Agatha Christie | Critical Essay by David I. Grossvogel

This literature criticism consists of approximately 18 pages of analysis & critique of Agatha Christie.
This section contains 5,344 words
(approx. 18 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by David I. Grossvogel

Critical Essay by David I. Grossvogel

SOURCE: "Death Deferred: The Long Life, Splendid Afterlife, and Mysterious Workings of Agatha Christie," in Art in Crime Writing: Essays on Detective Fiction, St. Martin's Press, 1983, pp. 1-17.

In the following essay, Grossvogel explores why Christie's works remain popular today.

It is not uncommon for the demise of an author's popularity to coincide with his actual death, the chance of resurrection awaiting the archaeological whims of future scholars and critics. Not so Agatha Christie: even though she has been gone since 1976, even though the worlds she described are, for the most part, no longer with us, even though the very genre she helped fashion is largely obsolete—in great part because of the disappearance of those worlds—Dame Agatha, her worlds and her particular notion of a genre still seem to be defining for an exceptionally large readership.

Part of this anachronistic phenomenon seems to be due to the truly huge size of that readership developed by Agatha Christie during the course of a career that spanned well over half a century, a hundred titles (titles that number, in addition to her detective stories, plays, romantic novels written under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott, an autobiography, and so on), translations into more than a hundred languages: the size of that readership is impossible to evaluate accurately, but close to half a billion is the figure generally guessed at.

We are still tied to a past we never knew through a few strands that fray even as we hang on to them and, sooner or later, disappear: Agatha Christie is one of those strands. We believe that the detective story as we know it began with Edgar Allan Poe and, some forty years after his death, was popularized by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. What we may be less aware of is that we are linked to these historical inceptions through the presence of Agatha Christie. The author of Sherlock Holmes was writing, and would still be writing for a number of years, when young Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller decided to try her hand at the genre. This was towards the end of the first world war: Agatha, born in 1890, was in her late twenties. For many years, she and her sister had been avid readers of Conan Doyle and they 'had always argued a lot about whether it was easy to write detective stories': challenged by her sister, Agatha began writing what was to be The Mysterious Affair at Styles, first published in 1920. From then on, and until 1973 when she wrote her last detective novel (Postern of Fate), Dame Agatha supplied an increasingly large and expectant audience with a steady flow of stories that owed to Conan Doyle two fundamental attributes which are unmistakably his even though they are not generally mentioned: a fondness for bucolic settings and a strong admixture of improbable occurrences (when one considers the supreme urbanity of Sherlock Holmes, it is striking to note how many of his adventures take place on distant moors and within halls of rural estates, drafty with an unurban otherness; and if one considers further that Sherlock Holmes is the child of that esprit de finesse Auguste Dupin, a reader of exceptional good will is required to grant their authors a criminal who turns out to be, against every rational expectation, an orangutan, as in The Murders in the Rue Morgue, or a trained snake, as in The Adventure of the Speckled Band). It was only after Conan Doyle that rules of fair play evolved, owing perhaps to an increasing desire of the genre to be the accurate reflector of a sociological scene (as with, for example, the 'hard-boiled' Americans).

When Agatha Christie began, she opted for a sunnier countryside than Doyle's, and one which she could people with the homey or homespun types that may have been the romanticizing of her own Devonshire youth. Its crystallization was the village of St Mary Mead (in the 1930 Murder at the Vicarage), with its representative spinster, Miss Jane Marple, who was to become, after Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie's most ubiquitous detective. Miss Marple enjoyed from the very start an acuity and acquaintance with evil that belied her grand-auntish frailty. Over the long half-century of her author's writing, she became more and more that disabused acuity while the bucolic dream faded in England, as elsewhere, and the discontents of an industrial civilization reached from urban centre to urban centre across a dwindling rural space that had been able once to better conceal a less expected evil. (It was that undisguisable awareness that things were no longer what they had formerly been, however much they might still appear to be, that allowed Miss Marple to perform successfully in one of the more interesting of Agatha Christie's later stories, At Bertram's Hotel, in 1965. Even before that, in the 1950 A Murder Is Announced, Miss Marple had begun noticing what upward and other mobilities had done to traditional structures and how amenities and a security formerly taken for granted had systematically eroded.)

It is therefore in the nature of a cavil to note that, in a more enduring world, Miss Marple remained a sleuth in the tradition that assumed the unconditional omniscience of the detective and preserved that omniscience by imparting information to the heroine that had not necessarily been vouchsafed the reader, or by contriving circumstances so improbable as to be acceptable only to that heroine and her entourage of fictional listeners at the final disclosure.

Agatha Christie came to fame in 1926 with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and aroused the susceptibilities of such defenders of fair play as were already about by turning the narrator into the murderer; she ended Poirot by making him one of the killers-but by this time the defenders of fair play had all yielded to Dame Agatha, who had meanwhile turned the supposed victim into the assassin in Peril at End House (1932), and done the same to a corpse in Ten Little Niggers (1939). In the words of Robert Barnard, 'When the time for a solution came round, the most unaccountable rabbits were produced from her hat: the murderer was the investigating policeman, he was a child, he was one we had thought already dead, he was all the suspects together. And all along, that inveterate gardener, Jane Marple, led uncomplaining generations of readers down primrose paths known only to her (usually by offering those readers a great diversity of paths, all but one of which they were supposed to pay any attention to).

And so did Poirot. But Poirot was also walking—even as was Jane Marple—a more interesting path, one leading, at least in the fiction, from Styles Court to Styles Court, through some fifty years and as many adventures, across the changing landscape of our times. On that long journey, moral notions evolved, social circumstances changed, what had once been clear markers became either difficult to read or were obliterated altogether, leaving the journeyer with the residual sense of our times, an anxiety that filtered at last beyond the covers meant to contain the adventure, and which transcended the spurious suspense of the detective genre.

I have analyzed elsewhere (Mystery and Its Fictions, 1979) the (relatively) innocent world of which, and within which, Agatha Christie first wrote. In that innocent world, the detective-story writer did not propose so much a solvable problem as a disposable one. Agatha Christie's first readers read her in order to purchase at the cost of a minor and passing disturbance the comfort of knowing that the disturbance was contained, and that at the end of the story the world they imagined would be continued in its innocence and familiarity.

The nature and consequences of that disturbance are crucial, for ultimately they are the key to Agatha Christie's huge popularity and her yet-enduring readership. A sense of Dame Agatha's climate in her early works will be obtained instantly through contrast with the hard-boiled variety mentioned in later chapters. In the latter, a relatively sordid private eye does battle with openly sordid forces loosed by the urban chaos. That private eye-Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe or Mike Hammer-encounter what is intended to be 'real' corruption, whether in a politician, a sexuality (most frequently a woman's, against which is successfully matched the demonstrative virility of the detective), a corpse. This 'reality' entails a specificity; the detective performs acts that particularize him even though they have nothing to do with the functional gestures required of him by the case he is on: he drinks, he makes love, he lets all and sundry know that he is 'tough'. He walks the back alleys of a city whose surfaces are fully analyzed. As Zola discovered a century before, such 'slice-of-life' realism not only entails specificity, it also assumes a burden of 'truth' which, more often than not, it feels able to demonstrate only by exposing its seamier parts.

Agatha Christie was far more stylized. For her, the game was merely a puzzle (or a series of interlocking puzzles) told in the form of a story. The story required people, of course, but their creation was left largely to the imagination of the reader.

Writing in the years immediately after the end of the first world war, Agatha Christie was instinctively striving for a delicate balance, but one that was still possible at that time. It consisted in an intrusion upon the reader's ideal world, but an intrusion not so intense as to cast doubt on its eventual dissipation. She achieved this balance by identifying accurately her middle-class audience and its hankering for an Edwardian gentility. Dame Agatha offered these readers recognizable posters of a world which they had experienced only through posters: they were offered a journey to a land that they knew well, but only in the world of their social fantasizing and bygone dreams of empire. Poster and book served the selfsame purpose: they preserved the awareness of a world that must have exited for someone; it was a far better world than the known world and doubly comforting because of a suspicion that if it had indeed existed once, its days were now numbered.

In 1920, Styles Court was the province of the upper-middle class. Like most parts of the worlds which it supposed, it endured mainly in the reader's private storehouse of prides and prejudices. Styles Court was a functional set of lexical stimuli, never anything more precise than a 'fine, old house', with 'a broad staircase' which you descended in your mind's eye after having 'dressed' for 'supper … at half past seven' (due to wartime conditions, 'We have given up late dinners'). It had an 'open French window' in order to disclose 'the shade of a huge sycamore tree' beneath which 'tea' was ritualized in summer, and beyond which was located the leisured class's tennis court.

Part of the world adumbrated by Styles Court was a poster village, Styles St Mary, which was exactly like Jane Marple's St Mary Mead (ideal images being perforce identical), nestling in a small verdant world of scrubbed and loyal people—working or farming—with its quaint vicarage for an effortless accommodation of spiritual needs and a half-timbered inn for the mundane counterpart.

Through these postcards of rural England walked a few other stock types-a suitable clergyman for the vicarage, a jovial landlord or two for the pub, a third-generation solicitor for the competent handling of material vexations, servants whose starched surface hid a heart of gold, matrons on their way to the local flower show, elderly majors retired from colonial wars. The reader knew these people without having encountered them and they were therefore exactly suited to his expectations.

Murder within this English pastoral was not so much an evil act as one whose consequences would be unfortunate for a prescribed moment. Whereas a Mike Hammer or a Sam Spade might right their little piece of the corrupt, urban jigsaw puzzle while the complex itself remained corrupt and awaited the private eye's attention to the next area of his concern, murder upon the mead was more in the nature of a washable and cathartic stain. For a while, these good people would become each and every one suspect (Agatha Christie, who build her reputation early on a disregard for established rules, showed as little unwarranted sentimentality here: however much tradition might have endeared a particular type to the reader, none was above suspicion). Within this dream of rural England, murder was trivial enough; the corpse upon which Philip Marlowe stumbled might not have had quite the stench of Laius', but in St Mary Mead or Styles St Mary the murder itself was antiseptic—already a part of the cleansing process (there were always half a dozen compelling reasons to kill the victim—and as many evident suspects). It was the wake of the murder that made things momentarily disagreeable: the country inn would lose its ruddy bonhomie; the vicarage might be pressed uncomfortably close to moral quandaries; and, worst of all, aliens would walk the pristine land. For just as the reader was able to people fully a world to which he aspired, the reader would temporarily jeopardize through his own malaise the harmony of the world he had conjured from his fiction. And here again, Dame Agatha remained supremely aloof, giving the reader only such few and accurate stimuli as were needed.

In the shadow of evil, clean-shaven Styles St Mary would begin to see beards with all the unEnglish and other unfortunate implications of that facial indecorum. Alfred Inglethorp, who is only very nearly the villain of the piece, strikes 'a rather alien note', according to bland Hastings, the narrator (The Mysterious Affair at Styles). Hastings understands instantly why Inglethorp's son-in-law objected to the beard: 'It was one of the longest and blackest I have ever seen…. It struck me that he might look natural on the stage, but was strangely out of place in real life.' 'Real life' is of course Styles St Mary, and since Styles had never been under anything like the present cloud, the unnatural beard is contrary to what is normal and becomes a litmus of evil.

But that litmus comes from elsewhere as well, as demonstrated by another of the characters—Dr Bauerstein. Dr Bauerstein is merely here as a red herring—he turns out to be a spy who has nothing to do with the nasty business at Styles. But the early Christie readers thought they knew Bauerstein just as they thought they knew the Cavendishes and Styles St Mary itself. The way this red herring affected those readers was articulated by Hastings—even though Christie had done no more than name Bauerstein and mention that he was a 'tall bearded man': 'The sinister face of Dr Bauerstein recurred to me unpleasantly. A vague suspicion of everyone and everything filled my mind. Just for a moment I had a premonition of approaching evil.' Bauerstein is after all a Polish Jew—twice an alien. He comes by his beard naturally. The Polish Jew has no 'natural' place in the average reader's imaginings of Styles: Bauerstein brings to those fictional imaginings a parafictional unpleasantness from a world that is more intimate and habitual to that reader. Or so it was at least in 1920.

There was always a suspicion that Agatha Christie and Jane Marple had quite a bit in common. There were of course their moral and social beliefs; but there was also an acuity, a depth of insight. Just as Miss Marple was able to see the hidden snake lurking in Devonshire Edens, Agatha Christie was able to discern precisely what would give her reader the surest of twinges, though neither she nor that reader ever identified the causes to which they both referred. This being so, it might be unmannerly to repeat here that Dame Agatha was one to take unfair advantage of even such fundamental intuitions: in Styles, not only did the culprit turn out to be the most upright and prototypical of British stereotypes, but the author added insult to injury by hiding the culprit behind a (false) beard.

It was within a world distracted only momentarily by this kind of curable malaise that was born the detective destined to become one of the most famous of the genre: Poirot was able to dissipate the uneasiness, but he was also created and shaped by it to a great extent.

Like his prototypes, Dupin and Holmes, this sort of detective demonstrates a perfect intelligence within a multitude of flaws. The structural reason for this contrast results from a fundamental identity between the fictional detective and his circumstances: that detective is the reader's assurance that his expectation of an end to a number of small annoyances will be met-the detective's acuity is therefore absolute; but the reader's concession in that contract requires that a semblance of doubt be maintained for as long as it takes to tell the tale-all else in the detective is therefore flawed.

However, the strangeness of Dupin and Holmes confirmed their intelligence even as it removed them from the common world of mortals; Dupin and Holmes dwelt in remote worlds, isolated by books, drugs, laboratory or musical instruments-all awesome objects that extended the awesomeness of their brains. Poirot's flaws, on the other hand, represented a compendium of what marred the idyllic landscape once it became the temporary site of the somber event that brought Poirot into it. When Agatha Christie first described Poirot, he was in fact a part of the negative consequences that followed the transgression of the bucolic dream.

To start with, Poirot was a foreigner, another alien note within the pastoral harmony. The evidence of his foreignness was multiple, but because of the specific area of Poirot's first trespass, it was peculiarly unEnglish. Starting with his ridiculously short stature, most of his obvious traits were intended to amuse, but also to annoy, his English reader:

Poirot was an extraordinary-looking little man. He was hardly more than five feet, four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible. I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound. Yet this quaint dandyfied little man who, I was sorry to see, now limped badly, had been in his time one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police.

Hastings' initial awareness and dismissal of the physical Poirot spoke for his reader, and Hastings' voice was subsequently echoed by countless others—villains, chambermaids, gardeners, romantic leads: just about everyone was to be taller than Poirot, treating him until the final moment of revelation and awe with either amused contempt or patronizing tolerance.

Lack of stature made Poirot's aping of British virtues something halfway between a joke and an affront: dignity sounded like an unseemly overstatement in one so short, while the military moustache became a ridiculous attribute. As for Poirot's sartorial fastidiousness, something that would have been praiseworthy in an Englishman of more normal size, could at best be quaintly dandifying in an undersized foreigner.

But Poirot added to even these shortcomings. Having been denied the grace of British birth, he compounded his misfortune by refusing to hide it, indulging an unBritish propensity for exuberance and exaggeration. He was from the first a boaster, one given to stressing the subject pronoun through the apposition of his own name, and using his hands with abandon for even greater emphasis. And to bring the picture to its full dejection, this master of the little grey cells never learned to speak English correctly. To the end, Poirot's sentences were marred by Gallicisms, even though they became more probable over a lifetime than the porcine 'Ah! Triple pig!' or 'you remain there like—how do you say it?—ah, yes, the stuck pig' that flavored his original speech.

Poirot's very intelligence, before even his unseemly boasting about it, was yet another exaggeration, and one which he displayed with equal lack of tact in his all too apparent egg-head. Aloof as ever, but knowing full well from which vantage point she observed her creation, Dame Agatha named him after the least favored of vegetables (poireau: the leek, which also means 'wart' in French) and then stressed the dismissiveness by pairing it with a singularly grandiloquent Christian name, Hercule—itself turned into still another over assertion by the diminutive size of its bearer.

Seemingly self-removed, Agatha Christie kept a gimlet eye on her reader at all times, knowing the disposition of his afferent nerves as accurately as might an acupuncturist. Where Mike Hammer's or Sam Spade's readers were drawn through a world which they either knew or knew to be there, Christie's readers were returned to their own imagination in order to flesh out the otherwise abstract puzzle. And though they only assumed that the enviable world of the fiction must exist, they tainted it for a while with fears that were as imaginary but which they knew to be real beyond the fiction. Preeminently, Christie knew how much her reader did not know: if that Edwardian world still existed for some in 1920, it is unlikely that it could ever have appeared as desirable or as easily jeopardized as it did to those for whom it was only a dream. For the latter, the bulk of Christie's readers, dream and jeopardy derived from aspirations and fears that the author intuited with unfailing accuracy. But as Agatha Christie wrote for a long time, and as her sense of her reader remained acute, the nature of those parafictional fears changed over the years.

Robert Barnard has called the quarter of a century of Agatha Christie's maitrise (1925–50) her 'classic period': it is certainly true that by the time the euphoria of second-world-war victories evaporated, the delicate balance she had hitherto maintained could be maintained no longer. By the time of his end, it was possible to read in Poirot the deep alterations of the world upon which he had intruded only briefly at the start: Agatha Christie continued to write, but she and her readers were now affected by other fears and other longings.

At the end of the forties, Poirot and Hastings met in Curtain for the last time at the place of their first meeting, Styles. By now, Agatha Christie was writing with a sense of many deaths; not only was the writer aware of her own future death—from now on, an awareness of the passing of familiar worlds imparts an unmistakable shade to her writing. The war collapsed many social structures that wishful thinking had supported beyond their term: already in Five Little Pigs (1943), Poirot had gone back through memory lanes of better known and better liked times. So doing, he was starting to express Christie's growing sense of dismay at the assertion and vulgarity of new money, the deterioration of values formerly held, knowledge previously shared, the anxiety of exile from old assumptions into a world of rapid and radical change, where social contact could be only tentative and tenuous.

By the end of the forties, Styles stands for much more than simply its own demise. There is much to be read into the fact that it is now a 'guest house' whose once 'old-fashioned large bedrooms had been partitioned off so as to make several smaller ones'. Along with comfort, a style has gone: it is now 'furnished in cheap modern style'. The water is lukewarm, the towels thin, and Hastings muses.

I remembered the clouds of steam which had gushed from the hot tap of the one bathroom Styles had originally possessed, one of those bathrooms in which an immense bath with mahogany sides had reposed proudly in the middle of the bathroom floor. Remembered too the immense bath towels, and the frequent shining brass cans of boiling hot water that stood in one's old-fashioned basin.

Styles can survive its eviction from Edwardian times only by becoming a part of the new mercantile world. The class structure that once supported it (and its hot-water basins) no longer exists. Nowhere is this loss more apparent than in the efforts of the author to sustain her stock characters. They are still there, but their presence is shadowy and unsure to the extent that their supporting world has largely vanished. Gone is the ideal working class that gave the village its solid and immaculate underpinnings. Gone, as a matter of fact, is the village itself: 'I realised the passage of years. Styles St Mary was altered out of all recognition. Petrol stations, a cinema, two more inns and rows of council houses.' The gardens are overgrown and the tennis court has presumably moved out of the private park and into the public playground. Class stereotypes have been replaced by others for which there is as yet no mythology; it is difficult to maintain the old mainstays within such a world:

He looked as though he had led an out-of-doors life, and he looked, too, the type of man that is becoming more and more rare, an Englishman of the old school, straightforward, fond of out-of-doors life, and the kind of man who can command.

I was hardly surprised when Colonel Luttrell introduced him as Sir William Booyd Carrington. He had been, I knew, Governor of a province in India, where he had been a signal success. He was also renowned as a first-class shot and big game hunter. The sort of man, I reflected sadly, that we no longer seemed to breed in these degenerate days.

These 'degenerate' days extend into other ethical and social areas: a new rudeness is now currently permissible ('His manners were not what one would call polished to anyone'), the mere surface of a deeper and more pervasive corruption: 'Norton, the gentle-hearted, loving man, was a secret sadist. He was an addict of pain, of mental torture. There has been an epidemic of that in the world of late years—L'appétit vient en mangeant.'

The very family is disintegrating. Parental authority is flouted Hastings' daughter tells him, when he tries to warn her about an obvious cad, 'I think you have a perfectly filthy mind.' And the generations look at each other with pitying contempt across the gap that separates them: 'So vulnerable they are, these children! So ready, though they do not recognise it that way, to take a dare!'

This is the atmosphere of the times after the rural dream has ceased to be possible (or better, once it is no longer possible to write about it). It informs the present with a sense of failure: 'That's the depressing part of places like this. Guest houses run by broken-down gentle-people. They're full of failures—of people who have never got anywhere and never will get anywhere—who have been defeated and broken by life.'

The end of possibility is heightened by a pervasive sense of what used to be: 'To me there was a charm in his slightly old-fashioned way of putting things. It conjured a picture of old-world charm and ease.' 'I saw the scene in my mind's eye. I could imagine Daisy Luttrell with a young saucy face and that smart tongue—so charming then, so apt to turn shrewish with the years.'

The stock character hardest to sustain in this altered world is undoubtedly Poirot himself. Of necessity, he is still the little man who speaks gallicized English, who brags (a little), whose grey cells work as hard as ever. But constrained by the mood of the times, a new Poirot displaces much of the old caricature—a more 'living' character (as are many of the other characters similarly affected), one burdened by the darkened world, a longing for the past, an unstated apprehension of tomorrow.

The Poirot who brought disturbance in his wake (like Chaucer's Pandarus—through his book), and then disappeared Pied-Piperlike, taking the disturbance and its causes with him, that Poirot could no longer be effectual within the circumstances of which Agatha Christie was now so keenly aware. Though he could still solve the crime, Poirot could no longer return a world bereft of former bounds or norms to a definitive closure or normalcy: today's disturbances were simply not what they used to be. And as Agatha Christie's reader intuited that worlds formerly conjured from a putative reality could no longer be sustained by that reality, that same post-war reader also knew that former small and disposable irritations caused by the bearded alien, the foreign and quirky detective, the transitory interloper, the outlandish fashion, were no longer there to be disposed of in a world that now lacked the normative criteria against which these minor annoyances were once stated: they were now supplanted by the more insidious malaise of being in a world that lacked those normative criteria.

The last Poirot is therefore an awkwardness, a necessary aggregate of former traits that are without resonance once the codes of class structures, of social mores, of ethical modes, are no longer what they appeared to have been at the time of his creation. The functional caricature now throbs with a consciousness of the times, a nostalgia and a gloom. And the loss of that functional caricature causes the purity of the detective story to be lost as well. The deranged heiress, the pilfering solicitor, the two-timing butler may be removed at the end, but in a world of far more insidious threats, their removal does not return the world to a pristine innocence, and the non-functional reality of the former caricature endures in the reader's enduring anxiety.

After Poirot's premature passing, Agatha Christie would resurrect him, off and on, for still another quarter of a century, even as she would Miss Marple through the depletion of rural possibilities. Dame Agatha tried valiantly to have her people swing with the new, as in They Do It with Mirrors (Marple, 1952), Hickory, Dickory, Dock (Poirot, 1955), The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side (Marple, 1962), Third Girl (Poirot, 1966), but she did not feel any easier in those new spheres than did her protagonists. The best of her later work shows people who feel themselves as she does to be spiritual outcasts and who may find in their marginality a new acuity of detection, reading a more accurate palimpsest through the modern surface. But, in general, the difficulties evidenced in Curtain were simply repeated.

Why then her continuing popularity? A part of the answer was intuited by the directors (Sidney Lumet, Don Guillermin, Guy Hamilton) who have recently turned into films Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, The Mirror Crack'd, peopling them with old-time actors now seldom seen on the screen Lauren Bacall, Richard Widmark, Bette Davis, David Niven, Angela Lansbury, or, in a new, Queen-Motherish avatar, the enduring Elizabeth Taylor. These actors represent the cinema of a shinier moment, over a third of a century ago, before they were swept aside by the new forms of the present cinema. Seeing them once again on the screen, we re-enter that world briefly. This is especially felicitous casting for Agatha Christie, since we now regress through her books to something more real than the times she described: the period pieces that those descriptions themselves have become now attract us. There may have been a time when Agatha Christie mediated for her reader unattainable worlds: now her archaic books have become those worlds. We acknowledge our present discontent in retrospections that make us smile at what once constituted the measure of our passing cares, the sense of how comfortable we felt in a world of referable absolutes (after all, Dame Agatha herself tells us in her autobiography that she came to the detective story out of a comforting sense that Evil could be hunted down and that Good would triumph—an avowal that explains not a little her somber mood within, and tenuous grasp on, the world that followed the second world war).

In that world, our present one, a residual pull of psychological gravity draws us to the evidence that we once had faith in the possibility of control, of knowledge and of the power of reason against the irrational. We are still drawn to the old writings of Agatha Christie.

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