A CENTURY OF AGATHA CHRISTIE, PART ONE: Roaring into the 1920’s

“Why not make my detective a Belgian? . . . A retired police officer. Not too young a one. What a mistake I made there. The result is that my fictional detective must really be well over a hundred by now.” 

                                                                        Agatha Christie’s Autobiography

WORKS

Nine Novels 
The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920/21) 

The Secret Adversary (1922)

The Murder on the Links (1923)

The Man in the Brown Suit (1924)

The Secret of Chimneys (1925)

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926)

The Big Four (1927)

The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928)

The Seven Dials Mystery (1929)

Notable Short Story Collections 

Poirot Investigates (1924/5)

Partners in Crime (1929)

Also, The Road of Dreams, a book of poetry published in 1924, and The Lie, a play that remained unpublished and undiscovered until Julius Green found it in 2018 while researching his book, Curtain Up.

The first stage adaptation of a Christie story appeared in 1928, written by another playwright. Alibi (retitled The Fatal Alibi) was written by Michael Morton and starred Charles Laughton, probably miscast, as  Hercule Poirot. It is most notable for provoking Christie’s ire to such an extent, due to the changes in the plot and characters, that it inspired her to become a playwright herself.

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No one is suggesting that the author emerged fully formed as a master of the genre, but her debut in 1920 was auspicious. Sparked by a bet between sisters, inspired as much by a filial competitive spirit as by a mutual love for the mystery genre, her first novel took four years from inception to publication, during which time society endured a world war, a global pandemic, and an economic depression. (Sound familiar?) It was rejected by two publishers before the third, The Bodley Head accepted it – provided that the author rewrite the ending. Even then, the book did not appear in the U.K. until three months after it had been published in the United States.  This, to me, seems auspicious because – as I will never let my British friends forget – Agatha Clarissa Christie, nee Miller, was half American.

In The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Christie includes two major plot techniques which she would incorporate again and again, in works great and small, throughout her career. (SPOILERS LIE AHEAD.) The first involves dangling a suspect before our eyes, pulling him utterly out of consideration, and then serving him up to us as the killer in the end. Murder schemes might be complicated in her books, but the motivations that inspire a killing are simple: greed, love, hate, fear. Consequently, even when the unmasking of a culprit engenders surprise, as it does in a lot of Christie’s work, that initial shock quickly gives way to a satisfied sense of fait accompli

What Christie establishes here as a credo that will last throughout her career is the idea that murderers create complex plots in order to mask their culpability; the fact that the killer ultimately has the strongest motive and emotional temperament to commit murder is made apparent at the unmasking. That there are a variety of such temperaments, and that these are calculated with one or more of those basic motives, results in a rich variety of crimes and killers. That Christie, in her debut, could take what she describes in her Autobiography as “the most usual kind of murder” and make it surprising and delightful displays a native ability that would grow more polished with time. 

The other trope we find in Styles is the concept of the “Deadly Duo,” a male/female couple bound by passion and unencumbered with a strict moral compass, who weave a tangled web of deceit for their own benefit. I count fourteen novels in the canon where this is used, including some of the best and some of the worst of Christie. (I place Styles somewhere in the middle of that ranking.)

Still, the best thing about The Mysterious Affair at Styles by far is its detective. Christie carefully planned her sleuth with an eye to a writing career, drawing both on personal knowledge (an enclave of Belgian refugees living close to her home) and on the acknowledged success of larger than life fictional sleuths: her beloved Sherlock Holmes, Poe’s Dupin, and Gaboriau’s Ledoq, among others. From Doyle, Christie took the idea of giving her hero a Watson. Captain Arthur Hastings is a loyal friend and a most gullible second. Hastings has the ability to see each and every thing the wrong way around, and yet, with the extraordinary abilities of a fairly stupid man, he can blurt out something that leads accidentally and inexorably to the truth. 

Poirot emerges fully formed on the page, near the start of Chapter Two, as: 

“ . . . an extraordinary little man. He was hardly more than five feet, four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His mustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible. I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound. Yet this quaint dandified little man who, I was sorry to see now limped badly, had been in his time one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police. As a detective, his flare had been extraordinary, and he had achieved triumphs by unraveling some of the most baffling cases of the day.”

Before the novel is over, Christie abandons the limp; in fact, halfway through the book, Poirot begins gamboling about the countryside, as if solving murders imbues him with youth and vigor. She endows Poirot with eyes that glow green when he has solved a problem, and the little grey cells – his super-power – which would become a part of the mystery reader’s lexicon. 

For much of her career, Christie liked to complain that she felt saddled with Poirot, and yet she not only knew where her bread was buttered, she was fiercely protective of the character. Poirot appears in five of the nine novels she wrote in the 1920’s, as well as a book of stories, and he dominates the 1930’s. And when, in 1928, playwright Michael Morton brought Poirot to the stage in Alibi, Christie was so disappointed in the results that she launched her own playwrighting career two years later with Black Coffee. Even then, she understood that the depiction of a character as specific and as popular as Poirot was problematic: his presence on stage distracted audiences from the facts, whether through his colorful presence or the critical reception of it. From that point, Poirot never appeared on the stage again.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose work and inherent success profoundly influenced Christie, at least at the start, was willing to settle on the creation of one sleuth (and he only killed him off once!) But Christie was far more ambitious, at least as her next four books would attest. 

With The Secret Adversary, she invented a new pair of detectives and evinced a different, jauntier tone than in Styles. Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, who would inhabit four novels and a charming collection of stories, tend to straddle the worlds of the mystery novel and the thriller. They are also an experiment of sorts for Christie, who would quickly become aware that she had set Poirot at too advanced an age to make sense. The Beresfords are “bright young things” at the start and the only heroes in the canon who advance in age at a relatively realistic rate (although it doesn’t pay to calculate how quickly their children grow into adulthood!) The T&T stories are light on clueing, focusing on the blithe relationship of the duo and the (slightly stale) sense of derring-do that accompanies them. Adversary is not their strongest book, but they make a good enough impression on both author and audience for Christie to periodically trot them out of the drawer until the end of her life. 

We return to Poirot with Murder on the Links: not my favorite by any means, although many consider its mystery elements a vast improvement on Styles. The real joys for me in this title are the expansion of the relationship between Poirot and Hastings (Hastings, hopelessly lovelorn through much of the book, is at his most charming here) and in the fun Christie has with the rivalry between Poirot and the French master policeman Giraud. Two thrillers follow in rapid succession. Christie seemed to love writing them; I think she once said they were easier to write, and since they are scarcely clued and tend to have, at most, a shaky connection to real world events, she seems looser in her plotting and writing of these books. A lot of readers have said The Man in the Brown Suit is their favorite of these books, citing an enjoyment of its heroine, Anne Beddingfield. I confess I don’t love the thrillers (except one . . . we’ll get to that), but the dual narrative structure of the book is its most fascinating element, and the character of Sir Eustace Pedler is, even in my dim memory, a success. 

For Christie, the most significant year of that decade was 1926. In June, she gave us her best novel of the period and one of the finest in the canon: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The details that make this book a classic could fill many complete articles by themselves. For our purposes, there are two significant items to mention: Ackroyd inaugurated Christie’s switch in publishers to William Collins and Sons, with whom she stuck for the rest of her career. That they had more faith in her than John Lane of the Bodley Head ever had is clear, and it wasn’t long after this that she was inaugurated the Queen of Crime. The other item of note is how Christie took her favorite character in this novel, the narrator’s acidulous spinster sister, Caroline Sheppard, and reincorporated her brilliantly a couple of years later. More about that anon.

1926 may have seen Christie reach a hitherto unknown peak of success, but it was also an emotional maelstrom of a year. In April, her mercurial but beloved mother died. In August, her handsome cad of a husband asked for a divorce. That same month, Christie would disappear for ten days, creating a real-life mystery that would pester her for the rest of her life. These events took a toll on her work, and the three novels she produced from 1927 to 1929 – The Big Four, The Mystery of the Blue Train, and The Seven Dials Mystery were a low point. 

Perhaps another author’s career would have suffered irreparably from the effects of 1926. But Christie was too firmly established in the top echelons of a genre whose star had risen with her throughout the decade. A good example of the high regard with which the public held her was the debut of Poirot on the stage. True, another author (Michael Morton) was the one to adapt Ackroyd into the play Alibi, which ran to enthusiastic houses in both the West End and on Broadway. Equally true was Christie’s disdain for the piece and the production, with its wholesale change of characters and plot twists and its frank miscasting of Poirot in the person of the esteemed Charles Laughton (who would go on to direct the U.S. production as well as reprise the role.) 

Christie’s antipathy for Morton’s work had a pleasant side effect, in that it sparked a desire within her to take control of her own characters and stories by becoming a playwright herself. She would take her first tentative steps in that direction in the following decade. It’s a wonder she had the time, given what the 1930’s would bring her. But that’s a story for another day. 

Few authors emerge, like Venus from the foam, as a fully-formed image of perfection. Reading the novels of the 1920’s, could one have predicted that Agatha Christie would emerge as the Queen of Crime? Her debut gives evidence of a writer who is already familiar with the tropes of crime fiction but – more important – is willing to play with them! It’s not a brilliant puzzle, but it’s tricky enough to surprise and satisfy (as long as one didn’t read the review in The British Weekly, which gave away the killer’s identity. It’s overlong, perhaps, with a few too many clues and coincidences (Mary’s actions on the fatal night!), but it’s immensely readable. Christie sketches in her characters well and has a facility for dialogue and subtle clue dropping.

We won’t get a truly brilliant puzzle until Roger Ackroyd – and it’s greatness lies in more than its solution – but it’s that readability that keeps 1920’s readers coming back, zigzagging from whodunnit to thriller. It’s the attractiveness of Poirot, the Beresfords, and, late in the decade, a little old lady named Miss Marple. Perhaps Christie was helped involuntarily by the scandal of her 1926 disappearance. Perhaps Alibi helped. Whatever it was, Agatha would recover in spades from the emotional maelstrom of the latter half of the decade and emerge a literary force to be reckoned with. She entered the ring at the start of the Golden Age of Detection, but her golden age was about to begin!

And that’s what we’ll talk about next time.

8 thoughts on “A CENTURY OF AGATHA CHRISTIE, PART ONE: Roaring into the 1920’s

  1. I love Blue Train and the Seven Dials Mystery and don’t think they’re at all lesser works. I also love Tommy and Tuppence – but they were never Bright Young Things. The BYTs were a small collection of irresponsible and rich young people. T and T are in their early 20s, and have to work for their livings. During the War, Tommy was in the army, and Tuppence was a nurse.

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    1. I’ll never argue rankings because they’re personal. There are things I like about both books – the female characters in Blue Train, the double twist in Seven Dials – but they still feel like slogs to me. And I accept your correction regarding “bright young things” – it’s an American mistake, and you find the real thing in Seven Dials. But there is a lightness of touch in the Beresfords, even when they’re saving the world, that took me to that description. That, and the charming but weird way they were first portrayed on television.

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  2. Well said here, Brad. I don’t agree completely with you on the merits of “Blue Train” and “Seven Dials” – which you will see when I do my own walkthrough of Christie’s career – but I think you’ve caught the general gist of this decade, and like Aidan I’m looking forward to seeing what you have to say about the 30s.

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    1. I’m looking forward to it, Christian! As I alluded to Richmonde, the variety of taste when it comes to Christie is interesting. One day, I will probably re-read Seven Dials and enjoy it much more; yes, even my tastes vary, sometimes from week to week!

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      1. I never realized that Caroline Sheppard was a prototype! Christie probably had to sweeten her up just a tad before unleashing her. Speaking of seven Dials, I remember an adaptation with Cheryl Campbell as Bundle, waaay back in the 1980’s I think. And IIRC it also had James Warwick in his pre-Tommy days.

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  3. I think that adaptation captures the plot and flavor of the novel quite well, along with some of the preciousness of the characters that annoys me so! 🙂

    Caroline Sheppard is a fascinating and fun character, but more than that she is an incredible plot device. She softens and confuses our perceptions of the murderer; we misinterpret his annoyance at her snooping and gossiping ways as the proper reaction of a proper British gentleman. In fact, he’s scared to death of her! She could easily suss out the truth, and then where would he be? Could he kill the only person in his life? And it’s fascinating that Poirot, in the end, thinks mostly of Caroline’s feelings in devising a most unusual form of justice for the killer.

    The outer trappings are certainly softened for Miss Marple: she’s aged quite a bit and wrapped in lace fichu. But there is nothing really “sweet” about Miss Marple, appearances notwithstanding, and that’s what I love about her!

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    1. I know what you mean about Miss M, but would you call her “acidulous”? Her words, at least, seem kinder and gentler than Caroline’s. (Even if it’s just cunning camouflage!) I don’t think Caroline would necessarily have softened with age, unless it was because of the personal tragedy. Maybe Lord Peter Wimsey would have given her a job at Miss Climpson’s agency. Can you see those two ladies facing off?

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