Literary obsessions: Agatha Christie
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NEW YORK, April 14 — I don’t remember ever buying one. They just materialised in the house when I was 12, a row of well-thumbed paperbacks, in the bookcase under the basement stairs. I read them over and over, until the pages were soft as cotton.
On a visit to Portland, Oregon, in January, browsing the shelves of Powell’s Books, I felt the familiar pull. I walked out with Ordeal by Innocence, an Agatha Christie sleeper hit (no one I ask ever seems to know it), in which a young man, Jack Argyle, one of an adopted brood in post-war England, is found to be innocent of the murder of his mother, for which he’d been convicted. Terrific news, until it sinks in that someone else in the family must be guilty.
Christie loved coincidence. (A stranger could have vouched for Jack, had the stranger not been knocked down by a lorry, then recovered consciousness and immediately left town for a two-year expedition to Antarctica.) She kept her crime scenes conveniently sealed. (Whoever hit Jack’s mother with a poker was already at the house; no random intruders allowed.) She’d lean hard on a tic or a recurring expression (a sister’s feline affect, a brother’s scowl). Her secretaries came in two varieties: Young and pretty or old and frumpy.
And yet. In Christie’s expansive repertoire — more than 200 novels, stories and plays, from The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) to Sleeping Murder (1976) — she captures something elemental about mysteries: that motive and opportunity may suffice for a crime, but the satisfying part is the detective’s revelation of whodunit, how and why. I never tried to piece together the clues. I vastly preferred to hear it from Hercule Poirot or Jane Marple. Why spend time with such endearing, clever characters if you’re not going to let them do their job? And while their job was ostensibly solving crimes, really it was storytelling.
Evil Under the Sun was my first. I liked the way Poirot insisted on his Belgianness in a world determined to mistake him for French. He’s a showman, with his flamboyant moustache and knife-edged bons mots, and he needs an audience; watch him gather the hotel guests to narrate the series of deceptions that led to the strangling of Arlena Marshall.
Miss Marple, by contrast, sits and knits and claims to notice only what any reasonably observant, experienced person might. Her modesty belies not only her natural authority but also her extensive gardener’s knowledge of pesticides, so handy when your rural enclave is a magnet for homicide.
Poirot is a professional, Miss Marple a professional amateur, but I have special affection for Christie’s accidental sleuths. They don’t start out with the presumption of omniscience; they struggle like the rest of us.
In The Secret Adversary (1922), Christie introduces Tommy Beresford and Tuppence Cowley, a young man and a young woman emerging, energetic and relatively unscathed, from World War I. They call each other “Old Thing” and “Old Bean,” but their combined ages, she writes, wouldn’t exceed 45. This entrepreneurial pair decide to earn a living by billing themselves as adventurers, and through strokes of luck and instinct, they help unmask a deep-state espionage ring. Beefy, ominous Russians loom large, as does a case of amnesia.
In her rendering of spycraft, Christie can’t touch John le Carré. But with Tommy and Tuppence, she hit on something different: A rare triumph of life-stage narrative. The two marry and feature in four more books, growing old in real time.
Partners in Crime (1929) finds Tuppence six years after the wedding, discontented and longing for excitement. Their mentor, Mr. Carter, drafts them to run a detective agency, which they take on with what he fondly calls “excessive self-confidence.” In N or M? (1941), they are empty-nesters, written off as past their prime — until, once again, Mr Carter steps in with an undercover assignment.
In By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968), they are grandparents. At this novel’s climax, Tuppence, closeted with an unlikely killer, has an epiphany: She realises, simply and profoundly, that she is old. Lulled by the enduring sharpness of her mind, she has forgotten that her body is no longer that of the 20-something gamin who suffered chloroforming and kidnapping in the name of good mystery fun. It’s hard to blame her. I had forgotten, too.
Turn back the clock, then, to Partners in Crime. The charm of this collection of stories involves Christie’s sport with the genre. For each case, Tommy and Tuppence, avid readers of detective fiction, adopt the manner and method of one of their favourite sleuths — Sherlock Holmes, Thornley Colton, Father Brown — fitting character to crime with a fan’s delight. In the final chapter, Tommy imitates none other than “the great Poirot,” with Tuppence as Hastings, his amiable sidekick.
Partners in Crime was published just nine years after Poirot made his debut in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. For Christie to declare her creation on a par with Sherlock Holmes — even as Tommy pokes fun at Poirot’s fastidiousness (“By the way, mon ami, can you not part your hair in the middle instead of one side? The present effect is unsymmetrical and deplorable”) — might be fondly attributed to excessive self-confidence. I think of it as a victory of brio. Poirot and Miss Marple would approve.
A starter kit of great whodunits
And Then There Were None is Christie’s masterpiece, but for a slightly less canonical starting point, try these five:
The Secret Adversary
We meet Tommy and Tuppence, two charming amateur detectives. Tommy is the sensible one. Tuppence’s real name is Prudence, so she acts purely on impulse.
The Tuesday Club Murders
It’s like a book club, except the participants tell stories of unsolved crimes to which they’ve been privy. Then Miss Marple solves them, while barely looking up from her knitting.
Ordeal by Innocence
This is a mystery wrapped in a family saga inside a crime of passion. Put another way, a young man is cleared of the murder of his mother, which means that someone else in the household must have done it.
Death Comes as the End
Christie was a born location scout (see Murder on the Orient Express); here she time-travels, too. This book is set in ancient Egypt, as a killer picks off the family members of a wealthy priest, one by one.
What do you do if you unearth a murder 20 years old, one that nobody recognised as murder? According to the newlyweds Gwenda and Giles Reed, you investigate. Luckily, Miss Marple drops in to assist. — The New York Times