Curtain," the] final adventure of the most engagingly preposterous detective of the Golden Age were the best, but unhappily that isn't so. The very best Christies are like a magician's tricks, not only in the breathtaking sleights of phrase that deceive us but also in the way that, looking back afterward, we find the tricks to have been handled so that our deceit is partly self-induced…. ["The Murder of Roger Ackroyd"] was a technically outrageous book, one that shocked detectival purists like S. S. Van Dine, who said that she had cheated. "Curtain" has all of "Roger Ackroyd's" outrageousness, but only a fraction of its cunning. In the end one has a distinct sense of contrivance.
This need not much affect our appreciation of Poirot, or his creator. Poirot was originally conceived as a detective who should be, in style and appearance, totally unlike Sherlock Holmes. He certainly cannot be called more than two-dimensional…. [However,] in the best stories, by some … miracle, Poirot is a more convincing reasoner than any other fictional detective of his period. His vocabulary may be odd, and some of his recent cases are peopled by decidedly old-fashioned or out-of-date characters—like Colonel Luttrell and Major Allerton in "Curtain"—but Poirot himself is in some strange way believable.
Now that she has killed off her most famous character, it seems right to say something about Agatha Christie's own achievement. She is one of the much-diminished band of classical detective-story writers, for whom the detective and the puzzle are the thing. In recent years she has made some formal concessions to modernity, but none to the way life is actually lived. There are no more butlers and housemaids in her books, but nobody is seen doing any work. People may be labeled doctor, lawyer, secretary, accountant, but what they really are is suspects in a murder puzzle. They live in a world remote from the muggings of the 87th Precinct, the sexual or financial secrets of Simenon's provincial France or the seedy violence of Raymond Chandler's California. Like her contemporaries Dorothy Sayers and Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie was not only a lady but also ladylike, and she did not care to write about such things. Her books, like those of her sisters in crime, say something about manners but nothing about life. Yet within her chosen and unstrained limits, this serpent of old Thames has given all detective-story addicts immense enjoyment, and she has been the champion deceiver of our time.
Julian Symons, "Hercule Poirot, il est mort," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 12, 1975, p. 3.
[Christie's] characters are neither interesting in themselves nor particularly indicative of any class or country, but the parade of the suspects can leave someone not paying much attention to believe that the carefully timed appearances of each is a sign of carefully ordered lives, lived, in spite of the overwhelming evidence, better than their own.
What animates Christie's tireless completion of...
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her appointed rounds is her imperious innocence. Not only is someone "guilty," but in order for people to be suspects at all they must have done something to be guilty about. But these motives are only squiggles, passions for which Christie only knows the words. The murderer, when exposed and if male, may say "damn," but otherwise no one is distinguishable from anyone else. All suspects get equal time, and seem guilty of nothing more than being dull. In this way Christie does what is called playing fair. Readers of mysteries want a book that stays resolutely a book, walled off from life, and there may not be so much as a whimper of humanity in all eighty-five books.
What in other writers or in life one might call sexism, snobbery, or racism is in Christie only a passion for keeping the squiggles in place. What in other writers might be an image of hell, paradise, or both—an isolated group on a train or a boat, in a country house or a village—is in Christie only a backdrop for the dance of words. At some moments in some of the books one suspects she is being shrewd or observant about a character. Perhaps she is, too, but soon that potentially interesting character, or situation, is ordered back into the lockstep of the dance, because we must get on with it. (pp. 37-8)
Roger Sale, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1976 NYREV, Inc.), April 29, 1976.
It was a glorious moment in Conan Doyle's The Final Problem when Sherlock Holmes and the arch-villain Moriarity tumbled to their deaths at Reichenbach Falls, their bodies locked together in a wrestling embrace. It had all the elements of an inevitable end, the great detective concluding his life work by destroying his own mirror image….
The death of Hercule Poirot in Agatha Christie's Curtain has similar elements. Like Holmes, Poirot is facing the arch-antagonist of his career, a villain who sits at the center of a web of seemingly unconnected murders, who will strike again, but who cannot be caught because there is no proof of crime. Like Holmes, Poirot faces a criminal whose powers are a twisted version of his own…. And like Holmes too, Poirot goes down with his enemy, leaving behind a letter that will explain the final events to a bewildered assistant.
But here the similarities end. Poirot's death is much less dramatic. The aged, arthritic Belgian detective and his older but no wiser Watson, Captain Hastings, return to Styles, the country estate of Christie's first book which introduced the pair fifty-six years ago…. The setting can hardly match Switzerland's rapids, Poirot is but a dim reflection of Holmes, and his antagonist is nowhere near so terrifying as the evil professor. For all the earnest straining after legend here, it does not quite work. (p. 80)
Curtain is not a triumph. Though written many years ago, it is already permeated by that weariness and solemnity which would become more evident in Christie's works as she grew older. One of her earlier virtues was a refusal to take herself too seriously. She enjoyed the game—laying out the false clues, the countless motives, the innumerable threads of coincidence and threats of murder, in a seemingly hopeless tangle, wasting no time on unnecessary description or character development except as these might serve as clues for the detective or red herrings for the reader. These early books claim no motive other than entertainment—some even had "Casts of Characters" in front which read like advertisements for the movies they might go on to become…. But Curtain, though written at a time when Christie could still turn out an engaging story, has little of this lightness and playfulness. Already there are hints of that bombastic and moralizing side of Agatha Christie—the one given to railing at the "younger generation" and such things—which would become more and more apparent as she aged.
In Curtain there is little respite from Christie's earnestness and "insights"; the book is all but buried under them. Worst of all, the puzzle and its solution—usually the centerpiece of Christie's mysteries and the part she executed best—simply do not come off. Her most memorable books … are memorable chiefly for that final unraveling when, most often, the suspects are gathered together to witness the unveiling of the murderer. The reader too witnesses an almost magical transformation of the events of the book through a paradigmatic act of understanding. But in Curtain this transformation fails to occur because the design of the book violates the rules of the genre. For one thing, the puzzle itself is a fraud, involving as it does a partial deception by Poirot of both Hastings and the reader. Secondly, the criminal's methods are absurd, even in the permissive context of mystery fiction. Thirdly, and most important, the criminal acts themselves are performed out of motives which are irrational and hence inaccessible to the reader. In mystery stories the introduction of unpredictable, irrational elements is inexcusable—one cannot play chess when one's opponent overturns the board. (pp. 80, 82)
Christie's crimes have a curious regularity to them…. These … are "class" murders, crimes which arise out of demanding another's place and not knowing one's own, or out of a desire to preserve an illusion hitherto sustained by deceit. The setting and the characters are usually British and sufficiently affluent to warrant the presence of a "butler." Poirot, on the other hand, is an outsider to the system, and thus in a perfect position to rectify the misdeeds of the criminal—another outsider, but one who is disguised. The denouement of these stories always involves the restoration of order, the return of things and people to their proper places in the hierarchy via a ritual exorcising of the disguised criminal.
Beyond the comforting, indeed the primal, regularity of these stories, however, there is something which also recalls the earlier, religious meaning of the word mystery: "truth that man can know by revelation alone," as Webster puts it. The unmasking of the deceiver … must come as a complete surprise, as revelation; the traitor may be anyone, but he is never what he seems, and he must be subtle, crafty, and clever, a diabolical opponent. The detective for his part has the conviction of the prophet doing God's will on earth. As the criminal works from below, so does the detective work from above; he sees through the masks of men's souls and finds the one among them who is dissembling virtue. With the purging of the criminal from the community, the random collection of former suspects is bound together for a moment and transfigured into a society bearing witness to revealed truth. Like the religious rites of ancient times, the solution of the mystery imparts "enduring bliss to the initiate." Poirot departs, leaving behind a better world; the victim, having played his necessary part in the drama, is all but forgotten.
Stretching a point perhaps, one could say that the skeleton of Christie's plots is in fact similar to that of the mystery-passion plays of the Middle Ages, with their ritualized tale of vengeance upon evil and the triumphant reversal of Christ's death. In this similarity, perhaps, lies one reason for the persistence in the contemporary detective novel (almost alone among literary genres) of overt prejudice against Jews and other outsiders. (pp. 83-4)
Curtain attempts to universalize the myth of the dark outsider by moving the criminal into every individual and thereby, so to speak, internalizing the Levantine. But the attempt is simply beyond the author's reach; Curtain is a mere gesture, a slight wave of an arthritic hand. Still, it will serve as a finish to Poirot. His death is no great loss. "I have a bourgeois attitude toward murder," he once remarked. "I disapprove of it." But though Poirot destroyed many villains before his own demise, he did not destroy the fear of these villains—the foreigners, traitors, climbers, and imposters, hiding among us, and plotting against us. It was this fear that was at the heart of Agatha Christie's darkness, and possibly of her popularity as well. (p. 84)
Edward Rothstein (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1976 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, June, 1976.
In a fifty-five year period a writer's style is bound to change, but although Christie's language has altered from using Victorian terms like "hark" for "listen" and "tantalus" for "bottle" in her books of the twenties, and even though her plots have evolved in line with the world's intrigues and wars, her basic genius of palming the ace in the best tradition of legerdemain has never varied.
Certainly her best mysteries include Murder on the Orient Express, The ABC Murders, And Then There Were None, and, of course, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but I have two favorites of my own that I would like to mention: Towards Zero, while Poirot-less, has Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard who uses cool British logic to solve the crime in much the same way that Poirot uses Gallic reasoning. This complex mystery is built on an unsuspected murder committed by a child who has grown into a guilt-ridden, psychopathic adult. Another favorite is Death Comes as the End, one of the mystery novels that comes from Christie's experiences on archaeological digs…. This mystery takes place in ancient Egypt, where human nature and motivation are shown to be strikingly similar to today's.
Through the years I have continued to check out the latest Christie thriller at the library, and I enjoyed every one. I did, however, consider that enjoyment as a sort of throwback to childhood—like a taste for Crackerjack. It wasn't until I was packing for a year's stay in Central Africa that I realized that my logic had been arguing with my taste. I could take just so many pounds of books with me, and since there was no other kind of entertainment where I was going, I had to consider what sort of fiction I wanted to have with me for pure relaxation and enjoyment. There was no question about what I wanted to read by a kerosene lamp; Agatha Christie mysteries won by a landslide. (pp. 184-85)
Betty Jochmans, "A Note Written on the Day that Agatha Christie's Death Was Announced," in Prairie Schooner (© 1976 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Summer, 1976, pp. 183-85.
The writing in "Sleeping Murder" is flat but heavily influenced by psychiatry, with many references to childhood traumas, guilt complexes, persecution manias.
Christie's working people—servants, gardeners, nurses—are usual caricatures, and her "romantic" newlywed couple as usual live up to their names, in this case Gwenda and Giles. Her technique of making innocent people look momentarily guilty and sinister ones appear suddenly innocent is rigid and mechanical, and the puzzle itself conforms to Raymond Chandler's classic description of the formula British puzzle story about "how somebody stabbed Mrs. Pottington Postlethwaite III with the solid platinum poniard just as she flatted on the top note of the Bell Song from Lakmé in the presence of fifteen ill-assorted guests."
And yet, for all her adherence to formula, Christie in one way transcends it. "Sleeping Murder" is not among her most skillful works, but it displays her personal sense of what she calls "evil," of murder as an affront and a violation and an act of unique cruelty. She was not an imaginative or original enough writer to explore this, but when Marple tells us here that "it was real evil that was in the air last night," Christie makes us feel her curious primitive shiver. It is certainly the most interesting aspect of her personality and probably accounts for her extraordinary success. (p. 1)
Gavin Lambert, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 19, 1976.