Agatha Christie Christie, Agatha (Vol. 12) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 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.

William Rose BenéT

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


"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...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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I. M. Parsons

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Will Cuppy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["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...

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Nicholas Blake

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ralph Partridge

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Will Cuppy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Gilbert Norwood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ralph Partridge

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Rupert Hart-Davis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Isaac Anderson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ralph Partridge

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Rose Feld

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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...

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Edmund Wilson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 573 words.)

Robert Kee

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Anthony Boucher

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Anthony Boucher

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)


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Anthony Boucher

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)


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Anthony Boucher

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Sumi Yamashita

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)


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Marcia Keller

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Anthony Lejeune

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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?


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Howard Haycraft

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Eric Shorter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Dick Datchery

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)


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Francis Wyndham

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Peter Prescott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Adam Ulam

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Julian Barnes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Julian Symons

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Emma Lathen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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J. C. Trewin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 603 words.)

Naomi Bliven

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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...

(The entire section is 534 words.)

E. F. Bargainnier

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 654 words.)

Julian Symons

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 196 words.)

David I. Grossvogel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1895 words.)