Christie, Agatha 1891–1976
Dame Agatha's mystery novels and short stories have acquired for her one of the largest and most devoted audiences of all time. In addition to those, she wrote several successful plays, one of which, The Mousetrap, is the longest-running play in British stage history. And "Murder on the Orient Express," one of thirteen film versions of her work, was the most successful British film ever made. Her work has been praised so highly and so often that critics seem at a loss for further specific commendations. It is still important to note, though, that her fiction may be read as more than "mere entertainment"; as J. C. Reid has written, "her novels … reveal more about the attitudes of her class and shifting social concepts than many of those who read them for their ingenious patterns of plot realize." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)
The Mysterious Affair at Styles is not one of Agatha Christie's best detective stories, although it is based upon a characteristically cunning idea and contains some of those equally characteristic sleights of hand by which the reader is deceived into making what prove to be unjustifiable assumptions. It ushered in a very distinctive detective, the Belgian Hercule Poirot, whose appearance impresses one as being rather like that of Humpty Dumpty with a mustache, and a Watson of extreme stupidity in Captain Hastings. It revealed a gift for writing light, agreeable, and convincing dialogue, and the plot was constructed with firmness and coherence. Yet these things had been done before. Agatha Christie's book is original in the sense that it is a puzzle story which is solely that, which permits no emotional engagement with the characters. Bentley wavered into seriousness against his original intention; it is possible to be disturbed about the fate of Mason's Celia Harland; the reader's identification with the principal character is a prerequisite of enjoying Mrs. Rinehart. Christie's first book is notable because it ushered in the era during which the detective story came to be regarded as a puzzle pure and complex, and in which interest in the fates of the characters was increasingly felt to be not only unnecessary but also undesirable. It was the beginning of what came to be known as the Golden Age. (pp. 98-9)
Agatha Christie's career moved in a steady but unspectacular way until 1926, when The Murder of Roger Ackroyd appeared…. The setting is a village deep in the English countryside; Roger Ackroyd dies in his study; there is a butler who behaves suspiciously but whom we never really suspect, and for good servant measure a housekeeper, a parlormaid, two housemaids, a kitchenmaid, and a cook. We are offered two of the maps that had by now become obligatory, one of the house and grounds, the other of the study. So far so conventional, but we notice at once the amused observant eye which makes something interesting out of the standard material. It is a mark of the best Golden Age writers that they were unable to stick to those injunctions about subduing the characters. The narrator's sister Caroline, good-natured but intensely inquisitive, a retailer of one ridiculous rumor after another, is a genuine comic character done with affectionate ridicule. The detective is Poirot, who in the best Holmesian style asks obscure questions that turn out to be meaningful, like his concern here with the color of a suspect's boots. (p. 106)
During the thirties, Agatha Christie produced, year after year, puzzle stories of varied ingenuity and constant liveliness. Her skill was not in the tight construction of plot, nor in the locked-room mystery, nor did she often make assumptions about the scientific and medical knowledge of readers. The deception in these Christie stories is much more like the conjurer's sleight of hand. She shows us the ace of spades face up. Then she turns it over, but we still know where it is, so how has it been transformed into the five of diamonds? It is on her work during this decade, plus half a dozen of her earlier and later books, that her reputation chiefly rests, perhaps most specifically upon Peril at End House (1932), Lord Edgware Dies (1933) [in America, Thirteen at Dinner], Why Didn't They Ask Evans? (1934) [in America, The Boomerang Clue], The ABC Murders (1936) and Ten Little Niggers (1939) [in America, And Then There Were None]. There were some mis-hits in her very considerable output at this time, but she succeeded wonderfully often in her two objectives of telling an interesting story about reasonably plausible characters and of creating a baffling mystery. Her work stayed at its peak until roughly the end of World War II. Since then it has shown a slow decline, although she is alone among Golden Age writers in remaining as readable as ever and in her capacity sometimes still to bring off a staggering conjuring trick. (pp. 129-30)
Julian Symons, in his Mortal Consequences: A History—From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (copyright © 1972 by Julian Symons; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1972.
[When Edmund Wilson asked, forty years ago,] "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" [his] answer—"Not I, nor any other intelligent reader"—helped to hurl the mystery-novel form into the nearest dustbin, dismissed as trash. Wilson fashioned a comfortable logic for literary tastemakers—that mysteries are trash, that the Great Unwashed find it easy and likable to read trash, that mysteries are therefore popular. Appropriate, perhaps, for Erle Stanley Gardner or Ellery Queen or Mickey Spillane. For Agatha Christie, however, the simplistic toss into the spittoon just won't suffice. Only Shakespeare and the Bible can compete with the Christie canon for total sales or, more significantly, for variety of foreign-language translations. It is a relatively easy matter to create profitable trash for a readership in one place at one time, catering to trends and hot topics and current lowest common denominators. But, for 55 years, Agatha Christie has commanded vast audiences from all cultures with novels that, as it happens, reflect the decade-by-decade changes in social mores perhaps less than those of any noticeable, long-lived writer. The Mysterious Affair at Styles, vintage 1920, never goes out of print. Something timeless is going on here.
Possible explanations. A great storyteller? Yes. Sometimes. A dozen, perhaps twenty, of the eighty Christie volumes provide object lessons in crafting a tale of suspense. A few (The Hollow or At Bertram's Hotel, for example) are even well written by novelistic standards. But Curtain is not well written or well told by any standards, and it will be read and reread, just as Nemesis and The Big Four, equally weak as narratives, have taken their places in the always-in-stock library. Agatha Christie surely deserves her reputation as a genius of pacing and plotting, but, even when those qualities are reported missing, something else remains. That "something else" certainly has little to do with the illumination of character. Christie's detectives, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, and the occasional Superintendent Battle or Mrs. Oliver, have their oft-repeated physical and behavioral trademarks, but reality never intrudes upon their stagy personae. Albert Finney embodied the ideal cinematic Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express precisely because his was so obviously a larger-than-life, layers-of-make-up performance. Similarly, actress Margaret Rutherford chose simply to ignore the Miss Marple of the novels and gave us, joyfully, Margaret Rutherford undiluted, demonstrating how small a role character plays in the vitality of a Christie story. (Imagine, by way of contrast, an actor bypassing Conan Doyle's portrait while impersonating Sherlock Holmes.) Moreover, supporting characters in the Christie world often seem to be refugees from Gothic romances, Noel Coward comedies, or turn-of-the-century melodramas. Doddering colonels, addled dowagers, headstrong heiresses, sensual Latins, family retainers, prodigal sons, loyal spinsters, absent-minded ministers. Without self-consciousness and with occasional ulterior motivation, Agatha Christie most often uses a palette of clichés to paint in her cast of characters.
One reads Conan Doyle for the Baker Street household and for the intellectual intricacies of the Holmesian deductions. One reads Dorothy Sayers for Lord Peter's life style, for the baroque curves in the language and the landscapes. One reads Raymond Chandler for the Marlovian outlook on life, Rex Stout for Nero Wolfe and Archie and the orchids. One reads Agatha Christie—and only Agatha Christie (Edgar Allan Poe to one side)—for the murders themselves.
Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd? Virtually everyone who's read the book. (Edmund Wilson [who proclaimed that no one cared who killed Ackroyd] admitted to having sampled only one Christie—Death Comes as the End. A loser. Agreed.) For the sake of the last five pages of a Christie mystery, readers will forgive the stereotypes, the caricatures, the forced comedy, and the narrative lapses. Unlike virtually all other detective fiction, the Christie library is read for substance, not form or style. It truly does matter who-done-it; it matters enough for unnerved readers to lose sleep, to reread in disbelief, to come back for more. (pp. 51-2)
"The truth is that one doesn't really know anything about anybody. Not even the people who are nearest to you." So says a character in A Caribbean Mystery; so says Agatha Christie in everything she's written. "The least likely person," which serves other dispensers of suspense merely as a device for the bamboozling of readers, comes from Christie as a thematic imperative, a warning, a keening. And, for a world in a century of growing paranoia—personal, national, planetary—the Christie mysteries offer a working out, an acting out of the fears that we must deal with in silence or be called mad. (p. 53)
Evil is real, Agatha Christie reminds us again and again, and not merely a literary convention developed to make detective stories possible. As if she were doing penance for making light of evil by using it to entertain, Christie attempts to convey a sense of danger beyond the confines of paper and ink. Comforting clichés of character and situation are arranged artistically, only to be brutally knocked apart when the perception of evil's reality and pervasiveness displaces the falsely mirrored picture…. Agatha Christie may not have been the first writer to toy with the notion of the seemingly mad being the sanest of us all, but she is certainly the only mystery writer to incorporate that theme into a genre otherwise weak in the philosophy department. (p. 54)
If the essence of the Christie magic is indeed its illumination of paranoid fantasies, the source of that distrust of the world may be … the author's unconscious sense of her own capacity for evil—projected upon those around her. The false identities, the costumes and make-up, the sexual confusion, the paradox of victims and villains, of sanity and madness, the doubts about the people one loves and trusts—all point to the realization that Agatha Christie deals with the individual's suspicions and unsureness of his or her own identity. Who are we and what acts are we capable of? Add a clever plot, Hercule Poirot, and the English countryside, and it's no wonder Agatha Christie is giving Shakespeare and the Bible a run for the money. (p. 55)
Josh Rubins, "Whodunit?," in Harvard Magazine (copyright © 1975 Harvard Magazine; reprinted by permission), October, 1975, pp. 51-5.
[Most] Christie readers will willingly suspend disbelief as long as that blissful ritual of murder among "nice" people unfolds according to the dictates, not of actuality, but of convention (the butler never does it unless he is a gentleman in disguise). Readers of the hardboiled school or of police procedurals can take heavy doses of reality, but Christie fans hear a cozier, more muffled drummer. They want, all in one go, both violence and its denial. This is the fix that Mrs. Christie and the other so-called "teacake ladies" promise their addicts….
The Soviet critic who in the late Fifties said Mrs. Christie "reflects the poisoned air which exists in bourgeois society" may have been on to something. When we open her books, we are enclosed in a claustrophobic setting peopled by suspects and victims, along with servants (usually portrayed by Mrs. Christie as dolts), mulish policemen, and the detective, sometimes accompanied by a thickheaded friend. (Poirot's crony Captain Hastings makes Holmes's Watson seem a giant of intellect….) (p. 24)
Her sleight of hand is to reveal and render harmless the death and hostility that haunt us—no matter how hard we pretend they do not—by incorporating them into a game. We never mourn her victims, and their deaths never seem agonizing (although she did make a mistake in her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, by going on too long about a woman in the throes of arsenic poisoning). When a corpse is discovered, speculation immediately begins about where this character or that one was standing when the drink was tampered with, leaving little time for any response but curiosity.
She further distances death by bringing it about in an upper-middle-class milieu of consummate orderliness, where a housemaid will always answer the bell-pull—unless she has been strangled after unwisely burbling to the cook that she saw something funny from her window under the eaves. Nobody neglects meals just because two or three of the other guests have been killed. There is a kind of marvelous aplomb at work here, of the sort associated with the British at war. There is also a suggestion of snobbery in this constricted view, and certainly the question arises as to whether the society Mrs. Christie depicts ever existed in England—even 40 years ago. If it did not, one suspects Mrs. Christie would have invented it just the same…. Interestingly, she has made a point of saying she avoids the sordid, as though the deaths for gain or revenge she describes have nothing sordid about them.
The highest card in her artful trumping of death is the sleuth, essentially an "armchair detective" (such a snug term), who orders the chaos of events into a satisfactory pattern, transforming the visceral into the cerebral. Both Poirot and Miss Marple are made a little bit absurd, so that we do not begrudge them their astuteness. Encountered in book after book, they become well-loved, gift-bearing uncles and aunts. They will set things to rights and uncover the murderer—who is always unlikely, but rarely, thank God, likable. Emotional dissonances seldom intrude upon her codas. (pp. 25-6)
Her reputation soared with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), although its trick ending outraged not a few sensibilities. It has become such a classic of the genre that when Edmund Wilson set out, in the Forties, to attack the detective story, he called his critique "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" Obviously not Wilson, who found Mrs. Christie's writing "mawkish and banal." (p. 26)
Her efforts have won her a place in Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum in London, cheek by jowl with Picasso, as well as two comfortable houses in the country, a flat in London, and the distinction of having written a play, The Mousetrap, that has had the longest continuous run in Britain (opened on November 25, 1952, and still running). She … enjoyed the supreme accolade of having the death of Hercule Poirot (a sad event in Curtain) announced on the front page of The New York Times on August 6, 1975. If she deserves such recognition, it is because she has provided trustworthy escape fiction during tumultuous years when denial was often as necessary as confrontation. (p. 27)
Ralph Tyler, "Curtains for Poirot," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1975 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), October 4, 1975, pp. 24-7.
The Christie output was torrential: 83 books, including a half-dozen romances written under the name Mary Westmacott; 17 plays, nine volumes of short stories, and Come, Tell Me How You Live, in which she described her field explorations with her second husband, British Archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan. The number of printed copies of her books is conservatively put at 300 million. New Guinea cargo cultists have even venerated a paperback cover of her Evil Under the Sun—quite possibly confusing the name Christie with Christ.
Her own characters were much less exotic: doctors, lawyers, army officers, clergymen. Her stalking grounds were usually genteel English houses, and she rarely strayed. "I could never manage miners talking in pubs," she once said, "because I don't know what miners talk about in pubs."…
In a Christie murder mystery, neatness not only counts, it is everything. As the genre's undisputed queen of the maze, she laid her tantalizing plots so precisely and dropped her false leads so cunningly that few—if any—readers could guess the identity of the villain. The reader surrenders to an enigma in which the foul act of murder seems less a sin against man or God than a breach of etiquette. Yet, as W. H. Auden observed, the British murder mystery, with its accent on clever detection rather than violence, seems to provide an escape back into the Garden of Eden. There innocence and order are restored, and readers "may know love as love and not as the law." The Great Restorer is the godlike genius detective. Christie's own genius resided in a mind of intimidating clarity. She never allowed emotion or philosophical doubt to cloud her devious conceptions or hinder the icy logic of their untanglings.
"Dame Agatha: Queen of the Maze," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), January 26, 1976, p. 75.
As anyone vulnerable to publicity already knows, in Curtain the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot solves his last case and dies. Not anything equivocal either like toppling over the edge of the Reichenbach Falls. On page 238 like a doornail is he dead.
On page 35 I had guessed the identity of the murderer, by the next page knew the victim, and on page 112 deduced the motive. (On page 41 I had changed my mind and reversed murderer and victim, but on page 69 returned stead-fast to my original position.) The fact that I was wrong on all counts at book's end did not affect my opinion that I should have been right. It is something like the same feeling I get when throwing aside a half-finished crossword puzzle. I could work the whole thing out if I were to put in the effort of a lifetime: but only pathological illiterates have the necessary vocabulary to perform the task effortlessly.
Yes, readers, Book Inspector Heidenry is puzzled by this and almost every other detective novel he has read. The "atmosphere" of a Christie whodunit seems to be its weakest point. The characters operate in a sterile landscape that only those who have seen Margaret Rutherford in such glorious sleuthings about as Murder Most Foul are able to make allowances for. As usual the plotting and clue-dropping is so preposterous as to defeat utterly the normal genius of the human mind. As for motive I should think that Dame Agatha, like many of her colleagues, often cheated her readers—as here—by trespassing into the realm of science fiction. And I must finally complain that the method by which murder is committed in this instance is just about the most far-fetched in the annals of crime.
Perhaps if westerns and Gothics and romances are seldom popular with serious readers, while detective fiction continues to be read in every quarter, that is because almost uniquely in literature it calls upon the analytical powers of the mind. And yet so rarely, I find, with any real grace. Perhaps the secret of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was that he was above all a gracious man of letters. In Curtain Dame Agatha has written an almost exclusively mathematical skeleton of a novel; and those who wish to see just how pure their deductive capabilities are will find the opportunity here. Any other aspect of this book, or judgment thereupon, it would be an inconsequence to dwell upon or pronounce. (pp. 120-21)
John Heidenry, in Commonweal (copyright © 1976 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), February 13, 1976.