Responding to clickbait only validates the mechanism, but the headline in the Irish Times, Agatha Christie: Genius or Hack? astonishes me with its insolence.
Agatha keeps on being genius, a pure concentrate of escapism. Analyzing her merits in a literary sense is a false proposition. She has already lifted away personal burdens for millions of readers spanning multiple generations, and probably we will still be reading her a hundred or 200 years from now.
In modern times our escapism has become more complicated. Much of crime fiction has been obsessed with the desecration of the body, especially lurid serial killers, explicit forensic lab work, and gruesome gang slayings.
The most celebrated crime novel this year might be The Cartel by Don Winslow. On page 3 are these sentences:
The stench of scorched metal and burned flesh.
One man’s carotid artery spurts in rhythm with his racing heartbeat. Another keels over, shrapnel obscenely jutting from his crotch…
Winslow needs to write whatever he needs to write to make his books go and that’s fine.
However, there are those who think that, compared to moderns like Winslow, Agatha isn’t edgy. That she’s cozy. Sedate.
It’s worth recalling that Agatha wrote during a horrific and violent time in human history. Usually her “stiff upper lip” forbids much mention of personal fear, but it peeks through in Crooked House (1949) when the narrator complains about an inconvenient murder to his fiancée:
“You and I have survived a world war, we’ve had plenty of escapes from sudden death. I don’t know why the death of your father [should change our engagement]…”
One can’t blame Winslow for overstating his case in The Cartel: The drug lords of Mexico are an authentically violent setting. However, I wonder if those in the genre imagining explicit sadistic situations in America or England are doing so because these areas are actually pretty unruffled, especially when compared to the chaos of Agatha’s age. Perhaps we need obvious desecration of the body just to feel alive?
Agatha didn’t need to invent anything especially dramatic to work against because it was the background her daily life.
That everyday violence comes out in unusual ways. Agatha is remarkably unsentimental about her characters. I admire Joan Acocella’s article “Queen of Crime” in the New Yorker, which concludes with the choice quote:
As for crime, she seems to think that it’s been around forever, and that small, stable communities offer no protection. “One does see so much evil in a village,” she says. She enjoys describing the poisonings, clubbings, rapes, stickups, and so on that have occurred in St. Mary Mead. This is comical, and the comedy is there, as the theorists have claimed, to tame evil. But always, in Christie, there is a melancholy note, a skepticism. In “The Body in the Library” (1942), the body belongs to Ruby, a dance instructor in a hotel. She has been strangled with the satin waistband of her party dress. “She may, of course, have had some remarkable qualities,” a police commissioner says of the girl. “Probably not,” Miss Marple answers.
Who is really more hard-boiled here? Winslow’s “shrapnel obscenely jutting from his crotch” or Agatha’s “Probably not?”
I don’t think the Irish Times would’ve written “genius or hack?” about any sort of comparable male author.
Well, of course, there aren’t any comparable male authors, are there? No one else has been as big a seller.
Anyway, Agatha is double jeopardy: She is the popular star and female.
Apparently some feel that Agatha wasn’t feminist enough. This is a self-involved and modernist misreading. Miss Marple is always treated with respect by senior police officers. Perhaps a junior cop might be dismissive of the old lady, but the old dog at the head of the force always corrects this hubris by saying something like, “Oh my gosh, you can consult with Jane Marple? I want to hear what she thinks.”
This is automatically empowering of Marple and, by association, feminine intellect.
When I spent a moment researching the first-generation female private eyes from the 70s and 80s, I was struck by how many seemingly obligatory scenes there were of an oafish man telling the female lead, “This isn’t a ladies’ job.”
Some of those scenes probably needed to be written, but it’s hard not to conclude that the instantaneous respect Marple commands among fellow professionals is really landing the heavier blow against stereotype.
Even the biggest Agatha fan wouldn’t argue that all of her books are equally good. At the same time, I believe she deserves extra credit for a hardy willingness to experiment. Of her 75 books, many are unusual or downright odd.
Endless Night has shown up on many recent “best of Agatha Christie” lists. I actually don’t love the “deconstructed Gothic” Endless Night that much: Still there’s no doubt it’s a hell of a book, and a hell of a risk for the elderly master. Much earlier, the comic Partners in Crime satirizes her peers, with each chapter written in the style of a different one of her contemporaries. In between these two poles, there is everything from pure romance to costume drama to the utterly surreal. (A personal favorite, The Mysterious Mr. Quin, has all of the above.)
“Best of Agatha” lists are fun for insiders but essentially miss the larger point. When I was first dating my future wife, she asked me about all the crime fiction I was always reading. I gave her The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and she said, “Wow!” This was the correct transaction.
That book alone would give Agatha immortality, but of course there are more at the same level in terms of unforgettable plot: Murder on the Orient Express, And Then There Were None, Curtain, Crooked House, The ABC Murders…
But I’m getting distracted into making a list myself. Agatha’s literary landmarks aren’t the point. You don’t need masterpieces to escape.
A couple of years ago I happened on Five Little Pigs and Elephants Can Remember, two entries that I somehow hadn’t yet gotten around to consuming. I munched them down like milk and cookies.
While both feature Hercule Poirot, the mid-career Five Little Pigs is frequently hailed as one of her best, while the late-in-life Elephants Can Remember is often dismissed as among her worst.
For myself, reading these books was a near-identical experience. For a blessed hour or two, I forgot my cares and enjoyed Poirot doing his thing. Why bother to look for spots on the sun?
(To be fair, the Irish Times article after the clickbait headline is quite interesting. Probably writer Martin Doyle was not responsible for the headline, anyway. I especially like what Megan Abbott says; John Banville, on the other hand, needs to straighten up and fly right.)