This month the Tuesday Night Bloggers are looking at detective and mystery novels with a historical twist, be they purposefully set historical mysteries such as those by Ellis Peter or Michael Jecks or mystery novels which from the modern readers’ point of view can be read for the social or cultural history within them. They could even be detective novels which grapple with the pursuit of studying history itself, so followers of the Tuesday Night Bloggers have certainly got a variety of posts in store this month. I decided to kick off the month by looking at one of my favourite golden age authors, Agatha Christie, as something which impresses me with her body of work is the varied ways history is involved in it. Of course there is her famous historical novel, Death Comes as the End (1944), whose setting I think gives an interesting twist to and variation of the country house murder mystery.
Christie’s well-known and well-documented interest in archaeology played a significant part in how history and the study of it appears in her work. Archaeological digs and sites of interest are crucial backdrops to Christie’s novels Murder in Mesopotamia (1936), Appointment with Death (1938) and They Came to Baghdad (1951) and in the case of the first novel Christie dedicated it to her ‘many archaeological friends in Iraq and Syria,’ who some of the characters were partially based on. Unearthing the past in these books can also lead to darker human vices being unearthed as well. In Murder in Mesopotamia a subplot to the book is the theft of certain antiquities which were being uncovered at the dig, whilst in ‘The Pearl of Price’ (1934) (a Parker Pyne Investigates story), it could be said that a love of archaeology leads to one person committing a crime. Additionally in this story the reference to a group of ancient peoples is used effectively by Christie to comment on contemporary Western attitudes to the East. ‘The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb’ also shows how a criminal can use history to their own advantage, using stories of ancient curses as a smokescreen for a criminal plot.
But Christie’s use and referencing of history also comes from more modern times with references to real life crimes (see Murder on the Orient Express (1934)) and both the world wars crop up from time to time. In The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), we are of course aware Poirot is one of the Belgian refugees and in ‘The Hound of Death’ (1933) a character references the World War One miracle story, The Angel of Mons. The First World War also has an intrinsic role in The Secret Adversary (1922), when a man gives a woman important papers on the sinking Lusitania, believing she has a greater chance of survival. The central sleuths, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford are not without their own war experiences, with Tommy appearing in this story as a demobbed soldier and Tuppence an ex-war volunteer. They also live through the Second World War in N or M? (1941), a novel which reflects contemporary anxieties over fifth columnists and also the effects war was having on the home front.
Social and cultural history can also be found in Christie’s stories as a modern day reader. In particular I think her Miss Marple novels are strongest at capturing the social changes that were happening. Sometimes this is noticeable in small changes such as with home help, moving from Downtown Abbey style maids to daily help who come once or twice a week. Whilst at other times the changes are starker such as in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (1962), where the structure, buildings and demographic of St Mary Mead goes under considerable change. I think At Bertram’s Hotel (1965), which although does not have the best mystery is a moving story nonetheless, as we see Miss Marple return to the hotel she went to in her youth, only to see that you can’t turn back the clocks and I like how this personalises the social changes that are happening. Some of the Poirot novels though do equally incorporate social change, especially After the Funeral (1953), which shows the country house way of life in decline.
Finally I also think the effect of people’s individual and family histories is another way history features in Christie’s work. This is particularly seen in Christie’s retrospective mysteries such as Five Little Pigs (1942), Ordeal By Innocence (1958), By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968), Nemesis (1971), Elephants Can Remember (1972) and Sleeping Murder (1976). These mysteries aren’t just interesting because the detective has to solve a cold case, but I think what also makes them interesting is how events in the past have effected and shaped the characters in the novel individually and collectively. In terms of individual effects, Five Little Pigs has some of the starker examples, especially if you compare the “another woman” character, Elsa Greer with Caroline Crale’s younger sister. When it comes to collective character effect I think Sleeping Murder and Ordeal by Innocence are the best examples. But I would also argue that this feature of individual and family history is not exclusive to these retrospective mysteries. Murder on the Orient Express is a good example of this as SPOILER the victim’s murderous history catches up with them in the story and their killers have a shared pain and history which motivates their crime. END OF SPOILER. Furthermore, Past crimes, believed to be old history by their perpetrators, also come back to haunt the present in novels such as And Then There Were None (1939) and Mrs McGinty’s Dead (1952). What I particularly like about the first example is how the crimes of the characters’ past are revealed to us. Initially we are told about them through a gramophone record but then the characters themselves discuss their crimes, often beginning by trying to deny them or soften them, but then finally confessing to the truth. Such dark histories have a dramatic effect on the characters in the tense nightmarish situation they are trapped in. Shared histories also comes up in novels such as The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, with devastating effect and a similar case could be made for Murder in Mesopotamia and in Sparkling Cyanide where history quite literally repeats itself. Towards Zero (1944) also deserves a mention as its’ structure is used to show in full the complete history of a crime.
Suffice to say I think in Christie’s work, whether it is in her Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Beresford or non-serial novels, there is one universal truth which can be said to apply to them and that is that ‘we are made by history’ (Martin Luther King). Many of her characters try to ignore or deny this truth, even to the extent of committing crimes, but it a truth arguably reasserted by Christie’s sleuths in their expositions of the crimes they have investigated.