Last week, the non-fiction bug struck me again, which led to today’s review. I sometimes wonder if I am drawn more to non-fiction when I am less well, a case of not needing to become emotionally invested in the reading. With a title like that, this was a hard book to resist buying, pure click bait material, but was it a wise purchase or not? Read on to find out…
I thought Jeremy Black started on an interesting note in his preface, raising two points I thought worth mentioning. The first is to do with the name Poirot, which today, Black argues, conjurors ‘up a world of order and morality, the clarity of reason in the search for safety from a renewed stability.’ The David Suchet adaptations are a considerable factor in contributing to this impression and Black acknowledges that they have been ‘a comfort blanket for very many.’ There is nothing wrong with that, a soothing Poirot watch on a difficult day can be relaxing activity, but Black contrasts this suggestion of ease, with the original books. He posits that ‘there was little such ease in the novels which were, at once, more complex and insightful than some lazy modern critics might suggest, but also far more interesting than the television made them.’ I found this an interesting perspective on the TV adaptations.
Recently on Twitter, someone asked whether Christie’s books could be classed as historical mysteries. My own opinion is that they’re not, as Christie, with the odd exception, set her stories in her own present day, which now has the unplanned legacy of providing us with snapshots of 20th century life. Jeremy Black keys into this idea, in his preface, when he writes:
‘Christie’s world is one that is the usual fictional melange of fact and invention. Whereas science fiction rewards the latter and the detachment from the factual grounding of the present, detective fiction is very different. It grounds its imagination in the understanding, by writer and reader alike, of the facts and conventions of the world.’
My experience with science fiction is somewhat limited, so I will leave it to keener fans of that genre to comment on the accuracy of this depiction of sci-fi literature. However, I think it is true that writers like Christie ‘ground’ their stories with ‘the facts and convention of the world,’ although this grounding does have some class and social boundaries, in my opinion. Agatha Christie mysteries, for example, do not reflect the difficulties experienced by the Jarrow Marchers, (and before anyone asks, I am not saying that they should have either!)
Black’s first chapter, an introduction, is concerned with ‘the writer as moralist.’ But before that he delivers the obligated opening which discusses the history of the genre and parts of Christie’s life. I say obligated, as it does seem like every book on Christie or mystery fiction includes this type of beginning. I can see why it would be regarded as useful, but it does mean that introductions can become quite samey for those already cognisant with the material.
However, I think it is to the writer’s credit that he manages to include some information off the beaten track. He adopts Dorothy L. Sayers’ approach in looking at how ‘novels in which detection plays a role have a longer genesis’ than the 19th century, ‘as even more do stories about crime and detection.’ Texts such as Beowulf and The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) are included in this section and in some ways, I wish it could have been longer. Furthermore, Black raises the issue that there are some difficulties with the established narrative of the mystery genre, as ‘in practice, the Golden Age writers were far from having the limitations and conceits that harsh critics so readily discern in what they do not like.’
Moving back to more familiar territory, the author then discusses the influence of gothic novels, the interest newspapers had in crime and the way Golden Age detective fiction writers depicted this interest in their books. The portrayal could be quite scathing, and Black does a good job of tracking examples through Christie’s novels and short stories. I felt this section of the first chapter tied into the work previously done by Judith Flanders in The Invention of Murder (2011) and in Victoria Stewart’s Crime Writing in Interwar Britain (2017).
More scene setting follows, with the Black moving on to the ‘xenophobic dimension in the press reporting of crime with particular attention to crimes by, or allegedly by, foreigners, a theme matched in much popular fiction.’ I think the last clause of this statement is a bit too broad to be accurate. The writer adds that:
‘Detective novels often contrasted rugged British heroes with foreign residents in London, the latter generally presented in terms of supposedly undesirable physical characteristics, such as shifty looks and yellowish skin. The manly heroes relied on their fists, and their devious opponents on knives. Christie’s espionage thrillers were in that tradition.’
My difficulty with this quoted section is that it conflates detective novels and thrillers, implying almost they are one and the same thing. I would argue that thrillers were more likely to reflect this style than detective novels.
The first chapter takes in more of real-life crime of the period, including racing gangs and drug dealing, before switching to the chapter’s titled theme of how faith and Christianity feature in Christie’s books, in terms of characters but also values. I found his reading of ‘Triangle at Rhodes’ (1937) particularly interesting. I was also intrigued to learn that the title of N or M? (1941) is taken from ‘a catechism in the Book of Common Prayer.’
Jeremy Black further chimes in with Judith Flanders’ work when he notes that:
‘…in one respect, fiction is an attempt to offer guidance in a post-Providential world. In an urgently-religious age, Providence brings an instant fate to the wicked, but, by the 1920s, the religious environment was somewhat different. Judgement in life came to be seen more as a matter of human agency and agencies, and the detective was to the fore.’
Furthermore, the writer opines that: ‘Christian morality is applied by Christie in part in terms of the newly fashionable psychological insights,’ which he felt refutes the idea that ‘Christie didn’t do personalities; she felt any hint of psychology could distract from the plot lines.’ (This is a criticism that Camilla Long gave in the Sunday Times in 2020).
After quite an epic first chapter, which covered a lot of ground I found its conclusion less strong, veering off in a different direction. I didn’t feel it had wrapped things up as well as I had expected it would do. So far, the book was shaping up pretty well and I hoped the issue of the conclusion of the first chapter was a blip. But I was in for a rude awakening…
Post-war turmoil is the theme of chapter two, which is kicked off with discussion of ‘The Wife of the Kenite’ (1922), a less well-known story by Christie which was reprinted in the anthology, Bodies from the Library (2018). It was nice to see this story included, although thematically it seems to fit better with Black’s first chapter. I don’t feel it set us up for the second chapter effectively, which jarringly switches to Captain Hasting’s military background, followed by those of other fictional detectives and Golden Age detective fiction writers, who fought in WW1. The opening pages of the chapter do not give a clear sense of where it is going and when it came to the military information, the question which sprang to mind was: Why I am being told this?
I would say this is a chapter with pockets of themes and information, a trend which continues throughout the remainder of the book. The references to WW1 within the work of Agatha Christie are charted before Jeremy Black considers the financial crisis facing the owners of ancestral homes in the country. This is a problem viewers of Downton Abbey will be aware of as that family face similar difficulties, wanting to maintain their family home rather than sell it. As well as giving examples from Christie’s novels, the author references other mysteries from the era, including several which have been reprinted in the British Library Crime Classics series.
It is these low financial waters, which made inheritance ‘the single most important motivation in Christie novels,’ according to Jeremy Black. He further says that this was ‘a reflection of writing about a particular social tranche as well as a ready way to structure relationships within a small group of people readily identified as potential heirs. Inheritance could bring together people of different ages and experiences, and, as a prospect and lure, was not restricted to family groups.’ Always on the alert for blanket statements I had a quick scan through Christie’s books and looking at 27 of the novels published from 1920 until 1940, inheritance was the most frequent motivation, being included in 10 of them. Though interestingly inheritance via a dead spouse was far more common than inheritance via a dead relative. Revenge, self-preservation, and theft were also reoccurring motives. Conversely, inheritance does not seem to be a motive in any of the novels from the last decade of Christie’s career.
In his preface, the author states his aim of wanting to help his readers to understand ‘the world in which the stories are set.’ However, what I increasingly found, from chapter two onwards, was a lack of marrying up knowledge of the world as it was then, (social/political/economic/cultural), with the mysteries. There was a poor display of intertwining the two together, meaning there was page after page where there was barely a reference to the work of Agatha Christie and when there was one, there was little analysis or discussion with it. But if anyone is studying for their History GCSE, then this book would certainly give you a thorough low-down on the political machinations of the day. I think the book begins to forget its own title. Moreover, attempts to link social context to Christie increasingly become ham-fisted. For example:
‘National politics were there in the background, and their rapidly-changed nature helped encourage a sense of tumult and unease. There was much more to do with Christie’s success, however, then reflecting the troubled tone of national politics, as she did in her thrillers. Her ability to write a classic puzzle novel was more significant…’
No kidding?! This seems, to me, to be a rather self-evident truth, not least because Black does not provide a convincing argument previously that ‘the troubled tone of national politics’ was a considerable part of Christie’s success as a writer. Then again it is rather worrying when the book to your blurb states the following: Jeremy Black’s ‘incomparable treatment of literary craft developing alongside global military engagement nearly overshadows the natural draw of the crime drama that is the subject of his book.’ Once again, this chapter ends on a disconnected and poor note, but this did not surprise me, since this chapter was so chaotically organised.
For his next chapter, Black focuses on ‘the middle-class milieu.’ Unfortunately, the problems of chapter two are even more rampant in the third. There are large info dumps on the way Victorian’s classified people, the way women were marginalised at work, changes in the law relating to women and the opening of airports. (Yes, you did read the last bit of that sentence correctly.) What made this a more exasperating read was that the author repeatedly fails to interweave meaningful examples from Christie and often other writers. References are minimal and not very substantial. Some of the linking sentences reinforce a sense of Christie being shoehorned into contextual passages. For instance, during a long section dealing with political matters we find this sentence: ‘A fan of detective novels, including in 1928 American writers such as Anna Katharine Green, Baldwin offered in his speeches a vision of England…’
It was at this stage that I came up with an analogy for this book. This book started out like a strong cup of tea, with the tea bag being left in the cup for a good while i.e., comments on Christie and context were meshed effectively. However, from chapter 2 onwards the amount of time the tea bag is left in the water is radically reduced, so in some chapters it feels like the bag has barely skimmed the surface of the water. For me, Christie’s presence in the text became rather minimalistic at points. Consequently, I found Black’s arguments underwhelming a lot of the time as, for me, it didn’t seem like he had joined enough dots together to make the overall picture he was trying to present. This left me baffled, trying to see the connection between Christie and the way the General Strike played out in 1926, for example. Then again, some lines just boggled me: ‘Labour, meanwhile, benefitted from a desire for new ideas and faces. It seemed moderate. And the defeat of the General Strike helped lessen anxiety about Socialism, which can be related to the eventual reassurance of Christie’s The Seven Dials Mystery.’ To accompany such statements the author very often only gives a plot synopsis, before resuming his history lecture.
I found a lack of cohesion between paragraphs. I am still not sure how charting metafictional references with the stories written by Christie and other Golden Age detective writers link to the ‘middle class milieu.’ But by that stage I had given up trying to find connections as the chapter swings in to discussing contemporary thriller writers like Oppenheim, modernist literature and the impact modernism had on architecture. Again, the question of why am I being told this? was embedded in my mind, (now in capital letters and written in neon colours).
The only passage in this chapter which interested me, was the small section about the first mixed jury and the way the judge reacted to having women in the panel.
In contrast to some chapters, this next one on Xenophobia, begins from a logical starting point, with relevant material. FYI – This should really come as standard in a non-fiction book, not be a positive feature worthy of singling out. There is a more successful attempt at combining contextual information on attitudes to Judaism and Communism, with examples from the work of Christie and other contemporary writers. The only caveat I would add is that these examples don’t come with much analysis and sometimes feel like they have been pulled out of their narrative context.
The next significant topic in this chapter is trends in immigration into Britain and how there were periods of peak and decline. Jeremy Black notes that:
‘…fresh restrictions in 1914 and 1919, [meant] immigration declined in the 1920s and 1930s and was not a major social or political controversy in the mainstream. Indeed, Poirot, a Belgian immigrant, shows that ‘middle-brow’ readers could embrace a degree of cultural diversity. However, immigration had some political purchase from 1933, and there was also a more persistent low-level racism and antisemitism in Britain.’
Following on from this, the writer then catalogues occasions in which Christie undercut or ridiculed xenophobic attitudes, as well as how Poirot used the prejudice of others to his own sleuthing advantage.
Whilst there are some benefits to listing instances of a particular topic or behaviour through an author’s work, I don’t think it is a sufficient substitute to analysis. The reader needs to know what this listing shows in terms of patterns, and also why it is of interest. This is something I think Jeremy Black fails to do. For example, when it comes to the theme of empire, he includes a long section listing the characters in Christie’s books who lived or were living in a foreign country. Handy for a pub quiz perhaps, but not a very meaningful list by itself.
I also noticed that sometimes the author undercut his own arguments. This is epitomised in this chapter when we get to the line that reads: ‘setting stories in the Middle East proved a way not only to reflect Christie’s interest in archaeology, and experience of the region, but also to capture the continuing success and significance of Britain through her empire.’ Yet, the paragraphs that proceed this line go on to discuss the devolution of power, the returning land, and the instability of the Empire. These paragraphs were not shouting success to me. We then see a return to the inclusion of self-evident statements: ‘It is safe to say that Death on the Nile was not only not a comment on the current situation in the Middle East, but also not a fantasy about threats to Imperial power.’ Aside from the use of a double negative, this statement seemed a rather pointless one to me, as I don’t think people are trying to suggest that reading of Death on the Nile, or if they are then their names or books need to be included somewhere. Moreover, I thought the purpose of Black’s book was to show how context was visible in Agatha Christie’s mysteries, not how it wasn’t.
Class and nation are the themes for chapter 5, which returns to the idea of financial precariousness, in particular looking at the Great Depression. Black provides some interesting examples from mysteries published at that time, such as Hue and Cry (1931) by Bruce Hamilton, which look at pecuniary dilemmas. Furthermore, the political consequences of the financial crisis and the decision to increase taxes are also dovetailed with some good examples from Henry Wade’s oeuvre. A key topic of the chapter is the rise and decline of extremist groups such as the British Union of Fascists and Black notes how these types of parties are included in Golden Age detective fiction. Although, he also points out that their role in mystery fiction was minimal. Agatha Christie’s books do not feature heavily in any of the above topics, and it was at this point that I decided that Jeremy Black was more confident at detailing the social and political history of the period, than writing about the contextual influences on mystery fiction of the era. Christie’s stories make more of an appearance once Black begins a discourse on new housing, sport transcending class barriers and the way food demarcated social position, followed by the increase in use of rail travel and the economic problems train companies faced. Again, listing is very much the preferred tool for Black when writing about the work of Agatha Christie.
Chapter 6 is concerned with WW2 and is a shorter chapter. It focuses on how other mystery novelists were much more explicit in their use of the war as part of their setting, in comparison to Christie. As to why Christie mostly avoids discussing the conflict in her stories published during the war, Jeremy Black opines that: ‘To an extent, a refusal to focus on the war was an aspect of a phlegmatic and fatalistic response, and, more particularly, a stoical emphasis on keeping going whatever the Germans threw at Britain.’ There is not much else I have to say about this chapter which summarises N or M? and lists post-war references to WW2 in Christie’s later books.
Continuing with the chronological trend of the book, the 7th chapter is entitled: Recessional, 1945-51. As one would expect this chapter is centred on the changes in society after the war – social, cultural, and political. More cataloguing of examples from Christie’s stories ensues. One of the things this listing fails to do, is see the big picture these examples build up as a whole. Furthermore, when looking at characters from books, we invariably do not get to see their trajectory through the story, which means certain analysis and relevant points might be missed. They Came to Baghdad is a rare example of a mystery that gets a bit of a longer reading in Black’s book. Despite the reduced chapter size there are still lots of random paragraphs which don’t really link into the chapter topic or with each other. One idea I thought worth including from this chapter is the notion that:
‘Detective novels provided both a genre focused on the resulting instability and also a degree of protection from it, in the form of a resolution as order was restored. By playing fair in their clues with the readers, the authors enabled the latter to be part of the search for a solution, and thus gave them agency as well as entertainment and safety.’
This concept intrigued me as upon first reading it, it felt like an idea more akin to the 1920s or 1930s, than the post WW2 period. After this conflict, my understanding is that there were quite a number of shifts in style and emphasis in mystery fiction and that fair play and more traditional mysteries were less sought after by publishers. Other critical works that I have read, though their names escape me at the moment, have suggested this was because people were disillusioned after the war and therefore could buy less into the earlier style of mystery writing. With this in mind, I wondered how well Black’s idea gels with this alternative view on the period.
Chapter 8 focuses on a longer stretch of time, 1952-1963 and Black follows up the above quote in the last chapter, with the idea of continuity, suggesting that life did return to some of the pre-war aspects. The writer also takes the opportunity to discuss detective novels and thrillers and what unites them. Jeremy Black asserts that:
‘Despite contrasts between detective novels and thrillers, there was a common theme: The weaknesses inherent in evil, notably deceit, self-deceit, arrogance, over-confidence, cruelty, and instrumentalism, help ensure its flaws. In part these weaknesses do so by providing opportunities for the bravery and integrity of the thriller hero and for the moral bravery and intelligence in the detecting hero.’
Again, my initial reaction was similar to the above quote, as I thought that by the 50s and into the 60s, fictional heroes were becoming more flawed. But perhaps it differs depending on the subgenre looked at.
This chapter in keeping with the others has the usual problems of too much contextual history information and not enough about the mystery stories being referenced. For example, it was nice to see Margot Bennett’s The Man Who Didn’t Fly included, but its inclusion felt incomplete, as though it hadn’t fully made a point.
Chapter 9 looks at ‘The Sixties,’ whilst Chapter 10 focuses on the years between 1970 and 1976. In this last chapter we have plenty of disconnected paragraphs, including some which list the texts in which Christie’s alludes to a Shakespearean play. To conclude, Jeremy Black does a sweeping chapter entitled: Retrospectives, 1971-2021, which compiles attitudes towards the work of Agatha Christie from critics such as Colin Watson and Martin Edwards, amongst other things. I did not feel this information added to the field and left me once more wondering what the purpose of the material was before me.
Suffice to say the title holds little relevance to the contents of the book and I cannot recommend you read this buy this if you are a fan of Agatha Christie. It was very much a disappointment.