Last month on the Facebook Golden Age Detection page, the great blogger Xavier Lechard opened up the proverbial can of worms, and I have this to say about that!
First, though: if you are a GAD fan like me (and still brave membership on Facebook) yet do not belong to this amazing group . . . well, frankly, I don’t understand you. Finding this page was a lifeline for this classic mystery fan who had pretty much gone it alone these many years. Currently 983 members strong, the Golden Age Detection group shares favorite books and new discoveries, posts fascinating articles, intriguing questions or observations, and in all sorts of ways engages in a stimulating trade of ideas and opinions. It’s an active group and, naturally, this many people are occasionally bound to find themselves in disagreement, not only in our tastes, but in our perceptions of what is what, who is who, and – for all you impossible crime fans – how is how in classic mysteries. But when Xavier posed the seemingly innocuous question, “(What is) the silliest solution in a GAD mystery?” I don’t think even he was prepared for the, ahem, shitstorm he would stir up.
The definition of silly is: having or showing a lack of common sense or judgment; absurd and foolish.Synonyms include stupid, idiotic, brainless, witless . . . you get the idea. On paper, this sounds pretty bad, but I think most of us have a more benign impression of silliness as something childishly funny. The Three Stooges were silly. Bennie Hill was silly. The Muppets are silly. Clowns and mimes are “silly.” (Well, maybe there is a tinge of malevolence to be found at that!)
We all got what Xavier meant, and it had nothing to do with witless humor. He was asking when does a classic mystery solution stretch beyond the pale of its acknowledged unreal reality, its exaggerated depiction of a murderous situation, into the ridiculous? And what the answer turned out to be, if you could read between the lines of our knock down drag-out fight animated discussion was – pretty much all the time! For we couldn’t come to an agreement about any title!
Silly . . . . . or true?
Although I contributed to Xavier’s post, I was struck with a nagging worry that here we were falling right into the trap of the GAD naysayers who have long dismissed the whole canon as an absurd depiction of the committing and solving of crimes. The Golden Age authors never took it upon themselves to tackle crime-solving in a realistic way. Even the more procedural-type sleuths always got their man, and the suspects, methods and clues were rarely as banal as those found in real life.
As I pondered the motivations of early 20thcentury mystery writers, I was reminded of my film class, where I teach some of the history surrounding the invention of the art form. I discuss three pioneers from France: the Lumière brothers and Georges Méliès. Auguste and Louis Lumière sought to invent a device that could allow French audiences to observe the detailed realities of life. Their films had titles like “The Arrival of a Train” and “Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory.” Méliès, on the other hand, saw film as an art form that could take us out of our humdrum real lives by allowing us to witness pure fantasy on the screen, such as the sight of a rocket landing on the moon – and poking it right in the eye!
To my dismay while following Xavier’s post, Agatha Christie bore the brunt of the discussion. On the spectrum of realism, I think Christie tends to fall somewhere in the middle. While her plots have a touch of Méliès in them, the trappings of her stories – character, setting, social custom – really do give us an accurate impression of the lives of the British middle and servant classes during the first half of the 20thcentury. Yet while titles by other authors received brief mention (Allingham: The Tiger in the Smoke. Brand: Suddenly at His Residence. Bude: The Cornish Coast Murder. Carr: The Crooked Hingeand The Problem of the Wire Cage.Marsh: Death and the Dancing Footman. Queen: The Greek Coffin Mystery. Wells: Murder in the Bookshop), Christie titles got mentioned again and again: Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, After the Funeral, Sparkling Cyanide, Evil Under the Sun. . .
I resisted countering some of the arguments against these titles as long as I could. But since discussing Christie has become my métier on this blog, I finally had to speak out, especially when my beloved After the Funeral was mentioned. The reasoning behind those who would label this title “silly” was that the murderer’s plan seemed over-the-top ridiculous. Without giving anything away, the goal of anymurderer is to get away with their crime. The goal of a Golden Age villain is to do this with panache!
Misdirection was the tool of many an author, but Agatha Christie was its mistress. When Hake Talbot begins his best novel, Rim of the Pit, with a séance, he loses no time in exposing the psychic as a fake – and then doubles down on the suggestion that the subsequent murders are the work of a vengeful Native American spirit called a wendigo. Are we ever meant to take seriously the idea that an Indian werewolf is at fault here? Of course not. Talbot piles on the fantastical incidents – strange footprints, flying beasts, crimes that no human could have possibly committed – and we wait with bated breath for some natural explanation for all these miracles. It’s the code of the impossible crime writer. It’s the reason that a certain John Dickson Carr title – you know the one I mean – is so very vexing to many of his fans.
Christie introduced the supernatural and played with the impossible on occasion. (I hope to get more deeply into this topic sometime this summer.) But what she excelled in was a more prosaic form of misdirection. Christie – and, by extension, her murderers – could make you look over your right shoulder for clues and then prove beyond doubt that the truth lay over your left shoulder. She could toss a bomb in the most innocuous phrase or convince you that the date that Suspect X arrived was the salient fact when the trueimportance lay in the butler having to walk across the kitchen to see the calendar.
Within the imaginative, Méliès-like world of GAD fiction, the killer in After the Funeral has a very good reason to do what they do in order to effect their plan. A few choice actions, and this killer has the police chasing off in all the wrong directions. Now, since this plan is directly responsible for Mr. Entwhistle calling in Hercule Poirot, one could argue that the killer’s cleverness was their own undoing – but this is precisely what we are told about killers in one GAD novel after another!!! I accept this element of artifice. It leaves me with the impression that After the Funeral is a brilliant piece of work!
However, it is not my intention to argue my point over all these titles. The people who suggested they were silly are, every one of them, devoted and intelligent fans of the genre who are entitled to their opinions. It did make me think, however: does Christie ever get so carried away that her plots border on the ridiculous?
Well, there are the thrillers, of course, but arguing against them is hardly fair. All thrillers have an element of science fiction or Gothic horror in them. Vestiges of Edgar Wallace and Sax Rohmer, of Wilkie Collins and Poe’s orangutan, can be found in every tale of spies and adventurers from John Buchan to Robert Ludlum. Christie was no exception. She loved foreign conspiracies and evil masterminds. A few times, her passion paid off in spades: The Pale Horse is wonderful, and the secret of The Seven Dials Society is a delight. But all those “young Siegfrieds” of They Came to Baghdad and Passenger to Frankfurt? The secrets behind the leper colony in Destination: Unknown? Bah! Humbug!
But we weren’t talking about the thrillers in Xavier’s post. So let me offer a few suggestions as to where I believe Christie’s cleverness goes off the rails, starting with the one title that came up in our discussion over and over again. Murder in Mesopotamia (1936) provoked more response than any other, and to my great surprise, opinions veered so wildly that battle lines were nearly drawn. I’m not going to spoil the book for you here, but if you haven’t read it, I am going to describe it in enough depth that your enjoyment coming to it for the first time could be affected.
There is much to like about MiM. Its setting, an archaological dig in Iraq, is well rendered. It was an environment of which Christie had much practical knowledge. She based the main victim, Louise Leidner, on real-life archaologist Katherine Woolley. It was Woolley and her husband, Leonard, who had invited Christie to stay with them at Ur and introduced her to her future second husband, Max. Katherine was a fascinating woman whose unconsummated marriage to her husband was done to preserve a semblance of respectability on a dig full of men. Some authorities state she was a hermaphrodite! No matter: what is conclusively true is that she was both an invaluable aide in Sir Leonard’s work and a difficult woman to be around.
Christie (perhaps) exaggerated Katherine’s most mercurial qualities when she created Louise, a restless, neurotic woman whose sharp tongue, powers of observation, and desire for a passionate life make her the ideal GAD victim. Unfortunately, she is the most interesting character in the book, and when she dies, much of the narrative excitement dies with her. On the plus side, MiM is arguably Christie’s strongest attempt at an impossible crime novel: Louise is found in her bedroom with her head crushed in but with no sign of a weapon. She was seen going into her room alone. Up through her death, her doorway was under constant surveillance and no one was seen entering. The only window was locked and barred.
The solution to this situation is not the problem with this book; indeed, it is a perfectly fine solution, one that not only explains how Louise was killed but why the killer chose to make this a locked room murder. No, the problem with MiM is that the solution utilizes a device common enough in mystery fiction that here is so unbelievable as to be ludicrous. This was one of the first titles to pop into my head when Xavier posted his question, and I was not the only one. Imagine my surprise, then, when we found ourselves engaged in a fervent argument surrounding this device, with some people positing vociferously that, given the personality of the victim and allowing for certain elements of the time period that I don’t want to get into here, there was nothing “silly” about this plot point.
Classic mysteries are fantastical creatures. For every killer who simply shoots their spouse, drops the gun and runs, (how lucky for them that their neighbor then came in and picked up the gun . . . just as the police arrived) – for every one of these, there are the clever criminals seeking to build a better mousetrap, just like that marvelous game. Indeed, I think board games make a wonderful metaphor for the classic mystery. The killer is the designer of the game. The boards vary in appearance according to the villain’s need: an island shaped like an Indian, a castle with a locked tower, a charming country mansion. The character pieces that move along the board are as varied as those in Monopoly, and extra game parts – the wacky devices that kill invented by John Rhode; the maze of false alibis from Christopher Bush, Ellery Queen’s Challenge to the Reader –serve to make each game more varied and exciting.
It doesn’t always work, and as we GAD fans have all come to realize, prolific authors like Christie or Carr or Queen are bound to hit a sour note that renders a few titles, well, silly. Besides Murder in Mesopotamia, here are six Christie novels that, to my mind, are deserving of this dubious accolade, one from each decade she published. (Not a bad percentage, if you ask me.)
The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928)
Is it worth reading? Of course. Some wonderful characters embark on this misbegotten adventure: Katherine Grey is a marvelous creation, possibly the second-best Watson with whom Poirot worked (Mrs. Oliver was the first), and her Riviera relations are wonderfully awful (or awfully wonderful?). But Blue Train suffers from a vast infusion of “thriller-itis,” compounded by Christie’s emotional distress at the time of writing. The short story “The Plymouth Express” is padded beyond belief, and the idea of “Le Marquis,” a masked jewel thief/murderer, is silly from the get-go. There are some clever deductions about the time of death; otherwise, to be honest, I don’t recall much of Poirot’s work here. All the best ideas of this murder plot can be found in the short story; despite some entertaining passages, the rest is dross.
Dumb Witness (1937)
This is a highly readable and enjoyable novel, with all the trappings of a fine mystery. Again, it is based on a superior short story, “The Mystery of the Dog’s Ball,” which we can thank John Curran for making available in Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks. The prose, the characters, the repartee between Poirot and Hastings, especially in a funny scene where they portray – well, they resemble a couple trying to buy a house – all of this is worthy of your time. I don’t even mind the way Christie weaves the supernatural into this, although she does the séance bit so much better in The Sittaford Mystery. Her knowledge of poisons comes into play in a nicely creepy way here.
No, it’s the clue that breaks the camel’s back that makes this novel so damned silly. I really don’t intend to spoil anything here, so I’ll make this as oblique as I can be: there is an item that is presented as a clue against X, which discerning readers, applying a bit of logic and memory, can spot as an incriminating factor against Y. But this item has no business being where it is found. The very thought that it would be is so completely . . . SILLYas to take the whole book down several notches in estimation.
Sparkling Cyanide (1945)
Are we sensing a pattern here? We have yet another novel stretched out from a short story (“Yellow Iris”). But this is the 40’s, and the strength of Cyanide is in its characterization. The opening is pure gold, as six people who were present at the fatal birthday dinner for Rosemary Barton each reminisce about the events leading up to her apparent suicide. The rare appearance of Colonel Race is also welcome, although just as in Cards on the Table, he is ultimately relegated to a secondary position on the sleuthing chain.
No, once again, a book is done in by the most ridiculous of events. I can’t call it a clue. Call it an . . . accident? Yet for this accident to work, the entire cast – a group of people shown in the aforementioned opening chapters to be sensitive and observant – have to be so oblivious to their surroundings as to defy reality. And yet, for the events to unfold as they must, oblivious they must be . . .
Dead Man’s Folly (1956)
Let’s be fair here: while I actually do enjoy the earlier titles, this one has never been a favorite. The set-up should be brilliant: Mrs. Oliver is hired by Sir George Stubbs, a boorish country squire, to create a murder game for the local fete. Her intuition goes haywire, and she summons Hercule Poirot down to the country to see if something horrible is afoot.
Of course there is, but it all seems more contrived and cliched than Mrs. Oliver’s much more hilarious Murder Game, and the central trick is both reminiscent of Murder in Mesopotamia and far more dully employed than in the earlier book. Pieces of the plot seem dragged from earlier works, and – once again! – Christie wrote a shorter version of this one – Hercule Poirot and the Greenshaw Folly– which I have never read but which is available in case you’re interested. Still, you would miss the meta-fictional joys of Mrs. Oliver’s Murder Game plot, Christie’s nudge to readers that these tales can get ridiculous because we seem to like them that way!
The Clocks (1963)
There’s both too much and not enough going on in this surprisingly dull novel. A silly mishmash of international espionage and domestic murder (some may argue that Cat Among the Pigeons also suffers from this problem, but I love the girls of Meadowbrook School enough to forgive the excesses of Ramat), the novel suffers from too many cardboard characters and some shockingly weak plot points. (Does anyone remember why the clocks are present?)
Colin Lamb, the blind lady and one little girl are the bright spots in another grab bag of old ideas. The one saving grace should be Poirot’s discussion of his upcoming magnum opus on crime fiction. But instead of some true meta-moments, Christie chickens out and gives almost all of Poirot’s literary subjects fake names. Evidently, it has become something of a game to figure out who is who here.
Elephants Can Remember (1972)
It’s almost unfair to include this one. In fact, JJ recently argued its good points. Any time spent with Ariadne Oliver is okay by me, even if we have to deal with the likes of Folly, Third Girl or this title. But Christie’s powers were very much on the wane here, and the result is, logically, highly problematic. The time frame, the varying ages of the main characters, the vagueness of everyone’s memory over something that happened sixteen years earlier – compare this to the sharpness of everyone’s memory after a similar passing of time in Five Little Pigs; has there been a lot of drug use since then?
But the silliest aspect of this whole affair lies in the killer’s expectation that their crime will have a certain result. And even if everybody involved in the case fell out of a plane in the meantime and got amnesia, I cannot believe that nobody saw through this particular – thing! It defies belief, even in the gloriously insane world of GAD crime.
So there you have my six nominations for TSC – Truly Silly Christie. And you know something? I still recommend you read them. They do not show Christie at the height of her powers – far from it! Yet there are characters, scenes, and plot elements worthy of your time in each of them. In fact, I still re-read them all on a regular basis.
Isn’t that silly of me?