The Underappreciated Genius of Agatha Christie
16th Jun 2015
The sales of Agatha Christie novels pale in comparison only with the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare. Yet, somehow, I have only recently thought to read her.
Considering my main interests are women writers and women writing about women writers, it’s tempting to make a joke about how poorly read I must be and leave it at that (I love charges of being poorly read: they provide an excellent excuse to hide away from the world for a few weekends with a stack of books and articles I need to ‘catch up’ on).
However, I’m going to resist this temptation for now, as in this case I think my prior ignorance has more to do with the largely uninspiring critical reception Agatha Christie’s novels have had – and what this can tell us about gender in crime fiction – than it does with me needing to spend another weekend reading.
Crime first emerged as a genre of its own (rather than a series of lurid and alarming additions to regular fiction) around the turn of the 20th century. In the early 1900s crime novels were known as ‘yellowbacks’ because of their distinctive yellow jackets. Yellow covers were both eye-catching and cheap to produce, perfect for churning out en masse by publishers to meet the growing demand for crime. As crime’s rise coincided with the Industrial Revolution, it became indelibly associated with a growing public interest in the lives, work and values of the working classes.
It was against this backdrop that Agatha Christie’s mysteries were first published in the 1920s. Her 66 published novels are invariably set in old country piles in wealthy villages populated by socialites whose antics are written about in Tatler magazine. Butlers slide discretely in and out of scenes, and if protagonists themselves do service work it is always through choice not economic necessity (think of Lucy Eyelesbarrow in 4.50 from Paddington, who, “to the amazement of all her friends and fellow-scholars, entered the field of domestic labour,” because “she found in [fellow servants] a continual source of entertainment”).
Undoubtedly, Christie’s books feature an exclusively upper-class gaze. It is for this reason that her works are often scoffed at by social historians. They are seen as having bumbled along and spoilt a genre that was providing a valuable documentation of working class lives.
Yet imagine if Christie, an upper class woman who, in her own words, grew up in “a world of private income, where people did not have to go out to work,” had written books associating people from a class not her own with theft, corruption and murder? I would hope any critical reception would take the form of outcry.
It’s useful here to note that the other eminent crime writers of the time supposedly authentically documenting an oh-so-gritty working class culture were not themselves working class. Arthur Conan Doyle was a graduate of Sandyhurst and G.K. Chesterton was a Chelsea boy, born and bred. 1920s crime fiction functioning as an accurate social document of the working classes seems, as far as my research shows at any rate, never to have existed.
So, rather than tainting a supposedly unaffected working-class crime fiction, Christie’s work expanded the already upper-class gaze of crime fiction to incriminate the upper classes themselves. The message of her ‘cosy crime’ is perhaps, ‘the people I grew up around are all equally guilty, equally capable of committing terrible acts; societal ills are not just perpetrated by those born into poverty.’Another point that differentiates Christie’s work from that of her peers is the particularly effeminate version of upper class values she presents. Christie’s crimes all take place in the domestic sphere and are solved there too. The police are perfunctorily useful at best; they are able to provide practical services such as autopsy authorisation, but offer no leaps of intuition. These all come from characters such as Miss Marple, who, sat in the corner knitting her beloved baby blue pillow cushions, is able to weave the clues she gets about human nature by passively listening into a convincing narrative.
Precisely because Christie’s writing style is simple, clear and somewhat girly – she delights in describing the clothes, hair and makeup of her characters as well as what they’ve had for dinner – the breathtaking cleverness of her plots is often overlooked. The historical association between a preoccupation with domesticity and a lack of intelligence is sexism pure and simple. It should be named as such.
Writing in The Guardian, Gilbert Adair – perhaps Christie’s best-known critical champion – said, “Every Christie fan will be familiar with that sense of mounting tension as one approaches the climax of one of her books – the struggle, in particular, to keep one’s eyes from straying too far ahead in case they catch, before they’re meant too, the presiding sleuth’s.”
The fear that everything is simpler than it has initially appeared to be and that we the reader have wasted our time and tension waiting for the proper denouement is facilitated by how well Christie’s characters play the part of the ingénue. How very clever we feel we are in comparison to the gentle and bumbling Miss Marple. How ceaselessly wrong we are about that.
In Marple, Christie has crafted a character that subverts our ideas of how clever people will speak and behave. They may struggle to explain what they mean – “I’m sorry officer, I can’t quite find a way to say what I want to” – and they might enjoy hobbies not typically associated with detectives: in Sleeping Murder Marple is almost late to apprehend the murderer as she had been tending to her begonias.
So here’s to Agatha Christie, posh, effeminate, kindly, plotting genius that she was. In short, her books are brilliant: in the last two months I have shamelessly burned through all twelve Miss Marple novels. Don’t let anything you’ve previously read – any tones of voice used when you’ve heard her name mentioned or any ideas about how clever plotting ‘ought’ to present itself – deprive you of the supreme pleasure of a good Marple thriller.
Clara Heathcock graduated in 2014 with a Philosophy degree with a minor in Children’s Literature. She now works in publishing for Turnaround UK. Her interests include all forms of memoir and life-writing, all forms of illustrated fiction; from children’s books through to graphic novels, documentaries, music and football.