I’ve been reading – and collecting – Agatha Christie novels since I was in my early teens. I literally own every novel she wrote – and yes, that includes the Mary Westmacotts. I have yet to comb through to make sure I have all the short stories, but if I don’t have them all I’m pretty close. Add to that an assortment of autobiographical works and collections of letters, etc. and, well, you get the idea. I know I don’t have all the plays; just a few. Not quite an obsession, but maybe bordering on it. I can’t tell you how happy I was to find Adventure of the Christmas Pudding (never published in the US) in hardback at an antique store. My aunt texted me pictures of finds at a library sale a couple weeks ago. I bought 4 books . . . some nicer hardbacks of ones I already have.
My hubby even made me this little paperback shelf which now contains only Christie and Sayers . . .
Anyway, a few years ago, I think, after reading and being disappointed yet again by a mystery author somebody recommended after hearing I liked Christie, I got to thinking about why I enjoy her books. The only mystery authors I really enjoy are Christie and Dorothy Sayers. And maybe the Baroness Orczy, but there’s not exactly a huge canon there. Anyway, I realized that I enjoyed reading – and re-reading – her books more because I love her characters than for the mystery plot. They’re so very human, with natural and interesting personalities and goals and relationships. And she manages to delineate these characters, set up a crime and resolve it in a couple hundred pages! Amazing! I also love the sense of respect with which she treats her characters. They may make foolish or wrong choices, but she manages somehow to imbue them each with a sense of dignity, which I love. Characters who treat others with disrespect are generally corrected or proven to be foolish or wicked. Poirot, especially, often makes the point that for anyone to take another’s life is the ultimate form of disrespect, and a frequent motivation for him to solve the crime is a sense that that disrespect must not go unpunished or be repeated.
So, with that background, you can imagine my surprise when a person whose literary opinion I generally respect said ‘Nobody re-reads Agatha Christie – at least not for her characters. Maybe if they forget the plot.’’ Now, to be fair, the context was a discussion on the atmosphere of books; the idea being that some authors are adept at creating a vivid atmosphere that transports you to a different place and time whereas some stories could take place pretty much anywhere anytime and it wouldn’t make much difference. C. S. Lewis wrote about this idea in his essay ‘On Stories.’ For example, Lewis loved the vividness of James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans – he thought the detail of a tomahawk instead of a pistol as a weapon added to the atmosphere of the story, as did the descriptions of the mountains, trees, and wildlife. As a contrast, Lewis said The Three Musketeers could have taken place anywhere – it moves from London to Paris with no discernible difference in tone or character. A personal favorite for me is L. M. Montgomery – PEI to the core! The descriptions of place as well as the social mores and language of the characters all contribute to this turn of the century, down to earth but with this bare-possibility-that-fairies-are-real atmosphere. In Planet Narnia, Michael Ward christens this idea ‘donegality’ after Lewis saying he appreciated different places for different reasons, such as Donegal for its Donegality; its characteristic atmosphere. Hence the title of my essay.
Now, this person who referred to Agatha Christie as not having much atmosphere did moderate most of the statements regarding Christie with phrases like “the typical Christie mystery’ and ‘most readers,’ but of course the very phrase that wasn’t qualified was essentially the same phrase I’d used in a conversation with a friend just a couple of weeks before. Favorite authors . . . I love Christie . . . friend doesn’t read mysteries . . . I don’t read her for the mysteries but for the characters . . . I loan friend a Christie non-mystery novel.
Now, granted, many Christie readers read her for the plot and aren’t likely to re-read unless they forget it and want to be surprised. And I agree that’s definitely the pervading opinion of her work. Aaand for some readers the little tricks of the trade become apparent and they get bored with her. Set up, crime, eventual resolution . . the arc is easily predictable. BUT I had a feeling there were other people out there like me; people who read Christie because we love her characters rather than only, or primarily, for the plot. Email to person who made comments explaining that there is at least one person who reads Christie differently, to avoid A Defense of Agatha swirling in my head for days afterward. Case closed. Or so I thought.
The question came up again recently in a conversation with a friend whose literary tastes are surprisingly similar to my own. I asked her about it and she also re-reads Christie because of her characters! It’s not just me! Ha! She specifically appreciates the way Christie could create a cast of characters who are all so very different from one another and who interact in interesting ways.
So a couple of days later, stuck acting as a human security blanket after the cold season struck our house, I started pondering. Is there an overarching atmosphere – a donegality, if you will – that draws people to Agatha Christie’s work?
And it struck me that I really think that a significant part of her appeal is her mid-twentieth century Englishness. There’s this uniquely English flavor to all her work – her murder mysteries and her more literary works under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott – that is, perhaps, part of what draws people to her. She is, after all, an international phenomenon. So it makes me wonder if there’s a segment of readers that read her for the plot and another that reads for that atmosphere, those characters. The language, the interactions, the values, the relationships of her characters all contribute to this orderly world, peopled with individuals who conform to specific types but who each also have their particular flavor. In fact, I’d say that sense of orderliness and conventionality are key aspects of the atmosphere that permeates her work. Murder messes up that conventional, orderly atmosphere. Therefore it must be solved so things can go back to normal!
I think this idea may even account for part of the popularity of Hercule Poirot, her distinctly foreign detective. I think that the contrast provided by his un-Englishness brings the very English, conventional flavor of other characters (ahem, Hastings) to the fore. It’s also true that several of her works are set in foreign locales (she did travel a lot!), but with very English characters driving or reporting the action. The contrast of the place, like the contrast of Poirot, emphasizes that Englishness. The one place I think she really steps away from this is in a work set in ancient Egypt, and there her characters have an entirely different flavor – different setting, different values, different relationships.
And then I realized that part of the reason the person saw Christie as having little atmosphere may be that they’re . . . from England. So maybe, just maybe, that atmosphere doesn’t stand out to them because it just seems like normal life. After all, I don’t read novels about moms in middle class suburban America because, well, that’s the life I’m living and it would be kinda boring . . . to me. A murder set in that world would be a bit more interesting, though! And then I’d be reading for the plot rather than for the atmosphere!
It also may help to recognize that she was severely limited in what she could accomplish as a novelist by the mystery genre. She wrote The Mysterious Affair at Styles as part of a bet with her sister. Sis says it would be hard to write a detective novel . . . Agatha says not that difficult; she could do it better than the one in question . . . bet you can’t . . . it’s on . . . and she did. But once she started writing mysteries, she was stuck in that genre. She had to make a living for herself and her daughter after her husband left her. The publishers didn’t want her writing anything else because they didn’t think they’d make as much money. She did eventually manage to publish 6 novels under a pseudonym, and they did fairly well. About one of them, Absent in the Spring, she wrote in her autobiography that it was, of all her books, “the one book that has satisfied me completely.” Reading them, I have a feeling they’d have done better if they didn’t hit quite so close to home (as in having characters whose self-deception is highlighted . . . whose motivations aren’t really what they had told themselves they were . . . and not many of us want to be made to think too deeply about those ideas!). Interestingly, for those who complain about all her mysteries being solved and everything going back to normal, these novels don’t have happy, uncomplicated endings. They’re not tied up in neat little bows, but reflect the complications of real life, as I said, perhaps too closely.
It’s just an idea, but I’d love an excuse to do more research. We’ve just moved into fireplace weather after all, and curling up with a Christie by the fire sounds just about perfect. At any rate, I think she does a marvelous job of using Poirot, foreign locales, and murder itself to emphasize and make us want to get back to that conventional, orderly English world she creates. Anybody with me?
P.S. I just had the thought that someone might object to my theory on the grounds that Christie was just writing the culture in which she lived. But didn’t Jane Austen do the same? And Cooper was writing about things that could have happened in the generation before – as he was friends with many who had served in the Revolutionary War, which ended only 8 years before he was born. And, as I said, I think Christie writes of the culture in which she lived, but she emphasizes the ordinary, conventional, orderly aspects of it as a contrast to the mayhem of crime and to make her readers want to see the crime solved so the world can return to that base of normalcy. That’s all!