In which murder can sometimes smell like hot buttered crumpets

So I was thinking about this Agatha Christie post thing – I do that from time to time, thinking – and decided that I wasn’t going to work my way systematically through the entire canon, a la fuzzy little Bully the Wodehouse-obsessed blogging bull. Just because others have heroically blazed the trail doesn’t mean I have to follow them down it, say I. If it means not having to go in-depth on the likes of Elephants Can Remember or The Big Four, I am all for standing off admiring from a distance.

(Truth in blogging: The Big Four isn’t all that bad a book. Just – well, sort of stupid, in that particularly quaint ‘pre-WWII spy thriller’ sort of way that some find totally endearing but which drives me straight up a tree.)

At any rate. What I decided to do, in the end – ie, once I discovered a workable spoiler script, thus eliminating my last hope of procrastinating further – was a series of light ‘appreciations’ of Christies I have known and loved, or at least liked quite a bit. The perspective of the Christie-reader-on-the-street, if you like. A grab-bag of review, comment, reference and snark.

Nothing academic – for that, I recommend any one of the fine critical references and/or biographies devoted to the subject, no doubt handy in your local library. A good starting-point is Colin Watson’s snarkily astute chronicle of the English thriller genre’s growing pains, Snobbery With Violence. I’m not sure he does Dame Agatha full justice from a critical standpoint; in poking fun at popular literature’s appeal to popular expectations, he ends up glossing over the genuinely good, sometimes almost literary, effects she was able to produce working within them. But he is able to put both Christie and her characters into clear social perspective. Plus, he’s funny.

I do come to the task with excellent qualifications of my own, having read all the Poirot and Marple novels, not to mention a good healthy chunk of the random ones, many many times. Notable among the missing are the two Superintendent Battle stories, which I might end up reading in the course of this series; also Tommy & Tuppence, which I won’t (see comment  re: The Big Four, above).

I have also watched many episodes of the David Suchet Poirot series, which I adore as an (extremely) rare example of modern interpretation sensitive enough to improve – in most cases – on the classic. Likewise the Joan Hickson Miss Marple series, which has not quite as delicate a touch but still features that utterly definitive central performance. ‘
We will not however be discussing the more recent Marple series with Geraldine McEwan in the lead, because we have not yet quite gotten over the idiocy of the revised ending for the only ep we ever tried watching, The Body in the Library. I have no particular objection to your introducing a lesbian relationship into Mayhem Parva, producers; I would however appreciate its having a point. Generally, you’re trying to introduce the sinister element into the Marple stories to the extent that one wonders why you even bothered with the source material. Y’know, just call it Prime Suspect: The Retirement Years, and watch the awards roll in.

OK. So when do I get around to actually talking Christie books? Right after I set the scene upon which our heroine’s literary career opens (and get back from Georgian Bay on Monday).

In the beginning, there was Sherlock Holmes. And the English public looked upon him and saw that he was good. This did not escape the notice of hopeful English novelists, who immediately got busy and began cranking out Xeroxes of the formula as fast as the patrons of the new lending-libraries could snap them up.

Thus was born the hallowed Classic Mystery Novel. And lo, it was…not all that hot, really. This was some time prior to mimeograph technology catching on with the general public, so the whole ‘copy of a copy of a copy’ issue went sailing blissfully over readers’ heads. The aforementioned Watson (no relation) provides a resume of the genre immediately post-Great War, and it is devastating:

Their plots tended to be mechanical, with much emphasis on time-tables and geographical layout. The practice of inserting meticulously-drawn ground plans eventually became a joke and had to be abandoned, but some plots were so complicated and their authors so weak on description that pictorial aid was essental. Clues, too, played a considerably greater part…Lives did literally hang by single hairs (identifiable, of course, as uniquely associated with a breed of rabbit in a part of Dorset lately visited by the murderer) and it was not uncommon for a book’s solution to turn upon such nice points as the construction date of Brooklyn Bridge or the size of mesh in a beekeeper’s veil…

…In book after book they appear – the diffident, decent young pipe-smokers; the plucky girls with flower-like complexions; the wooden policemen…the assorted house-party guests, forever dressing for dinner or hunting missing daggers; the aristocrats concealing their enormous intellects behind a veneer of asininity; the ubiquitous chauffeurs, butlers, housemaids and the rest of the lower orders, all comic, surly or sinister, but none quite human.

…There is no deviation from time-honoured behaviour. All the characters are regular churchgoers, if only to establish their alibis. Meal-times are scrupulously observed even when the victim lies transfixed or garrotted (no murder is ever committed in a dining-room). The hours of darkness are strictly for sleep or crime, never for sex. Even violence itself, the books’ reason for being, is somehow conformist, limited, unreal. A bullet-hole invariably is ‘neat’ (as a putt in golf, perhaps?) while scarcely a knife is on record that has not been embedded tidily between shoulder-blades.

He then goes on to dissect a sample specimen, The Moorcroft Manor Mystery by Ralph Trevor. Yes, the phrase ‘The mean, despicable cad!” is used.

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. anonymous
    Aug 03, 2008 @ 13:20:08

    All I can say is after seeing 11 years of Murder She Wrote, it makes me wonder why anyone would hang around known crime solvers, since a murder must inevitably happen around them! But I admit, I miss the old Columbo series badly, as it nicely flips the whole genre on its ear, and Peter Falk is brilliant as Columbo. Sometimes the Americans get it right….

    But the perspective Watson has on the English mystery genre is quite accurate and funny. Dig in, Ms Shoebox2!

  2. shoebox2
    Aug 10, 2008 @ 11:20:07

    Ooh, Columbo! One of the rare shining moments of the TV mystery genre, I do agree. And using tactics interestingly reminiscent of the ones Christie would employ to get her effects, too.

    As for Murder, She Wrote…I just recently read an interesting Net theory re: Jessica Fletcher: that she’s actually a Reaper (from the series Dead Like Me) with guilt issues that lead her to catch the killer as well. There are times when I really do love the Internet.

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