A friend from book group, knowing that I love Agatha Christie, very kindly lent me Robert Barnard’s A Talent to Deceive (1980 – this edition from 1990), a so-called appreciation of the Queen of Crime. It was an interesting and absorbing read, but… it was not an appreciation.
From the outset, Barnard starts by quoting all manner of people who disparage either detective fiction as a whole or Christie as an individual writer. I rather hoped he’d battle against these much-repeated nonsenses, such as…
The first and commonest charge against the Christie books is that the characterization is rudimentary in the extreme – much more so than most of her rivals.
But, lo, instead he sighs a sigh, acknowledges the fault, and then piles some more criticisms of his own, to make the matter worse:
It is almost as if she had a pack of cards with a series of types baldly characterized, and before beginning a new book she shuffled and dealt himself ten or twelve to make up a cast-list of suspects.
It’s rather tedious to have to read the usual critiques that her writing style isn’t up to much, her characters are poor, and her vocabulary restricted – none of which is quite fair, I would say – but it is particularly bad in a book that claims to be an appreciation.
HOWEVER, where Barnard saves himself is in recognising what a great plotter and pacer she was. Second to none, really. (I warmed to him when he dismissed ‘the longueurs’ of Dorothy L Sayers’ Gaudy Night, though that won’t help his case in all quarters.) I thoroughly enjoyed his closer examination of various plotting techniques, and a comparison of the ways in which Christie is able to use Poirot’s and Marple’s personalities to aid the detection plot – even if he dropped back a few points in my book by having little time for all-time-great-gent Captain Hastings (j’adore!) and even Christie-alike Ariadne Oliver.
We have a brief break where, tedium upon tedium, he feels the need to write about Christie’s infamous eleven-day disappearance. I find this event phenomenally dull (though Martin Edwards managed to make it more interesting than most) and it seems wrong to take up a whole chapter in a very short book. More analysis of Christie’s books, please! I’ll even put up with the inevitable spoilers – and there are plenty; this is a book to read only when you’ve got most of Christie under your belt, I think, and certainly most of the best-known Christie novels.
Barnard balances general thoughts and in-depth analysis well – the balance, that is, not necessarily his views on the books – by looking closely at three of them in a chapter on his faves. I didn’t read what he wrote about Hercule Poirot’s Christmas because I’ve not read that novel, but the other two he picked were Five Little Pigs and A Murder is Announced. My favourite section of A Talent to Deceive was what he wrote about A Murder is Announced. It was the first Christie I read and I still love it; Barnard is great on what makes Christie great, essentially.
Having said that, he – bizarrely, to my mind – nominates Five Little Pigs as her best novel. I would put it somewhere towards the bottom of those I’ve read, in that it was genuinely boring. Without giving anything major away, the plot is clever and well thought out, but Christie structures the novel from five viewpoints – which means we get the same events told to us five blinking times.
And then, with a final and rather overly ambitious overview of the nature of detective fiction, Barnard is finished with the topic. Except for the entire final 100 pages, which is a bibliography compiled by Louise Barnard and a separate annotated bibliography, presumably by Robert Barnard. The annotations are chiefly vague opinions – he suddenly gets all coy about spoilers – but it was fun to read.
Overall, this is an enjoyable, if often infuriating, book to read for Christie die-hards. I can’t imagine it’s the best ‘appreciation’ out there, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to anybody who had only read one or two Agatha Christie novels, but it was good for looking more closely at some of her techniques, and reminding me (whether through agreeing with certain moments in Barnard’s book, or disagreeing with others) what a fantastic writer Christie was.