I have been re-reading Agatha Christie mysteries. In some cases, the last time I read them was thirty years ago (I was very fond of them as a child) and so I might as well have been reading them for the first time. Or maybe I am reading some for the first time. Who knows.

The flaws in Christie are pretty obvious: stock characters, mostly serviceable prose, sometimes mechanical plots, and problematic views of the period up the wazoo. (Not just racial stereotyping, sexist opinions, etc, but also jarring bits like offhand references to a dessert called "N-Word in his Shirt.") Also, while even her less-good books are reasonably amusing if you like that sort of thing, the quality did vary widely.

But obviously, I like her writing or I wouldn't be reading, so I'd like to talk about what's good about it.

Though she gets criticized for writing the same book over and over, she actually experimented quite a lot within the basic form of the mystery/thriller. A lot of her innovations have since become standard, but they weren't at the time. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder on the Orient Express are famous for unexpected outcomes, but the little-known Endless Night is a creepy, atmospheric Gothic that gets a lot of mileage over breaking various Gothic rules. Death Comes as the End is a very well-done murder mystery set in ancient Egypt that benefits from the characters being completely unaware of the existence of murder mysteries. And Then There Were None, the one with ten horrible people trapped on an island, has been imitated many times but never done better. It's genuinely scary.

She did cold cases and bottle stories and purely psychological mysteries, and played a lot with tone, writing books that varied from tragedy to farce. A Murder is Announced is hilarious for much of its length, but also contains one of the most affecting and tragic deaths she ever wrote.

If you want to learn how to introduce a very large cast of characters and make sure that the reader always knows who everyone is and what their relationships are with each other, you could do a lot worse than studying Christie. She was great at that, and did it so easily that you barely notice that you're reading a short novel with thirty distinct characters whose plot hinges on the reader remembering who's secretly in love with who.

Some of her characters are stock types, but others, though lightly sketched, are more than that: Miss Marple, the sweet old lady whose very dark worldview doesn't spoil her enjoyment of life; Lucy Eyelesbarrow, the charming and efficient young housekeeper-entrepreneur; Henrietta from The Hollow, the sculptress who can't help loving her art more than any human being; Elinor from Sad Cypress, desperately in love with a man who will only stay with her if she never reveals the depths of her feelings; Miss Hinch and Miss Murgatroyd, the dog-loving lesbian couple from A Murder is Announced. I could go on. Christie's characters may not be fully rounded, complex characters, but they're often believable and memorable.

Re-reading now, one thing that I didn't notice before was how precisely placed in time the books are. You always know exactly when they are in terms of WWII-- during, with rationing and many men are off fighting; just after, when lots of items are still scarce and people illegally trade coupons for butter; years after, when there's always men who are young but prematurely aged, adrift in a world they no longer belong in, changed forever by the single year they spent on the front. I wasn't surprised to find Christie sensitive and accurate about veterans' various reactions to war, from what we'd now call PTSD to the men who loved the excitement and will now never find anything to equal it. I see that in fiction of the period quite a bit. But she also writes about something I've seen less, which is what happened to the women who went abroad, and have similar reactions with the addition that no one thinks a woman should feel that way.

Even if you don't like mysteries, I highly recommend her Autobiography. It's idiosyncratic in the very best way, shamelessly (and fascinatingly) recounting the stories she imagined for her dolls, then skipping ahead to noting that her great-grand-daughter seems to tell similar stories to her own dolls. As a portrait of a time and place, it's wonderful. The childhood sections are especially good. She remembers not only the facts, but a child's perspective. (It also confirms that yes, all those women living together in cottages in her novels are supposed to be lesbians. She mentions basing those characters in her books on women like that whom she knew as a child and only later realized were couples.)

Please rot13.com spoilers at the level of "this is who the murderer is." I've read most of Christie's books, but don't always remember. ;)
legionseagle: (Default)

From: [personal profile] legionseagle


That's a wonderful assessment; I'm always trying to persuade people what a great and innovative author Christie was. Now I have another place to point them to.
Edited Date: 2015-01-14 09:04 pm (UTC)
recessional: a small blue-paisley teapot with a blue mug (Default)

From: [personal profile] recessional


I think you can be very commercially successful and still be artistically underrated: LotR managed it for several decades.
kore: (Default)

From: [personal profile] kore


Heck, Chandler and Hammett were written off for decades, too, especially Chandler, and now they're all over the syllabi. (Syllabusses? whatever) But genre fiction by women, especially about women, still tends to be really underrated (Dorothy Sayers is a big example of this, for me).
recessional: a small blue-paisley teapot with a blue mug (Default)

From: [personal profile] recessional


I always find those little things - the off-hand references to desserts, etc - much more jarring than the conscious Overt Isms of Other Times. I think because it drives home how it was really everyone/everywhere kind of thing: I can find people today who are just as racist as anyone was eighty years ago, but the dessert being named that means that it was perceived as at least harmless/a non-issue by not just the majority but enough of a majority that nobody felt uncomfortable about it.
raincitygirl: (shelter squee (thesockmonster))

From: [personal profile] raincitygirl


Especially because Lucy Angkatell is this absolutely charming and likeable character. If the off-hand reference to racial slur cake had been made by a less sympathetic character it would've bothered me less, but I *like* Lucy.
sophia_helix: Margot and Richie Tenenbaum reading in the Natural History Museum (ETC: RT read)

From: [personal profile] sophia_helix


I'd still pick up just about any Christie book at any time for entertainment. If you read too many they get kind of repetitive but the quality is generally at least a solid B, and of course the escapism of time and place gets more appealing as time goes on, even if rhe social attitudes become more appalling.
sophia_helix: Sophia (Default)

From: [personal profile] sophia_helix


It was one of the first ones I read as a kid, so mostly what I remember is the woman biting into the jelly donut in the beginning ("Marvelous!") I should reread it.

legionseagle: (Default)

From: [personal profile] legionseagle


The other thing about Christie is that absolutely everyone can have done it. There's always a sense in the other Golden Age writers that People Like Us Don't Do Things Like That. Even Sayers, who is a more literary writer by far than Christie, in Gaudy Night, refuses that last hurdle. If Christie had written Gaudy Night (which, for other reasons she wouldn't) the most probable suspect would have been the Dean, and the second most probably Padgett.
kore: (Default)

From: [personal profile] kore


What I love about the Marple books are the endless anecdotes about village life which seem pointless and then are always horribly relevant as to motive and the quaint little village is revealed as a seething microcosm. Like the way Darwin paints the pretty meadow with trees and flowers waving, etc., as having the bloody Struggle for Life going on underneath it. To me it's actually this subversive way of saying women's experience does matter, and "quaint life" is anything but, and you don't have to have Bond-type shootouts to do it.
kore: (Default)

From: [personal profile] kore


What is that awesome quote? it's in one of the later books -- something about, you see sitting there a cute little old lady who is actually this terrifying student of the worst depths of human nature, or something. Said by one cop to another cop! Both men! I loved it.
londonkds: (Default)

From: [personal profile] londonkds


Racist slur cake is a literal English translation of what is still known in Germany as "Mohr im Hemd". Although I don't think "Mohr" is anywhere near as insulting.
kore: (Default)

From: [personal profile] kore


I wasn't too fond of Christie, except then I read And Then There Were None, and THEN I read the Marple books which are so absolutely my jam. Nemesis in a pink woolly fascinator.
davidgillon: A pair of crutches, hanging from coat hooks, reflected in a mirror (Default)

From: [personal profile] davidgillon


In some cases, the last time I read them was thirty years ago (I was very fond of them as a child)

I had completely forgotten that I read a bunch of them at a similar age (during visits to my grandparents) until that sentence triggered an instant flashback!
heliopausa: (Default)

From: [personal profile] heliopausa


Also, I don't thinks she ever fslls into the "born that way" idea, where the backward slope of a forehead indicates innate murderousness or whatever. (See Josephine Tey, for example.) Her murderers, as far as I can recollect, do have a choice, so that as often as not HPoirot is left murmuring "the pity of it all" because they could so easily have had quiet, exemplary lives.
On the other hand, I think most Spaniards in her novels are stereotypically tempestuous and hold grudges for a long time - this even applies to people with just one Spanish grandparent, I think.
raincitygirl: picture of Darcy from "Thor" (Darcy Lewis (corelite))

From: [personal profile] raincitygirl


This is an awesome Christie post!!!
greenet: (Default)

From: [personal profile] greenet


My love of Agatha Christie is true and enternal (even as I recognize tricks and plots when I reread)!

And "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" was on my Crime fiction MA class, which was pretty cool. It's not one of my personal favorites, but I do think it's an interesting book for what it does/did with reader expectation and omissions from the text.
badgerbag: (Default)

From: [personal profile] badgerbag


Yay! I did this a couple of years ago, reading them in order. I also really enjoyed it and agree with a lot of your points & reactions.
Her semi-autobiographical non-mystery novels written under a pseudonym are pretty interesting. I was very struck by how she had a whole extra career (as an archeologist) and how she paid money to have that career rather than getting paid (so unjust, and she was so fiercely hardworking)
katta: Photo of Diane from Jake 2.0 with Jake's face showing on the computer monitor behind her, and the text Talk geeky to me. (Default)

From: [personal profile] katta


This is lovely! I've been reading Christies since I was twelve, and though I still haven't quite read them all it's getting harder for me to pick up unread ones in second-hand bookstores. (I own about half of her books and most of them are bought second-hand.) Sometimes her views are horrid (and, uh, the ending of Taken at the Flood is... *shakes head*) but there are so many characters of hers that I love, and that whole atmosphere of "Dear Lord, a corpse! -- We'd better have a cup of tea."

Btw, I made a chart on how to figure out the murderer in a Christie novel some time ago. It's not 100% accurate, but I had fun doing it. :-)

From: [identity profile] tool-of-satan.livejournal.com


(You have a stray close-italics tag in paragraph 4 and a stray line break in the penultimate paragraph.)

You make me feel as if I should read some Christie. The Egyptian one sounds interesting. Which "regular" mysteries would you particularly recommend? (I already know the twists in Ackroyd and Orient Express, as they're hard to avoid.) I am not sure I am up for reading all of them, considering the number of books I already plan to get to Real Soon Now.

I haven't read too many other classic mystery authors. I read all of Sherlock Holmes a long time ago, and didn't like Doyle's prose enough to want to re-read it (I'd much rather watch Jeremy Brett). I've read most of Chesterton's mysteries and re-read the good ones (which is a decent percentage). I just recently read all of Sayers' Wimsey mysteries.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


Thanks, fixed.

I would read A Murder is Announced. It's extremely funny in a way that's both nostalgic and "the more things change, the more they stay the same," has a great sense of time and place, and has a very good version of a classic mystery plot that's also something of a parody of that plot. Let me know what you think!

From: [identity profile] tool-of-satan.livejournal.com


Will do.

I need to sell you on more things I have already read. :)

From: [identity profile] tool-of-satan.livejournal.com


I enjoyed it overall. While I could see the humor, I think I would have found it funnier if I had read more of the sorts of books she was riffing on.

From: [identity profile] branna.livejournal.com


The Mirror Crack'd (it has a variety of different titles, but that is the one I know) is one I particularly like despite its being problematic in the expected ways vis a vis neurodiversity.

sovay: (Rotwang)

From: [personal profile] sovay


But she also writes about something I've seen less, which is what happened to the women who went abroad, and have similar reactions with the addition that no one thinks a woman should feel that way.

That's very cool. Examples?

(Most of my Christie-reading is also decades ago and less frequent than Sayers anyway.)

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


It's in a number of them. The one I read recently was There is a Tide, which unfortunately is not very good.

From: [identity profile] epistasthai.livejournal.com


I've always enjoyed Agatha Christie's books. When I was in school, my mother forbade "romance" books - so I read them at school, borrowing from my friends. (a fact which I remembered when I had my own kid - I never forbade any books. They'll always find a way 'round). When I was 13, I discovered Agatha Christie and my mother heartily approved. I read them for the romance, haha, but I never said anything to her about that. I think I've read and re-read practically all her works over the years. And when I'm stressed or need something comfortable to read, I usually reach for Agatha Christie.

And yes, 'A Murder is Announced' is hilarious in places, yet one of the death scenes is indeed moving and quite tragic, as you said. And when I lived in the UK and saw "Intimations" in the announcement section of the papers, it always thrilled me.

I've always loved her early works, one of which introduces a character as an older person, perhaps about 25 or so. hahaha. Her characters stick with you, don't they? And I've always loved how she can present a huge cast of characters, yet lets the reader come to know them at their own pace - it is very difficult to mix up Agatha Christie characters. (and I'm the sort of person who has to make a list of characters to keep them sorted whilst I'm reading.)

From: [identity profile] anglerfish07.livejournal.com


I liked Why didn't they ask Evans? The characters who were sleuthing were rather sweet and have a great sense of humour. The nemesis is quite charming but scary. Speaking of nemesis...Nemesis is a very clever Miss Marple mystery with memorable characters which I quite liked.

The Seven Dials has a clever, energetic female lead, hilarious characters and a good plot twist, so I recommend that. :)

From: [identity profile] papersky.livejournal.com


I read all of them as a kid, and haven't re-read them since, but Endless Night was hugely influential on the way I thought about story. Because if you told that in any other way, it would be really conventional and the reader would immediately see what was up, but it's creepy and brilliant because of the method. I think I was about seven and this was a complete revelation. I don't want to read it again in case the suck fairy has been at it.

From: [identity profile] lorataprose.livejournal.com


Whoa the PTSD/veteran stuff (with the men and women) makes her inordinately more interesting to me! (I loved Christie as a slightly morbid child but when you're a kid you don't catch everything...)

Also, dog-loving lesbian couple?! I know where I'm starting!
larryhammer: a low-fidelity picture of a man, label: "some guy" (Default)

From: [personal profile] larryhammer


I recently found a copy of Death Comes as the End but not the time to read it ...

From: [identity profile] dichroic.livejournal.com


I also enjoyed Come, Tell Me How You Live, her account of living on her husband's archaeological dig sites in the Middle East both pre- and post-War.
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