Defending Agatha Christie (Not That She Really Needs It)

Agatha Christie's novels have
been translated into over
100 languages.
Speaking of Agatha Christie--

This coming fall, I will be teaching sections of a required course, titled (in summary) How to Be a College Student--these types of courses are becoming de rigeur at colleges and universities, institutions that unfortunately find students woefully ill-prepared for college life.

It is likely that students have ALWAYS been woefully ill-prepared for college life--and those of previous generations simply suffered through it all and grew up. Nevertheless, the growing number of students who DO attend college has made the Freshman year a problem-to-be-solved rather than a growth experience.

Such courses are generally not that exciting (however necessary they may be) since they focus on things like "Getting to class on time" and "Taking notes." In an effort to give the relevant course more interest and substance, my local employee has (intelligently) based each section on a different topic of interest. One of my topics of interest is murder mysteries!

Consequently, I have been (re)reading a great many books about murder mysteries, especially those of the Golden Age (writers: Christie, Sayers, Marsh, Tey, Allingham, Van Dine, Chesterton, etc.) since the legacy of Golden Age mysteries still influences writers today (who write like or in opposition to the masters).

In my reading, both a criticism and a backward compliment of Agatha Christie have emerged: (1) Christie's characters are one-dimensional; (2) Christie's mysteries show the evil lurking even in a placid village.

Christie's characters are one-dimensional

I have always found this criticism of Christie odd, especially when she is compared to writers who supposedly produce more well-rounded characters. All I can assume is that the critics who perceive Christie's characters as one-dimensional have little personal creativity themselves (not an unusual state of affairs with critics) reasoning, Since the books don't contain passages of ongoing, exhaustive character development, Christie's characters must not be well-rounded!

Christie used "typing" for her own purposes. The
"scattered" writer Ariadne Oliver (played with
panache by Zoe Wannamaker in the Poirot series) 
is used by Christie to deliver trenchant and hilarious
insights on writing, murder mysteries, and being a celebrity.
Well-rounded or not (and who really cares?), Christie's characters are fully realized. She just doesn't go on and on about them. Instead, she relies on several things to clarify their roles and personalities: typing, dialog, and gaps.

Typing is an age-old method of character development (of course, when Homer does it, literary analysts get all giddy and maudlin). Jung certainly didn't have a problem with it. If a wise old man with a beard (or Liam Neeson) shows up and starts giving advice, you should listen to him (most of the time). Alec Guiness doesn't need to provide his biography in order to be Obi-Wan Kenobi. He just is. And we know it. (Stop fretting about his potty habits, people, and enjoy the story!)

Christie relies on typing both to produce characters and to undermine expectations. Therefore, although we learn more and more about Miss Marple in every book, she bursts into being as a fully realized individual in The Tuesday Club Murders. (Granted, her mode of dress changes between the stories and the novels.) She is the shrewd, benign-looking English spinster ("made not born," as Miss Climpson would say).

Gwen Watford and Joan Hickson
Christie also relies a great deal on dialog. When, in the same set of short stories, Dolly Bantry says, "I like men and gardening," adding, for the benefit of her dinner party guests, "I put the men first out of tact," we get a fully comprehensible image of her character (a character beautifully captured in the Joan Hickson films by Gwen Watford; Watford is not stout like the books' Mrs. Bantry, but she is as quixotically forthright).

And Christies relies on, for lack of a better word, gaps. I hesitated to use the phrase "reading between the lines" because I honestly doubt Christie was ever trying to be subtle. But she allows things to speak for themselves. In Murder in Mesopotamia, Richard Carey, pushed to the edge of psychological endurance, yells at Poirot that he hated his lover (his best friend's wife) "like hell." After he stomps off, Poirot talks to Nurse Leatheran. When she asks him if he believes Carey, he replies, without explanation, that he does. Nurse Leatheran is left with the impression that Poirot believes that Carey and the best friend's wife weren't lovers. But the reader comes to understand that Poirot's silence stems from a different source: he understands human nature and consequently comprehends that a man can both love and loathe the woman with whom he committed adultery.

Obviously, Christie used such silences as a tool in the mystery itself. Pierre Bayard explores Christie's deft use of silence and unspoken words in his clever book Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?  But a large amount of creativity and supposition and character development also occur in these silences. Consequently, true classics--like Christie's books--have an accessibility that a million modern literary tomes can't achieve. Christie allows you to decide whether her characters are profound or not. She doesn't bother to prove it. 

I will discuss the idea that Christie's books illustrate the evil lurking even in a placid village in my next post.


Eugene said...

Eric Raymond provides an interesting tangent on this thesis as applied to science fiction:

"Most of the demand for non-classic SF comes not from readers but from critics/authors/editors (people who think of themselves as tastemakers) who are bent on imposing the deep norms of other genres onto the SF field. Such people are especially apt to think SF would be improved by adopting the norms and technical apparatus of modern literary fiction . . . In this view SF readers need to be educated away from their primitive fondness for linear narratives, puzzle stories, competent characters, happy endings, and rational knowability. It's not caricaturing much to say that the typical specimen of this type thinks the only good conceptual breakthrough is an unhappy one."

He also addresses the "problem" of characterization: "One reliable way to spot one of these literary improvers in action is unending complaints about the low standards of characterization that the majority of both SF readers and writers and readers consider acceptable."

Katherine Woodbury said...

Regarding "tastemakers" criticizing the tropes of "low" genre-writing, I have addressed the weird intellectual distaste for the flesh in a recent post.

In regards to the belief that "the only good conceptual breakthrough is an unhappy one," C.S. Lewis pointed out that such critics will often embrace a book with a despairing or sad ending as "real life" while rejecting a book with an optimistic, happy ending as pollyannaish, unrealistic wistful thinking. Yet both reactions are based on emotional, subjective responses to events, not objective ones. Why should the first set of emotions be more "true" than the second?

Joe said...

The irony is that many of the "solutions" proposed by the "tastemakers" are dramatic shortcuts and easy to write. In particular, sad or despairing endings are typically a bigger cop out than the [forced] pollyannish ending.