Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Agatha vs. Dorothy


In the six-and-a-half years that I have lived in Oxford, I have only been to three events at the Oxford Literary Festival. This is owing to a few reasons - mostly, perhaps, because I tended to be at home when an undergraduate, and at work since then. It doesn't help that they now charge £5 simply to find out what events are happening when (in a book
filled with adverts - one would think they should either charge for it, or have adverts, but not both). You can scroll through the website, but it is tedious.

I must add the third reason that I have been so rarely - all the authors I love are dead. There are some I like who are alive, but that number does not include many of the literati who favour Literary Festivals with their talks. So... what could be better than a talk about dead authors??

Harriet reminded me in the morning, when we blitzed an Oxfam book fair together, and I headed along to Agatha vs. Dorothy - PD James and Jill Paton-Walsh debating these grande dames of detective fiction.

It was a wonderful discussion - Phyllis James is very funny, and both women had very perceptive things to say about detective fiction as a genre, and amicably disagreed with one another at various points. The central idea behind the talk was that James would champion Agatha Christie, while Paton-Walsh championed Dorothy L. Sayers. It didn't quite work out like that, since (as one audience member perspicaciously pointed out) both seemed to prefer Sayers. James based her defence on the fact that Christie is more popular... but said she thought Sayers was the better writer, with better characters too.

We (the audience) were asked at the beginning and end to raise our hands in support of either Agatha or Dorothy. Mine went firmly up for Agatha both times - and I wish PD James had been more emphatic in her defence of Agatha Christie, without feeling the need to rest upon four billion sales worldwide, astonishing though that number is. I have no qualms in saying that I prefer Christie's novels to Sayers - and I might even go so far as to say they are better. Without a doubt, on a paragraph-by-paragraph comparison, Sayers is the better prose stylist. But when it comes to plotting out a mystery, with clues and twists and denouement, Christie is more or less a genius, and Sayers is utterly hopeless. True, I have only read two of her novels (Strong Poison and Gaudy Night) but both are amateurish in terms of the whodunnit plot. Whereas Christie's incredible talent in this area is, to my mind, unparalleled.

And onto characters. Yes... Christie's supporting characters are somewhat cliche-laden (even though, as I discovered last summer when reading Murder at the Vicarage, she is rather funnier with them than I'd remembered) but if working harder at characters makes you come up with the loathsome Peter Wimsey, then I'm rather glad she didn't... Right now I'm ducking, because I know that (inexplicably) Lord Wimsey is adored and cherished throughout much of the blogosphere, but I couldn't stand him and his self-pleased snobbery. Eugh! Whereas Poirot and Miss Marple are wonderful.

So, that's my colours nailed to the mast. Please raise your hands (or, since I shan't be able to see that, post in the comments) for Agatha or Dorothy - and make your defences as impassioned as mine!

43 comments:

  1. Here's a hand for Agatha! (And didn't she sort of create some of the characters that later became cliches?)

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  2. My hand is up for Dorothy. In my teens, I read every Christie I could find, and I still remember the chill I got from And Then There Were None (Ten Little Indians), or the sheer incredulity at the ending of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. But then came the television series of Sayers' novels, and I discovered Peter Wimsey - my first great literary love. From Sayers I went on to Allingham, then Tey and Marsh. Going back to Christie, I then found her books to be plot-driven (yes, marvellous plots) but paper-thin characters in many of them. Where Sayers may be lacking in plot (and PD James discussed that in her autobiography), she is rich in characters, from the Dowager Duchess of Denver down to the faculty of Shrewsbury College. The same thing happened to me with Dickens - once I read Trollope, I couldn't go back to Dickens.

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  3. Simon, what do you think of the planned new series of Miss Marple books - young, American, etc. Darn Disney! Darn Disney!
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/film-blog/8413585/Casting-Jennifer-Garner-as-Miss-Marple-is-a-travesty.html

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  4. I agree Christie was better, much better. She could plot a mystery. Sayars wrote literary efforts. Christie had a wicked sense of humor. Sayers was searious and leaden. Agatha drew quick sketches and her characters lived. Sayers wrote long and complex descriptions loaded with literary meaning went off into flights of french, but her style always struck ma as the work of someone desperately being "serious, literary, and intelligent". I am not interested in that particular style in a whodoneit. I read what Lisa Mas said and I on the other hand have no problem reading Trollope and Dickens They both are good but in different ways. Tey I love Allingham I can read, March. Unreadable in my view. Different folks

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  5. I love Agatha Christie. She was so fabulous at creating mood as well as plot and even if characterization wasn't her forte she created enough unforgettable characters for me.

    I'm in the couldn't bear Lord Peter Wimsey in real life party as well, though I do love the books. Wouldn't want to be without either, but in the end, if forced to choose, would have to sit down in the company of Dame Agatha.

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  6. I couldn't agree more -- I do prefer Agatha and my hand went up to say so. But I am now curious to read Jill Paton Walsh's completion of Sayers' unfinished novel -- she (Jill P W) is an excellent writer in her own right of course. The two of them interacted so delightfully at this event -- I loved the way PD kept calling her "dear". So I'm glad I went and glad I persuaded you to go!

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  7. It has to be Agatha. I've been rereading all the Miss Marple books and they are so funny and SO clever. I do very much enjoy Sayers, too. But the plotting is nowhere near as good.

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  8. I really enjoyed reading this! So nice to have someone sticking up for Christie - you are right, when it comes to the plot, she really is the Queen of Crime. I love Sayers too (and would highly recommend The Nine Tailors), although don't understand the love for Wimsey who is rather obnoxious.

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  9. Hands up for Sayers says me. I fell in love with the Nine Tailors first and then all others. I am a devout follower of Lord Peter Wimsey and the subsequent aristocratic characters. Christie has great plots but I cannot warm to Poirot or to Marple. But to both Christie and Sayers I owe my love affair with British crime writers - and my frowning scorn as I replace American books of the genre back on library shelves with a note to self - you will read this when there is nothing else left to read.
    Finally am I allowed a bright green coloured envious comment? I am jealous of your opportunity to hear P D James and Jill Paton-Walsh in person. Thankyou for sharing this post with us - Antipodean Margaret

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  10. What an amazing evening! I'd have loved to have been there. And I'm with you: AGGIE, AGGIE, AGGIE! (oi, oi, oi).

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  11. Well, you know my opinion Simon! Dorothy wins hands down. I've read all of Agatha too & while I admire her plots, I rarely reread them. DLS's books are an evocation of the 1930s. I reread them often & it doesn't matter that I know whodunnit. Harriet Vane is one of my favourite fictional characters. Wimsey can be annoying, yes, but it's the whole world DLSA creates that I love. I do envy you hearing PDJ & JPW. I love their novels & I've heard them discuss DLS before. You;re right, they're both on my side & I don't know why PDJ even bothered to defend AC, her heart couldn't have been in it.

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  12. Ohhh, I don't know!

    I had a grand pash for Agatha in my early teens, I totally agree she's a great plotter and I have never liked Lord Peter at ALL (his proposal to Harriet has to go down as the most loathsome in literary history). But I've never read her since, I think of her as clever but a maker of puzzles rather than a writer of novels, I remember none of her characters bar Poirot and Miss Marple. DLS's books have always seemed richer, if, yes, teetering on the snobbish and even pretentious. And I do think her prose style is better and that counts for a lot for me.

    So a hand here for DLS, although now I think I may dig out some old Agg Bags. Perhaps my memories of her have been polluted by the endless TV adaptations?

    Incidentally, Lisa May, have you ever come across Michael Innes or Edmund Crispin? I think you might enjoy them too if you haven't.

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  13. However much you hate him, you might give the character his correct title, which is Lord Peter.
    You will guess from this comment which camp I'm in.

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  14. I'll put my hand up for Agatha.

    Not that I've ever read anything by either author, but Agatha Christie came to our house once, when I was in my teens, and my father was mentioned by name in her autobiography (plus I have 2 or 3 books signed by her to Dad), so I have to choose her, don't I!

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  15. Simon! Simon, you BREAK my HEART.

    When I first read the title, I was of course ANGUISHED because it is difficult and painful, but I could not be more impassioned in my defense of Sayers. This is not to align myself with the blogosphere, who are quite often Wrong About Sayers (Harriet Vane = my favourite literary heroine, oh Simon even writing this comment pains me, how can you, how can you, I thought you could be RELIED UPON), but - no, I must make an effort to get through this without further histrionic wailing.

    But it is difficult. Gaudy Night is to me what Diary Of A Provincial Lady is to you. This whole post has been rather like finding out you eat babies on the quiet. I think the plot of Gaudy Night is splendid; I do wonder if you might get on better with Murder Must Advertise or The Nine Tailors (which is my least favourite, but my former tutor adored it). GN in particular is full of clues, twists and denouements, with the most wonderful love story alongside.

    Christie has moments when she comes close to Sayers in character and style - her autobiography, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the closing pages of Poirot's Last Case. But otherwise, the endless red-headed girls, the slightly embittered young men, the heiresses with unfortunate antecedents, the charwomen - they're all the same. When you watch, for example, a TV adaptation of a Poirot, although the characters may have been wildly changed, I've never felt they've been over-simplified. They're cards shuffled in different ways - very amusing cards, sometimes, and enjoyable, but not memorable. The only minor character I really vividly recall from any Christie novel was the second murder victim (the girl) in The ABC Murders. And that is probably because The ABC Murders is the first "grown-up" book I ever read, aged 7 or 8.

    I hold Christie in huge affection - I'm looking forward to visiting her house, and was wildly excited to see some letters from her while visiting Exeter University for a conference. Your (heartbreaking) loathing for Lord Peter probably equals my total aversion to Miss Marple in all forms. But I don't see Sayers as "pretentious" and I find the term problematic - I don't see why detective fiction shouldn't also be richly literary and allusive. It's not always what one wants in a book or even a crime book, but I prefer a variety of books as I do a variety of foods. Sayers has influenced so many writers I really love, especially PD James, Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Jane Howard et al.

    I may also say I think the Jill Paton Walsh continuation is dreadful.

    Anyway: SIMON, you WOUND ME. I shall have to pretend this post never happened. Obviously freedom of taste &c &c but really I should have preferred the baby-eating.

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  16. Oh how wonderful for you to have gone to this talk! Funnily enough, when I first started reading DLS this year, I had a discussion about the two differing writing styles with a very dear friend and DLS' was a rich painting whilst AC's came across as a quick sketch.
    I'll have to put my hands up for each - I know that's cheating! - but I grew up reading and loving AC and then loving the Suchet adaptations so Poirot is a life-long favourite. I tried to reread the first AC last year but put it down out of boredom - I fear I know the plots too well by now and the writing is all that's left and it doesn't grip you.
    By contrast, DLS' writing kept me entertained even though I recalled most of the plot of the first novel. At first I thought Wimsey foppish and silly when my first introduction to him was via a radio play but I soon warmed to it and became an ardent fan upon reading the first novel.
    Simon, I would beg that you try to read the first Wimsey novel at least before turning your back on him completely. There are so many nuances to his character and his snobbishness is mostly a front - to go with his title and what society expects of him. I cannot agree that DLS' novels are heavy and humourless (although I've only read two so far!) - yes there are a lot of literary references and sprinklings of other languages but you can read past those. Her prose is rich, filled with humour and the recurring characters are quite likeable and develop through each novel. I also believe that several of her plots are quite ingenious.
    Everyone knows AC's work - I think it's time DLS got some more coverage.

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  17. Oh Sophie! Your comment appeared just after I published mine and you had me in fits of laughter! :-)

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  18. Dear Sophie - go and have a reviving cup of tea! You need treatment for shock!
    Simon - how can you possibly judge if you have only read 2 DLS books? READ THE NINE TAYLORS! You HAVE to do that before you are qualified to judge.
    I apologise for only stuffing a Miss Marple book in your dressing gown pocket (Christmas present) all those years ago - there should have been a Sayers and an Allingham as well.
    If only I had known back then!

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  19. Agatha most definitely, sayers is good but not that entertaining.

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  20. I'll take Dorothy L. Sayers any day !!

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  21. Hand way, way up for Dorothy. I have a lot of affection for Agatha; I've even performed in a couple of her plays, which was great fun, and I might *might* concede that her plots are more clever. But she mostly just has cleverness going for her.

    DLS can be just as clever as AC in her plotting, but I think the two books you've read perhaps aren't as successful as whodunits as some of her others--although I do love both of those books. For me, the joys with Sayers are the writing and setting and characterization; the mysteries are just one ingredient, rather than the backbone. As for Wimsey as a character, I agree with Christina that his apparent snobbishness is mostly a front. He doesn't show his vulnerability often, but it is there. (Busman's Honeymoon in particular draws this out.) Harriet Vane is one of the great literary heroines, and I have great affection for Miss Climpson (of Unnatural Death and Strong Poison). So yes, DLS all the way for me.

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  22. Oh for heaven's sake! Christie or Sayers? That's like having to choose between sex and chocolate, when clearly both are excellent. Why choose?

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  23. But I must add, Simon, I wish I could have gone with you to the event.

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  24. I was SO tempted to go to this event because I love P.D. James and she was discussing my two most favourite crime writers. Choosing between the two is so difficult. But if I had to make a choice, I'd say Christie is my childhood sweetheart and Sayers my teenage fling. I love Christie for her incredible plotting and I agree that there is still no one better than her, but character-wise I'd have to pick Sayers. As much as I love Christie (and I have read all her mysteries), I think Harriet Vane tips the scales for me and I'd have to choose Sayers.

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  25. I just finished reading a Christie novel last night--she is my go-to comfort reading. One of the first grown-up authors I ever read, and still a great favorite. I like the Nine Tailors and the Harriet Vane novels, but apart from those, Sayers does not enthrall me the way Dame Agatha does.

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  26. Well, I've only read part of one DLS (The Nine Tailors, many years ago, which I found dull enough to stop reading), whereas I've read the vast majority of Christie. I agree that her characters can be rather cliched - retired Majors abound - but that rather misses the point, I think. The excellent and imaginative plots, rarely repeating an idea and continually leaving you guessing, are wonderful. And Poirot is such a fine character that he makes up for a lack of depth elsewhere.

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  27. Christie plots kept me up all night when I was about ten, and I vividly remember the horror of Endless Night, Towards Zero and The Hollow, which were particularly chilling. But specific snatches of DLS' prose have made their home inside my head, and her Oxford has something in common with my Oxford; and so she gets my vote.

    (I agree the JP-W continuations aren't brilliant, and in fact I think I could identify which bits are 'original' and which are new; that would be a fun game.)

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  28. AH, each has her own strengths. But at a push, hands up for dear Agatha.

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  29. I fell in love with Sayers when i was about 13 and thought Peter and Harriet were wonderful. I didn't take to the other books as much with the exception of 'The Documents in the Case' but Christie is probably more relaible, and of course much more prolific - but it has to be Dorothy just because Harriet is such a good character...

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  30. BOTH hands up for Sayers here! Christie just can't compare; her books are light, enjoyable reads, but I rarely go back to them. There's so much more depth to Sayers. She creates characters I care passionately about, because they care passionately about what matters to them. (Incidentally, I don't find Lord Peter snobbish; he is a product of his time and society, of course, but gets on with people of all backgrounds and has little time for snobs.) She could do the straight whodunnit (see Five Red Herrings), but generally chose to write howdunnit and/or whydunnit books as being more interesting and less formulaic.

    Are you familiar with any of her theological work or religious dramas, Simon? I can highly recommend The Man Born to be King, her cycle of radio plays on the life of Christ. Some of it, especially her notes on the characters, is dated and in places frankly offensive, but I find the plays really bring the gospel to life.

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  31. I have to agree with Rosie H that Peter isn't snobbish at all - in part I think because his insatiable curiosity brings him into contact with all sorts of people. Contrast him, for example, with Helen Denver, a textbook snob - who can barely bring herself to attend his wedding and who patronizes Harriet (only a country doctor's daughter, you know). Peter encourages Charles Parker's suit, after all! Lyn recommended Innes and Crispin - I have an Innes omnibus in the TBP pile, but will now have to look for Crispin - thanks! Also, Simon, have you met the Dowager Duchess? Her hilarious diary in Busman's Honeymoon clearly owes something to the Diary of a Provincial Lady!

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  32. Agatha every time. Fond of Dorothy, but she is sometimes a bit precious and her plotting is not as good. And yes, I too liked Harriet Vane, but rereading Dorothy now is an effort.. Say what you will, Agatha is tops for readability, plotting and sheer fun.

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  33. Both hands are up - one each. I adore Peter Wimsey and came to him late so it is not a teenage thing, but I love Dame A and always will because I think she is quite quite brilliant. Her plotting is superb but DL Sayer's characterisation is better but I think they are both incomparable.

    My favourite Doroth is Gaudy Night and my favourite Agata is Five Little Pigs which I think is her best

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  34. I haven't read any Sayers but am going to ay Agatha anyway! Shocking!

    I love Agatha and think its sad how underrated some people have made her out to be, her plotting (and I think her short stories show this marvellously as she can do masses with very little) is second to none.

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  35. Oh I enjoy reading them both. Agatha's were the first adult books I read - & I've re-read them more than once in the many years since then. The first Dorothy book I read was Busman's Honeymoon - I felt it was the first love story I'd read & I fell in love with Lord Peter then & have stayed faithful. I think I have all DLS's crime novels & my vote has to go to her, but it is a hard choice. Incidentally I have enjoyed the Jill Paton-Walsh contributions.

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  36. Hands up for Sophie! You win the award for most impassioned, hilarious comment ever. What a great writer...you made my day.

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  37. I'll have to add a vote for Agatha. I did read some Sayers last year and started to like her, but not enough to be fully hooked. (Also, I'm really picky about how mystery novels reveal the murderer, does it really seem plausible for the character, etc and I have to say, Sayers was a little weak there.)

    Whereas I obsessively read many Christies in my teens and picked a few of them up more recently and still enjoyed them. Her endings are always satisfying and feel right, unlike many other mysteries I've read. Miss Marple is adorable, like an old Lizzy Bennet who loves to watch and analyze everyone for her own amusement. My favourite of hers is Sad Cypress and for the characters too!

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  38. Well, I made a 'comment' (raised a question, actually) but didn't raise my hand either way. It's hard to say about the reading of either of these, so I'll make my choice based on viewing televised versions - and, it's Christie for me.

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  39. Without a doubt, Agatha Christie

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  40. A vote for Dorothy
    No Contest

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  41. What other writer of mysteries has the character development over time? Poirot doesn't change. One rereads about the life of Lord Peter Wimsey. And in mysteries, what other author has such a romance, and one that lasts into marriage?

    All that opined, a good author is one who get read of one's own free will, and maybe reread.

    Tastes differ, and one can like both.

    P.S. Dorothy Sayers.

    P.P.S. Two books is more than enough to determine liking. I doubt it's enough to determine comparative mastery of the craft.

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  42. Raising my hand for Agatha Christie!!

    "But when it comes to plotting out a mystery, with clues and twists and denouement, Christie is more or less a genius, and Sayers is utterly hopeless. "

    My sentiments exactly. I read Crime Fiction to savor the taste of plotting, garnished with a delicious twist ts the end. And, in that respect no one comes even close to Agatha Christie.My point is, if I want to read about detailed characterizations and psychology laced with intricate details of the surroundings and how they had an impact on the plot, I would not go for crime fiction at all!!!!!! In crime stories I search for plots and twists, which Christie gave me in abundance, far more than Sayers ever hoped to give!!

    Come to that this should have been a comparison between Ngaio Marsh and Agatha Christie. When it comes to plotting, Marsh was leagues ahead of Sayers. And, Alleyn was far better than Wimsey.

    And PD James defending Christie almost sounds like a chalk trying to mix with cheese. PD James all through her life, in numerous essays, had clearly pointed out that she always rated Sayers above Christie. SO, having her defend Christie was a joke!!!

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  43. I like the stories of Christie - if they are made into good films.
    The problem with her books is that she builds a realistic background and context and then adds a completely unbelievable plot.
    At least Dorothy Sayers - and A.C Doyle never really play for realism. You know where you are from the very beginning. Lord Peter could be Algy's brother in Wilde's famous play....Therefore I opt for Sayers - as she is more consistent as a writer

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