Thursday, 22 November 2012

There's Nobody Quite Like Agatha

In 2000, or thereabouts, I read an awful lot of Agatha Christie novels - mostly Miss Marple, because my love of slightly eccentric old women started way back then - but since then, I've only read one or two.  In 2010 I read The Murder at the Vicarage, and thought it might issue in a new dawn of Christie reading.  Well, two years later that dawn has, er, dawned.  After hearing an interesting paper on Agatha Christie covers at a recent conference, I decided that a fun way to fill some gaps in A Century of Books would be to dip into my shelf of Christies, many unread.  Since she wrote one or two a year for most of the 20th century, she is an ideal candidate for this sort of gap-filling.

Before I go onto the two novels I read (pretty briefly), I'll start with what I love about Agatha Christie.  She is considered rather non-literary in some circles (although not quite as often as people often suggest) and it's true that her prose doesn't ripple with poetic imagery - but the same is true of respected writers such as George Orwell and Muriel Spark, who choose a straight-forward seeming prose style, albeit with their own unique quirks.  Leaving aside Christie's prose talents - and they are always better than I expect, and often funnier than I remember - she is most remarkable for her astonishing ability with plot.

For a lot of people, myself included, reading Agatha Christie is our first experience of detective fiction.  She sets the norms, and she sets the bar high.  Only after dipping my toe into books by Margery Allingham and Dorothy L. Sayers do I realise quite how vastly superior she is when it comes to plot.  It was once a truism of detective fiction that the author would be unfair, only revealing important clues at the last moment.  "What you didn't know was that the gardener was Lord Alfred's long-lost cousin!"  That sort of thing.  Dame Agatha never does that.  There are almost invariably surprises in the last few pages, but they are the sort of delightful, clever surprises which could have been worked out by the scrupulously careful reader.  Of course, none of us ever do fit all the clues together along the way - it would spoil the novel if we did - but Christie has a genius for leaving no loose ends, and revealing all the clues which have been hidden thus far.  Other detective novelists of the Golden Age still (from my reading) rely upon coincidence, implausibility, and secrets they kept concealed.

Reading a detective novel demands quite a different approach from most other novels.  Everything is pointed towards the structure.  There can be innumerable lovely details along the way, but structure determines every moment - all of it must lead to the denouement, and everything must adhere to that point.  Many of the novels we read (especially for someone like me, fond of modernist refusal of form - witness my recent review of The House in Paris) are deliberately open-ended, and the final paragraphs are structurally scarcely more significant than any arbitrarily chosen lines from anywhere in the novel.  With an Agatha Christie, the end determines my satisfaction. My chief reason for considering a detective novel successful or unsuccessful is whether it coheres when the truth is revealed.  Is the motive plausible?  Does the 'reveal' match the preceding narrative details?  Are there any unanswered questions?  That's a lot of pressure on Agatha Christie, and it is a sign of her extraordinary talent for plot that she not only never disappoints, but she casts all the other detective novelists I've tried into the shade.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920)

I'd never read Christie's very first novel, so it was serendipitous that 1920 was one of the few interwar blank spaces on my Century of Books.  I'm going to be very brief about these two novels, because I don't want to give anything away at all (a carefulness not exemplified by the blurbs of these novels, incidentally.)  Suffice to say that there is a murder in a locked bedroom - and a lot of motives among family and friends.
"Like a good detective story myself," remarked Miss Howard.  "Lots of nonsense written, though.  Criminal discovered in last chapter.  Every one dumbfounded.  Real crime - you'd know at once."
"There have been a great number of undiscovered crimes," I argued.
"Don't mean the police, but the people that are right in it.  The family.  You couldn't really hoodwink them.  They'd know."
I love it when Christie gets all meta.  In One, Two, Buckle My Shoe one character accuses another, "You're talking like a thriller by a lady novelist."  Heehee!  But the best strain of meta-ness (ahem) in The Mysterious Affair at Styles is adorable Captain Hastings.  He narrates, and he is not very bright.  He considers himself rather brilliant at detection, and is constantly sharing all manner of clues and suppositions with Poirot, only for Poirot to laugh kindly and disabuse him.  Hastings really is lovely - and doesn't seem to have suffered even a moment's psychological unease at having been invalided away from WW1.  Poirot, of course, is brilliant.  It's all rather Holmes/Watson, but it works.

You've probably read the famous moment where Poirot is first described, but it bears re-reading:
Poirot was an extraordinary-looking 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 moustache 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 of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police.  As a detective, his flair had been extraordinary, and he had achieved triumphs by unravelling some of the most baffling cases of the day.
Isn't that line about the bullet sublime?  (Although, again, demonstrates a remarkable lack of shellshock on Hastings' part.)  What I found ironic about this, the first Poirot novel, is that (with decades of detection ahead of him), Hastings thinks:
The idea crossed my mind, not for the first time, that poor old Poirot was growing old.  Privately I thought it lucky that he had associated with him someone of a more receptive type of mind.
Hastings is wrong, of course, but as a retired man, Poirot must enjoy one of the longest retirements on record.  As for the novel itself - Christie tries to do far too much in it, and the eventual explanation (though ingenious) is very complicated.  Colin tells me that Christie acknowledges the over-complication in her autobiography.  It's not surprising for a first novel, and it does nonetheless involve some rather sophisticated twists and turns.

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940)

Onto another Poirot novel!  For some reason I love the idea of titles being nursery rhymes or quotations, and Christie does this a lot.  And Then There Were None is my favourite of her books (that I have read), and I also think the twist in The Mirror Crack'd From Side To Side is brilliant.  I hadn't read this one, and chose it over Sad Cypress for the 1940 selection.  Which turned out not to be very clever, as it is set at a dentist's, where I will probably have to go soon...

The plot of this one isn't amongst Christie's best, and does depend upon one minor implausibility, but it's still head and shoulders over other people's.  I realise I'm giving you nothing to go on, but I don't even want to give the identity of the victim (even though they're killed very early in the novel) because every step should be a surprise.  What I did like a lot about the novel was this moment about Poirot:

She paused, then, her agreeable, husky voice deepening, she said venomously: "I loathe the sight of you - you bloody little bourgeois detective!"
 
She swept away from him in a whirl of expensive model drapery.
 
Hercule Poirot remained, his eyes very wide open, his eyebrows raised and his hand thoughtfully caressing his moutaches.
 
The epithet bourgeois was, he admitted, well applied to him.  His outlook on life was essentially bourgeois, and always had been[.]
Having sat through an absurd talk recently, where the embittered speaker spat out 'bourgeois' about once a minute (and then, after lambasting his own bottom-of-the-pile education, revealed that he'd been to grammar school) this came as a breath of fresh air!  One of my few rules in life is "If someone uses the word 'bourgeois' instead of 'middle-class', they're probably not worth paying attention to, and they certainly won't pay attention to you.'  The other thing I loved was the morality Christie slipped into Poirot's denouement... but to give away more would be telling.

So, as you see, one of the other issues with detective fiction is that it rather defies the normal book review, but I've had fun exploring various questions which arise from reading Agatha Christie - and tomorrow I shall be putting a specific question to you!  But for today, please just comment with whatever you'd like to say about Christie or this post - and particularly which of her novels you think is especially clever in its revelation (giving away absolutely nothing, mind!)

30 comments:

  1. I can still remember my shock at the ending of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I'm not very bright at mysteries, so I'm usually surprised at the endings - but that one gave me a real jolt.

    I don't think I've come across One, Two, Buckle My Shoe - I think I'd remember it, not being fond of dentists either. Does the cover image actually relate to the book?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. In the vaguest of ways - in that a gun is involved. The paper on the cover is actually the rhyme One, Two, Buckle My Shoe written out - and that is loosely relevant to the chapters, as well as (of course) the title. So I suppose it is one of her more relevant covers - usually they're so bizarre!

      Delete
  2. My reading of Agatha Christie is a comfort read! I've read practically all her books and just find even going back to one I've read before so very relaxing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. They are very dependable! Make sure you answer James's questions on the next post - one is about comfort reading! (Isn't it weird that we all find murder so comforting??)

      Delete
  3. How on earth did you make it this far into the year without reading something from 1920? For me, it was one of those irritating years which every book I wanted to read seemed to be published in (1912, 1930, 1933 and 1949 were equally annoying).

    I adore Christie and now find that she is the only mystery writer I want to read (and reread and reread...). I have never been a big fan of the genre (ironic, since mysteries are practically all that my parents read) but Christie overcomes that somehow, even more than the excellent Dorothy L. Sayers. I always find them much funnier than I remembered. I love Hastings and Poirot but on the whole prefer the Miss Marple novels - is there a more delightful sluth in existence than she? I do agree about Christie's books being difficult to review though. I read a handful back in the spring for A Century of Books but only figured out how to review one of them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm very surprised about 1920 being left, since every other year from the 1920s has brought up many books I've wanted to read! Strange.

      I have a mega blind spot with Sayers - I don't enjoy her books at all, and think Christie dwarfs her with plotting...

      Delete
  4. I like the comment about Poirot being past it -- and this crops up again in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which I've just read, and which, despite the fact that I knew the denouement, was still a brilliant read. Of course Poirot's apparent past-it-ness, like Marple's apparent silly-old-lady-ishness, are there to fool the rest of the characters, and most importantly the murderer, into thinking they'll never solve it. This works particularly well in Roger Ackroyd, for reasons I can't possibly discuss here. But how nice to hear Christie described as meta!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Haha, thought people might like that!
      Christie does use that British love-the-underdog, doesn't she? We love it when Poirot of Miss Marple are underestimated, and then save the day.

      Delete
  5. I'm working my way, very slowly, through Christie's novels. The one that sticks in my mind is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which I thought was very clever. I've never managed to work out the perpetrator in any of the books I've read so far, though I did have a lucky guess once.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, I've only ever got anywhere with lucky guesses! But working it out yourself would spoil all the fun, wouldn't it?

      Delete
  6. It's so long since I read any Christie. I remember reading many as a teenager, but that was decades ago - something to remedy in the New Year when I read only from my TBR perhaps.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You should definitely revisit Christie! I think a lot of us enjoyed her as teenagers, but she is worth reading now too.

      Delete
  7. What a refreshing take on dear Agatha! Thank you for this. It's hard to get a few pages into a Christie without knowing who did it, but, as you say, the satisfaction lies in absolute cohesian at the end.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm very impressed that you work out whodunnit within a few pages! I'm always completely surprised...

      Delete
  8. I love her books and can always count on them for an entertaining read, but between Miss Marple and Poirot I usually go with Poirot. My favorite of hers (until now) is Murder on the Orient Express, it has one of the most surprising endings I think (apart from The Murder of Roger Ackroyd), and recommend it if you haven't read it yet.

    I also love how there's always someone who underestimates Poirot, even Hastings at the beginning like in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and in the end he proves them all wrong.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I can't remember whether I've read Orient Express or just seen it, but I do know the ending!

      And how I love Hastings! Bless him.

      Delete
  9. I love Agathan Christie, and I re-read her books regularly. I think she does not quite get it right when she writes about an international crime-organisation (f.e. They came to Bagdad, that was a bit silly). But I think she is amazing in some of her books, where the plots are so very clever. One of her best for me is The Pale Horse, that is manages to be scary, but in the end, it all comes to down to a clever scheme to make money. Amazing book.


    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I definitely agree about international crime-organisation plots being her weakest - I much prefer it when she sticks to family-in-big-house or similar. I've heard mixed things about Pale Horse - hope you haven't ruined the ending for me!

      Delete
  10. Great post Simon and I couldn't agree more with the heading - Agatha's unique and so wonderfully readable. Like Mystica, I'll always turn to a Christie for comfort reading. I'm rather fond of the Tommy and Tuppence stories too, and "Postern of Fate", one of their later adventures, has always been a favourite. It's really quite creepy in places. The "ABC Murders" is good too.

    As for Hastings - well,alas Poirot isn't Poirot without him! I've collected every one of her books since I began reading them in my teens and now my Middle Child is making her way through them too, which is rather lovely!

    One thing which always impresses me about Christie is her staggering output - few writers could produce so much work of such quality. I say those who criticise her are just jealous!

    Looking forward to tomorrow's post!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Karen!

      I've never read a Tommy and Tuppence, so thanks for the recommendation there. I do remember liking the ABC Murders - that had quite an odd format, didn't it?

      And yes, her prolific nature is wonderful! I remember reading somewhere that she was asked how she thought of so many plots - and basically said she could think of thousands of plots, it just took time to write the novels!

      Delete
    2. T&T are quite interesting - in the early stories they are a couple of silly flapper types a la Wodehouse but they mature over the books ending up as an old couple and I think they're very enjoyable.

      Delete
  11. I haven't read many Agatha Christie books but I've enjoyed most of the ones I have read. Other commenters have mentioned The Murder of Roger Ackroyd...I agree that it's an excellent book, but unfortunately I guessed the solution very early in the story and spoiled it for myself! My favourite so far is And Then There Were None, which I thought was extremely clever. I also loved Why Didn't They Ask Evans? - the plot was slightly ridiculous, but it was so much fun to read!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well done you, Helen, guessing that!
      My favourite is And Then There Were None - so clever, and so well structured. I have read Why Didn't They Ask Evans? (because I thought the title was great) but I don't remember much about it...

      Delete
  12. I agree with many others, Roger Ackroyd was wonderful. I enjoyed reading that, thankfully having not had the plot spoiled for me beforehand ;)

    I really haven't read any Christie in a long time...perhaps time to return?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lucky you, re:Roger A!
      Yes, definitely time to return - perfect for Christmas.

      Delete
  13. I remember that talk - absurd is the word for it. And I think you may be right about the 'bourgeios/middle class' thing...!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Heehee! Thought you might recognise the reference ;)

      Delete
  14. Roger Ackroyd will always be my favorite. Partly because it was the first one I read, and partly because I love the surprise ending.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Which will never be a surprise for me, sadly!

      Delete
  15. I would definetely recommend Marcia Penante, author of "Murders in Paradise homes.

    I'm an assiduous reader of police novels. Since I'm a big admirer of this style of writing, inevitably I came across great masters such as Agatha Christie, Edgar Allan Poe, Geoges Simenon and so on.
    I confess that I was overwhelmed by this book, which was written by a totally unknown author, but who managed to engage me from start to finish with her plot filled with thrills and mystery, yet being counter balanced with a peculiar and unexpected sense of humour. All of which you’ll find described in an exquisite context, both in a soft, but at the same time, emotional way. For the ones with a heart condition: Beware!
    I certainly recommend this book to all the mystery novel lovers to take a big dive into the universe of the story. It will certainly impact the readers once they see a bit more of the universe which is a psychopath’s mind. And definitively it will take our sense of justice to some extremes once we realize who committed Murders in Paradise homes.

    ReplyDelete

Thanks so much for taking the time to comment - my favourite part of blogging is reading your comments!

Annoyingly, Blogger often messes up with comments... try refreshing, or commenting Anonymously (add your name in, though!) or using Firefox/Chrome instead of Internet Explorer. (Ctrl+c your comment first!)

Failing everything, email me: simondavidthomas[at]yahoo.co.uk - or just email me anyway :)

Thanks!