This was a surprise find on my latest wanderings around my local charity shops and since it involved Agatha Christie and was inexpensive I couldn’t resist adding it to my lit crit section at home. From the outset I will say there isn’t any startling analysis and it is even a bit too descriptive and biographical in parts. However, I will also say that it isn’t a complete write off and in fact I found out some interesting nuggets of information that I didn’t know and also looking at the opinions raised by Ramsey was interesting in regards to how opinions have evolved and changed since the 1960s in regards to Christie and crime fiction generally. His predictions for the future of Christie and crime fiction are also engaging, some being very astute, whilst others fall widely of the mark.
My reading of this book began with a wry smile as Ramsey commences by saying that ‘as yet, very little scholarship has been done on the detective story as a literary form’. How times have changed in the last 50 years! Ramsey’s introductory chapter also touches on the characters in detective fiction and immediately this was a subject I disagreed with him on. Citing Edmund Wilson, Ramsey suggests that detective fiction characters can be regarded as ‘two-dimensional,’ are ‘caricatures’ and that ‘it is difficult if not impossible to have a detective story in which the reader can identify with any of the characters’. I think in the best detective fiction this is not the case, as based on my latest reading I would say both Harriet Rutland and Annie Haynes create characters which are three dimensional and are not mere caricatures. The same can be said for Christie and although she does use types I wouldn’t say we are unable to identify with any of them and contrary to Ramsey’s opinion, many of them are ‘unruffled by the excitement of murder’. Another quietly amusing moment in the introduction is when Ramsey suggests that Ian Fleming’s reliance on technology will make his books go out of date very quickly and therefore not stay the course of time. With the latest Bond movie out and Fleming novels still remaining on bookshop shelves, I think Ramsey might have got this a little wrong.
Chapter 2 gives a brief survey of Christie’s career, none of which was unfamiliar to me. Although I did find out that Christie never actually said, ‘An archaeologist is the best husband a woman can have. The older she gets the more interested he is in her’ and that in reference to herself and writing a Christie for Christmas she called herself a ‘sausage machine’. The third chapter concerns mystery writers as social historians and it can be summarised rather succinctly with the idea that Christie indicates social change in her novels a bit and gives interesting vignettes of middle class life at the time she was writing. Again nothing new there. The most interesting part was Somerset Maugham’s prediction that in the future people would study detective novels at college and universities and that they would be the basis for PhD topics, with eager researchers going to great lengths to analyse and discover more about writers of the genre. And I think Maugham’s prediction has definitely come true.
Devices used by Christie is the focus of the next chapter and interestingly at the time of writing Ramsey says that the time of the Watson figure has ended and that of including maps. In a way I can see where he is coming from in regards to the Watson figure which can be a burdensome component in a narrative, however, I think especially with the revival of Golden Age detective fiction today, the inclusion of maps and other such details is not so out of favour as he purports. Ramsey also interestingly links Towards Zero, The Mirror Crack’d and A Caribbean Mystery through the technique of a central character in each of these books seeing something shocking when they look over someone’s shoulder and this becomes pivotal to the subsequent events of the books. Furthermore the myth that Christie always picks the least likely suspect is debunked and her use of nursery rhymes is briefly examined and I discovered that Crooked House is actually based on an actual rhyme. In addition, Ramsey also highlights links between Christie’s novels and the work of G. K. Chesterton, which was something I hadn’t spotted before. For example a similar technique is deployed in both Christie’s The Big Four and Chesterton’s ‘The Invisible Man’ and The A. B. C. Murders by Christie and ‘The Blue Cross’ by Chesterton also have structural parallels. (To prevent spoiling either mystery I’ll say no more).
Background information to Christie’s play The Mouse Trap was also interesting to read about and I loved watching it last year, feeling especially chuffed that I guessed the killer in the interval.
In an interview with Christie, Ramsey found out that the play was ‘in fact written to supply the play Hamlet had in mind but never got around to seeing performed in full:
|KING CLAUDIUS:||What do you call the play?|
Not sure if that is entirely true or whether it is something Christie has added on retrospectively, but I’d like to think it was. Something I found rather surprising was Christie’s interest in science fiction, though Ramsey suggests that this interest was diluted down in her work through the inclusion of spiritualism and the supernatural such as in The Mysterious Mr Quin. I’m not entirely sure I agree but it’s certainly food for thought and requires some further consideration and re-reading.
It is not surprising though that there are two chapters devoted to Christie’s main sleuths, Poirot and Miss Marple, though as I stated earlier, there is no mind blowing analysis to be expected. The main point I took away from the chapter on Poirot was that Ramsey notes that the detective novel has evolved so that the entrance of the series’ detective is delayed as long as possible, which allows younger characters to do some leg work and for the older sleuth to do some true armchair detecting. Christie seems to agree with this saying that ‘you hold off Poirot as long as you can.’ Now this is something I definitely disagree with because as reader I often find it annoying when a detective I like doesn’t turn up until the end of the book to suddenly whip the out the solution the other characters couldn’t see in the previous 180 odd pages. It also wasn’t as new as Ramsey was implying as Christie had done this in The Moving Finger in the 1940s. The chapter on Miss Marple seems unfairly short and the only point of interest was Ramsey’s observation that in At Bertram’s Hotel, the reader gets to see Miss Marple’s thoughts more than in some of the earlier novels. Chapter 7 focuses on The A. B. C. Murders in detail and finally in Chapter 8 I thought it was quite sweet that Ramsey was so worried that the poor Rutherford adaptations of Christie’s work would mean further adaptations wouldn’t be done. Of course this has not been the case and there have been many good and bad adaptations since.
Overall, this book will probably not knock your socks off or radically alter your views on Christie, but it was written in an easy to read style and was still a thought provoking hour’s read in that I could see how opinions have changed on Christie and Golden Age crime fiction generally.