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Daily Archives: April 8, 2008

The Novels of Agatha Christie

Back when I was a tweenie, I didn’t understand that proper tweenhood demanded an unhealthy interest in boybands and cosmetics. I liked both those things, I suppose, but my feelings might properly be described as lukewarm. My primary interest lay in three things: Egyptology, Greek and Roman mythology, and violent death. Had we had things like Goths in India, I suppose I’d have been one. In the absence of such, I guess you could call me a homicidally inclined geek.

This did me no great disservice in anybody’s eyes and I was left alone to pursue my reading habits in peace except once, in seventh grade when, through a series of coincidences, I laid my hands on a volume most excitingly titled (if I remember correctly) The Giant Book of Murder.

A thick tome full of real life murderers and their evil stories, it was actually rather disappointing because real life murder is generally free of thrills and chills unlike the fictional kind but I’d made a commitment so womanfully made my way through it. I had owned the book for three days and was halfway through the poisoners’ section when my teacher came nosing by one day at recess and found me engrossed.

The next day, my parents were called and asked why they were bringing up a serial killer. I kid you not. My mom and dad, both levelheaded people, were inclined to laugh at her but when a teacher of the young tells you that reading certain books can have an adverse effect on your child’s psyche, you’d rather be safe than sorry – and my book was duly confiscated. It was a terrible blow. And one that made no sense because not only had I bought that book on school premises (the only exciting book to have ever been on display at the dull as ditchwater annual book exhibition), but I was reading far worse stuff in my books about Egypt and ancient Greece. My light reading regularly included things like rape, incest, bestiality, orgies and patricide not to mention wars and other assorted violence – but reading about Dr. Crippen was a no-no. Strange but true. It’s a good thing nobody guessed how deep my fascination with vampires ran coz I can only imagine what they might have made out of that.

But this ban on real life violence meant that I had to make do with fiction. And the following summer, I settled on Agatha Christie as my big pool of murder.

And here is when I ran into the big problem faced by precocious readers: however mature you might be at the age of twelve, you’re still only twelve years old. Granted, when you’re living the twelfth year of your life, it is the most you have lived and you’re convinced that you now know much more and understand a great deal more deeply than other people might give you credit for – but some things remain beyond your reach. So it was that I dutifully made my way through the cases of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple… and found it all a big bore.

The only book that made any sort of lasting impression was Death Comes as the End which played into my fascination with Egyptology. In fact, it’s the reason why I’ve occasionally dipped into the Egyptian novels of Lauren Haney, Elizabeth Peters and PC Doherty.

More than a decade later, I was reading Amey’s blog and faced with his deep and abiding love of detective fiction, decided to give Christie a second chance. In the meantime, I’d seen a few movies based on her novels (which didn’t suck) and followed three separate television series: two of them based on Hercule Poirot and one with Miss Marple.

Of the two Poirot adaptations, I thought the one starring David Suchet did the books most justice (I’m so sorry, Albert Finney – I love you but you couldn’t look like an egg-shaped Belgian on your best day. Or is that your worst day?). But not a single Poirot adaptation out there can compare to Geraldine McEwan’s portrayal of that batty but devious old dear, Jane Marple. (No, I haven’t seen the Joan Hickson series, but I will one of these days!) However, that’s a subject for another post. The point is, the various TV series had only reinforced my desire to revisit my Christies.

Reading the novels after a gap of so many years, I was surprised to see how much I liked them. For one thing, most of them were genuinely complex – I’d always been half inclined to scoff at the famed twistiness of Christie’s novels because when you remember a novel of your adolescence from the distance of adulthood, you sort of expect it to have baffled you. But now that I was all grown up, I figured things would be different. Especially because I’m the kind of annoying reader who picks up on the clues and generally knows whodunnit about half a book before the hero or heroine and then spends the last half groaning at the stupidity of the characters.

But with Christie, even if I figured out who the murderer was, I often had no idea how it was all done. And although she seemed to rely a great deal on coincidences and down-to-the-last-second planning that most often involved great athletic stamina (a little startling to someone from our time who’s used to people hitting the gym, yes, but not spending half their life swimming in the sea battling great big waves or on the tennis court building up honking great muscles), she always refrained from abusing my trust as a reader by introducing some startlingly exotic method of extermination.

It’s rather rare to find a writer of popular fiction, especially from that era of literature, who understood that publication in paperback form isn’t an automatic pass that allows you to palm off trash on the paying public. In fact, she goes to great lengths to explain how this isn’t so, taking every opportunity to have Poirot in particular pour scorn on things like exotic South American poisons and deadly assassins.

What surprised me most about these novels, however, was the extent to which they reflected Christie’s own feelings.

I didn’t know, for example, that she didn’t like Hercule Poirot all that much – finding him a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep” as the years passed. While my own feelings for Poirot never reached such dismal depths, I will confess that he left me cold. I have to wonder if I wasn’t picking up on her own bias against him. Did she write him, in fact, with less and less sympathy as the years went on?

On the other hand, she apparently found herself liking Miss Marple more and more as the years passed and this affection is clearly shown in that character’s progression.

Both Poirot and Marple are loners with an extensive network of acquaintances and a few close friends, all of them incredibly willing to throw house parties and invite them to stay, invariably on the eve of a murder or similar event. Both of them live through the two World Wars and see the world change as they remain, more or less, the same except for their increasing age. Miss Marple slowly turns from the local gossipy busybody to everybody’s favorite old aunt; Poirot becomes more and more entrenched in his many eccentricities.

But while Marple’s MO is relating the world at large to the goings on in her little village and Poirot’s lies in bringing his cosmopolitan outlook to bear upon his cases, both of them operate from a similar standpoint balanced on twin legs: logic and human psychology. The latter is what really drives Christie’s novels as a whole: the common theme being that people often perform to type rather than against it.

And what really grabs my attention, is the world that she creates in this process. The thing I appreciate most about popular fiction from any era is the unconscious way they reflect their world, which works in tandem with more literary works that seek to examine the age in which the writer finds her/himself to give the later reader a much better picture of the whole than if we were to rely on one or the other alone.

So we follow Christie’s characters through the British Empire, use words like “nigger” and examine colonial attitudes through chance met characters who live on the periphery of the main story. And none of this is expressed with the editorializing that a similar novel written today but set in that age would carry.

Baghdad is a city full of tourists, not oppressive regimes and roadside bombs. Palestine is similarly years away from being a place of conflict. Africa is about excitement, wealth and romance, not genocide, poverty and racism. You can see English country life subside by bits and pieces into its present day form – so far removed from what we read of in the early novels. Airplane and cruise ship travel is so different from what we know today that it really does feel thrilling to read about it. It’s like someone painting in the missing bits of the jigsaw.

I really do love going back to read the books of my childhood.

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Posted by on April 8, 2008 in Books, Entertainment, Personal