The Case of Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie is, according to her website, ‘the world’s bestselling novelist’. That is a difficult claim to prove, and the official site makes no attempt to do so, but when you think that she wrote 66 novels and 14 short story collections, all of them still in print in multiple formats in dozens of languages, you can begin to see how she got to a total of one billion copies sold in English and another billion-odd in translation. Oh, and the longest-running play in the history of the world. Sceptics would be well advised to admit defeat on the issue of whether or not she sold more books than any other novelist ever has, and instead pivot to a more interesting question: why? I’m not claiming that this is an original inquiry, but I started to take an interest in it during a period when I was writing mainly about economically inflected subjects, and found that almost the only non-worky thing I could bear to read was Agatha Christie. She is the only writer by whom I’ve read more than fifty books. So – why?
The case against Christie was well put by one of the first grown-up critics to write about detective fiction, Edmund Wilson, in his 1945 essay-review, ‘Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?’
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. It is all like a sleight-of-hand trick, in which the magician diverts your attention from the awkward or irrelevant movements that conceal the manipulation of the cards, and it may mildly entertain and astonish you, as such a sleight-of-hand performance may.
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; so, you might well ask, what’s to like?
We can get part of the way to an answer by looking at the example of two writers who were seen as direct rivals to Christie, two of the scions of detective fiction’s ‘golden age’, Margery Allingham and Dorothy Sayers. A paragraph of Allingham, from her masterpiece, The Tiger in the Smoke:
She did not reply at once and he glanced at her sharply, accepting the pain it gave him. She was so lovely. Queen Nefertiti in a Dior ensemble. Her clothes seemed a part of her. Her plum-coloured redingote with its absurd collar arched like a sail emphasised her slenderness. Since it was fashionable to do so, she looked bendable, bone and muscle fluid like a cat’s. A swathe of flax-white hair protruded from a twist of felt, and underneath was something not quite true. Exquisite bone hid under delicate faintly painted flesh, each tone subtly emphasising and leading up to the wide eyes, lighter than Scandinavian blue and deeper than Saxon grey. She had a short fine nose and a wide softly painted mouth, quite unreal, one might have thought, until she spoke. She had a husky voice, also fashionable, but her intonation was alive and ingenuous. Even before one heard the words one realised, albeit with surprise, that she was both honest and not very old.
Now one of Sayers, from Gaudy Night:
Harriet was glad that in these days she could afford her own little car. Her entry into Oxford would bear no resemblance to those earlier arrivals by train. For a few hours longer she could ignore the whimpering ghost of her dead youth and tell herself that she was a stranger and a sojourner, a well-to-do woman with a position in the world. The hot road spun away behind her; towns rose from the green landscape, crowded close about her with their inn-signs and petrol-pumps, their shops and police and perambulators, then reeled back and were forgotten. June was dying among the roses, the hedges were darkening to a duller green; the blatancy of red brick sprawled along the highway was a reminder that the present builds inexorably over the empty fields of the past. She lunched in High Wycombe, solidly, comfortably, ordering a half-bottle of white wine and tipping the waitress generously. She was eager to distinguish herself as sharply as possible from that former undergraduate who would have had to be content with a packet of sandwiches and a flask of coffee beneath the bough in a by-lane. As one grew older, as one established oneself, one gained a new delight in formality. Her dress for the garden party, chosen to combine suitably with full academicals, lay, neatly folded, inside her suitcase. It was long and severe, of plain black georgette, wholly and unimpeachably correct. Beneath it was an evening dress for the Gaudy Dinner, of a rich petunia colour, excellently cut on restrained lines, with no unbecoming display of back or breast; it would not affront the portraits of dead Wardens, gazing down from the slowly mellowing oak of the Hall.
And now Christie, from The Body in the Library – or rather, three of her typically short paragraphs:
The knock came at the door. Automatically from the depths of her dreams Mrs Bantry said, ‘Come in.’ The door opened – now there would be the chink of curtain-rings as the curtains were drawn back.
But there was no chink of curtain-rings. Out of the dim green light Mary’s voice came – breathless, hysterical. ‘Oh ma’am, oh, ma’am, there’s a body in the library.’
And then with a hysterical burst of sobs she rushed out of the room again.
It’s plain to see that there is a lot more writing going on in the work of Allingham and Sayers. Allingham could write, and more or less any paragraph by her has energy and momentum and detail – you want to read more. The case of Sayers is odder: her prose has force and at the same time there is something monstrous about her writing; it’s the kind of style which has a built-in falsity to it and the reader is likely either to swallow it as good old-school fun or reject it wholesale. Even if you aren’t necessarily laughing at her, you are definitely laughing towards her. There is unquestioned literary talent in both cases. (That was a sore point for Sayers, who started out wanting to be a poet and in the latter part of her career dedicated years to translating Dante.) By the same token, however, the high style means that there is more to date, and a high risk of becoming mannered or obsolete. What I would say is that there’s more to ‘go off’. A greater percentage of writerliness involves a higher risk of failure, in genre terms.
Something similar goes for the attitudes of the three writers. Allingham and Sayers considered themselves more progressive thinkers than Christie. Allingham’s main character, Albert Campion, is a toff, but her female characters had proper jobs: Lady Amanda Fitton, Campion’s eventual wife, is an aircraft designer, and his sister, Val, worked in fashion, as we learn in The Fashion in Shrouds (great title). Val marries a good man, Alan Dell, with the following deal: he will take ‘full responsibility for her’, but he demands in return ‘your independence, the enthusiasm which you give your career, your time and your thought’. She is delighted to accept. This is joltingly hard to read today – even P.D. James, no slave to political correctness, calls it ‘blatant misogyny’. It goes a long way to ruining what is otherwise a prime example of golden age detective fiction. Sayers gets into similar difficulties with the character of Harriet Vane, who is unmarried but has a lover; Sayers put so much effort and energy into congratulating herself on the modernness of this that she ends up seeming old-fashioned, just as old-fashioned as when she compliments her aristocratic hero for having ‘shoulders tailored to swooning point’.
Christie’s books are naturally saturated with ideology, just like everyone else’s, but because the ideology is implicit most of the time there is less of it to attract this kind of readerly dissent. That often happens in genre fiction: the aspect of the writer’s interest which seems most advanced to her is the one that seems most regressive to us, simply because the world has moved on so far that even to ask these questions seems glaringly outdated. I’ve spent some time wondering why Christie seems, to me and, on the evidence of her sales, not just to me, to have a strange exemption from this. I say this as someone who thinks that marking the report card of the past from the ideological perspective of the present is an unproductive use of leisure time – since what we’re talking about here is reading for pleasure. But the fact is that Allingham and Sayers, both better writers than Christie, are more likely to break the containment field of the detective genre, in ways that end up distracting you or putting you off their books.
I came across another example of the broken containment field in the work of Arthur Upfield, who wrote a series of novels in the 1930s and onwards featuring an indigenous Australian detective, Bony, short for Napoleon Bonaparte. Upfield’s masterpiece, The Sands of Windee, is a well-realised and vivid book, and teaches you a lot about the 1930s outback. Driving to a dance at a nearby farmer’s house, a party of cars comes to a dirt track. The car carrying the women stops and waits five minutes for the other car to get far enough away for the settling dust not to ruin their frocks. Only someone who had been there and done that could have written this scene. (The thoroughness of Upfield’s researches became famous. In 1929 a stockman called Snowy Rowles overheard Upfield discussing the body disposal technique he planned to use in The Sands of Windee, and copied it to commit three murders of his own, leading to what was at the time a hugely famous trial. Rowles’s mistake was to have failed to melt down one of his victims’ rings sufficiently thoroughly: it retained a distinctive soldering mark from an earlier repair. Upfield was called to give evidence at the trial.) Upfield clearly saw his decision to have his Sherlock Holmes figure be indigenous as a sign of his progressive views on race, but the meditations on race in the Bony books – the constant discussion, to take just one example, of how the ‘half-caste’ Bony is involved in a war between his atavistic black blood and the civilising instinct of his white ancestry – isn’t just offensive: it verges on nauseating. Christie has moments when she gives away attitudes and prejudices characteristic of her time and milieu – I’m thinking of the ‘yellow-faced Hebrew financier’ in The Secret of Chimneys from 1925, inter alia – but she doesn’t seem to have been all that interested in gender or race, and doesn’t muse at length on either subject. It is one of the factors that help her books stay within their lane.
Absence, the things that aren’t said, and aren’t necessarily there even in the unsaid, is very important to Christie. Her autobiographical writing is startlingly lacking in introspection, so much so that it makes you wonder at the nature of the psychological absence inside Christie, the space and silence where certain kinds of conversation with herself might be expected to take place. Come, Tell Me How You Live, a memoir about her life with her second husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, is a serious contender for the least revealing autobiographical book ever written, strongly rivalled by her Autobiography, which does at least contain some factual details from her childhood. It is in character that the most famous thing which ever happened to Christie was that she ran away and disappeared for a few days, a classic fugue which ended with her being found living under an assumed name in a hotel in Harrogate. Perhaps her entire being, her inner life, was a kind of absence, a variety of fugue.
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. The composer Michael Friedman, who died much too young last year, left a list of column topics which included the thought that ‘I seriously think Murder of Roger Ackroyd is the great modernist novel.’ It is possible to have an argument over the exact delineation of the term ‘modernist’ there, since Christie’s techniques were in many respects devoutly unexperimental, but if we change it to ‘formalist’, it is impossible to disagree. (If you were trying to put Christie in the modernist camp with Stein and Woolf and Joyce you would have to argue that 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 – a claim that I think it is possible to make; I just don’t think the bare question of terminology is worth a fight.) Her career amounts to a systematic exploration of formal devices and narrative structures, all through a genre with strictly defined rules and a specified character list: a murder must happen, it must be solved by a detective, there must be a murderer, a victim, a set of characters who might be the murderer but turn out not to be, a number of possible motives, most of which turn out to be misleading; the setting must be circumscribed, the list of suspects finite, the motive and crucial evidence something disclosed to the reader but preferably not shown to be significant. And it must come in at around 50,000 words – that’s not a genre rule, it’s just how long Christie thought a murder story should be.
From within this narrow framework, Christie produced a range of formal experiments so extensive that it’s quite difficult to think of an idea she didn’t try, short of setting a Poirot novel in a school for wizards. (Spoilers throughout all the next paragraphs. Though having said that, it’s a peculiar property of Christie’s work, speaking as someone who has reread several of the books multiple times, that you quite often forget, until you’re a significant way in, that you’ve read the book before; and even after that, you quite often forget whodunnit. Quite a few Christie fans have told me they’ve had the same experience. These are signs, perhaps, that the specifics of outcome are as unimportant to Christie’s readers as they were to her, and the main interest on both sides is formal and technical. You don’t mind rereading in the same way you don’t mind rereading a poem; you don’t care about re-encountering plot details just as you don’t care about re-encountering a rhyme.)
Her books, without fail, have a moment in which they gesture at their own artificiality, often via references to detective fiction, stage sets, or characters in the theatre, such as Roger Ackroyd, ‘one of the red-faced sportsmen who always appeared early in the first act of an old-fashioned musical comedy’. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is her breakthrough novel, not just one of her best books but one of the unquestioned masterpieces of the genre. It’s a story in which the narrator of the book performed the murder – as daring a formal experiment as anyone has ever pulled off in a genre or popular novel. Another, almost equally remarkable book is one in which the murder was committed not by one of the suspects, but by all of them. That novel, Murder on the Orient Express, is a radical experiment because all the characters are acting in concert: the whole point is that the evidence cannot be assembled into a coherent puzzle for the detective to solve. The evidence deliberately contradicts itself and fails to make sense: it’s a pointillist portrait constructed in such a way as not to cohere into a painting. (And a great gift for the theatrical profession, since every one of the characters is an equal ‘turn’; the result is that adaptations tend to become films in which actors are chewing the scenery while also phoning it in. Witness the completely pointless recent remake with Kenneth Branagh as Poirot. John Malkovich is about to impersonate the great detective in a Christmas adaptation of The ABC Murders – now that one I’m looking forward to.)
A novel in which the detective did it. A novel in which the entire structure of the story was suggested by a title that popped into Christie’s head: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? A novel in which the victims are killed in alphabetical order. A novel in which all the characters are murdered, except that one of them turns out to have done it. (Christie herself gave a rare glimpse of what she really thought about her own craft when she described that book, And Then There Were None, as a ‘technical extravaganza’. With its intense atmosphere of claustrophobia, menace and darkness, it remains genuinely frightening. It’s also the only book I’ve ever read three times under three different titles.) A novel in which the crime was solved long ago, and the murderer convicted and hanged, but the mystery is now unsolved by the appearance of a crucial witness, whose evidence proves that someone else – a hitherto unsuspected family member – must be guilty. (That novel, Ordeal by Innocence, is another one in which the psychological atmosphere is distinctly oppressive.) A novel which is based on the game of bridge, explained in detail and with diagrams, and in which the crucial evidence is the character revealed by the way one player copes with one particular hand. A novel based on a murder glimpsed through a train window. A novel where the murder happens on a small aeroplane, complete with seat diagram. A novel where the time and place of the murder are announced in advance in a newspaper ad.
The self-conscious, formalist impulse behind Christie’s work is the explanation for one of the biggest puzzles about her books: why the most popular detective writer of all time had as her principal character a man who is, by general agreement, the worst detective of all. By ‘worst’ I mean least likeable, most implausible, most annoying, vainest, and the one whose characterisation is most dependent on whimsical details that add nothing in terms of psychological insight: in other words, Poirot. (By ‘whimsical details’ I mean all that guff about hot chocolate and moustaches and ‘the little grey cells’.) Detectives are often – one might go so far as to say are usually – annoying and implausible, but nobody is more so than Poirot, as Christie herself acknowledged. ‘Would anyone go and “consult” him?’ she wondered aloud. ‘One feels not.’ He was, she said, ‘regarded perhaps with more affection by outsiders than by his own creator’. Her advice to writers starting out on a career in detective fiction was: ‘Be very careful what central character you create – you may have him with you for a very long time!’ In that same essay, Christie put her finger on something which has long been apparent to her readers, that Miss Marple, in her creator’s words ‘an elderly, gossipy lady in a small village, who pokes her nose into all that does or does not concern her, and draws deductions based on years of experience of human nature’, is fundamentally believable in a fashion that her other great detective isn’t. And yet there are only 12 Marple novels and 20 short stories, versus Poirot’s total of 33 novels, 51 stories and a play. The least believable detective of all is in numerical terms the most successful. Readers understand and resonate to the profoundly artificial, conventional nature of Christie’s fictions; Poirot is understood and accepted, indeed actively enjoyed, as a formal device, an almost Brechtian reminder of the artifice in which we are being invited to participate. He’s the most popular detective because he is the least plausible.
Christie’s formalism is a product of her time: a project more or less contemporaneous with modernism, and sharing interests with it, but directed at a mass audience. Her motifs, settings, milieu and ideological background also perfectly reflected their historical moment. Poirot is completely ridiculous. But if you look at the moment of his first appearance in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, written during the First World War but published in 1920, he is a topical figure, a Belgian refugee, at a time when Belgian refugees were both very much in the news and not always entirely popular. (Imagine a book set today that has a Syrian ex-cop as the protagonist.) The elements of Christie’s fiction are all already in place: a country house, a finite list of suspects, the outsider detective intruding into a place of order and hierarchy that has been disrupted by a crime. The world of Christie’s books is something like the ‘imaginary’ as described by Cornelius Castoriadis, a mental representation in which this orderly household stands for a whole society as a shared universe of meaning, with values and social roles encoded everywhere we look – and then, into this world comes a murder, and a detective trying to solve the murder. Something doesn’t mean what we thought it meant; someone isn’t who they appear to be; something didn’t happen the way it was said to have happened.
The fact that the crimes are always murders is important. If you haven’t read Conan Doyle for a while, or if your memory of his work is determined by the gazillion competing versions on screen, you may well tend to think of Sherlock Holmes as being a typical modern detective figure, who mainly catches murderers. That’s not the case at all: he solves thefts, frauds, cases of mistaken identity, and petty crimes, as much as he catches killers. Even his best and best-known book, The Hound of the Baskervilles, is only a sort-of murder, since the main death is caused by a man being frightened to death rather than getting directly bumped off. The immensely entertaining once famous anthology by Hugh Greene, The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, reveals a whole world of small crimes and cunning criminals, a milieu more like Damon Runyon and his wiseguys than that of contemporary genre fiction: hardly anyone is killed, and the narratorial point of view is by no means always on the side of order and the law.[*] Dodgy geezers, sneaky acts of cunning and rule-bending are enjoyed and celebrated; the tone is worldly and the settings tend to be urban. And then comes the war, and the whole tone of the genre changes, with Christie embodying and epitomising the change: the big house, the body on the carpet, the need for order to be re-established by detection and exposure. Among fans of the genre, these books are sometimes known as ‘cosies’, but that description is both right and wrong, since there is a definite cosiness to the ‘imaginary’ of this closed society, and yet it is also a place in which people are murdered.
Christie was very, very good at murder: it’s right at the top of her strengths. This is sometimes credited to the fact that she had trained as a pharmacist and had a solid, matter-of-fact education in the precise details of how people can and do poison each other. This is certainly important in her books, where the murders have none of the fun nonsense of the Conan Doyle type: poisonous snake sliding down a rope, giant mutant hound with flames coming out of its arse etc. Christie’s murder methods aren’t like that. Her killings are practical-minded and often involve poison, about which she did indeed have a good working knowledge. That helps, but it isn’t the crucial component of her credibility in this respect. Christie’s great talent for fictional murder is to do with her understanding of, and complete belief in, human malignity. She knew that people could hate each other, and act on their hate. Her plots are complicated, designedly so, and the backstories and red herrings involved are often ornate, but in the end, the reason one person murders another in her work comes down to avarice and/or hate. She believed in evil, not necessarily in a theological sense – that’s a topic she doesn’t explore – but as a plain fact about human beings and their actions. She isn’t much interested in the ethics or metaphysics of why people do the bad things they do. But she is unflinchingly willing to look directly at the truth that they do them.
This gives her work the edge it would otherwise lack. Her fiction is cosy in the familiarity of its settings, the orderliness of the closed world, the certainty that the detecting will be successful and the killer will be caught; it also has a bracing, even arctic chilliness. Sayers had a more complicated sense of the ethics around these questions than Christie. It’s noticeable that her best book, Gaudy Night, has a pervasive sense of malice and evil, but no murder (it also has those ‘shoulders tailored to swooning point’, and its last line of dialogue is a marriage proposal in Latin). Sayers was interested in the fact that murder mystery stories involve a murderer being caught, and then, almost invariably outside the confines of the narrative, hanged. Detective stories dwell on the detecting but omit the hanging. The real-world consequences of a solved murder case stand outside the conventions of the genre. It’s not hard to see why: the execution of a convicted criminal is a complex and charged topic with a powerful valence of its own. From the genre point of view, it’s best to steer clear, and that is indeed what the genre mainly does. Sayers was interested in this question, though, and studied it in Busman’s Honeymoon, the last Wimsey novel, in which the now married Lord Peter solves a murder in rural Hertfordshire. On the night of the execution he is tormented by doubt and stays up all night, and Harriet wonders whether he will ever come to her for comfort? For if he does not, their love is doomed … (Christie once called Harriet ‘a tiresome young woman’ and said that she preferred the pre-romantic Wimsey, whom Sayers described with ‘his face emerging from his top hat like a maggot emerging from a gorgonzola cheese’.) The dark, meaningful brooding over the real-world ethics of murder detection doesn’t really work, as P.D. James pointed out in her study Talking about Detective Fiction: ‘Some readers may feel that, if he couldn’t face the inevitable outcome of his detecting hobby, he should have confined himself to collecting first editions.’ Well, quite. Stop blubbing, Wimsey. This was a mistake Christie never made, and wasn’t interested in making. Her sense of the world was that people do terrible things and suffer terrible consequences, and she took just enough of the truth of this to ground her fiction in a sense of reality, but never enough to unsettle the reader or disturb the genre frame. If she had stuck to her first trade, she would have been really good at it. To titrate a dose correctly is the essential skill of pharmacy.
That eye for proportion and quantity, for just the right amount, is present in Christie’s use of context and setting. She isn’t thought of as a realist writer, and with good reason, but the 20th century is one of the main characters in her books: she turned ten in its first year, and was well placed to notice the many changes in manners, mores and styles of life that happened throughout the five and a half decades of her career. You can trace it in the buildings, from the ‘fine old house’ of Styles Court in 1920, with two wings and a gallery and a separate set of servants’ quarters, to the ‘modern bungalow of the better type’ in 1934, to the millionaire-built ‘luxurious modern house’ of 1939 and the cottage of 1942, which ‘consisted of all modern amenities enclosed in a hideous shell of half timbering and sham tudor’, sited on a ‘new building estate’; by 1961 we’re in a world of rented flats and espresso machines and ‘refrigerators, pressure cookers, whining vacuum cleaners’, where ‘the girls looked, as girls always looked to me nowadays, dirty.’ Social and economic change of this type isn’t one of Christie’s subjects, not directly, but it is something she never fails to register, and like Miss Marple, she misses very little.
Christie’s work is on three different tiers, with masterpieces at the top, decent genre work in the middle, and outright self-basting turkeys at the bottom. The turkeys tend to be the books with an interest in politics, usually of a conspiratorial type: The Man in the Brown Suit, They Came to Baghdad, Passenger to Frankfurt. I find the Tommy and Tuppence books, about the eponymous married duo of crime-fighting adventurers, hard going, though millions differ. Most of Christie’s books are in the middle category. The masterpieces are, by general consent, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express, to which many people, including me, would add Murder in Mesopotamia and Death on the Nile and 4.50 from Paddington and perhaps also the strange self-pastiching late novel At Bertram’s Hotel. Finally, another of her masterpieces, A Murder Is Announced, deploys to full effect her talent for noticing social change, and perhaps gives us a final clue to the depth and persistence of her imaginative appeal.
The novel was published in 1950. It opens with a great set-up. An ad appears in the local paper of Chipping Cleghorn: ‘A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6.30 pm. Friends please accept this, the only intimation.’ The characters duly assemble, some of them entertainingly introduced via their preferred morning paper: the recently retired Colonel Easterbrook is a Times reader (‘None of them know the first thing about India!’); aspiring intellectual Edmund Sweetenham reads the Daily Worker. (‘It isn’t as though you were a worker.’ ‘That’s not in the least true! I’m writing a book.’) The cast of characters is the classic disparate Christie galère, from the grumpy colonel to Letitia Blacklock, the floaty chatelaine of Little Paddocks, to the classic postwar female couple Miss Murgatroyd and Miss Hinchcliffe (‘who had short hair and dressed in men’s clothes’) to Mitzi the refugee housekeeper to Rudi the Swiss spa receptionist to Myrna his waitress girlfriend to Dora, whom Miss Blacklock has known since they were at school together, where she was ‘a pretty, fair-haired, blue-eyed, rather stupid girl’. That was more than forty years ago, and it isn’t at all clear what Dora has been up to in the interim – just as it isn’t quite clear what the colonel was doing in India – indeed whether any of the characters are quite who they seem to be. Even Miss Blacklock herself is introduced with a faint note of offness or wrongness: ‘Miss Blacklock, a woman of sixty odd, the owner of the house, sat at the head of the table. She wore country tweeds – and with them, rather incongruously, a choker necklace of large false pearls.’ Why the pearls – fake pearls – at breakfast? Why the tiny syncopation of doubt?
This is the dislocated, socially disrupted world of postwar Britain: life is changing, people have moved both geographically and socially, roles are more complicated than they used to be. Little Paddocks is a closed and cosy setting for a murder, but A Murder Is Announced is also a story about how a society has changed, how postwar Britain is a different, less settled country. For the murder to make sense, it must be true that somebody isn’t who we think they are – but who do we think they are? How do we know who is and who isn’t what they seem to be? How do the characters know? In essence, that is what detective fiction is: a mystery about which of a particular cast of characters isn’t who they say they are. And that, I suggest, is a, perhaps even the, core reason for Christie’s appeal to so many readers in so many different times and places. Just as her work is formalist without being modernist, her preoccupation with identity, with the constructed nature of character and society, is a modernist preoccupation, expressed through a deliberately popular and accessible medium. Her work is a cocktail of orderly settings and deep malignity, of comfiness and coldness, and at its heart it asks one of the most basic questions of all, modernity’s recurring preoccupation: who are you?
[*] I came across Greene’s anthology, and also Arthur Upfield, in Christopher Fowler’s excellent Book of Forgotten Authors (2017).