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Critical Essay by Stewart H. Benedict
SOURCE: "Agatha Christie and Murder Most Unsportsmanlike," in Claremont Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 2, Winter, 1962, pp. 37-42.
In the following essay, Benedict considers the culpability of Christie's murders, arguing that Christie may have paved the way for justifiable murders in mystery fiction.
Just as in politics the British offspring of an American mother became the symbol of Empire in a time of need, so too the most typically English mystery novels have come from the pen of an authoress who, although she can boast of almost a hundred million sales, cannot boast of one hundred percent pure U.K. blood. The lady in question is of course Agatha Christie, whose heraldry bears a transatlantic bar sinister, but who in her books has out-Harrowed the Harrovians and out-Blimped the Blimps.
Miss Christie launched her criminal career in 1920, with The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and, since this first case, has finished almost seventy others and has dispatched close onto two hundred fictional victims, incidentally becoming the world's best-selling authoress in the process.
Evidently fully convinced that nothing succeeds like success, Miss Christie at the start of her career relied on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle about as whole-heartedly as, say, V. I. Lenin did on Karl Marx. Her debt to the Sherlock Holmes stories can be seen in her choice of titles for novels (like The Secret Adversary and The Big Four) and short stories (like "The Adventure of the Cheap Flat," "The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor," and "The Mystery of Hunter's Lodge").
Indeed, the team of Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings, as originally conceived, is a virtual carbon copy of Holmes and Watson. Poirot, like Holmes, is a convinced and convincing spokesman for the human rational faculty, has an unshakable faith in his own reason, uses his long-suffering Boswell as a sort of echo-chamber, and even has a mysterious and exotically named brother who works for the government. Captain Hastings, like Watson a retired military man, has much else in common with his prototype: he is a trusting, bumbling, superingenuous ex-soldier whose loyalty is touching but whose intellectual abilities, especially when turned loose on a problem of deduction, are so feeble as to be risible. Occasionally, though, the amanuensis wins applause from the master by making an observation which by its egregious stupidity illuminates some corner previously dark in the innermost recesses of the great mind.
Nor does the fumbling and ineffectual Inspector Lestrade lack a copy: Inspector Japp of the Christie novels is equally tenacious, incorruptible, and uninspired.
But the Baker Street influence permeates far deeper than these superficial features would indicate. Many scenes from Agatha's earlier works, especially those presenting conversations between the two principals, are considerably more Holmesian even than the literary collages constructed in imitation of the master by Adrian Conan Doyle and John Dickson Carr.
At the same time as she was writing by formula, Miss Christie was experimenting with a second type, in which she tried out various assorted detectives and crime-chasers, professional, semi-professional, and amateur.
In these novels she introduced a whole gallery of new sleuths: Tuppence and Tommy, Colonel Race, Superintendent Battle, Mr. Harley Quin and Mr. Satterthwaite, Parker Pyne, and Jane Marple. Some of the newcomers starred once and subsequently reappeared in supporting roles, some never moved out of short stories, while Miss Marple joined Poirot as a Christie regular.
Tuppence and Tommy Beresford, whose specialty was ferreting out espionage, made their debut in The Secret Adversary, showed up again in Partners in Crime and were resurrected in 1941 for N or M? Their frivolous and insouciant approach to detection, if something of a relief-giving contrast to the Holmes-Poirotmethodology, nonetheless must have made them seem to their creatress too unreliable to cope with any subtle or complicated crime.
The enigmatic, laconic Colonel Race appeared first in The Man in the Brown Suit and sporadically thereafter. The Colonel, whose locus operandi was the colonies, did make it back to England for the fateful bridge party in Cards on the Table, but clearly his chief interest lay in shoring up the house that Rhodes built. Further, although not precisely what Miss Christie customarily refers to as "a wrong 'un," the Colonel gave the distinct impression of being willing to temporize on questions of ends and means, a point of view, we must assume, acceptable in the colonies but not in the Mother Country.
Superintendent Battle, stolid, dependable, hard-working, came onto the scene in The Secret of Chimneys and solved The Seven Dials Mystery, but his lack of color and elan must have been responsible for his being relegated to a subordinate role on later cases.
The most atypical product of the Christie imagination was the weird pair consisting of the other-worldly Harley Quin and his fussbudgety, oldmaidish "contact," Mr. Satterthwaite. The short stories in which they figured marked the authoress' closest approach to the occult.
Another unusual character who debuted during this experimental period was Parker Pyne. The ingenious Mr. Pyne specialized not in solving murders, but in manipulating the lives of others so as to bring them happiness and/or adventure. In some of these cases he was fortunate enough to have the assistance of Mrs. Ariadne Oliver, the mystery novelist. Just as it could not be proved that Willie Stark is Huey Long, so too it could not be stated flatly that Ariadne Oliver is Agatha Christie, but many of the clues seem to point in that direction. Mrs. Oliver's incessant munching on apples, her sartorial disorganization, and above all her theories on the art of the mystery novel make it difficult to avoid that conclusion.
It was in 1930, in Murder at the Vicarage, unquestionably the best-written Christie novel, that she first presented the character who became one of her two favorites. The attraction to Jane Marple is not hard to understand: she is one of those personified paradoxes in whom both authors and readers delight. Behind the antique, Victorian, tea-and-crumpets, crocheted-antimacassar facade, is a mind realistically aware of the frailty of all human beings and the depravity of some.
About 1935 there began to appear the third type, or what might best be called the genuine Christie novel, with its numerous unique features.
Most publicized among these features, of course, is the use of an extraordinary gimmick: in Murder in the Calais Coach the murder is done with the connivance of a dozen people; in The ABC Murders, the highly suggestible suspect believes himself guilty of a series of crimes of which he is innocent and convinces the reader of his guilt; in And Then There Were None, the reader is led to believe that the killer has been a victim in a series of murders.
Less discussed, but really more significant, is the Christie ability to manage what may be called (to pirate a phrase from Sarcey) "the optics of the mystery." The successful mystery novel involves a special problem: the death(s) of the victim(s) must be made of interest, but not of deep concern, to the reader. The conventional, or, by now, hackneyed, methods of developing this special attitude in the reader are two: either the prospective corpse is presented so briefly that, living, he makes no impression at all, or he is depicted as so vicious that the audience looks forward eagerly to his demise.
Miss Christie, however, has evolved a completely different formula: she arranges a situation which is implausible, if not actually impossible and into this unrealistic framework places characters who act realistically for the most realistic of motives. In Easy to Kill, for example, four murders are committed in a minuscule town without any suspicions being aroused; in A Murder Is Announced the killer advertises in advance; in What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw! the witness to a murder is a passenger in a train which travels parallel to another train just long enough for Mrs. McGillicuddy to see the murder. And, of course, some of the Christie Classics, especially Murder in the Calais Coach, And Then There Were None, and "Witness for the Prosecution," really test the ductility of coincidence.
As for the realistic elements, in only one instance (the short story "The Face of Helen") does a murderer have recourse to a bizarre weapon; in every other case a completely pedestrian one is used: the poison bottle, the knife, the gun, the garrote, the bludgeon. The motive is always equally pedestrian: it is invariably either money or love.
The single characteristic which most stamps a whodunit as a Christie product, however, is the fate of the killer. Miss Christie sees murderers as being either good or bad individuals; the good ones dispose of evil victims, and vice versa. Further, the bad murderer is distinguished because he unvaryingly preys on people with inadequate defenses: he may be a doctor (and therefore ipso facto to be trusted, as contemporary folklore teaches us); or a handsome and clever lover who first uses, then kills, a woman who has been unlucky enough to fall in love with him; or an old and respected friend and confidant; or a man who selects a child, an old person, a physical or psychological cripple as a victim. This element, the victim's inadequate defenses against the criminal, puts the murderer beyond the pale—he is unsportsmanlike and consequently despicable. Over and over reference is made to the viciousness of those who betray faith and trust. Says Dr. Haydock in Murder at the Vicarage after he learns that the murderer has attempted to pin his crime on an innocent young curate who suffers from sleeping sickness and is not really sure of his own innocence: "The fellow's not fit to live. A defenseless chap like Hawes." In an analogous situation Hercule Poirot says to Franklin Clarke, who has actually succeeded in getting the suggestible epileptic Alexander Bonaparte Cust to believe himself a murderer: "No, Mr. Clarke, no easy death for you … I consider your crime not an English crime at all—not above-board—not sporting—…" He adds later, in analyzing the crime, "It was abominable—… the cruelty that condemned an unfortunate man to a living death. To catch a fox and put him in a box and never let him go. That is not le sport."
Conversely, when the victim is completely unsympathetic and the murderer a decent person, it is very possible that the culprit will be revealed to be a sufferer from a far-advanced case of some incurable disease. If he is healthy, he usually has or is presented with the opportunity to commit suicide. On rare occasions such a person escapes any punishment at the hands of the law: in Murder in the Calais Coach, for instance, the victim turns out to have committed an especially unsportsmanlike crime and the otherwise tenacious Hercule Poirot simply steps out of the case, leaving it unsolved.
It is very clear, then, that Miss Christie is no moral absolutist where murder is concerned. In Mr. Parker Pyne, Detective Ariadne Oliver, speaking, we suppose, for the authoress, asks Poirot, "Don't you think that there are people who ought to be murdered?" The view that there are indeed such people seems to be sustained in And Then There Were None, in which no less than ten preeminently sleazy slayers are dispatched by a retired judge who escapes legal justice through suicide. The entire tone of this book gives the strong impression that Miss Christie is not sorry to see them go. It also suggests that there is a stratification of murderers, with special punishment due those whose crimes have been particularly un-British, i.e., heinous, even though the later Miss Christie can hardly be accused of advocating unrestrained laissez-tuer.
Since Miss Christie's prestige among her fellow mystery writers is towering, and since she has by implication espoused the quaint theory that a sportsmanlike murder doesn't really count, it is interesting to speculate as to whether this latitudinarian attitude has in any way influenced the writers of the hard-boiled school with their philosophy that it is all right to kill a killer. Paradoxical as it may seem, perhaps the literary godmother of bone-crushing Mike Hammer is none other than genteel Jane Marple.
This section contains 2,002 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)