“Even Max admitted that she was elusive. He once said a revealing thing about her to me – that she was an exceptional combination of outer diffidence and inner confidence. Both of these were utterly genuine, like everything about her. It is extraordinary enough that, with all her worldwide fame, she should have been so modest; yet at the same time she knew her own quality.”
A.I. Rowse, New York Times, October 14, 1990
1990 marked the centenary of Agatha Christie’s birth and the seventieth anniversary of her debut in print. Certain festivities were in order, as befitting an author whose publishers claimed had sold higher numbers than everyone except Shakespeare and the Bible. According to an article about Christie printed in the September 15 issue of the New York Times, which had interviewed Matthew Prichard for the occasion, quite a lot was being done to celebrate his grandmother’s birthday:
“In this country, the Putnam Berkley Publishing Group is issuing commemorative paperback editions of many of her novels; in England, Collins Publishers has issued limited hard-cover editions of some of her books and put new covers on the paperbacks. Madame Tussaud’s in London has spiffed up its Agatha Christie wax display, with some of her clothes and her eyeglasses provided by Mr. Prichard; there is now an Agatha Christie rose, a new hybrid named after her at the Chelsea Flower Show, and there are also official Agatha Christie centennial plates, boutonnieres, paperweights and coffee mugs.
“And today at 10 A.M., the Venice Simplon Orient-Express is scheduled to pull out of Victoria Station in London and head for Torquay, Devon, Christie’s birthplace, and the Mystery on the English Riviera Festival, a gala that includes a fireworks display and an Agatha Christie banquet. On the train is to be David Suchet, who has portrayed Christie’s best-known male detective, the Belgian investigator Hercule Poirot, on public television in recent years. He is to be met at the Torquay station by Joan Hickson, who has done the same for Christie’s most famous female sleuth, Miss Jane Marple.”
The article speaks glowingly of Christie’s work and her success, while acknowledging that she has come in for some knocks from literary pundits like our friend Julian Symons and author Robert Graves. The reporter asked Mr. Prichard to account for Christie’s success despite the criticisms of her writing style and adherence to genre conventions. His reply?
”The books don’t date. I once challenged someone to read a book by my grandmother from the 1930’s, and then read ones from the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, and tell me which decade each had been written in. Most people would fail that test. It doesn’t matter when they were written. They seem timeless, just as appropriate in the 1990’s as in the 1930’s.”
I get what Prichard means here. Christie followed the rules to which many writers of young people’s fiction adhere, that of cautiously skirting the fads (including slang) and opinions of a specific period; the moment you stray from this, you create a book that – classic or not – can date horribly and thus become a favorite only for those who read it at its first printing.
And yet, much of what I have come to appreciate about Agatha Christie as my years of knowing her have lengthened is how much she reveals about people – the attitudes between classes, between men and women, between the English and foreigners – as well as a significant, if often subtle, look at the social mores of different eras of British history. The fact that this information, more often than not served not merely as background color but as an integral part of the puzzle at hand doesn’t lessen her skill as a writer, in my opinion; it makes her one of the top genre authors of all time.
Christie publicly discounted her own achievements, calling herself “a sausage machine.” But the reporter reminds us that even Symons called her “the champion deceiver of our time.”
“The very best Christie’s are like a magician’s tricks, not only in the breathtaking sleights of phrase that deceive us but also in the way that, looking back afterward, we find the tricks to have been handled so that our deceit is partly self-induced.”
I have to give Symons credit summing up her technical gifts: how often have all of us fallen into her trap? I think of that wonderful moment toward the beginning of After the Funeral where Christie allows suspicion to fall on Aunt Cora herself, making us leap to the conclusion that maybe she’s not so batty after all. Or how we are meant to sympathize with the killers in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and A Murder Is Announced (both of them ruthless self-servers, it turns out). An inveterate Christie fan learned not to trust the attractive young man or the attentive mother, or to dismiss the cad who seemed too guilty to be the culprit. We learned to think twice about the policeman, the child, the daffy naif, the trusted narrator.
The real fans – if they so choose – can find much more, as I have mentioned. What they probably can’t find is any significant information about the author. She had barely given herself away in her autobiography, and current readers will dispute some of the facts and opinions found in Janet Morgan’s earlier biography or in the one that came out in October 1990 by Gillian Gill, Agatha Christie, The Woman and Her Mysteries. Gill finds great favor with the fact that Christie, a woman, created an industry and a reputation that most men would envy. But she does tend to dismiss the nature of her work as aimed at “the crossword puzzle or bridge fanatic.” She sees the author as a brilliant crafter of puzzles but not an observer of humanity. As the NYTimes review of Gill’s book states:
“In life people commit murders because they are psychopaths or professional crooks, or more often because they are pushed beyond endurance and blunder into crime by a series of ghastly accidents. In Christie’s world a character becomes a murderer simply because he or she is the most unlikely suspect and the person best calculated to give the reader a few hours of enjoyable puzzle solving . . . . Murder is an extremely squalid and messy business, a fact appreciated by such writers as P. D. James. In Christie’s novels it seems almost as harmless as horticulture . . .”
And this seems to be where we find Agatha Christie in the 1990’s. Her books are still selling like hotcakes, but folks keep questioning why. It’s not like the genre of mystery has lost favor in the century’s waning years. A whole new generation of crime queens are practicing their craft. Many of them trade in whodunits, as Christie did, but these are puzzles for a modern world, hybrids of the Golden Age crime story and the Silver Age psychological thrillers of writers like Charlotte Armstrong, Celia Fremlin and Margaret Millar, tales that focus more on the secret motivations of the heart than on the puzzle of identity that Christie had perfected. Add a loosening of restrictions as to sex and violence, and we realize once and for all that the Victorian era, which had such an influence on the early crime queens, is dead, once and for all. We see this in the later Poirot adaptations, and it will only intensify in the millennium.
In his homage to Christie in an October 14 article that appeared in the NYTimes, called (and can you blame me for loving this title?) “Ah, Sweet Mystery! The Agatha I Knew,” British historian A. I. Rowse, who speaks not as a literary critic but as an old family friend, reminds us of the author’s Victorian antecedents:
“She was a Victorian lady through and through, with the highest ethical standards. In fact, she was rather straitlaced. One wouldn’t have said anything improper in front of her, and – echoing Lord David Cecil’s remark about Jane Austen – I should be seriously upset if I thought that Agatha disapproved of me. (It is a positive recommendation to be disapproved of by some people.) She once told me, ”there’s nothing immoral in my books, only murder.” There is no gloating over the crime in her books, it is only the starting point for the unraveling of the puzzle – her main interest. She told me how vexed she was at an American publisher for putting a nude woman on a book jacket, and after that insisted on approving the book jackets herself.”
These words will come back to haunt us when we review Sarah Phelps’ take on Christie in fifteen or so years, but for now we have to understand that in the 90’s, Christie was considered out of touch with the current trends of crime fiction. The “A List” of contemporary women crime writers were focused either on psychological realism or feisty female P.I.s. Consider their output in the 90’s:
- Ruth Rendell (14 novels and two short story collections under two names)
- Val McDermid (12 novels)
- P.D. James (already slowing down, she published two mysteries and Children of Men)
- Elizabeth George (8 novels that averaged 568 pages per book. (A Traitor to Memory, her first book of the millennium, clocked in at 1,025 pages.)
- Sue Grafton wrote “G” through “O” in her alphabet series featuring P.I. Kinsey Milhone.
- Sara Paretsky wrote five V.I. Warshawsky novels.
- Patricia Cornwell introduced medical examiner Kay Scarpetta and wrote ten novels.
The sad truth is that most writers of “pure” whodunits tended to be unfairly dismissed as “cozy” writers. An emerging sub-genre called “cozy” would grow, but these were more like sitcom mysteries centered around a vibrant widow or pretty spinster running a cute business in a small town with a hot-looking sheriff keeping his eye on her. Let’s not waste another word on these; there were successful authors tapping into the Golden Age in their work:
- Caroline Graham wrote four out of her seven Midsomer mysteries featuring Inspector Barnaby.
- Orania Papazoglou, wife of mystery author William L. DeAndrea, published 16 whodunits under the name Jane Haddam
- Carolyn G. Hart published 11 whodunits, including several in her “Death On Demand” series which pretty much worshipped Christie.
- Marion Chesney, writing as M.C. Beaton, published 11 Hamish MacBeth mysteries and 9 featuring Agatha Raisin.
Big screen adaptations of Christie’s novels have dried up, and on TV what we find is Poirot, which freezes time so that everything takes place in the 1930’s. Thus, when real time and real events intrude on the characters in the novels, those bits are excised from the adaptations. The true power of Taken at the Flood is the position that the Cloade family finds itself in as World War II winds down and they find themselves in financial and emotional straits due to their patriarch’s demise in the London Blitz. Place that story in the 30’s, and the bomb that hits Gordon Cloade’s house now becomes a gas leak (actually a wholly new set of murders), the motivations of every family member have no basis in anything other than their greed . . . and don’t get me started on the insertion of rape, abortion and incestuous feelings.
But this is late Poirot. We’ll discuss that in more detail next time. Through the 90’s, (or at least until 1996, after which the series disappeared for five years), the episodes adhere more closely to the original texts, confining most changes to the elimination of extraneous characters or events, as is befitting to an adaptation.. True, the script of Hickory Dickory Dock tries to rid the source material of its abhorrent cultural and racial stereotypes – by eliminating all characters of color. One, Two, Buckle My Shoe eliminates several characters in an attempt to improve the novel’s rather unwieldy plot. The consensus seems to be that it succeeds at this, although what it doesn’t do so well is portray an important impersonation onscreen. (This same idea will work much better in a later Poirot episode of, to my mind, a much better novel.) Dumb Witness makes more substantial changes, including adding a second murder and completely changing the fate of the killer, thus robbing us of whatever surprise the novel might have had in store.
Crime dramas were exceedingly popular on TV throughout the decade. 1990 saw the premiere of Law and Order, and Dick Wolff’s franchise has lasted in some form to this day, even invading the U.K. for a while. Many of the episodes feature gasp-inducing twists, but the focus was on the diversity of the city and the depths of depravity and greed to which people can sink. Still, there were plenty of TV shows that sought to give us an aura of fair play mystery, even if most of these series were formulaic and stinted on real detective work.
That same year, Americans were introduced to the denizens of Twin Peaks, and the whole country spent the first season trying to figure out who killed cheerleader Laura Palmer. We didn’t learn the answer until the beginning of Season Two, and then we all took a long slow slide off the rails into Crazytown for the rest of the series.
Murder She Wrote, which had premiered in 1984, lasted until 1996. Matlock, with Andy Griffith as a folksy defense attorney, ran from 1986 to 1992. Diagnosis Murder, featuring Dick Van Dyke as a medico who solved crimes, premiered October 29, 1993 and lasted till 2001. (I’m proud to say that I have never seen a single complete episode of either of these last two shows!)
For me, the prime source of classic mystery television appeared on Sunday nights on PBS in the form of Masterpiece Mystery. Since 1980, this was where I got to watch episodes of Poirot and Miss Marple, but there was no end to the resources that fed the imaginations of these writers and producers. Some of them were hard hitting, as befitting the times in which we lived. The sadsack brilliance of Inspector Morse continued to unfold in seasons 4 through 8 during the 90’s. The nightmarish career of Jane Tennyson unfolded in Prime Suspect, which premiered in 1991 and introduced many of us to Helen Mirren. But most of the series that showed up gave us a chance to see some of our favorite authors brought to life on the screen: Sherlock Holmes, Dalgliesh, Cadfael, Wycliffe, The Mrs. Bradley Mysteries, The Inspector Alleyn Mysteries, Dalziel and Pascoe . . . just to name a few.
Two shows premiered in 1997 that are especially significant for classic mystery fans. I would argue that the first few seasons of Midsomer Murders are actually quite wonderful. The first episodes benefit from being adaptations of Caroline Graham’s Inspector Barnaby books, but her daffy and dark spirit permeates the early original screenplays. Then it all gets pretty redundant, with ridiculous murder methods and a dusty sameness to the solutions. And then there was Jonathan Creek, which I did not become aware of until many years after it ran. It could also run to extremes, but at its best, it was a delightful homage to Carr, Rawson and all other impossible crime authors.
In a decade where you could barely find a traditionally styled mystery at the movie theatre if you begged for it (the best one, Dead Again, was in 1991), I relied on TV and the library to get my classic mystery fix. Most film “mysteries” were brutally violent affairs (1995’s Se7en, 1996’s Scream) or driven primarily by sex (1992’s Basic Instinct). Occasionally something clever like The Usual Suspects (1995) showed up, but these films shared little with someone like Christie.
One can revel in the charming portrait of Christie that Rowse created. Admitting at the start that he had read little of her work – and might be the only person in England who had not seen The Mousetrap – he still gets at the heart of her charm, both as a writer and a woman. He never dismisses her as a “mere” plotter of puzzles – in fact, he sees that as a strength – but he also has an instinctive feel for why she remains popular seventy years after her first book appeared, Here are two quotes:
“Her theatrical success is not surprising when one considers the strong combination of two gifts: her original talent at constructing plots and her notable gift for dialogue. The second is apt to be overlooked, but it interests me more than the first. There are more esteemed – or at any rate, more highbrow – writers who cannot rival Agatha’s ear for the way children talk.”
“Her judgment is in keeping with the normal sense of the great majority of people at large. Perhaps in itself it is one small indication of why Agatha’s books have such a worldwide appeal: they invariably illustrate, and vindicate, the victory of good over evil. Life itself does not always do so – so perhaps there is an element of wish-fulfillment in her work.”
The sad fact, however, is that Rowse’s opinion was not the one that prevailed throughout the decade. A sense of dissatisfaction with Christie was creeping forward, and I can only suggest, with the smugness of a true fan, that it stemmed from jealousy at her continued high sales despite the change in tastes reflected in current literature. In researching this post, I came across an article from the May 24, 1990, issue of The Guardian by Irish journalist (and longtime Guardian contributor) Peter Lennon. It’s called “Getting Away with Murder,” and it begins like this:
“Whatever is the opposite of the road to Damascus it surely lies, for Agatha Christie fans, through Monskwell Manor into the second act of The Mousetrap. By the end of Act 1 it is ridiculously apparent who the murderer is and which of them is his sister.
You remain trapped then in an environment of careful little coughs and scratching chocolate papers, amongst Japanese tourists noncommittal as undertakers at the catacombs; South American families arranged like proud step ladders and stout provincial British faces expanding with mooncalf gratitude as they hearken to the twitterings of Mollie and Giles, and Major Metcalf pretending to have a past, and Mrs Boyle (who gets the evening off by being murdered in Act 1).”
This is probably the kindest Lennon gets. A few examples of his other “opinions”:
“Her dialogue is tinnitus to the ear . . ..”
“Hercule Poirot, an insipid panache of vanity and vexing coyness who pomades his moustaches . . .”
“Miss Marple, a meddlesome handbag with a brain like a bundle of unraveled knitting.”
“The post-coital depression on finishing an Agatha Christie story is severe. With the denouement the book instantly sheds its seduction; life seeps colorlessly from it as from a bicycle tube after passing over a sharp tack. The characters corrugate, crimp and fall to the ground. . . . You are not shocked that one of the pieces of cardboard has committed a felony nor do you rejoice that a brown paper bag with a perm has not.”
“Film adaptations and television series have given her stories an elegance and a patina of nostalgia which is absent from the books. She did not catch the ambience, not even much of the furnishings, of her times with any notable success. Hers is a kind of sub-Wodehousian world without the humor.”
You get the idea? The article continues on like this for a long time, gets her historical facts wrong again and again, spoils the ending for Roger Ackroyd, gets into an endless snit for the crimes against nature committed by the author in creating A Pocketful of Rye, and visits a group of modern authors at the Crime Writers’ Association and comes away feeling that homage to Christie is a forced duty that barely hides their righteous loathing for the crimes she has committed against literature.
In essence, Lennon builds up a conspiracy theory about The Christie Machine, which expends much time and money keeping the myth alive, at the expense of all other mystery writers. has created a lopsided world where true genius cannot be rewarded. “. . . year after year she soaks up the lolly which could have fed generations of new writers.” Lennon ends his diatribe with a recommendation: “I would suggest the first nine pages of (Doyle’s) Valley of Fear, worth the entire Christie oeuvre.”
Everyone is entitled to their own tastes and opinions. I would be fascinated to hear in the comments below the opinions of my British friends as to the Guardian choosing this as the article to commemorate Christie’s one-hundredth birthday. It’s not the only example of Agatha-bashing we will see in the years to come.
I think the larger point this begs is: Christie did not write the Bible, nor did she write the plays of Shakespeare (although she read both heavily and their influence on her work cannot be overestimated.) It’s a simple matter to explain why there is a Bible in every hotel room in the Western world, or why the Bard’s plays are ceaselessly performed to this day. By the end of the 1990’s, Christie’s work has only been around for eighty years, and some folks are chafing at the bit to bring her down. As we head into the final two decades of our study, the question arises: record-breaking sales or not, why does Christie’s popularity survive, and what will it take for her success to continue?
The millennium approaches . . .