In 2000, or thereabouts, I read an awful lot of Agatha Christie novels – mostly Miss Marple, because my love of slightly eccentric old women started way back then – but since then, I’ve only read one or two. In 2010 I read The Murder at the Vicarage, and thought it might issue in a new dawn of Christie reading. Well, two years later that dawn has, er, dawned. After hearing an interesting paper on Agatha Christie covers at a recent conference, I decided that a fun way to fill some gaps in A Century of Books would be to dip into my shelf of Christies, many unread. Since she wrote one or two a year for most of the 20th century, she is an ideal candidate for this sort of gap-filling.
Before I go onto the two novels I read (pretty briefly), I’ll start with what I love about Agatha Christie. She is considered rather non-literary in some circles (although not quite as often as people often suggest) and it’s true that her prose doesn’t ripple with poetic imagery – but the same is true of respected writers such as George Orwell and Muriel Spark, who choose a straight-forward seeming prose style, albeit with their own unique quirks. Leaving aside Christie’s prose talents – and they are always better than I expect, and often funnier than I remember – she is most remarkable for her astonishing ability with plot.
For a lot of people, myself included, reading Agatha Christie is our first experience of detective fiction. She sets the norms, and she sets the bar high. Only after dipping my toe into books by Margery Allingham and Dorothy L. Sayers do I realise quite how vastly superior she is when it comes to plot. It was once a truism of detective fiction that the author would be unfair, only revealing important clues at the last moment. “What you didn’t know was that the gardener was Lord Alfred’s long-lost cousin!” That sort of thing. Dame Agatha never does that. There are almost invariably surprises in the last few pages, but they are the sort of delightful, clever surprises which could have been worked out by the scrupulously careful reader. Of course, none of us ever do fit all the clues together along the way – it would spoil the novel if we did – but Christie has a genius for leaving no loose ends, and revealing all the clues which have been hidden thus far. Other detective novelists of the Golden Age still (from my reading) rely upon coincidence, implausibility, and secrets they kept concealed.
Reading a detective novel demands quite a different approach from most other novels. Everything is pointed towards the structure. There can be innumerable lovely details along the way, but structure determines every moment – all of it must lead to the denouement, and everything must adhere to that point. Many of the novels we read (especially for someone like me, fond of modernist refusal of form – witness my recent review of The House in Paris) are deliberately open-ended, and the final paragraphs are structurally scarcely more significant than any arbitrarily chosen lines from anywhere in the novel. With an Agatha Christie, the end determines my satisfaction. My chief reason for considering a detective novel successful or unsuccessful is whether it coheres when the truth is revealed. Is the motive plausible? Does the ‘reveal’ match the preceding narrative details? Are there any unanswered questions? That’s a lot of pressure on Agatha Christie, and it is a sign of her extraordinary talent for plot that she not only never disappoints, but she casts all the other detective novelists I’ve tried into the shade.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920)
I’d never read Christie’s very first novel, so it was serendipitous that 1920 was one of the few interwar blank spaces on my Century of Books. I’m going to be very brief about these two novels, because I don’t want to give anything away at all (a carefulness not exemplified by the blurbs of these novels, incidentally.) Suffice to say that there is a murder in a locked bedroom – and a lot of motives among family and friends.
“Like a good detective story myself,” remarked Miss Howard. “Lots of nonsense written, though. Criminal discovered in last chapter. Every one dumbfounded. Real crime – you’d know at once.”
“There have been a great number of undiscovered crimes,” I argued.
“Don’t mean the police, but the people that are right in it. The family. You couldn’t really hoodwink them. They’d know.”
I love it when Christie gets all meta. In One, Two, Buckle My Shoe one character accuses another, “You’re talking like a thriller by a lady novelist.” Heehee! But the best strain of meta-ness (ahem) in The Mysterious Affair at Styles is adorable Captain Hastings. He narrates, and he is not very bright. He considers himself rather brilliant at detection, and is constantly sharing all manner of clues and suppositions with Poirot, only for Poirot to laugh kindly and disabuse him. Hastings really is lovely – and doesn’t seem to have suffered even a moment’s psychological unease at having been invalided away from WW1. Poirot, of course, is brilliant. It’s all rather Holmes/Watson, but it works.
You’ve probably read the famous moment where Poirot is first described, but it bears re-reading:
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 dandified little man who, I was sorry to see, now limped badly, had been in his time of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police. As a detective, his flair had been extraordinary, and he had achieved triumphs by unravelling some of the most baffling cases of the day.
Isn’t that line about the bullet sublime? (Although, again, demonstrates a remarkable lack of shellshock on Hastings’ part.) What I found ironic about this, the first Poirot novel, is that (with decades of detection ahead of him), Hastings thinks:
The idea crossed my mind, not for the first time, that poor old Poirot was growing old. Privately I thought it lucky that he had associated with him someone of a more receptive type of mind.
Hastings is wrong, of course, but as a retired man, Poirot must enjoy one of the longest retirements on record. As for the novel itself – Christie tries to do far too much in it, and the eventual explanation (though ingenious) is very complicated. Colin tells me that Christie acknowledges the over-complication in her autobiography. It’s not surprising for a first novel, and it does nonetheless involve some rather sophisticated twists and turns.
One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940)
Onto another Poirot novel! For some reason I love the idea of titles being nursery rhymes or quotations, and Christie does this a lot. And Then There Were None is my favourite of her books (that I have read), and I also think the twist in The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side is brilliant. I hadn’t read this one, and chose it over Sad Cypress for the 1940 selection. Which turned out not to be very clever, as it is set at a dentist’s, where I will probably have to go soon…
The plot of this one isn’t amongst Christie’s best, and does depend upon one minor implausibility, but it’s still head and shoulders over other people’s. I realise I’m giving you nothing to go on, but I don’t even want to give the identity of the victim (even though they’re killed very early in the novel) because every step should be a surprise. What I did like a lot about the novel was this moment about Poirot:
She paused, then, her agreeable, husky voice deepening, she said venomously: “I loathe the sight of you – you bloody little bourgeois detective!”
She swept away from him in a whirl of expensive model drapery.
Hercule Poirot remained, his eyes very wide open, his eyebrows raised and his hand thoughtfully caressing his moutaches.
The epithet bourgeois was, he admitted, well applied to him. His outlook on life was essentially bourgeois, and always had been[.]
Having sat through an absurd talk recently, where the embittered speaker spat out ‘bourgeois’ about once a minute (and then, after lambasting his own bottom-of-the-pile education, revealed that he’d been to grammar school) this came as a breath of fresh air! One of my few rules in life is “If someone uses the word ‘bourgeois’ instead of ‘middle-class’, they’re probably not worth paying attention to, and they certainly won’t pay attention to you.’ The other thing I loved was the morality Christie slipped into Poirot’s denouement… but to give away more would be telling.
So, as you see, one of the other issues with detective fiction is that it rather defies the normal book review, but I’ve had fun exploring various questions which arise from reading Agatha Christie – and tomorrow I shall be putting a specific question to you! But for today, please just comment with whatever you’d like to say about Christie or this post – and particularly which of her novels you think is especially clever in its revelation (giving away absolutely nothing, mind!)