In 1945 Agatha Christie was asked to write a piece on the Detective Writers in England by the Ministry of Information for publication in a Russian Magazine. When reading this article I was intrigued by her opinions on detective fiction as a whole and on specific writers and characters, especially her own serial sleuths. Some of her ideas I think have become dated, which is understandable, whereas others I think stand the test of time. Here’s a brief look at them…
Who reads detective stories you ask? Well according to Christie they are the ‘busy people, the workers of the world’. Particularly ‘highly placed men in the scientific world’ due to the puzzle, logic and reasoning aspects of detective stories. Christie also moots the idea that detective stories have ‘a sporting interest and is much less expensive than betting on horses or gambling at cards!’ All I have to say to that is that she hasn’t seen me in a second hand book shop! As to the other ideas she espouses here I think not only are they dated now, but I don’t think they were even accurate at the time as Stephen Knight (2003) suggests that for example women were equally voracious for detective stories as ‘lending libraries… [which] were the basic medium of dissemination of the new clue-puzzle novels had a 75 per cent female audience’ (Knight, 2003: 81). I feel perhaps other factors must have been involved in her writing this idea. Perhaps she wanted to elevate detective fiction in the eyes of her prospective Russian readers?
Holmes vs. Watson – who would you pick? Christie chose Watson as her preferred character, on the basis that he is ‘just himself – loveable, obtuse, faithful, maddening, guaranteed to be always wrong, and perpetually in a state of admiration.’ She even goes as far as suggesting that ‘we all need a Watson in our lives!’ I think for me though my choice would still be Holmes, for his maverick take on the world and his seemingly impossible deductions and to be honest I think I would tire of Watson’s constant ‘admiration.’
Poirot vs. Miss Marple? Christie’s thoughts on this have long been known, but in this article she compares her detectives’ plausibility. She is embarrassed at Poirot’s ‘calling in life,’ wondering ‘would anyone go and consult him?’ She thinks it highly unlikely and feels that ‘more and more, his entry into a murder drama has to be fortuitous.’ Conversely, Christie thinks Miss Marple in her village of St Mary Mead ‘is more happily placed,’ and that elderly spinster stereotypes provide a sufficient cover for her detective work. I suppose I have never thought about Poirot and Miss Marple’s plausibility too much, as I feel to varying extents, one always has to suspend reality when reading fiction, but I can see where Christie is coming from, as Miss Marple works within her niche effectively. You can hardly imagine her for example tackling the intrigues Poirot faces in The Big Four (1927).
So what other authors did Christie like?
1) Margery Allingham – ‘one of the foremost writers of detective fiction’. Christie liked Allingham’s strength in creating characters, though she never got on with Lugg, and her ‘power in creating atmosphere’. However, Christie did feel that Allingham sometimes ‘subordinate[d] plot to characters’. Do you agree? I have only read a few Allingham novels, with Tiger in the Smoke (1952) being my favourite so far. I concur with Christie that characterisation and atmosphere are some of Allingham’s strengths, although I wouldn’t say Allingham is a favourite author of mine.
2) Dorothy L. Sayers – ‘an exceptionally good detective story writer and a delightfully witty one’. Though Christie preferred Sayers’ earlier works such as Whose Body? (1923), Unnatural Death (1927) and The Unpleasantness of the Bellona Club (1928), as they had ‘greater simplicity and more punch to them’. Sayers’ quartet of Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey novels have often caused controversy with fans and Christie was no different believing that Wimsey’s marriage to Harriet made him ‘an example of a good man spoilt.’ This is something I disagree with and when I first read this quartet a few years ago I thoroughly enjoyed the will they, won’t they atmosphere. Aside from Gaudy Night (1935), I feel that the detective element of these novels was still strong and as a young woman I liked seeing Harriet carve out a space for herself in the world, maturing as she does so because it was something I can identify with.
3) H. C. Bailey – Christie enjoys Mr Fortune’s detective method, likening it to ‘the method of the knife, ruthless and incisive’. Though like others, Christie suggests Mr Fortune is best in his short story form rather than in novels. Bailey is one of the Golden Age authors I think has have not fared well over time and is not an author I have ever liked. I find Bailey’s narrative style rather slow and overly descriptive. But perhaps there are some readers of this post who would champion Bailey?
4) John Dickson Carr – A writer Christie called ‘a master magician… the supreme conjuror, the King of the Art of Misdirection’ in reference to his abilities with creating ‘impossible situation’ plots and she enjoyed the fantastical quality his stories have. She even describes Carr as a ‘male Scheherazade’ (The storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights), so good does she think his story telling skills are. Though antithetical to Allingham, Christie feels Carr’s characters are ‘not particularly good’. Between Dr Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, Christie preferred the latter. I don’t feel I have read sufficient Carr to comment something I plan to remedy in coming weeks), though from what I’ve read I can vouch for the fantastical element.
5) Ngaio Marsh – Christie describes her rather unenthusiastically in comparison to Carr saying she is ‘another deservedly popular detective writer.’ Praise which seems rather impersonal, in comparison to the other writers she has discussed. Although Christie does pick out Surfeit of Lampreys (1941) (a novel I also really enjoyed), Death in Ecstasy (1936) and Artists in Crime (1938) as three novels of merit. From what I have read on other people’s blogs it seems Marsh’s reputation is not surviving so well with common complaints being that once the murder has been committed the investigations are usually not that interesting. This is an idea I am increasingly becoming aligned with, which is a shame as Marsh so often creates interesting set ups to begin with and has an eye for creating characters.
6) Anthony Berkeley – ‘Detection and crime at its wittiest – all his stories are amusing, intriguing, and he is the master of the final twist.’ All things I entirely agree with, with Trial and Error (1937) and The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) being favourites of mine. Although I think Berkeley’s satire and ability to create twists is perhaps more strongly seen in his works published under the name Francis Iles such as Malice Aforethought (1931) and Before the Fact (1932).
Freeman Wills Crofts, Michael Innes, John Rode and Gladys Mitchell are also briefly singled out as other ‘good detective writers’. Though I fear (based on my reading of other blogs) there will be some readers of this post who will disagree with these final four, especially Innes and Mitchell who can be quite divisive. I myself probably wouldn’t include Crofts, finding Inspector French’s methods very painful to read. By and large I would agree with Christie’s choices such as her inclusion of Allingham, Sayers, Carr and Berkeley. Although for me personally I would question her choice of Bailey and would probably have swapped him for Mitchell, out of the other authors she mentions.
What do you make of Christie’s choices? Is there anyone you feel has been (unjustly) left out? Do you think writers such as Nicholas Blake, Edmund Crispin, Cyril Hare, Mavis Doriel Hay or Alan Melville deserved a mention?
Christie’s article ends by returning to her own work highlighting how the tightness of detective fiction plots ‘is good for ones thought processes,’ but that as the years have progressed she has looked beyond the construction element of detective stories and has ‘become more interested… in the preliminaries of crime – the interplay of characters, the deep smouldering resentments, dissatisfactions that do not always come to the surface but which may suddenly explode into violence.’ I think this was certainly the case with Five Little Pigs (1942) and Towards Zero (1944), two novels she had written in years recent to the article, with the psychology of her characters, being a larger component. Though I still feel plots and creating twists and surprises was still a large part of Christie’s writing.
Finally, Christie’s advice to young writers? ‘Be very careful what central character you create – you may have him with you for a very long time!’ Poor Poirot! She really didn’t like him did she?
Knight, Stephen. (2003). The Golden Age. In: Priestman, M. The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 77-94.