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!