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. ;)