Defending Agatha Christie (Not That She Really Needs It), Part II

Paul Eddington as the vicar in Murder at the Vicarage.
He turns out to have no hidden secrets--though his
wife has a lovely one.
The second common assessment of Christie (usually a compliment, not a criticism) is that evil lurks even in a placid village.

This is sort of true. One of Miss Marple's mantras is that village life and city life contain the same kinds of people who commit the same kinds of human acts. In a number of books, she also points out the folly of believing what people tell you simply because you met them on vacation or because they own a nice house in the village. (In one book, Miss Marple gives an interesting analysis of English life post-World War II: village life has changed; new developments are cropping up; the pattern of "I know my neighbor because I knew his father" has broken down.)

The problem with this compliment, which is often used to oppose the accusation that Christie's books are "escapist," is that writers and filmmakers who try to imitate Christie far too often mistake the concept for the substance. 

I recently tried to watch another post-Joan Hickson Miss Marple, The Blue Geranium with Julie McKenize. I figured that the original was a short story; how badly could they really mess it up?

Despite Toby Stephens and Sharon Small as guest stars, it is dreadful--mostly because it mistakes concept for substance. The movie is full of SHOCKING REVELATIONS ABOUT MIDDLE-CLASS VILLAGERS! There's poisoning and adultery and serial adultery and suicide and wife beating. Blah. Blah. Blah.

Take Murder at the Vicarage (spoilers for all books follow). In that book, Miss Marple reveals that that an affair has been going on between a wife and painter; a mysterious woman is actually the ex-wife of the murdered man and has returned to amend relations with her daughter; and a curate has a nasty habit of stealing money from the collection plate.

Bunch, Miss Marple's niece, is exactly who
she appears to be.
On the surface, this seems the same kind of thing (HIDDEN SCANDALS BEHIND THE CURTAIN OF RESPECTABILITY!). It isn't. However, I admit that it is a struggle to put the "why" into words. It is partly a matter of tone, partly a matter of theme (there are plenty of respectable characters in Christie; she didn't believe that respectability by itself was a lie) and partly something else that, for lack of a better word, I'll call commonsense.

Christie's novels never leave one feeling like one just witnessed a soap opera--unlike so many of her imitators' works. However improbable, and her novels can become improbable, human nature never leaves the table. Her point is not that everyone has a deep dark secret but that people behave badly when they don't know any better or when they are simply bad. It is deeply moral viewpoint although Christie never, never pontificates.

One of Poirot's mantras, for example, is each individual will only commit a certain type of murder. A person might murder for love or money. He or she also might murder to protect someone else. Or because it is deemed right. Or out of psychopathy. Or in self-defense. Or from fear, rage, curiosity, desperation, etc. etc. etc. (Christie's book Cards on the Table tackles this connection between individuality and murder directly.) There are as many reasons as there are people.

From Agatha
Christie, speaking through her detectives, also often points to the difference between planning/wishing a murder and actually committing one. Christie understood the rage that can lead to self-destructive acts (hence, the remarkable film Agatha with Vanessa Redgrave and Dustin Hoffman), but she also understood the will not to act. The angry and dying "murderer," in "Wasp's Nest" is spared his loss of integrity by Poirot's intervention. Poirot knows that the man is not really so venal or corrupt and therefore, in a literal sense, saves his soul.

Finally, Christie argues that a bad person may refrain from murder if circumstances give him or her what he or she wants. That doesn't make that person good. The lawyer in The Moving Finger is completely amoral, but if life had given him what he wanted, no one would ever have known. Life doesn't, so the man murders his wife (and a maid) in order to marry his children's governess.

Added up, all this means that in Christie's universe, there is NOT a hidden scandal behind every curtain. Behind some, yes. But commonsense and individuality dictate that some people are exactly who they appear to be. If they do murder, the murder reflects their direct, non-hidden personalities. If they are intrinsically moral, they don't murder at all (at least, not on purpose). On the other hand, if they don't murder at all, maybe life has given them what they want, making them useless to the purposes of a murder mystery but perfectly allowable as members of the same stage. In sum, if commonsense dictates that a lack of scandal doesn't mean there isn't one, commonsense also dictates that a lack of scandal doesn't mean there is.  

Christie's ability to understand and portray this complexity of human reaction (some people are actually good; some respectability is real; scandal doesn't always lurk behind curtains like Polonius), when her rivals so continually fail, makes watching recent Christie films and reading Christie tributes something of a chancy prospect. Especially since, in reality, scandal doesn't automatically equate to interest--something Christie and her characters understood very well. After all, commonsense also dictates: just because you find a scandal doesn't mean that anybody cares.

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