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The Novels of Agatha Christie

08 Apr

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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11 Comments

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

 

11 responses to “The Novels of Agatha Christie

  1. M

    April 8, 2008 at 4:52 pm

    Amrita,

    Kids ill, “working from home” – great opportunity to read blogs! 🙂 Ah another Christie fan! I still love the Miss Marple series, and find myself re-reading them every so often, for the glimpse of ” English Life” more than the mysteries. I assume you also read Sayers? Another huge favourite.

    BTW, most tweens of my youth were unfamiliar with makeup/music sensations – did we even have them back then? 🙂

    M

     
  2. terri

    April 8, 2008 at 5:01 pm

    real life murder is generally free of thrills and chills unlike the fictional kind

    You seem to say that with some amount of certainty. Er … how do you know? On second thoughts, don’t tell me, I don’t want to know.

    Koi hai? Bachao!

     
  3. mystic margarita

    April 8, 2008 at 8:47 pm

    Have been a lurker here for a couple of weeks. Find your posts interesting and diverse. I have been a Christie fan-atic ever since I was in the 6th grade. Like you, been fascinated with murder and mayhem and mythology as well. Talking of Christie, used to love Tommy and Tuppence – very unlikely detectives, but very Bitish and likeable nonetheless.

     
  4. Ashutosh

    April 8, 2008 at 9:22 pm

    Then you will surely like Colin Wilson’s morbidly fascinating Written in Blood: A History of Forensic Detection. Wilson minces no words for the express benefit of people like us!

     
  5. ana

    April 8, 2008 at 11:22 pm

    I have not read Christie since high school, but I love watching the series, and yes I agree David Suchet’s portrayal and that series did more justice to Hercule Poirot and his ” gray cells”. But I guess I loved Peter Ustinov so much, I didn’t think he was half bad either.

    I’m kinda lukewarm about the Joan Hickson series myself. . . . is that the most recent one that’s been on American public television?

     
  6. G

    April 9, 2008 at 4:07 am

    Very well written Amrita! I can very well identify with the “..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. ”

    🙂 And surprisingly you didnt bring in Erle Stanley Gardner who is almost always mentioned whenever Agatha Christie is written about!

    Personally I found Poirot adorable and frankly Miss Marple quite boring! Wonder what the particular preference says about ourselves..:)

     
  7. dipali

    April 9, 2008 at 12:48 pm

    Oh, they were such fun, weren’t they!
    And I was most impressed with Death Comes as The End.
    Some I remember were very gory, but generally unputdownable. My kids have got me onto Harlan Coben, whom I quite enjoy. I’ve enjoyed a lot of PDJames and Rendell’s Wexford mysteries.
    But of course, good old Dame Agatha- there’s none like her.

     
  8. Amey

    April 9, 2008 at 2:28 pm

    Back when I was a tweenie…
    Especially because I’m the kind of annoying reader who picks up on the clues and…

    I feel you, sistah (err, please to change boybands and cosmetics into girls before getting surprised)

    As for Miss Marple, she is indeed different from other “big” names. For one thing, Christie’s characters lack a consistent foil like we have for Holmes (Moriarty, and in some sense, Mycroft). Poirot has the Baroness, but she is more of Irene Adler than Moriarty. Then again, Miss Marple unique because she doesn’t have a sidekick.

    Add to that a main character who was born an old spinster, and you take away any “chemistry” which might develop (incidentally, hope you know by now that being a love interest to a detective is injurious to your health). When I look into all these reasons, I understand why it took me some time to appreciate the unglamorous “adventures” of Miss Marple.

    Nice analysis… will be back for more after second reading. 🙂

     
  9. Amrita

    April 9, 2008 at 11:57 pm

    M – I hope the kids are better! Do you mean Dorothy Sayers? I’ve read pitifully few of her books although I did like them. I’ll have to renew my acquaintance. And yes, we had boybands and cosmetics – not like they have these days of course but it was a big deal and I remember feeling like an outcast coz I couldnt care less.

    Terri – I iz in ur houz, demunstratin! Muahahha!! (Ok that came out a bit more creepy than I intended)

    Mystic – hi there and welcome! It’s a funny thing but when I was younger I really enjoyed Tommy and Tuppence who were really silly but fun. I still feel fond of them but now I kind of think of them as a watered down version of The Thin Man. Strange but I can’t get it out of my head.

    Ashutosh – oooh, I have to get that! You know, for my future career as a serial killing psycho 😀

    Ana – wasn’t Peter Ustinov’s a movie? I wanted him to be my grandpa 🙂 The show they have on PBS is the one with Geraldine McEwan. Although she just retired so they’re gonna replace her. I don’t know if they’re showing Hickson anywhere. I have to get the dvds.

    G – thanks! what does it say about us? that you’re a crusty old bachelor and I’m a gossipy spinster? 😀 I didn’t know they compared gardner to christie! It seems kind of odd to me. but then I’ve never been much of a gardner fan. I’ve only ever read the Perry Mason novels and I didn’t hate them but let me say that my mother enjoyed them more, lol!

    Dipali – I have to find Harlan Coben, never heard of him before. Do you like him? I’ve read James and Rendell of course. It’s amazing how Christie’s been a part of so many of our childhoods. Have you read The Man in the Brown Suit? You’d like it I think.

    Amey – mmm hmmm, if you say so. j/k 😀 You’re right about the lack of an arch villain, I suppose it would have ruined her whole “real life” angle. The few times she flirted with the idea of an arch villain, like with the Baroness and in The Man in the Brown Suit, she seems to have written those characters with a lot of humor and sympathy. An interesting choice. Poirot is about as close as she got to the stereotype, what with Hastings for a sidekick and everything. Marple spends a lot of time offstage actually. There are books where she doesn’t show up until halfway through or only as a side character until she’s ready to solve the crime. All very interesting departures from the norm.

     
  10. M

    April 10, 2008 at 4:29 pm

    Amrita,
    one kid better, one worse, I got teh virus as well …them’s the breaks 🙂

    Yes, Dorothy Sayers – do read – fantastic books, though my favourite book of hers is not really a mystery – Gaudy Night – a book relevant even today, which many of the mysteries aren’t.

    M

     
  11. Amrita

    April 11, 2008 at 10:41 am

    M – I just got over a bout with a virus, so sympathies 🙂 I’ll get it the next time I put in an order for books. thanks for the recco!

     
 
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