Wednesday 22 December 2021

Perceptions of Agatha Christie: Witnesses for the Prosecution

We did it!

What to say about Agatha Christie: All her books are closed-circle mysteries. Her characters are cardboard cutouts. She was “ladylike”. Her greatest mystery was her life. She was a snob who only wrote about aristocrats in country houses. She didn’t write enough long descriptions. Oh gosh I say, she was young once and liked surfing!  

"There's this perception of her as this slightly quiet, slightly meek kind of Miss Marple-ish character, but she was far from that," says Christie's great-grandson James Prichard. (No, she wasn’t Miss Marple.)

“This film explores why a proper English lady would imagine plans for a perfect murder." A 1990 TV programme about Christie’s life was framed by visits to a therapist. This patronising cliché also appeared in one of the radio programmes about Christie and the other Crime Queens. In the 1920s, a writer wanting to make money would pick the popular crime genre and stick to the conventions.

Dorothy Sayers read the newspapers to see what people liked to read about. Two subjects jumped out at her – detectives and the aristocracy. “There is a market for detective literature if one can get in,” she wrote to her parents, “and Wimsey might go some way towards providing bread and cheese.” (

The villain is always discovered, loose ends are tied up and everyone returns to their cosy English idyll. (Evening Standard, 2007. Well, what do you expect from a murder mystery?)

It's unlike other Christies in that most of the victims are not wealthy or aristocratic. The scenes in the Andover shop and at Bexhill are (perhaps unintentionally) touching. The deaths are really sad – which is almost never the case in a Christie book, where murder is only a chance for an interesting puzzle and the victim is quite often a nasty tyrant whom almost everyone wants dead. (imdb on The ABC Murders)

Her writing is of a mawkishness and banality that seem to me literally impossible to read. You cannot read such a book, you run through it to see the problem worked out; and you cannot become interested in the characters, because they never can be allowed an existence of their own even in a flat two dimensions but have always to be contrived so that they can seem either reliable or sinister, depending on which quarter, at the moment, is to be baited for the reader’s suspicion … Mrs Christie, in proportion as she is more expert and concentrates more narrowly on the puzzle, has to eliminate human interest completely, or, rather, fill in the picture with what seems to me a distasteful parody of it. In this new novel she has to provide herself with puppets who will be good for three stages of suspense: you must first wonder who is going to be murdered, you must then wonder who is committing the murders, and you must finally be unable to foresee which of two men the heroine will marry. (Edmund Wilson, in his 1945 essay-review, "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" And if he only skim-read, no wonder the characters seemed to lack depth.)

It’s not as if anyone, even her hardest-core fans, ever makes any claims for Christie as a writer per se. Her prose is flat and functional, her characters on a spectrum between types, stereotypes and caricatures... What there was instead of an interest in character and selfhood and complex psychology – as opposed to the psychology of types – was an interest in form... her interest in the traditional apparatus of character and narrative was so perfunctory that she was in effect signalling that it didn’t matter and was present purely as a formal requirement.” (John Lanchester in the London Review of Books)

That world of tea-parties, servants, tennis clubs, rectories, manor houses and public schools that dominates her books. (Polly Toynbee, Guardian. She adds that “During the First World War AC was a pharmacist in a local chemist’s” – it was the local hospital’s dispensing department. Toynbee also refers to a “Miss Marples”, and has clearly never read Death on the Nile, Murder on the Orient Express or Murder in Mesopotamia.)

Because of her popularity, it seems Christie can be almost anything to anyone: the doyen of quaint English village writers or an apologist for Empire, a middle-class reactionary or a pioneer of strong independent female authors, etc. Success makes you endlessly protean. (Bill Picard)

Her evocation of a utopian if also profoundly reactionary England - snobbery, racism, anti-semitism and all - continues to be so irresistible even to a modern reader that I have no problem understanding her enduringly high sales and the countless radio, television, stage and film adaptations. (Gilbert Adair, Guardian, 2006)

Vicarages, snow-bound villages. With any luck we’ll find a retired Indian Army colonel, a gigolo, a faintly sinister Austrian professor, and an old lady who’ll sort it all out for us. (Murder at the Old Vicarage: A Christmas Mystery, by Jill McGown)

Snowbound village: The Sittaford Mystery
Retired Indian Army colonel (a portrait of Christie's brother): ditto
Gigolo: Towards Zero, The Body in the Library (Both characters are likeable.)
Sinister Austrian professor: The Mysterious Affair at Styles

Can’t write, but a great story-teller. The same is said of Somerset Maugham and Daphne du Maurier.

The cozy mystery groundwork was laid almost 100 years ago, by Agatha Christie herself. (

Christie lacks social context. (Her books are packed with context and a gift to the social historian. Perhaps this means “does not tackle social issues of the day like the Depression, hunger marches etc” but instead included stuff about hats, crosswords and spiritualism.)

John Lanchester chides Christie for not being realistic, which seems to mean, judging from his examples, detailed and long. (Bill Peschel. But Lanchester does say that "the 20th century is one of the main characters in her books".)

 The continuing blood-letting in St Mary Mead provides a reassuring beacon of stability... The cosy warmth of the settings and the British stereotypes attracts Stephen King, who says she “deserves more respect”. (Times 2015-08-31)

Even in the 1930s Margery Allingham was modernising and updating the country house mystery model. ( Christie began by updating the country house. She’d stayed in some as a young girl when they were like expensive hotels. Styles is adapting to WWI with a reduced staff. Most of its inhabitants have war jobs.)

Other commenters say Christie's characters are static, they don’t develop, they don’t change or Learn Lessons, they have no hinterland or back story. Yes, Marple and Poirot have no story arc – because Christie wasn’t planning a series. She wrote book by book. And the elements readers miss in GAD mysteries aren’t "depth" or "development" but soap opera. This judgement tells you a lot about what 21st century editors and readers expect from a novel, and recent "adaptations" have given Poirot a back story as a failed priest. I mean, really.

And all these rules about how to write novels are writing-course fare, or publisher’s rules. The two probably feed into each other. My theory: endless analysis and chewing over technique are bad for fiction. Writing courses have turned novel-writing into an industry – that makes money for the runners of writing courses.

And when literary critics tell us what is wrong with Golden Age mysteries, they are telling us what they think novels should be like. And they should not be “chilly” “experiments with form”. They should be more spontaneous. Surely a novelist just sits down and lets words flow from her pen? Writing a mystery must take a lot of unromantic planning... (Following a writing-course formula with Acts One, Two and Three, heroic quests and the like is not "unromantic planning".)

TL;DR Christie outsells the Bible; she can’t be any good.

More here, and links to the rest.
How many of Christie's novels were set in country houses?

Fascinating fact: Marlene Dietrich was only two years younger than Norma Varden, who played the "older woman", Emily French, in the film Witness for the Prosecution (pictured above).

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