Stewart H. Benedict (essay date Winter 1962)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2021

SOURCE: "Agatha Christie and Murder Most Unsportsmanlike," in Claremont Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 2, Winter, 1962, pp. 37-42.

[In the following essay, Benedict considers the culpability of Christie's murders, arguing that Christie may have paved the way for justifiable murders in mystery fiction.]

Just as in politics...

(The entire section contains 35882 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Agatha Christie study guide. You'll get access to all of the Agatha Christie content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Biography
  • Critical Essays
  • Analysis
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

SOURCE: "Agatha Christie and Murder Most Unsportsmanlike," in Claremont Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 2, Winter, 1962, pp. 37-42.

[In the following essay, Benedict considers the culpability of Christie's murders, arguing that Christie may have paved the way for justifiable murders in mystery fiction.]

Just as in politics the British offspring of an American mother became the symbol of Empire in a time of need, so too the most typically English mystery novels have come from the pen of an authoress who, although she can boast of almost a hundred million sales, cannot boast of one hundred percent pure U.K. blood. The lady in question is of course Agatha Christie, whose heraldry bears a transatlantic bar sinister, but who in her books has out-Harrowed the Harrovians and out-Blimped the Blimps.

Miss Christie launched her criminal career in 1920, with The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and, since this first case, has finished almost seventy others and has dispatched close onto two hundred fictional victims, incidentally becoming the world's best-selling authoress in the process.

Evidently fully convinced that nothing succeeds like success, Miss Christie at the start of her career relied on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle about as whole-heartedly as, say, V. I. Lenin did on Karl Marx. Her debt to the Sherlock Holmes stories can be seen in her choice of titles for novels (like The Secret Adversary and The Big Four) and short stories (like "The Adventure of the Cheap Flat," "The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor," and "The Mystery of Hunter's Lodge").

Indeed, the team of Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings, as originally conceived, is a virtual carbon copy of Holmes and Watson. Poirot, like Holmes, is a convinced and convincing spokesman for the human rational faculty, has an unshakable faith in his own reason, uses his long-suffering Boswell as a sort of echo-chamber, and even has a mysterious and exotically named brother who works for the government. Captain Hastings, like Watson a retired military man, has much else in common with his prototype: he is a trusting, bumbling, superingenuous ex-soldier whose loyalty is touching but whose intellectual abilities, especially when turned loose on a problem of deduction, are so feeble as to be risible. Occasionally, though, the amanuensis wins applause from the master by making an observation which by its egregious stupidity illuminates some corner previously dark in the innermost recesses of the great mind.

Nor does the fumbling and ineffectual Inspector Lestrade lack a copy: Inspector Japp of the Christie novels is equally tenacious, incorruptible, and uninspired.

But the Baker Street influence permeates far deeper than these superficial features would indicate. Many scenes from Agatha's earlier works, especially those presenting conversations between the two principals, are considerably more Holmesian even than the literary collages constructed in imitation of the master by Adrian Conan Doyle and John Dickson Carr.

At the same time as she was writing by formula, Miss Christie was experimenting with a second type, in which she tried out various assorted detectives and crime-chasers, professional, semi-professional, and amateur.

In these novels she introduced a whole gallery of new sleuths: Tuppence and Tommy, Colonel Race, Superintendent Battle, Mr. Harley Quin and Mr. Satterthwaite, Parker Pyne, and Jane Marple. Some of the newcomers starred once and subsequently reappeared in supporting roles, some never moved out of short stories, while Miss Marple joined Poirot as a Christie regular.

Tuppence and Tommy Beresford, whose specialty was ferreting out espionage, made their debut in The Secret Adversary, showed up again in Partners in Crime and were resurrected in 1941 for N or M? Their frivolous and insouciant approach to detection, if something of a relief-giving contrast to the Holmes-Poirotmethodology, nonetheless must have made them seem to their creatress too unreliable to cope with any subtle or complicated crime.

The enigmatic, laconic Colonel Race appeared first in The Man in the Brown Suit and sporadically thereafter. The Colonel, whose locus operandi was the colonies, did make it back to England for the fateful bridge party in Cards on the Table, but clearly his chief interest lay in shoring up the house that Rhodes built. Further, although not precisely what Miss Christie customarily refers to as "a wrong 'un," the Colonel gave the distinct impression of being willing to temporize on questions of ends and means, a point of view, we must assume, acceptable in the colonies but not in the Mother Country.

Superintendent Battle, stolid, dependable, hard-working, came onto the scene in The Secret of Chimneys and solved The Seven Dials Mystery, but his lack of color and elan must have been responsible for his being relegated to a subordinate role on later cases.

The most atypical product of the Christie imagination was the weird pair consisting of the other-worldly Harley Quin and his fussbudgety, oldmaidish "contact," Mr. Satterthwaite. The short stories in which they figured marked the authoress' closest approach to the occult.

Another unusual character who debuted during this experimental period was Parker Pyne. The ingenious Mr. Pyne specialized not in solving murders, but in manipulating the lives of others so as to bring them happiness and/or adventure. In some of these cases he was fortunate enough to have the assistance of Mrs. Ariadne Oliver, the mystery novelist. Just as it could not be proved that Willie Stark is Huey Long, so too it could not be stated flatly that Ariadne Oliver is Agatha Christie, but many of the clues seem to point in that direction. Mrs. Oliver's incessant munching on apples, her sartorial disorganization, and above all her theories on the art of the mystery novel make it difficult to avoid that conclusion.

It was in 1930, in Murder at the Vicarage, unquestionably the best-written Christie novel, that she first presented the character who became one of her two favorites. The attraction to Jane Marple is not hard to understand: she is one of those personified paradoxes in whom both authors and readers delight. Behind the antique, Victorian, tea-and-crumpets, crocheted-antimacassar facade, is a mind realistically aware of the frailty of all human beings and the depravity of some.

About 1935 there began to appear the third type, or what might best be called the genuine Christie novel, with its numerous unique features.

Most publicized among these features, of course, is the use of an extraordinary gimmick: in Murder in the Calais Coach the murder is done with the connivance of a dozen people; in The ABC Murders, the highly suggestible suspect believes himself guilty of a series of crimes of which he is innocent and convinces the reader of his guilt; in And Then There Were None, the reader is led to believe that the killer has been a victim in a series of murders.

Less discussed, but really more significant, is the Christie ability to manage what may be called (to pirate a phrase from Sarcey) "the optics of the mystery." The successful mystery novel involves a special problem: the death(s) of the victim(s) must be made of interest, but not of deep concern, to the reader. The conventional, or, by now, hackneyed, methods of developing this special attitude in the reader are two: either the prospective corpse is presented so briefly that, living, he makes no impression at all, or he is depicted as so vicious that the audience looks forward eagerly to his demise.

Miss Christie, however, has evolved a completely different formula: she arranges a situation which is implausible, if not actually impossible and into this unrealistic framework places characters who act realistically for the most realistic of motives. In Easy to Kill, for example, four murders are committed in a minuscule town without any suspicions being aroused; in A Murder Is Announced the killer advertises in advance; in What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw! the witness to a murder is a passenger in a train which travels parallel to another train just long enough for Mrs. McGillicuddy to see the murder. And, of course, some of the Christie Classics, especially Murder in the Calais Coach, And Then There Were None, and "Witness for the Prosecution," really test the ductility of coincidence.

As for the realistic elements, in only one instance (the short story "The Face of Helen") does a murderer have recourse to a bizarre weapon; in every other case a completely pedestrian one is used: the poison bottle, the knife, the gun, the garrote, the bludgeon. The motive is always equally pedestrian: it is invariably either money or love.

The single characteristic which most stamps a whodunit as a Christie product, however, is the fate of the killer. Miss Christie sees murderers as being either good or bad individuals; the good ones dispose of evil victims, and vice versa. Further, the bad murderer is distinguished because he unvaryingly preys on people with inadequate defenses: he may be a doctor (and therefore ipso facto to be trusted, as contemporary folklore teaches us); or a handsome and clever lover who first uses, then kills, a woman who has been unlucky enough to fall in love with him; or an old and respected friend and confidant; or a man who selects a child, an old person, a physical or psychological cripple as a victim. This element, the victim's inadequate defenses against the criminal, puts the murderer beyond the pale—he is unsportsmanlike and consequently despicable. Over and over reference is made to the viciousness of those who betray faith and trust. Says Dr. Haydock in Murder at the Vicarage after he learns that the murderer has attempted to pin his crime on an innocent young curate who suffers from sleeping sickness and is not really sure of his own innocence: "The fellow's not fit to live. A defenseless chap like Hawes." In an analogous situation Hercule Poirot says to Franklin Clarke, who has actually succeeded in getting the suggestible epileptic Alexander Bonaparte Cust to believe himself a murderer: "No, Mr. Clarke, no easy death for you … I consider your crime not an English crime at all—not above-board—not sporting—…" He adds later, in analyzing the crime, "It was abominable—… the cruelty that condemned an unfortunate man to a living death. To catch a fox and put him in a box and never let him go. That is not le sport."

Conversely, when the victim is completely unsympathetic and the murderer a decent person, it is very possible that the culprit will be revealed to be a sufferer from a far-advanced case of some incurable disease. If he is healthy, he usually has or is presented with the opportunity to commit suicide. On rare occasions such a person escapes any punishment at the hands of the law: in Murder in the Calais Coach, for instance, the victim turns out to have committed an especially unsportsmanlike crime and the otherwise tenacious Hercule Poirot simply steps out of the case, leaving it unsolved.

It is very clear, then, that Miss Christie is no moral absolutist where murder is concerned. In Mr. Parker Pyne, Detective Ariadne Oliver, speaking, we suppose, for the authoress, asks Poirot, "Don't you think that there are people who ought to be murdered?" The view that there are indeed such people seems to be sustained in And Then There Were None, in which no less than ten preeminently sleazy slayers are dispatched by a retired judge who escapes legal justice through suicide. The entire tone of this book gives the strong impression that Miss Christie is not sorry to see them go. It also suggests that there is a stratification of murderers, with special punishment due those whose crimes have been particularly un-British, i.e., heinous, even though the later Miss Christie can hardly be accused of advocating unrestrained laissez-tuer.

Since Miss Christie's prestige among her fellow mystery writers is towering, and since she has by implication espoused the quaint theory that a sportsmanlike murder doesn't really count, it is interesting to speculate as to whether this latitudinarian attitude has in any way influenced the writers of the hard-boiled school with their philosophy that it is all right to kill a killer. Paradoxical as it may seem, perhaps the literary godmother of bone-crushing Mike Hammer is none other than genteel Jane Marple.

M. Vipond (essay date Summer 1981)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2466

SOURCE: "Agatha Christie's Women," in The International Fiction Review, Vol. 8, No. 2, Summer, 1981, pp. 119-23.

[In the following essay, Vipond attempts to clarify Christie's representation of women, arguing that Christie's female characters are products of the time.]

Agatha Christie's characters are stereotypes and caricatures, but they are not just that. They possess not simply two dimensions but two and a half. The little bit of fun gently poked at the "typical" figure, the slightly surprising or contradictory quality, the merest touch of real humanity—all make Christie's types just a bit more than cardboard puppets dancing to the choreography of the plot. In her characterization as in her puzzles, Christie found the perfect balance, the hallmark of the really skilled popular writer, between convention and invention. She gave her readers exactly what they anticipated, yet added just enough that was intriguingly new to keep them stimulated and absorbed. Her characters are recognizable and familiar individuals through whom escape and adventure can be enjoyable without being frightening.

There are a remarkable number of strong female characters in Christie's books, and only a very few of them are depicted negatively. Efficient, practical, and competent business-women, housekeepers and secretaries; successful and professional artists, actresses and authors; commanding, cultured, and intellectual headmistresses; the shrewd and courageous Miss Marple, on the surface a fluttery, dithering old maid but underneath ruthless in the cause of justice—these women, however briefly they pass through the stories, are essentially admirable types. In addition, Christie presented over the years a series of amateur heroines of "high spirits, daring, and imperturbability," from Prudence "Tuppence" Beresford, first introduced in The Secret Adversary in 1922 through Lady Eileen "Bundle" Brent of The Secret at Chimneys (1925) and The Seven Dials Mystery (1929) and Lady Frances "Frankie" Derwent of The Boomerang Clue (1933) to Victoria Jones in They Came to Baghdad (1951), Hilary Craven in Destination Unknown (1954) and Katherine "Ginger" Corrigan in The Pale Horse (1961)—and quite a number of others. These young women all possessed similar attributes. Most importantly, they were thoroughly "modern." They were "plucky," "energetic," "impish," "boyish," "gamin," "spunky," "good sports," "spirited fillies," "alive," "courageous," "alert," "rakish," "minxes," "pert and saucy," "impudent," "gallant," "fighters," and "brimming over with life." They were typical 1920's flappers (right through to the books of the 1960's): they smoked, drank, and swore, and were regarded by their elders with a combination of outrage and envy. They were athletic enough to swing up and down the ivy when essential to the plot, skilled and audacious enough to drive bright little sports cars in a fashion which terrified everyone else on the road, brave enough to take more than their fair share of risks—and always they were admired for these qualities. In N or M? Tuppence Beresford, by now a middle-aged woman with a grown family, fakes a telephone call, hides in a cupboard, and beats her husband Tommy to the scene of a spy investigation in which she then plays a major role. Tommy's reaction to his wife's initiative and trickery is secret admiration, and his boss in British intelligence agrees: "She's a smart woman." When Ginger Corrigan in The Pale Horse insists on taking a grave personal risk to trap members of a murder-for-hire operation, the handsome and very eligible Mark Easterbrook promptly falls in love with "her red hair, her freckles, her gallant spirit." But the theme is perhaps best developed in The Boomerang Clue (British title: Why Didn't They Ask Evans?), in which Christie contrasted Lady Frances "Frankie" Derwent, an impish and very independent young woman with Moira Nicholson, gentle, "like a sad Madonna" and "terribly delicate." Bobby Jones, the rather bumbling but eminently nice young hero finds both women attractive, but for a while it looks like Moira is going to win him, because she brings out all his protective male instincts. "Bobby likes them helpless," complains the unhappy Frankie, "It's extraordinary how men like helpless women." Another character, Roger Bassington-french, tries to comfort Frankie: "The truth of the matter is that you've got guts and she hasn't." Of course Bobby eventually sees the light, and in the denouement admits to Frankie that while Moira's "face" had attracted him momentarily, Frankie had captured his heart because she was "so plucky about things," "so frightfully plucky." Just to provide the typical Christie double-twist, however, Moira's "weak and helpless" personality turns out to be a front; she is in fact a gang member and dope dealer, and has "the nerve to put any number of people out of the way without turning a hair!" Thus we are left with not one but two strong female characters, one good and one evil. And Frankie gets her man—as do Tuppence, Bundle, Ginger, and all the others of the type.

Here the complications begin. These peppy, modern young women are part of the romantic subplots of the novels in which they appear, and they are paired off at the end, married, and presumably live happily ever after. Frequently, and with conviction, Christie's characters speak of marriage as the goal and destiny of all womankind. Many of her female characters are employed, but whenever they have the chance, they throw up excellent jobs and careers for the sake of a man and a home. If they work after marriage, it is almost invariably because their husbands are invalids, wastrels, or deceased. Most explicitly described is the fate of Rosamund Darnley in Evil under the Sun. Hercule Poirot admires Rosamund very much from the moment he meets her, for she has brains, charm and chic. She is sensible, alert, and proud, and a very successful designer and businesswoman. Early in the book she has a rather ambiguous conversation with Poirot about her goals in life, but by the final paragraphs all doubt is dispelled. Kenneth Marshall, an old friend, proposes to her:

"You're going to be the persecuted female, Rosamund. You're going to give up that damned dressmaking business of yours and we're going to live in the country."

"Don't you know that I make a very handsome income out of my business? Don't you realize that it's My business—that I created it and worked it up and that I'm proud of it! And you've got the damned nerve to come along and say, 'Give it all up, dear.'"

"I've got the damned nerve to say it, yes."

"And you think I care enough for you to do it?"

"If you don't," said Kenneth Marshall, "you'd be no good to me."

Rosamund said softly; "Oh, my dear, I've wanted to live in the country with you all my life. Now—it's going to come true."

There can be little doubt, however, that after her marriage Rosamund remained sensible and successful—in her new job. For Tuppence Beresford, too, marriage was not "a haven, or a refuge, or a crowning glory, or a state of bondage." it was "a sport," and the glimpses we have of Tuppence as a married woman confirm that her marriage was like that. Christie presented marriages of partnership and companionship—"Joint Ventures"—in a positive light: the ones she showed more unfavorably were those in which either partner was weak or cowed by the other, although even in those cases she made it clear that she understood the human needs which led men and women into such relationships.

Often Christie illuminated character types by having them profess views on women which were typical of their class, age, and status: "Women tell a lot of lies," "All women fancy marriage, no matter how advanced and self-supporting they are," "Poison is a woman's weapon," "Women are ruthless," "If you want a thing broadcast, tell a woman," "Old maids are notoriously inquisitive," and so on. That Christie used such generalizations so frequently to delicate character reveals how pervasive and generally accepted some of them were, but one must resist the temptation to conclude that Christie herself necessarily agreed with them. Such statements were simply instantly and broadly recognizable clues which helped her readers to categorize the characters.

By other means, however, Christie did reveal that she herself had the somewhat "traditional" attitude to sex roles which was typical of her class and status. In her books, women's main mental capability seems to be intuitive; even Miss Marple, who is praised by her distinguished male admirers like Sir Henry Clithering for her wonderfully (and surprisingly) logical brain, is so discursive in speech that it seems unbelievable that she can think straight. On at least one occasion, the aging, fluffy-haired spinster explicitly denies solving a mystery by logical deduction but instead very femininely credits "feeling," "a kind of emotional reaction or susceptibility to—well … atmosphere." The spunky young heroines like Tuppence and Frankie, brave though they may be, are not really intelligent or sensible; they are over-inquisitive, headstrong, foolhardy, and thus are perpetually having to be rescued from some scrape or other. In several of her books, moreover, Christie implied that maternal love was one of the strongest possible motives for murder; if five characters all had motive and opportunity, but one is suspected of committing the crime for the sake of "her children," you can be fairly certain that she is the guilty party. As Poirot himself put it. "Mothers … are particularly ruthless when their children are in danger." Poirot, too, although usually fairly cynical about women, does have a soft spot for them when they are mothers—"Bonne mère, très femme." Although Christie biographer Derrick Murdoch goes much too far when he writes that Christie had "little feeling for sexual equality" and is quite wrong in insisting that "strong-willed wives receive unsympathetic treatment in all her books," there are certainly enough traces of such attitudes permeating Christie's works to explain how he has read them that way.

Christie thus presented seemingly contradictory images of women—the independent, self-sufficient, capable and courageous woman who is respected for those qualities and treated as an equal partner in adventure and in life coexisted with the silly, emotional woman who has no identity except through her husband and children. But the lines kept crossing; the independent young flapper heroines wanted to settle down to marriage and children, and the silly ditherers often turned out to be made of steel.

Christie herself lived a life of such ambivalences. Brought up to be a proper upper middle-class wife and mother, the natural pattern of her life was broken by service as a VAD nurse and dispenser during World War I, by the "accident" of her becoming a best-selling author, and by the failure of her first marriage. Whatever she might say about deferring to her husband, and no matter how she insisted that her occupation in life was not as author but as "Married Woman," she was in fact a professional, a considerable personality in her own right, and possessed of much independence of mind, not to mention income.

Christie reached maturity and began writing at a time when the image of women in England and North America had been tumbled from its Victorian pedestal, but had not been remodeled. The period between 1900 and the end of the 1920's was one of rapid transition in both the image and the role of women; it was in this period that Christie herself was formed, and her books describe that transition, directly and indirectly, at some length. While many of the traditional qualities of maternal love, gentleness, patience, and docility were still given lip-service, at the same time the needs of modern technological society (especially in wartime) demanded a different kind of woman—a capable, efficient, self-confident sort, who could perform a job as typist or nurse skillfully before marriage, and then settle down to being equally competent, self-sufficient, indeed "businesslike," as housewife and mother in an increasingly complex and demanding world. The popular literature of Christie's day glorified that contradictory and ambiguous mixture of qualities, and so did she, right through to her last books more than fifty years later.

Agatha Christie is credited with being the first major author to add the touches which opened up the classical mystery to a wide female readership. Her romantic subplots, thin as they were, helped that to occur. So did her quite deliberate attempt, especially in her early books, to provide vicarious adventure for the house-and duty-bound. But finally, it seems, her books appealed and continue to appeal to female readers because she possessed such an "accurate social eye"; because she succeeded so well in capturing the nuances and ambiguities of life in the twentieth century. Few of Christie's readers have had direct contact with the genteel upper middle-class life of the English village or country manor she so frequently described, nor, presumably, with murder. Like Miss Marple, however, they recognize typical people and behavior patterns, and thus can identify with them. Agatha Christie always liked to claim that she was a lowbrow; what she really meant was that she did not write down to her audience. She gave them back their own ambivalent image of what a woman is and does, because she shared it.

As Colin Watson, John Cawelti and others have pointed out, the enormous appeal of the classical mystery of the Golden Age of the 1920's and 1930's seemed to lie in its success in providing reassurance for its middle-class readers—reassurance that crime is an individual matter, not a social one, that it is logical and soluble, that it is neat and relatively painless, explicable, and not a matter for collective guilt. But Christie's books also reassured simply by the reiteration of familiar patterns and types. She did not delve very deeply into the souls of her characters, but in examining large numbers of them, and from various angles, she revealed just a few of the contradictions and complexities of real life. To generalize about sexual roles is to lose that touch of reality, and Christie never did that. Certain patterns emerge in her portrayal of women, but no simple typing or role-playing. Possibly one occasion when Christie did express her own opinion through the words of one of her characters was when she had Sarah King, a young doctor in Appointment with Death, remark: "I do hate this differentiation between the sexes. 'The modern girl has a thoroughly businesslike attitude to life!' That sort of thing. It's not a bit true! Some girls are businesslike and some aren't. Some men are sentimental and muddle-headed, others are clear-headed and logical. These are just different types of brains. Sex only matters when sex is directly concerned." Despite the fact that she wrote in a form which demanded stereotypes and caricatures, Christie was not a generalizer. She knew more of life than that. That is why her books give a surprisingly accurate picture of the life of twentieth-century women.

David I. Grossvogel (essay date 1983)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5395

SOURCE: "Death Deferred: The Long Life, Splendid Afterlife, and Mysterious Workings of Agatha Christie," in Art in Crime Writing: Essays on Detective Fiction, St. Martin's Press, 1983, pp. 1-17.

[In the following essay, Grossvogel explores why Christie's works remain popular today.]

It is not uncommon for the demise of an author's popularity to coincide with his actual death, the chance of resurrection awaiting the archaeological whims of future scholars and critics. Not so Agatha Christie: even though she has been gone since 1976, even though the worlds she described are, for the most part, no longer with us, even though the very genre she helped fashion is largely obsolete—in great part because of the disappearance of those worlds—Dame Agatha, her worlds and her particular notion of a genre still seem to be defining for an exceptionally large readership.

Part of this anachronistic phenomenon seems to be due to the truly huge size of that readership developed by Agatha Christie during the course of a career that spanned well over half a century, a hundred titles (titles that number, in addition to her detective stories, plays, romantic novels written under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott, an autobiography, and so on), translations into more than a hundred languages: the size of that readership is impossible to evaluate accurately, but close to half a billion is the figure generally guessed at.

We are still tied to a past we never knew through a few strands that fray even as we hang on to them and, sooner or later, disappear: Agatha Christie is one of those strands. We believe that the detective story as we know it began with Edgar Allan Poe and, some forty years after his death, was popularized by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. What we may be less aware of is that we are linked to these historical inceptions through the presence of Agatha Christie. The author of Sherlock Holmes was writing, and would still be writing for a number of years, when young Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller decided to try her hand at the genre. This was towards the end of the first world war: Agatha, born in 1890, was in her late twenties. For many years, she and her sister had been avid readers of Conan Doyle and they 'had always argued a lot about whether it was easy to write detective stories': challenged by her sister, Agatha began writing what was to be The Mysterious Affair at Styles, first published in 1920. From then on, and until 1973 when she wrote her last detective novel (Postern of Fate), Dame Agatha supplied an increasingly large and expectant audience with a steady flow of stories that owed to Conan Doyle two fundamental attributes which are unmistakably his even though they are not generally mentioned: a fondness for bucolic settings and a strong admixture of improbable occurrences (when one considers the supreme urbanity of Sherlock Holmes, it is striking to note how many of his adventures take place on distant moors and within halls of rural estates, drafty with an unurban otherness; and if one considers further that Sherlock Holmes is the child of that esprit de finesse Auguste Dupin, a reader of exceptional good will is required to grant their authors a criminal who turns out to be, against every rational expectation, an orangutan, as in The Murders in the Rue Morgue, or a trained snake, as in The Adventure of the Speckled Band). It was only after Conan Doyle that rules of fair play evolved, owing perhaps to an increasing desire of the genre to be the accurate reflector of a sociological scene (as with, for example, the 'hard-boiled' Americans).

When Agatha Christie began, she opted for a sunnier countryside than Doyle's, and one which she could people with the homey or homespun types that may have been the romanticizing of her own Devonshire youth. Its crystallization was the village of St Mary Mead (in the 1930 Murder at the Vicarage), with its representative spinster, Miss Jane Marple, who was to become, after Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie's most ubiquitous detective. Miss Marple enjoyed from the very start an acuity and acquaintance with evil that belied her grand-auntish frailty. Over the long half-century of her author's writing, she became more and more that disabused acuity while the bucolic dream faded in England, as elsewhere, and the discontents of an industrial civilization reached from urban centre to urban centre across a dwindling rural space that had been able once to better conceal a less expected evil. (It was that undisguisable awareness that things were no longer what they had formerly been, however much they might still appear to be, that allowed Miss Marple to perform successfully in one of the more interesting of Agatha Christie's later stories, At Bertram's Hotel, in 1965. Even before that, in the 1950 A Murder Is Announced, Miss Marple had begun noticing what upward and other mobilities had done to traditional structures and how amenities and a security formerly taken for granted had systematically eroded.)

It is therefore in the nature of a cavil to note that, in a more enduring world, Miss Marple remained a sleuth in the tradition that assumed the unconditional omniscience of the detective and preserved that omniscience by imparting information to the heroine that had not necessarily been vouchsafed the reader, or by contriving circumstances so improbable as to be acceptable only to that heroine and her entourage of fictional listeners at the final disclosure.

Agatha Christie came to fame in 1926 with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and aroused the susceptibilities of such defenders of fair play as were already about by turning the narrator into the murderer; she ended Poirot by making him one of the killers-but by this time the defenders of fair play had all yielded to Dame Agatha, who had meanwhile turned the supposed victim into the assassin in Peril at End House (1932), and done the same to a corpse in Ten Little Niggers (1939). In the words of Robert Barnard, 'When the time for a solution came round, the most unaccountable rabbits were produced from her hat: the murderer was the investigating policeman, he was a child, he was one we had thought already dead, he was all the suspects together. And all along, that inveterate gardener, Jane Marple, led uncomplaining generations of readers down primrose paths known only to her (usually by offering those readers a great diversity of paths, all but one of which they were supposed to pay any attention to).

And so did Poirot. But Poirot was also walking—even as was Jane Marple—a more interesting path, one leading, at least in the fiction, from Styles Court to Styles Court, through some fifty years and as many adventures, across the changing landscape of our times. On that long journey, moral notions evolved, social circumstances changed, what had once been clear markers became either difficult to read or were obliterated altogether, leaving the journeyer with the residual sense of our times, an anxiety that filtered at last beyond the covers meant to contain the adventure, and which transcended the spurious suspense of the detective genre.

I have analyzed elsewhere (Mystery and Its Fictions, 1979) the (relatively) innocent world of which, and within which, Agatha Christie first wrote. In that innocent world, the detective-story writer did not propose so much a solvable problem as a disposable one. Agatha Christie's first readers read her in order to purchase at the cost of a minor and passing disturbance the comfort of knowing that the disturbance was contained, and that at the end of the story the world they imagined would be continued in its innocence and familiarity.

The nature and consequences of that disturbance are crucial, for ultimately they are the key to Agatha Christie's huge popularity and her yet-enduring readership. A sense of Dame Agatha's climate in her early works will be obtained instantly through contrast with the hard-boiled variety mentioned in later chapters. In the latter, a relatively sordid private eye does battle with openly sordid forces loosed by the urban chaos. That private eye-Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe or Mike Hammer-encounter what is intended to be 'real' corruption, whether in a politician, a sexuality (most frequently a woman's, against which is successfully matched the demonstrative virility of the detective), a corpse. This 'reality' entails a specificity; the detective performs acts that particularize him even though they have nothing to do with the functional gestures required of him by the case he is on: he drinks, he makes love, he lets all and sundry know that he is 'tough'. He walks the back alleys of a city whose surfaces are fully analyzed. As Zola discovered a century before, such 'slice-of-life' realism not only entails specificity, it also assumes a burden of 'truth' which, more often than not, it feels able to demonstrate only by exposing its seamier parts.

Agatha Christie was far more stylized. For her, the game was merely a puzzle (or a series of interlocking puzzles) told in the form of a story. The story required people, of course, but their creation was left largely to the imagination of the reader.

Writing in the years immediately after the end of the first world war, Agatha Christie was instinctively striving for a delicate balance, but one that was still possible at that time. It consisted in an intrusion upon the reader's ideal world, but an intrusion not so intense as to cast doubt on its eventual dissipation. She achieved this balance by identifying accurately her middle-class audience and its hankering for an Edwardian gentility. Dame Agatha offered these readers recognizable posters of a world which they had experienced only through posters: they were offered a journey to a land that they knew well, but only in the world of their social fantasizing and bygone dreams of empire. Poster and book served the selfsame purpose: they preserved the awareness of a world that must have exited for someone; it was a far better world than the known world and doubly comforting because of a suspicion that if it had indeed existed once, its days were now numbered.

In 1920, Styles Court was the province of the upper-middle class. Like most parts of the worlds which it supposed, it endured mainly in the reader's private storehouse of prides and prejudices. Styles Court was a functional set of lexical stimuli, never anything more precise than a 'fine, old house', with 'a broad staircase' which you descended in your mind's eye after having 'dressed' for 'supper … at half past seven' (due to wartime conditions, 'We have given up late dinners'). It had an 'open French window' in order to disclose 'the shade of a huge sycamore tree' beneath which 'tea' was ritualized in summer, and beyond which was located the leisured class's tennis court.

Part of the world adumbrated by Styles Court was a poster village, Styles St Mary, which was exactly like Jane Marple's St Mary Mead (ideal images being perforce identical), nestling in a small verdant world of scrubbed and loyal people—working or farming—with its quaint vicarage for an effortless accommodation of spiritual needs and a half-timbered inn for the mundane counterpart.

Through these postcards of rural England walked a few other stock types-a suitable clergyman for the vicarage, a jovial landlord or two for the pub, a third-generation solicitor for the competent handling of material vexations, servants whose starched surface hid a heart of gold, matrons on their way to the local flower show, elderly majors retired from colonial wars. The reader knew these people without having encountered them and they were therefore exactly suited to his expectations.

Murder within this English pastoral was not so much an evil act as one whose consequences would be unfortunate for a prescribed moment. Whereas a Mike Hammer or a Sam Spade might right their little piece of the corrupt, urban jigsaw puzzle while the complex itself remained corrupt and awaited the private eye's attention to the next area of his concern, murder upon the mead was more in the nature of a washable and cathartic stain. For a while, these good people would become each and every one suspect (Agatha Christie, who build her reputation early on a disregard for established rules, showed as little unwarranted sentimentality here: however much tradition might have endeared a particular type to the reader, none was above suspicion). Within this dream of rural England, murder was trivial enough; the corpse upon which Philip Marlowe stumbled might not have had quite the stench of Laius', but in St Mary Mead or Styles St Mary the murder itself was antiseptic—already a part of the cleansing process (there were always half a dozen compelling reasons to kill the victim—and as many evident suspects). It was the wake of the murder that made things momentarily disagreeable: the country inn would lose its ruddy bonhomie; the vicarage might be pressed uncomfortably close to moral quandaries; and, worst of all, aliens would walk the pristine land. For just as the reader was able to people fully a world to which he aspired, the reader would temporarily jeopardize through his own malaise the harmony of the world he had conjured from his fiction. And here again, Dame Agatha remained supremely aloof, giving the reader only such few and accurate stimuli as were needed.

In the shadow of evil, clean-shaven Styles St Mary would begin to see beards with all the unEnglish and other unfortunate implications of that facial indecorum. Alfred Inglethorp, who is only very nearly the villain of the piece, strikes 'a rather alien note', according to bland Hastings, the narrator (The Mysterious Affair at Styles). Hastings understands instantly why Inglethorp's son-in-law objected to the beard: 'It was one of the longest and blackest I have ever seen…. It struck me that he might look natural on the stage, but was strangely out of place in real life.' 'Real life' is of course Styles St Mary, and since Styles had never been under anything like the present cloud, the unnatural beard is contrary to what is normal and becomes a litmus of evil.

But that litmus comes from elsewhere as well, as demonstrated by another of the characters—Dr Bauerstein. Dr Bauerstein is merely here as a red herring—he turns out to be a spy who has nothing to do with the nasty business at Styles. But the early Christie readers thought they knew Bauerstein just as they thought they knew the Cavendishes and Styles St Mary itself. The way this red herring affected those readers was articulated by Hastings—even though Christie had done no more than name Bauerstein and mention that he was a 'tall bearded man': 'The sinister face of Dr Bauerstein recurred to me unpleasantly. A vague suspicion of everyone and everything filled my mind. Just for a moment I had a premonition of approaching evil.' Bauerstein is after all a Polish Jew—twice an alien. He comes by his beard naturally. The Polish Jew has no 'natural' place in the average reader's imaginings of Styles: Bauerstein brings to those fictional imaginings a parafictional unpleasantness from a world that is more intimate and habitual to that reader. Or so it was at least in 1920.

There was always a suspicion that Agatha Christie and Jane Marple had quite a bit in common. There were of course their moral and social beliefs; but there was also an acuity, a depth of insight. Just as Miss Marple was able to see the hidden snake lurking in Devonshire Edens, Agatha Christie was able to discern precisely what would give her reader the surest of twinges, though neither she nor that reader ever identified the causes to which they both referred. This being so, it might be unmannerly to repeat here that Dame Agatha was one to take unfair advantage of even such fundamental intuitions: in Styles, not only did the culprit turn out to be the most upright and prototypical of British stereotypes, but the author added insult to injury by hiding the culprit behind a (false) beard.

It was within a world distracted only momentarily by this kind of curable malaise that was born the detective destined to become one of the most famous of the genre: Poirot was able to dissipate the uneasiness, but he was also created and shaped by it to a great extent.

Like his prototypes, Dupin and Holmes, this sort of detective demonstrates a perfect intelligence within a multitude of flaws. The structural reason for this contrast results from a fundamental identity between the fictional detective and his circumstances: that detective is the reader's assurance that his expectation of an end to a number of small annoyances will be met-the detective's acuity is therefore absolute; but the reader's concession in that contract requires that a semblance of doubt be maintained for as long as it takes to tell the tale-all else in the detective is therefore flawed.

However, the strangeness of Dupin and Holmes confirmed their intelligence even as it removed them from the common world of mortals; Dupin and Holmes dwelt in remote worlds, isolated by books, drugs, laboratory or musical instruments-all awesome objects that extended the awesomeness of their brains. Poirot's flaws, on the other hand, represented a compendium of what marred the idyllic landscape once it became the temporary site of the somber event that brought Poirot into it. When Agatha Christie first described Poirot, he was in fact a part of the negative consequences that followed the transgression of the bucolic dream.

To start with, Poirot was a foreigner, another alien note within the pastoral harmony. The evidence of his foreignness was multiple, but because of the specific area of Poirot's first trespass, it was peculiarly unEnglish. Starting with his ridiculously short stature, most of his obvious traits were intended to amuse, but also to annoy, his English reader:

Poirot was an extraordinary-looking little man. He was hardly more than five feet, four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible. I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound. Yet this quaint dandyfied little man who, I was sorry to see, now limped badly, had been in his time one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police.

Hastings' initial awareness and dismissal of the physical Poirot spoke for his reader, and Hastings' voice was subsequently echoed by countless others—villains, chambermaids, gardeners, romantic leads: just about everyone was to be taller than Poirot, treating him until the final moment of revelation and awe with either amused contempt or patronizing tolerance.

Lack of stature made Poirot's aping of British virtues something halfway between a joke and an affront: dignity sounded like an unseemly overstatement in one so short, while the military moustache became a ridiculous attribute. As for Poirot's sartorial fastidiousness, something that would have been praiseworthy in an Englishman of more normal size, could at best be quaintly dandifying in an undersized foreigner.

But Poirot added to even these shortcomings. Having been denied the grace of British birth, he compounded his misfortune by refusing to hide it, indulging an unBritish propensity for exuberance and exaggeration. He was from the first a boaster, one given to stressing the subject pronoun through the apposition of his own name, and using his hands with abandon for even greater emphasis. And to bring the picture to its full dejection, this master of the little grey cells never learned to speak English correctly. To the end, Poirot's sentences were marred by Gallicisms, even though they became more probable over a lifetime than the porcine 'Ah! Triple pig!' or 'you remain there like—how do you say it?—ah, yes, the stuck pig' that flavored his original speech.

Poirot's very intelligence, before even his unseemly boasting about it, was yet another exaggeration, and one which he displayed with equal lack of tact in his all too apparent egg-head. Aloof as ever, but knowing full well from which vantage point she observed her creation, Dame Agatha named him after the least favored of vegetables (poireau: the leek, which also means 'wart' in French) and then stressed the dismissiveness by pairing it with a singularly grandiloquent Christian name, Hercule—itself turned into still another over assertion by the diminutive size of its bearer.

Seemingly self-removed, Agatha Christie kept a gimlet eye on her reader at all times, knowing the disposition of his afferent nerves as accurately as might an acupuncturist. Where Mike Hammer's or Sam Spade's readers were drawn through a world which they either knew or knew to be there, Christie's readers were returned to their own imagination in order to flesh out the otherwise abstract puzzle. And though they only assumed that the enviable world of the fiction must exist, they tainted it for a while with fears that were as imaginary but which they knew to be real beyond the fiction. Preeminently, Christie knew how much her reader did not know: if that Edwardian world still existed for some in 1920, it is unlikely that it could ever have appeared as desirable or as easily jeopardized as it did to those for whom it was only a dream. For the latter, the bulk of Christie's readers, dream and jeopardy derived from aspirations and fears that the author intuited with unfailing accuracy. But as Agatha Christie wrote for a long time, and as her sense of her reader remained acute, the nature of those parafictional fears changed over the years.

Robert Barnard has called the quarter of a century of Agatha Christie's maitrise (1925–50) her 'classic period': it is certainly true that by the time the euphoria of second-world-war victories evaporated, the delicate balance she had hitherto maintained could be maintained no longer. By the time of his end, it was possible to read in Poirot the deep alterations of the world upon which he had intruded only briefly at the start: Agatha Christie continued to write, but she and her readers were now affected by other fears and other longings.

At the end of the forties, Poirot and Hastings met in Curtain for the last time at the place of their first meeting, Styles. By now, Agatha Christie was writing with a sense of many deaths; not only was the writer aware of her own future death—from now on, an awareness of the passing of familiar worlds imparts an unmistakable shade to her writing. The war collapsed many social structures that wishful thinking had supported beyond their term: already in Five Little Pigs (1943), Poirot had gone back through memory lanes of better known and better liked times. So doing, he was starting to express Christie's growing sense of dismay at the assertion and vulgarity of new money, the deterioration of values formerly held, knowledge previously shared, the anxiety of exile from old assumptions into a world of rapid and radical change, where social contact could be only tentative and tenuous.

By the end of the forties, Styles stands for much more than simply its own demise. There is much to be read into the fact that it is now a 'guest house' whose once 'old-fashioned large bedrooms had been partitioned off so as to make several smaller ones'. Along with comfort, a style has gone: it is now 'furnished in cheap modern style'. The water is lukewarm, the towels thin, and Hastings muses.

I remembered the clouds of steam which had gushed from the hot tap of the one bathroom Styles had originally possessed, one of those bathrooms in which an immense bath with mahogany sides had reposed proudly in the middle of the bathroom floor. Remembered too the immense bath towels, and the frequent shining brass cans of boiling hot water that stood in one's old-fashioned basin.

Styles can survive its eviction from Edwardian times only by becoming a part of the new mercantile world. The class structure that once supported it (and its hot-water basins) no longer exists. Nowhere is this loss more apparent than in the efforts of the author to sustain her stock characters. They are still there, but their presence is shadowy and unsure to the extent that their supporting world has largely vanished. Gone is the ideal working class that gave the village its solid and immaculate underpinnings. Gone, as a matter of fact, is the village itself: 'I realised the passage of years. Styles St Mary was altered out of all recognition. Petrol stations, a cinema, two more inns and rows of council houses.' The gardens are overgrown and the tennis court has presumably moved out of the private park and into the public playground. Class stereotypes have been replaced by others for which there is as yet no mythology; it is difficult to maintain the old mainstays within such a world:

He looked as though he had led an out-of-doors life, and he looked, too, the type of man that is becoming more and more rare, an Englishman of the old school, straightforward, fond of out-of-doors life, and the kind of man who can command.

I was hardly surprised when Colonel Luttrell introduced him as Sir William Booyd Carrington. He had been, I knew, Governor of a province in India, where he had been a signal success. He was also renowned as a first-class shot and big game hunter. The sort of man, I reflected sadly, that we no longer seemed to breed in these degenerate days.

These 'degenerate' days extend into other ethical and social areas: a new rudeness is now currently permissible ('His manners were not what one would call polished to anyone'), the mere surface of a deeper and more pervasive corruption: 'Norton, the gentle-hearted, loving man, was a secret sadist. He was an addict of pain, of mental torture. There has been an epidemic of that in the world of late years—L'appétit vient en mangeant.'

The very family is disintegrating. Parental authority is flouted Hastings' daughter tells him, when he tries to warn her about an obvious cad, 'I think you have a perfectly filthy mind.' And the generations look at each other with pitying contempt across the gap that separates them: 'So vulnerable they are, these children! So ready, though they do not recognise it that way, to take a dare!'

This is the atmosphere of the times after the rural dream has ceased to be possible (or better, once it is no longer possible to write about it). It informs the present with a sense of failure: 'That's the depressing part of places like this. Guest houses run by broken-down gentle-people. They're full of failures—of people who have never got anywhere and never will get anywhere—who have been defeated and broken by life.'

The end of possibility is heightened by a pervasive sense of what used to be: 'To me there was a charm in his slightly old-fashioned way of putting things. It conjured a picture of old-world charm and ease.' 'I saw the scene in my mind's eye. I could imagine Daisy Luttrell with a young saucy face and that smart tongue—so charming then, so apt to turn shrewish with the years.'

The stock character hardest to sustain in this altered world is undoubtedly Poirot himself. Of necessity, he is still the little man who speaks gallicized English, who brags (a little), whose grey cells work as hard as ever. But constrained by the mood of the times, a new Poirot displaces much of the old caricature—a more 'living' character (as are many of the other characters similarly affected), one burdened by the darkened world, a longing for the past, an unstated apprehension of tomorrow.

The Poirot who brought disturbance in his wake (like Chaucer's Pandarus—through his book), and then disappeared Pied-Piperlike, taking the disturbance and its causes with him, that Poirot could no longer be effectual within the circumstances of which Agatha Christie was now so keenly aware. Though he could still solve the crime, Poirot could no longer return a world bereft of former bounds or norms to a definitive closure or normalcy: today's disturbances were simply not what they used to be. And as Agatha Christie's reader intuited that worlds formerly conjured from a putative reality could no longer be sustained by that reality, that same post-war reader also knew that former small and disposable irritations caused by the bearded alien, the foreign and quirky detective, the transitory interloper, the outlandish fashion, were no longer there to be disposed of in a world that now lacked the normative criteria against which these minor annoyances were once stated: they were now supplanted by the more insidious malaise of being in a world that lacked those normative criteria.

The last Poirot is therefore an awkwardness, a necessary aggregate of former traits that are without resonance once the codes of class structures, of social mores, of ethical modes, are no longer what they appeared to have been at the time of his creation. The functional caricature now throbs with a consciousness of the times, a nostalgia and a gloom. And the loss of that functional caricature causes the purity of the detective story to be lost as well. The deranged heiress, the pilfering solicitor, the two-timing butler may be removed at the end, but in a world of far more insidious threats, their removal does not return the world to a pristine innocence, and the non-functional reality of the former caricature endures in the reader's enduring anxiety.

After Poirot's premature passing, Agatha Christie would resurrect him, off and on, for still another quarter of a century, even as she would Miss Marple through the depletion of rural possibilities. Dame Agatha tried valiantly to have her people swing with the new, as in They Do It with Mirrors (Marple, 1952), Hickory, Dickory, Dock (Poirot, 1955), The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side (Marple, 1962), Third Girl (Poirot, 1966), but she did not feel any easier in those new spheres than did her protagonists. The best of her later work shows people who feel themselves as she does to be spiritual outcasts and who may find in their marginality a new acuity of detection, reading a more accurate palimpsest through the modern surface. But, in general, the difficulties evidenced in Curtain were simply repeated.

Why then her continuing popularity? A part of the answer was intuited by the directors (Sidney Lumet, Don Guillermin, Guy Hamilton) who have recently turned into films Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, The Mirror Crack'd, peopling them with old-time actors now seldom seen on the screen Lauren Bacall, Richard Widmark, Bette Davis, David Niven, Angela Lansbury, or, in a new, Queen-Motherish avatar, the enduring Elizabeth Taylor. These actors represent the cinema of a shinier moment, over a third of a century ago, before they were swept aside by the new forms of the present cinema. Seeing them once again on the screen, we re-enter that world briefly. This is especially felicitous casting for Agatha Christie, since we now regress through her books to something more real than the times she described: the period pieces that those descriptions themselves have become now attract us. There may have been a time when Agatha Christie mediated for her reader unattainable worlds: now her archaic books have become those worlds. We acknowledge our present discontent in retrospections that make us smile at what once constituted the measure of our passing cares, the sense of how comfortable we felt in a world of referable absolutes (after all, Dame Agatha herself tells us in her autobiography that she came to the detective story out of a comforting sense that Evil could be hunted down and that Good would triumph—an avowal that explains not a little her somber mood within, and tenuous grasp on, the world that followed the second world war).

In that world, our present one, a residual pull of psychological gravity draws us to the evidence that we once had faith in the possibility of control, of knowledge and of the power of reason against the irrational. We are still drawn to the old writings of Agatha Christie.

David A. Fryxell (essay date November 1984)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2661

SOURCE: "All about Agatha," in Horizon, Vol. 27, No. 9, November, 1984, pp. 42-5.

[In the following essay, Fryxell argues that Christie's works have not been successfully adapted for film.]

"Everybody loves a gossip," Agatha Christie once said by way of explaining her phenomenal popularity. That's why she thought her mysteries have outsold everything but the Bible and Shakespeare: people love to snoop into other people's lives. Christie let her readers snoop into lives—and deaths—ranging from those of the tea-cozy denizens of quaint English villages to the upper crust on board the Orient Express. And what better topic for really juicy gossip than murder?

The Public Broadcasting Service knows how popular the subject of murder—especially of the Agatha Christie variety—can be, as evidenced in the popularity of its "Mystery" series. Beginning November 29 (check local listings for exact times), "Mystery" presents five adaptations of Christie's "Tommy and Tuppence" mysteries. James Warwick and Francesca Annis star in the London Weekend Television productions of "Partners in Crime." Tommy Beresford and Prudence "Tuppence" Crowley were two old chums who stumbled into detection and, later in their fictional careers, into matrimony. The New York Times called their escapades "the merriest collection of detective stories it has been our good fortune to encounter." The series begins with the couple's takeover of a detective agency, and each segment solves a different mystery. And this series only begins to tap the vast resources of Agatha Christie fiction.

Certainly, few "gossips" have been as prolific or profitable as Agatha Christie. In over fifty-five years, until her death in 1976, she penned nearly one hundred mystery novels and short-story collections, a half-dozen romantic novels under the name Mary Westmacott, twenty-one plays, and a two-volume autobiography. Her publishers claim to have long ago lost count of Christie's sales; American paperback editions of her works have easily topped half a billion books. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, generally conceded to be the cream of Christie, has alone sold over a million copies. Fans have followed their beloved Agatha in more than one hundred languages.

Her play The Mousetrap nightly adds to its record as the longest-running production in English theatrical history. The play has outlived eight of the newspapers that originally reviewed it in 1952. Impresario Peter Saunders, who had predicted a six-month run, has since said, "Just about everybody in England has seen it except the Queen, and she thinks she's seen it."

The only media the queen of crime fiction was never quite able to crack were motion pictures and television. With a few exceptions—the Oscar-nominated Witness for the Prosecution and the box-office smash Murder on the Orient Express—Christie's works and her popularity have stubbornly resisted translation to the screen. To disappointed fans and dismayed producers, that failure remains the greatest single mystery in the career of Dame Agatha Christie.

Only Hercule Poirot could have detected the potential for greatness in this utterly conventional Englishwoman. Born Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller at a Devonshire seaside resort in 1890, she never attended school; her mother taught her at home. In 1914, Agatha showed the first clue of a taste for a life more thrilling than church fetes and tea on the lawn, marrying a dashing pioneer in the Royal Flying Corps named Archie Christie. World War I swept Archie off to the skies and Agatha to a military hospital, where she assisted in the dispensary.

Two years before, Agatha's elder sister Madge had challenged her to write a detective story. In the dispensary, surrounded by poisons, Agatha decided to take her up on it. In the years and books to come, she would knock off victims by such esoteric means as a kitchen skewer, a bronze figure of Venus, an electrified chessboard, a surgical knife, and an antique grain mill-but poison always remained her favorite. (At least one real-life poisoner modeled his crime on a Christie plot, The Pale Horse.) Her first poisoning was The Mysterious Affair at Styles, written in 1915 but not published until 1920. Therein she gave the world the inimitable Hercule Poirot.

Recalling a colony of Belgian refugees she encountered at Devonshire, she made her man a retired Belgian police detective. As a contrast to his stature—"hardly five-foot-four"—she named him for the mighty Hercules. "Poirot," she said, just popped into her head.

As far as Christie was concerned, Poirot's first case would also be his last. She'd met her sister's dare and that was that. But when the book finally saw print, it made enough money to prod her to try another. In the following six years, she published seven books and set the mystery world on its ear with the revolutionary The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

That same year, 1926, Christie created a real-life mystery by vanishing without explanation for ten days. When she reappeared claiming amnesia, cynics decried it as a publicity stunt. Others have blamed a breakdown triggered by the death of her mother and the revelation of her husband's infidelity; she'd checked into a spa under the name of her husband's mistress. The mystery of those blank ten days, never unraveled, inspired a semifictional book and a 1978 movie, Agatha. Despite a stellar cast featuring Vanessa Redgrave and Dustin Hoffman, the film (true to Christie form) failed to shine either with critics or at the box office.

After several years of depression, Christie indulged her life-long love of trains and an interest in ancient ruins with a jaunt to the Near East on the Orient Express. That led to a novel, Murder on the Orient Express, and to her second marriage, to the assistant head of the archaeological digs, Max Mallowan.

The 1930s introduced readers to Christie's second great sleuth, the spinsterish Miss Marple—inspired by Christie's grandmother—whose constant flurry of knitting needles camouflaged her true hobby, "the study of human nature." And the decade produced some of Christie's best mysteries: The ABC Murders, Death on the Nile, and Ten Little Indians.

She would churn out at least a book a year until her death. Christie likened her prodigious production to "a sausage machine, a perfect sausage machine"—and the readers ate it up. In 1954, the Mystery Writers of America honored her with their first Grand Master of Crime Award. The next year, Witness for the Prosecution won the New York Drama Critics Circle award for best foreign play, the only mystery ever to do so. (The Mousetrap, amazingly, had flopped on Broadway.) Though Christie was already the grande dame of mystery, the Queen made it official in 1971 by naming her a Dame of the British Empire.

Yet Dame Agatha, still an English country girl at heart, chafed under the burden of fame. "I still have that overlag of feeling that I am pretending to be an author," she complained. Shy with strangers, she refused to make speeches and dodged interviews. When Britain's Detection Club elected her president, she made a deputy propose all the toasts and introduce guests. Her work seemed to decline as her fame rose: Dilys Winn, founder of Manhattan's Murder Ink bookstore, rates Christie's Elephants Can Remember (1972) as one of the ten all-time worst mystery novels. And Christie, like Conan Doyle before her, longed to be rid of her most famous detective. She finally wrote Hercule Poirot off in 1940 in Curtain, but the book didn't see print until 1975.

Most agree Christie was the master plotter of the age; as reviewer Will Cuppy put it, "She's probably the best suspicion scatterer and diverter in the business." And Margaret Miller, admiring the devious scheme of Witness for the Prosecution, perhaps said it best for all Christie peers in the profession: "I knew she really had a twisted little mind. I wished I had thought of it."

A few carpers found Christie's elaborate plots all too bloodless, like "animated algebra." In a famous essay entitled "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" Edmund Wilson railed, "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."

Not even Christie's most fervent partisans would lay much claim for her strictly literary ability. Asked about her writing style, Otto Penzler, owner of the Mysterious Book Shop in Manhattan, sputtered, "Writing what? Writing what? I don't think she had much of a 'writing style.' A lot of best-selling writers would have trouble getting an 'A' on a college paper, but they strike a common chord that defies explanation."

Nonetheless, Penzler made a stab at explanation. "Agatha Christie wasn't threatening to anybody. Picking up an Agatha Christie book is like putting on cuddly old slippers." Similarly, Anthony Le Jeune concluded in The Spectator: "The real secret of Agatha Christie … lies not in the carpentering of her plots, excellent though that is, but in the texture of her writing…. 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 uncommon art."

Translating that art from the page to the screen is no mean feat, though that hasn't stopped directors and screenwriters from trying. They began in 1928, when both movies and Christie's reputation were young. The first Christie adaptation, like the latest, brought to life her third-string sleuths, Tommy and Tuppence. Christie introduced the happy-go-lucky pair in her second book, The Secret Adversary (1922), which in 1928 was made into a German film titled Die Abenteuer Gmbh (Adventures Inc.), not a resounding success.

The first English-language stab at a Christie film was The Passing of Mr. Quinn, based on a minor short story. Filmmakers finally discovered Hercule Poirot in Alibi (1931), the first of three movies starring Austin Trevor as the Belgian sleuth. Trevor, much too tall for Poirot, was supposedly cast because he could do a French accent. Evidently that skill was not enough; none of the British-made films was released in the United States and they've vanished since from the archives. The third, Lord Edgeware Dies, would be the last attempt at portraying Poirot for thirty years.

A Christie film didn't cross the Atlantic until 1937, when Love from a Stranger paired Ann Harding and Basil Rathbone in an adaptation of the story "Philomel Cottage." Eight more years passed before anyone tried again.

Then, at last, Christie had something of a hit. And Then There Were None, adapted from Ten Little Indians, set ten familiar stars on a remote island and bumped them off one by one. Critics and audiences liked it enough to encourage two remakes (1965 and 1975), both titled Ten Little Indians, though with success that dwindled over time as rapidly as the number of survivors in the plot.

But back in the postwar years, it seemed as though the Christie puzzle had been cracked. When The Mousetrap hit pay dirt on the London stage, Romulus Films snapped up the movie rights—accepting the stipulation that The Mousetrap couldn't be made until six months after the play closed. They're still waiting. In the meantime, though, Witness for the Prosecution went from Broadway to Hollywood under the talented direction of Billy Wilder. He assembled an impressive cast: Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power, and Elsa Lanchester. To further boost interest, public relations flacks hung a Secrecy Pledge outside each movie house where the film opened; everyone who bought a ticket had to swear not to reveal whodunit. The ploy drew audiences and the picture drew six Oscar nominations.

Yet the only follow-up to this success was a minor film called The Spider's Web, also adapted from a Christie play. Made in England in 1960, it was never even released in the United States.

Moviemakers went back to square one in 1962, trying to break the jinx with a series of five movies about (at last) Miss Marple. The draw here was not Christie as much as it was the formidable Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple. Though utterly wrong physically for the slim, spinsterish Marple (Christie said of Rutherford, "To me, she's always looked like a bloodhound"), Rutherford brought enough verve to the role to carry it through four of the planned five films. She made Murder, She Said; Murder at the Gallop; Murder Most Foul; and Murder Ahoy! before increasing silliness and decreasing ticket sales cut the series short. Only the first derived from an actual Miss Marple novel. Two were sleuth and sex-change operations from Poirot books; an offended Christie admitted, "I get an unregenerate pleasure when I think they're not being a success." The last was an original screenplay, of which Christie clucked, "It got very bad reviews, I'm pleased to say."

The movies finally returned to the real thing—Hercule Poirot as himself—in The Alphabet Murders (1966, based on The ABC Murders). Originally intended as a Zero Mostel vehicle, the production languished for two years because Christie, from bitter experience, objected to the script. It was finally made with Tony Randall heavily made up—though not heavily enough to shield him from the critics who branded the film a slapstick travesty.

After a non-Poirot flop titled Endless Nights (one reviewer wrote, "This movie wasn't released—it escaped"), Poirot and Christie finally made it big on-screen with Murder on the Orient Express in 1974. Director Sidney Lumet spared no expense in recreating the lavish look of a bygone era, constructing his own Orient Express at Elstree Studios near London. The all-star cast of suspects—Lauren Bacall, Richard Widmark, John Gielgud, Sean Connery, Wendy Hiller, Vanessa Redgrave, Ingrid Bergman (who won an Oscar as best supporting actress)—overshadowed Albert Finney as Poirot, which was perhaps just as well. Murder on the Orient Express made a killing; it was the most profitable wholly British-financed film to date.

The same producers hired director John Guillermin to make more box-office magic with Death on the Nile. He rounded up another cast of heavyweights, substituted Peter Ustinov as Poirot, and spent seven weeks on location in Egypt. The film's New York opening coincided with ticket sales for the Metropolitan Museum's King Tut show; then Death on the Nile went back in the can for two months until the Tut extravaganza actually opened. With a little help from Tut, it did well enough to inspire another Ustinov outing as Poirot, Evil under the Sun—more posh locales, more name actors, but also more labored.

In the meantime, director Guy Hamilton had taken another crack at bringing Miss Marple to the screen, this time with Angela Lansbury in The Mirror Crack'd. Elizabeth Taylor and Kim Novak, as rival movie stars, turned in their best work in years.

Television has since brought a few minor Christies to life in made-for-television movies and in a series of short stories on PBS's "Mystery." Amazingly, there has never been a commercial-network series based on Christie's characters.

Otto Penzler doesn't think the mysterious record of Christie works on screen is so strange at all. "To be fair, it's very difficult to put a good detective story on screen and make a good detective movie," he observed. "Most of what happens is cerebral—observing clues, making deductions—and that's hard to portray in an exciting manner on screen. It's just a different medium. You can't translate popularity to screen necessarily, and it's a mistake to try to make analogies between the two forms. A very ordinary book can be made into a great movie, and vice versa."

Christie herself wondered why she allowed her books to be ravaged on the screen. But, for Christie's fans, hope—like murder—springs eternal. They keep tuning in, knowing that every Christie puzzle is solved eventually—isn't it?

Earl F. Bargainnier (essay date Winter 1987)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3233

SOURCE: "The Poems of Agatha Christie," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 21, No. 3, Winter, 1987, pp. 103-10.

[In the following essay, Bargainnier analyzes Christie's collection of poetry, discussing what her poems reveal about her personality.]

In her autobiography Agatha Christie wrote, "The creative urge can come out in any form: in embroidery, in cooking of interesting dishes, in painting, drawing and sculpture, in composing music, as well as in writing books and stories. The only difference is that you can be a great deal more grand about some of these things than others." Christie was never "grand" about her detective fiction, and was even less so about her poetry. Yet in 1973, three years before her death, she permitted a small volume of her "collected" poems to be published. Christie's position as the most popular British writer ever deserves some analysis of her poems and their relationship, though slight, to her fiction.

She only gave a page and a half of over five hundred pages of An Autobiography to her poetry, but that small amount indicates both her modesty and pride. Saying that she wrote poetry early, she conceded that "some of my earlier examples are unbelievably awful." She then unfairly to herself quoted one written at the age of eleven:

I know a little cowslip and a pretty flower too, Who wished she was a bluebell and had a robe of blue.

Christie's comment on those lines was "Could anything be more suggestive of a complete lack of literary talent?" (178-79). But she also wrote the following:

By the age of seventeen or eighteen, however, I was doing better. I wrote a series of poems on the Harlequin legend: Harlequin's song, Columbine's, Pierrot, Pierrette, etc. I sent one or two poems to The Poetry Review. I was very pleased when I got a guinea prize. After that, I won several prizes and also had poems printed there. I felt very proud of myself when I was successful. I wrote quite a lot of poems from time to time. A sudden excitement would come over me and I would rush off to write down what I felt gurgling round in my mind. I had no lofty ambitions. An occasional prize in The Poetry Review was all I asked (179).

She then chose to quote in its entirety her poem "Down in the Wood," commenting that it "is not bad; at least it has something of what I wanted to express" (179).

First place in Poems is given to that "series of poems on the Harlequin legend": the ten which make up "A Masque of Italy." This work and twenty-five other poems constitute "Volume I," those originally published as The Road of Dreams in 1924. "Volume II" adds twenty-seven others, apparently written between then and 1960, for the last poem is entitled "Picnic 1960." The only other dates given are in Volume I: "World Hymn 1914" and "Easter 1918." However many poems Christie may have written, for her to have chosen for publication only sixty two from an entire lifetime, shows remarkable restraint, for by 1973 she could have published anything she wanted. Obviously she did not "work" at poetry as she did her detective fiction; poetry was a personal pleasure created by that "sudden excitement" that would come over her.

In form Christie's poems are traditional. There are sonnets and various stanzaic patterns, as well as freely metered works. Except for seven ballads, the poems are brief lyrics, nearly all between twelve and forty lines. She was fond of refrains, alliteration, and incremental repetition, and her favorite type of thyme was the couplet. She was equally adept at both short and long lines, but usually used tetrameter and pentameter. The general tone of the poems is reminiscent of such poets of the 1890s and early twentieth century as Ernest Dowson, Arthur Symons, Alfred Noyes, Walter de la Mare, and James Elroy Flecker—the last of whose "Gates of Damascus" provided the title of her last written novel: Postern of Fate. The ballads resemble those of G. K. Chesterton. With only one or two exceptions, Christie's poems could have been written before 1920. They are Romantic and Georgian in spirit: modernism is absent.

Her subjects are also Romantic. The majority of the poems fall into one of three broad subject areas. First are eighteen concerned with some form of the supernatural: magic, fairies, enchantment or dream worlds. The second group, her love poems, are, with the exception of those addressed to Sir Max Mallowan, her second husband, most often melancholy, and they number nineteen. (There is some overlapping between these two groups, as love is at times treated supernaturally, and the supernatural poems often have a romantic "plot.") Then there are six poems of place, particularly places in the Middle East, which she visited so often on Mallowan's archaeological expeditions. The other nineteen poems vary considerably, but most are reflective or meditative lyrics, ranging from thoughts on such huge topics as "Beauty" to the light "Picnic 1960." That gentle melancholy noted of her love poems, in fact, dominates most of the others as well; it is the single most distinguishing feature of Christie's poetry. On the other hand, a few show the wry humor evident in many of her novels; examples are "In Baghdad" and "To a Beautiful Old Lady." More of such works and less of such overly sentimental ones as "Wild Roses" and such obscurely allegorical ones as "A Palm Tree in the Desert" would be welcome—at least to this reader.

The supernatural poems range from such brief ones as "Enchantment," a variation on "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," and another on the Undine legend to "A Masque of Italy" (to be considered later). There are three concerned with the world of dreams: "The Dream Spinners," "The Dream City," and "The Road of Dreams," the last of which provided the title for Christie's 1924 volume of poems. Of the three it most successfully captures the mysterious nature of the subject and has an appropriately "dreamy" tone. A poem that seems to echo the works of Sir James M. Barrie is "From a Grown-up to a Child." It is light verse, but its combination of baby girls and fairies is still too cute for comfort; for example, the last stanza:

     The fairies stay awake all night
     So little girls need take no fright,
     For if the night light does go out
     They know the fairies are about,
     And they can heat their silky wings—
     They are so kind, these darling things!

The two best of this group are "Down in the Wood" and "Dark Sheila." As already noted, Christie chose "Down in the Wood" as her only poem to appear in An Autobiography. It is also a dream poem, presenting a surrealistic world where "Beauty is left in the wood!," but "naked Fear passes out of the wood!" (It needs to be read in its entirety for its eeriness to be appreciated; see Poems, 53, or An Autobiography, 179.) "Dark Sheila" is one of Christie's most successful ballads presenting a brooding narrative of dark Sheila's grief at desertion by one lad who left her for another girl and the unexplained departure of a second lad who "loved you from the very hour he met you." Both now plead with her to let them return, but she does not answer, for she has found "a Shadow Lad"—quite clearly death—with whom to roam. The last stanza gives a partial idea of the Brontesque quality:

     But Sheila, dark Sheila, is out upon the moorland.
     She's out upon the moorland where the heather meets the sky!
     And the lads shall never find her, for there's one walks by her side there,
     A Stranger Lad, a Shadow Lad, who would not be denied there …
     She turned her to his calling
     As the shades of night were falling,
     She turned her to his calling
     As the shades of night were falling.
     She turned her to his calling … and she answered to his Cry.

Poems of love form the largest single group of Christie's poetry, especially if poems within the other two categories which deal with it in some way are also included. Most of these poems fit into four subgroups. Least important are those based upon historical or legendary figures, such as "Count Fersen to the Queen" (Marie Antoinette), "Beatrice Passes," or the wistfully beautiful "Isolt of Brittany." Next are poems of dead or lost love, varying from the sentimental "Wild Roses" through the elegiac "Love Passes"—an excellent Italian sonnet—to the stoic "The Wanderer." Most original of these poems of dead love is the almost conversational "I Wore My New Canary Suit":

      I wore my new canary suit
      To go and meet my love,
      We talked and talked of everything
      In earth and heaven above.
      I went again to meet my love.
      The years had flitted by,
      I wore my old canary suit
      To bid my love goodbye.
      I took it to a jumble sale
      But brought it back once more
      And hung it on an inner peg
      Within my cupboard door.
      I shall not meet my love again
      For he is in his grave.
      So—I've an old moth-eaten suit
      And he is young and brave….

The third type, and related to the second, might be called cries from the heart; they are somewhat surprising outbursts of passion. The two which stand out are "Progression" and "The Lament of the Tortured Lover." The first presents in very short lines, at times only one word, the development and end of a love affair through the progression of the seasons. The emotion may seem uncontrolled to some readers, but that was probably Christie's purpose. "The Lament of the Tortured Lover" is a plea from a lover who cannot express in mere words the depth of his feeling though his loved one demands overt statements. A poem that one hardly expects from the reticent Christie, it ranks among her most effective in paradoxically using words to state that words can never fully express love, as a few lines demonstrate:

     I have said I adore you;
     I have said it—I have said it.
     I am sick of words
     Of everlasting meaningless words.
     I love you—I love you—that parrot cry.
     Cannot flesh take flesh in silence?
     But no—you will not have it so.
     You were made for incense,
     For burning words,
     Words—words—words—going on through the night …
     While I worship the pulse in your throat
     And the curve of your breast….

Four other love poems by their placement together and their content indicate that they were written to Christie's second husband when he was away from her: "To M.E.L.M. in Absence," "Remembrance," "A Choice," and "My Flower Garden." Each indicates her deep love for him and her anxious desire to be with him again. The most personal of her poems, they are testimony to over forty years of happy marriage, the nature of which is shown in lines five to twelve of the English sonnet "To M.E.L.M.":

     Friendship is ours, and still in absence grows.
     No dearer friend I own, so close, so kind.
     Knowledge is yours, from you to me it flows
     And I have loved your wise and gentle mind.
     Beauty we share, a white magnolia tree
     Rooted in England brings you to my side,
     And Roman columns rising from the sea
     Must surely bring remembrance with the tide.

The six poems of place require little comment. "Ctesiphon" is an Italian sonnet on the ancient city, contrasting its "lone-liness of naked beauty" seen on "one enchanted day" to the "Midget Man who wars and dies." "The Nile" is simply an evocation of a visit to Egypt, as "Dartmoor" is of that English region. "In Baghdad," one of Christie's wry commentaries on human existence, uses first an image of melons covered with flies; then comes the barb:

     God sees the world like a round green melon,
     And then he see the flies
     Buzzing and settling …
     But, being merciful,
     He looks away and says,
     'I will try not to think of these human beings …'
     Allah is very merciful.

Nearly as effective is "To a Cedar Tree," in which she juxtaposes the cedar's Lebanese origin with its now being "in my garden by the Thames." Asking it, "Do you remember Lebanon", she writes,

     Gracious you stand
     With smooth clipped lawn all around you
     And an English herbaceous border
     Flaunting its bloom on a summer's day.
     You are part of England now:
     'Tea will be served on the lawn
     Under the Cedar tree.'

When Christie was able to overcome the obvious and the sentimental through pointed humor or ironic reflection as in these last two poems, she could give readers that little shock that is poetry's essence.

Unfortunately that does not happen enough in the other miscellaneous poems. The sentimentality of "The Bells of Brittany" (a child is born, its mother dies) or the obviousness of "World Hymn 1914" ("The God of War is nigh!… Call to the god of Peace.") vitiate whatever actual feeling may be their motivation. Others that fail in similar ways are "Spring," "The Sculptor," and "Heritage," the last an example of the open-road school so popular in the early twentieth century. Differently unsatisfactory is the anti-miscegenation "Racial Musings," which would better have been omitted—however Christie meant it. Just missing falling into that overly sentimental category, but still missing it, is "Hawthorn Trees in Spring: A Lament of Women," apparently written during World War II. Contrasting the blooming trees to both human birth and wartime death, as well as the earthbound role of women as mothers versus the airborne freedom of men, the poem gently laments mankind's transience while affirming the continuity of natural existence. The first three sections read:

      How heavy are the hawthorn trees,
      Weighed down with blossom,
      Laden with heavy perfume,
      Like the bodies and souls of women
      Heavy with fruit of men's desire
      Or with their own desire in Spring.
      Up in the sky, divorced from earth,
      The aeroplanes pass
      Roaring along on their gallent adventures;
      They are the souls of men
      Set free from earth,
      Set free from the load of blossom
      And the cloying perfumes of Spring.
      They fly and are free.
      Yet at the last they must return,
      Fall back to earth,
      Gliding down presently and skimming the ground
      Or falling in vivid flame,
      Yet still returning to earth.

A poem about World War I, "Easter 1918," and another called "A Passing" also avoid the sentimental when it could easily be present, for they concern death. Both express a theme occasionally found in Christie's fiction: that death is not an end. The poems conclude almost identically, the first with "Which some call Death—and others name—Release!" and the second with "We call it—Death!/Nor dare to say—Escape!" Finally, two of the ballads demand mention. "Elizabeth of England" is a monologue in which the queen meditates on her heritage, her battles with Spain, her hatred of Mary Stuart, the glory of her reign, and her childlessness. It concludes: "And I shall share in my Children's fame/Who have never a child of my own …" Though less a psychological study than a survey of major elements of Elizabeth I's long reign, the tone is not rhetorical, but spirited, thus evoking the boisterous age it presents. "The Ballad of the Flint" is a rather bloodthirsty account of a Viking raid on a Celtic tribe, the stealing of the tribe's priestess, her rescue, and the retribution for the sacrilege, ending with the priestess executing the Viking chief, with whom she has fallen in love, and then committing suicide. It is essentially a short story told in forty-five hexameter-heptameter lines, with the unusual stanza rhyming pattern of aabcb, with every fourth line containing internal rhyme ("In confusion there we found them, and we seized and held and bound them").

It would be an exercise in futility to try to find many implicit or explicit relationships between these essentially personal poems and Christie's fiction. That poems such as "Dark Sheila" or "Down in the Woods" deal with mysterious fear, an element often present in detective fiction, is hardly enough evidence on which to draw parallels, nor is the fact that there are poems on Baghdad, the Nile, and Dartmoor and also novels set in those places. "Hymn to Ra" in Volume I shows her early interest in ancient Egypt, but Death Comes as the End (1944), her mystery novel set in that world was first suggested to her by one of her husband's colleagues nearly twenty years later. The poems are filled with her interests, likes, and dislikes, and some of the same are bound also to appear in her fiction; that is all that need be said.

There is one major exception, however, and that is the obvious connection between "A Masque of Italy" and the Harley Quin stories, for both have the same source: her childhood attendance at Christmas pantomimes. The characters of the Italian commedia dell'arte developed into stylized stage characters of English pantomime in the eighteenth century, and by the end of the nineteenth, Harlequin, Columbine, and their cohorts were standard figures of the annual Christmas pantomime: fairly-like creatures not bound by time or space. Thus the pantomime—"A Masque"—Quin link is clear. The immortal Harlequin of "A Masque of Italy" loses Columbine to the mortal Pierrot, but she in turn loses her immortality and dies. Pierrot is last seen as an old man living with an elderly Pierrette and awaiting his own death. The ten songs which recount the story are Christie the poet at her best, and it is not surprising that she won prizes for them. The songs are simple, direct, yet individualized for each character; that typical melancholy is ever-present; and the supernatural is accepted as a given without explanation or apology. Similarly, Harley Quin is a figure of the supernatural. He acts through the mortal Mr. Satterthwaite to help lovers and solve mysteries. In such stories as "Harlequin's Lane" and "The Harlequin Tea Set," Quin is presented as the messenger—if not the personification—of death, but death as a kind of ultimate fulfillment of life. The shadowy, all knowing Quin, who like his stage counterpart can appear or disappear at will, is a deliberately enigmatic figure. He is, without question. Christie's most unusual detective; she wrote in An Autobiography that the Quin stories were her favorites and that she only wrote one when she felt like it, and added that Quin "was a kind of carryover for me from my early poems in the Harlequin and Columbine series" (420). Perhaps the Quin stories were her own favorite detective works because in them she came closer than in any others to writing like a poet.

Poems is the least known of Agatha Christie's some eighty books. Few of the billions of readers of her fiction are even aware of its existence. Yet one can imagine her pleasure on its publication, a pleasure probably greater than that on the appearance of her fiftieth or sixtieth novel, for it is a distillation of her most private thoughts and emotions, as lyric poetry always is for its writer. Christie was a very private person, and this little volume, whatever its faults, provides a new perspective on her personality—one quite different from the public image of "mistress of mystery."

Michele Slung (essay date 1988)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2386

SOURCE: "Let's Hear It for Agatha Christie: A Feminist Appreciation," in The Sleuth and the Scholar: Origins, Evolution, and Current Trends in Detective Fiction, Greenwood Press, 1988, pp. 63-8.

[In the following essay, Slung argues that the female characters in Christie's mysteries provide role models for women.]

With all due respect to P. D. James and Ruth Rendell—to name two writers who have resisted inheriting the queenly mantle of Agatha Christie from over-eager blurb writers—there is no doubt in my mind that these women never should have been offered the honor in the first place. Bestsellerdom (in the case of James) or simply being British, acclaimed, and prolific (Rendell) just isn't enough to warrant succession to Christie's literary throne.

I should add here that in a recent Time magazine cover story (the international edition—it was Stephen King that week stateside), James has modified her previously stated distaste for Christie somewhat. "I write much better than she did" was how she'd once dismissed the comparison to Dame Agatha in an interview. Now, however, she has this to say: "She is a literary conjurer; she shuffles her cards with these clever hands and lays the cards face down. Each time you think you know the right one. And each time, you are wrong."

That's certainly diplomatic, carefully conveying admiration but indicating, nonetheless, how she perceives as limited the nature of Christie's achievement. What's wrong with her assessment, however, is that it, too, is limited. As she slips sidewise to prevent the royal Christie mantle from being draped on what Time refers to as "her unwilling shoulders," James, in an effort to protect herself, neglects the bigger picture.

By this I mean that Agatha Christie, with all her flaws intact, is sui generis. And P. D. James, for all her virtues, never will be. Around the world, in dozens of languages, for several generations of readers, the two words "Agatha Christie" are synonymous with "mystery story" or "detective fiction." I find I am even oddly moved when I think of this—that such an unlikely and private woman is writ so large in the minds of so many.

From Oz as a child, I moved on to River Heights, where Nancy Drew dwelled with Carson, Hannah Gruen, and the rest; but quite soon, there came a moment when old attics and crumbling castles lost their appeal, when I stopped caring about the next annual appearance of Carolyn Keene's plucky and boringly perfect heroine. (This isn't the moment to address the issue, but I want to go on record here as saying that taking away Nancy's frock and her roadster and giving her self-doubt, Calvin Klein jeans, and a Honda is as much of a defilement as putting a modern facade on any historic building, and I think the National Trust should have intervened.)

What happened was that I'd come upon a copy of The Mysterious Affair at Styles. In reading it, I'd entered a new stage. The following two or three years were spent tracking down the fifty or so Christie titles then available.

I also admit, without embarrassment, that, in the quarter of a century since, there have been almost no other authors—no matter how ardently I enjoy them or how avidly I seek out their various books—about whom that same thrilling joy accompanies the discovery of an unread volume by them.

And, of course, when I wasn't reading James or Proust, I went on from Christie to Doyle and Stout, Sayers and Allingham, Hammett and Chandler, Innes and Crispin, Lockridge and Rice, and so forth. Eventually, despite concerned college professors who steered my attention to Edmund Wilson's "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" I turned my innocent amateur pastime into the sordid profession I demonstrate to you today: I became a commentator on the genre.

So I applaud Agatha Christie, and I'd even be willing to debate the proposition that we might not be convened here today had Agatha Christie never existed. Let me detail some of the reasons why I feel Agatha Christie is important to feminist readers and why I think it's so very wrong for serious critics to take a condescending or contemptuous tone when discussing her.

No one that I've ever come across has taken up the topic of role models in the work of Agatha Christie. Yet, in a rather obscure work of hers—I say "obscure" because it doesn't feature one of her series characters, such as Hercule Poirot, Miss Jane Marple, or Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, and because it contains no famous plot tricks—there's a heroine whose attitude and behavior, whose imaginative zest for life has continued to influence me in all the years since I first read about her. The book is They Came to Baghdad, the 1951 Christie; its heroine is the irrepressible Victoria Jones.

An adventuress in the making, now an unemployed typist with no outlet for her exotic yearnings, Victoria's "principal defect," Christie tells us, "was a tendency to tell lies at both opportune and inopportune moments. The superior fascination of fiction to fact was always irresistible to [her]. She lied with fluency, ease, and artistic fervour." (One is reminded of Saki's daughter of the house in "The Open Window." Romance at short notice was her specialty, too.)

The wonderful thing, when you think of Christie's retiring, matronly presence, her prim, perfected public self (like the Queen Mum—if the Queen Mum wrote best-selling thrillers), is that this opening portrait of the mendacious Victoria is affectionate and anticipatory of the fun to come, not at all disapproving. (And here I should add that it's not Victoria's fibs that inspired me, but rather, as Christie describes it, "her optimism and force of character.") What a flair for life Victoria has! And how beautifully flexible she is, when opportunity knocks. "One never knew, she always felt, what might happen."

This philosophy is definitely not that of a passive or retiring stay-at-home! And, since Victoria does wind up saving civilization as we know it, then settles herself being useful on an archeological dig—as Christie herself was, accompanying her second husband—it's very easy to imagine the sixty-one-year-old Agatha recasting her youth in the figure of such a heroine. "To Victoria an agreeable world would be where tigers lurked in the Strand and dangerous bandits infested Tooting." Now, isn't this just a penny-dreadful way of describing the world that Agatha Christie, living most of her life in luxurious suburban villas, could inhabit by writing thrillers?

Since Christie's notoriety, in 1926, when the strain of the breakup of her first marriage led to her mysterious disappearance, she shunned publicity and lived amazingly away from the claims of celebrity for someone of such global renown. Yet her books are filled with all manner of surrogates, highly active and ingenious female characters—no Nero Wolfes they, sitting home and getting clues secondhand—whether the redoubtable Jane Marple (more about whom in a moment), clever Tuppence Beresford, or the booming-voiced Ariadne Oliver who writes mystery stories about a peculiar Finnish (read Belgian) sleuth. In fact, in the 1936 Christie, Cards on the Table, this selfsame Ariadne Oliver, who voices many of Christie's own sentiments about writing and the writer's life, is depicted as a "hot-headed feminist"—one who wishes, despairingly, that a woman was the head of Scotland Yard!

It's true, to contradict myself briefly, that when we first meet Miss Jane Marple, in 1928, in The Thirteen Problems (known in this country as The Tuesday Club Murders), the format in which she functions is a sedentary one. Not un-Wolfean, that is. An informal club of village friends is attempting to stump each other with curious outcomes to curious tales, and the placidly knitting Miss Marple, with her black lace mittens, fluffy white hair, and faded blue eyes, is only included as an afterthought, so as not to hurt her feelings. However, alert to every human foible, she outguesses her fellow members every time.

But, to look at this debut in another light, Agatha Christie herself, whom most of us now see only as the distinctly dowager type she was from the 1950s onwards, was just a mid-thirtyish young woman when the character of Jane Marple was forming in her mind. I find it distinctly praise-worthy that, for her, a true heroine was not bound by cliches of age or physical attractiveness. Christie also puts across the idea of Miss Marple's worth continually in sly ways, even letting Miss M. herself do a bit of horn-tooting from time to time. In "Miss Marple Tells a Story," written when Christie was in her forties and hardly tottering out to pasture, here's how the tale begins:

"I don't think I've ever told you, my dears … about a rather curious little business that happened some years ago now. I don't want to seem vain in any way—of course I know that in comparison with you young people I'm not clever at all—Raymond writes those modern books all about rather unpleasant young men and women—and Joyce paints those very remarkable pictures of square people with curious bulges on them—very clever of you, my dear, but as Raymond always says (only quite kindly, because he is the kindest of nephews) I am hopelessly Victorian…. Now let me see, what was I saying? Oh yes—that I didn't want to appear vain—but I couldn't help being just a teeny weeny bit pleased with myself, because, just by applying a little common sense, I believe I really did solve a problem that had baffled cleverer heads than mine. Though really I should have thought the whole thing was obvious from the beginning…."

Anna Katharine Green had Miss Amelia Butterworth; Dorothy L. Sayers, Miss Climpson; Patricia Wentworth, Miss Silver, and so forth. Jane Marple, thus, isn't—as my mother would say—the "only pebble on the beach." But isn't there something enormous about her? Just as Christie is for many millions of people synonymous with the mystery story, Miss Marple is the archetype of the elderly lady detective. And to move on from Nancy Drew to Jane Marple, as I did, so long ago, gave me something to grow up to. Not a flat earth up to seventy! With her own unfortunate experience—the faithless Archie Christie—in mind, Agatha Christie kept a cynical view toward men and marriage for most of her oeuvre. Yet in the first Miss Marple novel, Murder at the Vicarage (1930), Christie allows Miss Marple to reveal her method in these words: "It's really what people call intuition. Intuition is like reading a word without having to spell it out. A child can't do that, because it has had so little experience. But a grownup person knows the word because he's seen it before. You catch my meaning?"

Please notice that the word "women's" does not figure here. Her way of knowing is a human trait, regardless of sex but dependent on experience. Understanding people as she does she could be a shaman or a psychotherapist, but the seemingly conventional Agatha Christie was writing detective stories and so Jane Marple plies her perceptivity—that is, she detects—within those conventions.

Even if it's clear that the "psychopathology of everyday life" is what she's dealing with, still such case histories as "The Bloodstained Pavement" won't get the respect of "Combined Parapraxes," nor will "The Affair at the Bungalow" be accorded the stature of "Bungled Actions." Yet, if Sherlock Holmes could meet Freud, why not Jane Marple?

The problems of attempting to gain for Agatha Christie the vast honor I think she deserves—from feminists and misogynists alike, as well as Mr. and Ms. Intelligent Reader—are always being brought home to me. Just a few nights ago, I was at a dinner party and mentioned that I was working on this paper. But before I could explain, a Renaissance historian who was listening interrupted, claiming, "I can't read Agatha Christie. She's too tedious."

Sure, and for millions of others, she's anything but. And for many, many more, who've read her and thought about her work, their enthusiasm, if it exists, is often tempered by reservations about her blimpish social attitudes, her reliance on stereotypes when casting most of her parts, her less than limpid style, the repetition of some of her conjurer's tricks, her Never-Never Land of village teas and Blue Trains speeding through the night. Yet one could reply to those snooty folk who prefer Lord Peter to Hercule Poirot (and I grant you he's sexier, at least in his later incarnation) that Dorothy L. Sayers is only the Thinking Person's Agatha Christie!

I began this talk by deploring the comparison of such current writers as Ruth Rendell and P. D. James to Agatha Christie. They may believe it reflects ill on them; instead, I feel they should be so lucky. In regard to their series characters, Inspector Wexford and Adam Dalgliesh, I challenge anyone to be able to give me a really evocative word picture of either of these men. Will their first novels still be in print, translated into nearly as many languages as people speak, over half a century after original publication? I even have to ask, is it likely there'll be a cargo cult in Papua, New Guinea with either of them the object of Melanesian veneration? Finally, would anyone write an essay asking "Who Cares Who Killed …?" Fill in the name of any victim in any of their books, if you can.

Moreover, no one can or need do again what Agatha Christie did in this century (something Anna Katharine Green is credited with doing in the previous one). She brought mass respectability to the genre, with an audience that ranged from presidents and queens to shop clerks, from nursery school teachers to university presidents.

I hope you understand that I'm not trying to equate ubiquity with quality, popularity with literary greatness. No, I'm talking about the kind of impact that's simply so large we can barely see it. Agatha Christie may not be Shakespeare, but then she's not Mary Roberts Rinehart or Judith Krantz either. She's a legend, not a mere phenomenon.

Rendell and James and their ilk, don't mistake me, are certainly truly talented writers, but in the end, genius, like murder, will out.

Nicholas Birns and Margaret Boe Birns (essay date 1990)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7886

SOURCE: "Agatha Christie: Modern and Modernist," in The Cunning Craft: Original Essays on Detective Fiction and Contemporary Literary Theory, Western Illinois University, 1990, pp. 120-34.

[In the following essay, the reviewers argue that Christie's writing is more complex than critics credit her.]

Agatha Christie's position in the critical discourse surrounding the detective story is an anomalous one. While Christie is the best known and most popular writer of detective fiction in this century, she has rarely been analyzed with the kind of rigor and attention that such a position would ordinarily entail. Christie's relationship to modernism, the dominant discourse of the "high" literature of her day, has been particularly slighted. Christie's position as serious artist, as not only chronologically modern but aesthetically modernist, is obscured by the view of her work that has now become canonical. This normative position on Christie is crystallized in David Grossvogel's Mystery and Its Fictions. Grossvogel accuses Christie of a formulaic certainty, of a nostalgic love for a "bucolic … England" [43] and a controlled, cerebral puzzle-solving mentality. Writing with many of the presuppositions of the "critics of consciousness," Grossvogel opposes this to the unpredictable, truly existential mystery to be found in Sophocles, Dostoevsky, the Book of Job. Confining himself only to Christie's first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles [1920] (in itself a misleading procedure, rather like analyzing the significance of Goethe by analyzing only Götz von Berlichingen), Grossvogel accuses Christie of "functional stylization", of creating characters who are only "shadows" and "do not exist". Christie's characters, as individuals, hardly demonstrate the heart-wrenching range of psychological attributes, Grossvogel hints, to be found in such characters as Roquentin and Raskolnikov.

This existential denigration is transferred onto a more discursive level in other, self-consciously postmodern and poststructural treatments of Christie and the "classic" detective story paradigm which she did so much to foreground. William W. Stowe, in his essay "From Semiotics to Hermeneutics," denounces Christie's paradigm as imprisoned by Cartesian methodological certainties, and, as has been done many times, opposes it to the more "open" and "undecidable" realm of the hard-boiled story. This opposition has been characteristic of much criticism of the detective story, yet its overarching assumptions have all too infrequently been scrutinized. The casualness with which Christie is dismissed as "formulaic" whereas the hard-boiled writers are praised for giving us full unhindered access to our primal selves is untenable in the face of contemporary discussions about the constructed nature of all fictional representation.

It is for example questionable whether the full reverberations of developments in literary theory up to and including the work of Jacques Derrida have yet been accommodated in these interpretations. Derrida's work comes out of a Heideggerean background similar to that of the Geneva critics who so influence Grossvogel, but unlike them he does not endow "being" with a particular metaphysical puissance. Derridean deconstruction vigorously resists the sorts of existentially based oppositions found in approaches such as those of Stowe and Grossvogel, with their privileging of an authentic, inner kernel of expressive meaning against an outer world composed "merely" of codes and paradigms. Derrida would no doubt see the hunger for authenticity in mystery-stories as similarly misbegotten (and, given the nature of form, not nearly as inevitable) as the hunger for authenticity and unimpeachable verbal authority in Western metaphysics which he terms "logocentrism." A Derridean analysis of the detective form would not simply be a rhetorical shifting of evaluative terms such as "formulaic" and "authentic" whereby "formulaic" would become "logocentric" and "authentic" would become "deconstructive"; this would retain the metaphysical urge latent in the distinction originally, instead of seeing the detective story, like all modes of linguistic expression, as inevitably problematic and constructed, not ontologically inherent.

Another critical method which problematizes the aforementioned denunciations of the mystery form is psychoanalysis as practiced by Jacques Lacan. While accepting and re-employing Freudian methodology, Lacanian psychoanalysis distrusts any proclamation of a core personality, an essential ego. Thus the phenomenological brio sought in the mystery form by a critic such as Grossvogel would for Lacan inevitably be occluded by the nature of the self, which is not a pre-existent organism but rather arises out of the very loss of wholeness that occurs in the process of the individual's shift into the symbolic order comprised by language and culture. The self in the Lacanian model cannot have it both ways as Christie's existential denigrators seem to want it to: it cannot be both unpredictable and whole, both expressive and ontologically unhinged—it is inevitably both partial and dependent on entities outside it.

A third theoretical prolegomenon for reading Christie more insightfully would be a method less renowned on this side of the Atlantic than those of Derrida and Lacan, namely the semiotic theories of the French linguist A. J. Greimas. "Semiotics" here is hardly the simple decoding and puzzle-solving that Stowe means when he uses the term in the title of his article, or even the determinate polysemy, borrowing heavily from the techniques of medieval allegory, made familiar to readers of the detective story through Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (1980). Greimassian semiotics is a pluralistic, multivocal process that seeks to situate the terms of discourse in dynamic collaboration with one another, not in any external universe or existential plenum but within the signifying textures of language itself, most often figured emblematically in terms of his "semiotic square." Greimas is probably of the greatest practical relevance with respect to Christie, because he demonstrates how a literary text can be at once manipulative and meaningful, composed totally of the interrelations among language yet managing to resonate and affect readers even without offering them access to any realm of ontological purity or freedom. With these three theoretical guides in tow, it can be seen that Christie's "formulas," whether or not less correspondent to human "reality" than Raymond Chandler's, are no more or less formulas than his, or any other writer's. Christie should not be criticized for doing what all successful fiction does—make the reader partially aware of how and why it is made.

It is in a way a happy coincidence that Grossvogel chose to focus only on Christie's first mystery, because, although her achievement went far beyond this beginner's work, Christie's canon is truly a mysterious affair of styles. Christie's stylistic aptitude is strengthened, not vitiated, by what critics have chastised as her shallow or "flat" characterization. The irony of this complaint is that the flatness of her characters is one of the constitutive features of a Christie novel. Difficult as it may be for those used to the idea of character as formulated in the nineteenth-century mimetic novel, Christie's use of the social mask, her employment of the type, of the generic rather than the specific character is not only an essential aspect of her stories of crime and detection, but constitutes a vision of society, text, and discourse that transcends any specific mystery formula. Christie's use of the mask in her fiction has its roots in the nature of mystery novels, which depend on their highlighting a doubleness, a dichotomy between appearance and reality, a dichotomy which the detective in his investigations enacts rhetorically but only provisionally solves.

From The Moonstone (1868) to The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) to the present day, the theme of doubleness or duplicity is central to the form. As Betteredge puts it in Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone, we are "all … listening to surprise each other's secrets" (83), hidden underneath the surface of the human situation. In detective fiction, the world is to some degree a stage, and the people in it merely players, deceiving those around them and sometimes even themselves as to their true motives and actual deeds. It is the task of the mystery novel to "see through" the staged reality, a false good which has been rendered false as a result of the malice, greed, envy, and sundry other deadly sins the discovery of crime reveals. Christie has received this form and given it another turn of the screw, as it were, by approaching characters as a theatrical company, a familiar dramatis personae of social types, none of whom are as they seem. In fact, many of her novels are prefaced by a "Cast of Characters," namely the possible suspects in the ensuing mystery, and the metaphor of performance pervades her work.

The pretense, disguise, play-acting, and outward show that are essential to the mystery genre are given a special intensity in Christie's work by her constant emphasis on and reference to the "theatricality" of her characters' actions. A well-known example is Murder on the Orient Express (1934), in which Hercule Poirot comes to realize that he has been an audience of one for a careful series of performances. In this book, Christie is at the furthest extreme from the romanticization of the criminal as a solitary outlaw; Christie's criminal is far less often a rogue psychotic (her few attempts at this sort of portrait, as in Endless Night [1967], are, though not uninteresting, uncharacteristic) than somebody who is manipulating the known and tolerable conventions of English society to his or her own advantage. Aboard the Orient Express, the solution to the crime, that "they were all doing it," foregrounds a persistent feature of Christie's characterization: she is less probing the souls of her characters than seeing how their enactment of roles implicates them in carceral circumstances that are sometimes apprehended as "criminal," sometimes not.

Such impersonations and performances are numerous in Christie's texts. Many, if not all, of the characters in a Christie novel are playing roles, so that although it is the murderer who is revealed to be the most hypocritically estranged from his or her performed self, Christie suggests a general doubleness in the human character. This allows her to cast suspicion on all of her characters, giving her a satisfying list of possible villains. But it also creates a vision of life in which the self is "presented" in what sociologist Erving Goffman has described as the staged reality we call "everyday life." Similarly, at the conclusion of Mrs. McGinty's Dead (1952), Poirot suggests that the murderer has planned "the whole mise en scene … the whole thing was a theatrical scene setting with prepared props." Of the murderer in Towards Zero (1944) Superintendent Battle comments:

"He played the part of the good sportsman, you know. That's why he could keep his temper so well at tennis. His role as a good sportsman was more important to him than winning matches. But it put a strain on him, of course, playing a part always does. He got worse underneath."

Nevile Strange is the paragon of the British sportsman, but this does not prevent him from being a cold-blooded killer; in fact, it aids him. The methodical manner in which he plans, in a detailed, outlined way, the murder of his former wife, is not full of manic frenzy, but of the same restraint and concern for "good form" that has made him so successful as a sportsman. The psychotic temperament may be lurking underneath, but, as elsewhere in Christie's universe, criminality is manifested in and through many of the forms, the self-assumed roles, that people play in ordinary civilized life. Rather than being simply flat, the shallow personae in Christie's dramas are endowed with a tantalizing, mysterious, and very deliberate artificiality. This is why, in a Christie mystery, we are immediately aware that any of her characters may prove personally malevolent, since all of them seem to be masking some troublesome aspect of their identity. The highly limited, rigidly defined social images of dubious authenticity that populate Christie's country houses, Calais coaches, vicarages, and seaside resorts beg us to wait, expectantly, for the inevitable hidden "Mr. Hyde" side of the human animal to surface. It is important to the experience of Christie's fiction to appreciate the duplicity inherent in her conventionally masked men and women, since this staging is, in fact, what makes her novels mysterious.

With this emphasis on the "staged" quality of reality, Christie is clearly participating in one of the major literary tendencies of her day, the modernist turn against the Romantic stress on the priority of an unhindered, expressive self. This can be seen in the terrain of the theater itself; Christie's theatrical procedures are less like those of the Romantics, with their emphasis on character, than those of such modernist dramatists at Yeats, with his interest in "masks," or Brecht, who sees character as above all a way of highlighting social convention, radically foregrounding the characteristics of a given scene. In preferring spliced, abbreviated samples to fully unfolded interiorities, Christie is linked to her near-contemporaries, T. E. Hulme and Wyndham Lewis, as well as thinkers such as Wilhelm Wörringer who looked back to medieval stylization and symbolism as a way to outflank Romantic individualism in the modern era.

Reclaiming Christie as modernist does not entail upholding the reverent view of modernism as the pinnacle of Western literary achievement that reigned in the academy until quite recently. Modernism, whatever its "international" pretensions, is a local phenomenon that arose at certain places and times and constituted itself in certain discursive frames. Modernism was full of ideological mystification. In this respect, Christie's political conservatism and generally approving view of tradition link her to such eminent modernists as Pound and Eliot, and her penchant for occasional anti-Semitic remarks recalls these two as well as Céline. But it is difficult to single out Christie for her references to scheming Jewesses and oily Semites when the major poet writing in England was the author of "Bleistein with a Bacdeker, Burbank with a Cigar." Modernism had its darknesses as well as its triumphs, and Christie partook equally of both. But even though Christie shared the prejudices of some modernists, she also, like all the above, participated in promulgating new forms which claimed, if they did not always manifest, a radical discontinuity with those of the past. This is more difficult to see at first hand than the previous assertions; where are the Christian equivalents of modernist fragmentation, rupture, chaos? The approach of the Russian Formalists, with their stress on how extraordinary works of literature gain their power from affirming and radically extending the genre to which they belong, may point toward where to look in Christie for this aspect of modernism. Christie is in precisely this position with respect to the classical detective story: it is her triumph, not her liability, that she made what had been an inchoately defined genre into a formulaic one whose characteristics could be enumerated with almost Aristotelian rigor.

Moreover, the very idea of "genre fiction" is a peculiarly modern one. The novel had always been the quintessentially mixed genre, melding aspects of epic, journalism, anecdote, conte, into an overall whole. It is with the twentieth-century breakdown of the conventional perimeters of the novel, the breakdown decried by Lukacs and other Marxist humanist critics, that all the major "genres"—for example, the thriller, the detective story, science fiction, although all ultimately Romantic in origin—achieved a formal consistency and a generic autonomy. Thus the kind of criticism which seeks only to "expose" the generic conventions of mystery or science fiction, ridiculing their procedures from the perspective of the psychological-naturalist novel circa 1910, is indulging in a chimerical enterprise. It is puzzling to see an approach such as this, so inconsistent with the general critical approach to twentieth-century fiction, predominate in many intellectual responses to the detective genre. Thus Christie's novels are often dismissed as "trash," whereas those of P. D. James are praised as penetrating expeditions into human nature. Even though the rest of the literary world has gotten beyond seeing the psychological-naturalist novel circa 1910 as the norm, Christie is still being judged by the fictional procedures of others rather than her own. A part of this tendency is a kind of intellectual status panic, an anxiety that reading Christie is reading "trash," that even in our leisure time we should not be reading books we would be embarrassed if our students caught us reading. Surely the line between "trash" and "non-trash" is now irretrievably permeable, and Christie's work should be assessed by the degree to which it executes and experiments with its generic characteristics and displays an awareness of its own nature as fiction.

An objection as strong as the aesthetic demurral against Christie has been the social one. Her work is routinely seen as uncritically pandering to a nostalgic projection of the English class system, as straightjacketing and undermining any idea of radical social dissent or change. While recent events in Eastern Europe have shown that people may not want precisely the sort of radical social change desired by some midcentury Western intellectuals, the objection, on first look, has some force. Many of Christie's plots seem to be designed to eliminate the outsider and reinforce a sort of hegemony of the settled and pawky, an ersatz harkening-back to an imperial and class-stratified past whose irrecuperable disappearance is memorialized by poets such as Philip Larkin. That the social formulas in Christie's novels can reverberate along an ideological axis can be seen in the 1950's debate over the merits of the classical detective story between W.H. Auden, the poet and Christian convert, and Edmund Wilson, the Princeton Marxist. Auden, struggling to uphold decorum in a spiritual universe stained and compromised by original sin, found the classical detective story, with its acknowledgment of guilt and its determination to resolve that guilt within an ordered structure, congenial to his state of mind. Wilson, on the other hand, found the form socially regressive and lacking in the literary merit and emotional pathos (or, perhaps, bathos) of Dostoevsky. While revealing strikingly the differences between the two critics (who were to have a similar debate some years later concerning Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings), the Auden-Wilson argument tends to miss some of the ways in which Christie was socio-politically cannier than she may seem at first.

A good example of this is the late work, At Bertram's Hotel (1965). Here, we find Miss Marple coming to a similar conclusion about her mystery:

It was all too good to be true—if you know what I mean. What they call in theatrical circles a beautiful performance. But it was a performance—not real.

In At Bertram's Hotel, Miss Marple discovers that what appeared to be the incarnation of a good, old-fashioned British hotel was in fact an elaborate stage set for a group of actors hired to perform characters and values that had, in reality, been rendered highly problematic by the war, Labor, Suez, the Beatles. The "hollowness" of Christie's people may be, in fact, what differentiates her work from the nineteenth-century novel with its fully realized selves, and its expectation of a deeply internalized moral sense. The curious emptiness of her people is rather a testimony to Christie's perception of modern deracination than a failure of creative power. This is demonstrated by Christie's gradual exposure of the civilized English masks her characters assume. Redolent of Rupert Brooke's "Stands the Church clock at ten to three?/And is there honey still for tea?", this idea of English society is invariably contradicted and destabilized by a society that is not so "English," that is, not so paradisally Edwardian, as it used to be.

The changing face of English civilization in the twentieth century, in which received conventions compete with new "unconventional" ways of being, is in fact far from neglected in Christie's oeuvre. Beginning with her mysteries after World War I, her stories reflect a nostalgia for an earlier, arcadian time as well as a realization that this society is now, at best, a form of play-acting or pretense, at worst a tragic deception. Her dowagers, matrons, majors, colonels, good doctors, her well-bred gentlemen and ladies are now grown unauthentic, become a species of fakery covering a far more alarming reality. The world of friends, neighbors, and relatives has in Christie's novels become a world of strangers, creatures of selfish, aggressive drives at variance with the brittle, flat, and unconvincing postures of gentility they perpetuate publicly. Bertram's Hotel thus employs decayed aristocrats and impoverished members of the old county families to recreate the look of Edwardian England. But Christie's policeman, Fred "Father" Davy (the sobriquet probably no accident, as the novel is preoccupied with the passing of generations), views the hotel's five o'clock tea with the eye of a detective:

From the staircase, Father cast a jaundiced eye over the occupants of the lounge, and wondered whether anyone was what they seemed to be. He had got to that stage! Elderly people, middle-aged people (nobody very young), nice old-fashioned people, lawyers, clergymen, American husband and wife near the door, a French family near the fireplace. Nobody flashy, nobody out of place, most of them enjoying an old-fashioned English afternoon tea. Could there really be anything seriously wrong with a place that served old-fashioned afternoon teas?

In reality, the hotel is run by a new, more ruthless society that cynically exploits the old traditions without really believing in them. Often in Christie's work, the seemingly cozy, stable image of England is in fact a copy of something that has largely disappeared; it is a deficient or false England masquerading as the real thing. The detective (and, therefore, the reader) is lured by the specter of a gratifying regression, an atavistic nostalgia for the Great Good Place where Things Were Better, where sensibilities were undissociated. But, with the revelation that the cozy, traditional Bertram's is in fact a front for an international drug-running scheme, the reader's expectations are foiled and trumped. We, who had been caught by Christie thinking, "Ah yes, we may have a more egalitarian society now but truly, we do not know how to live as we did then," are awakened into a realization of the impossibility of this sort of nostalgia. The characters in the novel, who are not as they would have us (and we expect to) see them, also prevent us from lapsing into a false nostalgia. We, like Miss Marple, are meant to disapprove of the modern loose-living wild woman, Lady Bess Sedgwick, but in the end Lady Bess behaves well, sheltering the daughter whom she had failed. And her daughter Elvira's depravity frustrates our wish for an old-fashioned innocent ingenue. In At Bertram's Hotel we are prohibited from shrugging off our own modernity.

A similar resistance to nostalgia is evinced in The Hollow (1946), which, true to form, presents a staged murder that directs us away from the person who seems to be the most-likely-suspect. The murderer, Gerda Christow, hides behind a facade of stupidity—we learn that she has been "playing dumb." Underneath the blankness is a calculating mind. Christie writes of Gerda:

… she had been able, behind her blank expression, to hug herself a little in her secret knowledge…. For she wasn't quite as stupid as they thought…. Often, when she pretended not to understand, she did understand. And often, deliberately, she slowed down in the task of whatever it was, smiling to herself when someone's impatient fingers snatched it away from her.

The literal hollow in The Hollow refers to the name of the estate where the novel takes place, but hollowness is also an abstract theme in this novel, and it is a reality to be found in all of Christie's work. There is a certain hollowness of heart in her characters, a sense of emotional isolation that is characteristic of other characters besides her murderers. Lucy Angkatell, in The Hollow, for instance, while an innocent bystander, is in her own way as heartless as Gerda. She says of the murder victim, John Christow:

"I found him amusing, and he had charm. But I never think one ought to attach too much importance to anybody."

And gently, with a smiling face, Lady Angkatell clipped remorselessly at a vine.

This "hollow" quality of the characters reverberates back onto the estate, which is a hollow not only in name, but in fact: "The Hollow" is doomed to take perpetual second place in the hearts of the Angkatell family to Ainswick, the immemorial family estate which had belonged to Lucy's father but, because of ironbound primogeniture, has evaded the grasp of Lucy. Though her determination would make her a very able estate-head, the estate has instead fallen to the next male in line, the phlegmatic Edward. All the characters except the Christows, who are outsiders, are in a perpetual funk about the loss of Ainswick; the Hollow is a hollow of Ainswick, existing only as its trace, its privation. The novel's resolution deftly negotiates the Angkatells away from this fixation. Edward's lifelong crush on the artist Henrietta, who had been having an affair with the slain Christow, is gradually revealed to have been only an obligatory accompaniment of his status as estate-head, a sort of emotional analogue to the aspiration to redeem the past that strikes at the core of the Angkatell clan. When Edward renounces this aspiration and settles down with the more middle-class Midge, he definitively puts behind him any hope of reconstituting a privileged, aristocratic past, and thus frees the Hollow from the specter of Ainswick and Ainswick from its own hollowness.

An even more graphic display of Christie's socio-political complexity is the wartime novel An Overdose of Death (1940). In this work, Poirot originally suspects Mr. Raikes, one of Christie's stereotypical, frenetic Marxist agitators who is the fiancé of Jane, the niece of the wealthy corporate magnate Alistair Blunt. We are initially led to believe that Blunt is the intended victim of the various murders already perpetrated in the book, and Mr. Raikes's social convictions render him a likely suspect to the side of Christie all too ready to dismiss any threat to the established order. But at the end, the tables are turned: Poirot discovers that Blunt is in fact the murderer. Blunt pleads with Poirot for mercy, stating that his ability to coordinate the English military-industrial complex makes him invaluable to the war effort. Poirot, though, refuses to put the logic which later led to such entities as multinational corporations and superpowers ahead of his responsibility to the individual, particularly the innocent victims of Blunt's crimes. Refusing to submit to Blunt's rhetoric of "expertise" and "professionalism," Poirot exposes his criminality, leaving the way for Jane and the now-exonerated Raikes to marry. Here, far from being expelled or eliminated at the end of the social renovation accompanying the solution of the mystery, the Marxist outsider is integrated into the ongoing order, whereas the corporate magnate is expelled. There may be some residual quietism, some cooptation, in the vista of the revolutionary being integrated so eagerly into the domestic life, but Poirot's words at the end, "In your new world, my children, let there be freedom and let there be pity," indicate a real willingness on the part of the detective, and the authorial function he replicates in the novel, not to rule out any promise to be gained from social change and reform. In fact, it is the very qualifier Christie puts on the ending by the stock device of marriage that makes the conclusion as interesting and tentative as it is. By guiding her books to such a comic close, Christie high-lights their fictiveness, and makes clear that these endings can only be partial, that we are not to take them conclusively, but rather as provisional ways to give shape to a book, a plot, a life.

Christie's detectives operate crucially in orchestrating these plots. Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot delight in assuming ridiculous, caricature like disguises only to reveal a surprising potency as the books move on. They depend on an innocuous facade not only to lull those about them into a false sense of security but also to surprise the reader with their almost ruthless perspicacity. Because disguised as a harmless old English tabby, or as a humorously Belgian rather than dangerously French elf, Christie's detectives astonish the reader and the other characters with their mental and imaginative powers. The grotesque exaggeration involved in the characterization of, say, Poirot (for one thing, it is very unlikely that a Belgian emigré could ever become the leading practitioner of a method of critical investigation conducted in the English language) means that his character is more or less fixed. This does lead us to invidious comparisons with the detectives of hard-boiled writers such as Raymond Chandler, whose detective is altered by what he investigates and renounces his own assumptions of epistemological supremacy, an aspect that has been interestingly developed by several practitioners of the metaphysical detective story. But rather than make the "depth" of these detectives a master term, it might be more profitable to simply grant the hard-boiled model its ontological complexity, the classical model its tropological density, that is to say its multiplicity of rhetorical moves, and let them coexist. The tropological density, in its foregrounding of the constructed, linguistic nature of the text, indeed does not allow the classical model's characters to be as "deep" as those of the hardboiled model. Again, this need not be counted as a defect. For indeed, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot are not just empty containers, but central plot-functions operating in a legitimate and interesting mode of discourse. Both detectives take as their characteristic mode acting a part that protects and serves the detecting self hidden "inside," a subterfuge which persuades the criminal as well as the reader into believing that the detective will present no significant challenge, has no convincing authority—an illusion always pierced by book's end, when the authority of the detective is subtly, but thoroughly affirmed. Both of Christie's major detectives become, as their careers unfold, more stylized, more purely plot functions; unlike many later detectives, their lives do not particularly change from story to story.

Christie found the masked quality of her detectives' selves somehow fascinating, this intriguing quality having less to do with the souls of the detectives than with their minds. The classical model is, preeminently, a cerebral, ratiocinative one. Most critics have denounced this cerebrality as being in some way oppressive and limited. But Christie, instead of focusing on the cerebral or rational as structures of normative containment, as they are portrayed by the advocates of the Romantic celebration of the expressive will, calls attention to precisely the way in which the cerebral and the ratiocinative are unusual, weird, preternatural. In doing this, she is only following the tradition of Poe, the explorer of the turbid underside of the psyche who was also lured by the strangely similar obverse presented by the intellect in the shining excess of its power. Possessed of a cerebrality that is as out-of-the-ordinary as any criminal impulse, Christie's detectives function not only to discover crime, but to possess a peculiar empathy with the criminal sensibility.

The emotional undercurrent of this central revelation in Christie's work always suggests an element of the uncanny. Like Christie's detectives, Christie's villains employ the "typical" selves they present to others in order to conceal what they prize as their true nature, relying on what Goffman has called "normal appearances" to allay suspicion. Christie's villains are shown to hide an incivility, an "imperfect socialization" that amounts to a truncated humanity and indicates a dangerous fragility in the social nexus that had heretofore been an important ingredient in creating the fully human self. The "surprise ending" of a Christie mystery turns not only on the discrepancy between role and "real self," but on our trust (always misplaced) that people are fully identical with the repertoire of roles which constitute their participation in society. On the contrary, people who appear to be generic figures, such as the Sweet Little Old Lady, the Fetching Young Mother, the Helpful Policeman, the Adorable Child, the Good Doctor, not to mention the Great Detective himself, are exposed in Christie's fiction as deliberately flattened by roles that trick us into discounting them as murder suspects. A characteristic Christie embodiment of this surprise is the plot device called "the double bluff," in which a character is initially suspected of the murder, exonerated, and then turns out in the end to have committed the crime, or, alternately, where a character who has been seen by the reader exclusively as a potential victim of a crime, is in fact the perpetrator.

Christie did this many times, but never more skillfully, as Robert Barnard (Christie's finest successor in the classical mode) and others have noted, than in Peril at End House (1932). Nick Buckley, an attractive young woman, appears to be the victim of a crime that has "mistakenly" been perpetrated on a relative with a similar name. Poirot makes an exhaustive (almost, we might say, Nevile Strange-like) outline of possible suspects, even allowing for an unknown, but does not include Nick at all. Nick, in being exempted from the list of suspects, becomes an authorial surrogate with whom both reader and, seemingly, author identify. We are led to believe that it is as unlikely for Nick to have been the murderer as it is for Poirot, or for that matter, Agatha Christie, to have committed the crime. But in the end, Nick indeed turns out to be the criminal. By carefully arranging for herself to seem the victim, she has allied herself with the detective, with the forces of authority, hoping thus to evade the otherwise incriminating circumstances. The winning aspect of this trick is its exploration of the ideas of sameness and difference—we expect the murderer to be someone different from the bluffing figure, when it turns out it has been the bluffer all the while. Thus the bluffer is at once a different person from the one whom we saw as the murderer, but the same person as "the murderer" really is. Although Nick asserts her own difference from herself, this is a mask that is ultimately exposed by Poirot.

But where, we might ask, does this leave Poirot? Poirot, and, with him, Christie, has bluffed his way through the case much as has Nick. Just as Nick turns out to have really been the murderer all the while, so has Poirot turned out to have really known she was the murderer for at least a significant amount of time. Poirot shares the same delight in saying "I know something you don't know," the love of pulling rabbits out of a hat when the reader least expects it, as does the criminal. Both of them operate on a perceived confusion between mask and reality, a confusion which they think they can solve, but which others cannot. Finally, the most important difference between them is that Poirot's solution wins out (i.e., is fictionally successful) and Nick's does not.

Yet Christie's detectives do not always operate with this degree of cynicism and false self-presentation. One of Christie's most deft triumphs is the way she gives her detectives a positive social and psychological function, in a way despite themselves, although Miss Marple is far more socially assimilated than the always-bizarre Poirot. The role of the detective adumbrates a kind of benign association of self and society in which the self operates within social structures, but avails itself of those very structures in order to guarantee its own privacy. It is in this respect that Christie's modernism is not only that of the classical, ironic Hulme, Lewis, or Eliot, but also partakes of the humanistic modernism associated with the Bloomsbury group, with its emphasis on the interweave between self and society. In this tradition, established by Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster and in many respects continued by postwar work in British psychoanalysis such as the "object-relations" theories of D.W. Winnicott, the self is neither whole nor splintered. It is a constructed personality that, although it is not "natural," is the product of cultivation and invention, is yet capable of affirming its own condition. The self in this model is not self-engendered, but can build outward from the foundations provided for it. This view of the self is compatible with Christie's tendency to elucidate other "selves" besides the Self celebrated by existentialism, which inherited Romantic views of the stark, isolate ego confronting the abyss.

Christie is interested in selves who are less than "whole" selves, who are on the margins not only of society but also of selfhood. Thus her extraordinary interest in (and depiction of) old people and children, two categories that are hardly capable of pretending to operate outside a social nexus, yet within that nexus add perceptions and states of being that by their idiosyncrasy make all selves more aware of the nature of their selfhood. It is therefore no accident that Lewis Carroll is the most often quoted author in Christie's stories, not merely as a result of a shared interest in games and puzzles, but a shared sense that ordinary life is only to be found on the obvious, transparent side of the looking glass, and that a more unpredictable and unconventional reality is lurking under the surface of things. As with Lewis Carroll, noted for an interest in young children that in many minds went past affection into a subversive identification, Christie's children, as well as her old people, are not merely cute and innocent, but threateningly raw and inchoate. The image of the child, especially in the light of the child-murderers in books like Crooked House (1949), Hallowe'en Party (1969), and At Bertram's Hotel, is not idyllic, but exposes the "pre-rational" condition of children as a threat to the stability and order of the soi-disant adult world. This is yet another image of the self that hardly conforms to the heroic autonomous agent so prized in the post-Romantic tradition, a tradition continued by hard-boiled detectives such as Chandler's Philip Marlowe, whose cynicism and despair only serve to underline his existential prowess.

Christie's interest in new aspects of the self attends not only to the substance of the self but to the means of its representation. Christie, rather like Virginia Woolf, often experiments with points of view, and her frequent use of third-person indirect speech to represent the thoughts of a character often verges on interior monologue. Ten Little Indians (1939), among other books, offers many examples in which the conscious self's representation is whittled away to its fragmentary components as relentlessly as the "inexorable diminishment" (to use the wording of Justice Wargrave himself) that overtakes the characters isolated on Indian Island. But this access to inner speech does not lead to full existential interiority. It is just one of a number of modes of representation, not privileged as a wellspring of "real" emotion. The insight Christie has shown into the self's constructed, masked nature thus gains a complex reciprocity. It can reveal the self's hidden strengths and aspirations as much as it can expose its pretensions and self-delusions. This process is troped by the detective figure in Christie's fiction, who often operates as a paratherapist, someone whose function is not only to solve a crime but to construct a viable personal solution out of the aftermath of that crime.

A paradigmatic instance of this dual process is found in the underrated late novel Third Girl (1966). In this book, Norma Restarick, ostensibly the "third girl" of the title, is deceived by a man claiming to be her father into believing that she has committed a crime which she is not, psychologically or logistically, capable of committing. As it turns out, not only is the man who claims to be her father truly responsible, he has done it with the aid of his wife, who has assumed the disguise of one of Norma's two roommates. Norma had previously seen herself as the "third girl," the extra wheel, the person who did not fully understand herself or know her own identity. But as the result of Poirot's investigations, the ersatz roommate is revealed to be the "third girl"—it was she who had always been the enigma, the unknown quantity. Norma is ostensibly at the end of the book her own "first girl"; she has finally come to an appropriate centering of her own private identity. But it is important to say "private" rather than "personal" because Norma does not come to this solution wholly through her own efforts, but with the aid of others—thus "private," with its secondary connotation of "privation," in the sense of a selfhood needing others in order to be fully complete.

The term "Third Girl" has an intriguing resemblance to the Lacanian idea of the "Third Term," the agent of language and the symbolic that disrupts the narcissistic stability of the child-mother dyad. At the beginning of the book Norma is embroiled in a welter of emotional confusion that is a residue of her parents' early divorce and her marred girlhood. By the end, Norma is delivered from this nightmarish crypt, but it is the price of this delivery that her comfortable idealizations of her parents and her past are shattered, and that she is ushered into her future not only emancipated from her past but barred from its shelter. Thus there is even at the end a bit of "thirdness," a psychological position in which the autonomous, self-sustaining ego is prohibited from a fully clear intuitive self-knowledge and subject to the compromises of discourse, culture, and other "selves," even in the midst of Norma's recovered "firstness." In bringing about this conclusion, Poirot, as the representative of the symbolic order, acts as the Lacanian "Name of the Father." This is a principle that simultaneously privileges the phallic potency of the dominant male order yet reveals it as ontologically empty, of an only procedural rather than substantial nature. Poirot's combination of absolute authority and lack of any "deep" personality makes him the ideal vehicle for this phallic disruption-and-reconstitution.

One of the chief helpers in this recuperative process in Third Girl is Dr. John Stillingfleet, a friend of Poirot's whom the detective asks to help him on the case, and who at the conclusion of the book marries Norma and goes with her to Australia. It is revealed at the end that this was no accident; Poirot has manipulated the meeting of Norma and Stillingfleet as much as he has manipulated the solution of the plot. Operating like a Euripidean deus ex machina, Poirot at once ministers to the psychological needs of those involved in his investigation, yet braids and threads them into his solution as tidily as he does the criminals themselves. Christie movingly and humanistically represents emotional pathos, yet is confident that these emotions can be assimilated into the discursive framework of society, although not in a way that would conclusively solve the dilemmas they pose. This is vouchsafed by her portrayal of Dr. Stillingfleet. Unlike Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, where the psychologist who treats the war veteran Septimus Smith, Dr. Bradshaw, is an insensitive lout whose only interest is in maintaining, in a manner that would not have surprised Michel Foucault, the order and technique of his discipline, Stillingfleet is interested in his patient on a human level, not merely as a specimen for "scientific" practice. This reflects advances in therapeutic technique from the 1920s to the 1960s, advances which Woolf would not only have understood but in a way helped bring about. Yet it also demonstrates that Christie, who, like Woolf, had times in her own life of considerable emotional turbulence, was capable of embodying that turbulence in fiction. Christie's linguistic devices give access to a serious psychological introspection, without for a moment hailing this introspection as a "truer" or more authentically expressive mode of writing than near-arbitrary plot puzzles. In the use of the detective as therapist and the therapist as agent of the detective in Third Girl, Christie demonstrates her sophistication by making sure that the emotional depths she illumines are framed reflexively in the formal dynamics of her narrative.

As we have seen, Christie's formalism, what her critics have called her "formulaic" qualities, ties her closely to the modernist movement. Her innovative, complicated, and humanistic view of the self is, far more than has been suspected, a surprisingly modern one, restraining and yet enriching the view of the self that had prevailed throughout the great European centuries that preceded Christie's own. That Christie is implicated in the modernist epistemological field to a far greater extent than has been supposed does not mean that her work represents assumptions which our present postmodern age can unquestioningly support. Now that modernism is a fully historicized phenomenon, though, we can appreciate the extent to which its assumptions and practices were reflected even in writers who are not commonly associated with the avant-garde or the abyss. And Christie's work does not demonstrate these practices mechanically or reductively. However deft her formulas are as tropes, she often, as in Third Girl and many other places, evades them by manifesting an illative thrust, a going-inside that is underwritten by the maneuverability provided by her formulas' rich narrative strategies. As in Greimas' semiotics of action, the fact that her characters are less inner voices than rhetorical actors bestows upon rhetorical action a semantic complexity that enables it to express the various aspects of human action that are likely to occur in a narrative plot. Christie exemplifies this process in a flexible way that allows us momentary empathy with the actions of her plots without ever permitting us to forget that these actions are embedded in a linguistic field. This flexible going-inside is exhibited in a context not explicitly mentioning Christie at all, namely one of the classic postmodern explorations of the detective story, Frank Kermode's essay "Novel and Narrative," first published in 1974, in which an analysis of E. C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case (1912) plays a prominent role. Kermode uses this novel, one of Christie's most important precursors in the classical detective paradigm, as a test case for the kinds of narrative criticism pioneered by structuralism; already sensing, in his own way, the poststructuralist tide, Kermode gently stresses that even in so code and "formula" dominated a novel as this one, there is still maneuvering room. The formulas used by Bentley do not constrict, yet lead to significance and exchange of meaning. Kermode has his mind very much on issues of literary theory here, and his respectful diminution of the heuristic potential of structuralism, which in the light of its historical replacement tends increasingly to be parodied and underread, may need to be revised. Yet his treatment of Bentley is exemplary for the kind of sophisticated, unbegrudging approach to the detective form needed in the coming years.

At the beginning of his discussion of Bentley, Kermode quotes the famous first sentence of the book, "Between what matters and what seems to matter, how shall the world we know judge wisely?" The interpretive effort required of the "world" of the detective story, that is the detective, the author who writes the detective, and the reader who reads the writing, is not a matter of mere differentiation, of telling the good from the bad, the orderly from the disorderly, as Christie's denigrators have so often implied. Rather, we are asked not only to judge, but to judge wisely. Christie's formal subtleties, her fractured yet resonant selves, and her often-brilliant modernism demand the kind of treatment that their complexity solicits. Christie asks that her readers judge her wisely.

Gary Day (essay date 1990)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6805

SOURCE: "Ordeal by Analysis: Agatha Christie's The Thirteen Problems," in Twentieth-Century Suspense: The Thriller Comes of Age, Macmillan, 1990, pp. 80-95.

[In the following essay, Day discusses the structure of The Thirteen Problems, refuting many commonly held beliefs about the simplicity of the formulaic mystery novel.]

Critics of the detective story have commented that its appeal lies less in characterization than in the solution of a problem. Jacques Barzun writes that 'detection rightly keeps character subordinate' while George Grella comments 'that the central puzzle provides the form's chief appeal'. Generally, characters are types who perform specific functions and only the detective is allowed to be interesting.

This description derives from a certain view of the detective story as formula, and considering it on that basis it is fairly sound. However, it does beg certain questions, the most obvious being whether the majority of readers are really motivated by the intellectual pleasures attendant on successfully discovering who did it. Do they really read so attentively as to register every clue and check every alibi or is it more a case of simply wanting to know? And is this desire for knowledge, roused by the detective story, satisfied by the detective story?

There is less quarrel with the view that there is little characterization in the detective story but this does not mean that elements of characterization do not have a part to play in it. In Agatha Christie's The Thirteen Problems—which is the text on which this essay will focus—Miss Marple's combination of fluster and flair, of strength and vulnerability, together with her respectability all serve to legitimate the reader's interest in murder. Miss Marple's presence and her unerring ability to solve what has perplexed everyone else somehow removes those qualities from murder which excite the reader's forbidden desires, sublimating them instead into acceptable curiosity.

Characterization can thus work like the censor in dreams, which ensures that repressed material only gains access to consciousness in a distorted form. The village where Miss Marple lives may be of significance in this context, since its name, Saint Mary Mead, suggests mediation, compromise between two opposing forces. To see Miss Marple in this light, however, is somewhat ironic since it implies that she enables the expression of anti-social desires to which her bringing criminals to justice would suggest she was opposed.

It is only through its relation to crime that Miss Marple's character is important, for with her sense of duty and respect for hierarchy she evokes a bygone age of contentment and tranquillity. The stories in The Thirteen Problems reassure the reader that life, despite its chaos and uncertainty, is really a very ordered affair. This reassurance stems not only from Miss Marple and the world she inhabits but also from the structure of the stories. Another word for this structure is formula, and however critics may disagree over what constitutes this formula they are in little doubt that the detective story follows one of some kind.

One of the most clearly identifiable formulae is to be found in the 1920s and 1930s, the so-called Golden Age of detective fiction, which was when The Thirteen Problems was published. George Grella has listed the main characteristics of the detective short story in this period. He says that it involves 'a group of people assembled at an isolated place—usually an English country house—who discover that one of their number has been murdered'. The situation is complicated, Grella continues, by there being either no clues, or too many, and by the fact that 'everyone or no one has had the means, motive and opportunity to commit the crime, and nobody seems to be telling the truth'. Eventually, the problem is resolved by the superior reasoning powers of the amateur detective, and this sequence, claims Grella 'describes almost every formal detective novel'. It is certainly an adequate, if not entirely accurate, description of the stories in The Thirteen Problems.

Behind Grella's taxonomy is a concern with what constitutes the aesthetic of the detective story, and implicit in a great deal of critical writing on the detective story is the assumption that its formula is in some sense its aesthetic. Discussion thus takes the form of asking whether it is plausible, whether it deploys the right conventions and whether the author plays fair with the reader.

This is particularly likely to happen in discussions of texts written in the Golden Age, but critics can hardly be blamed for this when the Detection Club, founded in 1928, at first for writers but then also for readers, made adherence to its rules of how to write a detective story a matter of principle. Debates about rules and aesthetic categories, however, run the risk of ignoring how detective stories articulate the times in which they are written. Exactly how they do this is something of a problem. Do they simply reflect history or do they have a more dynamic relationship with it?

The Thirteen Problems gives information about the period in which it was written concerning furniture, household organization, eating and leisure habits, class and the position of women. The passive presentation of those details underlines the tranquillity of the world of which they are a part. However, that tranquillity is disturbed elsewhere in the text by a troubled awareness of the difference between the past and the present. For example, Colonel Bantry remarks that it's the done thing 'nowadays—to be brutal and outspoken; but I never get used to it' ('The Blue Geranium'). This sort of awareness means that the village and its inhabitants cannot always function as a symbol of contentment. Indeed that quality is predicated on its being 'untouched by civilization' ('The Four Suspects'). But this remark has little meaning given that Miss Marple finds a village parallel for every incident that happens outside of it. Through this process the village may come to represent that dark criminality to which it is intended as a contrast. The text seems less aware of this problem than it does of the gap between past and present. It deals. with this troubling perception of historical change, which it is trying to exclude, by parodying the character who comments on it—hence Colonel Bantry is bluff and avuncular but also slow witted.

The pressure of history can be felt in what a text excludes as well as in what it includes. What The Thirteen Problems excludes is the social and economic context of the crimes which are the subject of the stories the characters tell one another. Crime is seen to be the result of 'weak moral fibre' ('The Tuesday Night Club'). The general assumption of The Thirteen Problems is that human beings are responsible for their actions and so if they break the law they should be punished. Thus Miss Marple thinks that it is 'a good job' that Sanders was hanged for murdering his wife and she adds 'I have never regretted my part in bringing that man to justice. I've no patience with modern humanitarian scruples about capital punishment' ('A Christmas Tragedy').

Where social and economic considerations do enter a story it is only as background and the reader is discouraged from making any causal connections. Hence, although Amy Durrant was 'wretchedly poor' and money 'was wanted desperately' she is nevertheless regarded as a 'woman, completely lacking … in some moral sense' ('The Companion'). Her desire to relieve her own and her family's poverty and the offhandedness of her rich relation are regarded as irrelevant factors when it comes to understanding why she murdered the relation. The curious thing here is that though the social and economic context is juxtaposed with the crime it is not offered as a way of understanding the crime. Despite the clear part it plays in the crime it is there only to be rejected as something which might have had a possible influence upon it. In this respect the text is at odds with itself for it denies what it so clearly shows.

This disregard for other factors in the determination of behaviour, apart from choice, separates The Thirteen Problems and other detective stories from the kind of thinking about society which can be found, for example, in the works of John Galsworthy. Such thinking accepted that environment could affect behaviour and it was more characteristic of the late 1920s than the assumptions of detective stories written in the same period.

This failure to take cognisance of the social and economic context of actions flouts Miss Marple's guiding rule that one should always 'face facts' ('A Christmas Tragedy'). Miss Marple scrutinizes the facts in conjunction with her knowledge of, among other things, clothes, flowers, poisons and 'the habits of gardeners'. Hers is thus an empirical approach, yet it bears little relation to her beliefs about human nature, which are what she ultimately relies on when it comes to solving a crime. The text asks us to accept that Miss Marple's beliefs have a foundation in fact, but this is obviously not the case since she denies that social and economic factors can influence action, even though this was known to be true at the time this collection was published. The Thirteen Problems offers a false relationship as true and a true relationship as false, and it is in this confused thinking that it shows its relationship to the times in which it was written. Miss Marple's beliefs are not rooted in fact, and this inconsistency undermines the premise of all detective fiction—to go by the evidence. In not going by the evidence the stories in this collection tacitly announce themselves as fiction, a point to which I shall return.

The ambiguous attitude to facts in The Thirteen Problems represents a change in the detective story which arose as a response to a new perception of the city as a place of darkness and poverty, in addition it was felt to be undifferentiated and inhabited by swarming masses. Raymond Williams argues that this society produced a new way of seeing, as exemplified in the writing of Charles Booth. This 'deliberate impersonality' and 'systematic tabulation' were typical of the empirical vision which brought some order to the otherwise confused sense of 'a civilization of this scale and complexity'. This was expressed in a number of ways in fiction, one of them being the detective story with its emphasis on observation and facts.

From this it can be seen that The Thirteen Problems not only excludes its contemporary history but also its own literary history, and this seems doubly ironic for a form which is so committed to reconstructing the past as it was since that it is the only way to solve a crime successfully. The Thirteen Problems represents a move away from the tradition Williams describes, firstly by being set in a village, secondly by its conflicting treatment of facts and thirdly by the loss of distance and impersonality. In this connection Miss Marple notes that living in a village gives her 'opportunities and leisure for seeing [human nature] at closer quarters' ('The Companion').

Despite the lip service paid to the primacy of facts, they are often shown to be of secondary importance. This had to do with a distinction Miss Marple makes between 'knowing' and 'knowledge'. She says, for example, that she knows who murdered Rose Emmott though she admits she hasn't 'got any—what you might call knowledge' ('Death by Drowning'), where knowledge is to be understood as facts; 'I have no facts' she remarks in the same story. The facts she lacks both in this story and in 'A Christmas Tragedy'—'I knew' she says, 'but there was no proof'—eventually appear to support what she already knows. Miss Marple does not build up an interpretation from the facts, she uses the facts to confirm the interpretation. The facts are shown to be an effect of her knowing which is the cause. It is clear from this that facts never extend knowledge in the stories, they only endorse it.

This conservative use of facts is perfectly consistent with Miss Marple's belief that 'one thing [is] very like another in this world' ('The Bloodstained Pavement'). She solves each problem by reference to some incident in her village. Thus she is able to solve the problem of how Mrs Jones was murdered because it reminds her of 'old Mr Hargreaves' ('The Tuesday Night Club'). 'This story,' she remarks 'made me think of him at once'. One effect of this outlook is that it closes the gap between past and present which occasionally troubles the text, for it demonstrates that nothing has happened which has not, in some sense, happened already. The reassurance that these stories give about the ultimate order of life is based on repetition; without that repetition there would be no reassurance, and yet what is repeated is crime. Perversely, crime comes to reassure perhaps because crime allows things to be known and without crime nothing can be known. The crime reveals the criminal and in doing so promises a world that can be known but somehow always escapes knowledge, chiefly because of the contradictions implicit in the process of discovering the criminal. Besides, it is very difficult to acquire knowledge when it is assumed that the body of knowledge is complete; an assumption inherent in Miss Marple's claim that 'human nature is … the same in a village as anywhere else' ('The Companion'). Such a statement generates a picture of a world that can never be disrupted because nothing new or different can ever happen in it.

In addition to her beliefs about human nature and the importance of facts, another aspect of Miss Marple's approach to a problem is her idea that everything should fit together. When it does, that is a guarantee that she has found the correct solution. 'I was absolutely sure [that this solution] was the correct one because all the pieces fitted in logically' ('The Thumb Mark of Saint Peter'). However, it is not a matter of the facts generating their own pattern, rather it is that they fit into the pre-existent one of village life. Thus logic reveals itself as analogy and something that appears to be one thing is really another. This is a fundamental feature of all these stories and it suggests that perhaps the real movement of the detective story consists in this slippage of meaning and not in the disclosure of who did it.

Through being compared to incidents in the village, crime is eventually displaced from the centre of these stories. Instead it becomes an illustration of village life. In this way, crime loses its primordial purity as a thing in itself and comes to represent other things; it becomes, in a sense, the story of other things. Crime has moved from being the signified in the stories to being a signifier, and nothing has replaced it in its former capacity. The representation of the village by crime and vice versa show that the village is so identified with criminality that it can hardly function as an image of repose. Miss Marple does not solve a crime so much as displace it to the village; her method-if it can be called that-does not cast crime out of her world but situates it in the centre of it.

Miss Marple's outlook on life is nourished by her religious beliefs: 'when I am in really bad trouble', she remarks, 'I always say a little prayer to myself…. And I always get an answer' ('The Thumb Mark of Saint Peter'). She also believes that 'The hand of God is everywhere' (ibid.). Since this is the case then the plot of each story fits into the divine pattern in the same way that crime fitted into the pattern of village life. Like the village analogy, the divine provides a common reference point so that apparently different experiences can be shown to be the same. The divine narrative authorizes and guarantees the village narrative; it also ensures that if the law fails, justice does not. 'You say crime goes unpunished; but does it? Unpunished by the law perhaps; but cause and effect work outside the law … every crime brings its own punishment' ('The Four Suspects'). Nothing, it seems, can exist outside these interlocking narratives.

The contradictions in Miss Marple's approach to crime reveal that what is happening in the stories is that the language of science is being used as the language of religion; fact comes to mean faith and logical order comes to mean providential order. The Thirteen Problems uses the language of science to validate religious truths in the same moment that it rejects purely religious terminology and the body of science. The Thirteen Problems dismisses a scientific approach to problems yet uses the language of science to support its own views of those problems, and thus it legitimates what it tries to repress. It is possible to see in this conflict The Thirteen Problems thinking through an issue that was current in the time it was written: are social problems the result of environment or individual will? The stories subscribe to the latter view but, at times, the language they use is more consistent with the former.

There are other contradictions in The Thirteen Problems, all of which act to destabilize the meanings of the text producing, on the one hand, indeterminacy and, on the other, the text's consciousness of itself as fiction. One of these contradictions concerns rumor or gossip which is seen as 'idle' ('The Tuesday Night Club'). Rumor is viewed as pernicious talk without foundation or substance and it is therefore to be distinguished from the thoughtful, fact based discussions of the main characters as they try to solve the various crimes with which they are confronted. In direct contrast to this view of rumor, however, Miss Marple declares that 'tittle tattle' is often 'true' ('A Christmas Tragedy'). This kind of contradiction where rumor is both true and false means that it loses its meaning and becomes indeterminate along with other words like 'knowing', which is simultaneously dependent and independent of facts—another word whose meaning is in doubt.

Another contradiction in the stories concerns atmosphere. In trying to solve the problem of how Raymond Elliot was killed, Miss Marple observes that one should 'look … at the facts and disregard … all that atmosphere of heathen goddesses' ('The Idol House of Astarte') and yet it turns out that it was precisely the atmosphere of the place which caused the murderer to kill Raymond Elliot: what is rejected as irrelevant turns out to be vital—and perhaps this may have some bearing on the problem of the effect of the social and economic context mentioned earlier.

If atmosphere is both necessary and unnecessary in respect of solving a problem it is an essential requirement of most of the stories. According to Colonel Bantry, a proper story has two characteristics; embroidery and facts ('The Herb of Death') and Miss Marple has a similar dualistic view of stories as mysteries and solutions ('Death by Drowning'). Miss Marple's description of stories brings out a dimension which is missing from Colonel Bantry's, namely that they are problems to be solved and in that sense they both necessitate and engage an audience. Nevertheless, Miss Marple's idea of a story is roughly equivalent to his; and mystery and embroidery can both approximate to atmosphere. The dualistic view of the story contains a paradox, for without atmosphere the story would not be possible and yet the whole aim of the story is to brush aside the atmosphere and penetrate the mystery. Atmosphere and mystery provide setting and red herrings which create the possibility of misinterpretation, adding suspense and excitement before the real criminal is unmasked. At the same time, atmosphere and mystery may be regarded as embroidery, in that they interfere with a true picture of events, yet without that embroidery, without the delay it introduces, there would be no opportunity for Miss Marple to exercise her skills as a sleuth. It can be seen from this that the dualism on which the stories are based is a complex one. Atmosphere can be both fact and embroidery: the terms of the dualism thus bestride the dualism. It would be interesting to develop this idea in relation to embroidery. How, for example, does it relate to Miss Marple's habit of knitting? We rarely learn what she knits, which suggests that it is something inessential. Yet, at the same time, it serves to focus her mind on a problem. Miss Marple, who always looks for the facts is, through knitting, associated with embroidery, which is at once both inessential and yet seen as essential because it sharpens her powers of concentration.

The contradictions surrounding atmosphere and gossip as well as other terms in the book result in The Thirteen Problems becoming conscious of itself as a work of fiction. This is shown by various references to detective stories throughout the text. 'One would know better nowadays' comments Dr Pender 'owing to the prevalence of detective fiction' ('The Idol House of Astarte') and Miss Marple herself, who is referred to as the 'typical old maid of fiction' ('The Blue Geranium') remarks that it 'turned out to be the most unlikely person—just like in the detective stories' ('The Four Suspects'). These references play with the idea of real and not real in comparison to the detective stories to which they refer. Indeed the whole structure of the book, whereby characters present each other with problems to solve in the form of stories, is described by Miss Marple as 'a pleasant kind of game' ('Death by Drowning'). This sense of play and game may undermine the text's claim to pronounce on serious subjects such as human wickedness, but it does legitimize the merry-go-round of meaning which has been set in motion by the text's failure to cope with the requirements it has set itself. The game, however, does draw the reader in and encourage him or her to think, as the text would like to think, in terms of simple cause and effect; that is, who did what and why? In other words, the game suppresses what is most characteristic of the detective story, namely that everything has meaning and everything is connected. It does this because if the reader were to consider how everything is related in the stories, then they would be revealed, like the criminal, to be other than what they pretended to be. Thus the game may appear to celebrate the free play of meaning, but only so that it compels the reader to adhere more closely to the rule of one cause for one effect.

The game is the text's defence against redundancy, for if it is shown that it can never be anything other than fiction then, on its own terms, it has to be disregarded in the same way that Miss Marple disregards the storylike speculations of others as they struggle to make sense of a case. The dynamics of the game can never quite negate the playful references to detective stories: despite their common ancestry game and play in The Thirteen Problems ultimately seem to be in an antagonistic relationship. The failure to neutralize these references causes the text to signal, unmistakably, its fictional status and so its claim to be a discourse of truth and knowledge turns out to be a red herring. Indeed there seem to be only red herrings, and with this revelation the text exposes the emptiness of its attempt to deal with the historical problems, symbolized as murder, of character versus environment. It breaks up under the unbearable pressure of flying in the face of the evidence while insisting on the importance of it.

It has already been mentioned that the structure of The Thirteen Problems is that characters narrate problems in the form of stories which the audience have to solve. The bare structure of a group of people telling each other stories also applies to Boccaccio's The Decameron. Storytelling in The Decameron is a response to a crisis, the plague, which hit Florence in 1348. The narrators of the stories, seven women and three men, flee the city for neighboring villas where they remain for the next ten days to tell their tales. It is possible to see The Thirteen Problems as a response to a crisis too, for the late 1920s saw the intensification of problems of poverty and unemployment which would last right up to the outbreak of the Second World War. These problems aggravated consciousness of divisions in society and led to talk, as well as fears, of social upheaval. A further parallel is that just as the narrators of The Decameron flee to a rural idyll so the narrators in The Thirteen Problems tell their tales in a countrified setting. While the response of both The Decameron and The Thirteen Problems to their respective historical periods seems to be an escape into storytelling, we have seen how, at least in the latter, the problems of history are not left behind so easily but rise like a spectre to haunt and even determine the text.

Another insight into the structure of these stories can be gained from examining the significance of the references to Scheherazade, which occur in both 'A Christmas Tragedy' and 'The Herb of Death'. Scheherazade escaped the death that was the usual fate of King Shahriyar's wives by telling him tales and interrupting each one at a dramatic point so that it could be continued the next evening. Here too storytelling is seen as a response to a crisis which gives the narrator a sense of urgency. The Thirteen Problems can certainly be seen as some kind of response to a crisis but whether or not there is an urgency about the narration remains, for the moment, an open question.

The first point to be made in moving from the structure of the book to a more detailed consideration of its narrative again concerns the instability of meaning; how distinctions dissolve and everything starts to merge so that criminal and detective become one. This process is similar to what Peter Brooks has to say about narrative generally, that it 'operates as a metaphor in its affirmation of resemblance … [and metaphor] is in this sense totalizing'. What seems to be happening in The Thirteen Problems is that narrative logic is overwhelmed by narrative movement; the former requires that everything remain distinct while the latter draws everything together, as Miss Marple does with her analogies—and perhaps also with her knitting which possibly 'knits up the ravell'd sleave of care' as well as the social fabric.

Miss Marple's habit of seeing events in terms of village incidents is not dissimilar to the totalizing power of metaphor which Brooks sees at work in narrative. To put it another way, Miss Marple's method is a mode of narrative, indeed is narrative or at least one part of it. It is not therefore something which she controls but something which controls her, along with all the other characters. Its attempts at totalization are manifested in the way that characters become more and more like one another as the stories progress. Miss Marple and Miss Helier are a case in point. They are different from one another in a number of ways, the most important being age, and yet they are similar in many respects. They both, for example, find it difficult to express themselves 'One wanders from the point' says Miss Marple ('A Christmas Tragedy'), a sentiment echoed by Miss Helier who remarks that 'One gets things mixed up' ('The Affair at the Bungalow'). Incidentally this similarity cuts across class boundaries for Gladys Linch, a servant, also finds it hard 'to keep to the point' ('The Tuesday Night Club'). The resemblance between Miss Marple and Miss Helier is strengthened by their both having the same christian name, Jane, as well as by their both being marginalized and humored by the company. In the end they appear more like than unlike.

Miss Marple's analogies, then, are similar to Brooks's description of how narrative operates as metaphor. However, narrative also needs metonymy without which it would lack movement. Metonymy is 'the figure of contiguity and combination, the figure of syntagmatic relations'. As such it resembles Joseph Wood Krutch's description of the detective story as a 'perfectly concatenated series of events'. Brooks, following Lacan, equates metonymy and desire and claims that 'desire must be considered the very motive of narrative, its dynamic principle'. This desire, says Brooks is a desire for the end—of a novel, a poem or a play—for the end 'eventually has to do with a human end, with death'. Here Brooks refers to Walter Benjamin's idea that what we seek in fictions is the knowledge of death which is denied us in our own lives. Perhaps this might explain the appeal of detective fiction, which gives a knowledge of death in the form of the murderer's identity; knowledge of death, in other words, is displaced to become a knowledge of the killer, whose unmasking usually ends the story.

Desire, according to Brooks, is what initiates narrative and propels it forward. That desire seeks discharge but, adds Brooks, it must be the right discharge for 'improper end[s] … lurk … throughout narrative … as the wrong choice'. What ensures the correct discharge is repetition. This binds textual energy, defined as 'all that is aroused into expectancy and possibility in a text', in order to make its final discharge the more effective. These bindings, Brooks explains, 'are a system of repetitions which are returns to and returns of, confounding the movement forward to the end with a movement back to origins … offering the possibility (or the illusion) of "meaning" wrested from "life"'.

The desire that keeps narrative moving 'can never quite speak its name', hence narrative is condemned 'to saying other than what it would mean'. This idea of narrative being compelled to say something other than what it would mean can be applied, in a limited way, to The Thirteen Problems. At the very simple level the idea of desire not being able to speak its name finds its parallel in those stories where the narrator is unable to explain what has happened, 'I can't give you [the] solution' says Raymond West ('Ingots of Gold'). It is precisely this desire for an end that begins his story but he does not recognise this claiming instead that his desire is for the 'curious' and 'interesting' (ibid.). More importantly, however, nearly all the narrators experience difficulty in telling their stories for if they manage to keep to the point they may suffer interruptions from others which might cause them to digress. In 'The Blue Geranium' Mrs Bantry cuts in on her husband as he is about to describe Mrs Pritchard's room '"You'd better let me do that", interrupted Mrs Bantry'. This leads to a digression on flowers and it is some moments before Colonel Bantry can resume his tale. By contrast Dr Lloyd finds it so difficult to keep to the point that his audience mistake the subject of his story: '"Go on", said Mrs Bantry … "I love stories about sinuous Spanish dancers" … "I'm sorry", said Dr Lloyd … "this story isn't about the Spanish woman"' ('The Companion'). Even Miss Marple admits that she is 'very inclined to become rambling' ('A Christmas Tragedy'). The interruptions, digressions, irrelevancies and ramblings all suggest that the text is trying to say something other, something different to the clear statement of who committed the crime and why, which is what it actually says.

It might be argued that these various meanderings represent the wrong choices or the improper ends of desire's discharge and it will be remembered that Brooks claims these wrong choices are avoided by repetition. In this case, however, these improper ends occur so often that they take on the nature of repetition, which as well as binding also signifies a desire for the end, a desire, comments Brooks 'to be heard, recognized, understood, which, never wholly satisfied or indeed satisfiable, continues to generate the desire to tell, the effort to enunciate a significant version of the life story in order to captivate a possible listener'. It is this desire that seems to motivate the narrators of the stories which make up The Thirteen Problems.

These stories are less about the problems than about the characters who tell them. Each story seems to reflect its narrator in some way, direct or indirect. Dr Lloyd, for example, who appears a somewhat isolated figure fittingly tells a story called 'The Companion', while Joyce Lenpriere, the artist, tells a story which shows how, as an artist, she is more sensitive than other people and hence is able to see the bloodstains on the pavement which her companion does not: 'I knew—I knew that he wouldn't see what I was seeing' ('The Bloodstained Pavement'). Although the stories seem to be an extension of the characters—and therefore autobiographical—the characters are only, for the most part, indirectly involved in the actions they describe. This suggests their alienation from the desire which tries to use them to name itself as they try to use it to name themselves. The failure of desire to name or be named condemns it to repetition.

Failure to name or be named by desire means that the narrators look to their audience to be recognized and understood. The accounts they give themselves, which are vague and rambling and seem to be about something else, evoke the analytic situation, where the patient gives an equally elliptical account of his or her experience in the hope that the analyst will be able to understand it, and give it a new significance which will free the patient from the compulsion to repeat it. To put it another way, the narrators recount a problem for others to solve in the same way that the patient recounts a problem for the analyst to solve. The solution of the problem will confer recognition and understanding and bring an end to the repetition of desire. What is required to solve the problem is a discourse which is free of the problems that entangle the very conditions of story. However, the only discourse on offer is Miss Marple's, which is simply another story (since her solutions are only village anecdotes).

While some narrators like Raymond West do not know the solution of the puzzle they give their audience, others do. However this solution is only a solution to a displaced problem and is therefore not a real solution. What these narrators seem to require is that they be confirmed in what they already know but as everything in The Thirteen Problems is known in terms of something else nothing can be known for what it is; for example, Sir Ambrose and his ward are 'like Mr Badger and his young housekeeper' ('The Herb of Death'). What the analogous discourse of Miss Marple confirms therefore is the analogous discourse of the speaker: desire is confirmed in its displacement but it is precisely because it is displaced that it continues to solicit recognition, proving that the solutions in these stories are really no solutions at all. In contrast to the displacements of the various narrators' stories are the confessions of the criminals which are referred to in a number of stories. These are straight statements of identity, declarations of self, which the narrators never achieve in their stories. Thus the former are recognized and understood for what they are in a way that the latter are not. It is almost as though crime gives an opportunity to declare one's identity—an opportunity denied to the narrators themselves. The desire for recognition is most clearly fulfilled in the figure of the criminal who is known for what he or she is, either through discovery or confession. And perhaps it is for this reason that the criminal is cast out, because he or she is a reminder of the fulfillment the narrative cannot have.

One story which seems to bring together, though not in a very coherent way, the problems inherent in the narrator's discourse with the spontaneous confession of the criminal is 'The Affair at the Bungalow'. It is narrated by Jane Helier who, as has been mentioned, has the same Christian name as Miss Marple and her identity blurs even more when it is realised that she is an actress. Thus far she is partially obscured like the other narrators. However, she differs from them in a number of ways. To begin with, despite being an actress she cannot disguise the fact that she is the person referred to in her story. But this failure actually serves to mask her more completely for no one, except Miss Marple, and then only with difficulty, recognizes her in the story as the parlourmaid, just as no one recognizes any of the other narrators in their stories. The difference here, however, is that her relation to her story has been made an issue whereas with the other narrators it has not. To complicate matters even more she is going to expose another woman, to show her as she really is but she can only do this by performing a criminal act of stealing some jewels. The final twist in the tale is that none of this has happened yet. This allows her to confess like a criminal without actually being one.

This story dramatizes the play between concealment and revelation, desire and recognition, without bringing the issues to any conclusion. In that sense it is the 'truest' story in the collection, for it highlights what the spurious solutions of the others disguise—the unquenchable possibility of meaning. The repetitions within and across the stories bind the sort of energy that animates 'The Affair at the Bungalow' in order that desire can be discharged correctly, to use Brooks's terminology. That desire is discharged in the moment the criminal's identity is made known, a revelation which confers meaning and therefore order on the preceding narrative with its false clues and red herrings. However, this end cannot quite contain those other possibilities which seem to want to say something other than become another repetition demanding a different kind of recognition. Thus as the stories end they are renewed; the necessity for telling stories knows no cessation, it compels narrators in the same way that it compelled Scheherazade. She and they confront death either in situ or in story the better to be rooted in life, which is simply another way of saying the better to be hard, recognized and understood.

Perhaps the final thoughts should come from Miss Marple:

'Has it every occurred to you', the old lady went on, 'how much we go by what is called, I believe, the context? There is a place on Dartmoor called Grey Wethers. If you were talking to a farmer there and mentioned Grey Wethers he would probably conclude that you were speaking of these stone circles yet it is possible that you might be speaking of the atmosphere; and in the same way, if you were meaning the stone circles, an outsider … might think you meant the weather. So when we repeat conversation, we don't, as a rule, repeat the actual words; we put in some other words that seem to us to mean exactly the same thing.' ('The Thumb Mark of Saint Peter')

The assumption exposed here that subjectivity is an inevitable part of discourse pre-empts any attempt to gain objective knowledge of the text in which it appears. At the same time, this rebounds back on the text necessarily revealing its subjective character, thereby undermining its privileged relation to truth. In this movement the text is freed from the single, unified meaning it tries to present and becomes, like Jane Helier's future, an open possibility. Incidentally, this view of Miss Marple's also shows the importance of context which elsewhere she denies.

This essay began with a brief consideration of the limitations of the formula approach to detective fiction before moving on to look specifically at The Thirteen Problems in terms of its structure, narrative and relation to history. This revealed that the apparently simple form of the detective short story can have both depth and complexity, unless of course Miss Marple is correct, which would mean that all the foregoing is just a creation of criticism and not a true picture of the thing itself. To sort that one out it is going to need a mind at least as astute as hers. It would certainly be one of the most difficult problems she has had to solve, and that is in no small part due to its being of her own making.

John Wren-Lewis (essay date May 1993)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3029

SOURCE: "Adam, Eve, and Agatha Christie," in The Chesterton Review, Vol. 19, No. 2, May, 1993, pp. 193-99.

[In the following essay, Wren-Lewis analyzes what the success of Christie's The Mousetrap reveals about changes in popular perceptions of sin and evil.]

The longest-running play in human history is now well into its forty-first year on the London stage. Agatha Christie's detective-thriller The Mousetrap, which celebrated the fortieth anniversary of its opening on November 25th last year, has now become almost a British National Monument. When I went to its opening night, to see the young Richard Attenborough playing the detective, we were still only just emerging from the shadows of World War Two. The possibility that forty years on I'd be in Australia wasn't in my mind then, but even more remote was any thought that the play could still be going near the end of the century. And I don't think the idea crossed anyone else's mind either; Agatha Christie herself, interviewed on the then-phenomenal occasion of the play's tenth anniversary, said she had expected a run of no more than three months and was greatly buoyed by the assurance of impressario Peter (now Sir Peter) Saunders that it was good for at least a year!

In fact the extraordinary success of this rather ordinary well-made play is itself something of a mystery, and the detective in me has been stimulated to investigate the reasons. In doing so, I've been led into some very deep waters of the human psyche, regions where psychology overlaps with anthropology and even theology, and to some insights about the underlying forces that make detective stories so fascinating, particularly, it seems, to people with religious interests. For it's not only English vicars who are notoriously "whodunnit" fans: Jiddu Krishnamurti, who read practically nothing else, delighted in them, and so did Carl Jung, who read almost everything else. Religious thinkers have also been prominent amongst the producers of the genre: G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers and Father Ronald Knox were co-founders, along with Agatha Christie, of London's famous Detection Club in the 1930s. And after Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, probably the most famous of all fictional detectives is a priest—Chesterton's Father Brown, who latterly has been joined on the shelves by several other persons of the cloth, such as Harry Kemmelman's Rabbi Small and Brother William of Baskerville in Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose.

Reflecting on these latter points, I began to scent something more than coincidence in the fact that the "whodunnit" is a fairly new literary phenomenon. Tales of good defeating evil after a struggle are probably as old as humanity, but until the second half of the nineteenth century, the age of Poe, Wilkie Collins and Conan Doyle, there were hardly any stories in which the struggle took the form of a mystery, with the unmasking of a hidden villain as the climax. The ascendancy of detective fiction as we know it coincides with the post-Darwinian period when, for the first time in human history, religious belief was declining sharply amongst the literate Western public. The detective emerged as a savior-image as people began to lose faith in those more traditional saviours, the holy man, the righteous ruler, and the knight in shining armor. And stories about evil as a mystery became popular as ancient myths about the so-called "problem of evil" began to seem discredited.

While public debate on "science versus religion" revolved around issues such as the conflict between new discoveries and the literal truth of bible-stories, the real cause, we now know, went deeper. Few serious thinkers in the Judao-Christian-Muslim tradition have ever been over-much concerned with the literal truth of the Adam and Eve story or the six-day timetable for creation, and the same holds for myths of origin in other religious traditions. The primary reference of such ideas has always been to the felt existential human situation, and that was what science in general and Darwinian science in particular seemed to have changed in a radical way, by undermining the notion of harmony as the basic characteristic of reality, for which metaphors such as Tao or Divine Purpose could be appropriate expressions, and replacing it with the principle of "nature red in tooth and claw." Human destructiveness needs no explanation if we are simply children of a universal struggle for survival: the only problem of evil in that case is the practical one of preventing the struggle from making life intolerable, and the best hope for doing that seemed to lie in developing the faculty of intellect, which was apparently where the wish for something better had entered the picture in the first place.

But evidently the feeling of evil as something out of tune with the general nature of things and requiring explanation wouldn't go away, for there grew up in the West this new addiction for stories in which an act of violence shatters a previously harmonious scene, causing waves of conflict and suspicion to spread everywhere until the new-style savior-figure, the detective, brings to bear a special kind of intelligence in ferreting out where the violence came from. Is this just a case of an outdated habit of thought lingering on in the form of popular entertainment, such as the myth of the Evil Demiurge surviving as the Demon King of pantomime? I think there's much more to it than that, for three reasons. In the first place, science itself has now shown from the study of dreams, that while the expression of thoughts and feelings in dramatic from may be an older from of mention than rational analysis, it is in no way outdated; on the contrary, it is the basic mode of all mental activity, underlying rational analysis itself. Thus we are well advised to pay serious attention to its collective manifestations. Secondly, evidence had emerged from biological science during recent decades to indicate that the popular perception of nature as essentially red in tooth and claw was a gross over-reaction to Darwin's discoveries, a failure to see the wood for the trees. And thirdly, there are good philosophical grounds for believing this to have been the case, for if there's no problem about how evil originates, then the human mind's desire for something better than constant struggle-for-survivalitself becomes a problem; where does it come from, if tooth and claw are nature's basic reality?

Darwin was not, after all, the first to observe the ubiquity of conflict and violence in the organic world—it was every bit as obvious to anyone with half an eye in earlier cultures as it is to us today, and probably more so, since urban life has never been really sheltered from nature until quite recently. When earlier cultures assumed that there was a harmony underlying the conflict, and expressed that assumption in various kinds of theistic image, it was because elementary logic dictates that unless something like this were the case, nothing would ever survive at all—and Darwin as a naturalist took this as much for granted as any theologian, even if he was a little more tentative about the use of theistic imagery. In fact it would be fair to say that biological science has provided massive confirmation for what was earlier just a common sense assumption, by using microscopes and, in more recent times, cine-cameras and a plethora of other instruments, to uncover in minute detail the astonishing built-in mechanisms which limit the expression of competitive and destructive urges throughout the sub-human biosphere, curbing them so that they are always ultimately contained by harmony. And the specific contribution of evolutionary theory, of which Darwin is the archetypical representative, has actually been to extend our understanding of this principle into the time-dimension, by showing how conflict and competition serve development by selecting the strongest and most flexible strains for breeding. In the years since World War II biologists themselves in growing numbers have begun to articulate this thought, a notable example being the work here in Australia of Professor Charles Birch, which recently won him the prestigious Templeton Prize and is very clearly set out in his excellent book On Purpose.

Now this means there's something very odd, almost un-natural, about our human species, where aggression and competitive greed continually shatter harmony, between individuals, between tribes and nations, and between us and the rest of the biosphere. Something has been going wrong throughout recorded history, so that the best efforts of holy men, of well-meaning rulers and of knights in shining armor to contain the destructive urges always come unstuck. To paraphrase a famous declaration of St. Paul, the human mind dreams of harmonies more wonderful—more gentle and loving—than the rough but powerful balances of the animal kingdom; yet, in practice, human intelligence again and again finds itself side-tracked into the service of greed, of aggression and even of cruelty, such as would shame any animal. And here too, science has served to make explicit something which formerly could only be intuited in a general way; the "unnaturalness" of human nature, which was formerly expressed in stories about a primordial Fall, has today become inescapable, as the cumulative results of our intelligence threaten to destroy our species altogether, and maybe even the whole planet.

When I was young, and the nuclear arms race was just beginning to make these dangers apparent, most scientists and most religious folk alike thought in terms of humanity's "higher ideals" battling against "lower animal instincts"; but we know now that if our instincts were really animal, the drives towards harmony would always contain the destructive ones. It is at the level of mind or of spirit itself that something goes wrong, and I believe that it's a gut realization of this fact that finds expression in the popularity of detective fiction, where in all the best stories the harmony-shattering act of violence is tracked down to a source quite unsuspected by the society concerned; the hidden villain turns out to be someone who, until the denouement, is considered beyond suspicion. True, in the very early days of the genre, this feature was by no means universal: in fact one famous classic, Poe's Murders in the Rue Morgue, is a perfect expression of the belief that our troubles spring from animal instincts getting out of rational control—the murders are eventually traced to an escaped savage ape! But as the art-form developed, the main focus came to be on the author's skill in finding ingenious ways to keep the villain above suspicion until the end, and the Detection Club even drew up rules about it. On the hypothesis I have been developing here, this can be seen as something more than a need to tickle the reader's crossword-solving faculty: it was also the refinement of a new mythological form relevant to our modern understanding of humanity's great existential problem.

And against this background, the extraordinary success of The Mousetrap would imply that it contains some particularly acute, nerve-touching insight about the origin of evil in the human psyche, and I believe this to be indeed the case. For the play gives a very special twist to the "least likely suspect" theme, a twist anticipated occasionally in earlier stories (for example, in more than one by G. K. Chesterton), but never (to my knowledge) before put into drama-form, the mode which appeals most directly to the mythopoetic imagination. After all these years of exposure on the London stage, I don't think I shall be giving away any secret by mentioning what that twist is (and anyway, the characteristic of a really significant mythic theme, as I believe this to be, is that it retains its appeal even when the "plot" is common knowledge.) At the end of The Mousetrap, the detective himself, the young policeman who appears as the protector of the innocent and as the guardian of law and order, turns out to be the murderer. And here I find a clear echo of a theme expressed in different ways in many of the world's ancient stories about the Fall, but most clearly in the one which, more than any other, has exercised emotional appeal across many different cultures, the biblical story in which the Loss of Eden comes about because of a "snaky" temptation to assume a divine role of moral guardianship, "knowing good and evil."

I would translate this idea as a diagnosis that the responsibility for humanity's unnatural destructiveness lies with the very element in the psyche that purports to aim at harmony, the moral impulse—not that it is too weak, as conventional social wisdom assumes, but that it usurps power and tries to control all other impulses by judging and repressing. It was an insight central to William Blake's attempts to uncover the true essence of Christianity in his mythic epics: "The punisher alone is the criminal of Providence." And this too is surely something we are in a better position to understand today than any earlier generation, thanks to the detailed investigations of psychologists and sociologists. There is now ample evidence that behind all really violent and destructive human behaviour, whether it be the ridiculously excessive ambitions of the military conqueror or the empire-building of the capitalist, or the sadism of tyrants great or small, or the insatiable violence of the rapist, or the blind destructiveness of the hoodlum or child-batterer, there lies a screaming protest on the part of some much more limited desire that has been repressed by an overweening morality, in society, in the family, or in the individual psyche itself. And on the other, outer side of the coin, egoistic and aggressive urges become really dangerous and outrageous precisely when they are moralized and amplified by righteous indignation. The Inquisition really did think that they were saving souls, and while mere greed or ambition would never lead any sane person to plunge the world into nuclear winter, a holy war might easily do so, on the judgment that it is better to be dead than red or, in more topical terms, better to have a nuclear holocaust than to submit to the Great Satan of American Capitalism.

"Better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven" were words which Milton put into the mouth of Satan himself. His poem followed much Christian tradition in linking the Biblical story of Paradise Lost with another ancient tale, giving it, in the process, a definite "whodunnit" flavor of its own, by suggesting than the serpent was just a disguise for the cosmic Mr. Big—Lucifer, the Archangel of Light, who subverts humanity in the course of trying to usurp the role of God. The moral impulse, or "conscience," could indeed be described as the angel (the messenger) of light in the human psyche, and this story unmasks its constant tendency to get above itself and rule the roost instead of simply serving life. Thus a vicious circle is created, because repression and moralization exaggerate the very impulses they claim to control, and thereby give "conscience" the excuse for attempting still more repressive measures and expressing still more moral outrage against others. This was why Blake went beyond Milton's interpretation of the story and represented Satan as having to all intents and purposes already taken over the place of God in most religions by making them agents of repressive moralizing, rather than of salvation. That, he argued, was why Jesus of Nazareth "died as a reprobate … punished as a transgressor"—because he had seen what was going on in the world and tried to reverse the process by urging "mutual forgiveness of each vice," only to have his name and image taken over in turn in the service of repression and indignation.

The Mousetrap doesn't attempt to pursue the story into those depths: its villain simply gets killed at the end, much as in most other "whodunits." But Chesterton did try to take that extra step: Father Brown never sought punishment or death for his villains, but unmasked them only as a first step in trying to redeem them. And for Blake that was the ultimate goal both in society and in the psyche itself, to "have pity on the Punisher" and restore the moral sense to its proper role as servant of life, by subordinating its judgments to forgiveness. He had the mystic vision that while no individual can hope to make more than a small impact on the destructive patterns of society by pursuing this goal, determined exposure of satanic judgementalism within the psyche will open up direct experience of eternity even in the midst of the world's still-unresolved conflicts. He identified this as "the Everlasting Gospel of Jesus"; yet he also insisted that "All Religions are One" prior to satanic perversion—and in our own day his insight, expressed in different terms, has been the core "gospel" of Krishnamurti, who stood apart from all formal religion: he urged the regular practice of "non-judgmental choiceless awareness" as the way of opening to the eternal. Maybe he wasn't a detective-story buff for nothing.

The ending of any detective-story after the unmasking of the villain is inevitably something of an anticlimax (a post-climax, perhaps?), and in my view one of Blake's most profound insights was that the unmasking of the Great Originator of Sin in human life brings something of the same feeling. Like the Wizard of Oz, pretension is the essence of Lucifer's power in the world and in the psyche: unmasked, he becomes something of a joke:

     Truly, My Satan, thou art but a Dunce,
     And dost not know the Garment from the man.

Perhaps that was what Chesterton was getting at, in a different idiom, when he said that if humanity were to be suddenly struck with a sense of humor, we would find ourselves automatically fulfilling the Sermon on the Mount. And perhaps, too, this is why the motivation of the crime in The Name of the Rose is the suppression of humor. So do join me as a detection buff, for the sheer fun of it, and go and see The Mousetrap if you're in London—it's fun even if you do know the ending.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Agatha Christie Study Guide

Subscribe Now
Previous

Agatha Christie Short Fiction Analysis

Next

Agatha Christie Long Fiction Analysis