Agatha Christie (15 September 1890 –12 January 1976)

In writing about Somerset Maugham, whose short stories cover a range of experience, I noted that he did not aim simply at thrilling or entertaining us.  That idea, somewhat dismissive of work that concentrated on just one element, has stuck with me I think from the time I read David Cecil on the early Victorian novelists, whom he compared with modern writers who had only a single aim in their fictions.

Thus, as I have noted earlier, he talked of Aldous Huxley as being concerned with ideas, while Virginia Woolf wove a tapestry of words. The third major writer he mentioned was John Galsworthy, whom I believe he saw as documenting social change. But then he mentioned two other writers who were widely popular in the thirties, one who made us fear and the other who made us laugh.

The latter was P G Wodehouse, the former Agatha Christie, who was widely touted in my youth as the writer who had sold more volumes than any others, save only the collective authorship of the Bible. This was doubtless publisher’s hype and was the counterpart of the pervasive suggestion – never directly stated, as I recall, but implied continuously in celebrations of other crime writers – that Agatha Christie was simple and superficial, her plots basic and her characters stereotypes.

I did not think of disagreeing in those days, and I am not sure I could argue a case now for great depth and complexity in her work. But it has provided enormous satisfaction over the years, and in the process she covered a range of characters and milieus that provide various perspectives on England and the English.

In the thirties certainly she spent much time and effort on English country houses, and I suspect she will be remembered most fondly for those. But she expanded her scope to cover high politics and spies during the First and Second World Wars, ancient Egypt and contemporary Nile cruises, international intrigue and deep lesbian passions,  girls’ public schools and even,  towards the end of her career, the pop culture of London in the sixties.

She had a range of detectives, most famously of course the Belgian professional Hercule Poirot (whom I saw as a role model when I was trying to find out what Rama Mani and Angela Bogdan were  up to – when you have eliminated the impossible,  what remains, however improbable, must be the truth), the fluffy English spinster Miss Marple, the husband and wife team of Timothy and Tuppence, the rotund Parker Pyne and retiring Mr Satterthwaite who is helped to understand life by the mysterious Mr Quin. They are all memorable characters and, while most of them stay the same through their long careers, the manner in which the couple manage to triumph over evil when old and frail is particularly rewarding. So too I should note is Poirot’s last case, ‘Curtain’, in which he returns to Styles, the country house that was the scene of his first triumph, now a nursing home for the old. It is also quite startling in its resolution, when Poirot shows how to deal with a serial killer of a sort that cannot be pinned down for the deaths he precipitates.

Agatha Christie had a strange life, with an unhappy marriage that led to her fleeing from home, as depicted movingly in a recent film. However her second marriage proved eminently successful. It was to the archaeologist, Sir Max Mallowan, and she accompanied him on his digs in the Middle East, which provided her with much inspiration, for works such as ‘Murder in Mesopotamia’ and ‘They Came to Baghdad’, as well as ‘Death on the Nile’, made into a marvelous film with Peter Ustinov and Angela Lansbury (daughter I think of the leader of the Labour Party during the thirties, which explained, someone said, why the Labour Party did not come into power during that period).  I was moved last year to find, when visiting Syria, that the hotel they used in Aleppo still survives, still celebrates her, and seems much as it must have been three quarters of a century ago.

Playing the part of Poirot is not easy and, though Ustinov did well, he did not quite capture what seemed to me the quicksilver impression Poirot leaves. Miss Marple however, though seemingly a more settled and definite figure, has been brought to life successfully on screen in different ways by a number of actresses. First there was the heavy definite Margaret Rutherford, but there have been several since of differing build, including the elegant Geraldine McEwan, who played the very different Jane Austen in Sri Lanka (and I think Angela Lansbury herself, abandoning the drunken writer she portrayed so splendidly  in ‘Death on the Nile’).  Miss Marple too has a memorable refrain about life, that one should never forget how wicked human nature can be, a lesson she has learnt by observing life in a quiet country village.

Ultimately, I should note, though the range is impressive, perhaps the most memorable of Agatha Christie’s works are those set in those English villages that now seem so remote, and in particular the country houses of the aristocracy and the squirearchy. I remember being particularly delighted by ‘The Secret of Chimneys’, perhaps because of the preposterously grand setting for political skullduggery, but I also enjoyed the more simply set ‘Murder at the Vicarage’, with its very subtle plot and the deep passion that is completely beyond the ken of the innocent vicar who tells the tale.

Agatha Christie knew well how to use narrative voices, as in perhaps her most famous work, ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’, but also through Poirot’s sidekick Captain Hastings, with all the strengths as well as the weaknesses of an Englishman of good breeding. His final incarnation in ‘Curtain’, when he almost falls prey to the murderer Poirot cannot unmask, is a marvelous tribute to a relationship sustained over half a century, taking in on the way marriage to one of the few survivors of ‘Cards on the Table’.

That was typical of Agatha Christie’s sense of the bizarre, involving murder during what was the lately fashionable game of bridge. She delighted in absurd plots based on nursery rhymes, and party games that went wrong. In short, she had a splendid sense of humour and, if one cannot claim very great insights into human experience in her work, I think Cecil was perhaps unfair in not registering that her thrills involved an entertaining glimpse too into the elasticity of the human mind. And while I would not agree with Milan Kundera who described her once as ‘the greatest magician of all time’, he explains that ‘she knew how to turn murder into amusement ….from the crematorium of Agatha’s novels the smoke is forever rising into the sky, and only a very naïve person could maintain that it is the smoke of tragedy’.  Reading that, and remembering too how she turned the smoke from a railway train into a question mark from the Almighty as well as a simple clue to when and by whom a murder was committed, one has to recognize a certain level of expansive genius.