Ever keen to try something new, the Tuesday Night Bloggers have gone for a different type of theme this month: the letter A. Be it a book title, author, country or a more abstract theme; it all goes, as long as it begins with the letter A. Moira at the blog, Clothes in Books, is collecting the posts this month so remember to check out her blog.
Spoiler Warning: I strongly urge readers who have not read the following books by Christie to skip the first two paragraphs immediately following the video clip: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The Mystery of the Blue Train, Evil Under the Sun, The Sittaford Mystery, Lord Edgware Dies, Three Act Tragedy, Peril at End House, A Murder is Announced, The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, Death on the Nile and The Mysterious Affair at Styles.
For my third “A” theme I decided to look at that most crucial of mystery fiction components, the alibi. Alibi which is Latin for “elsewhere,” and entered into the British Legal system in its noun form in the 18th century. Commentators such as T. R. Steiner (1999) have proposed that alibis had their heyday in golden age of detective fiction, with authors during this time constructing the most elaborate of alibis for their villains. Moreover, mystery author, Freeman Wills Crofts, even became famous for how his mystery novels focused on Inspector French’s unravelling of the most fiendish of supposedly unbreakable alibis. Quite a number of these alibis in Croft’s work and others, such as Dorothy L. Sayers’ Five Red Herrings (1931) involved the use of or the suggestion of use of public transport, be it planes, trains, boats or buses. In fact the involvement of public transport in classic mystery fiction even made the basis for one of the sketches created by Monty Python.
Alibis are important in ascertaining whether or not a suspect had the opportunity to commit a crime and therefore detectives are always keen to establish them. But in order for the guilty party to not seem screamingly obvious in a mystery novel, the writer often needs to give their criminal or criminals an alibi which at first glance seems sufficient. It is only later on that the detective reveals the falseness of their alibi. Steiner suggests three main ways a writer can create such an alibi, which are to manipulate either ‘time, place [… or] identity’ (Steiner, 1999: 12). One author of the golden age, who was quite an expert at such manipulations was Agatha Christie. A quick survey of her work firstly shows a strong preference for manipulating her alibis in terms of time, with many of her fictional killers distorting the time the crime took place. For instance in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) and The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928), technology and disguise are adopted by the murderers to make it seem like their victims were alive when actually they were already dead. Whereas in Evil Under the Sun (1941), disguise and timepiece manipulation is used in order to make the murder appeared to have occurred earlier. Although Christie plays around with time a lot in her books, she is still able to produce a new and interesting variations with it, such as in The Sittaford Mystery (1931), where a killer initially seems to have an alibi due to the perceived time it must have taken them to journey a long way through snow.
I would also say Christie was very adept on the whole at creating alibis for her guilty parties through her deceptive use of identity. Yes there are a couple of weaker entries such as Lord Edgware Dies (1933) and Three Act Tragedy (1934) that readers have often been able to guess quite easily, but there have also been some awfully sneaky ones. In particular I think Christie has been at her most sneaky in this area when she has made her killers look like the intended victims. What better alibi could you have than being the presumed target? Classic examples of this by Christie can be found in Peril at End House (1932), A Murder is Announced (1950) and The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (1962). I think Christie also manipulates identities and alibis through her use of having criminals working together, yet concealing their collaboration; be it through marital discord in Evil Under the Sun, jealousy and revenge in Death on the Nile (1937) or just plain animosity in The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920). By hiding these alliances Christie can fabricate alibis, as for example in Death on the Nile, because everyone assumes that Simon Doyle dislikes Jacqueline de Bellefort, no one thinks to question the wound she is supposed to have given, which in turn shows him to be incapable of having committed the murder of his wife. Very sneaky indeed…
Though I think my favourite alibi from Christie is found in And Then There Were None (1939), not only for its ingeniousness, but also for how convincingly she pulls it off. No hints need be given as to which alibi I am thinking of…
It was almost saddening when I read the end of Steiner’s piece which says that:
‘Many crimes in the period of supersonic travel and instant communication make alibis insignificant or irrelevant. The criminals are often multiple and nearly impossible to trace […] The time and space that once governed “opportunity” have been undermined; Golden Age fantasies of murder at a distance are realised everyday through letter bombs and electronic triggers. No alibis are offered, and none would serve’ (Steiner, 1999: 12-13).
In a way I can see how this is true with crimes in modern mystery fiction and real life being executed in ways which make alibis redundant. Yet is the alibi obsolete? Has it lost as much importance as Steiner implies? I don’t have any firm answers myself at the moment, more pondering will have to ensue, but I would love to hear what others think on the development or extinction of alibis in mystery fiction.
Steiner, T. R., ‘Alibi’ in The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing (1999), ed. By Herbert, R., pp. 12-13.