Agatha Christie Christie, Agatha (Vol. 8)

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Christie, Agatha (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 His vocabulary may be odd, and some of his recent cases are peopled by decidedly old-fashioned or out-of-date characters—like Colonel Luttrell and Major Allerton in "Curtain"—but Poirot himself is in some strange way believable.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 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...

(The entire section is 2,575 words.)