Today, my buddy Kate at Cross Examining Crime posted a review of Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit. It wasn’t her first reading of the book, but she still didn’t love it, and I have to say – good for you, Kate! This is supposed to be one of Christie’s finest thrillers, featuring one of her best heroines, and if I might cross over to a certain New York City brownstone for my commentary on that idea, I would like to say, “Pfui!”
We all know how fond Christie was of these little adventures of plucky young women risking life and limb to save the world from some ludicrous Big Bad and managing to bag a good man in the bargain. The political elements of these stories are always disappointing, while the best parts, as befitting the Queen of the Domestic Crime . . . well, domestic. I like the mini-shopping mall under the leper colony in So Many Steps to Death about as much as I like the classic mystery reveal tagged onto the end of this preposterous “scientists in jeopardy” plot. I like the fact that Victoria Jones learns that the best men are not always the best looking men as she wanders interminably around Baghdad, getting in the way of some bad people doing I-don’t-know-what for who-knows-what-reason. Someday, I’m going to have to tackle Brown Suit again, mainly because the villain is a delight. I’ll probably have to read Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? once more, and stifle myself from asking, “Why don’t you all shut up?” Give me a puzzle every time, Dame Agatha. Give me your insights on the British social classes between 1920 and 1965, please. I can’t get enough of those!
It seems that Kate was tackling TMitBS again as a response to an ongoing argument with another of my favorite bloggers, Moira from Clothes in Books. And while I side against Moira here, I will defend to the death her right to be wrong her own opinion. In the comments section below Kate’s post, she and Moira were having a back and forth when Kate said,
“In terms of my favorite Christie woman, I really don’t think I can pin it down to one person. If we have no age restrictions then Miss Marple has to win really doesn’t she? But in terms of female characters I prefer to Anne I would have to say Tuppence (who grows out of the heroine in distress stage quite nicely), Bundle is a lot of fun, as is Ariadne Oliver. Can’t remember enough about Frankie in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? but fairly sure I would like her more than Anne! Is Anne your favorite Christie woman or does another take her place?”
What struck me here was that only a few weeks ago, I had been struggling with a post about my own favorite women characters in Christie! I had been inspired, in part, by Moira who had turned me on to a new podcast by a friend of hers. Caroline Crampton’s Shedunnit is quality literary criticism, and it’s right up the alley of anyone with a passion for the Golden Age. I urge you to look it up. The second episode, which dealt with the role of spinsters in classic detective fiction, prompted me to reflect on the way writers like Christie shone a light on the life of women in the early part of the 20thcentury. If Dame Agatha’s most famous character happens to be a man – he of the waxen moustaches – her richest, most moving characterizations are reserved for women.
In fact, as Crampton so beautifully delineates it, classic detective fiction was a locus for feminine artistry and imagination, reflecting the social history and life experiences of a pretty extraordinary group of women. How many other industries of the 1920’s through 1940’s had women leading the charge? As a man, I speak of this with admiration and enjoyment. I feel no need to add a male perspective to a given fact; I merely find there is much for men to learn about the historical female experience from the plots and the wealth of characters created by women writers. And there is so much to enjoy! For while most of the male characters come across as “types,” so many of the females are women about whom I would like to read and know much more.
I had a lot of trouble putting a post about this together and had even abandoned the idea. But Kate’s comment at the end of her own post made me think, “Why not? Why not share my list of my ten favorite Christie women?” My opinion might just sit there, noticed and forgotten. Or it might prompt some discussion, even argument, about the women in Christie and the way they were portrayed.
Of course, the biggest problem was that, at first writing, I couldn’t limit my choices to ten, or even twenty, no matter how hard I tried. But today, I feel more, well . . . decisive. I know full well that my opinions will change moments after I post this, just as my favorite Christie titles change, but what’s wrong with that? I did compromise a little, expanding my favorite ten to a baker’s dozen, but that was out of necessity, as you will see. Here goes.
Numbers One, Two, and Three: The Sleuths.
I figured that I had to include these three characters because they are brilliant, but they are also series characters and their presence would seriously cut into the wealth of one-off figures who belonged on the list. And so I list them, in ascending order of preference, and then cast them aside to look at a true Top Ten.
#3: Tuppence Beresford
I admire her pluck, her impatience, and her joie de vivre. I admire the fact that while her husband has it easy, fielding offers from the Home Office and such, Tuppence has to worm her way into each adventure. And then, of course, she acquits herself as well as her husband, particularly in terms of courage and brain power. I also love that she exists in a different dimension, one that essentially parallels real time and allows her to grow older. And Christie nails what happens to a woman like this as she gets old, leading me to believe that there was a lot of Agatha in Prudence Cowley.
#2: Ariadne Oliver
I was introduced to Mrs. Oliver in Cards on the Table, where she is, to say the least, alarming. “Now if a woman were to run Scotland Yard . . . “ she liked to say, and it was clear that Christie was having a bit of a laugh at the lady’s expense. However, let’s not forget that Mrs. Oliver pretty much got the right answer here, even if she had a problem sticking to it.
No, what I love are these meta-fictional moments that burst onto the page when Ariadne Oliver is present. Perhaps we learn things about Christie the person here: her shyness and hatred of crowds, her growing antipathy for Poirot, her love of apples. But more than that, we get a loving look at her writing process: the difficulty finding inspiration, the often clashing desire to satisfy both her fans and herself, the attempt to dress up old ideas in new clothes. Her frank discussion with Rhoda Dawes in CotT, her hilarious attempt to dramatize one of her novels in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, and the fascinating process of drafting a murder game in Dead Man’s Folly– where Mrs. Oliver has to admit to unconsciously appropriating other people’s ideas – all of these and more make Mrs. O. one of Christie’s best characters, bar none!
#1: Miss Jane Marple
There’s too much to say – enough for several posts – about Aunt Jane. I won’t dwell on her here; In the Shedunnit episode, “Surplus Women,” guest Camilla Nelson, an Australian writing professor, provides a fine summation of Miss Marple’s qualities:
“I think that what makes her Miss Marple a stand-out is that she’s pink cardigan on the outside but she’s got a mind like a steel trap and the men in the books around her actually respect her. The policemen defer to her. The policemen can tell that she is a woman who is intelligent, who is rational, who is not hysterical who doesn’t imagine things which makes her an interesting, quite a unique character particularly for that for that period where more usually a spinster character is a prattling character or is a sour or desiccated character.”
I’ll just offer a few comments. I love that her methods of sleuthing are completely and appropriately different from Poirot’s. I love that, more than Poirot, she evolves as a character, and while we can all acknowledge that Christie’s powers were increasingly weakened in her last fifteen or so years of writing, she reserved her best for Miss Marple. As Christie caught up to the advanced age of her sleuth (by all rights, Nemesis should see the old lady pushing 110!), many of her thoughts about aging and the changing world around her seemed to be filtered through the character. Finally, I love Miss Marple at the end of her novels: dodging out from under the killer in 4:50 to Paddington and proclaiming herself glad he’s going to hang; poignantly clutching the photo that Gladys Martin sent her before the girl’s death, a photo that provides proof of a murderer’s guilt; even the slightly ridiculous acting trick she uses to trap a killer in A Murder Is Announced. And as much as I appreciate her righteous indignation at the ends of Paddington, A Caribbean Mystery, and A Pocketful of Rye, I see her empathy for the killer in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, and her concern for how murder will affect her community in They Do It With Mirrors as signs of this elderly superwoman’s profound humanity.
Okay, we got those dames out of the way. Here, then, leading up to my favorite, are my top ten Christie females.
#10: Sarah King (Appointment with Death, 1938)
In a novel filled with twisted, frustrated women, Sarah stands out for her clear head and brave heart. She’s a respected doctor in 1938, for God’s sake, and she is the only character who has the courage to stand up to Mrs. Boynton, one of the most delicious monsters Christie created. (It was almost a toss-up between which character I enjoyed more.) Christie nearly ruins everything by allowing Sarah to settle for the namby-pamby Raymond, but up till then she is admirable.
#9: Megan Hunter (The Moving Finger, 1943)
I actually love allthe women in this novel, from city sophisticate Joanna Burton to the diverse village types that populate Lymstock. But Megan is a one-of-a-kind figure, and I don’t remember seeing any others like her in the entire canon. She’s gauche because she chooses to be, because she has tamped down the anger she feels at her mother’s neglect and her stepfather’s disinterest. I seem to go for these courageous types, and nobody shows bravery like Megan does in her face-off with her mother’s killer. I still don’t know how I feel about her Cinderella transformation at the end. Perhaps if Jerry had declared his love beforeshe got the haircut . . .
#8: Marina Gregg (The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, 1962)
Marina is a culmination of a long history of actresses in the Christie lexicon. Whereas your standard AC thespian is a combination of ego and fake dramatics, Marina is the most real, the most fragile, and ultimately the most human of them all. The author had the audacity to base Marina’s story on a true incident, but it is beautifully rendered. For added poignancy, Marina’s tragedy unfolds in a St. Mary Mead that is sloughing off its classic buildings and traditions right and left, putting Miss Marple in the perfect mood to solve the mystery surrounding Marina’s look of doom.
#7: Elsa Greer (Five Little Pigs, 1942)
This is a tough one because in Elsa Christie doesn’t offer us a likeable character. She reminds me in some ways of the most self-centered children I have to teach. When she walks into Carolyn Crale’s living room and begins to discuss how she plans on redecorating it, you both admire and are appalled by her insensitivity and her nerve. But Pigsis a novel about change, about how murder transforms the closed circle that experienced it. And by the final page, this becomes Elsa’s story like no other, and we finally realize what we did not see in the past: her capacity to love.
#6: Vera Claythorne (And Then There Were None, 1939)
Clearly, not every one of my choices is an admirable woman. Nearly from the start, we are told that Vera killed a little boy in order that her boyfriend would inherit a lot of money. Her placement on the order of killing confirms that she is considered the “most guilty” of U.N. Owen’s little Indians. And yet, somehow, Christie makes us root for Vera from beginning to end. (Tell me: were anyof you rooting for Philip Lombard on that beach?) I’m no fan of the way the author changed the ending in the play and movie versions; to me, Vera’s final act in the novel is true to character and ultimately brings her the peace we have been wishing for her all along.
#5: Lucy Eyelesbarrow (4:50 from Paddington, 1957)
Perhaps today it is a little harder to swallow a University educated woman deciding to embrace the limited working opportunities offered to her by becoming the most sought-after cleaning lady in Great Britain. Christie offers no ironies here: Lucy is sharp enough to be a detective, handles people brilliantly, and is clearly the mistress of her own fate. She’s also great with children and remarkably funny. (I think she marries Dermot Craddock in the end.)
#4: Eleanor Carlisle (Sad Cypress, 1940)
A strange book, perhaps. Some call it a Mary Westmacott novel shoved inside an Agatha Christie cover. No matter – Eleanor is a fully realized, deeply flawed woman, who is made to suffer and grows from it. She spends the first half of the novel feeling only negative emotions: hatred, envy, hopelessness. Christie allows us into her mind through each step that pulls a noose tighter around her neck and lets us experience the grinding suspense of how it will all end right up to the final moments of the trial. She is so compelling that we barely notice Hercule Poirot through the entire proceedings.
#3: Jacqueline de Bellefort (Death on the Nile, 1937)
I get emotional every time I read the early scene in this novel set at the restaurant Chez Ma Tante, where Poirot observes Jacquie and Simon dining together. She is so full of hope, that Linnet with do right by Simon and that all their romantic dreams will come true. “She cares too much, that little one,” Poirot observes. And later, when Simon and Linnet have crushed Jacquie’s dream, Poirot warns her repeatedly not to let evil into her heart. No romantic triangle in the canon fills us with such foreboding, but it’s Jacquie who makes us care.
#2: Henrietta Savernake (The Hollow, 1946)
The 1940’s are full of complex characters, and Henrietta stands head and shoulders above the rest here. Her relationship with John vies with her protectiveness of Gerda, and her instinctive understanding of her lover’s dying message marks her as the smartest of the lot. But it is her final act in the novel that pierces the heart: the warring instincts between a woman in love and an artist grapple for only an instant, and the artist wins. One has to ask if we have learned anything more about Henrietta’s maker here.
#1: Dolly Bantry (various; introduced in The Thirteen Problems, then appeared in The Body in the Libraryand The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side)
If this is a cheat, I don’t care. In the stories that introduce her, Dolly is hilarious. The way she butchers her tale of the herb of death or misunderstands nearly every cue her husband sends her makes her the Lucy Ricardo of 1932. But in The Body in the Library, we see her grapple with real drama and, comic relief or not, she fights like a tiger for her husband’s honor and freedom. And in The Mirror Crack’d, Dolly Bantry becomes not only the eyes and ears for her friend Miss Marple, she stands as a symbol of the ability of the old to withstand change and forge ahead. Hello, Dolly! I love you!
So there you have it, my baker’s dozen of great women in Christie. Now I better scoot and make way for your comments and disagreements. Besides, I can feel another ten names pushing through to the surface . . . Ooof!