Having written of the pleasures of reading one of Agatha Christie’s novels in the space of an evening, the academic part of my brain – yeah yeah Ph.D. blah blah blah – feels it should say a few words about the authoress and her work. It wants to be terribly smart and dismiss Mrs. Christie’s novels, not only as mere entertainment literature (nay: as mere entertainment writing), but also as writing which is as inferior technically as it is artistically.
Stuff and nonsense.
I will freely grant you that Mrs. Christie is not M. Proust. Indeed, one of Mrs. Christie’s most sterling qualities as an authoress is that she never tries to be M. Proust. She writes short mystery novels for the entertainment of her readers, and does so devoid of all pretention. You don’t need pretentions when you’re doing something better than anyone has ever done – or ever will do – it. Not for nothing is Mrs. Christie the planet’s third-most published author, following only God and Shakespeare.
Although Mrs. Christie trades in violent deaths, her books are really most gentle entertainments. (My grandmother always wondered how my mother – an enormous fan of Mrs. Christie – could have enjoyed stories about murder and crime. There’s her answer.) That Mrs. Christie branched out into writing for the stage is no accident: her novels, with page after page of evidence given in dialogue form, often read like plays. Action is minimal – does Poirot ever get into a fistfight? – and such action as there is finds itself related in a style which is so matter-of-fact as to border on stage directions.
Books designed to be read in one evening require economy, and Mrs. Christie is a mistress of that literary virtue (which has been known to elude the present writer.) Very little of the reader’s time is wasted on descriptions which do not advance the plot. The resulting narrative baldness has been much criticized, but what is perceived as a lack of literary merit also functions (likely intentionally) as a means of engaging the reader. A favorite example of mine is how the saloon in the ship in which Poirot conducts his investigation in Death on the Nile is described…not at all. We’re not even told the color of the carpeting, even though Mrs. Christie must have known she was writing for an audience unacquainted with the décor of 1930s Nile steamers.
Nonetheless, the reader spends a great deal of time in that room. The authoress leaves us no choice but to imagine the surroundings for ourselves, something I do for myself in shades of red and burgundy. I’m sure others have done it in blues or greens…or even blues and greens. This draws us into the reading process as active participants, filling in the blanks left by an authoress who could well have known that she didn’t excel at purple descriptions of the declining orange orb casting deep copper flecks onto the Nile’s cobalt waters as they undulated silently over the even more silent millennia of history enwrapped in ghostly repose below the eternal river’s surface.
(It came to my mind first, but Death on the Nile might not be the best example in this respect, as filmed treatments of the book have provided us with potted images of how the steamer “really” looked, just as the 1978 movie has led many of us to believe that Simon Doyle (a key character described in three words: “tall broad-shouldered”) bears a blond, handsome and striking resemblance to Simon MacCorkindale. On the other hand, I defy anyone who’s seen that movie to read the book and imagine Hercule Poirot to bear any resemblance whatsoever to Peter Ustinov.)
Of course, the whodunit exists by definition to engage the reader’s participation. Mrs. Christie invites us to match wits with her detectives…which is to say she invites us to match wits with the author. Our assignment is to locate the lies told by her characters (and her narrators) and arrive at a solution to the puzzle she places before us. I like to be surprised, so I rarely respond to M. Poirot’s summons to the dining car with a “Mrs. White in the Conservatory with the Lead Pipe” solution fully formed in my head. I still run the evidence through my brain, of course. I just prefer to find the inconsistencies (the “lies” I just mentioned) without piecing the whole solution together. I thus trade the satisfaction of having figured out that everyone did it for the still substantial satisfaction of having been right about the bogus smashed watch. That way, I get to be surprised when M. Poirot puts forth his theory of a thirteen-way conspiracy.
(You are engaged this way even in the novels which aren’t pure puzzles. Last Friday night’s project was They Came to Baghdad, and, once I was knee-deep in what is more a thriller than a murder mystery, my own little grey cells kept flopping back and forth on the question of whether Edward was the Good Guy or the Bad Guy. I shan’t ruin the book for others by revealing which he turns out to be; suffice it to say that I thoroughly outsmarted myself.)
Proust does not (nor does he seek to) involve us in A la recherche du temps perdu in this way. Rejecting economy as a virtue, he determines the settings for us to the point of fetishism: were he the author of La mort sur le Nil, we’d know exactly what color the upholstery in the interrogation saloon was. He paints pictures for us with the scale and precision of Turner’s Rome, from the Vatican. Raffaelle, accompanied by La Fornarina, preparing his Pictures for the Decoration of the Loggia. Mrs. Christie doesn’t, and thereby creates a new level of engagement for her readers. We’re not just working alongside Tommy and Tuppence; we’re designing the sets and costumes as well.
It takes more imagination to read Mrs. Christie than is required to read M. Proust. That doesn’t necessarily make her the better author. It does, however, make her a more sophisticated literary craftswoman than many of us assume.