Monday 3 October 2016

Clichés about Agatha Christie

The Times today (3 Oct 2016). I am going to type it out because it makes me SO ANGRY.... (Look out for caps.)

Agatha Christie's phenomenally popular novels ARE BEST APPRECIATED ON THE SCREEN
In the pantheon of bestselling novelists, none stands taller than Agatha Christie. As the author of 66 detective novels, 14 short story collections and six pseudonymous romance novels, she has sold about 1 billion copies in English and another billion in 44 other languages.

Christie is now to be adapted FOR THE 21ST CENTURY. At least four feature films and a new BBC adaptation are planned. That is just as well for aficionados of Hercule Poirot, Jane Marple and the rest: A STYLISH VISUAL ADAPTATION IS THE BEST THING THAT CAN BE DONE WITH THIS OEUVRE given that the NOVELS THEMSELVES ARE, IN THE MAIN, PRETTY DREARY.

In an elegant monograph a few years ago on the art of detective fiction, the late PD James observed, WITH GENEROUS UNDERSTATEMENT that Christie's "greatest strength WAS THAT SHE NEVER OVERSTEPPED THE LIMITS OF HER TALENT". That talent, in Baroness James's judgement, was to create an ingenious puzzle. IT DID NOT LIE IN CHARACTERISATION OR AN INSIGHT INTO THE HUMAN CONDITION. When the identity of a murderer is revealed, THE VILLAGE OR COMMUNITY WHERE THE OUTRAGE IS PERPETRATED GOES RIGHT BACK TO WHAT IT WAS. IT IS A COSY ENGLISH IDYLL.

Christie's reputation for ingenuity in truth rests on not very much: primarily the plots of
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (where [spoiler deleted]) and Murder on the Orient Express (where [spoiler deleted]). In other novels, THE PLOT DEVICES CREAK. The murderer in Death on the Nile relies on precise timing and [spoiler deleted].

THE BEST OF CHRISTIE IS IN THE INCIDENTAL PERIOD DETAILS OF RICH SCREEN ADAPTATION... A new generation will be able to appreciate the sleuths' latest big-budget incarnations, THEREBY DIVERTING THEM FROM THE PAUCITY OF THE PLOTS.

Let's answer those points one by one.

1. As with Jane Austen, much of the pleasure of reading Christie is provided by the witty, ironic narrative voice.

2. Why is everyone adapting these "dreary" novels?

3. Generous understatement? Or damning with faint praise?

4. Perhaps you don't like being told that "Human nature is much the same everywhere" and "Everyone is very like each other, but perhaps fortunately, they don't know it".

5. Village life is unchanged by murder - this one goes back to the mid-last century. And if I read the words "cosy idyll" once more in this context I shall go berserk.

6. Christie's novels are also rich in social observation and history – it's there in the books and does not need to be added as "period detail" by patronising young set dressers.

7. This writer does not even know what "paucity" means. (Scarcity, not poverty.)

8. Me lud, the prosecution rests.

I think the article translates as "We've got to say something about all these new Christie adaptations. She was very popular and sold a lot of copies so she can't be any good. I really must read one of her books some time. Plus we've got to big up the new thing and sell lots of tickets."

And giving away the solutions to her two most famous puzzles – good grief!

Update: I'm looking forward to Andrew Marr's programme on pulp fiction (including covers). Here's what the Times TV preview has to say:

"The less good news is that the series kicks off with the crime novel - a less satisfying programme than the later one about espionage... Agatha Christie's reassuring intellectual puzzles filled with cardboard characters moved around like chess pieces just don't have the same fascination."

More Christie misconceptions here, and links to the rest.

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