A Talent to Deceive: An Appreciation of Agatha Christie 
by Robert Barnard.
Collins, 203 pp., £7.95, April 1980, 0 00 216190 7
Show More
The Agatha Christie Hour 
by Agatha Christie.
Collins, 190 pp., £6.50, September 1982, 0 00 231331 6
Show More
The Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes 
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Allen Lane, 1122 pp., £7.95, August 1981, 0 7139 1444 0
Show More
The Quest for Sherlock Holmes 
by Owen Dudley Edwards.
Mainstream, 380 pp., £12.50, November 1982, 0 906391 15 6
Show More
The Unknown Conan Doyle: Essays on Photography 
by John Michael Gibson and Richard Lancelyn Green.
Secker, 128 pp., £8.50, November 1982, 0 436 13302 4
Show More
The Unknown Conan Doyle: Uncollected Stories 
by John Michael Gibson and Richard Lancelyn Green.
Secker, 456 pp., £8.95, November 1982, 0 436 13301 6
Show More
The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie 
by Charles Osborne.
Collins, 256 pp., £9.95, September 1982, 0 00 216462 0
Show More
Show More

In the opening chapter of A Study in Scarlet Dr Watson is introduced to Sherlock Holmes. Holmes says, ‘How are you?’ and adds: ‘You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.’ Watson asks in astonishment: ‘How on earth did you know that?’ and Holmes, ‘chuckling to himself’, answers: ‘Never mind.’ In the following chapter the two men observe through a window ‘a stalwart, plainly dressed individual’ walking down the street with a letter in his hand. Watson says, ‘I wonder what that fellow is looking for?’ and Holmes says: ‘You mean the retired sergeant of Marines.’ In each instance Holmes details the observations and deductions leading to his conclusion, but he does so only after a more or less teasing delay. Watson, if a close observer, could have marked what was chiefly revealing in the Marine – notably, ‘a great blue anchor tattooed on the back of the fellow’s hand’. (‘That smacked of the sea,’ Holmes explains.) But we ourselves have not been allowed to note either this, or the military carriage, or the regulation side-whiskers, or ‘some amount of self-importance and a certain air of command’, or the manner in which the Marine held his head and swung his cane. As the Holmes saga developed, Conan Doyle came to see that it would be to the advantage of the stories that his readers should be afforded a clear glimpse of the clues as they turn up. But he sets no great emphasis on his. In the main, we simply follow Holmes around and admire in due season. There is no premium, such as there is in the developed detective story, on driving us to exclaim: ‘I ought to have spotted that!’

Perhaps the most famous clue in the Holmes corpus is that afforded by the dog that did nothing in the night-time. But on the whole Holmes’s clues are objects, particularly those that may be detected through a magnifying-glass: Holmes’s glass is almost as famous as his deerstalker cap. Some of the clues, although solid, must be described as transparent too. There is often a largeness, as well as innocence, about these minutiae which corresponds to something in the personality of their creator and must be among the factors contributing to enduring popularity of Holmes’s investigations.

In all such stories the clues, if they are to be acceptable, must not be recondite: the last reaction to be desired in the reader is an indignant ‘But I didn’t know that!’ Thus a polymathic detective may prove a liability, and here Conan Doyle’s initial conception of his hero was insufficiently considered. Holmes, it is true, is declared (absurdly) to be ignorant of Copernican astronomy, but he has a ‘profound’ knowledge of chemistry and has written a monograph discriminating the ashes of 140 varieties of tobacco. In A Study in Scarlet he knows that somebody has been smoking a Trichinopoly cigar, but since we have not read his monograph there is no possibility of our making the same identification and reasoning from it. Frequently Holmes has to explain to Watson the significance of matters which Watson, like ourselves, is not specialist enough to know anything about. Thus, in the same story, Holmes detects that a cab and not a private carriage has at one point been involved because of ‘the narrow gauge of the wheels’. We are regularly and justly impressed by Holmes’s powers of observation and inference. But there is no contest between ourselves and the detective, just as there seems to be none recorded between Holmes’s prototype, Dr Joseph Bell, and his pupils in Edinburgh – or, indeed, between that Ur-Holmes, Voltaire’s Zadig, and the authorities of Babylon in the mystery of the sacred horse of the king and the queen’s respectable dog.

Clues, then, if they are to be fair, must fall within that area of common knowledge the validity of which a judge in court feels free to take into judicial notice: things so generally known to be true that evidence need not be led to validate them. So the writer becomes involved in questions of social tact, endeavouring to estimate the likely extent of his readers’ acquirements. A great many people know that dentists commonly wear white jackets; a smaller but still substantial section of society has had the opportunity of observing that stewards on passenger aircraft are (or at one time were) similarly attired. Almost anybody of sufficient education to find the word ‘haemophilia’ even vaguely informative is aware that the blood of sufferers from the disease does not readily clot, and may even be able to recall, and grasp as relevant to the plot he is following, the fact that individuals descended from a particular European dynasty are, at least marginally, more likely to suffer from haemophilia than are the common run of us.

In the 95 years since the publication of A Study in Scarlet the detective story has developed a great deal, and notably in the ingeniously unobtrusive presentation of clues. The height of virtuosity here is achieved, I suppose, by the writer who gets such a clue into the title of a book, as does Agatha Christie in Why didn’t they ask Evans? And it is Agatha Christie, too, who regularly contrives that just as the clue is dropped a distracting incident occurs. Here we are close to the art of the stage conjurer: a point well made by Robert Barnard in his concise and extremely acute book. Again, over this long period of time the clue tends steadily to refine and even attenuate itself in consonance with the enhanced acuity of readers. It is no longer at all likely to be the imprint of a boot in the clayey soil. It may be no more than a nuance of speech. And here again – rather surprisingly – Christie is supreme. Thus in what I take to be the most famous of detective novels, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Ackroyd’s secretary hears his employer’s voice coming from his study: ‘the calls on my purse have been so frequent of late that I fear it is impossible for me to accede to your request.’

Poirot sees that nobody would talk like this – except into a dictaphone. This is perhaps a surprising feat on Poirot’s part, since he is a Belgian refugee who consistently speaks a foreigner’s stage English, and moreover is so linguistically uncertain that he has occasional difficulty with phrases imported from his own native French. But of course what Poirot spots is true, and, if we have not remarked the fact as we read, it is for a reason taking us straight to the heart of Christie’s mystery. Her writing is so flat and cliché-ridden and undistinguished that we pay very little regard to it as we forge through the story; if those phrases of Ackroyd’s are oddly stiff it is just a matter of his creator’s regrettable insufficiency in this important department of literature. Than this, however, nothing could be further from the truth. Christie commands, whenever she has need of it, a linguistic medium of quite astonishing finesse and subtlety. Indeed, in her mature novels the entire business of clues, narrowly regarded, becomes of secondary importance. The craft of the writer is directed predominantly to leading us into false assumptions by means of this virtuosity.

There are readers who dislike the technique, and speak of red herrings. Conan Doyle, in the last years of his life, may have been among those saddened that anybody should have written so outrageously immoral a book as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Take its mere opening paragraph:

Mrs Ferrers died on the night of the 16th-17th September – a Thursday. I was sent for at eight o’clock on the morning of Friday the 17th. There was nothing to be done. She had been dead some hours.

Or, a little later:

The letter had been brought in at twenty minutes to nine. It was just on ten minutes to nine when I left him, the letter still unread. I hesitated with my hand on the door handle, looking back and wondering if there was anything I had left undone. I could think of nothing. With a shake of the head I passed out and closed the door behind me.

Was stuff equally wicked, equally audacious, ever penned? Is it surprising that, in the very year of the publication of Ackroyd, its author should have perpetrated an atrocious deceit involving the disappearance of her own person in an ostensibly amnesiac condition, so that hundreds of policemen and thousands of private individuals wasted a great deal of time going in search of her? The facts of that mysterious affair remain doubtful, and Mrs Christie may indeed have been very unwell. What is certain is that the chief delight of this in the main conventional upper-middle-class Englishwoman lay in foxing as many people as possible – and this eventually to the great content of millions. She is hard at work on the job in most of the 12 stories now brought together in The Agatha Christie Hour, all of which have lately been dramatised for television. Consider one of them, ‘The Red Signal’. A ‘famous alienist’ called Sir Alington West (‘the supreme authority on mental disease’, our apparently heavy-handed writer adds), together with his nephew, Dermot West, and one other guest, attend a dinner-party given by Jack Trent and his wife, Claire. Jack has ‘a good-humoured smile and a pleasant lazy laugh’. Claire is tense and uneasy, so that Dermot (who is in love with her) concludes that she is going mad, and that his uncle has been invited to the dinner by Jack in order covertly to diagnose her condition. Dermot goes home with his uncle, and they discuss the situation at considerable length. They then have a sudden, violent and not very plausible quarrel which is conveniently witnessed by a vastly stereotypic butler. Dermot goes on to a dance; returns at a late hour to his own flat; finds that a revolver has been planted among his handkerchiefs and hard upon this learns that his uncle has been murdered. And so on: it is all simple and absurd – but meanwhile we have been monstrously deceived. That long conversation between uncle and nephew has been so contrived as to conceal the fact that the interlocutors speak at cross-purposes throughout. A single ‘he’ or ‘she’ would give the game away, but no single ‘he’ or ‘she’ is uttered. It is the husband and not the wife who is going mad and has been under Sir Alington West’s scrutiny at the dinner-party. And there has been a further authorial cunning. Between the party and the uncle-and-nephew dialogue we attend (somewhat inconsequently) a spiritualist seance at which everything said is suitably imbued with fogginess and ambiguity. After it, the dialogue comes to us as crystal-clear, which is exactly what it is not. Stratagems of this reach and subtlety, boldly projected upon preposterous plots, are the staple of Agatha Christie’s writing. They take us a long way from Conan Doyle. Rereading The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and marking the several places in which the truth of the matter is boldly – perhaps in a single word or phrase – all but revealed, we are afforded an entertainment largely absent from a rereading of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

Dorothy L. Sayers maintained that the essential rules for writing detective stories are laid down by Aristotle in the Poetics. Similarly, Ronald Knox held that, from prooimion to epilogos, such stories ought to be constructed on the model of Greek tragedy. There is something to be said for these learned thoughts. Aristotle declares that we, as children do, delight in imitation. If we reflect that every imitation is in some degree a deception, we must conclude that in deception, too, it is natural to delight: we enjoy being gulled. But curiosity, also, is native to us, and its gratification in the face of difficulty a triumph: there is thus satisfaction in an astounding anagnorisis. Agatha Christie’s distinction lies in offering these allures in perfect balance. But they operate in a void. There is nothing else in the books. This was in the mind of Edmund Wilson when he wrote the formidable essay called ‘Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?’ We can say only that, within the limitations of her craft, Agatha Christie can, at need, write with a verbal adroitness far exceeding anything that has gone before her.

Undeniably, Holmes and his world are alive as Poirot and his world are not. Holmes has even entered the mythology of the folk, so that if in a pub a man is called ‘a ruddy Sherlock Holmes’ the expression is as generally understood as would be ‘a bloody Shylock’ or ‘a regular Romeo’. But nobody has ever been called ‘a peeping Poirot’. Why is this? Why is Baker Street as universally associated with Conan Doyle’s hero as is Sherwood Forest with Robin Hood, or Greyfriars School with Billy Bunter? These are hard questions, and must be put aside in favour of the simple observation that in the bookshops, as the present batch of titles illustrates, Holmes and Poirot are neck and neck.

The Quest for Sherlock Holmes has an ingenious jacket in which the figure of Conan Doyle casts as its shadow his prime creation in silhouette. But the subtitle is ‘A Biographical Study of Arthur Conan Doyle’, and the book in fact represents massive research (or ‘detection’) covering its subject’s life up to the publication of Micah Clarke, no more than a year after Holmes’s first bow in A Study in Scarlet. We learn that Alfred Aloysius Watson was five years senior to Conan Doyle at Stonyhurst; that the eminent Sir Patrick Heron Watson was almost his contemporary in the Edinburgh Medical School; and that Sir Thomas Watson was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society some ten years before William Budd, Conan Doyle’s partner in general practice as a young man. A Sherlock became Dean of St Paul’s near the close of the 17th century; there was a Portsmouth cricketer named Sherlock; of a certain Patrick Sherlock, another contemporary of Conan Doyle’s at Stonyhurst, it was declared by authority that he could ‘hardly read’. As for Moriartys ... But to continue this catalogue would be unjust to Owen Dudley Edwards’s book. Convinced (as he several times asserts) that Conan Doyle is a great writer, Mr Edwards has gone to work on an appropriate scale. The result is a full and in the main convincing portrait of the man, set against a broad background of the institutions and personalities significant for his early development.

Essays on Photography reprints contributions to the British Journal of Photography made by Conan Doyle between 1881 and 1885, and the editors express the hope that it will appeal to those ‘with an interest ... in his famous creation, Sherlock Holmes’. There is not the slightest reason why it should do anything of the kind. Holmes himself, indeed, might have been interested in the piece called ‘A Few Technical Hints’, since we can well imagine such activities as emulsifying, boiling, washing, coating the plates, drying, and frilling going on in Baker Street. But that there are real ‘nuggets’ here for the dedicated Sherlockian (as the jacket assures us) appears to me to be a wholly perplexing claim. A few nuggets of a sort, however, are scattered among the 33 Uncollected Stories now brought together from the Boy’s Own Paper and other magazine sources by the same editors. Thus at the opening of ‘The Recollections of Captain Wilkie’, an early story of uncertain date, the narrator describes himself as having ‘had the advantage of studying under a Professor in Edinburgh’ who was able ‘to spot a man’s trade or profession by a good look at his exterior’. The critical question raised by the collection, however, is whether the celebrity of Holmes has resulted in an unjust neglect of Conan Doyle’s other fiction – which bulks larger in his total output and was more highly regarded by himself. I rather think not. The romantic stories about Brigadier Gerard still make lively reading, but elsewhere there is little that wears particularly well.

Charles Osborne’s labours on behalf of Agatha Christie are almost as exhaustive as Mr Edwards’s on behalf of Conan Doyle. Again there is a striking title. There is an even more striking dust-cover: this one a splendidly mysterious multi-coloured creation in a surrealist/romantic mode. There are 69 illustrations, in 29 of which Dame Agatha makes an appearance. Nearly eighty novels are discussed, and there is much about some 150 short stories, numerous plays and films, and even a volume of stories and poems on religious themes. This is essentially the kind of book that in scholarly circles is described as performing a service. No serious student of the life and works of Agatha Christie can afford to be without it, but perhaps for consultation rather than perusal. Mr Osborne makes a gallant attempt to give away no secrets, and thus, it seems to me, mistakenly confounds himself with mere reviewers. Systematically to conceal the core of a story is surely to hamstring effective critical discussion. About absurdities encountered in the course of his researches he is decorously poker-faced. Thus he reports unsmilingly that in an American journal with the impressive title of Discourse Agatha Christie’s Endless Night is compared with Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove. Who – we may murmur – cares who killed Milly Theale?

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences