Thoughts on Agatha Christie and Literature

Agatha Christie was amazingly insightful when it came to human nature; unfortunately, people who don't read her consistently fail to recognize this and see only cliches. What Christie did was paint brief, extremely astute portraits of types recognizable to many readers. Classical and classic literature has been doing this for thousands of years. It is only ridiculous modern literary culture that insists that characterizations be 3 billion words long and contain a psychological breakdown of everything from the character's potty years to the character's angst-ridden three marriages.

One type of character Christie did extremely well was the heart-broken female protagonist. She understood unrequited love like nobody's business, and she understood that love (for women) doesn't have to be physically sexual to be all-consuming.

For example, the main character of Sad Cypress is terribly in love with a man who, I think, was consciously or unconsciously based on Christie's first husband, Archie: a fastidious, aloof person who fell out of love the moment it inconvenienced him.

Granted, Christie slept with Archie, but her devastation when he left was psychological to the nth degree. It wasn't that he was sleeping with someone else (he actually wasn't; he was engaged, but he was very British and proper about the whole thing) and it wasn't (necessarily) his physical abandonment that overwhelmed her. It was the loss of an emotional connection; Christie was enthralled by Archie, not because he was her type but because he was her first love and that was the kind of connection she'd made with him. It was almost imaginary, not in the "fake" sense but in the sense that it was so entirely in her head. Archie wasn't that romantic a guy. When he left, Christie lost her sense of reality. I think that's why she disappeared. I don't think she had amnesia. I think she just couldn't handle the pain anymore.

The main character of Sad Cypress is this type of woman. But the movie writers didn't know how to show this, so they used the old "oh, I was sleeping with him, but he left me" ploy. To me, this completely misses the essence of the character. She's not upset because her lover leaves her; she's crushed, devastated, psychically thrown into deep depression because the man she invested so much imaginary importance in turned out to not be worth it. There is a sexual element, but it starts in the woman's emotional investment. It's way more Basic Instinct than some dumb Melrose Place-type drama.

Christie's books are, in fact, much darker and psychologically astute than people credit them with. I think Christie gets labeled "cozy" by people who don't read her. (See the haunting Ordeal by Innocence with Donald Sutherland for a dark Christie book rendered almost perfectly on film; also, see Endless Night.)

Some critic--I think it was Edmund Wilson--criticized Christie's books for always restoring the status quo of her middle-class characters. He argued that her perfect, middle-class village settings create a feeling of security for Christie's readers because, after the murder, things always return to how-they-were-before. Making readers feel secure is, according to Wilson, bad.

I remember the first time I read this criticism, I thought, "Has he read any of her books?"

Personally, I don't see what's wrong with writing books that restore the middle-class status quo, but then, I don't think the purpose of literature is REVOLUTION! and RESISTANCE! If I did think there was a purpose to literature (and I am willing to say there isn't), I would say it was to reflect back to us the human condition, and the human condition includes cozy perfection and the desire for security plus the middle-class. (Frankly, I think REVOLUTION and RESISTANCE are utterly tiresome purposes for art; I tried to read Walden by Thoreau and got so tired of him, I almost threw the library book in the trash. I read Kerouac who actually I quite enjoyed, but then I tried to read about Kerouac and got so tired of his friends, I gave up. They may be fascinating to themselves but I personally find navel-gazing mind-numbing. By the way, this is the same reason the book Julia & Julia is extremely tiresome. If you want to read about Julia Child, read Julia Child.)

Setting aside the purpose of literature and whether or not it is okay to write "cozies," the fact is that change--due to time, biology, and circumstances (you know, World War II)--is woven through all of Christie's books. Although individuals achieve security in her books, life rarely continues as-it-was-before. Even Poirot and Miss Marple get old and suffer the strangeness of a world that has changed fundamentally from the one they remember.

What Miss Marple, for one, does point out continually is that human nature in a village is NOT fundamentally different from human nature anywhere else. And I think this is what made and makes Christie great: she has the ability to accept change while still seeing clearly basic human needs, feelings, and desires.

As Poirot says in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, "You talk of the continued peace of the nation. Oh, yes, that is right, but Poirot is not concerned with nations. Poirot is always concerned with private individuals who have the right not to have taken from them their lives."

Which is why Christie will last when so much "relevant" literary garbage goes into . . . the garbage.


Jennifer said...

I love Agatha Christie, although I have hit a point where I mostly just revisit my favorites. As much as I enjoyed the puzzle of the mysteries the first time through, when it comes to re-reading her work I do it because I love the characters and/or the way the story is told.

What I especially love is her short stories. She had such a gift for that. Her non-mystery short stories, especially, are just wonderful. Every time I re-read The Mysterious Mr. Quin I find myself wishing for more.

Kate Woodbury said...

I agree about Christie's short stories. I'm especially fond of the Miss Marple and Quinn ones.

I'm less fond of her really creepy horror stories (which are really creepy; step aside, Stephen King!). One horror story I do like is about a woman who blackmails another woman. At first, Woman 1 convinces herself that she is just scaring and warning Woman 2 for good and noble reasons, but slowly, she gets to liking the power of being a blackmailer. It's a powerful story about jealousy and good intentions on the road to hell.

That story and the horror story "Philomel Cottage" are real masterpieces! Christie captured the criminal mind long before Criminal Minds came along.

Regarding Mr. Quinn, I've often thought what a great television series those stories would make! As for who would play Mr. Quinn and Mr. Satterthwaite . . . hmmm. In any case, the stories have great narrative arcs with interesting characters and themes that could easily be expanded into 1-hour episodes. Why does one never own a television studio when one wants one?!

Jennifer said...

They would ruin it, if it got on TV, on casting alone. Mr. Quin would be someone conventionally handsome, I'm sure, which doesn't really fit the way she writes about him. Sure, he's tall, dark, thin - but as important as he is in the stories, he's almost background. The central figure on the stage is Mr. Satterthwaite - Quin is the director (or maybe the muse?) of the production and almost entirely invisible, therefore.

Horror - The Dressmaker's Doll. *shudder* That one creeps me out more than any of them. But, then, I have to admit I've had a thing about evil dolls since I was in first grade. A classmate told me a story about a doll that killed its little girl's family because she loved another doll more. I was left absolutely terrified of my dolls and took the best care of them after that for fear they would come to life. (Unfortunately, this made everyone think I just loved dolls, so I kept getting nrenesew ones for Christmas and my birthday. This did not lead to a peaceful childhood... LOL)

Kate Woodbury said...

Quinn is a kind of mystical figure. It's almost as though people are aware of him when he is there but forget about him when he leaves. He's much more X-Files than CSI.

Speaking of childhood, I'm reading Joseph Campbell right now and in one of his analogies about myth, he describes the ability of a child to believe that a matchstick is a witch. The matchstick isn't representative/symbolic of the witch; it has *become* the witch to the child through play.

I sometimes think people don't get that absolute sense of reality children can feel. I used to suffer agonies over which stuffed animal to take on vacation. The fact that most of them would have to be left behind made me feel sooo guilty. Luckily, I didn't believe they would destroy the house while I was gone: that would have made it even harder! :)

Mathew Park said...

First off, Kudos to you for giving Young Adult fiction the bump it deserves. When I go to the bookstore I love to just look at the YA books. They to me, compared to the ‘adult’ books, strike me as more entertaining reads. There is something more honest about them.

I look at the Lit section, and they look down at me with their drab covers as if to say “Read me, for I am worthy above all others for reasons you may never understand”

Where as when I see the Young Adult books, they look up at me (literally [ Do I get points for a double-pun?] they are shelved lower) and with pure intent say “Read me and we will both go on an adventure”

I have never read Christie, but after this I think I may give her a read or two.

Kate Woodbury said...


How you feel about YA Lit is how I feel about genre literature. When I rummage around in the sci-fi/fantasy or mystery or romance sections, I feel like the authors are eager to share their stories with me. "Let's have fun!"

With classics, I feel like the authors don't care: "We're dead, we're famous, we have mini-series on PBS, whatever." I don't mind this attitude. (Especially since many of them, like Shakespeare, were in it for the money to begin with!)

But adult lit always strikes me as so INTENSE like people who corner you at coffee shops and pontificate about politics or the horrors of Nintendo or how society doesn't understand how terrible the world is. They're like Pekingese dogs jumping up and down, going, "Look how profound I'm being! Angst! Angst! Angst!"

Like in the coffee shop--"I just came in here for a cocoa!"--my thought is, "I just want something to read!"

Jennifer said...

Interesting article in the NYT about the growing popularity of YA: The Kids' Books Are All Right

I almost exclusively read YA and genre fiction, along with what I think of as the "fun" classics - Dumas, Twain, Defoe, etc. Good stories, great adventures, lots of excitement. The literary equivalent of a good car chase movie. ;)

Kate Woodbury said...

I found the New York Times' article very interesting! It reminded me of two things: one, when Harry Potter was first getting big, publishers in England put out "adult" versions of the books with non-child-oriented covers, so adults could read the books on their way to work without getting embarrassed.

The second thing the article reminded me of is when I was a teenager and would go into the kids' stacks to get books. My mom found me there one day and praised me for not feeling like I was "too old" for the kids' books.

That reaction had quite honestly never occurred to me. Don't get me wrong: like many teens, I hated being made fun of/standing out. But my reading needs took precedence over everything else. Of course, I was going to get books in the kids' section; that's where the books I wanted to read were. (Actually, I would make a circuit: adult mysteries, YA, round to the audio/visuals, ending in the children's section).

However, I have learned to be careful about what books/excerpts I use when I teach composition. Unless I plan on giving a dissertation on the pointlessness of age-related distinctions every time I assign a piece of reading, it's easier just to stick to boring "adult" essays. This may sound odd, but a person has to be fairly sophisticated (in the "well-read" sense, not in the hoity-toity academe sense) to understand exactly how flawless The Little Princess really is.

Mathew Park said...

On the pointlessness of age related sectioning off of books:
If I ever get my novel ( working on it now) published and I become famous enough, I plan to try and convince SMCC to let me teach a Novel Writing course/Story Course ( by this point in my live I would have received an Honorary MFA so it would be cool), but I would require every student who wanted to pass to read Grovers “There’s a monster at the end of this book” and write a paper on what it means as it pertains to novel writing
The children’s book, written by Grover from Sesame Street, “There’s a monster at the end of this book” basically crystallizes everything that novel planning is about. Basicaly every page involves grover trying to stop the reader from turning to the next page. Again and again he tries, but we keep reading, only to find that there is in fact a monster at the end of the book. Now that’s making the reader want to get to the end of your book.

Kate Woodbury said...

Unfortunately, creative writing courses are often taught by instructors who have published very little or have published only literary stuff. When I was doing my undergraduate work and taking lots of creative writing classes, I had to take a "How to Get Published Course" before I encountered a creative writing professor who admitted publishing for money (and in non-literary magazines). I did have a non-creative-writing English professor who wrote YA novels (I took several classes from her, including a memoir writing class).

On the other hand, Orson Scott Card taught some writing courses as a special guest at a university, so it is possible!

Speaking of children's books, I've always believed that children are harder to write for than adults because they are less credulous--about what makes a good story anyway. Adults get all confused by high-falutin' language. Oh, it must be profound--the writer mentioned "hegemonies" and "geopolitics"! But with kids, if it doesn't communicate, it just isn't working.

Yeah, I'm still waiting for my honorary Ph.D. Tap tap tap tap tap.

a calvinist preacher said...

I got hooked on A.C. after seeing Joan Hickson as Miss Marple - she nails that part and those older productions are far, far better than the new ones. Same with David Suchet and Poirot, though the more recent productions with him in that role have really twisted the original stories. I can just see some stupid BBC producer reading the script and saying, "Not bad, but could you sex it up a bit, what? Have to get some SA and a couple explosions in there for the youth market, don't you know."

Christie's view of human nature strikes me as rather Hobbesian. Civilization is a veneer in many ways that keeps our baser motives in check. The line between a child putting a frog in the clock and a neighbor dropping a body in your library is, as the human heart is concerned, non-existent, but civilization draws a distinction that keeps that motive from becoming destructive and so frogs in the clock are acceptable if irksome, but dropping bodies in libraries is not.

Kate Woodbury said...

I think that is EXACTLY what the BBC producer says! In fact, I think that is what most producers say!

There is a hilarious story line in As Time Goes By where Lionel sells his script to CBS and then they bring in their "script fixers" who demolish the original story to the point where it is completely unrecognizable—all in order to make it supposedly accessible to American viewers. Jean ends up in a tiny mini-skirt. Lionel ends up in some type of Irish guard's uniform (not exactly what the Brits went to Korea in), and Lionel's father ends up dressed as a 19th century British squire. Of course, the show bombs (except in Idaho).

I agree that Joan Hickson is the definitive Miss Marple! Helen Hayes isn't too bad. Although I like Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher, I think she is totally miscast as Miss Marple. I refuse to watch the Margaret Rutherford movies as well as the recent ones with Geraldine McEwan (who, as an actress, I don't mind; it's the scripts). I'm going to give Julie McKenzie a try, but I'm not holding out much hope. *Sigh.*