Agatha Christie Christie, Agatha (Vol. 6)

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Christie, Agatha (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3,320 words.)