Monday, 18 January 2010

Was Agatha Christie a Snob?

The broadsheets (Times, Guardian) can't mention Agatha Christie without sneering at the way she always wrote about toffs in country houses.

"If all her mysteries were as ingenious as this usual country house Cluedo plot, I could understand why Christie is still Britain's most popular detective writer," wrote Sue Read in the Guardian, 11 July 2009, about The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – which is set in an English village, not in a country house.

But "the pleasure of her writing comes from the way that a seemingly breezy style is suffused with a sharp sense of irony," wrote Nicholas Blincoe in the same paper on 16 January 2009.

I think I get it - everyone repeats the "country house" slur and passes it round like Chinese whispers. Big country houses were built by aristocratic landowners from the 17th century on. They were the homes of titled people who lived off the income from their estates (farms, woods, rivers). They had large staffs of servants. Not many of them survive in this form, though 10% of the population still owns 90% of the land.

Not every house in the country in a Christie novel is a "country house" in this sense – many of her stories are set in gentlemen's residences in commuter belt towns, seaside resorts or country towns.

Agatha Christie wrote 80 detective novels and lots of short stories. How many are set in country houses? Just as many are set in English villages (often St Mary Mead, home of Miss Marple). Many reflect her life in the Middle East as the wife of an archaeologist. She wrote about it in Come Tell Me How You Live. When she did set her stories in country houses, they are more often meeting places of cabinet ministers and wealthy industrialists than hangouts for bright young people with time on their hands. Her titled people are usually self-made men who have been ennobled in their lifetimes. She was interested in the fate of country houses as they moved with the times, becoming hostels, institutions, separate flats and schools.

It occurs to me that those who repeat the same old clichés about Christie haven't actually read any of the books - they've only watched the telly adaptations.

The Christie knockers are still at it (October 2010).

"Agatha Christie’s fiction encapsulates an England that is hierarchical, rural and peaceable. When the murderer is unmasked, this idyll returns to its natural state," says Oliver Kamm in the Times Oct 9 2010, reviewing PD James’s Talking About Detective Fiction. Another reviewer, Janet Maslin in the New York Times, Dec 6 2009, says James "doesn’t think much of Christie’s drawing-room mysteries."

See below, Janet and Oliver, and count the rural drawing rooms.

Thirteen things you know about Agatha Christie are wrong! says this blogger:

Thirteen things...

You can buy her books here.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles (Hercule Poirot) - country house
The Secret Adversary – all over the place including an attic in Soho
Murder on the Links – a French seaside town like Deauville
The Man in the Brown Suitcountry village, London, cruise ship, Africa
The Secret of Chimneyscountry house
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd English village
The Big Four – France
The Mystery of the Blue Train English village, London hotel, Blue Train, Nice
The Seven Dials Mystery – several country houses, nightclub in Soho
The Murder at the Vicarage English village
The Sittaford Mystery isolated village on Dartmoor, nearby town
Peril at End House – big house in seaside town
Lord Edgware Dies – London
Murder on the Orient Express – the Orient Express
Why Didn't They Ask Evans? – seaside town, big house next to mental hospital
Three Act Tragedy – seaside town, country house
Death in the Clouds – aeroplane, London (one of the characters owns a country house)
The A.B.C. Murders – country town, seaside towns, London, Doncaster
Murder in Mesopotamia – a dig near Hassaniyah, Iraq
Come, Tell Me How You Live: An Archaeological Memoir

Cards on the Table – London, village on the Thames
Dumb Witness – Large house in the north of England
Death on the Nile – Nile paddle steamer
Appointment with Death – Petra
Hercule Poirot's Christmascountry house
Murder is Easy – a sinister country village and its “big house”, home of a newspaper tycoon
Then There Were None – mansion on an island
Sad Cypress – large house being cleared after the death of its owner
One, Two, Buckle My Shoe – dentist’s surgery, hotels in London
Evil Under the Sun – hotel on West Country island
N or M? – seaside town
The Body in the Library – large house in English village, action moves to flashy hotel in thinly disguised Torquay
Five Little Pigs – big house on cliff overlooking sea
The Moving FingerEnglish village
Towards Zero – big house in seaside town
Death Comes as the End – Ancient Egypt
Sparkling Cyanide – London, big house in country
The Hollow – big house in Home Counties (but characters talk a lot about a country house inherited by one of them)
Taken at the Flood – English country town
Crooked House – big house accommodating many members of the same family
A Murder is Announced English village
They Came to Baghdad – London, Baghdad
Mrs McGinty's Dead English village
They Do It with Mirrorscountry house partly converted into institution for difficult youths
After the Funeral – big house being broken up on the death of its owner, English village, London
A Pocket Full of Rye – London, big house somewhere like Weybridge or Sunningdale, home to members of the same family

Destination Unknown – North Africa, headquarters of sect plotting to take over world
Hickory Dickory Dock – student hostel in London
Dead Man's Follycountry house
4.50 from Paddington – big house built by Victorian fish-paste millionaire, usually empty but for old owner, his daughter and a housekeeper
Ordeal by Innocence – large house in seaside town
Cat Among the Pigeons – Middle East, English girls’ school
The Pale Horse – London (many settings including Chelsea coffee bars), English village
The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side – big house in English village, now owned by ageing film star and her entourage
The Clocks – seaside town
A Caribbean Mystery – Caribbean island hotel
At Bertram's Hotel – London hotel
Third Girl – big house in Surrey, flat in London
Endless Night – architect designed modernist house in English countryside
By the Pricking of My Thumbs – old people’s home, English village
Hallowe'en PartyEnglish village
Passenger to Frankfurt – around Europe
Nemesis – a charabanc tour of country houses and gardens now owned by the nation
Elephants Can Remember – rambling around the West Country
Postern of Fate – big house outside a seaside town (transparently Christie’s old home in Torquay)
Curtain – big house shared by paying guests
Sleeping Murder – house in seaside town


  1. Don't expect you have any privacy on staying hostels like in the communal area.

    Hostel Sao Paulo

  2. Christie often wrote about country houses where the real business of government and politics was carried on. Of course this just shows how old-fashioned she is (except the same thing seems to be going on in Chipping Norton in 2011).

  3. Great observations! I'm going to have to link to this one soon!

  4. Yes, one has only to remember the dozens upon dozens of Golden Age mysteries set in the slums of London and Liverpool to realize just how snobbish Dame Agatha was. Readers do love to read about the murders of the poor and disadvantaged, I suppose.

  5. To my mind, "snob" means "thinking a certain class of people is superior", not "only writing about a certain class". Plus, she was selling her books to these people. I don't think you can call her a snob just because she didn't write Oliver Twist. There is certainly snobbery in her books ("There is nothing that class can't remember if it tries."). Working-class characters tend to be servants (faithful Florence, Cherry Baker), dressmakers and shopkeepers.