The other day, my buddy Kate at Cross Examining Crime tried to get my goat! This is rich, coming from the woman who raises goats herself! But Kate is also a writer, writers get metaphorical, and knowing what a champion of Agatha Christie I am, Kate saw fit to warn me that not all folks see greatness in the Doyenne of Mystery.
Take Jessica Mann, a British crime writer and journalist who, starting in 1971, wrote 22 mysteries, as well as various criticisms of the genre, including 1981’s Deadlier Than the Male: An Investigation into Feminine Crime Writing. When she died in 2018, her obituary in the Telegraph described her work thusly (the italics are my own):
“ . . . her writing was characterized by the effervescence of personality and robust distaste for conventional thinking that also became familiar to radio listeners from her appearances on Any Questions? and Round Britain Quiz. She . . . was less interested in constructing cunning plots than in ranging over as wide as possible a variety of settings and characters. ‘I write books … which concentrate on people, places and puzzles, in that order,’ she once said.”
Would it shock you to learn that, rather than the analysis of female crime authors it purports to be, Mann’s book is essentially a hatchet job on GAD crime fiction in general and the Queens of Crime in particular? Sadly, many late 20th century crime writers would join her in this fun and games. Irish novelist John Banville set the tone with the standard admission (as if it was a guilty secret) of reading and liking Christie as a child, and then growing up and changing his mind:
“Nowadays I am with Edmund Wilson, the title of whose 1945 New Yorker essay, Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?, expresses my feelings exactly. I say ‘novels’, but I am not sure that is what these books are. They more resemble crossword puzzles, and finishing one of them, like finishing a puzzle, leaves one with the same ashen sense of futility and wasted time.”
Declan Hughes, who is also an Irish novelist but at least has dabbled himself in the crime genre, described Hercule Poirot as “a cartoon character in a human world,” an unbelievable figure who is only “worth putting up with” for the pleasure of encountering some of the wonderful plots in which he appears. And the great P.D. James made practically a cottage industry of writing about Christie in patronizing tones: “Agatha Christie hasn’t in my view had a profound influence on the later development of the detective story.”
The problem with critics like James and Mann is that when they write about Christie in reference to their own work and the work of their peers, they are comparing apples to oranges, with the underlying hypothesis that oranges are of course better than apples. Christie and her contemporaries are dismissed as shallow puzzle makers – albeit clever puzzle makers, while modern writers, with their focus on people and places before puzzles, are seen as “true” writers.
This comparison is unfair in several respects. On the one hand, the genre has changed – I refuse to apply the term “evolved” here, suggesting it has gotten better (although there is certainly a lot of great crime fiction being written today) – since World War II. But then all genre fiction changes: science fiction applies itself to contemporary social ills and fears, romance fiction has gotten dirtier as our moral strictures have loosened, and horror has become more grossly unpleasant in order to qualify for a film adaptation. As humanity has become more attuned to its inner life, all writing has become more psychologically centered. Let’s face it: everybody loves well-made f**ked-up characters, and coming up with an airtight puzzle plot is hard! So why not dismiss Christie and transform modern crime fiction into a “successful marriage of detective novel and ‘straight’ novel?
That last quote comes from none other than John Curran, describing Five Little Pigs. When she chose to do so, Christie could come up with a mystery that was also character-driven and psychologically rich – and she could still surprise readers at the end! In other words, P.D. James is not giving classic mysteries their due.
Look, I’m willing to concede the point that Mann makes (and that Kate worried would send me quivering to bed with each arm around a cat for support) about none other than Hercule Poirot. Mann describes him as a static character, one who functions:
“ . . . as a machine for detection, and any other collection of characteristics would have done as well, for his personality does not affect the action, except for the fact that Poirot’s solutions are usually arrived at after so many additional murders that a CID man would have been demoted to the uniformed branch and point duty.”
The thing is, she’s right! Poirot, like most of the great sleuths from Holmes to Merrivale, is a “collection of characteristics” more than he is a flesh and blood character. Christie herself gave vent to this complaint through her alter ego Ariadne Oliver, who gripes her own fictional sleuth, Sven Hjerson:
“How do I know why I ever thought of the revolting man? I must have been mad! Why a Finn when I know nothing about Finland? Why a vegetarian? Why all the idiotic mannerisms he’s got? These things just happen. You try something – and people seem to like it – and before you know it, you’ve got someone like that maddening Sven Hjerson tied to you for life. And people even write and say how fond you must be of him. Fond? If I ever met that bony gangling vegetable eating Finn in real life, I’d do a better murder than any I’ve ever invented.”
Christie playfully disparaged her Belgian Golden Goose, yet she was protective enough to remove him from the theatrical adaptations of his novels, claiming that his persona was too hard to get right and too distracting from the plot for audiences. He was her collection of tics and characteristics, and nobody was going to touch him if they couldn’t get him right.
One person who refused to see Poirot as an amalgamation of superficial qualities was David Suchet, the actor who portrayed the detective on television for twenty-four years. Suchet approached the character as any classically trained actor does: he sought to capture Poirot’s exterior mannerisms and interior life. And yet, like any actor, Suchet’s was a personal interpretation of a famous character, different from Finney and Ustinov as any portrayal of Lear or Stanley Kowalski would differ from another. This is every actor’s right, and in general Suchet is extolled for his success in these efforts. Still, some controversy arose midway through the series when the actor took on a dual credit as producer and decided to take his portrayal in a new direction by enriching the inner life of the character. At that point, the series became darker, and Suchet’s Poirot began to diverge to a greater degree from the character found in Christie’s novel than it had before.
This brings me to my friend and fellow GAD enthusiast Scott Ratner, who has been critical of Suchet. Scott is never one to shy away from strong opinions, and his recent comments on Facebook brought up strong feelings, pro and con, about what he had to say. I had the opportunity to talk to Scott before he posted, and one point he brought up about Poirot is deliciously appropriate to this discussion about characterization in GAD novels, particularly Mann’s criticism of Poirot:
“Admittedly, the character of Poirot was generally regarded as the primary focus of the (TV) series, but this in itself is a matter of a distortion of Christie’s vision. For, even a cursory reading of her novels reveals that the detective character was not the primary subject of them, the cases he solved were. Beyond the overwhelming disparity in the volume of verbiage dedicated to these two different elements, the fact that Christie was so easily able to replace Poirot in stage adaptations of her stories reveals her understanding that the plots, not her detective, were the core of them. And while I’m one who believes that her skill in characterization is largely underrated, the fact that she is widely held to be among the very greatest puzzle plotters of all time, yet not among the greatest masters of characterization in world literature (or even detective fiction), suggests that the former skill is more integral to her unrivaled popularity. Moreover, the notion that her series detectives were the basis of Christie’s appeal is further shattered by the fact that her best-selling novel, And Then There Were None (indeed, the best-selling mystery novel of all time) does not feature any of them.”
There’s no comparing Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, or Sir Henry Merrivale to Adam Dalgliesh, Harry Hole, or Dalziel and Pascoe. The modern incarnation of the detective figure has a complex backstory and even richer inner life, sometimes changing significantly from case to case. What this achieves is to make the modern mystery novel up to three times longer than the classic one, sometimes approaching in prose and tone the quality of a mainstream novel – and yet rarely providing a crime plot better than Christie, Sayers, or Carr give us.
Posit: 352 pages vs. 704 pages = No Contest!!!
Here, then is the real challenge of the mystery author when it comes to characterization. The most likely favorite character of a reader – the detective – is, by nature of the genre, an outsider. Their pasts, their day-to-day existence, their inner feelings are scarcely significant to the main story, which is that of the death of a person or persons at the hand of a person or persons unknown. There is no doubt that a true Christie fan enjoys the glimpse given of Miss Marple’s girlhood at the beginning and end of They Do It With Mirrors, but the main purpose of this is to explain how she is roped into a present-day case. I won’t say that the goofy shenanigans in which Sir Henry Merrivale engages never give us a significant clue to the case he is investigating, but the main purpose is to offer an arguably humorous detour – and how many readers have remarked on how increasingly tiresome these hijinks get? True, Lord Peter Wimsey and others meet the loves of their life in the course of a mystery, allowing their creators to chart the never smooth course of a love affair, sometimes over several books. Significantly, Harriet Vane’s greatest case (and the favorite book of many Sayers fans) separates her from her beloved, and once Peter and Harriet found wedded bliss, Dorothy L. Sayers basically dropped out of the crime fiction game.
Can you see the challenge facing a mystery writer when it comes to character? With the detective outside the plot looking in, arguably the most important character is the victim, and that person often makes the briefest of appearances – if they appear at all! Or say the victim is merely a catalyst for the unveiling of long-hidden truths, as in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead? Let’s say it’s the murderer who is the most important character, for without their act of desperation – or gain, or revenge, or sadistic madness – there’s no book! But for that character to remain hidden until the end, a certain veil must be placed over every character: true motivations must be muddied or downright obfuscated.
The classic mystery was relatively brief and had to move snappily through one or more murders, their investigation, and the reaching of a solution. All else could be seen as “padding.” Thus, many authors focused their characterization on the sleuth and, possibly, his team. This is certainly true of my most recent read, The Flying Boat Mystery. In books like these, the suspects are reduced to a few brush strokes. Many authors of early crime classics engaged in “types” – the bluff doctor, the “old bore” military man, the desiccated spinster, the “artistic” type. Americans added voluptuous femmes and rat-a-tat gangsters to the gallery. The best authors used a fine hand to sketch a humorous or original take on these hoary old chestnuts. This was certainly true in the 20’s and 30’s. Christie was no different – at first – for it allowed her puzzle plot to take over the proceedings.
It’s not that Christie couldn’t craft strong characters or invent human interactions that resonated with her audience. Some of her murderers are fascinating people. Her depiction of village life in Murder at the Vicarage is one of that novel’s greatest strengths. And the romantic triangle of Linnet Ridgeway, Simon Doyle, and Jacqueline de Bellefort that forms the center of Death on the Nile is powerful stuff.
It also signaled a coming sea change for Christie – and for many crime writers – as the 1930’s drew to a close. By 1939, with And Then There Were None, Christie expanded her focus on character and psychology, producing some of her finest writing. Book like Sad Cypress, Five Little Pigs and The Hollow may not produce the shock of Roger Ackroyd or Nile, but they are expertly plotted, with well-drawn characters and emotional twists that create a different sort of surprise ending.
Ellery Queen does the same thing in his Period Three, beginning in 1940, where he sacrifices a focus on puzzle for deeper emotional resonance. And yet few would argue that his work here doesn’t represent great mystery-writing. Carr touched on this in the 40’s, although he remained adamantly focused on the crafting of puzzles for Fell and Merrivale. Carr’s method of evolving as a writer was to step slowly away from puzzle mysteries into historical ones; there, the puzzle became secondary to the author’s fascination with getting the details of each era correct.
With Pigs, or Ten Days Wonder, or He Who Whispers, classic authors proved that a fine mystery could balance character and plot. Their work paved the way for the authors who got their start at this time: the Christianna Brands and Helen McCloys and Margaret Millars, some of whom made a career of crafting clever whodunnits, others who shifted at their own pace to the realm of psychological suspense. Still, those who had begun their careers before the Second World War largely could not shake off the aim their writing had always taken: to entertain, to provide an example of a world temporarily made chaotic and then restored to order.
The unchanging detective was an exemplar of this sense of order. Peter Wimsey and Roderick Alleyn hardly changed after they got married. If anything they became happier. Ellery Queen went through a rough period of self-doubt – his greatest period, in my opinion – but by the 1960’s he returned to form, solving stylish mysteries for cardboard characters in trouble. Carr’s detective heroes grew a bit silly but were no less canny in solving crimes; it was just the crimes themselves that got weaker.
Christie experimented with her detectives in various ways. She presented the cases of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford in a semblance of real time: yet, even as they got older, they essentially remained the same. (The dottiness they show in their final case was, sadly, that of their creator.) Miss Marple evolves in the most poignant way: although she starts out as a very old lady, she feels that age a lot more by the end, and Christie makes her a most astute observer of the social changes in England during the post-war period
And Poirot? Well, Poirot is a bit of a mystery. Christie wrote the book during WWII because the bombing of London frightened her and she wanted to leave a finale to benefit her child. Let’s surmise 1943, just for fun. Between 1943 and 1972, Christie published eleven more Poirot novels before Curtain. She certainly had the chance to bring her character ever more closely to the position in which he finds himself in that final novel. And yet, she does not. Certainly there are allusions to Poirot’s reputation fading, particularly amongst the young. Norma Restarick rejects his help, citing his age. Other characters in other books say in passing, “I thought he was dead.” And yet Christie knew how much her readers loved Poirot, so she kept him basically the same, right up to the end.
I consider this a gift. Mann and James and Wilson and Banville called it a deficit. They are missing the point of classic crime fiction. The detective is like classic Superman: shiny and strong and always there when you need him. He never deviates from that. The detective’s job is to sort out the mess, with great charm and perspicacity, and – hopefully – with a sense of logic and veracity hovering over the proceedings. He doesn’t make mistakes because his wife just died, or because his daughter is addicted to drugs, or his girlfriend just left him or he just found out he has cancer. Like us, the reader, he is focused on what matters: the crime, its victims, its perpetrators, the clues, true and false.
That, Ms. Mann, is a good thing.