Thursday 30 December 2021

Perceptions of Agatha Christie: Witnesses for the Defence

Particularly becoming Bermuda shorts...

The Queen of Crime's scheming ingenuity has been so much praised that one is sometimes inclined to overlook the lightness of her touch. If Mrs Christie were to write about the murder of a telephone directory by a time-table the story would still be compellingly readable.
(Maurice Richardson, The Observer, 10 November 1940)

Christie typically writes efficiently and briskly, with much give-and-take dialogue presented in short paragraphs. (Alan Jacobs)

The pleasure of her writing comes from the way that a seemingly breezy style is suffused with a sharp sense of irony. (Nicholas Blincoe, Guardian)

You never see her writing. (Nancy Banks-Smith)

Miss Christie has a clever, prattling style that shifts easily into amusing dialogue. (New York Times, 1922)

She uses subtlety, irony, understatement and implication to present impressions in a manner that is far more effective than the obvious musing and description of the modern writers of the genre. (Michelle Parker Brien)

Xavier Lechard calls her “the most popular and most under-rated writer”. (Paraphrase)

PD James contended that, unlike Dame Agatha, she was attempting to use the mystery genre to enlighten us about the human condition... who’s to say Christie did not accomplish this very thing? (

Mrs Christie makes you feel just as much at home on the Nile in 1945 BC as if she were bombarding you with false clues in a chintz-covered drawing room in Leamington Spa. (Review of Death Comes as the End from 1945. As far as I know Christie never set a story in Leamington Spa, though there is an excellent Miss Marple short story – narrated by herself – set in a "hydropathic hotel" before the war.)

The fact that Ariadne Oliver, as the series goes along, doesn’t land a boyfriend or have to deal with a parent suffering from dementia or get diagnosed with cancer or get a cat or open a bakery doesn’t mean she isn’t a character that engages readers. (Curtis Evans. All the above are “depth”. Their absence means a character is “cardboard and two-dimensional”. They are also clichés.)

Unfortunately, [Christie’s] popularity and historical importance have one major drawback, in that they’ve spawned a group of haters who mindlessly claim that Christie is psychologically shallow, a hackneyed writer repeating old clichés, “cozy”, naïve about sexual matters, or just plain “bad”. The most cursory look at Christie’s work is enough to dispel these notions, but the public perception of Christie has been influenced by many factors. And one of the most fatal is that Christie’s grandson, Matthew Pritchard, is willing to put his grandmother’s name on just about anything. ( Matthew has been superseded by James – will he do better?)

The haters like to claim that Christie’s murders are “bloodless”. As someone points out, she wrote a story called The Bloodstained Pavement. And if, in the 1920s, she’d written detailed descriptions of torture, rape, gore and autopsies in the modern style, she wouldn't have been published. And if you want gore, what about the murder in Towards Zero?

Every Christie character wears a mask, which allows their creator to [reveal] secrets. ( It also means we can't be party to their thoughts, most of the time.)

When people say Christie "can't do characters" I wonder if they mean her actors are rather ordinary? They are not "characters" in the Gideon Fell sense. (That's what I like about them.) They come from all backgrounds, including the suburbs. They are also not the “central character the reader can identify with”, with her romantic sensibility, and endless feelings, thoughts and quotes from great literature – the flattering version of the person the reader thinks she is. (And the writer thinks she is.) Christie likes to nail types like the selfish hypochondriac mother Mrs Wetherby in Mrs McGinty’s Dead, or the spiritualist sisters in Dumb Witness. Her characters aren’t Mary Sues! (John Williams and Charles Laughton are in the picture above.)

Witnesses for the Prosecution, and links to more about Christie, here.

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