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Agatha Christie 1890–1976
See also, Agatha Christie Criticism and volumes 6, 8, and 110.
(Has also written under the names Mary Westmacott and Agatha Christie Mallowan) English novelist, playwright, short story writer, and poet. Christie is best known for her detective stories, which are characterized by their ingenious plots and psychological clues. Many of them are considered classics of their genre. Christie has been called the "Queen of Crime," having written nearly 100 books during a fifty-year span. She created one of literature's most popular detectives in Hercule Poirot, a retired Belgian who uses his "little grey cells" to solve crimes in partnership with the bumbling Hastings. Her other popular characters are sleuths Miss Jane Marple, a spinster, and husband-and-wife team Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. Christie's first detective novel, written to meet a challenge by her sister, was The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Published in 1920, it has never been out of print. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, with its surprising dénouement, is credited by Howard Haycraft as exemplifying "The Golden Age of Detective Story Writing." The Mousetrap, which Christie adapted from her novella "The Three Blind Mice," is the longest running play in modern theater history. Her works have been translated into over 100 languages and have been outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare. A true mystery still surrounds Christie's ten-day disappearance during the break-up of her first marriage. Nor does An Autobiography shed light upon this event, which gave her valuable publicity and which she claimed at the time was due to amnesia. Her second marriage to archaeologist Max Mallowan and her subsequent travels with him throughout the Middle East provided material for several of her novels. Come, Tell Me How You Live is a personal account of these expeditions. Christie also wrote several romantic novels under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott. Many of her works were adapted for the screen with Murder on the Orient Express being perhaps the most successful. Witness for the Prosecution won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1955 as the best foreign play of the year. Before she herself died, Christie wrote Curtain and Sleeping Murder in which Poirot and Miss Marple die. Adverse criticism of her work focuses on her undistinguished style and on the lack of depth in her rather stereotyped characters, on the absence of any sociological analysis of the crimes, and on her repeated use of the "least-likely-person" device. In spite of, or perhaps because of these characteristics, Christie's varied and imaginative plot puzzles have consistently entertained her many fans for almost sixty years. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 6, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 61-64.)
["The Murder on the Links"] is a remarkably good detective story which can be warmly commended to those who like that kind of fiction….
The plot has peculiar complications and the reader will have to be very astute indeed if he guesses who the criminal is until the last complexity has been unraveled. The author is notably ingenious in the construction and unraveling of the mystery, which develops fresh interests and new entanglements at every turn. She deserves commendation also for the care with which the story is worked out and the good craftsmanship with which it is written. Although there is not much endeavor to portray character, except in the case of M. Poirot, several of the personages are depicted with swiftly made, expressive and distinctive lines. M. Poirot is an ingenious and interesting addition to the gallery of fictional detectives. He stands out from the...
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author's pages with a real vitality. (p. 14)
The New York Times Book Review (© 1923 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 25, 1923.
When in the first of M. Poirot's adventures [Poirot Investigates] we find a famous diamond that has once been the eye of a god and a cryptic message that it will be taken from its possessor "at the full of the moon," we are inclined to grow indignant on behalf of our dear old friend the moonstone [in Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone]. But we have no right to do so, for the story is quite original. Moreover, if Captain Hastings, who tells the story, is a little like Watson always anxious to display his cleverness and always getting snubbed, every detective has had a foil since the days of Lecoq. In fact M. Poirot is a thoroughly pleasant and entertaining person, an admirable companion for a railway journey. (pp. 209-10)
The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1924; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), April 3, 1924.
Hercule Poirot of "Poirot Investigates" is the latest of a long line of successors to the immortal [Sherlock] Holmes who carry on the industry of criminal investigation during intervals that elapse between the resurrections of the wizard of Baker Street. There seems no reason why the dynasty should ever come to an end. Any character with strongly marked national eccentricities [can be made to serve]….
[Agatha Christie's hero] is traditional almost to caricature, but his adventures are amusing and the problems which he unravels skillfully tangled in advance. Poirot does not have recourse to morphia or improvise on the violin: He arrives at his deductions, sometimes incredibly swift, by means of a process which he himself terms "the little gray cells," but it is to be feared that some of the evidence he collects would fare badly in criminal courts….
Mrs. Christie's new book, in a word, is for the lightest of reading. But its appeal is disarmingly modest and it will please the large public which relishes stories of crime, but likes its crime served decorously. (p. 5)
The New York Times Book Review (© 1924 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 20, 1924.
[The Murder of Roger Ackroyd] is a well-written detective story of which the only criticism might perhaps be that there are too many curious incidents not really connected with the crime which have to be elucidated before the true criminal can be discovered…. It is all very puzzling but the great Hercule Poirot, a retired Belgian detective, solves the mystery. It may safely be asserted that very few readers will do so. (p. 397)
The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1926; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), June 10, 1926.
There are doubtless many detective stories more exciting and bloodcurdling than "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd," but this reviewer has recently read very few which provide greater analytical stimulation. This story, though it is inferior to them at their best, is in the tradition of [Edgar Allan] Poe's analytical tales and the Sherlock Holmes stories. The author does not devote her talents to the creation of thrills and shocks, but to the orderly solution of a single murder, conventional at that, instead….
Roger Ackroyd is murdered one night under particularly perplexing circumstances…. In conventional detective-story style, seemingly trivial and extraneous details become clarifying evidence to [Poirot] while they baffle the reader only the more. It is really Poirot's method which holds the reader's interest. Matters become more and more complicated, till one surprising fact after another begins to reveal itself…. Miss Christie is not only an expert technician and a remarkably good story-teller, but she knows, as well, just the right number of hints to offer as to the real murderer.
In the present case his identity is made all the more baffling through the author's technical cleverness in selecting the part he is to play in the story; and yet her non-commital characterization of him makes it a perfectly fair procedure. The experienced reader will probably spot him, but it is safe to say that he will often have his doubts as the story unfolds itself.
"The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" cannot be too highly praised for its clean-cut construction, its unusually plausible explanation at the end, and its ability to stimulate the analytical faculties of the reader. It soars far above the crude, standardized mystery stories which have become such customary merchandise. (p. 18)
The New York Times (© 1926 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 18, 1926.
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WILLIAM ROSE BENÉT
"The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" really turns a new trick in detective fiction, surely a difficult enough achievement "with the competition so strong." Most writers of detective stories develop their own special detectives, following the lead of the famous. Agatha Christie's pet detective is Hercule Poirot….
Poirot is merely one factor in a tale so ingeniously constructed, so dextrously plotted as to warrant our complete admiration. It is unfortunate for us that we may not indicate here the most original element in Miss Christie's planning of the story. But that would be treachery to the author, and the reader has no right to be too well informed in advance….
Suffice it to say that Miss Christie's dedication of the book is to one "who likes an orthodox detective story, murder, inquest, and suspicion falling on every one in turn!" So she set herself to write such an orthodox story, with the strange result that she has succeeded in producing one of the few notable for originality.
For those who prefer certain backgrounds to others for their mystery tales we may say that Miss Christie's are always English in setting. To those who hate "loose ends" we may remark that this author ties all her knots neatly and bites off the thread. Her characterization is sharp in outline, her motivation is sound, complications of the plot never "get away from her." Everything in the puzzle falls neatly into place, and the complete picture leaves upon us an ineradicable impression. There are no inexplicable and glozed-over details. It is all an almost mathematical demonstration so far as the fundamental brainwork goes. Yet that it is no mere clever intellectual exercise, witness the fact that the reader is left with the strongest emotions of pity and wonder over the disastrous coil the weak and erring weave. There are indications, in fact, of an even deeper psychological insight than can be actively exercised in a book of this kind. For a detective story must move. The author cannot pause to philosophize. But one is rather closer in touch, in this tale, with the mad logic of actual criminality, with the criminal as a mainly average human being with one tragic twist, than is at all usual.
We do not overpraise this story, we believe, when we say that it should go on the shelf with the books of first rank in its field. The detective story pure and simple has as definite limitations of form as the sonnet in poetry. Within these limitations, with admirable structural art, Miss Christie has genuinely achieved.
William Rose Benét, "Out of the Usual," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright, 1926, by The Saturday Review Co., Inc.; reprinted with permission), July 24, 1926, p. 951.
[The Mysterious Affair at Styles] is a well-knit tale, which advances steadily to plausible conclusion without attempting the mystification of the reader by the introduction of unnecessary detail and false clues. Yet at one time or another suspicion is thrown on all the leading characters, and thrown on them with sufficient naturalness to be justified even after the story has reached its conclusion. Miss Christie writes with economy of incident, and the stereotyped properties of the usual detective of fiction. (p. 600)
The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright, 1927., by The Saturday Review Co., Inc.; reprinted with permission), February 19, 1927.
To describe adequately such a book as ["Partners in Crime"] is no easy matter. It is a group of short detective stories within a detective novel, for there is a rather sketchy, but nonetheless absorbing, plot which holds the separate tales together. The entire book and the separate stories may be taken as hilarious burlesque or parodies of current detective fiction, or they may be taken as serious attempts on the part of the author to write stories in the manner of some of the masters of the art. Taken either way, they are distinctly worth while…. Thomas Beresford and his wife, known to their friends as Tommy and Tuppence, are requested by Tommy's chief in the Foreign Office to take charge of a private detective agency whose owner has been arrested for certain activities without the law…. Both are omnivorous readers of detective fiction, and they decide to try out, one after the other, the methods of Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown, Inspector French and other fiction heroes, including Agatha Christie's own Hercule Poirot. The result is the merriest collection of detective stories it has been our good fortune to encounter. (p. 38)
The New York Times Book Review (© 1929 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 22, 1929.
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It is a pity that publishers and too friendly critics write in an extravagance of praise, especially when writing about fiction, for surely works of genius do not appear at the rate of half a dozen a month? Take Miss Westmacott's book [Giant's Bread], for example, which is one of the most loudly heralded. One advertisement states that its fluency and facility are so great that it is incredible that it can be a first novel. This is true enough, but it is cause for apprehension rather than hope. The fluency and facility which Miss Westmacott shows, particularly in the opening third of her novel, suggest not so much the born novelist as the born novel-reader with a gift for easy imitation; the childhood of Vernon Deyre and the various friends and relatives who surround him are described with rapid competence, but no better than in fifty other novels which concern themselves with the trials of young genius growing up. There is nothing particularly real about Vernon or any part of his career …, and the easy flow of the narrative makes one fear that Miss Westmacott could turn out, two a year, a dozen more novels of the kind.
This, however, is not all the truth, and our hopes for the author are roused by finding that in her own book she has provided the contrast. Even in the first part there are some touches, such as the gentleman who uttered the magic word "Brummagem," which are fresh and charming; and when Miss Westmacott reaches the world of music, which she really knows, her book suddenly comes alive and vivifies her characters with it. Jane, the singer, is a live and withal a charming personality, and in her presence the rather pallid and inadequate figure of Vernon's wife takes on for a while a real existence. The chapters in which Jane appears are worth the rest of the book put together, and make one wish to encourage Miss Westmacott to go on writing—but to prune her gift for imitating what half a hundred other authors can do. (p. 151)
Proteus, in New Statesman (© 1930 The Statesman Publishing Co. Ltd.), May 10, 1930.
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Giant's Bread is yet another of those stories which begin at the end and then go back to the beginning. In this case it is the life of a musician, a composer of genius…. [Miss Westmacott] traces the life of the composer from early childhood upwards, carefully emphasizing the influences of heredity, sex, and environment. As a first novel the book has obvious merits, though at the same time it is crowded with faults. Pre-eminently Miss Westmacott is not yet sufficiently certain of herself to know what to put in and what to leave out. Her sense of selection is still undetermined. She has, also, a tendency to be always on the side of the angels (though, of course, of the modern angel) and some of her characters are a little grotesque. Mrs. Deyre, for example, mother of the future genius, is a little too good (or bad) to be true. Granted that mothers of this type exist, and sometimes may even produce a genius, it is seldom that they contain all the attributes of maternal impossibility—hysteria, selfishness, stupidity and an overweening affection for their offspring—in the manner of Mrs. Deyre. However, when Miss Westmacott has learnt to tighten up her dialogue, and to imply more than she states, she will be able to give fuller effect to her capacity for telling a story, and her very saving sense of humour. They are qualities not to be rated low in a first novel. (p. 913)
I. M. Parsons, in The Spectator (© 1930 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), May 31, 1930.
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["Murder in the Calais Coach" is] your best mystery bet of the moment by quite some distance—a thoroughly up-to-snuff Christie that ought to go down in history as one of the author's slickest. Or should we say one of Hercule Poirot's slickest since that famous sleuth is again on the trail, his egg-shaped head and amusing locutions working overtime? Before we forget it, "Murder in the Calais Coach" seems to us just as good as "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd."…
One of Mrs. Christie's charms is, of course, that she writes in the civilized manner, and that always helps. Then, her mystery technique is nothing short of swell. She's probably the best suspicion scatterer and diverter in the business. If you find your old friend, credibility, seeming to slip in the later stages of this exciting tale, don't worry—for Mrs. Christie is working up to something most unusual by this very means. There's an alibi for everything that appears a leetle stretched. Indeed, we'll go so far as to say that "Murder in the Calais Coach" is a tour de force in the way of an artificial and no less gripping riddle. But you'll have to read it to find out just what is meant by this profound judgement. (p. 12)
Will Cuppy, in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), March 4, 1934.
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The Garden-of-Live-Flowers incident in the Alice-mythos anticipates the method of the modern detection-fan. To find the Red Queen he has learnt to go in the most unlikely direction. So now the hard-pressed writer is inclined to try a double bluff and make his criminal the obvious suspect throughout. It would give away her whole plot to tell which of these bluffs Mrs. Christie employs in [The A.B.C. Murders]: one can only chalk up yet another defeat at her hands and admit sadly that she has led one up the garden path with her usual blend of duplicity and fairness. This is all the more riling, as she conveys throughout the book a subtle suggestion that she is not playing fair…. Moreover she deceives us, not by irrelevant red herrings, but by the identical trick the A.B.C. murderer uses to deceive the police…. The characters, particularly that of the murderer, are rather too perfunctorily sketched. Apart from this, one can have nothing but praise for The A.B.C. Murders, which is really a little masterpiece of construction. (pp. 271-72)
Nicholas Blake, in The Spectator (© 1936 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), February 14, 1936.
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Mrs. Christie has designed her latest masterpiece [Death on the Nile] as if she intended it to illustrate a text-book on detective writing. In Part I the characters are collected from different parts of the world and assembled in Egypt ready for anything; in Part II the individuals are moulded by social intercourse into a tragic group ready for murder; in Part III the predestined victim is killed and the reader should be ready with his solution. But is he? You can take your choice of motive: revenge, robbery, to escape exposure, jealousy, a political assassination or an act of social retribution. Each motive has an appropriate representative on board that Nile steamer. Those who imagine they have an inkling of Mrs. Christie's psychology will take a sly look at some of the faces…. As Poirot put it, and you can always believe Poirot: "It is more than odd—it is impossible! The sequence of events is impossible." But as Colonel Race replied (the Colonel from Cards on the Table, and you ought to be able to believe that Colonel, surely): "Not impossible since it happened." That is Mrs. Christie's magic—her crime is unbelievable, but her solution will not only be believed, but rapturously believed. (p. 1067)
Ralph Partridge, in The New Statesman & Nation (© 1937 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), December 18, 1937.
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Trust Agatha Christie to turn out the brightest and generally slickest mystery currently at hand. Once more [in "Death on the Nile"] she makes most of her rivals look a bit silly with her skill in every department of the puzzler's art—or is it a science? Her main achievement this time—for she always performs some outstanding feat—probably lies in covering up the killer who ran amuck on the S.S. Karnak while some highly polished friends and enemies were returning from the Second Cataract; among them, fortunately, was Hercule Poirot, the little Belgian with the eggshaped head who saw death coming well in advance….
Mrs. Christie gives you a bird's-eye view of the whole situation and its ramifications before she starts the fatal Egyptian holiday, introducing her characters in their natural habitats in a brief first part, with everybody converging toward the land of the Nile…. The trip has not a dull moment, and if things may not often happen like that in real life, few fans will object to that. The amount of pertinent material our author gets into her tale without breaking the melodic line, as it were, is quite amazing, and should be a lesson to the thinner bafflers. (p. 9)
Will Cuppy, in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation: reprinted by permission), February 6, 1938.
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Mrs. Christie is known to all connoisseurs of detective stories as beyond comparison the finest practitioner of this delightful craft. She should long ago have received the Order of Merit, as having given more and richer pleasure to the English-speaking race than all other living persons, except perhaps Mr. [Charlie] Chaplin, Mr. [George Bernard] Shaw and Mr. [P. G.] Wodehouse. It is marvellous that anyone should invent a new method of putting experienced readers off the scent, but almost beyond belief that this should be done repeatedly by one writer: in The Man in the Brown Suit, Peril at End House, Lord Edgware Dies. Death on the Orient Express, as in no other stories, she has invented an entirely new device, and the new device has been different each time. The point of course is that, readers being so sophisticated and alert, it is not enough to (deceptively) clear the real criminal in their eyes: the frightfully difficult task is somehow to prevent them even from considering the real criminal at all. (p. 458)
Death on the Nile is excellent, but by no means at the level of her best. I realized who committed the murder—and even before it was committed: this I have never before achieved in a Christie book. And there are too many red herrings—exceedingly rufous and big as salmon. In a word, the story is far more mechanical than is usual. But the characterization, dialogue, the descriptions of Egyptian sights, sounds and life are all charmingly done. (pp. 458-59)
Gilbert Norwood, "Another Christie," in The Canadian Forum, April, 1938, pp. 458-59.
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[It is no use trying to compare Mrs. Christie] with other writers of detection. She stands hors concours, in a class of her own. No one else in the world would have attempted seriously to manipulate a plot like that of Ten Little Niggers without a hopeless presentiment of failure…. Mrs. Christie disdains contraptions. She faces her readers with her bare hands and her sleeves rolled up; and she sells them ten dummies beautifully, one after the other, with the exquisite timing of a Rugby International three-quarter going through a pack of clumsy yokels to score a try under the posts…. There are ten people cooped up on Nigger Island who put on a gramophone record and hear their death-sentence. After sentence has been executed Scotland Yard asks "Who did it?" But only Mrs. Christie survives to tell. Apart from one little dubious proceeding there is no cheating; the reader is just bamboozled in a straightforward way from first to last. To show her utter superiority over our deductive faculty, from time to time Mrs. Christie even allows us to know what every character present is thinking—and still we can't guess! If it were not for that iota of hanky-panky Ten Little Niggers would be the most colossal achievement of a colossal career. As it is the book must rank with Mrs. Christie's previous best, alongside Roger Ackroyd, Lord Edgware, Styles, The Man in the Brown Suit, and Death on the Nile, on the top notch of detection. (pp. 726, 728)
Ralph Partridge, in The New Statesman & Nation (© 1939 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), November 18, 1939.
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For thirteen years Mrs. Christie's admirers have been waiting for her to reproduce the superlative form of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Once or twice their hopes have been raised: The A.B.C. Murders very nearly came up to scratch, but the common run of Poirot's adventures has produced little more than a half-light from the little grey cells. Now at last the expected chef-d'oeuvre has appeared. Ten Little Niggers is as near a perfect crime puzzle as we are likely to see. It is short, sans Poirot, exciting, baffling, and scrupulously fair. To divulge any of the plot would be to take the edge off the reader's enjoyment. It should be enough to say that the book is Agatha Christie's masterpiece. (p. 878)
Rupert Hart-Davis, in The Spectator (© 1939 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), December 15, 1939.
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Eight guests, two servants, but no host or hostess—that is the situation [of "And Then There Were None", published in Great Britain as "Ten Little Niggers"] in the luxurious mansion on Indian Island off the coast of Devon. The servants say that they have been hired from an employment agency and have never seen their employers. The guests have been brought to the place on various pretexts, and each of them professes to know nothing about the missing Mr. and Mrs. Owen, who are supposed to be their hosts. If one may believe the Voice, which makes a startling announcement after dinner, all of these persons are doomed to die for crimes which they are alleged to have committed. Hanging in each bedroom is a framed copy of doggerel verse about "Ten Little Indian Boys," and this, too, predicts the fate of the ten. When you read what happens after that you will not believe it, but you will keep on reading, and as one incredible event is followed by another even more incredible you will still keep on reading. The whole thing is utterly impossible and utterly fascinating. It is the most baffling mystery that Agatha Christie has ever written, and if any other writer has ever surpassed it for sheer puzzlement the name escapes our memory. We are referring, of course, to mysteries that have logical explanations, as this one has. It is a tall story, to be sure, but it could have happened. (p. 15)
Isaac Anderson, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1940 by The New York Times Company: reprinted by permission), February 25, 1940.
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Is any bowler more dreaded by the batsmen of detection than Mrs. Christie? Towards Zero will get a great many wickets, or I'm heavily mistaken in the acumen of my friends. Halfway through the book I've asked them "Who did it?" Three-quarters way through I ask them again—and the names they reluctantly murmur are never the same both times. It is not a trick of Mrs. Christie's: it's her devilish art. There are about six subjects in Towards Zero, and she focuses our attention on each in turn. Some look too guilty; some look too innocent. Some have an opportunity, but where's the motive? Some have a motive, but where's the opportunity? So it goes on. The reader wobbles and wavers, and shrinks from a decision: and Mrs. Christie quietly bowls you out…. [The] struggle to coach victims against Mrs. Christie is utterly hopeless.
The scene of the murder in Towards Zero is a country house by an estuary on the South Coast. I can devise no way of outlining the plot without forestalling some of the excitement and bewilderment. But the solution is by Superintendent Battle, not by Poirot. That indicates that Mrs. Christie does not regard this work as flawless by her own supreme, standard. The flaw is that the solution is only completed by the criminal's confession; and there should be no need for confession in a perfect specimen of detection. (p. 94)
Ralph Partridge, in The New Statesman and Nation (© 1944 The Statesman and Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), August 5, 1944.
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"If you'd nothing to think about but yourself for days on end I wonder what you'd find out about yourself." This is the keynote of Mary Westmacott's fine novel, "Absent in the Spring."…
Joan Scudamore, on her way back to England from Baghdad, had the opportunity to do a thorough job of soul-searching and self-evaluation. With admirable skill, sensitive and subtle, Miss Westmacott portrays the woman, first, as model wife and mother, second, in the more penetrating role of a woman who had, in one way or another, warped and distorted the lives of the members of her family….
With mounting effect, Miss Westmacott builds up her portrait of an insensitive, calculating woman who never in her life entered the hearts of the people whose lives she shaped. Outwardly the structure seemed strong and admirable; inwardly it was crumbling with rebellion and frustration….
The book closes on a note honest as the sun in its concept and characterization. Miss Westmacott's novel is a gem of a psychological portrait, the writing sensitive and probing, the outlines intense and arresting.
Rose Feld, "She Saw a Stranger in Herself," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation: reprinted by permission), September 10, 1944, p. 2.
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[The puzzle mystery has] been brought to a high pitch of ingenuity in the stories of Agatha Christie. So I have read also the new Agatha Christie, Death Comes as the End, and I confess that I have been had by Mrs. Christie. I did not guess who the murderer was, I was incited to keep on and find out, and when I did finally find out, I was surprised. Yet I did not care for Agatha Christie and I hope never to read another of her books. I ought, perhaps, to discount the fact that "Death Comes as the End" is supposed to take place in Egypt two thousand years before Christ, so that the book has a flavor of Lloyd C. Douglas not, I understand, quite typical of the author …; but her writing is of a mawkishness and banality which seem to me literally impossible to read. You cannot read such a book, you run through it to see the problem worked out; and you cannot become interested in the characters because they never can be allowed an existence of their own even in a flat two dimensions but have always to be contrived so that they can seem either reliable or sinister, depending on which quarter, at the moment, is to be baited for the reader's suspicion…. Mrs. Christie, in proportion as she is more expert and concentrates more narrowly on the puzzle, has to eliminate human interest completely, or rather fill in the picture with what seems to me a distasteful parody of it. In this new novel she has to provide herself with puppets who will be good for three stages of suspense: you must first wonder who is going to be murdered, you must then wonder who is committing the murders, and you must finally be unable to foresee which of two men the heroine will marry. It is all like a sleight-of-hand trick, in which the magician diverts your attention from the awkward or irrelevant movements that conceal the manipulation of the cards, and it may mildly amuse and amaze you, as such a sleight-of-hand performance may. But in a performance like Death Comes as the End, the patter is a constant bore and the properties lack the elegance of playing cards. (pp. 234-35)
Edmund Wilson, "Why Do People Read Detective Stories" (originally published in a slightly different version in The New Yorker, October 14, 1944), in his Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1950 by Edmund Wilson; copyright renewed © 1978 by Elena Wilson), The Noonday Press, 1950, pp. 231-37.
[Miss Mary Westmacott] studies men in their singularity [in The Rose and the Yew Tree]; she is concerned with the diversity of their lives. Her point is that the diversity is radical; the rose and the yew tree have different patterns but, in Mr. T. S. Eliot's words, their moments are of equal duration, because the patterns are complete. One cannot be measured against the other. Success and failure are relative terms, and the nature of each individual person to whom we apply them is unique. Thus stated, the argument recalls M. [Jean-Paul] Sartre, but the tale which supports is suggests, in its technical aspect, the influence of Mr. Somerset Maugham. Miss Westmacott writes crisply and is always lucid. (p. 621)
The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1968; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), November 6, 1948.
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The Rose and The Yew Tree is an intense inexperienced story about a mysterious unscrupulous scoundrel…. He has won the V. C. in the war, and after it sets out to win a seat in the election in the Conservative interest, not because he believes in Conservatism but because it suits his ambition at the moment. He abandons politics immediately after winning the seat in order to ruin the life of an innocent, aristocratic but extremely tough young girl. [His story] takes a very long time to tell, and it is told (via a first-person medium) with the self-confidence of someone who is perhaps not quite sure of himself. Twists are added to the story in desperation; but no satisfactory whole merges—only a collection of twists. Isabella is an interesting character, and Miss Westmacott may well write a much better book than this one day. (p. 28)
Robert Kee, in The Spectator (© 1949 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), January 7, 1949.
[They Came to Baghdad] is more of a thriller than a detective story, though there are plenty of mysteries and two surprises reserved for the closing chapters: one of these is perhaps [Miss Christie's] best since the unmasking of the criminal in The Seven Dials Mystery…. [The] easy expertise of the writing is once more a matter for admiration. There are several satisfactory suspects; an excellent intelligence chief, done in the modern manner; a delightful hôtelier, and a very human heroine, whose powers of invention, like those of her creator, never fail her. (p. 241)
The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1951; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), April 20, 1951.
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Since Agatha Christie is so pre-eminently the mistress of the straight detective story, we're apt to forget how good she can be on her occasional ventures into the spysuspense-intrigue novel. And so well has she exploited the English countryside that we may also forget how intimately she knows the Middle East. These two neglected facets of Miss Christie glisten brilliantly in ["They Came to Baghdad"]. This is a story of little detection or mystery, but much intricacy and surprise, revolving around the preparations for a top level East-West conference in Baghdad and the machinations of a new kind of international intrigant who makes the Fascists and Communists of the average thriller seem almost innocuous. All of this is embellished by authentic first-hand details on Iraq archaeology and the fine, easy sketching of a large cast. All in all, the most satisfactory novel in some years from one of the most satisfying of novelists. (p. 19)
Anthony Boucher, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1951 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 3, 1951.
Miss Christie's [A Pocket Full of Rye] belongs to the comfortable branch of detective fiction; it never harrows its readers by realistic presentation of violence or emotion or by making exorbitant demands on their interest in the characters. Crime is a convention, pursuit an intellectual exercise, and it is as if the murderer of the odious financier did but poison in jest. The characters are lightly and deftly sketched and an antiseptic breeze of humour prevails. It is a pleasure to read an author so nicely conscious of the limitations of what she is attempting.
Three murders (generally regarded, since Edgar Wallace's time, as the maximum permissible) take place, apparently with nothing but the nursery rhyme about four-and-twenty blackbirds to connect them. Inspector Neele, an intelligent C.I.D. officer but no genius, has the good fortune, however, to be assisted by Miss Marple, and the assassin is duly unmasked. Miss Christie has a reputation for playing fair with the reader who likes to assume detective responsibility, and also for being one too many for him. In the present case it may be felt that the hidden mechanism of the plot is ingenious at the expense of probability, but the tale is told with such confidence that (like murder itself, in this pastoral atmosphere) it does not matter very much. (p. 773)
The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1953; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), December 4, 1953.
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Any of you who long, as I often do, for nostalgic time-travel back to those days in the Thirties when the detective story was a detective story, and not "a novel of suspense," can at least rejoice annually upon the appearance of a new Agatha Christie; and you'll be delighted to learn that "A Pocket Full of Rye" [represents Christie in top form]….
[This] is the best of the novels starring Christie's spinster-detective, Miss Marple (who has usually been more effective in short stories). Christie's unanalyzable gift for thumbnail characterization is also at its best and … you aren't apt to find a better job of professional craftsmanship this year. (p. 23)
Anthony Boucher, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1954 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 18, 1954.
The solution of Ordeal by Innocence is certainly not below the level of Mrs. Christie's customary ingenuity, but the book lacks other qualities which her readers have come to expect. What has become of the blitheness, the invigorating good spirits with which the game of detection is played in so many of her stories? Ordeal by Innocence slips out of that cheerful arena into something much too like an attempt at psychological fiction. It is too much of a conversation-piece and too many people are talking—people in whom it is hard to take the necessary amount of interest because there is not space enough to establish them. The kind of workmanship which has been lavished on this tale is not a kind in which the author excels and the reader feels that Miss Marple and Poirot would thoroughly disapprove of the whole business. (p. 726)
The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1958; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), December 12, 1958.
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Agatha Christie wisely refrains from overworking her star detective, Hercule Poirot, knowing that it's better for us to yearn for more Poirot stories than to complain of a surfeit…. ["Ordeal by Innocence"] introduces Dr. Arthur Calgary, Antarctic explorer. Once more Mrs. Christie's skill in puzzle-making and storytelling is so consummate that we never think of missing the little Belgian octogenarian….
The book is unusually long for Christie and may sag a bit in the middle; but family tensions and suspicions are adroitly handled, and the solution is characteristically surprising, trickily constructed and yet firmly based in character. (p. 18)
Anthony Boucher, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1959 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 15, 1959.
'Owing to the influential connections at Meadowbank the murder of Miss Springer had been played down very tactfully in the press.' 'Meadowbank' is the smartest girls' school in Europe, with princesses among its pupils, and 'Miss Springer' its games mistress, and if Miss Christie believes that the press would play that murder down, she will believe anything. But it is nothing to what she asks us to believe [in Cat among the Pigeons]. Her girls and mistresses are as true to boring old type as the boys and masters of Greyfriars and St. Jim's, and the plot calls for mysterious strangers in shrubberies; forgery, kidnapping, and a couple more killings; 'a small wicked-looking automatic'; a secret-service operator disguised as a gardener; and, at last, on page 183, M. Hercule Poirot luimême, ejaculating '"Nom d'un nom d'un nom!" in an awe-inspired whisper.' How did we ever come to take Miss Christie seriously? (p. 641)
The Spectator (© 1959 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), November 6, 1959.
Miss Agatha Christie, like many writers before her, is often praised for the wrong virtues. It is not for feats of detection that we turn to her, nor even, since her early tours de force, for the criminological ingenuity of her plots, workmanlike though they are. Her cardinal virtue is simpler and more subtle. It is sheer readability; her books can be gulped down like cream or invalid jelly. This is not a matter of good writing. Miss Christie can write abominably ("nobody will mind whether he's been killed or not, and doesn't care in the least who's done it" says a character in her new book), but she has a gift almost as rare and intangible as the poet's gift of poetry.
This gift is there, clear enough, in The Pale Horse, which is not a Poirot story nor a Miss Marple but just a Christie extravaganza….
Miss Christie has a surprise or two in hand, of course, and a relatively convincing solution to her rather implausible mystery: but the point is that the story holds unflaggingly, and holds with a grip which is gentle as well as firm. There are never any midnight horrors about Miss Christie's murders; she transmutes them into a cosy tea-time game. She is a peculiarly English writer producing a uniquely English type of book. (p. 851)
The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1961; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), November 24, 1961.
Agatha Christie is really astonishing. She is an old lady now, and her gentlewoman detective, Miss Marple, an older one; but, unlike too many of her contemporaries, she capitalizes instead of concealing the facts. So At Bertram's Hotel is an old-lady book, about old Miss Marple's receiving the present of a holiday in an exquisitely old-fashioned London hotel, and discovering (this is what one might call the Moral) that nostalgia is dangerous and to cash in on it a safe cover for depravity.
Miss Christie has lost none of her toughness. Almost alone among nice English detective writers she has never excluded any characters from possible revelation as murderers, not the sweet young girl, the charming youth, the wise old man, not even the dear old lady. And neither does she here. (p. 1112)
The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1965; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), December 2, 1965.
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I strongly suspect that future scholars of the simon-pure detective novel will hold that its greatest practitioner, out-ranking even Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr in their best periods, has been Agatha Christie—not only for her incomparable plot construction, but for her extraordinary ability to limn character and era with so few (and such skilled) strokes. And while Queen and Carr have offered recent books well below their highest standards, Christie … is virtually as good as ever—as she roundly demonstrates in "At Bertram's Hotel."…
Miss Jane Marple revisits a quietly superlative London hotel which she had known as a girl, and finds it still a marvel of Edwardian elegance and conservatism—with a disturbing off-color touch of something new, and definitely of the sixties. The puzzle of the tone of Bertram's Hotel is the primary puzzle of the novel (which runs most of its length without overt violence). Miss Marple has a worthy investigative colleague in the unconventional Chief Inspector Davy; and the book is a joy to read from beginning to end, especially in its acute sensitivity to the contrasts between this era and that of Miss Marple's youth. (p. 61)
Anthony Boucher, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1966 The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 25, 1966.
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Despite the author's many mysteries successfully recommended for [young adults, Third Girl] is too tame to hand over to anybody. Norma, an English flower-child type, shares an apartment with two other girls after her long-lost father returns from Africa with a new wife. Norma is always on the scene clutching incriminating implements but with no recollection of events when poisoning, knifing, and murder take place. Hercule Poirot repetitively mulls over the clues, arriving at last at the incredible solution: transformed by a wig, the villainous stepmother is also the third roommate and has been harrassing and drugging the dimwitted Norma. The Third Girl is a bore. (p. 4272)
Sumi Yamashita, in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, November 15, 1967; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1967 by Xerox Corporation), November 15, 1967.
Miss Christie makes the most of it [in By the Pricking of My Thumbs] of being a woman, of being a country woman, an archaeologist's wife, and now, of being old. Her hero and heroine Miss Christie has resuscitated from the 1920s, her even then tiresome Tommy and Tuppence, now sprightly oldsters. The general theme is senility. (p. 1414)
The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1968; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), December 12, 1968.
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[By the Pricking of My Thumbs is a] mystery centered on senior citizens which will nevertheless appeal to younger girls. Tommy and Tuppence Beresford visit an aging aunt in a rest home, and a few stray remarks by a supposedly senile companion lead to revelations concerning crimes of infanticide which had long been thought solved. The clues occasionally come too fast and heavy, and at times there are too many characters, but all is neatly tidied up in the end. Particularly good is the way the confused, befuddled, genteel and elderly Beresfords, the woman working from womanly intuition and the man from reason and logic, plow through the morass of hints and suspicions to finally half-deduce, half-stumble on the answer to the mystery. Competent Christie, in its own way bridging the generation gap. (p. 1346)
Marcia Keller, in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, March 15, 1969; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1969 by Xerox Corporation), March 15, 1969.
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Compared, not only with Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown, but with Nero Wolfe or Dr Fell or Lord Peter Wimsey, Poirot is a distinctly cardboard character, an obvious artefact. Agatha Christie herself prefers Miss Marple, and her new book, Passenger to Frankfurt, contains neither of them.
The fact remains, however, that Poirot, like a survivor from an almost extinct race of giants, is one of the last of the Great Detectives: and the mention of his name should be enough to remind us how much pleasure Agatha Christie has given millions of people over the past fifty years….
So what is it, this quality which Agatha Christie possesses and so many imitators have lacked?
The secret does lie partly in her plots. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder on the Orient Express, The ABC Murders and her other classic tours de force deserve their fame. If they seem hackneyed or contrived now or even too easily guessable, that is precisely because they left so permanent an impression on the detective story genre. These books are famous because each of them turns on a piece of misdirection and a solution which, in their day, were startlingly innovatory: but there are many others—Crooked House, Cards on the Table, Death on the Nile, Mrs McGinty's Dead, 4.30 from Paddington—which, in their overall construction, the ingenuity of their clues and the satisfactory smoothness with which their unexpected solutions fall into place, are just as good and perhaps better. It would be silly to pretend that Mrs Christie has never written a bad book. She has—several: but, compared with the size of her output, amazingly few. Almost always, skilled professional that she is, she can out-plot her readers, tripping them up with an extra twist in the tail of the story.
But this isn't all. The real secret of Agatha Christie is subtler. It lies not in the carpentering of her plots, excellent though that is, but in the texture of her writing; a texture smooth and homely as cream. Her books are the easiest of reading. They 'go down a treat', as the saying is.
In a literary sense she doesn't write particularly well. But there is another sense, which for a writer of fiction is perhaps even more important. The ability to buttonhole a reader, to make (as Raymond Chandler put it) 'each page throw the hook for the next', is a separate and by no means common art….
She has one other key quality—the quality of cosiness. There are no nightmares in her books, nothing nasty, nothing horrid, as Jane Austen would say…. This is an important attribute of the true detective story. Its secure and restful formality is part of the pleasure; we don't really have to weep for the victim or for the villain; we ought not to be harrowed, any more than we are by the loss of pieces in a game of chess.
This type of book—and therefore this type of pleasure—has become rare. One reason, the main one probably, is that every new detective story, unlike other kinds of fiction, needs an at least marginally new idea—a new way of committing a murder, or of concealing a murderer's identity, or of solving a murder: and, in the nature of things, finding such new devices gets harder all the time….
Mrs. Christie herself has sometimes ventured a little outside the classic field; Passenger to Frankfurt, as it happens, is an example. But she belongs fairly and squarely in the old tradition….
The Great Detectives were—and, in Mrs. Christie's hands, thank goodness, still are—engaged on a great business. They move, untouched, incorruptible, undefeated, among the mysteries of life and death, teaching us in a parable that there is a reason for everything, that puzzles were made to be solved, that what seems like chaos may be only the observed effects of unknown causes; in short, that the world, instead of being as meaningless as a modern novel, may be like a good detective story, in which the truth and a happy ending are kept for the final chapter.
Anthony Lejeune, "The Secret of Agatha Christie," in The Spectator (© 1970 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), September 19, 1970, p. 294.
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Of the impressive list of [Mrs. Christie's] volumes, mostly about Poirot,… the best known and most widely discussed is the brilliant The Murder of Roger Ackroyd…. At the present late date it is betraying no secret to say that this remarkable story, a tour de force in every sense of the word and one of the true classics of the literature, turns on the ultimate revelation of the narrator as the criminal. This device (or trick, as the reader may prefer) provoked the most violent debate in detective story history. Scarcely had the ink dried on the pages before representatives of one school of thought were crying, "Foul play!" Other readers and critics rallied as ardently to Mrs. Christie's defense, chanting the dictum: "It is the reader's business to suspect every one." The question remains unsettled to-day, and the inconclusive argument will probably continue as long as detective stories are read and discussed. (p. 130)
Happily, Poirot richly merited the attention he [has] received. For when he is at the top of his form few fictional sleuths can surpass the amazing little Belgian—with his waxed mustaches and egg-shaped head, his inflated confidence in the infallibility of his "little grey cells," his murderous attacks on the English language—either for individuality or ingenuity. His methods, as the mention of the seldom-forgotten "cells" implies, are imaginative rather than routine. Not for Poirot the fingerprint or the cigar ash. His picturesque refusal to go to Holmes-like on all fours in pursuit of clues is classic in the literature. (But his inventor does not scorn to employ one of the tritest of the Conanical devices almost ad nauseam, in the person of Captain Hastings, easily the stupidest of all modern Watsons.) Not quite an arm-chair detective, Poirot nevertheless spurns the aid of science. He is the champion of theory over matter. What this postulate may lack in verisimilitude it gains in dramatic possibilities, which the author knows well how to exploit to advantage.
The only really serious grounds for criticism of the stories, in fact, is Mrs. Christie's too great reliance on, and not always scrupulous use of, the least-likely-person motif. (pp. 131-32)
Mrs. Christie occasionally turns her hand, for diversion, presumably, to stories in which other detectives appear; but none of these secondary creations has ever seriously rivaled the mustachioed Belgian. His own investigations, one regrets to report, have begun to reveal now and then symptoms of ennui, so that the publication of "a new Christie" … is not always now the item of interest to the discriminating reader that it once was.
Nevertheless, few sleuths have been more rewarding than Poirot at the height of his powers. He still comes closer to symbolizing his profession in the popular mind than any story-book detective since the Holmes whose methods he professes to deplore—but with whose essential histrionism he has so much in common. The hypercritical may feel that Mrs. Christie sometimes allows her hero to lean too heavily on intuition, and that her own art could be improved by a little greater variety in method and closer attention to the probabilities and the canons of fair play. But none can gainsay that at her frequent best Agatha Christie is easily one of the half-dozen most accomplished and entertaining writers in the modern field. (pp. 132-33)
Howard Haycraft, in his Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story (copyright, 1969, by Howard Haycraft; reprinted by permission of the author), revised edition, Biblo and Tannen, 1972.
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Once upon a time (and a very good time it was) the Abbey's Lady Gregory said: 'We went on giving what we thought good until it became popular'. No better motto could be found for theatrical managers, but how many heed it? The motto now is to give what the manager thinks will be popular until it is generally thought good. Hence The Mousetrap. It must be good because it has run for so long.
Agatha Christie's thriller has now been on for 21 years. It has broken every conceivable theatrical record. (p. 51)
What indeed does anybody know to explain the tenacity of this routine, country house whodunnit? (pp. 51-2)
[Whether seeds of immortality] are to be found in the text or the performance, the theatre or its position, its management or its publicity, is a question which nobody can answer for sure. (p. 52)
And it all began because the BBC wanted something by Agatha Christie, at Queen Mary's request, to celebrate Queen Mary's 80th birthday. So Mrs. Christie ran up a short story called Three Blind Mice which she subsequently stretched into a play….
And the idea of the thriller? Timelessly conventional. Into the lounge hall of a snowed-up panelled, home counties hotel just opened by a diffident young couple drift a careful assortment of independent types (grave, comical, foreign, peculiar, chatty, silent and so forth), one of whom is in due course bumped off. Thereafter suspicion falls, with the help of red herrings, on the survivors variously in turn; and before the final unmasking a mild degree of curiosity, even excitement, certainly tension is aroused. The suspense, if not intense, is agreeable; and the plotting is unquestionably neat. (p. 53)
Eric Shorter, "Quite a Nice Run," in Drama, Spring, 1974.
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Critics of the British detective novel have generally agreed that it is a conservative genre. The detective functions as the guardian of the status quo: he brings to justice criminals who have threatened middle-class stability by threatening the foundation of that stability—money. Not surprisingly, the genre itself is a product of the nineteenth century, for only this century saw the triumph of a class into which an outsider could buy his way—as he could not into the aristocracy—if only he could get his hands on capital. The getting of capital, therefore, motivates most criminals to murder in detective fiction, and the detective is worshiped by the middle classes who understand that their wealth and position will eventually be safe in his hands.
Given the conservatism of the genre, one can further predict that stereotypes of character will seldom be violated. Thus, upon opening an [Margery] Allingham, a [Dorothy] Sayers, or a Christie, one finds many of the familiar sexist attitudes toward women that one might otherwise expect these women writers to avoid. Christie offends the least, but still offends. (p. 144)
Christie is the mistress of plot rather than character. Her young men are tall, dark, and tense; her clergymen delightfully fuddled; her old solicitors discreet; her retired colonels bluff. How does she characterize women? Looking over the vastness of seventy—or is it eighty?—mysteries, we find a few inevitable types occurring again and again. Her women are garrulous, talking inconsequentially and at length about irrelevancies. If young, they are often stupid, blonde, redfingernailed gold diggers without a thought in their heads except men and money. Her servant girls are even more stupid, with slack mouths, "boiled gooseberry eyes," and a vocabulary limited to "Yes'm" and "No'm" unless, of course, they're being garrulous. Dark-haired women are apt to be ruthless or clever, redheads naïve and bouncy. Competent women, like Poirot's secretary Miss Lemon, are single, skinny, and sexless. A depressing cast of thousands.
Christie often prefaces her novels with thumbnail sketches [of the characters]. (pp. 149-50)
Granted that some of the sketches are meant to be misleading, this brief juxtaposing of Christie's male and female characters reveals her prejudice against women. The men are by and large presented as professional, active, and rational. The women are portrayed, on the other hand as social aberrants—exotics, witches, sea nymphs, woodsprites; as unattractive—snoopy, whining, foreign; or as mentally confused—"an imaginative if untidy mind."
In defense of Christie, one can argue that her novels are filled with students, secretaries, widows, headmistresses, actresses—independent women making it in society on their own brains, skills, and energies. Unfortunately, too many of Christie's competent women are portrayed as either deadly or destructive…. [Independent] and ambitious women are hostile and criminal, whereas the dizzy females are at least harmless. One hopes there is no significance to the fact that Christie's only murderous child is a girl.
Christie also exhibits sexism in depicting her detectives. Her most popular sleuth is Hercule Poirot. His fame rests on his "little grey cells": he is a purely cerebral armchair detective who solves his crimes by rationality and method. His geometrical apartment reflects his worship of regularity, precision, and order; his happiness is complete at the invention of square scones for his tea. While Christie smiles at Poirot's overweening pride in his luxurious moustaches and his patent leather shoes, his egotism is founded on a secure sense of self and male superiority. He praises rationality—a male attribute—and deplores intuition: in The ABC Murders … he reproves Hastings, his Watson, for suggesting that the great Poirot has employed instinct: "'Not instinct, Hastings. Instinct is a bad word. It is my knowledge, my experience—that tells me that something about that letter is wrong—'"
Not surprisingly, Miss Marple, Christie's spinstress detective, owes her success chiefly to intuition and nosiness. Operating on the theory that human nature is universal, she ferrets out the criminal by his resemblance to someone she has known in her native village of St. Mary Mead, since her knowledge of life extends little farther. Her method does, of course, involve analogy, a ratiocinative process (although her reliance on physical types has a disturbing similarity to the "science" of phrenology), but Christie presents Miss Marple as chiefly intuitive, operating with a sixth sense rather than the "little grey cells." Concomitantly, while Poirot looks upon crime rationally as a sociological ill, Miss Marple takes the reactionary medieval view that a tangible spirit of wickedness or evil walks abroad in the world: murderers can be detected by "the pricking of the thumbs." Again, unlike Poirot, Miss Marple lacks self-confidence; she apologizes, demurs, and patiently waits her turn to speak, a forbearance impossible to imagine in Poirot.
Mrs. Ariadne Oliver, a writer of detective fiction, also appears in Christie's novels as an amateur sleuth. Christie portrays her as a muddled, untidy woman whose trail is strewn with hairpins and apple cores. Mrs. Oliver's mind is as untidy as her appearance. And when she does come up with a right answer it's a lucky guess—in other words, her "feminine intuition." She almost always functions as a foil for Poirot's logical brilliance, and as the butt of his chauvinistic jokes…. (pp. 150-52)
Yet Christie is not as sexist as Sayers and Allingham in one respect. Both spinster and widow are self-sufficient, possessing a zest for life depending in no way on a man's support and approval. Neither manifests insecurity at being a single woman; both have interests that absorb them creatively. Neither succumbs to romance or marriage: Christie takes it for granted that without youth, beauty, or a husband a woman can still be fulfilled. (p. 152)
Margot Peters and Agate Nesaule Krouse, in Southwest Review (© 1974 by Southern Methodist University Press), Spring, 1974.
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There's life in the old girl yet—but I do wish she could be persuaded to stop writing. This one [Postern of Fate] is a disaster. It is confused (Mutton Chop did not send Tommy to Mr. Robinson), rambling, garrulous, and just plain silly. There are not one but two dogs whose innermost thoughts are revealed to the reader and the dialogue by members of the lower-classes is unbelievable. Mostly this latest by Dame Christie suggests that through her years she has probably been overrated and that her detecting heroes and heroines (Miss Marple, Tommy and Tuppence and Hercule Poirot) are just too damn cute. If there is an audience, it's the geriatric set, there'll-always-be-an-England division. (p. 75)
Dick Datchery, in The Critic (© The Critic 1974; reprinted with the permission of the Thomas More Association, Chicago, Illinois), March-April, 1974.
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Of course nobody is expected to care in any humanist sense: it is, quite simply, that one has to know. Agatha Christie at her best writes animated algebra. She dares us to solve a basic equation buried beneath a proliferation of irrelevancies. By the last page, everything should have been eliminated except for the motive and identity of the murderer; the elaborate working-out, apparently too complicated to grasp, is suddenly reduced to satisfactory simplicity. The effect is one of comfortable catharsis.
During the Second World War, just after finishing The Body in the Library, Agatha Christie wrote two novels which she intended to reserve for publication after her death. They described the last cases of her two most famous detectives, Poirot and Miss Marple. Now she has generously decided to release at least one of them while she is still alive. Curtain, therefore, belongs to the period when her power to puzzle was at its formidable height….
[Its] solution, when it is finally sprung, turns out to be as outrageously satisfying as those of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Ten Little Indians, Murder on the Orient Express and Crooked House. As she presumably intended, in this one Agatha Christie has brought off the bluff to end them all.
Francis Wyndham, "Animated Algebra," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1975; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), September 26, 1975, p. 1078.
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Probably no detective story in history has met with such instantaneous success as ["Curtain"]…. Poirot dead? It seems incredible. The little Belgian detective had been most active between 1900 and 1904; by 1920, when he appeared in Christie's first novel, "The Mysterious Affair at Styles," he was officially retired. And yet he went on to star in 40 of his author's 86 books—which is about as firm a grip on immortality as a literary man can get. For this reason, his death comes as an unexpected jolt. (p. 91)
"Curtain" is one of Christie's most ingenious stories, a tour de force in which the lady who had bent all the rules of the genre before bends them yet again. Like all her stories, it is scrupulously honest. In a detective story, as in an allegory, much that happens—the concrete details that provide an illusion of reality—actually points to something else, and in "Curtain" so many events are not quite what they seem that the reader may at the end feel as foolish as Hastings. To believe in the killer's motivation requires belief in some truly hokey psychology, but never mind: the credibility of the design, not the people, is what distinguishes the best of Christie's stories. (p. 92)
Peter Prescott, "The Last Act," in Newsweek (copyright 1975 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), October 6, 1975, pp. 90-2.
[Curtain is much] ado about very little. As almost everyone knows by now, this is Hercule Poirot's schwanenlied. His death turns out to be as silly as his life. This is better than recent Christies—which isn't saying a hell of a lot. Ms. Christie is one of the most over-rated writers of our time and her present phenomenal popularity simply proves that most readers cannot distinguish between mediocre and good suspense novels. Her one talent is intricate plotting but plot alone does not a novel make. (pp. 91-2)
The Critic (© The Critic 1975; reprinted with the permission of the Thomas More Association, Chicago, Illinois), Winter, 1975.
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It must have been the heady atmosphere of those World War II days that made Edmund Wilson mount a frontal assault at one of the mainstays of Western civilization. "Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd," he thundered in the title of his essay denigrating detective fiction. But having discharged this salvo the eminent critic must have been seized by some inner doubts. Obviously hundreds of thousands have cared, the vast legion of readers who for 300 pages have struggled with the plethora of clues, only to be left dazzled and emotionally drained by the astounding conclusion of Agatha Christie's masterpiece. Wilson thus beat a retreat to a higher, supposedly safer, ground: "Friends," he wrote, "we represent a minority but Literature is on our side…. There is no need to bore ourselves with this rubbish." But this maneuver left him even more vulnerable. The masses don't buy and certainly don't read boring books, that is unless they have been certified as Literature by eminent critics. Wilson's last desperate move was a traditional one for those who run out of rasoned arguments: call for repression. He would have detective fiction proscribed…. (p. 21)
Fortunately his impious suggestion remained unheeded. Where would we be now, how could we have survived the alarms and anxieties of the Cold War, the Great Society, and the Greening of America without the distraction and solace of the mystery novel? As against senseless violence that surrounds us on all sides, this novel is an oasis of sensible violence: fictional, orderly and intellectually stimulating.
Some indeed would still make us feel guilty for spending a few hours with a mystery…. Our reading matter should be chosen so as to enhance our anxieties…. But how does it help us to read just for pleasure?
Yet quite apart from being tiresome, our moralists miss the point. In addition to being fun, the mystery novel has a lot to teach us about the modern world. This novel has always been a force for progress…. Few who have immersed themselves in Agatha Christie's immortal work can miss her close affinity to many of the advanced causes of our own day. Take her militantly democratic spirit. To a superficial reader, this statement might appear absurd. Isn't a classical Christie story woven around a country house tittle-tattle interrupted only by servants bringing in brandy and soda, and the thud of falling corpses? Precisely! Only a writer with a profound sympathy for the underprivileged would make her typical murderer an upper-or upper-middle-class person. (pp. 21-2)
True, most of the writer's lower-class characters are portrayed, with the exception of a few of the proverbial old faithful retainers, as rather imbecilic, and, well, common, prone to dishonesty, and, especially if maid-servants, to vulgar promiscuity. Yet the attentive and perceptive reader will see immediately that such stereotypes add up to a burning indictment of the class society that was the England of the author's time….
It must have given Dame Agatha great pleasure to live to see the dawn of social justice in her country. There have been many scholarly accounts celebrating this salutory evolution of England from a decadent class-ridden society to a dynamic one inspired by the ideals of equality and democracy. None of them, it is fair to say, can match the fictional evocation contained in our author's Curtain. Its scene is set in the very same locality where some 40 years before Hercule Poirot tackled his first case. Then the rich played and murdered in their luxurious manor house, while the sole function of the denizens of the village was to serve them and provide a picturesquely primitive backdrop for their betters' amusements. But now on arriving Poirot's friend notices immediately signs of change: "Styles St. Mary was altered out of all recognition. Petrol stations, a cinema, two more inns and rows of council houses." As against this fuller, richer life for the masses, how poignant the retribution visited upon the erstwhile idle rich! The once stately home is now dilapidated, the drive leading to it "badly kept and much overgrown with weeds," the edifice itself "badly needed a coat of paint." And, the supreme irony of all, Styles is now a boarding house, its proprietors and most of the boarders the last remnants of the parasitic class, justly reduced to this inelegant style of living. (p. 22)
Need one stress the obvious: the close link between our genre of novel and the cause of Women's Liberation?… On the issue of women's rights, we must consider Agatha Christie to have been a pioneer…. With Christie, women cease to be a mere plaything or a misleading clue. Occasionally she picks up a gun herself and knows how to use it on a male chauvinist. Over and above such advances in character development, Dame Agatha in an affirmative action of her own broke the male exclusiveness of the circle of great detectives. In her quiet way Miss Marple certainly belongs there, even though few would rank her as equal to Hercule Poirot. But then who is? (pp. 22-3)
[Let] us not neglect the ingenuity of her plots and the high literary merit of her writing. To be sure she has had detractors on both counts…. It has been said that solutions of crimes in her stories are unfairly devious, her style tends to be flat, her characters one-dimensional. Yet such criticisms do an injustice to the meticulous honesty of Christie's clues and the robust concise quality of her prose. What can be more precise, insightful and straightforward than the following characterization: "He had the resolute, competent manner of a man accustomed to meeting with emergencies." Is there anything more that we need to know to visualize the individual in question, and yet to feel shaken, though not entirely surprised, when some 200 pages later he turns out to have been the murderer?
Were Edmund Wilson alive today he would, one hopes, reconsider his hasty verdict of 30 years ago. Certainly the great critic would not hold crime fiction at a disadvantage when compared with the pretentious rubbish that passes so often for a serious discussion of current affairs, or with that amalgam of pornography and dime store psychology that is the typical contemporary "serious" novel. The mystery story and Literature, far from being enemies, are natural allies. There are few ways of wiling away our time that can be as delightful, profitable and innocent as in trying to find out who killed Roger Ackroyd. (p. 23)
Adam Ulam, "The Issue Is Murder," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 The New Republic, Inc.), July 31, 1976, pp. 21-3.
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Ingenious to the last, Agatha Christie kept back one Poirot and one Miss Marple story, each written some 30 years ago, for publication after her death. The date of its vintage, of course, doesn't matter in the least, since Christieland is as socially frozen and lacking in specifically dating detail as the world of [P. G.] Wodehouse or [Ivy] Compton-Burnett. It's all as ordered, stiff and unlikely as an everlasting flower: from gay, happy young couples and solid professional oldsters to servants who can't spell and gardeners who can't even pronounce the names of plants properly. Here, murders are by definition a trifle insane; good men tend to attract bad women; psychiatrists have just been heard of, though Miss Marple prefers to call them ironically 'mental specialists'; and the phrase for a girl who enjoys a bit of a fling (gosh, the idiom is catching) is 'man mad'.
Sleeping Murder has nice newlyweds Gwenda and Giles settling in the West Country in a house which gives Gwenda a strange sense of familiarity…. It all seems excruciatingly slow at first—by halfway there's only a situation, not a sniff of a suspect; but the second half is full of intricate Christie crochet-work. I fingered the villain pretty easily, on the grounds that a) he was extremely unlikely, b) he was a respectable solicitor, and c) he stayed at home every evening and played piquet with his mother. Ah well, wrong again. (p. 522)
Julian Barnes, in New Statesman (© 1976 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), October 15, 1976.
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It was the plotting of crime that fascinated [Agatha Christie], not its often unpleasant end, and it is as a constructor of plots that she stands supreme among modern crime writers. Raymond Chandler once said that plotting was a bore, a necessary piece of journeywork that had to be done, and that the actual writing was the thing that gave the author pleasure. Agatha Christie's feelings were almost the opposite of these….
Her most stunningly original plots are those in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The A.B.C. Murders and Ten Little Niggers (also evasively called And Then There Were None and Ten Little Indians), but although these are her major achievements, she showed from the beginning an extraordinary assurance in handling the devices in a detective story plot.
Her first book. The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was published in 1920 but written some years earlier…. In general it is true that nothing becomes out-of-date more quickly than an old detective story but Styles, which was turned down by several publishers, remains wonderfully readable today. In part this is because of Poirot, but it is chiefly a tribute to the plot.
Most Christie plots are based upon a single and fairly simple circumstance, which is then elaborated and concealed. In Styles the plot springs from the fact that in England somebody acquitted of a crime may not be tried for it again. (pp. 27-8)
There are other felicities in Styles, in particular several of those deductions that trick us by their very simplicity….
Styles was a splendid beginning. Not all of the books that succeeded it were on the same level, and the semi-thrillers that used what has been called a 'master criminal' theme seem to me inferior in almost every way to the orthodox detective stories. But as Agatha Christie's skills developed, a pattern emerged which might be called the typical Christie plot form. It was used by other people too, but by none so well or so variously as in her books. The form consisted of gathering a number of people together in a particular place preliminary to one of them being murdered, and of showing the reasons for their presence. It is a way of creating a totally closed society, and one can see it happening in very different books: Death in the Clouds (1935) (Death in the Air in America), Cards on the Table (1936), Death on the Nile (1937), and Ten Little Niggers (1939). To look at the way in which these plots are devised and carried through is to see the high skill that was, with almost deceptive casualness, employed in them. (p. 29)
[The reader should be aware of the] kind of trap she sets—there are people who claim to be able always to tell the villain in any Christie story by such an awareness. I couldn't make this claim myself, and indeed I doubt whether it is possible to be specific about the 'kind of trap'. Even the pattern I have called the typical Christie plot form does not apply to the majority of her books, although it is used in a high percentage of the best ones. But her work is astonishingly varied. There is a whole slew of books that take their settings from the fact that her second husband Sir Max Mallowan is an archaeologist, concerned chiefly with Assyrian culture, and that she often accompanied him and to some extent shared his interests. But although archaeology has a place in several stories her readers are never oppressed by a feeling of ignorance. She had an instinctive awareness of just how far her audience would wish her to go in showing expert knowledge, and no Agatha Christie mystery depends for its solution on a knowledge of ancient artefacts. (pp. 32-3)
One sees certain things more clearly in looking back at her work than was apparent when reading the books as they were published. One is the supremacy of the best Poirot stories over the rest of what she wrote. She became tired of Poirot herself and preferred Miss Marple, who did not appear in a novel until 1930, with the feeble Murder at the Vicarage. Miss Marple, she said, was more fun, and like many aunts and grandmothers was 'a splendid natural detective when it comes to observing human nature'. Only a minority of readers agreed with her. If one prefers Poirot it is not only because he is an altogether livelier character, but also because his insights are more rational and less inspirational than Miss Marple's. A second thing that becomes apparent is her frequent carelessness in leaving deplorably loose ends, and a third is the highly verbal nature of her plotting. It is not just that you don't need to know about ancient artefacts to solve a Christie puzzle, but that you need no specialized knowledge at all…. The basic difference in plotting between her and most detective story writers is that the central clue in almost all of her best books is either verbal or visual. We are induced to give a meaning to something that has been said, or something that has been seen, which is not the true meaning or not the only possible meaning. (pp. 33-4)
Such visual and verbal clues, when they are used with subtlety and fairness, seem to me the very best things in the classical detective story. At her best Dame Agatha Christie was an incomparable deceiver.
That the level of her work varied greatly has to be acknowledged. Most of her finest performances belong to the 1920s and 1930s. The following decade more or less maintained this high level, but after that the decline was steady and near the end it was steep. The books of her last few years were, with only one or two exceptions, no more than faint echoes of her best work. A book like The Clocks (1963) opens very promisingly with a body found in a room full of clocks, most of which have no right to be there. The explanation of this anomaly, which would have been the heart of an earlier novel, is both casual and disappointing. And the people have become shadowy too, as inevitably she lost touch with contemporary life and feeling.
A survey of her whole output shows that she was often slapdash from the beginning in dealing with the technical details from which she flinched. Murder on the Links (1923), for instance, has been justly praised for its complicated and brilliant plotting, and for the way in which details of a twenty-year-old murder are interwoven with a current one. It contains one of her most characteristically clever touches of deception, and what must be called an almost equally characteristic carelessness in handling an important plot detail. (pp. 34-5)
In the end Agatha Christie's claim to supremacy among the classical detective story writers of her time rests on her originality in constructing puzzles. This was her supreme skill, and it is [displayed best] in three books, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The A.B.C. Murders and Ten Little Niggers. Some would add to these, which I regard as her most dazzling performances, Murder on the Orient Express (1934) (in the US Murder in the Calais Coach) or Peril at End House (1932) or even the last Poirot story Curtain (1975). But the crime writer who relies on a puzzle is like a tight-rope walker. A perfect achievement is a perfect marvel, but anything less, any slight swaying on the line, leaves us sharply critical. Both Murder on the Orient Express and Curtain are for me too obviously and purely tricks, and although I rate Peril at End House much more highly than do most critics, it cannot quite be ranked with Christie's best. (p. 35)
The trouble with plot devices is that they often obtrude, so that we have all plot and no story. Part of Roger Ackroyd's triumphant success rests in the fact that the rest of the story is so perfectly typical of the period. (p. 36)
One might feel that ingenuity in plot construction could hardly be taken further than Roger Ackroyd. Rather more than a decade after its publication, Dorothy L. Sayers suggested that the detective story as a pure puzzle was in gentle and painless decline, partly because those devices that had seemed so ingenious in the form's early days—the poisoned toothbrush, the evaporating ice dart, the pistol timed to fire when the grandfather clock in the library struck twelve—were worn out from too much use, and partly because readers' tastes had changed, so that they were increasingly asking for crime stories in which the characters were as important as the plot. She has proved a truthful prophet, although some of the crime story's developments would have surprised and displeased her. Agatha Christie's ingenuity, however, had always been verbal and visual rather than mechanical and scientific, and she responded to the idea that the detective puzzle was worn out by inventing new and still more dazzling conjuring tricks.
Are The A.B.C. Murders (1935) and Ten Little Niggers (1939) as good as Roger Ackroyd? Not quite, because the trick played on the reader is deliberately artificial rather than fitting naturally into the story. In the later books the Christie cleverness again leaves us gasping, but second and third readings show that the plot has been built around the device used, with total disregard for our belief in the story itself. Who can believe that those ten guilty people would in fact have accepted that mysterious invitation to stay on the small island in Ten Little Niggers? Who can believe in a murderer so reckless, and in a gull so stupid, as the characters in The A.B.C. Murders? Yet the books remain triumphs of ingenuity, and it is worth trying to see just how the tricks are done. (pp. 36-7)
What are Agatha Christie's chances of survival as a writer who will be read a century from now?…
To answer yes, as I would do, is not to say that she was a great or even a good writer, but rather to say that although the detective story is ephemeral literature, the puzzle which it embodies has a permanent appeal…. If her work survives it will be because she was the supreme mistress of a magical skill that is a permanent, although often secret, concern of humanity: the construction and the solution of puzzles. (p. 38)
Julian Symons, "The Mistress of Complication," in Agatha Christie: First Lady of Crime, edited by H.R.F. Keating (copyright © 1977 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Publishers; in Canada by Weidenfeld & Nicholson Ltd.), Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977, pp. 25-38.
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Why do Americans gulp down Agatha Christie in such quantity? Our most eminent literary critics have asked the question with genuine and growing bewilderment. Their pardonable zeal to espy a new [Leo] Tolstoy or [Fyodor] Dostoyevsky blinds them to the essence of Gutenberg's invention. They fail to recognize that, ever since the availability of the printing press, mankind has been evincing a dogged determination to read. And Americans, as usual, have taken a simple human desire and run away with it….
Now genius is just as rare in literature as it is every place else. The world has long accepted the fact that the lack of a [Christopher] Wren or a [Charles] Bulfinch has never prevented people from erecting buildings. Instead they have settled for the nearest reliable craftsman…. (p. 85)
In the same sense, Agatha Christie has become a vernacular art form in her own right. And there is no doubt at all about the nature of her functionalism. She writes a readable book, a book that remains readable come hell or high water. This in itself is enough to explain her sales in the US, in the world.
American enthusiasts of James Joyce or Virginia Woolf do not see it this way. An embattled crew—as they have to be—they fight every inch of the way. Very well, they concede grudgingly, Agatha Christie is an honest, reliable craftsman. What's so wonderful about that? Surely there are plenty of them around. What makes this one so attractive to the American reading public?
In some circles it is tactless to reply that readable writers are not really thick on the ground. Provocative, insightful, gritty … yes. Readable … no. Narrative thrust, as we must all admit, is hopelessly old-fashioned. But then, so are most book readers, at least in this country. Coteries may be interested in the psyche; people still like stories. Agatha Christie is, par excellence, a story-teller.
Fortunately the second reason is less invidious. By making her works so quintessentially English, by becoming a chronicler of British small beer, Christie creates a special dimension of interest for her foreign audience, including Americans. Her intricate embroidery of domestic trivia obscures some of her consistent defects, such as shallow characterization and hackneyed situations. At the same time it leaves untouched her great strengths—the absolute mastery of puzzle, the glinting edge of humour, the accurate social eye. There are millions of us ready to attest that this is a more than satisfactory trade-off.
A chorus of unanimity rises on at least one of these points. Friend and foe alike bow to the queen of the puzzle. Every Christie plot resolution has been hailed as a masterpiece of sleight-of-hand; she herself as a virtuoso of subterfuge. Tributes like these are heartwarming and deserved. They are not, however, altogether accurate. Agatha Christie's brilliance lies in her rare appreciation of the Laocoon complexities inherent in any standard situation. She herself rarely condescends to misdirect; she lets the cliché do it for her. When a sexually carnivorous young woman appears on the Christie scene, the reader, recognizing the stock figure of the home wrecker, needs no further inducement to trip down the garden path of self-deception. Wilfully misinterpreting every wrinkle, he will have strayed so far into the brambles by the time of the inevitable murder that nothing can get him back on course. Then the solution, the keystone of which is simply the durability of the original marriage or attachment, comes as a startling bouleversement for him—not to mention the carnivore. The contrapuntal variations on this theme are explored in Evil Under the Sun, Murder in Retrospect (in Britain Five Little Pigs), and Death on the Nile.
The same deadly common sense informs the Christie approach to impersonation and collusion. After all, any mystery aficionado worth his salt knows how to react when a large fortune and several dubious claimants are trailed enticingly before him. Like Pavlov's dog, he's been there before. Then comes the grand finale, the bland Christie assumption that, if an inheritance is worth shenanigans now, it was worth even more one death back. Therefore—good heavens!—the impostor is not any of those obvious suspects but is the man, or woman, who is already enjoying full possession of the money bags. So runs the logic of A Murder Is Announced. There Is A Tide (Taken at the Flood in Britain), and Dead Man's Folly. The twist is then reversed for Funerals Are Fatal (After the Funeral), where the skulduggery begins one death later, instead of one death sooner, than expected.
This Christie penchant for exhaustive combinations and permutations really blossoms whenever two people conspire to commit a crime. Outlandish yokings of every description abound. But, by and large, it is safe to say that whenever an obvious male ne'er-do-well exists, no woman is ineligible to be his accomplice. In this respect Dame Agatha showed her colours as early as The Mysterious Affair at Styles, where the gruff, middle-aged companion, complete with tweeds and walking shoes, emerges as a passionate partner in murder. From these promising beginnings she has made a clean sweep of the field, including the devoted secretary (Sparkling Cyanide), the protective Swedish child lover (Ordeal by Innocence), the subnormal housemaid (A Pocket Full of Rye), and the crisply independent poor relation (The Patriotic Murders, in Britain One, Two, Buckle My Shoe). Yet for a ruthless exploiter of every conceivable possibility, these achievements were not enough. The apotheosis of Christie conspiracy is reserved for Murder in the Calais Coach, otherwise the Orient Express, where everybody is guilty.
All of this lies well within the canon of the classic detective story and is deeply satisfying to those of us who like to see a rigid form explored to its outermost limits. But inevitably the further Agatha Christie wanders off the beaten track, the closer she comes to overshooting the bounds of credulity. Here is where her export market enjoys a clear-cut advantage. An English reader may boggle at palpable absurdities. Not so an American. By the time we have absorbed the larger realities of English life, together with the special aspects illustrated by St Mary Mead [Miss Marple's village] we are not going to strain at gnats. For example, there is the geography of England. To American eyes, this involves an incredible number of people in a very constricted space. What's more, instead of trying to spread out, they all seem to be going to London constantly. (pp. 85-7)
And there is the eternal question of age. Who counts as young, who counts as old? Above all, when do people retire? Every American, assiduously working his way through the Christie oeuvre, can grasp the broad outlines of employment in the colonial civil services. But what is he to make of all those fifty-year-old men, coming home to marry and start families as country gentlemen of leisure?…
Which raises the ultimate mystification. What in the world do these people do, day in, day out?…
Even before he stumbles over a body in the library, the American reader realizes that he lacks the proper yardstick to measure normal English behaviour. (p. 88)
The list could continue indefinitely, but the moral is self-evident. To read Agatha Christie, an American is required to abandon all his own social experience and surrender himself to a never-never world where voices are rarely raised, where breeding is more important than money, and where a really good herbaceous border matters more than anything else….
If the lulling background is English, the humour is universal—at least in the vintage Christie, which can be defined roughly as running from the mid thirties through the end of the fifties. At the beginning of her career she strayed into broad set pieces, with Bundle Brent rocketing adorably around the countryside and Hastings functioning as all-purpose stooge. But with success came relaxation and the introduction of fleeting vignettes and brief asides reflecting the author's point of view. Taken as a whole, they constitute an irresistible interpretation of the human condition. (p. 89)
For extra measure, the Christie assemblage includes a gallery of bystanders who transcend minor considerations of reality, creatures of inspired fantasy. These amiable jeux d'esprit, who can well be incorporated under the title of The Crazy Ladies, rarely figure as prominent members of the cast. But they are forever memorable. (p. 90)
No, Agatha Christie is not a comic writer. Black humour, mordant wit, condescending irony are—thank God—alien to her native genius. She is the author of straightforward light fiction who uses humour as leavening so that, throughout her great period, everything she wrote breathes a spirit of sanity, kindliness and detachment. It is quite enough to endear her to millions of readers.
And then, while their guard is down, she tells them more about what has happened to England since the First World War than The Times—either of London or New York. That quick and unerring eye for the homely detail is worth volumes of social history. In Styles we start out with servants, with open fires, with bedroom candles. Little by little, the servants fade away, electric lights reach the bedroom, and central heating warms good and bad alike. No one, including The Economist, has tracked the shift of English household practice from labour-intensive to capital-intensive with such unobtrusive persistency.
Outside the home her characters, even if they are derived from a golden world that never existed, move competently through one social upheaval after another. Wartime rationing, austerity, National Health—all formed part of Agatha Christie's accurately observed England. So too did educational grants and youth hostels in London, West Indian hospital nurses and bus conductors, the very rich staying rich in a welfare state. Dame Agatha mentioned these things to us long before anybody else did because she had a noticing eye. Capital punishment disappeared for Christie malefactors, and young people left those bed-sitters with the ubiquitous gas ring in order to share apartments—and Agatha Christie registers the fact, then casually passes it on. The Empire dies, employment goes up and down, the youth movement is spawned and it is all there, as seen from the Aga stove. There is no pretension, no didacticism. But it is the record of an era, drawn dispassionately and effectively.
Even on the delicate ground of American characters, Christie rarely sets a foot wrong. Here her victory consists less in attracting a devoted American audience than in avoiding its alienation. Refined creative instinct, or a lot of horse sense, saved Christie from the fatal error of sending Hercule Poirot to New York, or Miss Marple to Washington, DC. (English readers must often yearn for a little reciprocity along these lines.) Indeed, Christie was generally sparing in her use of Americans. (pp. 90-1)
So much for the content of Christie's work. There is one final point to be made concerning her record in the United States. All those impressive sales figures stress the insatiable demand for her books. But there is another side to the coin. In addition to mass consumption, Agatha Christie represents mass production. Her long, hard-working life has filled the shelves with title after title. Now mystery reading often presents some of the symptoms of addiction, with the hardened fanatic devouring larger and larger dosages until a book a night is required to satisfy the craving. Everyone who has ever been bitten by the bug knows the joy of unearthing a new, appealing author, followed by the bitter discovery that his entire output consists of two volumes. With Christie, there is no such brief encounter; she is with you for life. And by the time there are over forty works to a writer's credit, re-reading becomes more than a possibility, it becomes an insurance policy. Nothing makes us feel safer than an Agatha Christie we read twenty years ago. (pp. 92-3)
Emma Lathen, "Cornwallis's Revenge," in Agatha Christie: First Lady of Crime, edited by H.R.F. Keating (copyright © 1977 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Publishers; in Canada by Weidenfeld & Nicholson Ltd.), Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977, pp. 79-94.
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Through the years playgoers and critics joined in keeping any secret Mrs Christie confided to them, and her trust was honoured; it astonishes us now that after a quarter of a century in London The Mousetrap can still be acted before audiences with no idea of its development or climax.
Agatha Christie, by herself, wrote twelve full-scale plays (one published, not performed) and three in a single act. She collaborated in another full-length play; four more, from her novels or short stories, were adapted by other hands…. Whatever else was wrong, nobody sustained a problem as she did, or solved it so quickly without a tedious explanatory huddle. This was her Midas gift to the theatre. 'Upon my soul,' exclaimed [Charles] Dickens's Barnacle Junior, 'you mustn't come into the place saying you want to know, you know.' Agatha Christie's fans did want to know. In the later plays they may have found it a lagging wait. Never mind: having been in at the death they insisted on a post-mortem verdict. (p. 133)
Agatha Christie put action before character. Too often, in early plays or late, her people were stereotyped. Like [Oscar] Wilde's minor epigrams, they could have been transferred, as needed, from plot to plot, hall to manor, court to vicarage: a doctor there, a spinster here. Attendants on a body, they rarely had life of their own. Naturally, we remember Poirot—even he could be something of a stereotype—and Mrs Boynton in Appointment with Death, Romaine in Witness for the Prosecution, Clarissa in Spider's Web, and Lady Angkatell in The Hollow do linger. Others can coil out in a greyish procession of names. (p. 140)
Dame Agatha's strength in the theatre was her power of plotting. She could do most things with a body, but it became increasingly hard to animate the gap between death and revelation. Usually people and dialogue were functional, though at times, as in the whole of Witness for the Prosecution, in much of The Mousetrap, in the second acts of The Hollow and Ten Little Niggers, in the incidental comedy of Spider's Web, and in The Unexpected Guest, the stage could flash swiftly to life. Very few detachable lines keep a play in memory; humour often stiffened to mannerism. (pp. 152-53)
That admitted, Agatha Christie had more narrative impulse than anyone of her day. Frequently her end would justify the means. She was a technician when, among critics, the word had mildewed. Our pleasure in her major puzzles was the pleasure of a testing anagram, of an exact mortise-and-tenon, of filling the space at 27 down and closing an awkward corner. In fine, the pleasure of solution, the answer to a precisely stated challenge. In the matter of life and death within her world of artifice, she could be past-mistress of the artificial: no leopardess, no organ at midnight, not even a vault. She failed when her heart was not with the problem (Towards Zero, Go Back for Murder, Verdict). When she had persuaded herself she could soon persuade others: in the period's most rubbed jargon, there might not be many 'insights', but the machine did 'work'.
Agatha Christie fortified the theatre of entertainment; she knew about plays of menace before the tag was modish. At least three of her plays should live beyond the century…. (pp. 153-54)
J. C. Trewin, "A Midas Gift to the Theatre," in Agatha Christie: First Lady of Crime, edited by H.R.F. Keating (copyright © 1977 by Weidenfeld & Nicholson; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Publishers; in Canada by Weidenfeld & Nicholson Ltd.), Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977, pp. 131-54.
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"An Autobiography," by Agatha Christie … is the work of a writer who depended upon a skeleton—the formal structure of the detective story—in order to allow herself to imagine in public. These memoirs are like nothing else she wrote: they are vivid, stylish, subtle, relaxed, and wholly uncarpentered…. [Mrs. Christie's] tone provides a sense of freshness, of discovery, as if she were inviting us along as she finds out how she came to be who she was. She also demonstrates, by the way, how intense and complex emotions take shape in narrow little societies. Sometimes she justifies the past in ways we cannot accept. For instance, she thinks that late-Victorian parents, like her own, were "realistic" in labelling their children early, and tells us, with no apparent resentment, "I myself was always recognized, though quite kindly, as 'the slow one' of the family." This judgment was nonsense, and I think it harmed her, deepening her shyness, her sense of inadequacy, and her self-distrust, to which she repeatedly refers. Humiliating stagefright ended her aspiration for a career as a concert pianist, and throughout her life she seems to have feared attention, or even admiration. I see a parallel to her published work, which is always tearing along to divert us, as if she feared she might be a bore.
In her memoirs, by contrast, she is candid and ample. She does not conceal trouble (loss of money) or sorrow (loss of love), and she writes freely of her idiosyncrasies, her joys, her pleasures, her sources of pride. Her publishers note that she does not describe what they call her "celebrated disappearance"—an amnesiac flight during the breakup of her first marriage—but she is remarkably precise about the onset of her nervous breakdown, and evokes its peculiar frightfulness: her feelings of loneliness and confusion, of knowing she was somehow "off" but not knowing exactly how or why. And, for once allowing herself the freedom of space, she has room to let character develop. Though she seems to have gone on believing that she was partly to blame for the failure of that marriage, the reader will see, I think, what Mrs. Christie was too self-belittling to recognize: that she was a superior woman married to a mediocre man. The happiness of her second marriage, to a distinguished archeologist, shows her success with a husband who was her equal in brains, character, and taste.
Mrs. Christie's amplitude also offers a fascinating mass of detail about the past—about the shapes of Victorian trunks, say, and the way Edwardian women wore hairpieces. She has a sense of humor, a sense of fun, and a sense of the point of things. No matter how much she appears to digress, she is such a gifted narrator that her story never slackens. It unfolds with an effect of absolute naturalness, which, of course, is never achieved by nature but only by art. During her life, Agatha Christie was recognized as a first-rate entertainer; in this work she reveals the artist she did not believe she was, and was too shy to let herself be. (pp. 105-6)
Naomi Bliven, in The New Yorker (© 1978 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), January 30. 1978.
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Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple are the detectives of Agatha Christie known to millions; somewhat less well known are Tuppence and Tommy Beresford and Inspector Battle. In all four cases, Christie wrote novels, as well as short stories, using these characters. However, there are two other Christie "detectives" who never appear in a novel, only in short stories. The quotation marks are necessary, for neither of these men fulfill the usual image of the British detective. They are Mr. C. Parker Pyne and Mr. Harley Quin. With the latter must be included his friend Mr. Satterthwaite…. The stories of Pyne and Quin illustrate two different elements of Christie's mystery fiction—elements that are not part of her works about the other detectives. In the Pyne stories she combines detection, or at least deduction, and the manipulation of human lives to achieve their happiness, while in the Quin stories she combines detection and fantasy.
There are fourteen Parker Pyne stories. Of these seven can hardly be called detective stories; rather they are cases in which Pyne manipulates people to give them the happiness they desire—the mystery element is how he accomplishes the task. The other seven involve detection by Pyne when he is asked to help an unhappy person. (p. 110)
As a result of Pyne's omnipotence, Christie's stories about him can be considered improbable. His ingenious schemes to provide people happiness by manipulating their views of their world, his astounding ability at classification, and his insight into human character based upon that classification are far beyond the powers of most people. The improbability is lessened, however, by the nature of most of his cases. They are human interest stories, dealing with problems that face most people: problems of love, boredom, and money. Also, Pyne has none of the usual eccentricities of so many English detectives of the period in which he was created; rather, he is presented as an "ordinary," elderly English middle-class man in his tastes and personal life. It is in the blending of improbable action and ordinary characters that these stories are distinctive.
If Parker Pyne is omnipotent in his cases, Harley Quin is omniscient in the thirteen stories in which he appears, though he denies it….
Quin is based upon the harlequin of the English pantomime, which is a descendant of the sixteenth-century commedia dell'arte…. Harlequin was not originally a supernatural character, but by the nineteenth century, he and Columbine, as presented on the English stage, had become fairylike creatures not bound by time and space. (p. 112)
The resemblance to motley and the eerie effect of light on his appearance conjoin the elements of the stage harlequin and the supernatural being within Quin.
However, other characteristics of the supernatural are included in his presentation. The most obvious are his sudden appearances and disappearances…. (p. 113)
[One] cannot discuss Quin without including his mortal partner, Mr. Satterthwaite. (p. 114)
Quin and Satterthwaite are a team, a matching of the supernatural and the human—surely one of the most unusual detective teams in fiction….
Neither Quin nor Pyne will ever have the popularity of Poirot, Marple, or the Beresfords. The short story form does not allow for the development of character which the novel does. Apparently, Christie did not see her way to extending Pyne's manipulation of people or the supernatural characteristics of Quin to the length of a novel…. Though Pyle is a basically colorless figure, the disquieting Quin and the little dried-up Satterthwaite are difficult to forget, and one can only regret her abandonment of them. But whatever one may think of the characters and the stories in which they appear, the fact remains that the twenty seven stories are significant examples of Christie's experimentation in adding narrative interest to the detective genre by employing elements not generally considered compatible with it. (p. 115)
E. F. Bargainnier. "Agatha Christie's Other Detectives," in The Armchair Detective (copyright © 1978 by The Armchair Detective), April, 1978, pp. 110-15.
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Agatha Christie's success has not been checked by death…. What is it that has made the books live?
Certainly not the quality of the writing, which is at best no more than lively….
Yet if Agatha Christie was an indifferent writer, she was a most intelligent craftsman, who had considerable sensibility about the form in which she worked….
Other bad writers have been skillful craftsmen without lasting like Agatha Christie. Perhaps the nearest one can get to explaining the puzzle of her enduring popularity is to suggest that although the detective story is ephemeral, the riddle's attraction is lasting. There are those who find the detective story's origins in the Apocrypha, the story of Oedipus, or Voltaire's Zadig, but these are scholastic arguments. What is certainly true is that human beings have a passion equally for concealment and revelation. Agatha Christie's stories appeal strongly to very many people because they fulfill this passion in the world of the fairy tale, a world only nominally linked to reality. (p. 39)
Julian Symons, "The Christie Mystery," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1978 Nyrev, Inc.), December 21, 1978, pp. 37-9.
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Agatha Christie wrote her first detective story, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in 1920. Thereafter, and for over half a century, she was the most popular purveyor of the genre. During that time she wrote works that would not fit quite as well within the narrowest definition of the genre. But detective fiction is a form that loses definition in proportion as it extends beyond its intentional narrowness—a truism confirmed by the lasting appeal of even as rudimentary a work as The Mysterious Affair at Styles…. The detective story requires characters only in sufficient numbers, and sufficiently fleshed out, to give its puzzle an anthropomorphic semblance and to preserve the reader from boredom for as long as the veil of its "mystery" is drawn. When it restricts itself to this kind of functional stylization, it exposes little to the dangers of age: how many novels written at the end of the First World War could find such a ready, face-value acceptance today?
To say that the detective story proposes a puzzle is not quite accurate either: one must assume that only an infinitesimally small number of Agatha Christie's half billion readers ever undertook or expected to solve her stories in advance of Jane Marple or Hercule Poirot. What the detective story proposes instead is the expectation of a solution. The detective story offers confirmation and continuity at the price of a minor and spurious disruption. The continuity that it insures includes, ultimately, that of the genre itself: nearly every part of the world within which The Mysterious Affair at Styles is set must surely be dead and gone by now (if it ever actually existed), and yet thousands of readers who have never known that world still accept it as real, with little or no suggestion of "camp."
The world was the one possibly enjoyed for yet awhile by the English upper class after 1918…. Styles Court exists only in our expectation of what it might be if it were a part of our imaginings. It comes into being through a process of diluted logic that assumes, since mystery is given as an unfortunate condition that can, and should be, eliminated, that life without such unpleasantness must perforce be agreeable and desirable. In a place like Styles, the plumbing is never erratic (unless for the limited purpose of serving the plot), personal sorrow is as evanescent and inconsequential as a summer shower, age and decay cannot inform the exemplary and unyielding mien of its people: the young know that they will be young forever, the professionals are admirably suited to their faces…. In such a garden of delightfully fulfilled expectations, there rarely occurs anything worse than murder.
Where the corpse of Laius was a scandal that affronted even the gods, the poisoning of Emily Inglethorp at Styles is an event that is just barely sufficient to disrupt the tea and tennis routine. (pp. 40-2)
It is not the act of murder that casts a pall over this idyllic landscape. The pity of murder is that, as slugs ruin lettuce beds (something that would be unheard of at Styles, of course), murder spoils what was otherwise good. Styles St. Mary (or Jane Marple's identical St. Mary Mead) is not the world of high romance: it is the bucolic dream of England….
The people in that landscape are as tautological as the landscape itself: an adjective or two are sufficient to call their identity to mind. There is "Miss Howard. She is an excellent specimen of well-balanced English beef and brawn. She is sanity itself."… The reader's store of familiar images conjures her out of seven words when he first encounters her: "A lady in a stout tweed skirt,"… the moral qualities of stoutness combining with the British virtue of tweed to convey the instant vision of a hearty, hardy, and honest soul. Thereafter, Evelyn Howard turns into the manifest emblem of her inner nature: "She was a pleasant-looking woman of about forty, with a deep voice, almost manly in its stentorian tones, and had a large sensible square body, with feet to match—these encased in good thick boots."… Agelessness, together with an utter lack of gender or esthetic qualities, confer on her the quintessential merit visually attributed to John Bull….
But once murder has been committed, the tautological evidence can no longer be trusted…. (p. 44)
[The] characters lay no claim to being people: they are dyspeptic evidence of a déjà vu. Out of such reminders of minor unpleasantness within the world, the detective story creates the temporary annoyance to which it reduces an otherwise all-enclosing mystery. (p. 46)
[In] 1920 Agatha Christie could still rely on her world and the responses of her people. The canniest person in The Mysterious Affair at Styles is neither the criminal (doomed to defeat within the expectations of the genre) nor, obviously, the singularly inept narrator, Hastings. But it is not Hercule Poirot either: it is Agatha Christie herself. She moves in a world she knows so well she can pretend not to be a part of it, counting on the reader's prejudice that associates him with her characters, while she herself avoids contamination. Her mode allows her to show the guilty and the innocent in what appears to be the same light by dissociating herself ostensibly from the convention on which she relies, while in reality she knows that she is casting suspicion on those who should not be suspect. (pp. 47-8)
The assurance of the detective's infallibility results in structural difficulties that are further evidence of the skillful dosing required by the genre. Too manifest an expectation of the detective's success will weaken fatally the delicate tension that must be maintained during the time of subtle unpleasantness that extends between the crime and its resolution. However infallible the detective (and, in the traditional genre, all are equally infallible), he cannot be so percipient as to reveal instantly the sham for what it is. In proportion as Poirot's foes were relatively easy to dispose of at the time of his first introduction to the world, Poirot himself was proportionally the more flawed…. Poirot has little to recommend him to us or to denizens of Styles Court. From the first he is marred by the same imperfection as the other aliens—his conspicuous foreignness: nowhere is it more evident than in the fact that he is short. Even before he appears, he has been patronizingly dismissed by most of the Britishers in the cast…. Of course, this is meant to be a joke on [the doubters] …, but it is a double-edged joke nevertheless; though it confirms Poirot in the end, it helps to blend him a little better with the "alien" quality of murder until the final and brief moment of his triumph. (p. 49)
The author was aware of the faintly ridiculous figure cut by Poirot when she baptized him. She named him after a vegetable—the leek (poireau, which also means a wart, in French)—to which she apposed the (barely) Christian name Hercule, in such a way that each name would cast ridicule on the other. Virtues that might have been British in someone of normal stature were undercut by Poirot's height—five feet four inches. (p. 50)
Such indignities were visited on Poirot by virtue of his birth: but in the parts of his personality over which he might have been expected to exercise some self-control, he showed a deplorable tendency to indulge his foreignness. His English was unaccountably Gallicized …, with altogether too many exclamation marks, too much boastfulness …, and an excess of continental posturing…. Even Poirot's single greatest asset—his brain—is ostentatiously displayed in a head exactly like an egg. But perhaps the most serious injury inflicted by Poirot's shameless exuberance is the extent of the overstatement into which he forces those who must describe him, starting with the hapless Hastings.
However, these imperfections notwithstanding, Poirot is not entirely dismissible, either. Part of the artificial surprise of the detective story is contained within the detective who triumphs, as he brings the action to a close, over even his own shortcomings…. Agatha Christie is faithful to her method in distancing herself from the aspersions cast at her detective. Not only is his intelligence the brighter for having to shine through his mannerisms, but he has been endowed by his maker with a saving grace of no mean consequence: Gallicized as he might be, Poirot is still not quite French. Rather, he is as Nordic as can possibly be someone using the French language—he is Belgian. (pp. 50-1)
Lastly, Poirot is conferred a kind of honorary citizenship in being awarded a sacrificial, native goat—Hastings—used for purposes of contrast and to ask Poirot questions, the withholding of whose answers is necessary for suspense within the story (very properly, the predetermined time during which disclosure of what was known all along is suspended, held up). Hastings is wholly functional: until the arrival of Poirot, that is to say, before the story can devolve from a dialectical process, Hastings is the sole reliance of the reader…. But once Poirot enters the scene, Hastings becomes no more than a bumbling foil…. Just as the unsatisfactory Watson is positioned between the reader and Sherlock Holmes, Hastings acts as the reader's intercessor to the intercessor—though he is manifestly the most obtuse of the characters. Presumed to be the spyglass through which the reader is able to "follow" Poirot, he in fact prevents the reader from seeing much. (pp. 51-2)
And so, the trivial unpleasantness that was contrived for the pleasure of ending it is brought to a close. A spoilsport old lady has been eliminated, foreigners (or those who act like them) have either been justly punished or made to disappear. .Those who were only half-foreigners, but actually good, emerge as their better halves. The lovers are reunited, the upper-middle-class ritual is once again resumed. Law, order, and property are secure, and, in a universe that is forever threatening to escape from our rational grasp, a single little man with a maniacal penchant for neatness leaves us the gift of a tidy world, a closed book in which all questions have been answered.
The detective story treats the reader's expectations and prejudices with gentle solicitude. Alongside its disposable annoyances, the planetary triumphs of James Bond are unsettling: the evil he overcomes is of such magnitude that, even when undone, it leaves a menacing trace. We are left wondering whether the secret agent with license to kill is not, in his apotheosis, a reincarnation of what he has eliminated. In a novel by Ian Fleming, an anxiety caused by the awareness that such a tale could be told seeps through the closed covers within which that anxiety was meant to be contained. The anxiety we feel is, of course, more than its fiction intended, and its seepage is an accident. But that seepage makes the world that writes Bond into being much like ours: both are one. Agatha Christie's world, on the other hand, was never more than nostalgia and illusion. Her continued success suggests only that the illusion has not yet receded completely beyond our ken. (pp. 52)
David I. Grossvogel, "Agatha Christie: Containment of the Unknown," in his Mystery and Its Fictions: From Oedipus to Agatha Christie (copyright © 1979 by The Johns Hopkins University Press), The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979, pp. 39-52.