Monday, August 16, 2010

Agatha Christie


In a not very flattering article about Agatha Christie in THE NEW YORKER last week, as part of a review on a new book by John Curran entitled Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks, Joan Acocella claims that Ms. Christie made sure no one could solve her puzzles because she provided little if any psychological depth to her characters.

Acocella also says "that any guessing we might do is fruitless because the solution to the mystery involved a fantastic amount of background information we are not privy to until the end of the book when the detective tells us." So it isn't so much that Christie was master puzzle-maker, but that she didn't allow the reader to figure it out. .

But even more damning, you cannot come away from this article thinking well of Ms. Christie either as a writer or a person. It is quite a long article and also delves into the racism, sexism, and xenophobia running through her books. Most of this went right over my head when I read all of her books in the seventies. I was reading entirely for the puzzle I think.

Another criticism, I've heard mentioned was Christie hard on the British lower classes. As Julian Symons said in his seminal work BLOODY MURDER, "the social order in these stories was as fixed as that of the Incas." And Symons was a more contemporaneous assessment.

What to you think? What strengths do you find in her work? Were her contemporaries any less subject to the prejudices of the time (Tey, Sayers, Marsh, Allingham)? Did they give their characters a firmer underpinning? Did they view the world with less prejudice? Did they play more fair with clues. I read them all years ago but haven't revisited except for Tey's Daughter of Time.

Or is the writer all wet in her observations? Defend Christie someone. Certainly our times define us to some degree, but did she fail to enlighten herself?

28 comments:

David Cranmer said...

I recognize the criticism leveled against her but I enjoy her body of work. Her books are bloody entertaining as the Brits would say. If one wants to solve a crime, go read Ellery Queen.

Margot Kinberg said...

Patti - There are many Christie novels in which her characters arguably have quite a lot of psychological depth. A few that come to my mind are The Mirror Crack'd and Taken at the Flood. There are several others, but I don't want to make this response too long. My point is, Christie did delve into psychology.

There are some Christie novels where the psychology of the characters isn't as deep. In my opinion, she may have done that deliberately. The reason is that in those novels, all of the characters are hiding something. They appear "flat" because they are supposed to be "flat." As the sleuth finds out more of the puzzle, we learn more about the characters.

I'd also like to comment on what the author mentioned about Christie deliberately keeping things from the reader until the end of a novel. For the most part, if you read carefully, the clues are there all along. Admittedly, the summing-up of a case comes at the end of the novel, but really, the evidence is right there. I don't think I've really ever felt that Christie was holding out, so to speak. Even in her novels that I consider less than her best, she doesn't spring surprises completely from no-where - the truth is there all along.

The author also takes note of the prejudices that seem to run through Christie's books. I agree that we see that here and there. However, in more than one of her novels, she seems to be holding the mirror up, so to speak, to the prejudices of the times. That is, she doesn't subscribe to them as much as shows them to readers. And more than once, it's the working-class people who give interesting evidence, and the upper-class people who are either guilty of a murder or at least not exactly nice people. I think you also have to consider that Christie was a product of her times, just as other writers always have been. She had a real eye for the social realities of her day and commented on them, though.

Thanks for the chance to comment on this...

pattinase (abbott) said...

I was hoping you would come over and defend her because I know you are more familiar with her work than anyone else who stops by. I only know that I read her books more avidly than anyone else's back then. I haven't reread though. It was a pretty upsetting piece.
Also the way mysteries are written has changed so much. The puzzle was the thing then. She did what she needed to to make that work.

Margot Kinberg said...

Patti - You're right about that. Intellectual puzzles were what writers did (still do, really), and she was brilliant at them. OK, 'nuff said; I don't want to monopolize your blog...

Joe Barone said...

Speaking as a reader, I tired of Christie's novels. I do appreciate the way she sometimes broke ground with unusual plots.

Like you, I read many of these books (I hesitate to say all) in the late 50's through the middle 70's.

Fleur Bradley: said...

Margot mirrors how I felt reading Christie's novels, though I'll admit it's been a while since I have.

As far as her sensibilities to class and race: I don't know if it's fair to hold her to 2010 standards--and I don't think her work is any worse than what's out there right now.

Ed Gorman said...

She was of her time and class. If you can accept this I think you'll find some of her books still very entertaining. My favorite of hers is The Body In The Library which is filled with classism. But the writer was remiss for not mentioning that the entire Golden Age reeked with the same attitudes as Christie's. This was, after all, at the end of English Empire and the writers, like the average Brit, still fancied themselves as rulers of the world.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Probably the volume of her work left her more open to criticism. I saw one or two of the recent Poirot dramas on MPM and did find the setup a bit wearisome. The huge assemblage of the possible suspects and victims particularly. But she created memorable detectives and settings and broke ground for those who followed.
Yes, I am not sure if she reflected attitudes toward gender and class of her times or was a bit behind them. Because class was so important in British society, it had to be a big theme.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've actually never finished one of her books. I don't think. I did start one once upon a time and didn't get through it. My aunt was a big Christie fan. I borrowed one of hers, but didn't much like it.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Not adventurous enough for you maybe? Too staid.

Chad said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chad said...

I've never been an Agatha Christie fan. I tried reading several of them and was bored out of my mind.

Of the ones I did read, I never much thought she played particularly fair. Sure, there may have been some clue that you, as the audience, found along with Poirot or Marple, but all to often the meat of the clue depended on some sort of background information that you weren't privy to until the end of the book. And I never much cared for the use of the detective hearing important bits of overheard conversation, but the audience not knowing about it and it's importance until the big reveal.

I understand that solutions to crimes are never as complicated in real life as fiction makes them out, but there was always a ridiculousness to me in the Christie plots that felt off in comparison to, in some ways, how mundane everything else was. But the whole...a murder depending on Lord So-and-So taking his tea in the garden every day at a particular time, while Lady Such-and-Such's maid runs her bathwater, and that perfectly coinciding with when the town's church bell rings, and of course that's also when the Old Farmer always takes his walk along the cliff side and he always stands in the exact same spot where, from the right distance and the right angle, he could easily mistake the new school teacher for the wife of the baker and give the school teacher an alibi and plenty of time to get rid of the gun with its lad retort covered by the church bells or something and groan.

Anonymous said...

That lack of psychological depth is what keeps the books alive; it allows them to transcend the trends of their times. Her books read like a comedy of manners Wodehouse

This "Stiff upper lip" stuff seems to be a reliable trait in English Lit and is part of why her books make good movies. It gives actors a bit of room for interpretation.

The same melodramatic lack of depth could be said of Arthur Conan Doyle, HG Welles, some of the less complex (and most popular) Dickens stories.

On the American side you could level the claim against great writers like Harry Whittington, Arthur Lyons, and Richard Stark's nearly perfect Parker books.

-Dan Luft

pattinase (abbott) said...

Chad-I think your observations might reflect the attitude of many readers coming to her books now. And many of the points Dan makes also point this up. Her books may become more commentary on the times than satisfying mysteries as we drift further from the idea that a puzzle is the thing. Hard to say.

Anonymous said...

Yes, some of it is true but in part she was reflecting the times and values of the society she grew up in. Remember she was born in 1890.

Second, because this woman was unable to solve any of the crimes doesn't make it true for the rest of us. There were several Christies I figured out. (PERIL AT END HOUSE is one that comes to mind.) The more you read the more you can understand.

Third, if she's so hostile, why read the books and write about them?

I read all of her books in the 1970's when I was fairly new to mysteries - since 1976 I've read only her plays and short stories - and I've long since moved on to other authors and styles. But for what she did, no one comes close to her.

IMHO

Jeff M.

Ron Scheer said...

It's hard to read someone out of context. I'm wondering how much of Christie is tongue-in-cheek, that wry kind of British humor that Americans just don't get and never did.

As for racisim, it's a common theme of the westerns I'm reading from the early 1900s. Indians, of course, were mostly savages. But characters in novels set in the Southwest are openly contemptuous of Mexicans, and the n-word is freely used for African Americans. Meanwhile, the word "white" isn't just an indication of skin color, but an expression of the intelligence, generosity, and trustworthiness of a character.

As others have said here, you have to just accept that these prejudices were part of the culture.

MP said...

I discovered Christie, and classic British mystery novels in general, sometime in the 60s. Even then I had sufficient critical faculties to realize she wasn't a very good writer, but I read her books--all of them as far as I can recall. Isn't that all the "defense" a writer needs?

Richard R. said...

I think the article - and his book - are a bunch of hooey. Some people seem to get off on slamming writers who have become icons. Fine for them, but they can keep it to themselves, as far as I'm concerned. This was just a play for attention and publicity for the book, the reviews of which have been unflattering.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I'm not sure that the author of the book had the same attitude that the writer of the article had. It seems to be more a exposition on how she wrote.
It's very hard for a writer not to reflect the mores of the time they live in, but by the sixties and early seventies, her writing might have changed. I wonder if a change can be detected. Bur maybe expected an 80 year old woman to see the world differently is asking to much.

Barrie said...

I began reading Agatha Christie in junior high. I never noticed any of this. No surprise, I guess. But I have to add that I loved reading her books. And, as Margot mentioned, I think there was depth to The Mirror Crack's (my favorite Christie book).

Dorte H said...

If one of my students had judged a Golden Age writer in this way, I would have told him/her they didn´t take her time into consideration.

I do think many of Sayers´ characters are more rounded, though, but when one considers how many crime novels Christie wrote (compared to Sayers´ baker´s dozen), it is small wonder that some of them seem a bit lighter than others.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I loved them too. I remember sitting on a beach with a stack of them I read one after the other. But it was a different time and I was in my twenties maybe I'd see them differently now.

Kerrie said...

I read Agatha Christie about 40 years ago and like you I read for the mysteries, and stories. Now I'm re-reading them in order as part of the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge, I'm seeing a lot of other things about them - her attitudes, social reflection, a mirror of the events happening around her and so on. I wouldn't say they lack depth. That perception is in the eye/brain of the reader.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Which ones have struck you as her best?

Max Allan Collins said...

Christie wrote with great psychological depth, particularly after the Second World War -- Taken at the Flood, Sad Cypress, Evil Under the Sun, for example. As a wordsmith she is underrated, and her dialogue is excellent, playwright that she was. Probably the best way to enjoy her is to listen to audio books, particularly Poirot novels read by David Suchet or Hugh Fraser.

There is sharp social criticism and satire, very tough on the upper classes, when you pay attention. In general, Christie had a bleak opinion of the human race, and her detectives -- Marple and Poirot -- are as hardboiled in their attitudes as Marlowe and Hammer are in their behavior.

The article was nonsense. Ignorant nonsense.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I am hoping to see some letters to the editor saying these things in the next weeks.
I am misrepresenting the author to some degree because she does credit her with inventing the modern murder mystery and gives a nice summary of her life.
It was the negative evaluation of her work and attitudes that stung.

Kerrie said...

The best so far
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (audio) 4.7
THE THIRD GIRL -audio 4.7
THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE 4.7
DEATH IN THE CLOUDS 4.6
DEATH IN THE CLOUDS (BBC Radio CD) 4.6
THE ABC MURDERS 4.6
THE MYSTERY OF THE BLUE TRAIN 4.6
PERIL AT END HOUSE 4.5
THE THIRTEEN PROBLEMS 4.5
LORD EDGWARE DIES 4.5
THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES 4.5
SLEEPING MURDER (Audio CD) 4.5
AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (Audio CD) 4.5

Kerrie said...

Patti - you'll get an email showing that I (on your behalf) have submitted this post to the Agatha Christie Reading Carnival - hope that is ok with you