Agatha Christie. Picture Credit: AFP via Getty Images

The lady vanishes

TV adaptations have masked the complexity and skill of Agatha Christie


This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

The music immediately triggers a response. The graphics follow. And then there is David Suchet. For 13 seasons, from 1989 to 2013, Poirot provided a comfort blanket for Britain. Such style! Such a world of ease! Agatha Christie is all that is required to conjure up a universe of order and morality, the clarity of reason in the search for safety and renewed stability.

But not if you read the books of the best-selling novelist of all time. There was little such ease in the novels which were, at once, more varied (from Ancient Egypt to anti-Communism), complex and insightful than modern critics might suggest. The novels were also far more interesting than their television adaptations.

Christie’s world is the usual fictional mélange of fact and invention. Whereas science fiction’s inventiveness provides detachment from the factual groundings of the present, detective fiction is very different. 

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot

It grounds its imagination in the understanding, by writer and reader alike, of the facts and conventions of the world. Indeed, the crimes in question, their motives and consequences, both reflect these conventions and are a breach of them, the combination producing both understanding and shock.

And so, despite Edith de Haviland’s comment in Crooked House (1949), about Philip Leonides who “writes books. Can’t think why. Nobody wants to read them. All about obscure historical details,” the crime novel offers a role for the historian. He or she can explain this world and the context for the Great Detective.

The historian’s illumination is particularly necessary for Poirot because so much of our understanding of him comes from the subsequent presentation on screen. As with Sherlock Holmes and James Bond (Ian Fleming’s 007, not the same-named protagonist in Christie’s witty 1934 short story, “The Rajah’s Emerald”), that situation poses a number of problems, and not least that Christie was writing for the audience of her day, not the posterity to which we belong. So, again, another task for the historian.

As with Fleming and Bond, Christie received harsh comments in her lifetime, notably from Edmund Wilson in 1944. In addition, later authors could be unsparing about Christie’s type of fiction. In his denunciation of the genre, Snobbery with Violence: English Crime Stories and their Audience (1971; revised and reprinted in 1979), Colin Watson, himself an author of detective novels, devoted a chapter to Christie. 

It was far from one of his most critical, and offered some good points, not least that Poirot was acceptable because his foreignness was familiar. However, both author and audience came in for criticism.

This approach reflected a total failure to engage with the range of Christie’s writing

The detective story is presented as playing an increasingly important part in attempts by the middle class to maintain its status, and Christie as providing not the world of adventure and opulence offered by E. Phillips Oppenheim, Anthony Hope and William Le Queux, one of “maître d’hôtel and millionaires” but, instead, “familiar homeliness” and “stock characters observing approved rules of behaviour according to station, and isolated utterly from all such anxieties and unpleasantness as were not responsive to religion, medicine and the law”.

This approach reflected a total failure to engage with the range of Christie’s writing, but it was a commonplace view. Indeed, while the subsequent changing presentation of her stories and plays throw a light on English culture, there were already contradictory views during her lifetime.

Christie responded to criticism of this type in her A Caribbean Mystery (1964) with Miss Marple having to put up with being criticised by Raymond West for not leaving her “idyllic rural life” in order to focus on real life. Marple considers this criticism very ignorant, as the facts of rural life were far from idyllic and there was always something going on in St Mary Mead.

Joan Hickson as Miss Marple

As with Colin Watson, so also with Julian Symons in his Penguin Classic Crime Omnibus (1984), a work that reflected his general disdain for Golden Age fiction. This was pretty harsh on Christie: “the never-never land of her imagination where it seems always to be tea time in some Edwardian year. The colonels, doctors, lawyers and others who inhabit this world are no more real than Cluedo figures.” The plots, settings and characterisation were certainly different to Symons’s novels, but there was the shared artificiality and instrumentality of both genre and fiction.

P.D. James, in her Talking about Detective Fiction (2009), offered a more subtle account than Colin Watson or Julian Symons and praised Marple “who is not only unique in working entirely alone without the help of a Watson, but in being invariably cleverer than the police detectives she encounters.” However, I am more doubtful about her view that Golden Age novels were a genre of escapism in which there is no real pity, empathy or sympathy, but, instead, a “confident morality”. I, myself, find less “confidence” to match the moral certainty. But Christie is more nuanced. Indeed there is a marked degree of complexity in some of her writing.

In The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (2018), a compendium of concise comprehensiveness, Martin Edwards focuses instead on an unprecedented skill in misdirection and consistency in ingenious whodunnits, while noting that her focus on a surprise solution took precedence over other elements. Interestingly, Christie has served as an inspiration to others, such as Yukito Ayatsuji, author of the Japanese classic, The Decagon House Murders. His chief influence was And Then There Were None, one victim is named after Christie, and the cast is of students, all fans of detective fiction, who get murdered while staying on an island house.

There is a continual struggle between Good and Evil

Christie is also used as a way to present, and therefore sell, other titles. Thus, Lucy Foley’s The Guest List (2020) is very much not a Christie in content or tone, but it comes with a back-cover recommendation as “A very modern Agatha Christie”, and with acclaim accordingly: “Confirms her status as this generation’s Agatha Christie” (Sunday Express) and “Evoking the great Agatha Christie classics And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express …” (New York Times). These comments are clearly regarded as praise.

Christie herself provided plentiful accounts of her writing, as well as an autobiography that, in the manner of the genre, explained as well as concealed. Thus, in her foreword to The Body in the Library, she captured a writing process as well as a degree of reticence:

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.’ 

Agatha Christie’s Remington typewriter and portrait, Torre Abbey Museum, Torquay, Devon. Picture Credit: JARRY/TRIPELON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

That, indeed, was a characteristic of her writing. Although criticised for being a conventional writer, Christie repeatedly sought to push the envelope in offering variations. To a degree that was a matter of ingenuity, which can scarcely be underrated in a genre that deals with battles of wits, wills and circumstances, but Christie offered more because, as also with other writers, she was providing novels and not simply technique. For this novel, she noted:

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 remained as such, represented only by a few lines of writing in an exercise book.

Chance observation of a family in a hotel dining room provides the pivot of a character on which she can endow “imaginings” for, she notes, she did not like to write about people she knew. She was more willing to use places.

For example, Agatha’s eccentric brother Monty was put out on Dartmoor for everyone’s safety. Christie visited him often and described the village in The Sittaford Mystery. She closes the foreword to The Body in the Library in a light tone: “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 à la Miss Marple!” This is detective fiction as entertainment and not simply a way to approach themes in cultural change and continuity.

Christie did not disguise the hard work that writing entails. In the foreword she added to Crooked House (1949) she admitted:

this book is one of my own special favourites. I saved it up for years, thinking about it, working it out, saying to myself: ‘One day, when I’ve plenty of time, and want to really enjoy myself — I’ll begin it!’ … Again and again someone says to me: ‘How you must have enjoyed writing so and so!’ This about a book that obstinately refused to come out the way you wished, whose characters are sticky, the plot needlessly involved, and the dialogue stilted — or so you think yourself… I don’t know what put the Leonides family into my head — they just came. Then, like Topsy ‘they growed.’ I feel that I myself was only their scribe. 

In Hallowe’en Party (1969), Christie, in the person of Ariadne Oliver, provides some good hints on how she wrote, with reference to her ideas about people she met, rather than those she knew. The latter, as she pointed out, constrained such imaginings.

Technique will take you a long way in presenting Christie’s skill. To adopt the language of the military historian, it gives you both the tactical and the operational dimensions. However, there is no comparable grasp of the strategic perspective. That can be variously presented, with success appearing the major goal.

Yet, throughout, there is a moral purpose. This is not one of some sectional politics, of a backing, for example, for Baldwinian conservatism or a Pax Britannica, although both were important. Instead, there is a continual struggle between Good and Evil, one that is present in every soul and in society as a whole.

This helps to explain characterisation, dialogue and plots: there are deceptions and travails, but rightness is a shield as well as a goal. And, to that end, Christie provides the relevant tactical, operational and strategic devices and perspectives. The firm Christian theme she enunciated in the short story “The Call of Wings”, published in The Hound of Death, is possibly the clearest instance, one of poetic intensity without the complications of a misdirection. Silas Hamer, a wealthy materialist, is made aware of meanings and purposes, and gains an epiphany and redemption accordingly.

Yet, alongside the continued sales of the published works, it is now the visual version that is to the fore. Christie had always been keen on that version, however with a preference for the stage rather than film: she enjoyed the theatre but not the cinema, and some of her plays were impressive, notably Witness for the Prosecution.

Television and cinema adaptations faced the usual problems of such work. The more nuanced aspect of her writing suffered a diminution when adapted, especially for television, but that did not hurt its incredible popularity. There has been a quite conscious and deliberate reworking of many of her stories, a reworking that is increasingly that of tone rather than simply plot, notably the BBC serial adaptations by Sarah Phelps from 2015, especially The ABC Murders (2018) and The Pale Horse (2020).

The reworking seeks to add Freudian overtones and also to refresh material with which the audience was assumed to be overly familiar. Ironically, the reworking also pays tribute to Christie’s significance. The contrasting approach would simply have been to bypass the plots far more completely as in the recent television versions of the Sherlock Holmes stories. 

The need for an ingenious murder plot keeps Christie more central to the later versions than with Fleming and Bond. Both Christie and Fleming, however, continue for many to play a major role not only in national identity but also in their genre.

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