The Ageless Agatha Christie: Essays on the Mysteries and the Legacy (2016) edited by J. C. Bernthal

Source: Review Copy (McFarland & Company Inc.)

The Ageless Agatha Christie

I was excited to get my hands on this essay collection, which is the ‘first major scholarly collection of essays on Christie in English.’ Moreover, something which definitely appealed to me in the introduction written by the editor, Bernthal was that this would be a study of Christie’s work where the contributors do not feel the need to apologise for their love of Christie. This is a marked change from earlier Christie criticisms and Bernthal looks at the history of Christie studies and why it took so long for her work to be taken seriously and to not be looked down upon due to its middlebrow status. Another key aspect of this collection which appealed to me was that the essays included would be focusing on Christie’s less well known texts. Below are summaries of essays included and my own thoughts on them:

Agatha Christie in Dialogue with To the Lighthouse: The Modernist Artist by Merja Makinen

Makinen starts off this collection by looking at the influence modernism had on Christie’s To the Lighthousework, in particular the texts of Virginia Woolf and how both authors respond to the issue of career vs. marriage which women especially struggled with at the time of the authors were writing. The two texts being compared are Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927) and Christie’s The Hollow (1946), which both feature ‘the modernist female artist.’ Makinen makes the interesting argument that The Hollow is writing back toThe Hollow Woolf’s earlier novel, revising the solution it projects for the female artist – namely that they can either have marriage or their artist career. But with Henrietta in The Hollow, there is the suggestion that the female artist doesn’t have to forgo her career to have a relationship, though this relationship may not lead to marriage or family. The essay in full looks at six themes which intersect these two novels as well as in Christie’s Giant’s Bread (1930).

Due to past experiences on reading articles related to modernism I was worried that the essay would be a hard one to read and comprehend but this is not the case with Makinen, who strikes the right balance giving the reader an engaging and enjoyable argument to read which concisely and clearly includes more theoretical information on modernism. I definitely enjoyed this piece as I had not considered connections between Christie and modernism, even though her works do sometimes refer to writers such as T. S. Eliot. A question this piece sparked inside me was what links could be made between Makinen’s argument and Christie’s own life.

Giant's Bread

England’s Pockets: Objects of Anxiety in Christie’s Post-War Novels by Rebecca Mills

The Moving Finger

The title of this essay definitely intrigued me and in her piece Mills looks at the changing significance of objects in Christie’s novels as her writing career progressed. Objects are not just items in a crime scene but reflect social change. Mills examines objects in The Moving Finger (1943), After the Funeral (1953) and The Pale Horse (1961). She argues that objects in earlier novels ‘anchor her work in Christie’s present,’ whilst objects in Christie’s post WW2 novels, when objects became more mass produced, are used for dislocating the novels from the time they are set in. The dangers of looking back and being too nostalgic for the past is also looked at in regards to After the Funeral.

After the Funeral

This was another interesting and thought provoking piece for me as going into it I could immediately see the relevance of the argument to The Pale Horse, but I was unsure of the other two texts. However, Mill’s argument is a convincing one and I can see how objects are also significant in The Moving Finger and After the Funeral. I think there is only one part of the piece which I felt was a stretch too far and that was when Mills argued that in The Pale Horse, objects embody evil and danger to the extent that ‘death and murder are commodified’ and that ‘the real evil is capitalism’. Whilst I agree that murder can be read as ‘commodified’ in the novel I think it is a bit of push to suggest that capitalism is being vilified here.

The Pale Horse

Queer Girls, Bad Girls, Dead Girls: Post-War Culture and the Modern Girl by Sarah Bernstein

Bernstein’s chapter looks at children in Christie’s post-war narratives, young girls in Crooked Houseparticular, who often end up dead or dangerous and as a demographic are seen as a cause for ‘anxiety’. The texts she analyses are Crooked House (1949), Dead Man’s Folly and Hallowe’en Party (1969). Bernstein’s also historicises her piece linking it to post WW2 culture where studies on juvenile crime were beginning to show that broken homes were a significant contributory factor. She also suggests that during the mid-20th Dead Man's Follycentury the upbringing of girls was seen as of great importance due to the role they would play in producing the nation’s future generation. In the three Christie texts mentioned above, Bernstein looks at the three central adolescent girl characters who are clearly outside of the social norms, being fascinated by the gory, enjoying spying and watching others to gain secret knowledge, yet all having unpleasant ends. It was interesting to see how other characters in the novels perceive these girls alternating between sympathy and judgement.

Crooked House is one of my favourite Christie novels so it was enjoyable to read about it in this way but for me I felt like there was too much going on in this essay. This is exhibited Hallowe'en Partyby the fact that there is a lot of secondary criticism included, where its’ meaning and/or relevance is not necessarily easy to grasp and this meant holding onto the main argument throughout the piece was tricky for me. Furthermore, I think the beginning of the piece would have been stronger if there had been less theoretical information and Bernstein had instead begun analysing the texts sooner. Additionally, the conclusion of the piece predominantly looks at Crooked House (which was great for me due to my Christie preferences) and sums up Bernstein’s ideas well, clarifying a number of things. I just think it would have been better if the other novels received the same treatment.

“With Practised Eyes”: Feminine Identity in The Mysterious Mr Quin by Charlotte Beyer

The Mysterious Mr Quin

Beyer’s piece looks at Mr Satterthwaite in the Mr Quin short stories and how Christie tackles the concepts of ageing and masculinity through Mr Satterthwaite. A provocative idea Beyer suggests is that Satterthwaite’s gender has ‘a more fluid position’. Beyer also looks at how Christie in these short stories explores ‘some problematic stereotypes associated with female identity’. Above all Beyer asserts the experimental nature of the Mr Quin stories, a notion which intrigued me and she analyses three of the Mr Quin stories called ‘The Face of Helen,’ ‘The Bird with the Broken Wing’ and ‘The World’s End’. Cultural anxiety surrounding female power and female beauty is analysed in the first of these stories and Satterthwaite is shown in an ambiguous role. Although he is a man, his age bars him from the romance plot, making him a non-threatening character who the female protagonist can confide in. In the second of these stories, Beyer turns her attention to female trauma, though very little is said about Satterthwaite. The final story is analysed for its representation of the female artist, gender politics and the issue of class. Satterthwaite is distinguished from other characters by his more ‘open minded’ approach to modernist artists and he is said to ‘see beyond restrictive gender codes.’

This piece has definitely refuelled my interest in the Mr Quin stories and their experimental nature. I think Beyer’s exploration of the difficulties women were facing at the time is strong, detailed and convincing and Satterthwaite is shown to have an unconventional attitude to these issues. However, I think the fluidity of Satterthwaite’s gender is insufficiently explored in the body of the essay, although focused on in the conclusion and that Beyer could have linked the two main areas she was examining more strongly in her introduction.

J. C. Bernthal “The Sumptuous and the Alluring”: Poirot’s Women, Dragged Up and Dressed Down

Bernthal provides a queer reading of Christie’s work, focusing more on specific characters and the David Suchet TV adaptation, as opposed to specific novels. In particular Bernthal examines the key women which surround Poirot, Countess Rossakoff, Ariadne Oliver and Miss Lemon. I found his idea that Countess Rossakoff is a parody of Holmes’ Irene Adler Countess Rossakoffinteresting and that her femininity is over the top due to the more feminine traits of Poirot, such as his attention to domestic details. Overall he sees Poirot as ‘an “antiheroic feminised” critique of “male heroism”’ and I enjoyed the further parallels and divergences he points out between Poirot and Holmes and Captain Hastings and Watson. One point in particular Bernthal makes is that in the Suchet adaptations of the Poirot novels, Poirot is made more overtly heterosexual. I am undecided as to how far I agree with this idea, though I now have even more reason to crack open my Poirot boxset. One area of the essay which I think needed to be linked more strongly to the original argument and developed further was the section on Miss Lemon which briefly looks at how Poirot perceives his secretary and how she is portrayed as machine-like.

Meg Boulton “The Encyclopaedic Palace of the World”: Miss Lemon’s Filing System as Cabinet of Curiosities and the Repository of Human Knowledge in Agatha Christie’s Poirot

I think this is a shot of Miss Lemon's Filing Systtem

I think this is a shot of Miss Lemon’s Filing Systtem

Boulton’s piece looks at the significance of Miss Lemon’s filing system, noting its’ mentions in the novels (which were interesting), but mainly focusing on its role in the David Suchet series. I enjoyed Boulton’s idea of linking Miss Lemon’s filing system to curiosity cabinets, but I remain unconvinced by the asserted importance of the filing system in the TV adaptation. In particular, no doubt based on my own viewing experiences, I can’t really see how the filing system is ‘the key to how the modern viewer engages with the presentation of Christie’s cases and narratives as a visual construct.’ I won’t dispute that the filing system is visible a lot in the early David Suchet adaptations, but I think it is a stretch to see it as an ‘extra character.’ Although, I did find Boulton’s idea of the filing system representing the past and future of Poirot’s cases compelling, with the system recording all of Poirot’s past cases but also giving him information to use in his future ones.

Michelle M. Kazmer “One must actually take facts as they are”: Information Value and Information Behaviour in the Miss Marple Novels

Kazmer’s piece looks at the Miss Marple stories from an Information Science perspective, examining how information is valued and spread in the novels. To do this Kazmer utilises Information World Theory, honing in on three sections: Access to information (How Miss Marple becomes involved in cases), Tactics (How she elicits information from others and how she controls what information she gives in return) and Value (How Miss Marple convinces others of the value of her information and her questioning of the information she receives from others).

Miss Marple

Initially I felt a little daunted by the theoretical information posed, but Kazmer’s writing style soon dissipated this. Some of the ideas she presents were already familiar to me from reading other works on Christie such as Miss Marple’s use of ‘self-devaluating language,’ which Mezei (2007) looks at, but it was interesting to apply these ideas to the Information World Theory framework. This is a framework I found especially thought provoking and I think it would be interesting to apply it to other detectives. Would Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley for example access information differently due to her more professional status? Additionally I think this framework could be combined with gender theories and frameworks, as I think if you compared male and female detectives they would perhaps access information in different ways, use different tactics and value information differently to an extent.

And Then There Were Many: Agatha Christie in Hungarian Translation by Brigitta Hudácskó

Hudácskó’s section looks at Christie in translation in Hungary and I found it really interesting to read about the issues translators had translating Christie into Hungarian. These issues are not just linguistic ones such as the difficulty of reflecting dialects and accents into Hungarian, as social and political issues have also affected Hungarian translations of Christie. One key factor is USSR control of Hungary and Hudácskó writes well about the effects this control had on Hungarian publishing and translation work. Hudácskó’s focuses on three Hungarian translations of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938) and it is interesting that in one of them the translator added the additional factor of madness to the killer’s motives, thus reducing his anti-hero, anti-establishment status. This was a highly enjoyable piece to read and I was sad when it ended, as I could have kept on reading for many more pages.

I was unable to find a book cover for a Hungarian version of Hercule Poirot's Christmas, but this is a Hungarian one for Three Blind Mice

I was unable to find a book cover for a Hungarian version of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, but this is a Hungarian one for Three Blind Mice

Mother of Invention: Agatha Christie, the Middlebrow Detective Novel and Kerry Greenwood’s Postcolonial Tribute Series by Jilly Lippmann

Flying too High Kerry Greenwood

Lippmann explores Christie’s work through Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series, in particular looking at the middlebrow status of both author’s work and how Greenwood’s novels provide a postcolonial reading of Christie’s work. I was definitely intrigued by this premise as although I haven’t read any of Greenwood’s novels I have watched the TV adaptation. Lippmann’s piece begins by looking at how Greenwood ‘revises’ the class elitism found in Christie’s work, comparing how Fisher treats her employee Dot to how Poirot treats Hastings. Lippmann also makes parallels between Christie’s Tuppence Beresford and Greenwood’s Fisher, as well as pointing out some of the explicit and implicit references Greenwood makes to Christie, including in one novel having an elderly amateur sleuth named Mary Mead. However, I do wonder whether the focus in the second half of the piece was more on Greenwood as opposed to Christie’s own work, looking at how Fisher is a ‘fantasy figure,’ who is used by Greenwood to ‘revise an era of history,’ where sexism and racism were prevalent. Not that I didn’t find this interesting of course especially when Lippmann links Greenwood’s middlebrow status to her midway position between ‘colonial and colonising writing’. Lippmann also gave me food for thought when she looks at the status middlebrow novels and how they are undervalued due to being linked to female writers, especially in the context of Australian literature. Lippmann brings up a number of engaging and interesting ideas and I think anyone reading this will come away with something to mull over.

Autobiography in Agatha (1979) “An imaginary solution to an authentic mystery” by Sarah Street

Street’s essay looks at Kathleen Tynan’s novel Agatha: The Agatha Christie Mystery Agatha Novel(1978), which provides one solution as to what Christie was doing during her 11 day disappearance in 1926 and how this novel was transferred toAgatha 1979 the screen in the 1979 film, Agatha which starred Dustin Hoffman and Vanessa Redgrave. This was an area I knew nothing about and I found the human angle very interesting in this piece, especially the role Hoffman had in the film and its production, having quite an antagonistic relationship with other production members such as Jim Clark due to all the reshoots and changes he wanted made.

Editorial: Fans have the final word by J. C. Bernthal

I loved how the collection ended with the fans of Christie as it reflects how popular a writer she is and I liked the personal touch it gave, as different fans revealed their first experiences with the author and why they like the books and the reason for Christie’s success. I was also definitely impressed by how one fan has an Agatha Christie library which contains 5700 books, is stilling growing, including Christie novels in 55 languages!

Final Thoughts

Based on my experience of reading essay collections I would definitely recommend this one as the arguments posed are thought provoking and engage with Christie in a new way. Moreover, the range covered here also means that there will be something of interest for every Christie fan and has definitely given me a mountain of things to think about and has also given me a serious itch to re-read Christie’s work. Additionally, the language used in this collection in comparison to some academic essay collections is on the whole accessible, opening the work to those outside of the academic community. It is hard to pick favourites, but I think Makinen’s, Kazemer’s and Hudácskó’s essays were the ones that I enjoyed the most.

Rating: 4.5/5

 

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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12 Responses to The Ageless Agatha Christie: Essays on the Mysteries and the Legacy (2016) edited by J. C. Bernthal

  1. joe allegretti says:

    My experience is that McFarland books can be pricey but this one sure sounds good.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. JFW says:

    Some of the essays seem quite edgy, and have titles that sit well with current literary theory… I recall during my time at university that writing on Agatha Christie as part of an English degree was frowned upon. Perhaps I should send a copy of this collection to some of my tutors!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes I like how the writers of this collection have really tried to come at Christie from different angles and aren’t afraid to suggest something different or radical. Thankfully when I did my degree a few years ago writing about Christie was fine, as I got to write about Miss Marple, Mrs Bradley and Miss Pym for my dissertation.

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      • JFW says:

        Writing on Miss Marple and Mrs Bradley must have made for some interesting juxtapositions… Then again, I’ve only read ‘Death at the Opera’, where Mrs Bradley was meant to be already somewhat more subdued than she normally would be.

        Liked by 1 person

      • You are right there are a number of differences between the two detectives especially in their response to gender and age stereotypes, which gave me a lot to talk about. Although with both of them despite executing justice differently at times, they give the reader a reassurance that justice regardless of its form, will take place and that the innocent won’t suffer. If you are interested in reading more Mitchell I would recommend her debut appearance, Speedy Death or The Saltmarsh Murders. Mitchell is not one of my most favourite authors as her quality is hugely variable but these two early novels are the strongest and most comprehensible out of the 13 I have read and I think they do show Mitchell at her best.

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  3. Pingback: Book of the Month: March 2016 | crossexaminingcrime

  4. ravenking81 says:

    Sounds like a worthy read. As someone who started reading Christie in Hungarian I’m particularly intrigued by Hudácskó’s essay. Christie is very popular in Hungary, but some older translations of her work were not very good. “The Secret Of Chimneys” for example was badly butchered in its first translation, because originally (at least as far as I understand) the villain was a Hungarian count, so they changed his nationality and turned the plot into a bit of a mess. I remember feeling slightly confused when reading that novel, I might have to pick up the original one day.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Bev Hankins says:

    Sounds like a very interesting collection. The essay that struck the most immediate chord with me (from your write-up) is the one on Christie and Kerry Greenwood. Having read the Phryne Fisher mysteries, I have to say that connecting her with Agatha Christie never occurred to me–other than period setting. I agree that Phryne is a bit of of a fantasy figure–but I consider her a “grownup’s Nancy Drew.” She can do all the things just like Nancy–fly an airplane, drive like a demon, and hold her own in a man’s world; is fabulously beautiful and wealthy; and has an extremely active sex life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes the joining of these two writers was a new idea to me, but I think Lippmann makes a strong argument for doing so. I think you are on to something with Phryne being a grown up Nancy Drew – you should definitely write a piece about it!

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  6. Pingback: Christie in Translation: Your Experiences | crossexaminingcrime

  7. Pingback: Book of the Month (December 2016) and Final Round Up | crossexaminingcrime

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