What’s this? Two posts in one day?!? My adoring fans will grow tired of me – both of them! But after all, it is Agatha Christie’s birthday, and the blogosphere is lit up with celebrations and personal confessions over why Christie means so much to mystery fans.
Author Margot Kinberg really got into the swing of the celebration at her blog Confessions of a Mystery Novelist with an excellent post discussing Christie’s strengths, both those widely acknowledged (plotting, misdirection, breaking all the rules) and those sadly overlooked (subtle and innovative characterization, strong women who are defined by more than a search for love). You can read the whole post here.
One passage got me thinking:
“Christie also arguably innovative when it came to the characters of her victims and murderers. There are, admittedly, not that many credible motives for murder. But even within those parameters, she experimented with different sorts of characters who are killed (or who kill) for different reasons. And in several cases (I can’t be specific, for fear of spoilers), her killers’ characters are developed to the point that we can understand them, even have sympathy for them.”
I would argue that most of Christie’s murderers have very credible motives for doing the deed. In fact, today I took a few minutes and ran through the author’s bibliography to chart the plethora of motives Christie has used. I broke these down into six categories – Greed, Love, Revenge, Self-Protection, World Domination, and the ubiquitous Other – and I thought it would be fun to discuss these.
The major rules of how I broke motive down were as follows:
- I focused on the primary murder in each murder and not on any subsequent murders since most of these follow-up deaths occur because somebody found out too much. I only counted self-protection if it forms the basis of the murder plot.
- The EXCEPTION to focusing on the primary murder would be a book that had more than one killer, and where each culprit acted for different reasons.
- While I included every novel, I excluded the short stories and novellas for obvious reasons. (Mainly, there are way too many of them, and a great many deal with crimes other than murder.)
- I take that back: I did not include Postern of Fate. The plot of Christie’s last written novel is incomprehensible, (although there are pleasures to be had in some of the reminiscences that resemble Christie’s own childhood), and I did not want to peruse the book again to try and remember what purpose anyone had for killing Mary Gerrard. I think it had to do with Nazis???
- I may have generalized a bit with the thrillers which often contain multiple deaths that tend to lead to the same general motive.
The number one motive in Christie – and perhaps in all of mystery fiction – is greed. I counted twenty-seven novels where the killer’s prime reason for killing was gain. The most common example of this involves matters of inheritance, centering the mystery around a family and/or a marriage.
With family mysteries, this motive appears – I say, appears – more straightforward. Start at the very beginning with the Cavendishes of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and consider such families as the Arundells of Dumb Witness, the Lees of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, the Cloades in Taken at the Flood, the Fortescues in A Pocketful of Rye, the Abernethies in After the Funeral and the Crackenthorpes in 4:50 from Paddington. These and other books revolve around a passel of relatives all eager to partake of their share of a patriarch’s – or matriarch’s – fortune. Beware, however, of falling into the trap of embracing this old chestnut of a murder plot: in Christie, sometimes the entire inheritance plot is a red herring, and the true motive exposes someone heretofore not even considered to be suspect.
One could write a book about the variations Christie utilized in her novels set around a marriage. Here is Rule #1 of murder mysteries: when someone dies, especially somebody rich, the primary suspect is always the spouse. Funnily enough in Christie, when the husband or wife does turn out to be the killer, the detective invariably says, “I told you to always look first at the spouse,” yet when it turns out the spouse is not guilty, the detective never apologizes for trotting out that obvious rule and then going against it. I won’t list any of these books for fear of spoiling the fun, but I will warn any new reader that, unlike many of her peers, Christie was never overly sentimental when it came to love.
The next largest category of motive concerns the idea of self-protection. I counted thirteen novels where this is the primary motive for the main killing; there are countless examples of novels where people stumble on some aspect of the truth, endangering the killer’s safety, and must be bumped off to ensure their silence. Again, I’m not considering “second murders” here. Christie had a sense of humor about them and voiced her opinion, through her character, the mystery writer Ariadne Oliver, that these killings are something of a cheap trick that an author employs when she fears her readers are getting bored.
Some murders for self-protection cross over into the category of greed since the killer is trying to protect a profitable enterprise or some aspect of a good life that is being lived. Many of these killers are decent, kind, productive members of their society (and hence above suspicion) who may have made a mistake in the past or did something they can’t or don’t want to undo – like married for love instead of money or took advantage of a situation in a way that might be shady but seemed to hurt nobody at the time. Should this past come to light, the life they have built for themselves – and for others perhaps – would collapse into rubble. Often, these killers convince themselves that they are acting out of noble motives; a couple believe that the British government or the world economy would collapse if they are forced to pay for their crimes. (A pause for a gripe: this has become the go-to motive for nearly every episode of Midsomer Murders for the past ten seasons and almost as many episodes of Inspector Lewis. It’s getting tired, folks!)
Are you surprised to hear that only nine murderers kill for love? Yet this is a reasonable number for an author as unsentimental as Christie. The variations here run the gamut, from anger at thwarted love (often a crime of passion) to killing a current spouse in order to be free to marry a new love. The author travels to the darkest corners of human psychology in presenting these men and women whose love lives are thwarted. Outwardly, these characters may bear little resemblance to each other, but when they are exposed, we can see how they share the same streak of egotism, a sense that only their feelings matter. Whatever – or, in this case, whoever – they want they must get, no matter how many people get hurt, even killed, in the process.
I tend to lump the thrillers together, and that’s where you find the motive of world domination. The best thrillers do not deal with this; rather, their criminal exploits have to do with greed and self-aggrandizement. But the six books that drive so many of us Christie fans crazy tend to regurgitate the myth of a new world order, the emergence of a charismatic leader who will endow the world with his love in exchange for society’s capitulation to fascism. It’s all terribly hokey, and I don’t think that I have ever bought the world being in true danger from these nut jobs, especially not with some spunky heroine on the scene to foil this international threat time and again.
Far more interesting are the final two categories. The phrase “revenge is a dish best served cold” certainly does not apply to Christie, since the seven novels dealing with revenge contain some of her most fascinating and even sympathetic killers. The other significant thing about these novels, which makes it almost impossible to discuss them without truly spoiling them, is that, more than any other motive, the concept of revenge is hidden in the depths of the novel and only springs forth at the best possible moment to surprise the reader. My guess is that my fellow diehard Christie fans are recognizing these titles from memory and count at least some of them among the novels they have most enjoyed. The one title that explores this concept openly is Murder on the Orient Express. By the end of Part I, just after the murder has been committed, Hercule Poirot realizes a shocking truth about the victim’s identity and understands, with no doubt whatsoever, that this must have been a revenge killing. This fact proves to be the killer’s undoing, but even after the truth is uncovered and the who is connected to the why, more surprises are in store for the reader.
Which brings us to that category known as “other.” And, oh, the juicy delights that await the reader who stumbles upon these unique criminals. Often, these killers are mentally unbalanced to some degree, yet their motives are understandable. U.N. Owen, the serial killer in And Then There Were None, states his case at the beginning: like Agatha Christie herself, he believes that killers must be punished for their crimes with death; hence, murder for the sake of justice! Another multiple murderer never actually does the deed themselves but manipulates others to kill, just for the rush of power it brings. My favorite motive in all of Christie occurs in After the Funeral. I won’t give it away because it turns a complicated plot upside down, but when it is revealed, the moment is delicious.
Margot was correct in her analysis that Christie’s creative play with motive resulted in great innovation in character. These murderers might appear similar from novel to novel in that they comprise a cross section of the British middle class, basically decent people the lot of them. Rarely does a killer come across as a despicable person; some of the most cold-blooded amongst them possess the greatest charms. There are kind murderers, loving murderers, socially conscious murderers, even ladylike murderers! And throughout her career, Christie’s skill extends beyond her boundless capacity to surprise you as to whodunit and demonstrates her understanding of human nature through her ability to vary the reasons why they did it.
* Margot likes to title her posts after songs, so in honor of her inspiring me, I played around a bit with one of my favorite Beatles tunes!