Stewart H. Benedict (essay date Winter 1962)
SOURCE: "Agatha Christie and Murder Most Unsportsmanlike," in Claremont Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 2, Winter, 1962, pp. 37-42.
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 entire section is 35,882 words.)