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Critical Essay by Nicholas Birns and Margaret Boe Birns
SOURCE: "Agatha Christie: Modern and Modernist," in The Cunning Craft: Original Essays on Detective Fiction and Contemporary Literary Theory, Western Illinois University, 1990, pp. 120-34.
In the following essay, the reviewers argue that Christie's writing is more complex than critics credit her.
Agatha Christie's position in the critical discourse surrounding the detective story is an anomalous one. While Christie is the best known and most popular writer of detective fiction in this century, she has rarely been analyzed with the kind of rigor and attention that such a position would ordinarily entail. Christie's relationship to modernism, the dominant discourse of the "high" literature of her day, has been particularly slighted. Christie's position as serious artist, as not only chronologically modern but aesthetically modernist, is obscured by the view of her work that has now become canonical. This normative position on Christie is crystallized in David Grossvogel's Mystery and Its Fictions. Grossvogel accuses Christie of a formulaic certainty, of a nostalgic love for a "bucolic … England"  and a controlled, cerebral puzzle-solving mentality. Writing with many of the presuppositions of the "critics of consciousness," Grossvogel opposes this to the unpredictable, truly existential mystery to be found in Sophocles, Dostoevsky, the Book of Job. Confining himself only to Christie's first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles  (in itself a misleading procedure, rather like analyzing the significance of Goethe by analyzing only Götz von Berlichingen), Grossvogel accuses Christie of "functional stylization", of creating characters who are only "shadows" and "do not exist". Christie's characters, as individuals, hardly demonstrate the heart-wrenching range of psychological attributes, Grossvogel hints, to be found in such characters as Roquentin and Raskolnikov.
This existential denigration is transferred onto a more discursive level in other, self-consciously postmodern and poststructural treatments of Christie and the "classic" detective story paradigm which she did so much to foreground. William W. Stowe, in his essay "From Semiotics to Hermeneutics," denounces Christie's paradigm as imprisoned by Cartesian methodological certainties, and, as has been done many times, opposes it to the more "open" and "undecidable" realm of the hard-boiled story. This opposition has been characteristic of much criticism of the detective story, yet its overarching assumptions have all too infrequently been scrutinized. The casualness with which Christie is dismissed as "formulaic" whereas the hard-boiled writers are praised for giving us full unhindered access to our primal selves is untenable in the face of contemporary discussions about the constructed nature of all fictional representation.
It is for example questionable whether the full reverberations of developments in literary theory up to and including the work of Jacques Derrida have yet been accommodated in these interpretations. Derrida's work comes out of a Heideggerean background similar to that of the Geneva critics who so influence Grossvogel, but unlike them he does not endow "being" with a particular metaphysical puissance. Derridean deconstruction vigorously resists the sorts of existentially based oppositions found in approaches such as those of Stowe and Grossvogel, with their privileging of an authentic, inner kernel of expressive meaning against an outer world composed "merely" of codes and paradigms. Derrida would no doubt see the hunger for authenticity in mystery-stories as similarly misbegotten (and, given the nature of form, not nearly as inevitable) as the hunger for authenticity and unimpeachable verbal authority in Western metaphysics which he terms "logocentrism." A Derridean analysis of the detective form would not simply be a rhetorical shifting of evaluative terms such as "formulaic" and "authentic" whereby "formulaic" would become "logocentric" and "authentic" would become "deconstructive"; this would retain the metaphysical urge latent in the distinction originally, instead of seeing the detective story, like all modes of linguistic expression, as inevitably problematic and constructed, not ontologically inherent.
Another critical method which problematizes the aforementioned denunciations of the mystery form is psychoanalysis as practiced by Jacques Lacan. While accepting and re-employing Freudian methodology, Lacanian psychoanalysis distrusts any proclamation of a core personality, an essential ego. Thus the phenomenological brio sought in the mystery form by a critic such as Grossvogel would for Lacan inevitably be occluded by the nature of the self, which is not a pre-existent organism but rather arises out of the very loss of wholeness that occurs in the process of the individual's shift into the symbolic order comprised by language and culture. The self in the Lacanian model cannot have it both ways as Christie's existential denigrators seem to want it to: it cannot be both unpredictable and whole, both expressive and ontologically unhinged—it is inevitably both partial and dependent on entities outside it.
A third theoretical prolegomenon for reading Christie more insightfully would be a method less renowned on this side of the Atlantic than those of Derrida and Lacan, namely the semiotic theories of the French linguist A. J. Greimas. "Semiotics" here is hardly the simple decoding and puzzle-solving that Stowe means when he uses the term in the title of his article, or even the determinate polysemy, borrowing heavily from the techniques of medieval allegory, made familiar to readers of the detective story through Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (1980). Greimassian semiotics is a pluralistic, multivocal process that seeks to situate the terms of discourse in dynamic collaboration with one another, not in any external universe or existential plenum but within the signifying textures of language itself, most often figured emblematically in terms of his "semiotic square." Greimas is probably of the greatest practical relevance with respect to Christie, because he demonstrates how a literary text can be at once manipulative and meaningful, composed totally of the interrelations among language yet managing to resonate and affect readers even without offering them access to any realm of ontological purity or freedom. With these three theoretical guides in tow, it can be seen that Christie's "formulas," whether or not less correspondent to human "reality" than Raymond Chandler's, are no more or less formulas than his, or any other writer's. Christie should not be criticized for doing what all successful fiction does—make the reader partially aware of how and why it is made.
It is in a way a happy coincidence that Grossvogel chose to focus only on Christie's first mystery, because, although her achievement went far beyond this beginner's work, Christie's canon is truly a mysterious affair of styles. Christie's stylistic aptitude is strengthened, not vitiated, by what critics have chastised as her shallow or "flat" characterization. The irony of this complaint is that the flatness of her characters is one of the constitutive features of a Christie novel. Difficult as it may be for those used to the idea of character as formulated in the nineteenth-century mimetic novel, Christie's use of the social mask, her employment of the type, of the generic rather than the specific character is not only an essential aspect of her stories of crime and detection, but constitutes a vision of society, text, and discourse that transcends any specific mystery formula. Christie's use of the mask in her fiction has its roots in the nature of mystery novels, which depend on their highlighting a doubleness, a dichotomy between appearance and reality, a dichotomy which the detective in his investigations enacts rhetorically but only provisionally solves.
From The Moonstone (1868) to The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) to the present day, the theme of doubleness or duplicity is central to the form. As Betteredge puts it in Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone, we are "all … listening to surprise each other's secrets" (83), hidden underneath the surface of the human situation. In detective fiction, the world is to some degree a stage, and the people in it merely players, deceiving those around them and sometimes even themselves as to their true motives and actual deeds. It is the task of the mystery novel to "see through" the staged reality, a false good which has been rendered false as a result of the malice, greed, envy, and sundry other deadly sins the discovery of crime reveals. Christie has received this form and given it another turn of the screw, as it were, by approaching characters as a theatrical company, a familiar dramatis personae of social types, none of whom are as they seem. In fact, many of her novels are prefaced by a "Cast of Characters," namely the possible suspects in the ensuing mystery, and the metaphor of performance pervades her work.
The pretense, disguise, play-acting, and outward show that are essential to the mystery genre are given a special intensity in Christie's work by her constant emphasis on and reference to the "theatricality" of her characters' actions. A well-known example is Murder on the Orient Express (1934), in which Hercule Poirot comes to realize that he has been an audience of one for a careful series of performances. In this book, Christie is at the furthest extreme from the romanticization of the criminal as a solitary outlaw; Christie's criminal is far less often a rogue psychotic (her few attempts at this sort of portrait, as in Endless Night , are, though not uninteresting, uncharacteristic) than somebody who is manipulating the known and tolerable conventions of English society to his or her own advantage. Aboard the Orient Express, the solution to the crime, that "they were all doing it," foregrounds a persistent feature of Christie's characterization: she is less probing the souls of her characters than seeing how their enactment of roles implicates them in carceral circumstances that are sometimes apprehended as "criminal," sometimes not.
Such impersonations and performances are numerous in Christie's texts. Many, if not all, of the characters in a Christie novel are playing roles, so that although it is the murderer who is revealed to be the most hypocritically estranged from his or her performed self, Christie suggests a general doubleness in the human character. This allows her to cast suspicion on all of her characters, giving her a satisfying list of possible villains. But it also creates a vision of life in which the self is "presented" in what sociologist Erving Goffman has described as the staged reality we call "everyday life." Similarly, at the conclusion of Mrs. McGinty's Dead (1952), Poirot suggests that the murderer has planned "the whole mise en scene … the whole thing was a theatrical scene setting with prepared props." Of the murderer in Towards Zero (1944) Superintendent Battle comments:
"He played the part of the good sportsman, you know. That's why he could keep his temper so well at tennis. His role as a good sportsman was more important to him than winning matches. But it put a strain on him, of course, playing a part always does. He got worse underneath."
Nevile Strange is the paragon of the British sportsman, but this does not prevent him from being a cold-blooded killer; in fact, it aids him. The methodical manner in which he plans, in a detailed, outlined way, the murder of his former wife, is not full of manic frenzy, but of the same restraint and concern for "good form" that has made him so successful as a sportsman. The psychotic temperament may be lurking underneath, but, as elsewhere in Christie's universe, criminality is manifested in and through many of the forms, the self-assumed roles, that people play in ordinary civilized life. Rather than being simply flat, the shallow personae in Christie's dramas are endowed with a tantalizing, mysterious, and very deliberate artificiality. This is why, in a Christie mystery, we are immediately aware that any of her characters may prove personally malevolent, since all of them seem to be masking some troublesome aspect of their identity. The highly limited, rigidly defined social images of dubious authenticity that populate Christie's country houses, Calais coaches, vicarages, and seaside resorts beg us to wait, expectantly, for the inevitable hidden "Mr. Hyde" side of the human animal to surface. It is important to the experience of Christie's fiction to appreciate the duplicity inherent in her conventionally masked men and women, since this staging is, in fact, what makes her novels mysterious.
With this emphasis on the "staged" quality of reality, Christie is clearly participating in one of the major literary tendencies of her day, the modernist turn against the Romantic stress on the priority of an unhindered, expressive self. This can be seen in the terrain of the theater itself; Christie's theatrical procedures are less like those of the Romantics, with their emphasis on character, than those of such modernist dramatists at Yeats, with his interest in "masks," or Brecht, who sees character as above all a way of highlighting social convention, radically foregrounding the characteristics of a given scene. In preferring spliced, abbreviated samples to fully unfolded interiorities, Christie is linked to her near-contemporaries, T. E. Hulme and Wyndham Lewis, as well as thinkers such as Wilhelm Wörringer who looked back to medieval stylization and symbolism as a way to outflank Romantic individualism in the modern era.
Reclaiming Christie as modernist does not entail upholding the reverent view of modernism as the pinnacle of Western literary achievement that reigned in the academy until quite recently. Modernism, whatever its "international" pretensions, is a local phenomenon that arose at certain places and times and constituted itself in certain discursive frames. Modernism was full of ideological mystification. In this respect, Christie's political conservatism and generally approving view of tradition link her to such eminent modernists as Pound and Eliot, and her penchant for occasional anti-Semitic remarks recalls these two as well as Céline. But it is difficult to single out Christie for her references to scheming Jewesses and oily Semites when the major poet writing in England was the author of "Bleistein with a Bacdeker, Burbank with a Cigar." Modernism had its darknesses as well as its triumphs, and Christie partook equally of both. But even though Christie shared the prejudices of some modernists, she also, like all the above, participated in promulgating new forms which claimed, if they did not always manifest, a radical discontinuity with those of the past. This is more difficult to see at first hand than the previous assertions; where are the Christian equivalents of modernist fragmentation, rupture, chaos? The approach of the Russian Formalists, with their stress on how extraordinary works of literature gain their power from affirming and radically extending the genre to which they belong, may point toward where to look in Christie for this aspect of modernism. Christie is in precisely this position with respect to the classical detective story: it is her triumph, not her liability, that she made what had been an inchoately defined genre into a formulaic one whose characteristics could be enumerated with almost Aristotelian rigor.
Moreover, the very idea of "genre fiction" is a peculiarly modern one. The novel had always been the quintessentially mixed genre, melding aspects of epic, journalism, anecdote, conte, into an overall whole. It is with the twentieth-century breakdown of the conventional perimeters of the novel, the breakdown decried by Lukacs and other Marxist humanist critics, that all the major "genres"—for example, the thriller, the detective story, science fiction, although all ultimately Romantic in origin—achieved a formal consistency and a generic autonomy. Thus the kind of criticism which seeks only to "expose" the generic conventions of mystery or science fiction, ridiculing their procedures from the perspective of the psychological-naturalist novel circa 1910, is indulging in a chimerical enterprise. It is puzzling to see an approach such as this, so inconsistent with the general critical approach to twentieth-century fiction, predominate in many intellectual responses to the detective genre. Thus Christie's novels are often dismissed as "trash," whereas those of P. D. James are praised as penetrating expeditions into human nature. Even though the rest of the literary world has gotten beyond seeing the psychological-naturalist novel circa 1910 as the norm, Christie is still being judged by the fictional procedures of others rather than her own. A part of this tendency is a kind of intellectual status panic, an anxiety that reading Christie is reading "trash," that even in our leisure time we should not be reading books we would be embarrassed if our students caught us reading. Surely the line between "trash" and "non-trash" is now irretrievably permeable, and Christie's work should be assessed by the degree to which it executes and experiments with its generic characteristics and displays an awareness of its own nature as fiction.
An objection as strong as the aesthetic demurral against Christie has been the social one. Her work is routinely seen as uncritically pandering to a nostalgic projection of the English class system, as straightjacketing and undermining any idea of radical social dissent or change. While recent events in Eastern Europe have shown that people may not want precisely the sort of radical social change desired by some midcentury Western intellectuals, the objection, on first look, has some force. Many of Christie's plots seem to be designed to eliminate the outsider and reinforce a sort of hegemony of the settled and pawky, an ersatz harkening-back to an imperial and class-stratified past whose irrecuperable disappearance is memorialized by poets such as Philip Larkin. That the social formulas in Christie's novels can reverberate along an ideological axis can be seen in the 1950's debate over the merits of the classical detective story between W.H. Auden, the poet and Christian convert, and Edmund Wilson, the Princeton Marxist. Auden, struggling to uphold decorum in a spiritual universe stained and compromised by original sin, found the classical detective story, with its acknowledgment of guilt and its determination to resolve that guilt within an ordered structure, congenial to his state of mind. Wilson, on the other hand, found the form socially regressive and lacking in the literary merit and emotional pathos (or, perhaps, bathos) of Dostoevsky. While revealing strikingly the differences between the two critics (who were to have a similar debate some years later concerning Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings), the Auden-Wilson argument tends to miss some of the ways in which Christie was socio-politically cannier than she may seem at first.
A good example of this is the late work, At Bertram's Hotel (1965). Here, we find Miss Marple coming to a similar conclusion about her mystery:
It was all too good to be true—if you know what I mean. What they call in theatrical circles a beautiful performance. But it was a performance—not real.
In At Bertram's Hotel, Miss Marple discovers that what appeared to be the incarnation of a good, old-fashioned British hotel was in fact an elaborate stage set for a group of actors hired to perform characters and values that had, in reality, been rendered highly problematic by the war, Labor, Suez, the Beatles. The "hollowness" of Christie's people may be, in fact, what differentiates her work from the nineteenth-century novel with its fully realized selves, and its expectation of a deeply internalized moral sense. The curious emptiness of her people is rather a testimony to Christie's perception of modern deracination than a failure of creative power. This is demonstrated by Christie's gradual exposure of the civilized English masks her characters assume. Redolent of Rupert Brooke's "Stands the Church clock at ten to three?/And is there honey still for tea?", this idea of English society is invariably contradicted and destabilized by a society that is not so "English," that is, not so paradisally Edwardian, as it used to be.
The changing face of English civilization in the twentieth century, in which received conventions compete with new "unconventional" ways of being, is in fact far from neglected in Christie's oeuvre. Beginning with her mysteries after World War I, her stories reflect a nostalgia for an earlier, arcadian time as well as a realization that this society is now, at best, a form of play-acting or pretense, at worst a tragic deception. Her dowagers, matrons, majors, colonels, good doctors, her well-bred gentlemen and ladies are now grown unauthentic, become a species of fakery covering a far more alarming reality. The world of friends, neighbors, and relatives has in Christie's novels become a world of strangers, creatures of selfish, aggressive drives at variance with the brittle, flat, and unconvincing postures of gentility they perpetuate publicly. Bertram's Hotel thus employs decayed aristocrats and impoverished members of the old county families to recreate the look of Edwardian England. But Christie's policeman, Fred "Father" Davy (the sobriquet probably no accident, as the novel is preoccupied with the passing of generations), views the hotel's five o'clock tea with the eye of a detective:
From the staircase, Father cast a jaundiced eye over the occupants of the lounge, and wondered whether anyone was what they seemed to be. He had got to that stage! Elderly people, middle-aged people (nobody very young), nice old-fashioned people, lawyers, clergymen, American husband and wife near the door, a French family near the fireplace. Nobody flashy, nobody out of place, most of them enjoying an old-fashioned English afternoon tea. Could there really be anything seriously wrong with a place that served old-fashioned afternoon teas?
In reality, the hotel is run by a new, more ruthless society that cynically exploits the old traditions without really believing in them. Often in Christie's work, the seemingly cozy, stable image of England is in fact a copy of something that has largely disappeared; it is a deficient or false England masquerading as the real thing. The detective (and, therefore, the reader) is lured by the specter of a gratifying regression, an atavistic nostalgia for the Great Good Place where Things Were Better, where sensibilities were undissociated. But, with the revelation that the cozy, traditional Bertram's is in fact a front for an international drug-running scheme, the reader's expectations are foiled and trumped. We, who had been caught by Christie thinking, "Ah yes, we may have a more egalitarian society now but truly, we do not know how to live as we did then," are awakened into a realization of the impossibility of this sort of nostalgia. The characters in the novel, who are not as they would have us (and we expect to) see them, also prevent us from lapsing into a false nostalgia. We, like Miss Marple, are meant to disapprove of the modern loose-living wild woman, Lady Bess Sedgwick, but in the end Lady Bess behaves well, sheltering the daughter whom she had failed. And her daughter Elvira's depravity frustrates our wish for an old-fashioned innocent ingenue. In At Bertram's Hotel we are prohibited from shrugging off our own modernity.
A similar resistance to nostalgia is evinced in The Hollow (1946), which, true to form, presents a staged murder that directs us away from the person who seems to be the most-likely-suspect. The murderer, Gerda Christow, hides behind a facade of stupidity—we learn that she has been "playing dumb." Underneath the blankness is a calculating mind. Christie writes of Gerda:
… she had been able, behind her blank expression, to hug herself a little in her secret knowledge…. For she wasn't quite as stupid as they thought…. Often, when she pretended not to understand, she did understand. And often, deliberately, she slowed down in the task of whatever it was, smiling to herself when someone's impatient fingers snatched it away from her.
The literal hollow in The Hollow refers to the name of the estate where the novel takes place, but hollowness is also an abstract theme in this novel, and it is a reality to be found in all of Christie's work. There is a certain hollowness of heart in her characters, a sense of emotional isolation that is characteristic of other characters besides her murderers. Lucy Angkatell, in The Hollow, for instance, while an innocent bystander, is in her own way as heartless as Gerda. She says of the murder victim, John Christow:
"I found him amusing, and he had charm. But I never think one ought to attach too much importance to anybody."
And gently, with a smiling face, Lady Angkatell clipped remorselessly at a vine.
This "hollow" quality of the characters reverberates back onto the estate, which is a hollow not only in name, but in fact: "The Hollow" is doomed to take perpetual second place in the hearts of the Angkatell family to Ainswick, the immemorial family estate which had belonged to Lucy's father but, because of ironbound primogeniture, has evaded the grasp of Lucy. Though her determination would make her a very able estate-head, the estate has instead fallen to the next male in line, the phlegmatic Edward. All the characters except the Christows, who are outsiders, are in a perpetual funk about the loss of Ainswick; the Hollow is a hollow of Ainswick, existing only as its trace, its privation. The novel's resolution deftly negotiates the Angkatells away from this fixation. Edward's lifelong crush on the artist Henrietta, who had been having an affair with the slain Christow, is gradually revealed to have been only an obligatory accompaniment of his status as estate-head, a sort of emotional analogue to the aspiration to redeem the past that strikes at the core of the Angkatell clan. When Edward renounces this aspiration and settles down with the more middle-class Midge, he definitively puts behind him any hope of reconstituting a privileged, aristocratic past, and thus frees the Hollow from the specter of Ainswick and Ainswick from its own hollowness.
An even more graphic display of Christie's socio-political complexity is the wartime novel An Overdose of Death (1940). In this work, Poirot originally suspects Mr. Raikes, one of Christie's stereotypical, frenetic Marxist agitators who is the fiancé of Jane, the niece of the wealthy corporate magnate Alistair Blunt. We are initially led to believe that Blunt is the intended victim of the various murders already perpetrated in the book, and Mr. Raikes's social convictions render him a likely suspect to the side of Christie all too ready to dismiss any threat to the established order. But at the end, the tables are turned: Poirot discovers that Blunt is in fact the murderer. Blunt pleads with Poirot for mercy, stating that his ability to coordinate the English military-industrial complex makes him invaluable to the war effort. Poirot, though, refuses to put the logic which later led to such entities as multinational corporations and superpowers ahead of his responsibility to the individual, particularly the innocent victims of Blunt's crimes. Refusing to submit to Blunt's rhetoric of "expertise" and "professionalism," Poirot exposes his criminality, leaving the way for Jane and the now-exonerated Raikes to marry. Here, far from being expelled or eliminated at the end of the social renovation accompanying the solution of the mystery, the Marxist outsider is integrated into the ongoing order, whereas the corporate magnate is expelled. There may be some residual quietism, some cooptation, in the vista of the revolutionary being integrated so eagerly into the domestic life, but Poirot's words at the end, "In your new world, my children, let there be freedom and let there be pity," indicate a real willingness on the part of the detective, and the authorial function he replicates in the novel, not to rule out any promise to be gained from social change and reform. In fact, it is the very qualifier Christie puts on the ending by the stock device of marriage that makes the conclusion as interesting and tentative as it is. By guiding her books to such a comic close, Christie high-lights their fictiveness, and makes clear that these endings can only be partial, that we are not to take them conclusively, but rather as provisional ways to give shape to a book, a plot, a life.
Christie's detectives operate crucially in orchestrating these plots. Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot delight in assuming ridiculous, caricature like disguises only to reveal a surprising potency as the books move on. They depend on an innocuous facade not only to lull those about them into a false sense of security but also to surprise the reader with their almost ruthless perspicacity. Because disguised as a harmless old English tabby, or as a humorously Belgian rather than dangerously French elf, Christie's detectives astonish the reader and the other characters with their mental and imaginative powers. The grotesque exaggeration involved in the characterization of, say, Poirot (for one thing, it is very unlikely that a Belgian emigré could ever become the leading practitioner of a method of critical investigation conducted in the English language) means that his character is more or less fixed. This does lead us to invidious comparisons with the detectives of hard-boiled writers such as Raymond Chandler, whose detective is altered by what he investigates and renounces his own assumptions of epistemological supremacy, an aspect that has been interestingly developed by several practitioners of the metaphysical detective story. But rather than make the "depth" of these detectives a master term, it might be more profitable to simply grant the hard-boiled model its ontological complexity, the classical model its tropological density, that is to say its multiplicity of rhetorical moves, and let them coexist. The tropological density, in its foregrounding of the constructed, linguistic nature of the text, indeed does not allow the classical model's characters to be as "deep" as those of the hardboiled model. Again, this need not be counted as a defect. For indeed, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot are not just empty containers, but central plot-functions operating in a legitimate and interesting mode of discourse. Both detectives take as their characteristic mode acting a part that protects and serves the detecting self hidden "inside," a subterfuge which persuades the criminal as well as the reader into believing that the detective will present no significant challenge, has no convincing authority—an illusion always pierced by book's end, when the authority of the detective is subtly, but thoroughly affirmed. Both of Christie's major detectives become, as their careers unfold, more stylized, more purely plot functions; unlike many later detectives, their lives do not particularly change from story to story.
Christie found the masked quality of her detectives' selves somehow fascinating, this intriguing quality having less to do with the souls of the detectives than with their minds. The classical model is, preeminently, a cerebral, ratiocinative one. Most critics have denounced this cerebrality as being in some way oppressive and limited. But Christie, instead of focusing on the cerebral or rational as structures of normative containment, as they are portrayed by the advocates of the Romantic celebration of the expressive will, calls attention to precisely the way in which the cerebral and the ratiocinative are unusual, weird, preternatural. In doing this, she is only following the tradition of Poe, the explorer of the turbid underside of the psyche who was also lured by the strangely similar obverse presented by the intellect in the shining excess of its power. Possessed of a cerebrality that is as out-of-the-ordinary as any criminal impulse, Christie's detectives function not only to discover crime, but to possess a peculiar empathy with the criminal sensibility.
The emotional undercurrent of this central revelation in Christie's work always suggests an element of the uncanny. Like Christie's detectives, Christie's villains employ the "typical" selves they present to others in order to conceal what they prize as their true nature, relying on what Goffman has called "normal appearances" to allay suspicion. Christie's villains are shown to hide an incivility, an "imperfect socialization" that amounts to a truncated humanity and indicates a dangerous fragility in the social nexus that had heretofore been an important ingredient in creating the fully human self. The "surprise ending" of a Christie mystery turns not only on the discrepancy between role and "real self," but on our trust (always misplaced) that people are fully identical with the repertoire of roles which constitute their participation in society. On the contrary, people who appear to be generic figures, such as the Sweet Little Old Lady, the Fetching Young Mother, the Helpful Policeman, the Adorable Child, the Good Doctor, not to mention the Great Detective himself, are exposed in Christie's fiction as deliberately flattened by roles that trick us into discounting them as murder suspects. A characteristic Christie embodiment of this surprise is the plot device called "the double bluff," in which a character is initially suspected of the murder, exonerated, and then turns out in the end to have committed the crime, or, alternately, where a character who has been seen by the reader exclusively as a potential victim of a crime, is in fact the perpetrator.
Christie did this many times, but never more skillfully, as Robert Barnard (Christie's finest successor in the classical mode) and others have noted, than in Peril at End House (1932). Nick Buckley, an attractive young woman, appears to be the victim of a crime that has "mistakenly" been perpetrated on a relative with a similar name. Poirot makes an exhaustive (almost, we might say, Nevile Strange-like) outline of possible suspects, even allowing for an unknown, but does not include Nick at all. Nick, in being exempted from the list of suspects, becomes an authorial surrogate with whom both reader and, seemingly, author identify. We are led to believe that it is as unlikely for Nick to have been the murderer as it is for Poirot, or for that matter, Agatha Christie, to have committed the crime. But in the end, Nick indeed turns out to be the criminal. By carefully arranging for herself to seem the victim, she has allied herself with the detective, with the forces of authority, hoping thus to evade the otherwise incriminating circumstances. The winning aspect of this trick is its exploration of the ideas of sameness and difference—we expect the murderer to be someone different from the bluffing figure, when it turns out it has been the bluffer all the while. Thus the bluffer is at once a different person from the one whom we saw as the murderer, but the same person as "the murderer" really is. Although Nick asserts her own difference from herself, this is a mask that is ultimately exposed by Poirot.
But where, we might ask, does this leave Poirot? Poirot, and, with him, Christie, has bluffed his way through the case much as has Nick. Just as Nick turns out to have really been the murderer all the while, so has Poirot turned out to have really known she was the murderer for at least a significant amount of time. Poirot shares the same delight in saying "I know something you don't know," the love of pulling rabbits out of a hat when the reader least expects it, as does the criminal. Both of them operate on a perceived confusion between mask and reality, a confusion which they think they can solve, but which others cannot. Finally, the most important difference between them is that Poirot's solution wins out (i.e., is fictionally successful) and Nick's does not.
Yet Christie's detectives do not always operate with this degree of cynicism and false self-presentation. One of Christie's most deft triumphs is the way she gives her detectives a positive social and psychological function, in a way despite themselves, although Miss Marple is far more socially assimilated than the always-bizarre Poirot. The role of the detective adumbrates a kind of benign association of self and society in which the self operates within social structures, but avails itself of those very structures in order to guarantee its own privacy. It is in this respect that Christie's modernism is not only that of the classical, ironic Hulme, Lewis, or Eliot, but also partakes of the humanistic modernism associated with the Bloomsbury group, with its emphasis on the interweave between self and society. In this tradition, established by Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster and in many respects continued by postwar work in British psychoanalysis such as the "object-relations" theories of D.W. Winnicott, the self is neither whole nor splintered. It is a constructed personality that, although it is not "natural," is the product of cultivation and invention, is yet capable of affirming its own condition. The self in this model is not self-engendered, but can build outward from the foundations provided for it. This view of the self is compatible with Christie's tendency to elucidate other "selves" besides the Self celebrated by existentialism, which inherited Romantic views of the stark, isolate ego confronting the abyss.
Christie is interested in selves who are less than "whole" selves, who are on the margins not only of society but also of selfhood. Thus her extraordinary interest in (and depiction of) old people and children, two categories that are hardly capable of pretending to operate outside a social nexus, yet within that nexus add perceptions and states of being that by their idiosyncrasy make all selves more aware of the nature of their selfhood. It is therefore no accident that Lewis Carroll is the most often quoted author in Christie's stories, not merely as a result of a shared interest in games and puzzles, but a shared sense that ordinary life is only to be found on the obvious, transparent side of the looking glass, and that a more unpredictable and unconventional reality is lurking under the surface of things. As with Lewis Carroll, noted for an interest in young children that in many minds went past affection into a subversive identification, Christie's children, as well as her old people, are not merely cute and innocent, but threateningly raw and inchoate. The image of the child, especially in the light of the child-murderers in books like Crooked House (1949), Hallowe'en Party (1969), and At Bertram's Hotel, is not idyllic, but exposes the "pre-rational" condition of children as a threat to the stability and order of the soi-disant adult world. This is yet another image of the self that hardly conforms to the heroic autonomous agent so prized in the post-Romantic tradition, a tradition continued by hard-boiled detectives such as Chandler's Philip Marlowe, whose cynicism and despair only serve to underline his existential prowess.
Christie's interest in new aspects of the self attends not only to the substance of the self but to the means of its representation. Christie, rather like Virginia Woolf, often experiments with points of view, and her frequent use of third-person indirect speech to represent the thoughts of a character often verges on interior monologue. Ten Little Indians (1939), among other books, offers many examples in which the conscious self's representation is whittled away to its fragmentary components as relentlessly as the "inexorable diminishment" (to use the wording of Justice Wargrave himself) that overtakes the characters isolated on Indian Island. But this access to inner speech does not lead to full existential interiority. It is just one of a number of modes of representation, not privileged as a wellspring of "real" emotion. The insight Christie has shown into the self's constructed, masked nature thus gains a complex reciprocity. It can reveal the self's hidden strengths and aspirations as much as it can expose its pretensions and self-delusions. This process is troped by the detective figure in Christie's fiction, who often operates as a paratherapist, someone whose function is not only to solve a crime but to construct a viable personal solution out of the aftermath of that crime.
A paradigmatic instance of this dual process is found in the underrated late novel Third Girl (1966). In this book, Norma Restarick, ostensibly the "third girl" of the title, is deceived by a man claiming to be her father into believing that she has committed a crime which she is not, psychologically or logistically, capable of committing. As it turns out, not only is the man who claims to be her father truly responsible, he has done it with the aid of his wife, who has assumed the disguise of one of Norma's two roommates. Norma had previously seen herself as the "third girl," the extra wheel, the person who did not fully understand herself or know her own identity. But as the result of Poirot's investigations, the ersatz roommate is revealed to be the "third girl"—it was she who had always been the enigma, the unknown quantity. Norma is ostensibly at the end of the book her own "first girl"; she has finally come to an appropriate centering of her own private identity. But it is important to say "private" rather than "personal" because Norma does not come to this solution wholly through her own efforts, but with the aid of others—thus "private," with its secondary connotation of "privation," in the sense of a selfhood needing others in order to be fully complete.
The term "Third Girl" has an intriguing resemblance to the Lacanian idea of the "Third Term," the agent of language and the symbolic that disrupts the narcissistic stability of the child-mother dyad. At the beginning of the book Norma is embroiled in a welter of emotional confusion that is a residue of her parents' early divorce and her marred girlhood. By the end, Norma is delivered from this nightmarish crypt, but it is the price of this delivery that her comfortable idealizations of her parents and her past are shattered, and that she is ushered into her future not only emancipated from her past but barred from its shelter. Thus there is even at the end a bit of "thirdness," a psychological position in which the autonomous, self-sustaining ego is prohibited from a fully clear intuitive self-knowledge and subject to the compromises of discourse, culture, and other "selves," even in the midst of Norma's recovered "firstness." In bringing about this conclusion, Poirot, as the representative of the symbolic order, acts as the Lacanian "Name of the Father." This is a principle that simultaneously privileges the phallic potency of the dominant male order yet reveals it as ontologically empty, of an only procedural rather than substantial nature. Poirot's combination of absolute authority and lack of any "deep" personality makes him the ideal vehicle for this phallic disruption-and-reconstitution.
One of the chief helpers in this recuperative process in Third Girl is Dr. John Stillingfleet, a friend of Poirot's whom the detective asks to help him on the case, and who at the conclusion of the book marries Norma and goes with her to Australia. It is revealed at the end that this was no accident; Poirot has manipulated the meeting of Norma and Stillingfleet as much as he has manipulated the solution of the plot. Operating like a Euripidean deus ex machina, Poirot at once ministers to the psychological needs of those involved in his investigation, yet braids and threads them into his solution as tidily as he does the criminals themselves. Christie movingly and humanistically represents emotional pathos, yet is confident that these emotions can be assimilated into the discursive framework of society, although not in a way that would conclusively solve the dilemmas they pose. This is vouchsafed by her portrayal of Dr. Stillingfleet. Unlike Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, where the psychologist who treats the war veteran Septimus Smith, Dr. Bradshaw, is an insensitive lout whose only interest is in maintaining, in a manner that would not have surprised Michel Foucault, the order and technique of his discipline, Stillingfleet is interested in his patient on a human level, not merely as a specimen for "scientific" practice. This reflects advances in therapeutic technique from the 1920s to the 1960s, advances which Woolf would not only have understood but in a way helped bring about. Yet it also demonstrates that Christie, who, like Woolf, had times in her own life of considerable emotional turbulence, was capable of embodying that turbulence in fiction. Christie's linguistic devices give access to a serious psychological introspection, without for a moment hailing this introspection as a "truer" or more authentically expressive mode of writing than near-arbitrary plot puzzles. In the use of the detective as therapist and the therapist as agent of the detective in Third Girl, Christie demonstrates her sophistication by making sure that the emotional depths she illumines are framed reflexively in the formal dynamics of her narrative.
As we have seen, Christie's formalism, what her critics have called her "formulaic" qualities, ties her closely to the modernist movement. Her innovative, complicated, and humanistic view of the self is, far more than has been suspected, a surprisingly modern one, restraining and yet enriching the view of the self that had prevailed throughout the great European centuries that preceded Christie's own. That Christie is implicated in the modernist epistemological field to a far greater extent than has been supposed does not mean that her work represents assumptions which our present postmodern age can unquestioningly support. Now that modernism is a fully historicized phenomenon, though, we can appreciate the extent to which its assumptions and practices were reflected even in writers who are not commonly associated with the avant-garde or the abyss. And Christie's work does not demonstrate these practices mechanically or reductively. However deft her formulas are as tropes, she often, as in Third Girl and many other places, evades them by manifesting an illative thrust, a going-inside that is underwritten by the maneuverability provided by her formulas' rich narrative strategies. As in Greimas' semiotics of action, the fact that her characters are less inner voices than rhetorical actors bestows upon rhetorical action a semantic complexity that enables it to express the various aspects of human action that are likely to occur in a narrative plot. Christie exemplifies this process in a flexible way that allows us momentary empathy with the actions of her plots without ever permitting us to forget that these actions are embedded in a linguistic field. This flexible going-inside is exhibited in a context not explicitly mentioning Christie at all, namely one of the classic postmodern explorations of the detective story, Frank Kermode's essay "Novel and Narrative," first published in 1974, in which an analysis of E. C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case (1912) plays a prominent role. Kermode uses this novel, one of Christie's most important precursors in the classical detective paradigm, as a test case for the kinds of narrative criticism pioneered by structuralism; already sensing, in his own way, the poststructuralist tide, Kermode gently stresses that even in so code and "formula" dominated a novel as this one, there is still maneuvering room. The formulas used by Bentley do not constrict, yet lead to significance and exchange of meaning. Kermode has his mind very much on issues of literary theory here, and his respectful diminution of the heuristic potential of structuralism, which in the light of its historical replacement tends increasingly to be parodied and underread, may need to be revised. Yet his treatment of Bentley is exemplary for the kind of sophisticated, unbegrudging approach to the detective form needed in the coming years.
At the beginning of his discussion of Bentley, Kermode quotes the famous first sentence of the book, "Between what matters and what seems to matter, how shall the world we know judge wisely?" The interpretive effort required of the "world" of the detective story, that is the detective, the author who writes the detective, and the reader who reads the writing, is not a matter of mere differentiation, of telling the good from the bad, the orderly from the disorderly, as Christie's denigrators have so often implied. Rather, we are asked not only to judge, but to judge wisely. Christie's formal subtleties, her fractured yet resonant selves, and her often-brilliant modernism demand the kind of treatment that their complexity solicits. Christie asks that her readers judge her wisely.
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