IT TAKES A WOMAN: My Favorite Females in Christie

Well, it’s Sunday. And it’s been raining heavily for twenty-four hours. And I have to go back to work tomorrow after a two-week vacation. And Moira over at Clothes in Books posted a lovely report about one of my favorite Christie females, Dr. Sarah King from Appointment with Death, which inspired me to run over Agatha Christie’s bibliography and see if I could come up with a list of my favorite women in the canon.

It’s hard, believe me, because the author was especially good at creating women who were spunky and wise, complex and troubled, darling and dangerous. I came up with a list of fifteen, and I’m already regretting some of the omissions. The pair I’m most sorry about are the Otterbournes, Salome and Rosalie, and I only excluded them because I made up a rule that I could only choose one per novel. Ladies, I vow to include you in some future treatise on mothers and daughters in Christie, okay?

At first, I divided the list into “heroines” and “suspects,” but I realized that it’s important here not to give away spoilers. Some of these characters are favorites because they are murderers, but I will only identify one of them as such. I also refuse to list them in order of preference because . . . hey, I gotta work tomorrow. I think the varied nature of this list bespeaks a talent for characterization that those of us in the know have always credited Christie with. And so, I present them in order of chronological appearance.

francesca-annis-agatha-christie-s-partners-in-crime

Prudence “Tuppence” Cowley Beresford (first appearance in 1922’s The Secret Adversary)

I have a complex relationship with the Tommy and Tuppence arc, but the highlight of their saga are the characters themselves, especially Tuppence. She is Nora Charles (if Nora was a teetotaler) or Mrs. North with a British veneer: the ultimate snoop who you would like in your corner (as long as her husband was right behind her to set things right.) My favorite Tuppence Beresford book: Partners in Crime

images

Katherine Grey (1928’s The Mystery of the Blue Train)

Katherine deserves a much better book because she is sharp and clever and has to do all the dangerous work of making love to several undesirable cads while Poirot gets all the credit at the end. I especially love her in the beginning when she takes on a small town and earns an inheritance for it then grapples with various unsavory relations as well as a jewel thief/murderer and wins the day. (Honorable mention: I’m rather fond of poor Lenox Tamplin! She and her mother will have to figure in that parent/child post!)

MissMarple_JoanHickson

Miss Jane Marple (first appearance in 1930’s The Murder at the Vicarage – and yes, my favorite Miss Marple is Joan Hickson!)

Perhaps in some ways she is Christie’s greatest creation, or one could argue she is second only to Poirot. She’s not the first spinster sleuth, but she is the best. Her pessimism about human nature is shocking to some and refreshing to her readers. She is kind when it comes to orphaned servant girls or insufferably smug nephews and ruthless when it comes to killers. Everyone wants a great-aunt like her. My favorite Miss Marple novel: A Murder Is Announced

3283700493_d4d3b95973

Griselda Clements (1930’s The Murder at the Vicarage)

No, this doesn’t break my rule since Miss Marple is a multi-novel experience. Griselda is the best vicar’s wife in Christie (Bunch Harmon would be a great friend to her!). Even before she becomes a suspect, you want to read a series of comic novels about her marriage to the much older and stuffier Len Clements. Her brazen teasing of the elderly Women’s League, her brazen defiance of what it means to be a model religious spouse, and her deep love for Len despite the fact that she is very much “a catch” all add up to a delightful woman. The fact that Vicarage is a little long means that Griselda’s appearances tend to liven things up!

2e434c0a1fbd9675e066cc493e890881

Emily Trefusis (1931’s The Sittaford Mystery)

I’ll just say it! I put Emily down because when I think of this novel, I think about the murderer’s plot – which is one of the few that this teenaged Christie fan figured out – and Emily. And yet, I don’t remember much about her. That means that Sittaford is definitely due for a re-read! I seem to recall that she’s trying to save a totally unsuitable beau from the gallows, much like Maude Williams attempts to do in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. Along the way, Emily meets Mr. Right. Did anyone see the abominable TV adaptation where Mr. Right was changed to Mr. Murderer???? Good grief! Emily deserved better!

 

murder-on-the-orient-express-image1

Mrs. Hubbard (1934’s Murder on the Orient Express)

I can’t say that Agatha Christie had a brilliant way with Americans, but there are a lot of U.S. citizens in this novel, and Mrs. Hubbard epitomizes a “type”- the loudmouthed housewife with enough money to throw her weight around on vacation. As the facts emerge in this case, things get pretty tense, and Mrs. Hubbard provides some much needed comic relief, as well as a couple of clues that help lead Poirot to the solution. You couldn’t ask for more from a character.

I thought Lauren Bacall did a pretty good job in the film, but it wasn’t what I pictured. And now, Kenneth Branagh seems to be taking this typical American housewife even further afield with Michelle Pfeiffer. (Hey, the role was offered to Angelina Jolie. No, really!)

ariadne-oliver_jpg_235x611_q95

Mrs. Ariadne Oliver (first appearance in 1934’s collection Mr. Parker Pyne Investigates: first novel is 1934’s Cards on the Table)

Maybe Christie didn’t funnel her feelings about writing into Mrs. Oliver, the mystery author who created a quirky Finn named Sven Hjerson, who liked apples, feared autograph hounds and hated publicity. Oh yeah, Mrs. Oliver was her own woman. She started out as something of a caricature of the zany authoress into female empowerment (“Now if a woman ran Scotland Yard . . . “), but as of Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, she became the new Hastings – and a much more interesting companion in detection to Poirot. She livened up considerably most of the mediocre final novels. She really is the only one worth reading about in Elephants Can Remember. And one can’t help but feeling that Mrs. Oliver was Christie’s chance to offer us some cloudy insight on what it felt like to be Agatha Christie.

51HWZT6E82L

Dolly Bantry (first appearance in 1932’s story collection The Thirteen Problems)

I absolutely adore this woman (who is nothing like Joanna Lumley, what were they thinking???). The unfolding of Dolly’s life is one of the few ways Christie shows the passing of time and its effect on our lives. We see her as a loving wife to that curmudgeon, Colonel Arthur, willing to go a-sleuthing in A Body in the Library to save her husband’s good name. And we see her as a widow who has lost her beloved Gossington Hall to an American movie star in A Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side. But it is in the storytelling group of The Tuesday Night Club that Dolly shines. Her inability to tell a story illustrates how funny Christie could be.

deathonthenile_cover__span

Jacqueline de Bellefort (1937’s Death on the Nile)

If this book were not a murder mystery, Jacquie would still be a compelling character. Christie tries to force us to identify her by her “hot Latin blood,” when really Jacquie is the smartest tool in any room. Her story of impoverishment, leading her to depend for happiness on a faithless old friend, is the stuff of classic literature. Like Poirot, we want Jacquie to let it go, to give her great love Simon to Linnet, stop the stalking and move on. Even at the end, when we realize how impossible it would have been for Jacquie to make that decision, we still wish she had found some happiness. She might be Christie’s most heartbreaking character.

And_Then_There_Were_None_US_First_Edition_Cover_1940

Vera Claythorne (1939’s And Then There Were None)

To me, the greatest gift of the recent BBC adaptation of And Then There Were None is that we finally got to see the real Vera. It’s no spoiler to tell you that she is a murderer because she lives in a house full of murderers. But is she the murderer? It’s no accident that Vera’s fate is saved for last. Her torment and guilt are the most interesting in that bunch. What an unlucky day when Christie was persuaded to change her ending for the play and make Vera a pure heroine. It robbed us of one of the darkest endings of any classic mystery.

19536P

Honoria Waynflete (1939’s Murder Is Easy)

Both 1939 novels are about serial killers, and Miss Waynflete, a small town librarian, serves for much of the novel as a sort of replacement to Miss Marple, helping Luke Fitzwilliam with his inquiries into the death of eight villagers. She is also the temporary repository for Wonkie Poo, a very important clue to the murders who happens to be shaped like a cat. Miss Waynflete knows more than she seems and helps provide a stunning climax to the goings-on in Wychwood under Ashe, proving that nobody wrote spinsters like Agatha Christie.

1532-M

Henrietta Savernake (1946’s The Hollow)

A lot of people don’t like The Hollow, but they like Henrietta. Although she doesn’t resemble him, in many ways she is the female equivalent of Amyas Crale, the artist victim of Five Little Pigs. Although she is carrying on a long term affair with a married man, there is something so inherently good and right and moral about Henrietta that makes her the person you want to turn to when anything goes wrong. There is also an inherent selfishness about her – something Christie found, or placed in most of her artist characters – that leads us to a startling yet completely satisfying final page.

7fce574a918cfa486dcbc89d1914e993

 

Miss Gilchrist (1953’s After the Funeral)

I don’t need to go into any detail as to why this is my favorite Poirot and one of my very favorite Christie novels. It’s the one thing Sophie Hannah and I agree about: there’s no motive like the one you will find in Funeral! People who have read Christie through will understand why I love Miss Gilchrist. For everyone else, I suggest you read this book and remember what I said earlier: “Nobody writes spinsters like Agatha Christie.”

 

tumblr_mde0js1MVM1r50xez

Lucy Eyelesbarrow (1957’s 4:50 From Paddington)

Frankly, the most intriguing thing to me about Lucy is that Christie only used her once. I think she would have made a brilliant series sleuth. Miss Marple (and the author) wisely give Lucy center stage through most of the novel. Her interactions with the children at Rutherford Hall are absolutely delightful, which leads us to believe that despite her brilliance as a working woman, Lucy will make a fabulous wife and mother. Now, if only we could come to some agreement at the end as to who her intended will be. (I plump for Craddock.)

images

Julia Upjohn (1959’s Cat Among the Pigeons)

It’s late, I have to go to bed, and I have to go back to school tomorrow. So it’s only fitting that I end this list with a schoolgirl. Julia is the most attractive child character in all of Christie. Her relationship with her mother is thought to have been modeled after that of Christie and her daughter Rosalind. In a novel that is slightly unsure of what it wants to be – a spy adventure or a whodunit – the scenes at the girls’ school shine and those featuring Julia shine brighter. She is lovely in her ordinariness, and it’s gratifying that she gets the spotlight by bringing Poirot into the case. He comes in awfully late, and one could argue how much more fun it would have been if Julia had solved the case herself!

So there you have it: my top fifteen Christie females. I couldn’t do this with the men. With the exception of Poirot, they do not rise to the same levels. And that, to me, is perfectly okay!

Advertisements

16 thoughts on “IT TAKES A WOMAN: My Favorite Females in Christie

  1. I don’t know Christie nearly well enough to compile my own list (though I’ve always had a soft spot for Cynthia Murdoch from The Mysterious Affair at Styles for reasons that would be spoiler-ish to share and I recently read The Clocks and rather fell for its heroine Sheila Webb) but do agree that the depiction of Vera in the recent adaptation really got the character back to her true essence..

    Like

    1. I love the radio version and will listen to it again soon! I think the big book Mrs. Otterbourne wrote – Snow in the Sphinx, or something like that – Christie herself wrote . . . as a teenager.

      Like

  2. Such great choices, Brad!! I’m especially delighted to see you include Julia Upjohn. I really, really liked her character. I also like Honoria Bulstrode, from the same novel. And Lucy Eyelesbarrow – what a fantastic female character. Well done!

    Like

  3. Am I right in thinking that Honoria Waynfleet was the one described in goat-like terms in ‘Murder is Easy’?

    I quite liked Henrietta Savernake in ‘The Hollow’ – if Poirot found her smart she must have had plenty of grey cells!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that’s right, and she got the big Christie prize of having a poem quoted about her:

      “Oh, why do you walk through the field in gloves,
      Oh fat, white woman who nobody loves?”

      Like

  4. Excellent choices. There were a few there I hadn’t thought of but when I saw them in your list was like oh yeah that’s a good one. Interesting that you predominately steered away from Christie’s thrillers. Not always brilliant plot wise but I have often felt that the female leads are usually quite good. Also interesting that none of your choices seem to come from books post 1960 (excepting Miss Marple/ Ariadne Oliver). Not a bad or wrong thing but intrigued me as to where the standout females had gone. Or maybe you did have some from that time period but they didn’t make the top 15?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The exclusion of thriller heroines and women post 1959 was intentional. With the thrillers, I just don’t like them enough to dwell in the merits of Victoria Jones vs. Anne Beddingfield vs. Hilary Craven, stuck as they are in silly plots.

      I could have added 1960+ characters and increased the list to twenty or so. That list would have included:

      1. Cherry (The Mirror Crack’d) because I love how she rebels against the nouveau architecture and stands by Miss Marple

      2. Molly Kendall (A Caribbean Mystery) – she’s a victim but you root for her

      3. Ginger Corrigan (The Pale Horse) – very brace and so clearly the right match for Mark Easterbrook; she will make him a better man.

      4. Miss Pebmarsh (The Clocks) – she might be Christie’s only blind character, and she breaks stereotypes in every way

      A fifth doesn’t come to mind, but I’m sneaking this in during a faculty meeting, so I’ll stop! 🙂

      Like

      1. haha liking the sneakiness! The only one of those which kind of stands out for me is Cherry. Kendall is too drab a character. There’s quite rake of females in Nemesis, one of whom makes quite the killer.

        Like

  5. Oh this is great, so proud to have inspired it. An excellent collection, with wonderful analysis, and you make a great point about the men – indeed, they haven’t half the interest of the women. Now I have to think about my own list – some overlap but not 100%.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Love this article!!! Most of the names I’d definitely also put in my top ten! There is of course Miss Marple, but also the lovely Dolly Bantry, the dedicated wife Griselda Clements, the delightful Ariadne Oliver (did you know that Ariadne was the one in Greek mythology who helped Theseus escape the minotaur by enraveling a thread that would lead them out of the labyrinth? Nice touch!) and Tuppence Beresford – she’s intelligent, witty and .. everything! Henriette is there in her list too, the artist who out of love for the wrong man does what she has to do, Lucy Eyelesbarrow the efficient girl who steals the hearts of two brothers… But one woman I do miss is Mrs Lorrimer from Cards on the Table. If you remember her – she confessed to a murder she did not commit. The one she did commit – she does not elaborate about which Poirot finds classy and stylish.

    Like

  7. Find your blog via Google and as an Agatha Christie fan, I’m loving it. As for this list, the only one I’m missing is one of the IMO great female characters in A Murder is announced. Dora Bunner would be my first choice.

    Like

    1. AMIA has a solidly amazing set of female characters. I don’t know why I didn’t fit one in as it’s my favorite Marple. Dora is a source of laughter and pathos! (As is Amy Murgatroyd!) Thanks so much for checking another huge Christie fan out!

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s