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Critical Essay by Michele Slung
SOURCE: "Let's Hear It for Agatha Christie: A Feminist Appreciation," in The Sleuth and the Scholar: Origins, Evolution, and Current Trends in Detective Fiction, Greenwood Press, 1988, pp. 63-8.
In the following essay, Slung argues that the female characters in Christie's mysteries provide role models for women.
With all due respect to P. D. James and Ruth Rendell—to name two writers who have resisted inheriting the queenly mantle of Agatha Christie from over-eager blurb writers—there is no doubt in my mind that these women never should have been offered the honor in the first place. Bestsellerdom (in the case of James) or simply being British, acclaimed, and prolific (Rendell) just isn't enough to warrant succession to Christie's literary throne.
I should add here that in a recent Time magazine cover story (the international edition—it was Stephen King that week stateside), James has modified her previously stated distaste for Christie somewhat. "I write much better than she did" was how she'd once dismissed the comparison to Dame Agatha in an interview. Now, however, she has this to say: "She is a literary conjurer; she shuffles her cards with these clever hands and lays the cards face down. Each time you think you know the right one. And each time, you are wrong."
That's certainly diplomatic, carefully conveying admiration but indicating, nonetheless, how she perceives as limited the nature of Christie's achievement. What's wrong with her assessment, however, is that it, too, is limited. As she slips sidewise to prevent the royal Christie mantle from being draped on what Time refers to as "her unwilling shoulders," James, in an effort to protect herself, neglects the bigger picture.
By this I mean that Agatha Christie, with all her flaws intact, is sui generis. And P. D. James, for all her virtues, never will be. Around the world, in dozens of languages, for several generations of readers, the two words "Agatha Christie" are synonymous with "mystery story" or "detective fiction." I find I am even oddly moved when I think of this—that such an unlikely and private woman is writ so large in the minds of so many.
From Oz as a child, I moved on to River Heights, where Nancy Drew dwelled with Carson, Hannah Gruen, and the rest; but quite soon, there came a moment when old attics and crumbling castles lost their appeal, when I stopped caring about the next annual appearance of Carolyn Keene's plucky and boringly perfect heroine. (This isn't the moment to address the issue, but I want to go on record here as saying that taking away Nancy's frock and her roadster and giving her self-doubt, Calvin Klein jeans, and a Honda is as much of a defilement as putting a modern facade on any historic building, and I think the National Trust should have intervened.)
What happened was that I'd come upon a copy of The Mysterious Affair at Styles. In reading it, I'd entered a new stage. The following two or three years were spent tracking down the fifty or so Christie titles then available.
I also admit, without embarrassment, that, in the quarter of a century since, there have been almost no other authors—no matter how ardently I enjoy them or how avidly I seek out their various books—about whom that same thrilling joy accompanies the discovery of an unread volume by them.
And, of course, when I wasn't reading James or Proust, I went on from Christie to Doyle and Stout, Sayers and Allingham, Hammett and Chandler, Innes and Crispin, Lockridge and Rice, and so forth. Eventually, despite concerned college professors who steered my attention to Edmund Wilson's "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" I turned my innocent amateur pastime into the sordid profession I demonstrate to you today: I became a commentator on the genre.
So I applaud Agatha Christie, and I'd even be willing to debate the proposition that we might not be convened here today had Agatha Christie never existed. Let me detail some of the reasons why I feel Agatha Christie is important to feminist readers and why I think it's so very wrong for serious critics to take a condescending or contemptuous tone when discussing her.
No one that I've ever come across has taken up the topic of role models in the work of Agatha Christie. Yet, in a rather obscure work of hers—I say "obscure" because it doesn't feature one of her series characters, such as Hercule Poirot, Miss Jane Marple, or Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, and because it contains no famous plot tricks—there's a heroine whose attitude and behavior, whose imaginative zest for life has continued to influence me in all the years since I first read about her. The book is They Came to Baghdad, the 1951 Christie; its heroine is the irrepressible Victoria Jones.
An adventuress in the making, now an unemployed typist with no outlet for her exotic yearnings, Victoria's "principal defect," Christie tells us, "was a tendency to tell lies at both opportune and inopportune moments. The superior fascination of fiction to fact was always irresistible to [her]. She lied with fluency, ease, and artistic fervour." (One is reminded of Saki's daughter of the house in "The Open Window." Romance at short notice was her specialty, too.)
The wonderful thing, when you think of Christie's retiring, matronly presence, her prim, perfected public self (like the Queen Mum—if the Queen Mum wrote best-selling thrillers), is that this opening portrait of the mendacious Victoria is affectionate and anticipatory of the fun to come, not at all disapproving. (And here I should add that it's not Victoria's fibs that inspired me, but rather, as Christie describes it, "her optimism and force of character.") What a flair for life Victoria has! And how beautifully flexible she is, when opportunity knocks. "One never knew, she always felt, what might happen."
This philosophy is definitely not that of a passive or retiring stay-at-home! And, since Victoria does wind up saving civilization as we know it, then settles herself being useful on an archeological dig—as Christie herself was, accompanying her second husband—it's very easy to imagine the sixty-one-year-old Agatha recasting her youth in the figure of such a heroine. "To Victoria an agreeable world would be where tigers lurked in the Strand and dangerous bandits infested Tooting." Now, isn't this just a penny-dreadful way of describing the world that Agatha Christie, living most of her life in luxurious suburban villas, could inhabit by writing thrillers?
Since Christie's notoriety, in 1926, when the strain of the breakup of her first marriage led to her mysterious disappearance, she shunned publicity and lived amazingly away from the claims of celebrity for someone of such global renown. Yet her books are filled with all manner of surrogates, highly active and ingenious female characters—no Nero Wolfes they, sitting home and getting clues secondhand—whether the redoubtable Jane Marple (more about whom in a moment), clever Tuppence Beresford, or the booming-voiced Ariadne Oliver who writes mystery stories about a peculiar Finnish (read Belgian) sleuth. In fact, in the 1936 Christie, Cards on the Table, this selfsame Ariadne Oliver, who voices many of Christie's own sentiments about writing and the writer's life, is depicted as a "hot-headed feminist"—one who wishes, despairingly, that a woman was the head of Scotland Yard!
It's true, to contradict myself briefly, that when we first meet Miss Jane Marple, in 1928, in The Thirteen Problems (known in this country as The Tuesday Club Murders), the format in which she functions is a sedentary one. Not un-Wolfean, that is. An informal club of village friends is attempting to stump each other with curious outcomes to curious tales, and the placidly knitting Miss Marple, with her black lace mittens, fluffy white hair, and faded blue eyes, is only included as an afterthought, so as not to hurt her feelings. However, alert to every human foible, she outguesses her fellow members every time.
But, to look at this debut in another light, Agatha Christie herself, whom most of us now see only as the distinctly dowager type she was from the 1950s onwards, was just a mid-thirtyish young woman when the character of Jane Marple was forming in her mind. I find it distinctly praise-worthy that, for her, a true heroine was not bound by cliches of age or physical attractiveness. Christie also puts across the idea of Miss Marple's worth continually in sly ways, even letting Miss M. herself do a bit of horn-tooting from time to time. In "Miss Marple Tells a Story," written when Christie was in her forties and hardly tottering out to pasture, here's how the tale begins:
"I don't think I've ever told you, my dears … about a rather curious little business that happened some years ago now. I don't want to seem vain in any way—of course I know that in comparison with you young people I'm not clever at all—Raymond writes those modern books all about rather unpleasant young men and women—and Joyce paints those very remarkable pictures of square people with curious bulges on them—very clever of you, my dear, but as Raymond always says (only quite kindly, because he is the kindest of nephews) I am hopelessly Victorian…. Now let me see, what was I saying? Oh yes—that I didn't want to appear vain—but I couldn't help being just a teeny weeny bit pleased with myself, because, just by applying a little common sense, I believe I really did solve a problem that had baffled cleverer heads than mine. Though really I should have thought the whole thing was obvious from the beginning…."
Anna Katharine Green had Miss Amelia Butterworth; Dorothy L. Sayers, Miss Climpson; Patricia Wentworth, Miss Silver, and so forth. Jane Marple, thus, isn't—as my mother would say—the "only pebble on the beach." But isn't there something enormous about her? Just as Christie is for many millions of people synonymous with the mystery story, Miss Marple is the archetype of the elderly lady detective. And to move on from Nancy Drew to Jane Marple, as I did, so long ago, gave me something to grow up to. Not a flat earth up to seventy! With her own unfortunate experience—the faithless Archie Christie—in mind, Agatha Christie kept a cynical view toward men and marriage for most of her oeuvre. Yet in the first Miss Marple novel, Murder at the Vicarage (1930), Christie allows Miss Marple to reveal her method in these words: "It's really what people call intuition. Intuition is like reading a word without having to spell it out. A child can't do that, because it has had so little experience. But a grownup person knows the word because he's seen it before. You catch my meaning?"
Please notice that the word "women's" does not figure here. Her way of knowing is a human trait, regardless of sex but dependent on experience. Understanding people as she does she could be a shaman or a psychotherapist, but the seemingly conventional Agatha Christie was writing detective stories and so Jane Marple plies her perceptivity—that is, she detects—within those conventions.
Even if it's clear that the "psychopathology of everyday life" is what she's dealing with, still such case histories as "The Bloodstained Pavement" won't get the respect of "Combined Parapraxes," nor will "The Affair at the Bungalow" be accorded the stature of "Bungled Actions." Yet, if Sherlock Holmes could meet Freud, why not Jane Marple?
The problems of attempting to gain for Agatha Christie the vast honor I think she deserves—from feminists and misogynists alike, as well as Mr. and Ms. Intelligent Reader—are always being brought home to me. Just a few nights ago, I was at a dinner party and mentioned that I was working on this paper. But before I could explain, a Renaissance historian who was listening interrupted, claiming, "I can't read Agatha Christie. She's too tedious."
Sure, and for millions of others, she's anything but. And for many, many more, who've read her and thought about her work, their enthusiasm, if it exists, is often tempered by reservations about her blimpish social attitudes, her reliance on stereotypes when casting most of her parts, her less than limpid style, the repetition of some of her conjurer's tricks, her Never-Never Land of village teas and Blue Trains speeding through the night. Yet one could reply to those snooty folk who prefer Lord Peter to Hercule Poirot (and I grant you he's sexier, at least in his later incarnation) that Dorothy L. Sayers is only the Thinking Person's Agatha Christie!
I began this talk by deploring the comparison of such current writers as Ruth Rendell and P. D. James to Agatha Christie. They may believe it reflects ill on them; instead, I feel they should be so lucky. In regard to their series characters, Inspector Wexford and Adam Dalgliesh, I challenge anyone to be able to give me a really evocative word picture of either of these men. Will their first novels still be in print, translated into nearly as many languages as people speak, over half a century after original publication? I even have to ask, is it likely there'll be a cargo cult in Papua, New Guinea with either of them the object of Melanesian veneration? Finally, would anyone write an essay asking "Who Cares Who Killed …?" Fill in the name of any victim in any of their books, if you can.
Moreover, no one can or need do again what Agatha Christie did in this century (something Anna Katharine Green is credited with doing in the previous one). She brought mass respectability to the genre, with an audience that ranged from presidents and queens to shop clerks, from nursery school teachers to university presidents.
I hope you understand that I'm not trying to equate ubiquity with quality, popularity with literary greatness. No, I'm talking about the kind of impact that's simply so large we can barely see it. Agatha Christie may not be Shakespeare, but then she's not Mary Roberts Rinehart or Judith Krantz either. She's a legend, not a mere phenomenon.
Rendell and James and their ilk, don't mistake me, are certainly truly talented writers, but in the end, genius, like murder, will out.
This section contains 2,344 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)