The Boathouse at Agatha Christie’s Greenway estate near Dartmouth
Agatha Christie was a hugely popular crime and thriller writer who sold millions of books during a working life extending from the 1920s to the 1970s. In 1962 a UNESCO report quoted by her biographer Charles Osborne said that Agatha Christie was the most widely read British author in the world, with Shakespeare second, a long way behind. The Guinness Book Of Records – according to Wikipedia – claims around four billion copies of Agatha Christie’s books have sold worldwide, with only The Bible selling in greater quantities. By any measure Agatha Christie was seriously successful.
Widely read though they are, detective stories have long been dismissed as mere entertainment. WH Auden viewed them as tobacco, an addiction which wasn’t quite proper. Now, it is not for me to spoil things by claiming detective fiction for the earnest English Literature crowd, but it is interesting how closely detective stories are related to the earliest days of novel writing. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Puritan self confession narratives began to evolve into fictional moral tracts, which became what we now know as the novel. In the popularity of detective stories, it is easy to hear echoes from the novel’s earliest days. Detective stories involve a crime, usually a murder, and the successful uncovering of a culprit. On the way the best crime writers are able to explore our conceptions of morality.
So was Agatha Christie a writer who could explore morality? If you were to read some of her autobiographical writings, you would not think it likely. In fact, she talks of right and wrong in terms stark enough to sit easily amidst the adherents of fringe right-wing politics. The innocent and guilty are portrayed as fundamentally different, virtually as separate beings:
“Why should we not execute him? We have taken the lives of wolves in this country; we didn’t try to teach the wolf to lie down with the lamb – I doubt really if we could. We hunted down the wild boar in the mountains before he came down and killed the children by the brook. These were our enemies and we destroyed them.” (Quoted in The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie by Charles Osborne).
Statements like this do not offer much hope for a nuance and ambiguity. Nevertheless, through the 1930s and 1940s, the Agatha Christie publishing phenomenon exploded around two detectives, a former Belgian policeman named Hercule Poirot, who first appeared in The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1920; and Miss Marple, who usually solved crimes in the village of St Mary Mead, making her debut in Murder at the Vicarage in 1930. None of the many novels featuring these two characters was to sell millions by presenting dull and obvious homilies. Murderers are frequently portrayed sympathetically, while victims are often flawed in some way. An Appointment With Death, a Poirot novel published in 1938, is typical. An evil old woman called Mrs Boynton takes a holiday in the Middle East with her unfortunate family, which she has terrorised for decades. The family finally snaps, murdering the old woman with an overdose of her heart medicine, hoping that the murder will be overlooked as death by natural causes. The various suspects are considered by Poirot who just happens to also be holidaying in the area. As part of his investigation, Poirot interviews a doctor, who does not want the death investigated. He argues that the world is better off without Mrs Boynton, and that one damaged member of the family, Ginerva Boynton, might have committed murder in self-defence:
“I should say mentally she is in an extremely dangerous condition. She has already begun to display symptoms of schizophrenia. Unable to bear the suppression of her life, she is escaping into the realm of fantasy… The sufferer kills – not for the lust of killing – but in self-defence.”
Meanwhile, crusty Colonel Carbury dismisses such liberal meanderings and pushes for a proper inquiry. He does not want this because of any moral qualms, but because as he puts it: “I’m a tidy man.” You get the feeling that Colonel Carbury is a fool, whose neat conception of the world has no room for its true complexity. Poirot himself is similar in outlook, admitting to no gray areas:
“The victim may be one of the good God’s saints – or, on the contrary – a monster of infamy. It moves me not. The fact is the same… I don’t approve of murder.”
A letter, received by Agatha Christie, on display at Greenway House
So how to do you reconcile the novels with the autobiographical views? Perhaps there’s a clue in the fact that Agatha Christie herself was always adamant that her stories were merely unimportant entertainment. Perhaps by viewing her writing in this way, she was free to explore ambiguities that she was reluctant to accept in her daily life as a wealthy English woman who wanted the criminal classes shot like wolves and wild hogs. If she came to different conclusions in her books, that didn’t matter, because her books didn’t matter, even if they did sell in their billions.
The word entertainment comes from a Latin word “tenere,” meaning “to hold”. We are held by the things that entertain us, given succor by them. Christie novels offer a clear and comforting picture of morality where a supreme, seemingly all-seeing detective will always solve a crime. And yet alongside this reassurance there is an accurate reflection of the true complexity of human behaviour where innocent and guilty are almost interchangeable. In a Christie story, the wolf and the lamb not only lie down together, they are often the same animal. And as for Poirot, a character who Christie said she ended up hating, he sees everything, and yet seems blind to life’s gray areas.
In this respect it is not so fanciful to ultimately see a link between the world’s two top best selling collection of stories. Perhaps they both hold people in a similar way. In Exodus, for example, God has to ask Abraham for his help in deciding what to do with Sodom and Gomorrah. God sees everything, but in doing so, like Poirot, he is not involved. Abraham is involved, does not have a universal breadth of vision, but “understands” things in a way that an all-seeing power cannot. God has to ask Abraham for advice. This section of Exodus is just like a Christie story. Perhaps it is a bit intimidating to feel that you might be writing a modern Exodus – so we might understand why Agatha Christie was so keen to dismiss the significance of her stories. Nevertheless, significant is what they are.