This post is an adaptation from my Master’s thesis on the detective story, University of Sydney, 2012.
Agatha Christie, ‘the Queen of Crime’, is deservedly the most famous of all detective writers, a writer of universal appeal. She is the most popular writer in history, outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare, and continues not only to be read but adapted for film and television, both in her native Britain and in countries as far afield as Russia and Japan. What is the secret of her success?
‘Agatha Christie is the best of all crime novelists’ (Bystander); ‘the greatest genius at inventing detective-story plots that ever lived or ever will live’ (Philip Hewitt-Myring in the News Chronicle); ‘the only consistently inspired practitioner of an art where ingenuity and industry have so often to substitute for genius’ (Torquemada, Observer, 18 November 1934); ‘she has held the throne of detection for the last ten years and brooks no rival near her’ (Ralph Partridge, New Statesman, 25 January 1936).
Christie was an enormously creative detective writer with, in Robert Barnard’s phrase, “a talent to deceive”. And yet, while her books are ingenious and soundly constructed, so were those of many of her contemporaries; the works of Freeman Wills Crofts, so often praised for careful plot construction, are often extremely dull.
Nor is it simply that she wrote a lot of books over a long period. John Rhode wrote more than 140 detective stories over nearly forty years, while Edgar Wallace wrote 175 novels in a quarter of a century, and it was said that a quarter of the books read in England in the 1920s were by him. Yet these writers have fallen into oblivion.
Nor do the assertions that the reader creates the tension of the story himself, making Christie a proto-Post-Modernist, or that her popularity is due to neurolinguistic factors involving repetition of words and the number nine, convince. After all, most detective story writers of the time engaged the reader as an active participant in trying to solve the problem, and there are dozens of writers, many who were household names at the time, whose style was far more banal than Christie’s.
No, the answer lies in the fact that she, perhaps better than any other writer except G.K. Chesterton and John Dickson Carr, had a talent for outwitting the reader, or for making the reader outwit himself. At the end of the book, she would calmly show how the reader’s assumptions were all wrong, and that the truth was the exact opposite of what he had been led to believe. Her solutions are memorable: everything falls into place with
satisfying inevitability. She was particularly cunning at writing things which can be read in a different way; in the 1920s alone, one thinks of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) or The Seven Dials Mystery (1929), both brilliant demonstrations of Christie’s narrative technique.
The problem is that recently Christie has come to be seen as only interested in ingenuity. Thus, both Robert Barnard (A Talent to Deceive, 1990) and Julian Symons (Blood Murder, 1974) admire her as a good storyteller who wrote baffling mysteries, whose solutions were simple and easily understandable, related to the reader’s own experience and knowledge of life, and whose characters were types the average reader could recognise – but they also argue that she was interested in nothing except the problem. She transformed the detective story into “a puzzle pure and complex”, without any interest in characterisation.
On the whole, this view is misguided. Plot and storytelling, as Barnard suggests, are more important than characterisation or setting, as they should be in the detective story; one wants to know what happened and what will happen next more than the murderer’s unfortunate childhood or sexual obsessions. And yet to deny that Christie was interested in characterisation is incorrect.
Indeed, Christie’s success comes from the fact that she integrated ingenuity of plot with story and characterisation in a way that few other writers achieved; as the Manchester Guardian commented, “very few authors achieve the ideal blend of puzzle and entertainment as often as does Agatha Christie”.
Her works combine ingenuity of plot, solid but never wearisome detection, and titanic misdirection with vivid characterisation, a shrewd observation of human nature, and an engaging lightness of touch. As she grew older, she increasingly found the purely detectival approach rather boring, and turned her attention towards
the preliminaries of crime. The interplay of character upon character, the deep smouldering resentments and dissatisfactions that do not always come to the surface but which may suddenly explode into violence. (“Detective Writers in England”, in CADS 55, 2008)
Christie’s characters are vivid and convincing, deftly brought to life with a few pen-strokes.
Reviewing Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938), fellow detective writer E.R. Punshon (Manchester Guardian, 13 January 1939) stated that
In this kind of detective novel, depending almost entirely for its interest on accuracy of logical deduction from recorded fact and yet with the drama played out by recognisable human beings, Mrs. Christie remains supreme.
Again and again, critics note that “the characters are brilliantly drawn” (Milward Kennedy, Sunday Times, reviewing Cards on the Table, 1936); that Appointment with Death boasts “a brilliantly described group of people” (D.S. Meldrum, Daily Telegraph); or that Sad Cypress‘s “characterisation [is] brilliantly intense as ever” (Maurice Richardson, Observer, 10 March 1940). The Times Literary Supplement (22 July 1944) praised Towards Zero‘s haracter interest:
The characters become so much a part of the reader’s existence that he must know what their ultimate fate may be before he will rest satisfied. How alive they are is apparent when two men, both dogged, laconic, poker-faced, never seem alike. The wife and the ex-wife, who neither like nor dislike one another and yet are not indifferent to one another, also reveal creative power. As an exhibition of the modern brand of human nature Towards Zero deserves higher praises than any that can be awarded to it as an excellent detective story.
There are few novels in which Christie is not engaged with her characters, and in which they are seen entirely from the outside. Murder on the Orient Express (1934), Death in the Clouds (1935), and One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940), are the closest that she ever came to the purely intellectual puzzle approach of Ellery Queen or C. Daly King, with a map of the crime scene (plane, train), and the characters treated as chessboard pieces, although she still offers several excellent sketches such as the Princess Dragomiroff, the garrulous Mrs. Hubbard, or the detective writer Daniel Clancy.
The Body in the Library (1942) is her most Humdrum work, a glorified algebra problem in the manner of Crofts, to the point where (as the Geraldine McEwan adaptation showed) the murderers are arbitrary, and Christie’s usual attention to characterisation is conspicuous by its absence.
Laura Thompson (Agatha Christie: An English Mystery, 2007) makes the telling point that Christie was deeply interested in human nature; for her, murder was not about depicting a plausible crime, but about showing how human beings behaved in certain circumstances: “not something beyond the ordinary, but the ordinary pushed to an extreme”, showing real human types in unreal situations. Even her minor characters—elderly aristocrats, typists, postmistresses, and children—are alive. Her books are full of such memorable portraits as the egotist Jane Wilkinson (Lord Edgware Dies, 1933), the tormented adolescent Linda Marshall (Evil Under the Sun, 1941), or Miss Gilchrist with her dreams of a tea shop (After the Funeral, 1953). She had an excellent ear for dialogue, and a keen sense of pacing and dramatic structure, which accounts for her remarkable success in the theatre; not only has The Mousetrap (1952) been running for nearly sixty years, but her plays are perennial favourites with amateur and repertory groups.
Christie’s approach to detection is also based on character, in the tradition of Mason. Poirot is far more interested in psychology than in material clues (he makes fun of fingerprints, footprints and cigarette ash on several occasions), while Miss Marple prides herself on her knowledge of human nature, obtained over many years of watching people in her country village.
Their approach is always to understand the victim’s true personality, which is often different to other people’s (and the reader’s) assumptions, and which will reveal the motive for their murder. For this reason, many of the clues are based on conversation or dialogue, as in Mason’s Hanaud stories. Classic examples include Pilar’s malicious compliment (Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, 1938) or a trivial remark about wax flowers on a malachite table (After the Funeral).
Cards on the Table (1936) is an expansion of S.S. Van Dine’s approach in The ‘Canary’ Murder Case (1926), in which the murderer’s character is revealed by how he plays poker; here, the game is bridge, which reveals the premeditation and calculating mind of one, the timidity of another, a third’s recklessness and ability to seize an opportunity, and a fourth’s shrewdness.
Christie became increasingly adept at sharing suspects’ thoughts with the reader, moving gradually from single paragraphs in Death in the Clouds and And Then There Were None (1939) to the bravura performance in Sparkling Cyanide (1945), in which an entire chapter describes the murderess’s memories of her first meeting with her accomplice and her transformation into another person. In Five Little Pigs (1943), the five suspects write their own account of the tragedy; their attitudes towards the victim, his wife and his mistress, and their lapses of memory and unconscious connections, reveal more about them than they realise.
The Christie novel in which she established her storytelling technique is The Mystery of the Blue Train, a minor work, and Christie’s own least favourite, because with it she stopped writing for fun and became a professional. The work is rather dated, since the plot is set on the Riviera, and involves an American millionaire, a master thief, and a fabulous jewel—all stock conventions of the 1920s mystery genre. Nevertheless, it marks a significant step forward for Christie’s artistry.
There is an extended build-up to the murder, which gives the characters a chance to breathe and become human, rather than merely suspects. The murder takes place nearly a third of the way through the story, but the remainder of the story is not pure detection. Instead, once the circumstances of the crime have been established—the murder scene has been investigated, and the suspects’ alibis established—Christie devotes much of her time to showing how the crime affects the other characters, including the heroine Katherine Grey’s relationship with two of the male suspects. Poirot clears away much of the débris—minor crimes and peccadilloes—before revealing the solution.
Whereas her early detective stories had been told from the perspective of the Watson-narrator, Captain Hastings or Dr. Sheppard, here Christie adopts the perspective of an omniscient narrator, although she privileges the perspective of both Poirot and the shrewd but disinterested Katherine Grey. This gives Christie a much greater flexibility in drawing character and telling the story; we are not limited to a single narrator, who has to be present at every scene, and whose opinions influence the reader’s view of the characters. Christie would use the first-person narrator in some later works , but increasingly found that the omniscient narrator allowed her to penetrate the suspects’ psychology more deeply, particularly in the great works of the late 1930s and early 1940s.
NOTE 1: Nearly all of these are narrated by Captain Hastings: Peril at End House (1932), Lord Edgware Dies (1933), The A. B. C. Murders (1936), Dumb Witness (1937), Curtain (1975). With the exception of Crooked House (1949) and Endless Night (1967), the others are all from the 1930s: The Murder at the Vicarage (1930), Murder in Mesopotamia (1936).
One sees this, for instance, in Death on the Nile (1937), and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. In both of these novels, Christie delays the murder as long as possible, so that the characters have not only motives for murder, but motivation for their actions. As Barnard argues, the build-up to the murder allows the reader “to take in the setting, the surrounding circumstances, the characters who will be suspects; …above all, to become interested in the corpse before it becomes a corpse”. These are plot-driven books, in which the solution is brilliantly ingenious, but there is a fine balance between plot and characterisation, so that, as in Mason, the story is interesting in its own right. Christie would return to this approach in many of her more plot-driven works of the following decades.
Nevertheless, Christie wanted to extend her art, to write a novel in which characterisation was the driving force of the plot.
Appointment with Death (1938) is an uneasy first step in the direction of these works. It is unsatisfactory because character and plot are not integrated. The first half is a character study, memorably depicting the mental subjugation of the young Boyntons to their grotesque stepmother. The second half is a pure, rather arid, detective problem. Poirot is primarily an armchair sleuth: he sits in an office, asks people about their movements, and then draws up a timetable. This approach is satisfactory in a wholly plot-driven work such as Murder on the Orient Express, but is disappointing after the first half. In a classic Christie, Poirot’s interviews are preceded by his introduction to the characters and are followed by his clearing up smaller mysteries. However, in Appointment with Death, very few of the conversations actually contribute anything, since most of the suspects (the step-children) are anxious to avoid incriminating each other. Poirot fails to clear anything up until the end, but reserves everything for the dénouement.
Finally, the murderer’s identity is arbitrary. SPOILER It is one of the very few books in which Christie makes the most unlikely person (a minor character) the murderer. The murderer is very rarely the most unlikely person (which is bad art, because the author violates plausibility in order to surprise the reader), but what Barnard terms the “never suspected”: either the most likely person, apparently struck off the list of suspects, or else a main character who does not seem to be a suspect at all. Here, the murderer’s identity is not foreshadowed from the start—there are only two clues in the first half, and not many more in the second. It is neither psychologically nor aesthetically justified. One cannot help but think that Christie became so involved with the characters in the first half that she could not bear to make any of them guilty, decided to make the comic relief guilty, and rearranged matters to suit.
Evil Under the Sun uses a very similar structure to Appointment with Death. The first part shows Poirot observing the characters before the murder; the second part is the interviewing of the suspects; and the third part is the explanations and denouement. Evil is far superior, because Christie returns to the characters, studies their reactions to the murder and subsequent investigation, has Poirot putting some things together as he goes (rather than waiting for the end) and discovering new clues. The detective problem occupies more space than the characterisation, but the characterisation is more closely integrated to the plot. In short, the book shows the author perfecting the formal detective story, with the result that this is classic Christie.
With the works of the late 1930s and 1940s, Christie demonstrates how the detective problem can become a novel of character. Thompson perceptively realises that “the workings of the mystery are the workings of human nature, and the solution depends entirely upon the revealed truth of human nature”; the solution is “not real, but true”. This is one of the defining features of a good detective story: the story and the solution may be unbelievable from a practical, worldly perspective, but they make both artistic and psychological sense. Christie (quoted in Thompson) remarked that “if a murder springs from characterisation and what has gone before there can really be only one possible solution”. Thus, although Barnard implies that the characters are forced to fit the plot, that Christie “is writing a story where facts and incidents are of prime importance, and where characters must be tailored to suit them”, Christie’s own plotting technique does not bear this out.
It is significant, as John Curran’s study of Christie’s notebooks reveals, that she often did not start out with a clear idea of the murderer’s identity; she would work forwards from the situation, rather than backwards from the solution, experimenting with different possibilities and combinations, so that the work develops organically (Thompson). Examples in Curran (2009) include Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938), Evil Under the Sun (1941), Death Comes as the End… (1945), Sparkling Cyanide (1945), Taken at the Flood (1948), Crooked House (1949), and Mrs. McGinty’s Dead (1952).
In many of the novels of this period, there is less emphasis on technical virtuosity of the sort found in the 1930s novels, with Poirot frequently off-stage, and more on character and psychology. Examples include And Then There Were None, in which there is no detection at all, and the interest lies as much in the increasing atavism of a group of supposedly civilised people under stress as it does in the famous solution; Sad Cypress, in which the build-up to the murder occupies the first half of the novel, and is largely seen from the perspective of the accused Elinor Carlisle; Five Little Pigs, in which the suspects write their own accounts of the triangular relationship between the artist Amyas Crale, his wife and his mistress; and Sparkling Cyanide, in which the first section is the characters’ remembrance of the beautiful Rosemary.
MAJOR SPOILERS ABOUT THE HOLLOW
Particularly interesting is The Hollow (1946), essentially a straight novel about the disastrous consequences of blind love, rather than a detective story in the purist sense, and one which Christie felt she ruined by putting Poirot in it. He is very much in the background, however, and acts as a deus ex machina at the end. It is true that the novel could easily have survived without Poirot, since the question of ‘whodunit?’ does not really arise, or, rather, is not crucial. Although the murderer is exposed at the end, there is not much mystery as to the culprit’s identity, since it is both psychologically and thematically inevitable, so that the book gains in interest from knowing the solution. Like Five Little Pigs, the book is based on Christie’s experience of 1926, when she discovered that her husband was unfaithful to her. Here the three main characters are John Christow, his plain, rather stupid wife Gerda, and John’s mistress, sculptress Henrietta Savernake. Other characters, including cousins Midge and Edward Angkatell, and the scatterbrained Lady Lucy, are all vividly and convincingly drawn. The main theme is the danger of living an illusion, and the inevitable catastrophe which happens when the deluded person discovers the truth. Christie makes a sophisticated use of metaphors and motifs, including the Weltesche Yggdrasil, the recurring metaphor of Henrietta’s statues (‘The Worshipper’, blind Nausicaa, ‘The Trojan Horse’), and The Hollow itself, which refers both to the novel’s setting and to the murderer’s motive.
II: Agatha Christie and her contemporaries
Christie was an active member of the Detection Club, of which she served as President between 1956 and 1976, albeit attending increasingly rarely in her old age. She collaborated on several round robins, and read widely in the genre.
For instance, in ‘Detective Writers in England’, an article written for Soviet Russia in 1945, Christie discussed and praised the works of Conan Doyle, Margery Allingham, Dorothy Sayers, H.C. Bailey, Dickson Carr, Ngaio Marsh, Freeman Wills Crofts, and Anthony Berkeley, and briefly mentioned John Rhode, Gladys Mitchell, Michael Innes, and Austin Freeman—a who’s who of detective fiction.
Although critics such as Haining and Knight have identified the influence of earlier writers—Anna Katharine Green, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A.E.W. Mason, Gaston Leroux, and Carolyn Wells—on Christie, there has been little attempt to examine Christie’s relationship with her contemporaries.
The only serious effort has been made by Mike Grost, who places her in the Intuitionist line of Chesterton, with amateur genius detectives rather than the methodical scientists and policemen of R. Austin Freeman and Freeman Wills Crofts.
Many of Christie’s plots rely on topsy-turviness, understanding the truth by turning the situation upside down, a device that comes from Chesterton’s Father Brown stories. Frequently, these are romantic triangles, as in SPOILER Death on the Nile (1937) or Evil Under the Sun (1941). In other works, they are conversations or scenes with double meanings: SPOILER Eustace Pedler’s narrative in The Man in the Brown Suit (1924); SPOILER Dr. Sheppard leaving the study in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926); or the shootings in Death on the Nile and They Do It With Mirrors (1952). In other stories, they are misunderstood conversations: ‘I’ll see to her packing’ in Five Little Pigs (1943), Dora Bunner’s rambling conversation in A Murder is Announced (1950).
Perhaps the author closest in spirit to Christie was Anthony Berkeley, who also emphasised psychology and characterisation rather than material clues, and misdirection. They turn the situation upside down; direct the reader’s attention away from the murderer by making him the main suspect and then clear him, only to prove him guilty at the end; or hide the murderer in plain sight, often as one of the investigators.
The two writers greatly admired each other. Christie (“Detective Writers in England”) described Berkeley as “detection and crime at its wittiest—all his stories are amusing, intriguing and he is a master of the final twist, the surprise dénouement“. Cox thought that “Christie’s seconds would be most other writers’ tops” (as Francis Iles, Manchester Guardian, 7 December 1956), and that “this remarkable writer’s” books possessed both sprightliness and “detection: genuine, steady, logical detection, taking us step by step nearer to the heart of the mystery” (as Francis Iles, Manchester Guardian, 5 December 1957). Their influence on each other is plain: Berkeley’s Second Shot (1930) borrows SPOILER the narrator-as-murderer technique of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), while Christie’s A.B.C. Murders (1936), although far more ambitious in scope, has a similar plot to Berkeley’s Silk Stocking Murders (1928)—including SPOILER a camouflaged murder among many crimes; the rôle played by the murderer; suspicion falling on one of the detective’s colleagues; victims’ relatives helping to solve the crime—and a silk stocking salesman named Alexander Bonaparte Cust (same initials as Anthony Berkeley Cox)!
However, Christie’s works also show the influence of Freeman and Crofts’ orthodox school, the dominant paradigm in Britain throughout the 1920s and 1930s.
R. Austin Freeman
Grost argues that the influence of Freeman is confined to the works of the early 1920s. He draws attention, in particular, to the short stories ‘The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor’ (1923), ‘The Under Dog’ (1926) and ‘The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb’ (1923), with Poirot as an insurance investigator and the interest in medicine or psychology, including word association and hypnotism; the mechanical murder devices used in ‘A Chess Problem’ (1924) and ‘The Face of Helen’ (1927); and the disposal of the body in ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’ (1923).
Freemanian techniques do, however, appear in her work to the end of her career some 50 years later. These include:
Chemically-based murder schemes
In Dumb Witness (1937), the murder is believed to be from natural causes (yellow atrophy of the liver), but SPOILER is really due to phosphorus poisoning in her liver pills—similar to the plot of Rhode’s Claverton Mystery (1933), in which an old man’s fatal perforation of the stomach walls is caused by metallic sodium. Sad Cypress (1940) depends on a specialised knowledge of chemistry and inheritance law, and in many ways acknowledges the influence of Sayers’s Strong Poison (1930): an innocent woman falsely accused of crime, SPOILER the murderer sharing the victim’s poisoned meal but protected by an antidote, and a young man named Peter Lord (a reversal of Lord Peter) who believes in the accused heroine’s innocence. Other stories concerning ingenious poisonings include Christie’s first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) (SPOILER precipitation of bromide in strychnine); The Pale Horse (1960) (SPOILER thallium); and ‘The Blue Geranium’ (1929) (SPOILER cyanide of potassium; effect of ammonia on litmus paper).
The disposal of the body and the breakdown of identity
In some stories, the victim is hidden: under the eponymous Dead Man’s Folly (1956); in a sarcophagus in 4.50 from Paddington (1957); in a disused well under a landscaped garden in Hallowe’en Party (1969); under a clump of polygonum baldschuanicum in Nemesis (1971); and in the back garden in Sleeping Murder (c. 1960s, published 1976).
More often, the disposal of the body is used in conjunction with the ‘breakdown of identity’. The need to establish the identity of an unknown victim is crucial to Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (1934), 4.50 from Paddington (1957), and The Clocks (1963). In One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940), The Body in the Library, and Nemesis, the corpse is rendered unrecognisable or otherwise disguised.
In Buckle my Shoe, SPOILER this is done in order to suggest that the corpse is not that of Miss Sainsbury Seale, but that Miss Sainsbury Seale has murdered Mrs. Chapman and disguised Mrs. Chapman as Miss Sainsbury Seale, when, in fact, Mrs. Chapman has murdered Miss Sainsbury Seale—a double bluff involution. Particularly Freemanesque are the identification of the woman in the fur-chest as the wrong person, and the use of dental records, similar to ‘The Funeral Pyre’ or Sayers’s ‘In the Teeth of the Evidence’. However, the work also shows the influence of H.C. Bailey; Poirot has adopted some of Reggie Fortune’s mannerisms (‘Oh, my Japp’), and suspects a vast conspiracy behind three deaths (the poisoning of a Greek blackmailer, the ‘suicide’ of Poirot’s dentist, and an unknown woman in a fur-chest), despite police incredulity and a desire to see only the obvious; and condemns the murderer with the Old Testament. In The Body in the Library and Nemesis, SPOILER the corpses of two girls are exchanged.
In other tales, a living person assumes the identity of another, often dead person, or creates a double identity. SPOILER In Taken at the Flood (1948), A Murder is Announced (1950), Elephants Can Remember (1972), and ‘The Erymanthian Boar’ (1940), one person (believed to be dead, secretly living) takes over the identity of another (believed to be alive, secretly dead); these stories all derive from ‘The Companion’ (1930). In After the Funeral (1953), SPOILER the murderess impersonates her victim in order to lay a false trail, while one person creates a false identity in ‘The Disappearance of Mr. Davenheim’ (1923), which goes back to Doyle’s ‘Man with the Twisted Lip’; ‘The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge’ (1923); ‘The Perfect Maid’ (1942); and SPOILER Third Girl (1966). The minor short story ‘Four and Twenty Blackbirds’ (1926) is quite Freemanian, involving both the breakdown of identity (SPOILER impersonation of uncle by nephew) and survivorship.
Freeman Wills Crofts
Crofts’ influence of Crofts is particularly strong. She referred to him (under an alias) at least twice in her work: the character of Daniel Clancy, with his elaborate trans-Continental alibis based on Bradshaw, in Death in the Clouds (1935), and, with a much fuller discussion of her opinions, under the pseudonym of Cyril Quain) in The Clocks (1963).
Grost detects the influence of Crofts on such works of the late 1920s and early 1930s as ‘The Sign in the Sky’ (1925) and ‘The Love Detectives’ (1926), which both hinge on rearranged clocks, and ‘The Blood-Stained Pavement’ (1928) and ‘A Christmas Tragedy’ (1930), with their faked alibis based on impersonation and substitution of corpses.
The detection often follows Croftsian lines, with methodical detection conducted by genial, fatherly policemen in the Inspector French tradition. For instance, Spence, Neele, Currie and Davy. Note, too, the transformation of Inspector Japp from a Lestrade-type, ‘a little, sharp, dark, ferret-faced man’, in The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), into a French-type, ‘an erect soldierly figure in plain clothes’, in Death in the Clouds (1935).
Many of her works involve unbreakable alibis, particularly:
The ‘breakdown of identity’
The ‘breakdown of identity’ alibis depend on disguise and impersonation. It Christie’s first published short story, ‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ (1923), involves SPOILER impersonation to suggest that the victim was alive later than he was, thereby providing the murderer with an alibi; she returned to the idea throughout her career. It appears in different forms in such stories as ‘The Mystery of the Plymouth Express’ (1923) and its full-length expansion The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928); ‘The Sunningdale Mystery’ (1924); ‘The Blood-stained Pavement’ (1928); and Taken at the Flood (1948).
A variation on this theme is that the murder was committed after the ‘body’ was discovered; this idea occurs in SPOILER ‘A Christmas Tragedy’ (1930), Evil Under the Sun, and The Body in the Library.
Lord Edgware Dies (1933) SPOILER uses another form of impersonation, first used by Christopher Bush in The Perfect Murder Case (1929): a gifted mimic impersonates the murderess at a party, thereby unwittingly giving her a cast-iron alibi.
‘Location and technology’
In some works, the murderer’s alibi is provided by a mechanical gadget, such as SPOILER the Dictaphone in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926); or by tampering with clocks, as in SPOILER ‘The Sign in the Sky’ (1925), ‘The Love Detectives’ (1926), The Murder at the Vicarage (1930), and Evil Under the Sun (1941). In other tales, the murderer’s alibi uses a form of transport, such as SPOILER the skis in The Sittaford Mystery (1931), which also has Croftsian alibis based on train time-tables, or SPOILER the ferry in Towards Zero (1944).
The Chestertonian hidden alibi
Others are what John Dickson Carr (“The Grandest Game in the World”) called ‘hidden alibis’, in that the person with the alibi appears to be outside suspicion, and so their alibi is not dwelt upon; many of these use the alibi relying on illusion, which derives from Chesterton and the Baroness Orczy. In such Father Brown stories as ‘The Hammer of God’ and ‘The Eye of Apollo’, the murderer is able to commit his crimes without going physically near his victim, remaining in an inaccessible or guarded space; this is the technique that Christie uses in SPOILER Murder in Mesopotamia (1935), and it is related to the impossible crime (see Grost, ‘Early Impossible Crime Fiction’). Often, the Baroness Orczy’s stories hinge on sensory deception: witnesses are misled into thinking that they have witnessed an event when it is only a charade, notably in ‘The Regent’s Park Murder’. Visual deceptions include SPOILER Death on the Nile (1937) and ‘Greenshaw’s Folly’ (1960), while auditory deceptions include SPOILER They Do It With Mirrors (1952) and ‘Problem at Sea’ (1935).
Several works also concern the organised criminal scheme, albeit within the confines of the puzzle plot story. For instance, the drug smuggling in Hickory, Dickory Dock (1955), witchcraft and murder for sale in The Pale Horse (1961), and large-scale robbery in At Bertram’s Hotel (1965). The ancestors of these works are the coining racket in The Box Office Murders (1929) or smuggling in The Pit-Prop Syndicate (1922).
That Christie was able to take these tropes and work them into her own version of the detective story shows both the dominant influence of the Freeman–Crofts school in inter-war Britain, and how flexible the genre was, in that the orthodox detective story could also be a novel of character.
III: Parodying the genre
Christie’s work is often dismissed as clichéd; P.D. James (Talking about Detective Fiction, 2009), for instance, claims that she “wasn’t an innovative writer and had no interest in exploring the possibilities of the genre”. Many of her best works rely on subverting the clichés of the genre: the murderer is the Dr. Watson who tells the story, or the investigating policeman, or the elderly lady detective, or SPOILER Poirot himself.
Others take stock situations of detective fiction and subvert them: murder by a South American blowpipe aboard a crowded aeroplane (Death in the Clouds); the Yuletide family gathering, complete with suspicious Spanish granddaughter and strong colonial, and the locked room murder (Hercule Poirot’s Christmas); the sudden death of a rich old man and the murder of the person who suspects he was murdered (After the Funeral).
In Partners in Crime (1929), Christie brilliantly spoofed many of the detectives of her contemporaries, including Dr. Thorndyke, Mr. Fortune and Father Brown—and Poirot himself.
Many of her 1920s works gleefully dismantle the conventions of the genre. In The Secret of Chimneys (1925), she tackled the E. Phillips Oppenheim country house party, with diplomats and spies galore, the sinister organisation of the Red Hand, and the murder of the Crown Prince of Herzoslovakia (no doubt somewhere near Anthony Hope’s Ruritania); and in its sequel, The Seven Dials Mystery, she implicitly parodies her own Secret Adversary (1922): the masked secret society headed by a sinister figure is really a group of amateur investigators headed by a Scotland Yard Superintendent, on the trail of a master criminal, who turns out to be the juvenile lead.
In The Big Four (1927), Poirot is thrown into the middle of an Edgar Wallace or a Sax Rohmer, with a dash of Sherlock Holmes for good measure. The Big Four are a group of super-criminals—a fiendish Oriental, an American millionaire, a mad scientist (“mad—mad—mad with the madness of genius!”) and “the destroyer”—who are behind all the world’s problems, including Lenin and Trotsky, “mere puppets whose every action was dictated by another’s brain”. Their ultimate goal is, of course, world domination, using a laser beam. (Yes, it’s Diamonds Are Forever forty years early.) Captain Hastings, having been lured to the Limehouse den of a Chinaman, refuses to lure Poirot into a trap on pain of death (“That Chinese devil meant business, I was sure of that. It was goodbye to the good old world…”), capitulates when he learns that his wife will die by the Seventy Lingering Deaths. Poirot is blown up, and comes back from the dead disguised as his imaginary twin brother Achille, even more intelligent than Hercule (a nod to Holmes falling off the Reichenbach Falls, and his brother Mycroft). And then the villains’ secret headquarters in the Dolomite Mountains explode. (Please, Mr. Branagh, can we have this after Death on the Nile?)
However, because many of these writers have become obscure, few critics are aware of the extent to which Christie’s fiction subverted as well as popularised the genre.
IV: Christie and politics
Christie frequently used the genre to discuss political and philosophical ideas, in spite of Barnard’s assertion that Christie hid her personality from the reader. Indeed, as Johann Hari argues, there is a very good case for seeing Christie as “an intensely and relentlessly political thinker”, of a Burkean cast. Unlike the cynicism of Berkeley and the nihilistic despair of Symons and other post-World War II writers, Christie, as Thompson remarks, believes in “harmony and order, clarity and optimism” and “constancy and certainty and fundamental hope” at odds with the “moral relativity”, angst and despair of the “postmodern condition”.
The recurring theme in her work is the threat posed by those to whom ideals are more important than individuals, and who lose their humanity. Such works include One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940), a passionate defence of democratic “muddling through”, as opposed to autocratic rule, however seemingly benevolent or politically necessary.
Many of Christie’s villains in post-1939 works such as N or M? (1941), They Came to Baghdad (1951), Destination Unknown (1954), and Passenger to Frankfurt (1970) are ruthless idealists, people who envisage the dawning of a new age attainable only at the cost of individual lives, a Utopia built on the violent destruction of the old order.
Wagner’s Götterdämmerung – with its ecstatic vision of the crumbling of the world, the gods in Walhall perishing in fire, and the men in the Gibichung Hall – runs like a Leitmotif through these works. Christie also invokes the imagery of the ‘Young Siegfried’ and the rebel angels.
What matters, Christie says, is not idealism, which, however noble, may lack compassion and humanity, but the everyday individual with his common sense and proportion. Politically, it is a moderate approach to politics, rather than one based on dogma.
Christie is also deeply concerned with the workings of evil in the world (despite P.D. James maintaining that Christie’s books lack “the disturbing presence of evil”). Whereas good is humble, evil feels a need to dramatize itself, to make itself seem more important than it is. The crimes in The Pale Horse (1961) seem to be committed by supernatural means: witchcraft and ill-wishing; SPOILER in reality, they are the result of thallium poisoning dressed up as the occult. The criminal mastermind is a chemist with an inferiority complex, a stupid man who preens himself on his cleverness.
Whereas in her earlier books, crime had been the result of an individual’s psychology—obsession, blind love, or greed—the murderers in her later books take on an almost metaphysical dimension. They have a moral kink that makes them wicked, but they are also archetypal: SPOILER Clothilde Bradbury-Scott, one of three sisters, has, as her name suggests, elements of the Fate Clotho, as well as of Macbeth’s Witches (Nemesis, 1971); Dr. Kennedy, who murders his sister, is likened to Ferdinand in The Duchess of Malfi, in Sleeping Murder (1976); and Michael Garfield in Hallowe’en Party (1969) reminds Poirot of Lucifer.
The third theme is justice. As she remarks in both Ordeal by Innocence (1958) and her Autobiography (1977), “It’s not the guilty who matter, it’s the innocent.” Although many critics, beginning with W.H. Auden, argue that Christie’s books are about the expulsion of the murderer from society and the restoration of Arcadian perfection, what mattered to her was that the reputation of the innocent not suffer, that people not be made to go through the rest of their days with friends and acquaintances suspecting them of murder, whispering behind their backs, treating them as something other than human. Perhaps the importance of this belief came from her disappearance in 1926, and the hue and cry that left her morbidly shy.
Interestingly, this belief in the importance of justice also led to culprits in her books sometimes escaping the law. Most famously, in Murder on the Orient Express, SPOILER the criminals—everybody aboard the train—are not punished; the murder of the gangster Cassetti, who had been sentenced to death in America, is seen as an unofficial execution. In Curtain (1940s, published 1975), SPOILER Poirot himself kills the villain ; the murderer has perfected his powers of suggestion so that, like Iago, he can manipulate others into murder, without running any risk himself. Norton’s death is the only way to protect the innocent.
Christie’s talents—her genius for misdirection, her accessible style, her shrewd understanding of human nature—brought the detective story to new heights. Although she remained true to the principles of the fair play puzzle plot story, and her work arguably shows the influence of earlier writers such as Doyle, Mason, Freeman, Crofts, and Chesterton, among others, she unified these various approaches—characterisation, plot, theme—to create the perfect synthesis: the archetypal detective story, a model used by many writers since.