I have a bone to pick with Agatha Christie.
Yes, I know, I’m her biggest fan. Why, this very month, my pal JJ (of The Invisible Event) and I will be stepping in the ring and going several rounds in the whole Christie vs. Carr debate. But here’s the thing: in addition to my role as international blogger, I am also a drama teacher, director, and occasional actor, and I can’t get over the way Christie treats members of that noble profession. I intend to speak my mind about it here and now, and how fortunate that the opportunity presents itself this month as the Tuesday Night Bloggers initiate a new concept. April begins with an A, and so does everything we will talk about in our posts during this cruelest of months. And for my first topic, I want to talk about actors. Actors . . . and Agatha! (Check out the latest cover from our own Bev Hankins. That woman definitely came from Central Casting!)
It makes sense that mystery authors would set crime novels in the world of the theatre. There is something inherently dramatic about a bunch of people coming together to put on a show. William Shakespeare proved it in Hamlet when the Danish prince commissioned a troupe of actors to stage a special play “wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” Jane Austen proved it in the centerpiece sequence of her novel Mansfield Park, where the young people wait till Pops has left the house and try their hand at – gasp! – amateur theatricals! Tensions run so high that you don’t even need a dead body. Setting a murder in the theatre simply doubles your fun! It is the perfect merging of two art forms highly fraught with atmosphere and incident, and, as I wrote eighteen months ago in one of my first blogs for the TNB, “The theatre is a world of illusion and therefore a perfect breeding ground for a cleverly disguised murder.”
Ngaio Marsh understood this, having split her energies between writing thirty-two mysteries and working tirelessly in local playhouses to help create a professional theatre scene in New Zealand; many of her strongest works are set in that world. There’s nothing like the clash between a lot of larger-than-life people, all of them already nervous about an upcoming opening night, to fan the flames of murderous rage. Lots of authors knew this as well, and they set their murders smack dab in the middle of a theatrical production – John Dickson Carr’s Panic in Box C, Derek Smith’s Come to Paddington Fair, Helen McCloy’s Cue for Murder, Michael Innes’ Hamlet, Revenge – the list goes on and on.
You would think that Agatha Christie would have jumped at the chance to follow suit – nay, to lead the charge – given both her love of, and her involvement with, the theatre. In her Autobiography, Christie describes a love of the dramatic arts that sprang from childhood:
“One of the great joys in life was the local theatre. We were all lovers of the theatre in my family. Madge and Monty went practically every week and usually I was allowed to accompany them. As I grew older it grew more and more frequent . . . and the pit stalls, which were two rows of seats in front, behind about ten rows of stalls, were where the Miller family sat, enjoying every kind of theatrical entertainment.”
Christie tried her own hand at writing a play as early as 1930, with mixed results. Black Coffee received so-so reviews, even though she inserted Hercule Poirot himself as the sleuth. It wasn’t until 1943 that the author became a playwright again, more for reasons of self-preservation than any particular passion for the craft:
“I think what started me off was annoyance over people adapting my books for the stage in a way I disliked . . . I should have a shot at adapting them myself. It seemed to me that the adaptations of my books to the stage failed mainly because they stuck far too closely to the original book. A detective story is particularly unlike a play, and so is far more difficult to adapt than an ordinary book. It has such an intricate plot, and usually so many characters and false clues, that the thing is bound to become confusing and overladen. What was wanted was simplification.”
I understand Christie’s point here, yet it baffles me that she never tried things the other way round by setting at least one of her novels in a theatre, which surely would have worked better. She certainly saw enough of the milieu, especially in the mid-1940’s and throughout the ‘50’s. She counted producers and actors among her dearest friends. And yet, the moments that readers find themselves in a theatre in a Christie novel are few and far between.
Which leaves us with two ways in which Christie incorporated the world of the actor in her stories. The first involved imbuing plotlines with her vast knowledge of classic dramatic literature, especially Shakespeare. I’m not just talking about the fact that she named the longest running play in history, The Mousetrap, after that special performance Hamlet was preparing for his uncle. Dramatic themes form the basis of many of Christie’s most intriguing ideas, from Othello to The Duchess of Malfi to The Three Sisters.
No, it is the other method that annoys me, and here I would beg all of you who have not read much Christie to trod carefully with the rest of this blog entry: as my analysis progresses things will get spoiler-y, and by my final point, I’ll be giving the show away (so avoid #3 below).
Like many authors, Christie believed that one quality required of most murderers was an overweening ego. This is especially true in classic mysteries, where the crime itself is often a work of art. The “stage” itself can be highly dramatic, either in the form of a locked room or impossible crime or simply through the presentation of the body, possibly due to the method of the crime. Furthermore, the typical Golden Age crime involves a closed circle of suspects, which creates serious stress for the murderer. If the crime is premeditated, many factors – some of them human – can make a mess of the most carefully wrought plan. And if we’re dealing with a crime of passion, the chances of a witness to the crime or a clue left behind are even greater. Finally, think of all the books you’ve read where the crime is committed right under the nose of Hercule Poirot or Albert Campion, or Miss Silver, or Mrs. Bradley, or countless other amateur sleuths of great reputation. The ego that must be required for a criminal to gird his loins at the sight of the “great detective” and proceed with his criminal intentions anyway – or because he wants the “great detective” to witness the event and, hopefully, misinterpret the whole shemozzle – must be huge indeed!
If anyone was built to be a killer, it’s an actor! At least the actor you find in mystery fiction! The master of disguise, of false emotion, the man – or woman – who thinks first of him/herself and what he/she needs, the person most likely to overreact to any slight . . . A theatre is a veritable hotbed of potential murderers, all competing for attention and reward and love. If anyone tries to take any of these things away, an actor is ready to do something about it!!
But . . . take the actor out of the theatre building and place him or her in a roomful of ordinary folk and what have you got? Unless you seriously tone them down, literary actors stand out like a sore thumb! It’s a delicate problem, and it needs a fine hand to make it work. Christie had three ways of dealing with the problem:
ONE: Create a character who is unbearably unrealistic, a parody of a theatrical personality. Fortunately, this happens rarely, but when it does, it’s problematical.
For nearly a third of 1946’s The Hollow, Christie builds a character-rich family saga centering on a love triangle between a gifted doctor, a gifted artist, and the doctor’s wife, whom he chose precisely because she wasn’t gifted – instead, she could give him children, run his household, and adore him. Things in this family may not be quite right, but John, Gerda and Henrietta have maintained a delicate balance for years. And then Veronica Cray enters the room – “enters” implying a stage direction:
“And then dramatically, unexpectedly, with the unreality of a stage entrance, Veronica Cray came through the window . . . and stood there framed against the night, smiling, a little rueful, wholly charming, waiting just that infinitesimal moment before speaking so that she might be sure of her audience . . . She was lovely – not quietly lovely, not even dazzlingly lovely – but so efficiently lovely that it made you gasp! The waves of pale shimmering hair, the curving mouth – the platinum foxes that swathed her shoulders, and the long sweep of white velvet underneath them.”
Who in blazes is this – person – barging in on a British family on bridge night? I suppose Christie wanted to create a dramatic catalyst to send this slightly off-kilter clan all topsy-turvy. The problem for me is that the author already had all the elements she needed: the temperaments of doctor, artist and domestic spouse, coupled with the frustrated desires of Edward and Midge, the adolescent rage of David, the slightly mad maternal instinct of Lucy – any one of these could have set the murder plot in motion. Yet Christie decided to drop Marilyn Monroe into the scene. And I think this joke is apt, for there is an element of miscasting here. Veronica drags John out of the room and practically into her bed. She serves her purpose and is then extraneous, for she never comes across as a viable suspect. Perhaps this is due to her status as an outsider: the most striking image in The Hollow is when Poirot comes upon the murder scene, with all the characters of consequence posed – I use that word meaningfully – around the swimming pool, except for Veronica. She is later questioned and then dismissed from our minds. (I have to ask: who is that woman standing in the cover? I assume it’s supposed to be Gerda, but it is definitely Veronica! Advertisers are such liars!)
I would also argue that Veronica’s presence is an unnecessary distraction because Christie provides us with another portrait of an artist that is striking in its subtlety and emotional effect. In Henrietta, the author illustrates the battle between ego and devotion, culminating in one of the most stinging finales in her entire oeuvre.
Fortunately, I think Christie learned from her – dare I call it a mistake?! – as her subsequent placement of actors on the suspect list was much more amenable. In Crooked House (1949), Magda West is another stage star who knows how to make an entrance, but her role as Mommie Dearest is integral to the state of affairs in the Leonides household. In 1953’s After the Funeral, we meet theatrical couple Rosamund and Michael Shane, whose shenanigans provide an object lesson in how not to live the actor’s life, as well as providing both with motives for murder.
Two: Kill the actors!
I mean, really! What are you going to do with a pastiche of a person like Arlena Marshall in 1941’s Evil Under the Sun. Clearly, Veronica Cray learned from the best:
“It was then that a woman came down past them from the hotel to the beach. Her arrival had all the importance of a stage entrance. Moreover, she walked as though she knew it.”
I could go on with Arlena’s description, which is long and deliberately calculating on Christie’s part. She presents a woman with a certain type of power, the kind you see in leading actresses on stage and screen. The unwary reader makes assumptions about this power, granting Arlena a control over the situation which, in reality, she does not possess. We assume that she is a malicious man-eater, but Arlena is a born victim, through and through. Perhaps it is necessary for us not to see Arlena onstage, where her “power” is appropriately displayed. At a family resort on Leathercombe Bay, she stands out like a sore thumb, albeit one that is beautifully tanned!
She is the only major victim in all of Christie who is also an actress. Donald Ross and Carlotta Adams, both from Lord Edgware Dies (1933), though integral to the plot are barely seen. And Mabelle Sainsbury Seale, from One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940), a major – and delightful – character, is not presented as an actress, although it later becomes significant that she once trod the boards.
3) GREAT STAR SLAYS ‘EM IN THE AISLES – AND IN THE LIBRARY!
It seems to be that, given the enormous egoism required to be both an actor and a killer, that it would be too overt to stick one thespian into the dramatis personae and then make him or her the culprit. And yet, this is exactly what Christie does, not once but four times. (Okay, you neophytes, you really have to leave now – massive spoilers ahead!) Sure, she is adept at changing the manner of presentation in each case. More important, she makes it work maybe 75% of the time. (Three out of four ain’t bad!) But if you examine things closely, you can see some inherent problems. The first is simply one of spacing. Three of the four titles are lumped into a three-year spot during Christie’s career, as if she had a bee in her bonnet that she had to excise. Perhaps the bad reviews from Black Coffee three years earlier still stung!
Lord Edgware Dies (1933)
This is perhaps the author’s most straightforward presentation of the actor as killer. Jane Wilkinson needs to get rid of her odious husband so that she can marry a nobleman. She even tells Poirot that if nothing else works, she will have to resort to murder. She is seen walking into Lord Edgware’s house and his study, and after she leaves, he is found dead. Case closed.
Yet Jane has an alibi, and so the police and Poirot quickly move on. Really, though, how can Christie sustain this ruse throughout the novel? She opens the proceedings by introducing us to a genuine Jane Wilkinson impersonator, and then she kills the impersonator off. What are we supposed to make of that? It boils down to the question of which woman visited Lord Edgware in his study. Carlotta Adams might need the money – it turns out that she does – but what would a cash payment buy beyond impersonation? Murder?! There’s no indication whatsoever that Carlotta is capable of this sort of immorality. It struck me while reading this one – and I was a mere teenager – that if Carlotta had impersonated Jane, she would go to the party and not to the study. The murder of Donald Ross verified this for me beyond doubt. Which leaves us with only one possible murderer . . .
Murder on the Orient Express (1934)
Okay, okay, this one is probably unfair because the actress’ presence is not apparent until the end. Yet characters mention the American stage legend Linda Arden over and over again. She is the equivalent of Sarah Bernhardt or Eleanora Duse, so it makes sense at the end when it is revealed that she has been on the train all the time and in the most pivotal role.
It also brings up a fact that readers don’t talk about when discussing this novel – or any mystery for that matter: as a theatre instructor, I can tell you that it is a dead giveaway when non-actors try to act. Frankly, I’m always appreciative when an author describes a suspect post-murder as being shaken, devastated, nervous, and so on. That is exactly how you would expect a murderer to behave, even as they try to cover their tracks or slough it all off on someone else. Here’s where we return to the concept of ego: think of the massive expenditure of energy it must take to cover up one’s feelings after committing a crime.
(I speak from experience: in first grade, I hid my vaccination request from my parents in order to avoid getting a shot. Postscript: they found the form in my closet, and the upshot was I got the shot.)
Moving on: we discover in Orient Express that everyone is acting, and the idea is that they are so enflamed by a need for justice that it steels their nerves enough to concoct and participate in this lavish show for the benefit of the authorities. Now, it makes sense that in this pressure-cooker of suspense, the occasional suspect might give the game away. For example, lady’s maid Hildegarde Schmidt makes a passing reference to her cooking. Colonel Arbuthnot holds in his feelings like a true pukka sahib – until his beloved Mary is threatened! But all in all, everyone plays his or her part to perfection, and much of Poirot’s ultimate re-casting of the suspects is mere guesswork; his unmasking of Linda Arden is nothing short of a miracle.
In the end, I suppose it all works in the context of a Golden Age murder plot. It certainly made me jump out of my chair at the reveal, and I was delighted with Mrs. Hubbard’s transformation. It turns out, of course, that Linda Arden stage-managed the whole affair because you need a good theatre person running the show! Perhaps she even coached some of these suspects in the finer points of acting before the fact!
Three Act Tragedy (1935)
Coming nearly on the heels of Lord Edgware Dies, you would think Christie might cut an actor a break! Enter Sir Charles Cartwright, an performer with a problem. He wants to marry the delightful Egg Lytton Gore, but he is already married to a madwoman. The simple thing would be to send some poisoned chocolates to the asylum and rid himself of Wife #1. Instead, Sir Charles decides upon a most elaborate plot to get rid of the one person who knows about the wife. This requires two murders because, ever the dedicated artist, Sir Charles insists upon a dress rehearsal for the important murder. (This is the most clever part of the whole novel in that the motive for the local vicar’s death is truly baffling; plus, it draws a whole set of suspects into the villain’s scheme in order to obfuscate the truth.)
The problem here – and I say this as someone who actually loves this novel – is twofold: first, out of a dozen or so suspects, the only ones who really stand out as characters are Sir Charles himself and Egg. The rest are mere types, barely wound into the plot except to be there! Nobody seems to have a viable motive for killing anybody in this case! The second problem is that ultimately all the rehearsing and parts playing is for naught, and Sir Charles ends up sending those chocolates to his poor, doomed, crazy wife anyway. I know it’s pointless to ask this of a Golden Age murderer, but there must have been an easier way!
The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (1962)
On the one hand, this is the novel that works for me the best because the central situation – stemming from a true incident – is emotionally stunning and quite beautifully hidden. It doesn’t quite play fair with the audience, but that doesn’t matter so much in the end. What matters to me is the lack of viable candidates for alternate murderer. Who would want to kill Marina Gregg? It seems to me that Christie needs some potent possibilities here, and she comes up short. Ella Zielinsky is a strong candidate, but she dies. Hailey Preston is underdeveloped, as are nearly all the other characters. (Lola Brewster is a more colorless version of Veronica Cray.) Only Jason Rudd, Marina’s husband, is a constant presence and a significant possibility. Mirror Crack’d works on many levels, but it must ultimately be considered something quite different from a traditional GAD country house mystery. It is significant that Christie is loosening the structure in the very book that deals extensively with the passage of time and the change of traditions in a small English village.
So there you have it: my complaint about Christie’s vile mistreatment of actors. Are we all really that vain, that shallow, that sure of nobody’s life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness being as important as our own? And if you really feel that way, Dame Agatha, was it clever of you to drop a single actor into the plotline of so many of your novels and not expect us to immediately see through their façades? I plan to expose this weakness of yours in a new one-man show I will be mounting forthwith. I will be touring the provinces as soon as I can come up with really good costume and lighting designers who will show me at my best.
I’m ready for my close-up . . .