Friday, November 20, 2015

Frugal Bagel Discovers the Obvious: Agatha Christie


With a good mystery, you spend as much time reading as staring into space trying to solve it.

There's a scene in an early episode of Red Dwarf where the superintelligent but bumbling ship's computer, Holly, announces that he has now read everything ever written. "I'm at a loose end now," he complains. So he asks Lister to erase Agatha Christie from his memory so he can read them all again. Throughout the rest of the episode, he's distracted, responding to requests with, "Not now. Hercule's got all the suspects in one room and I'm only two pages from 'Also by the same author'!"


I feel like Holly now: I've just "discovered" the most famous mystery writer of all time, who I'd somehow overlooked before, and I'm constantly distracted. It's the same kind of sheepish jubilation I felt when I "discovered" the library. Everyone knows about it, so how come I didn't really know about it??? Of course I'd heard of Agatha Christie--I watched that episode of Red Dwarf when I was nine--but I'd never been inspired to read her. Without having ever read one, I had the dim opinion that they were cliche and that Dorothy Sayers was better.


Well, I mean, Dorothy Sayers is better, but that's not a good reason not to read something. I mean, that applies to pretty much every other author ever. Dorothy Sayers only wrote eleven Lord Peter Wimsey novels. Even if you read them all every year (cough), that still leaves ten and a half months to fill. Agatha Christie wrote 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections. There's my year right there!  And yes, Agatha Christie novels are sometimes cliche, but I feel like part of that is for the reason Hamlet is cliche: it's cliche now because so many people have copied it since. And because, like Shakespeare, Christie enjoyed playing with cliche, but she always put her own unique spin on it.


One of the best things about Agatha Christie novels, from a frugality point of view, is that they provide hours of entertainment for very little money. You certainly do not have to buy them new. They are widely available in the library and used bookstores. Sometimes you just find one lying around somewhere. If you go on vacation to a summer cabin with a take-a-book-leave-a-book policy for guests, or visit any public space which is furnished with books-as-decoration, like certain types of cafes, nine times out of ten there's at least on Agatha Christie in the mix (along with copies of The Perfect Storm and Portnoy's Complaint).


I've read ten Agatha Christie books in the last two months. Here's what I like:


Remarkably consistent quality. Man, for someone who wrote dozens of books, Agatha Christie really managed to maintain a very consistent level of quality. I haven't read a bad one yet. They are all well-written, while at the same time,


Each one totally different. Of course they are formulaic--murder, confusion, red herrings, detective, cryptic remarks, all the suspects in one room, etc.--but, beyond that, you don't know what you are going to get when you start a new book. Each book creates it own little world with all-new settings and characters and relationships. Always complex and detailed enough to draw you in and inundate you with red herrings.


Clues you can use. I've never read mystery books for the puzzle element before; it's a fruitless task to try to outthink Sherlock Holmes, for example, because he simply knows more than you do, and generally this is true of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple as well. But you can usually figure out part of it, some of the major twists, and that feels great when you do! Agatha Christie is brilliant at giving you just enough information to get it, but making it obscure enough that you may not, so that you feel like a freaking genius if you do. As you read more, you can get better at predicting the twists and feel like you have gotten smarter (when you've really just gotten better at Agatha Christies).


Here's what I don't like:


Solutions sometimes seem random. I understand why--Christie wants to surprise a sophisticated audience who have read a lot of her (and other) detective novels and are already looking from page one for the murder to be the Least Likely Person. I also understand that Christie maintained numerous red herrings by not deciding which of several possible solutions would be the real one until the end of the book. This sometimes leads to situations where the solution seems to be random and you're not sure how the detective could have landed on the right on except by dumb luck.


Detective knows more than the audience. Most detective novels, Christie's included, maintain the magical brilliance of their detective by obscuring their thought processes, stating or implying that they've solve the case long before you do or can, and then revealing the answer at the end. I feel like Christie takes it a step too far. The detective generally seems to figure it out, or claims to have, around about chapter five, and then they just sort of sit on it and refuse to say  but spend the rest of the book making cryptic hints (in Miss Marple's case, it's due to humility and not wanting to accuse the wrong person; in Hercule Poirot's, open smugness). Occasionally you and Hercule Poirot both get the same information at the same time and you simply don't notice or use the info as smartly as him--that's great, that I love--but a lot of the time, the detective actually has clues that you do not, so how are you supposed to solve it?


No recurring sidekick. A common detective story trick, for good reason, is to stay in the point of view of the sidekick, which lets the detective be mysteriously brilliant while still allowing you to be in the POV of someone who is figuring out the case at a more audience-like pace. This is true in Christie's novels, but generally the POV detective is some random policeman, and it may change from moment to moment. Occasionally it's a plucky and interesting character, like Lucy Eyelesbarrow in The 4:50 From Paddington, but these characters are rarely re-used. That leads me to my next complaint:


Not much long-term character development. There are no recurring sidekicks. The police characters are occasionally re-used but not developed. Each mystery contains a complete set of all-new victims, perpetrators, suspects, and standers-by. Impressive as that is, it doesn't leave much scope for long-term character development. The detectives are the only characters who are re-used and while they age over time and occasionally behave differently due to that--older Hercule Poirot is more mellow, less energetic than younger Hercule Poirot--I wouldn't call that character development exactly. What makes Dorothy Sayers' novels so great, and so re-readable even if you remember the solution to the mystery, is that development of the characters and relationships. You can really see how their past experiences change them, and you're invested in them as people. I don't feel that with Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot, and in fact because they actually appear surprisingly little in their own books, I barely feel like I know them. That being said, within each book there is usually a fair amount of psychological complexity given to the one-off characters, which is exactly what it makes them so interesting to me!


Sometimes offensive. Like most books written by and for the entertainment of white people in the mid-twentieth-century, the books occasionally display moments of what strikes a modern audience as startling sexism and racism. With that being said, these books are not nearly as bad in that regard as I had feared. I've certainly read much worse from the era. There are very few characters of color, even when they take place out of England; but Hercule Poirot is a mildly anti-xenophobic character, often surprising staid Englishmen who dismiss him as overly fancy and therefore useless due to his Belgian accent and pointed shoes and alarmingly enormous moustaches. (I know, it's a stretch. But at least the xenophobic characters are usually shown as villains or buffoons.) Miss Marple's gimmick is how crazy is it that an elderly woman is a great detective, but still, she is an elderly woman and a great detective. She's brilliant and capable while having none of the tiresome stereotypical qualities of the detective novel hero; she is neither masculine, nor physically imposing, nor even particularly highly educated.


Despite these complaints, I'm still having a great time reading these books, and I really feel like I'm getting better at solving the mysteries! Bottom line, Agatha Christie's body of work is just this amazing giant collection of really solid detective stories that stand the test of time really well and awaken in the reader a sense of quick though, cleverness and ingenuity. It may be time to vary it up and read something else for awhile, but knowing that there are more Agatha Christies to go back to is a great comfort. If I get through them all, I may need to erase my memory so I can start over.




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