The difference between Agatha Christie in the 1920’s and the 1930’s was, in every way, startling. Although she was thirty when she published her first novel, there was something of the gawky girl in Christie’s writing and the tragic romantic in her personal life. Of the nine novels she published between 1920 and 1929, five were thrillers, which she loved to read and write till her dying day. Only one of the four remaining whodunits can be considered a classic now, yet that one book, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, sealed the deal, inaugurating her relationship with a better publisher and a lifelong love affair with the public.
In 1930, Christie was a mature lady of forty, in a mature new marriage, who managed by June of 1939 to have written eighteen mysteries (all but one of them whodunits) and two romantic novels. (Two of those books were to remain in a vault, unpublished, until 1975.) The variance in quality amongst this treasure trove of classic crime novels is much slimmer than in the first period. If she had written only these 1930’s novels, I’m sure she would still be considered one of the Queens of classic crime today.
From November 1939 to 1950, however, Christie proved she could change with the times and established what, for me at least, was her most creatively fulfilling and mature period. She proved that she could meld classic mystery with psychological depth, social commentary and occasional striking experimentation without sacrificing the brilliant misdirection of which she had proven herself mistress. She set challenges for herself that resulted in fifteen novels that included the richest work of her career. (Even the two romantic novels she wrote during this decade improved upon her work of the ‘30’s.)
This period began with arguably her greatest book, And Then There Were None, which remarkably will celebrate its eightieth birthday next year. It is my profound hope that we can organize a blogger’s celebration of this centerpiece of classic crime fiction then. The rest of the mystery titles are as follows (I’ve made it a point to write about most of them):
- Sad Cypress (1940)
- One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940)
- Evil Under the Sun (1941)
- N or M? (1941)
- The Body in the Library (1942)
- Five Little Pigs (1942)
- The Moving Finger(1943)
- Towards Zero (1944)
- Death Comes as the End (1945)
- Sparkling Cyanide (1945)
- The Hollow (1946)
- Taken at the Flood (1948)
- Crooked House (1949)
- A Murder Is Announced (1950)
The 1930’s focused on Hercule Poirot – 13 out of 18 novels – perhaps rightfully so, since whatever antipathy developed for the character himself, Christie lavished her most cunning puzzle plotting on these books, as befitting the world’s greatest private detective. The 40’s begin with a burst of Poirot and then trickle down as Christie gives us the first Tommy and Tuppence novel (and the decade’s only thriller) in nineteen years; the return of Miss Marple after a twelve year absence, followed by arguably her the two best novels of the old lady’s career; and four standalones that, along with And Then There Were None, proved that Christie was beholden to no fictional sleuth in order to create a fascinating mystery.
Today, I’d like to look at Miss Marple’s return – not because a personal preference for The Body in the Librarybut because it is fascinating for the way it straddles the classic and modern worlds and for how it works as meta-fiction. As always, let me come at this a bit circuitously.
In the 1932 Parker Pyne short story, “The Case of the Discontented Soldier” Christie introduced us to a character who would become a great favorite of mine and, I think, of many other fans. Everyone assumes – and who could dare to disagree – that Ariadne Oliver, mystery writer, was a sort of alter ego for her creator. By 1932, she is the author of “forty-six successful works of fiction, all best sellers in England and America, and freely translated into French, German, Italian, Hungarian, Finnish, Japanese, and Abyssinian.” Fans know of the many superficial similarities between the ladies: a love of apples and a hatred of crowds, and most significantly, a growing antipathy toward their quirky, foreign sleuth-heroes.
What I find interesting about this story is how Mrs. Oliver embraces the sub-genre of the thriller:
“’That water-in-the-cellar business,’ said Mr. Parker Pyne. ‘You don’t think, on a future occasion, that something more original – perhaps?’ He made the suggestion with proper diffidence.
“Mrs. Oliver shook her head and took an apple from the bag. ‘I think not, Mr. Parker Pyne. You see, people are used to reading about such things. Water rising in a cellar, poison gas, et cetera. Knowing about it beforehand gives it an extra thrill when it happens to oneself. The public is conservative, Mr. Parker Pyne; it likes the old well-worn gadgets.’”
Christie herself had certainly proven this fact throughout her first decade of writing, both in the novels and in a multitude of stories like this. Mrs. Oliver would prove her thrillerish mettle again in another of these tales, and then she would make her first appearance in a novel in the 1936 Poirot mystery, Cards on the Table:
- “(Miss Meredith) hesitated and then said, ‘Is that Mrs. Oliver, the novelist?’
- “Mrs. Oliver’s bass voice rose powerfully at that minute speaking to Doctor Roberts.
- “’You can’t get away from a woman’s instinct, Doctor. Women know these things.’
- “Forgetting that she no longer had a brow, she endeavored to seep her hair back from it but was foiled by the fringe.
- “‘That is Mrs. Oliver,’ said Poirot.
- “’The one who wrote The Body in the Library?’
- “’That identical one.’”
That title, along with the others Christie invents here as part of Mrs. Oliver’s forty-six novel long oeuvre, including The Lotus Murder and The Clue of the Candle Wax, exemplify with brilliant precision, that fictional lady’s place as a member of the GAD literati. How many mysteries set their murders in the library? How many played on the British love of exoticism or attached significance to an ordinary detail like candle wax? Likewise, in all her discussions of her process in this and other appearances, Mrs. Oliver exemplifies a deft attention to the puzzle and a willingness to recycle old tricks in new forms – just like her creator did.
Mrs. Oliver is a brilliant caricature of the GAD novelist and proof positive that Christie could be hilarious when she wanted to be. Significantly, she does not appear at all in the author’s work of the 40’s. We won’t see her again until 1956, when Christie has moved into a point that my insightful friend Christian Henriksson describes as “a solid (period for) Christie who looks back to her early loves.”
What Christie does borrow here is a title from Mrs. Oliver’s catalogue. But if any title had a more loaded meaning in the Christie canon than The Body in the Library, I can’t think of it. The title suggests those lovely little puzzles that flooded the market in the 1920’s: rich magnate gathers disgruntled family together at grand estate; things go very wrong at dinner; magnate found with his throat cut the following morning. In the library, folks!!
By 1942, plots of this sort were hackneyed; indeed, such storylines were one of the reasons the Golden Age gave way to the Silver Age, with its expansion beyond the puzzle toward more novelistic preoccupations. Thus, titling her latest novel The Body in the Librarysuggests the author is digging her heels in and remaining firmly entrenched in the past. She doubles down on this supposition with her opening paragraph:
“Mrs. Bantry was dreaming. Her sweet peas had just taken a First at the flower show. The vicar, dressed in cassock and surplice, was giving out the prizes in church. His wife wandered past, dressed in a bathing suit, but as is the blessed habit of drams this fact did not arouse the disapproval of the parish in the way it would assuredly have done in real life . . . “
We first met Dolly Bantry in 1929, when she debuted in “The Blue Geranium,” a story that began the second set of adventures for the Tuesday Night club. Dolly and her husband Arthur were endearing people, who hosted a group of villagers, including Miss Marple, and shared “real-life” unsolved mysteries that the old lady solved with a click of her knitting needles. Dolly, a beautifully drawn comic character, was obsessed with her flowers and her husband’s happiness, probably in that order. She did not appear in Murder at the Vicarage, so seeing her again a decade after the stories in which she was featured were published en masse as The Thirteen Problems, it is like greeting an old friend in an olden time.
Except this opening clearly indicates that those golden memories are exactly what they seem – a dream. Her husband insists this is so, as Christie gets in her first of many wonderful meta-jokes:
“You’ve been dreaming, Dolly, that’s what it is. It’s that detective story you were reading–The Clue of the Broken Match. You know–Lord Edgbaston find a beautiful blonde dead on the library heartthrob. Bodies are always being found in libraries in books. I’ve never known a case in real life.”
But this isn’t real life! This is St. Mary Mead, and every library, study, vestibule, master bedroom, and gazebo has, at one moment or another, been the resting place for a corpse. And so Colonel Bantry finally drags himself out of bed and goes downstairs to check. There the servants in his employ treat him like the staff does in Season One of Downton Abbey rather than in Season Four, with total deference and loyalty – despite the fact that by 1942 the old servant class had been all but decimated.
Library‘s magnificent opening – its best feature – was the culmination of a plan that Christie had been dreaming up for years. In her introduction to the novel, the author states:
“There are certain clichés belonging to certain types of fiction. The “bold bad baronet” for melodrama, the “body in the library” for the detective story. For several years I treasured up the possibility of a suitable “Variation on a well-known Theme.” I laid down for myself certain conditions. The library in question must be a highly orthodox and conventional library. The body, on the other hand, must be a wildly improbable and highly sensational body. Such were the terms of the problem, but for some years they remains as such, represented only by a few lines of writing in an exercise book.”
And so we find no monied lord sprawled dead on Bantry’s comfortable old bearskin hearthrug. Instead:
“The flamboyant figure of a girl. A girl with unnaturally fair hair dressed up off her face in elaborate curls and rings. Her thin body was dressed in a backless evening dress of white spangled satin. The face was heavily made-up, the powder standing out grotesquely on its blue swollen surface, the mascara of the lashes lying thickly on the distorted cheeks, the scarlet of the lips looking like a gash. The fingernails were enameled in a deep blood-red and so were the toenails in their cheap silver sandal shoes. It was a cheap, tawdry, flamboyant figure – most incongruous in the solid old-fashioned comfort of Colonel Bantry’s library.”
Christie does an expert job creating a sense of the discomfiture and inconvenience that this victim presents by appearing on the library floor. Better that it should have been Lord Edgbaston, a man of class – even if he beat his wife, tormented his children and buggered his secretary.
Immediately, Mrs. Bantry calls her old friend Jane Marple and begs her to come right away. Jane begins, as she always does, with the pretense that she is being called upon to provide comfort in time of stress rather than to play detective. But Dolly disabuses her of that notion immediately: “Oh, I don’t want comfort,” she says. “But you’re so good with bodies.”
Christie created Poirot with a full set of physical and emotional quirks that never varied, that marked him for the type of detective he would be. Miss Marple was always a more malleable character and grew sharper in focus as Christie’s career progressed. She was not a trained detective, but a natural. Like a professional psychic, she could read people based on the close observation that lonely old folks can choose to exercise if they wish. It has always made the puzzle aspects of her novels looser. What we get instead that we don’t find as much in Poirot is a much more ruthless look at society. Instead of “Papa” Poirot, we have a fluffy old biddy who believes the worst about human nature and is always proven correct. The dead girl on the library rug has a sordid tale to tell, one that will permeate the mystery to follow. Yes, there are some rotting family relationships at the core, but this case will be more than that: it will be full of sex, of people behaving stupidly or badly, of traps that force the reader to make the wrong impression of one character after another, until Miss Marple can finally set us right.
We also start to see a continuing trend that started with And Then There Were None: a more realistic depiction of the emotional toll murder takes on a community. Chapter Four begins: “St. Mary Mead was having the most exciting morning it had known for a long time,” and then gives a droll depiction of how the old women of the village, with their vicious thirst for gossip, condemn an honorable man out of nothing more than wishful thinking. These are the old women of Murder at the Vicarage in name only, whose vicious tongues do real socio-emotional damage. Colonel Bantry is labeled guilty by association because 1) Dolly Bantry is too happy and loyal a wife, and 2) it would be boring if Bantry was not responsible.
Christie then moves the bulk of the novel to the Majestic Hotel, the fictional depiction of the seaside resort where she had stayed and witnessed the real-life models for the Jefferson family dining nearby. Christie calls Jefferson “the pivot of the story.” His backstory is pure melodrama, worthy of any classic mystery, but Christie does an expert job of sketching in the emotional effects of a tragedy that has forced a powerful businessman, now crippled, to redefine his family. How does it affect the daughter-in-law who struggles to balance loyalty to her dead husband and concern for her young son with her own emergence from grief? Is the family cad as bad as he constantly claims to be?
The people in their orbit are not your typical dramatis personae from a 30’s Christie mystery. Quoting Christie again: “In the manner of a cookery recipe add the following ingredients: a tennis pro, a young dancer, an artist, a girl guide, a dance hostess, etc., and serve up a la Miss Marple!” This is the grubbiest list of suspects and victims we have ever seen in Christie, and it is to Miss Marple’s credit that she understands human nature and social custom enough to not be deflected by appearances. At the same time, she still lives by the code of social class; in fact, she solves a major part of the plot through an understanding of the difference in behavior between upper class and lower class girls.
As a mystery, to be honest, Library rates as fair to middling. It is lightly clued in the extreme, and the fact that Miss Marple pounces on the single most important piece of evidence almost from the beginning is highly convenient. A major part of the killer’s plan is lifted with very little modification from Evil Under the Sun, the novel that immediately preceded it. The expansion of suspects out of a family circle is perfectly acceptable, but here it makes the whole proceedings seem a bit disjointed. The final reveal is . . . well, its ordinariness is a bit disappointing seeing whose pen this comes from. I think it’s significant that the 2004 TV adaptation with Geraldine McEwan switches murderers and is able to do so without changing the basic plot at all. (The switch, by the way, is another one of those terrible ideas the writers of this series frequently had that were disloyal to Christie and her fans.)
But if the mystery is a little ho hum, everything else about the book – atmosphere, characters, social milieu – is just fine. It’s good to finally return to St. Mary Mead. It’s good to see the Bantrys and Sir Henry Clithering again; they make us smile even as they tug at our heartstrings. Characters like Adelaide Jefferson, Peter Carmody, Raymond Starr, even Basil Blake and his dirty blonde, fill us with sympathy. Best of all, we really get to see Miss Marple in action in a way we haven’t before, manipulating old men, small children (Christie writes children so well), the police, and suspects of every class and gender.
The author explored the changing world more frequently and with greater depth in the Miss Marple books than anywhere else, and this fact was brought to mind over and over as I re-read Library. One of my favorite scenes occurs when the police interview a hotel employee, one who has been drawn in such a way that we easily could develop a negative impression of him as an opportunist of the worst kind. Christie, who loves to manipulate our impressions of people and events, steps back to give us a firm slap on the wrist for jumping to conclusions here. It turns out that the man is fallen aristocracy and that he handles his economic predicament with grace and verve.
“I’ll say it’s hard to get a job nowadays when you’ve nothing to say for yourself except that you’ve had a public-school education! Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get taken on as a reception clerk at an hotel. The tie and the manner are an asset there. The only job I could get was showman in a plumbing establishment. Selling superb peach and lemon-coloured porcelain baths. Enormous showrooms, but as I never knew the price of the damned things or how soon we could deliver them – I got fired.”
The work he ends up doing at the hotel is often demeaning, but he is philosophical about the changing society around him. Even more, he is happy to find honest, hard work. These permutations are concerns Christie never bothered with in the heyday of her classic puzzles. Never fear! There are still great puzzles ahead, full of twists and clues. Yet with The Body in the Library, and throughout the decade, Christie would pursue her writing with a more deeply realized sensitivity for the world around her. In this instance, she may not have written her best, but she was writing at her best. That is an important distinction, and, to me, it counts for a great deal.