As a teenager, I devoured Agatha Christie crime fiction. I wasn’t interested in the novels because I had some kind of acute observatory faculty, or was keen to solve the puzzle myself before the author divulged the identity of the murderer at the end. I often didn’t even bother paying much attention to the details (who had an alibi when? Did this suspect’s leeway of opportunity adequately coincide with the time of the murder? etc). I just loved the process of mystification and subsequent de-mystification as the array of suspects were assembled, the motives and opportunities of each duly considered, with the identity of the murderer ultimately being revealed to us (or quite often sprung upon us). Agatha Christie’s puzzles were not always amenable to solving, in the sense of the reader being able to arrive at the answer by adopting a deductive approach and rationally scrutinising the evidence presented, but in the (very few) cases where I did figure out who the guilty party was well before the end, it was always a bit disappointing. It was the surprises which I delighted in.
When I began reading her crime fiction, I had no idea that Agatha Christie was a famous author; I must have considered her novels to be my personal discovery or something. I would not have known that she was the bestselling writer of the twentieth century, (her novels only being beaten in sales by Shakespeare and the Bible), had it not been for the inside covers of her books constantly informing me of this. When I discovered her books, they were simply no longer as ubiquitous as they must have once been. Soon enough though, I was hooked. I didn’t read all of them, but I must have read at least a good fifty of her eighty crime novels. My personal favourites are ‘Death on the Nile’, ‘And Then There Were None’ (being thirteen when I read it, it thoroughly creeped me out then), ‘A Murder is Announced’, ‘The Moving finger’ and a selection of short stories under the title of ‘The Hound of Death’. Unfortunately, I had unwittingly read a spoiler of ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’ and thus deprived myself the pleasure of reading what many regard to be Agatha Christie’s masterpiece. Christie’s best can be picked up and enjoyed in subsequent re-readings, but generally, the stuff which totally engrossed and captivated me for much of my teens, is difficult to read and be enthused by in the same way now. E.g. I recently re-read ‘Murder in Mesopotamia’ (a novel which intrigued me on first reading) and found it very clumsy and contrived this time round. However, this criticism cannot legitimately be made of most of Christie’s crime novels, which were by and large very well constructed; her best works exhibiting a high level of craftsmanship and ingenuity.
I suppose my present lack of enthusiasm in reading Christie, ensues, in a large part, from the very nature of the crime fiction genre. In the context of popular fiction, character and character development is often believed to be subordinated to plot and narrative. Characters are frequently constructed to serve the specific purposes of the narrative, rather than the narrative constituting a vehicle through with psychological depth and unique human insights can be relayed. (1) This common understanding of the nature of ‘popular fiction’ does not always hold true. However, I think it is absolutely applicable to most of Christie’s crime novels. Realism and psychological depth are eschewed in favour of ingenuity and skillfulness in plot construction. Hercule Poirot is good enough for a fourteen year old, but by the time you’re through several Poirot novels and are a couple of years wiser, he comes off as a caricature more than anything else. He became a source of considerable irritation to his creator as well, and she toyed with the idea of killing him off, but ultimately refrained from doing so. The characters are, for the most part, two dimensional figures, yet they never quite amount to stereotypes. Christie sketches them with a few succinct lines, but also deliberately imbues them with an attribute which subverts the stereotype (2). There are also gradations in the quality of characterisation amongst Christie’s crime novels. E.g. The characters in ‘Sparkling Cyanide’ or ‘The Hollow’ cannot be termed ‘cardboard cut-outs’ (as Christie’s characters have sometimes been labelled); and it is perhaps more appropriate to think of Christie’s characters as comprising of ‘two and a half dimensions’ rather than two dimensions, as M. Vipond has observed, tongue in cheek. In the later stages of my engagement with her novels, I would think that to create her cast of characters, all one needed to do was the following: take a several small bits of paper and label on each a quality or attribute; ‘ambitious’, ‘charming’, ‘upright’, ‘avaricious’, ‘affectionate’, ‘mercenary’ etc. You would then randomly mix them up in a box, and draw them out by two and three’s. Those three attributes you drew out of the box without looking, would form a character. To Christie’s credit, the formulaic manner in which she approaches characterisation, only becomes apparent after you’ve read a good number of her crime novels, and know what to expect (more in the way of characterisation, rather than in terms of plot). In the beginning the characters appear realistic and convincing enough; their surface quality really manifests itself to the seasoned Christie reader. Christie’s object was to construct an interesting puzzle, the unraveling of which fully engages and satisfies the reader, and in this she was spectacularly successful. Her purpose was not to tackle core existential questions or reveal fundamental human truths.
That is not to say that Christie did not have her own individual perception of the world, or her own moral vision. She did, and these perceptions obviously colour her texts. One critic observes:
“As Colin Watson, John Cawelti and others have pointed out, the enormous appeal of the classical mystery novel of the Golden Age of the 1920’s and 1930’s seemed to lie in its success in providing reassurance for it’s middle-class readers- reassurance that crime is an individual matter, not a social one, that it is logical and soluble, and that it is neat and relatively painless, explicable, and not a matter for collective guilt.”(3)
The above is a fairly common criticism leveled against Christie; i.e. that her texts almost completely fail to advert to the structural causes of criminal behaviour. It is practically always the individual who is deviant; broader society and vicious social dynamics are largely absolved of responsibility for the transgressions of the erring individual. This critique is valid, but only to a certain extent. Christie’s characters were broadly representative of the British middle and upper-middle class; the suspects and murderer are also drawn from this stratum of society. Some of these suspects or would-be murderers are temporarily in a tight patch, but they are for the most part reasonably well-off. Each of these people are in possession of moral agency, which they choose not to exercise, in what appear to be, not particularly overwhelming circumstances. Their crimes are mercenary and repugnant, and it is difficult to exculpate them on the basis of deeply rooted structural inequalities or economic deprivation. Mental disease, or genuine psychiatric disorder may have a mitigating effect, or may even exonerate the accused, but in most cases (whatever his/her economic situation) murderers retain some degree of moral agency, and it’s important not to near-glorify them as bastions of individualism, as some writers have been inclined to do. A better way of understanding Christie’s moral vision, and conception of criminality, has been articulated by Julie Aguiar who comments:
“…Christie’s presentation of criminality, or what might be termed evil, in these novels as being not an abnormality afflicting a few, as her predecessors in the genre assume, but an underlying proclivity common to all human beings.” (4)
All the assembled suspects have diverse motives to finish off the potential victim. The temptation is present for all of them, but only one or two (if the murder is a joint venture) succumb to it, and are willing to take life in achieving their ends.
Like billions of other readers around the world, I derived many hours of enjoyment from Christie’s crime novels. If I am unable to read them now, it is partially because I’ve already had too much of a good thing; after fifty novels it’s difficult for her basic template to not seem formulaic to me. There are the issues of characterisation adverted to above, but Christie was extremely effective in what she sought to do; adroitly create a complex puzzle which the reader would become immersed in. The mystery would subsequently unfold with seamless, and sometimes quite dazzling effect.©
(1) Stephen Knight, “..done from within’: Agatha Christie’s World’, in Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction (London: Macmillan Press, 1980) 124-125
(2) Earl F. Bargainnier, The Gentle Art of Murder: The Detective Fiction of Agatha Christie, (Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1980) 39-40
(3) M. Vipond, Agatha Christie’s Women” International Fiction Review 8 (1981) 123
(4) Julie Aguiar, “Rethinking Retrospection: Temporality and Criminality in Christie’s Detective Fiction” Explorations: The UC Davis Undergraduate Research Journal 14 (2011): 1-19