Agatha Christie: Nice Mysteries, Shame About the Prejudice
Agatha Christie has a certain reputation. If you’ve never read her books, you might associate her with twee, cozy, country mysteries featuring genteel and civilised murderers who delicately despatch their victims, perhaps a body in a library, the kind of coffee-table read favoured by older ladies as they sip their afternoon tea. But this image does the stories a massive disservice.
I’m not an older lady, and I don’t like tea, but I can’t get enough of them. These are exceptional examples of whodunnits, classic detective stories that have been borrowed from time and time again. They aren’t really books, they are one player games, and Christie crafts them exceptionally well. That’s not to say that these books don’t have flaws. Huge, gaping flaws, holes in credibility, and appalling lazy prejudice litter the stories, particularly the earlier ones. Sexism, racism, virtually every ‘ism’ under the sun is present. The original title of Christie’s best work, ‘And Then There Were None’, was Ten Little N***ers’. Similar terms are found sprinkled in her stories, particularly of the anti-Semitic kind. What is most shocking to modern readers perhaps, is the casual nature of these slurs as they are dropped into conversation. This is the world of the 1920s and 30s, the seeds that grew into the evil of fascism and the Nazis.
There’s also a romantic fetishization of the period in England between the two world wars when everyone wore hats, had servants, and everything was tickety-boo, aside from all these murderers that keep coming out of the woodwork. A country with deep class divisions is seen through rose-tinted spectacles, and the main players are usually those in the upper or middle classes. But lurking under the surface is always the sinister, the secrets, the face in the shadows, and the killer. People have public and private faces, and the private ones often conceal a multitude of sins.
The books are immaculately crafted works of fiction, which have stood the test of time for one reason; clever, intricately crafted plots, filled with tension and excellent build-up of suspense. Stories that are almost 100 years old and are still being turned into television specials and Hollywood films. These are intelligently written surprising books that often keep you guessing right until the end. Yes, the stories are often populated by bluff colonels, bumbling professors, sinister doctors and polite vicars, with a discreet stabbing or perhaps a quick poisoning thrown in for good measure. Much of the criticism is justified. Many of the people in these books are essentially two-dimensional stock characters. The dialogue has a tendency to be wooden, and elements other than the central mystery, like a romantic subplot or light comedy, are often completely forgettable, implausible, or unfunny. But you don’t read Christie for the characters, romance, comedy, or subplots, you read them for the mystery.
I read my first Agatha Christie just a few years back, and I was quickly hooked. These are easy reads, page-turners, and that’s not a bad thing. A book that is easy to read means that the author is achieving at least one of their jobs. Ok, they aren’t game-changing novels. They don’t really tell us anything about the human condition. They aren’t profound, and in fact are usually regressive and backward-looking. But they are the best at what they do. Christie invented virtually all the big twists. The surprises that, had you looked properly, were staring you in the face, those ‘of course!’ moments that define a good mystery. Conan Doyle laid the groundwork, but Christie came up with more ideas in this area than perhaps anyone before or since. She leads you by the nose, deliberately playing on your expectations, a master of subversion. Even when you know the game, you often still fall for it.
As with a lot of fiction, you have to suspend your disbelief. Some tales rely on somewhat convoluted means to work, and if applied to real life, would be absurd. This is the charge that Raymond Chandler leveled at Christie and her ilk in his piece ‘The Simple Art of Murder’. Yes, solving murders is almost never based on obscure clues like why the begonias were trampled, or why someone decided to run a bath at an odd time of day, but that’s not the point. These are crossword puzzle books, and the pleasure derived from them is working them out using their own internal logic. Chandler said of a Poirot mystery that the solution was so unlikely that only a halfwit would guess it. In truth the plots are often contrived, they have to be, to surprise you. These books aren’t realistic and were never meant to be. They are games Christie plays with the reader, featuring fictional killers involving elaborate deceptions and subversions. When you figure one out before the big reveal, you feel you have earned a well-deserved victory.
Christie’s two most recurring detectives are Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. Both are by now largely walking stereotypes. The busybody little old lady with the mind of a buzz-saw, that nobody notices because they think her harmless. The pompous and apparently arrogant foreigner with fastidious neurotic habits, who nonetheless is as clever as he boasts. Both are now clichés but weren’t at the time. Both are simply devices for solving the story. Their sidekicks, like the hapless Hastings, exist for the same reason as Dr. Watson; to give the main detective someone who isn’t as bright as them to talk to, and to act as a viewpoint for the audience.
Take ‘And Then There Were None’. Like most great stories, the premise is simple. Ten people have been lured to an island under false pretenses. They are trapped there and begin to get killed off, one by one. The group searches the island, but there is no one else here, and nowhere to hide. They realise that one of them must be the killer. The original title did not hint at the ending, which would have made it even more surprising. In this story, there is no detective, no romantic or comedic subplot, and most of the characters are chillingly suspect. Among them are a sinister and paranoid doctor, a hanging judge, a wolf-like mercenary and a crooked cop, as well as a ruthlessly-severe old lady. So what to do about the prejudice? Can it be separated from the great stories? The answer is yes, and quite easily. The prejudice is so unnecessary and irrelevant to the plot, that it can be discarded entirely, mentally edited out, without making a jot of difference.
Should these stories be rewritten, with the horrible prejudice edited out? It’s an open question, and I can see exactly the reason why ‘And Then There Were None’ was changed so it has its current name. But perhaps we need to see them for what they are, and what they were; littered with bigotry and jingoism. This is the 1930s, warts and all, the nasty reality just visible behind the peeling paintwork of Christie’s romantic glossy golden-age version of real history. Censoring literature of its problematic and unpleasant elements doesn’t seem like the best way to examine it. Maybe better to be aware of this nastiness. Agatha’s dislike of Americans, present in many of her earlier books but softening later, is almost so absurd as to be comical.
In a Christie novel, details matter, for the real detective is you, the reader. You will be examining characters, carefully scrutinising suspect alibis and statements, because you don’t want to get taken in again. Except you usually do, because she’s leading you astray once again. Christie plots rely on expectations, like, for example, that it is never the most obvious suspect. Perhaps this time it is. Perhaps they framed themselves. Perhaps the victim is the killer. Perhaps the killer is the victim. Whatever is the impossible solution, somehow, is the solution. If it was impossible that that person could have done it, then often, they did. Characters often conceal their true nature. Much of the book involves secondary aspects as other characters frustrate the case by not owning up to affairs, thefts, and other less than pleasant character traits. The whodunnits are filled with distracting red herrings and subplots. These are conjuring tricks. In the hands of lesser practitioners of the art, you see the cards up the sleeve, the whole implausibility of it, and the magic falls apart.
This is escapist literature. It’s the book equivalent of Sudoku or your favourite video game. Yes, the dialogue is bad, and the characters are hackneyed, but you still had fun playing it. And what’s wrong with that? Most of the stories can be picked up in paperback for less than a tenner, and are also available digitally. I’d particularly recommend any of the following; The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, And Then There Were None, Murder on the Orient Express, Crooked House, Death on the Nile, and The Murder at the Vicarage. Have fun.