The Bloomsbury Handbook to Agatha Christie (2022), ed. by Mary Anna Evans and J. C. Bernthal

Today I am delving back into the world of literary criticism about crime fiction. It is an arena my blog has explored from its early days, so I was pleased when I was offered a review copy of this Bloomsbury Handbook. I appreciate this is a long review, even by my standards, but when I have been given a book like this, which contains contributions from over 20 different writers, I feel it is important that I try to engage with the ideas and themes being discussed. A paragraph summary simply saying “This book was jolly interesting”, to me, feels like it doesn’t do justice to all the hard work that has gone into creating the book.

Cover for The Bloomsbury Handbook to Agatha Christie. It shows a black and white photo of Christie in her older years.

Foreword by Val McDermid

McDermid strikes the right note in kicking off this handbook, touching upon the project of the work by weaving it into her own experiences of reading Agatha Christie; experiences which contributed to her becoming a crime writer herself. The only thing I would query is McDermid’s statement that Christie ‘invented the psychopathic serial killer in 4.50 from Paddington.’ The killer in that mystery does not strike me as ‘psychopathic,’ but even if they are, Christie did not invent that type of fictional villain. That archetype is found in many earlier crime novels including Francis Beeding’s Death Walks in Eastrepps (1931) and Strangers on a Train (1950).

Part One: Agatha Christie, the Woman and the Writer

Introduction, and a Chronology by Mary Anna Evans and J. C. Bernthal

In the last few decades research and scholarship concerning the work of Agatha Christie has increased significantly. So much so, according to Evans and Bernthal, that:

‘[…] it is necessary to pause and consider the varied conversations in context with each other and with our era. It is time to take stock of what Agatha Christie accomplished and what she contributed to crime fiction and literature as a whole. In fact, it is past time. It is also time to consider her widespread and enduring popularity, which is arguably a contributing factor to the scholarly community’s long delay in granting her work serious attention.’

The introduction then turns to talking about Agatha Christie: Mistress of Mystery (1967) by Gordon Ramsey, ‘the first sustained English-language evaluation of Christie’s work’ and I liked reading about Christie’s amusing reaction to the book: ‘Christie thanked Ramsey with the lukewarm compliment that she could not understand a word he had written and that she valued the work chiefly for its exhaustive bibliography, which helped her publishers catalogue her books.’ Never mind poor Ramsey! Another interesting fact I learnt was that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) ‘became the first ever audiobook produced by the Royal National Institute of the Blind in 1935.’

Detective club reprint cover for The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. It shows three people looking at a corpse with a dagger in its back,

The editors also comment on the vastness of Christie’s output, looking beyond just her novels, mentioning that she produced over 15 plays and 170 short stories, as well as 2 volumes of poetry and 2 memoirs, amongst other things. With so much material created, it is not surprising that ‘a vanishingly small fraction of people have even read all of her work.’ This can create something of a problem for Christie scholarship as:

‘[…] while nearly everyone thinks that they know Christie, it is more correct to say that they are acquainted with part of an oeuvre so vast that it is easy to make false generalities based on a fraction of her work, misremembered.’

I found it interesting that this issue was brought up as it is one that I have noted in some of my reading of Agatha Christie academia in the past. Naturally I was also intrigued to see if this book avoided this pitfall.

Earlier scholarship is also challenged in this introductory chapter, in particular Julian Symons and his work, Bloody Murder, From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel: A History (1985 revised ed.). To do so the editors quote a paragraph from it concerning Agatha Christie, which is biographical in nature and mentions the release of her first book. This paragraph is then critiqued sentence by sentence to dismantle the errors and misleading ideas that have arisen about Agatha Christie. They show how Agatha Christie’s self-deprecation was taken too seriously and at face value and the reluctance of critics such as Symons to dig deeper and verify information. This sounds like it would be boring, but I really enjoyed it and I found it a refreshing and succinct way of introducing the author and why she has suffered critical neglect. This is followed up by a charting of the trends in scholarship over the last 20 years.

For me perhaps the weakest part of the introduction was the section concerning a photo of Agatha Christie which surfaced in 2012 from an unexpected archive. It is an interesting trivia nugget, but I did not feel it warranted the page length it received, as it is dominated by an extensive descriptive of the photo, which is included.

Chapter 1: My Grandmother, Agatha Christie by Mathew Prichard

Prichard’s aim for his contribution to the handbook was ‘to try and give a brief sense of the family life we had together and how that, and her [Christie’s] strongly held belief in the family unit, managed to fit in with the other achievements of her remarkable life.’ One thing which I think would have enhanced this chapter is if Prichard had quoted from some of Agatha Christie’s letters, which he mentions, as I think it would have fleshed out of some of his points. Prichard concludes by remarking that:

‘When I consider what she achieved in her lifetime I sometimes find it hard to believe there was time for the family life we had and yet there was. They were entwined and enriched each other and perhaps help to explain the fascination that her work and life story inspire. I know it because I feel it embedded in her books and on the look on the faces of her readers I meet.’

I am not saying this is untrue, but I did not find this point strongly evidenced in the chapter itself. So, overall, I would say this chapter had some interesting anecdotes, but I remain unsure if it does much to ‘inform further debate.’

Part Two: Critical Approaches

Chapter 2: The Middlebrow Woman Detective Author by Rebecca Mills

Mills provides a strong opening to her chapter, using W. Somerset Maugham’s short story from 1926, ‘The Creative Impulse’, as a hook. She tells us that in this story there is a female author who decides to write detective fiction ‘when her husband, a currant merchant and an avid but secret fan of the genre, leaves her for her cook.’ This is a career change that the author does not take lightly and when it is proposed to her, since she is ‘at first indignant at the thought of lowering her sights to genre fiction’ having spent her writing career previously writing ‘Latin-titled verse and prose.’ I found this to be an inventive opening which was informative and original, but importantly, also very relevant, as it is a launch pad for looking at attitudes towards middlebrow writers in the first half of the 20th century.

Macmillan Readers edition of The Creative Impulse and Other Stories. It has a black and white photograph of a woman wearing a hat and holding a cup.

A key critic in the field that Mills looks at, is Nicola Humble, whose work on ‘middlebrow writing and readers’ was (and still is) highly influential on ‘interwar detective fiction and Christie criticism’. Mills argues that Christie being seen as middlebrow author, led to more people seeing her work as something worthy of serious study. However, you might be asking yourself what middlebrow fiction actually is. Mills includes this definition from Humble:

‘Defining the parameters of the fictional middlebrow is clearly problematic. The broad working definition I employ […] is that the middlebrow novel is one that straddles the divide between the trashy romance or thriller on the one hand, and the philosophically or formally challenging novel on the other: offering narrative experiment without guilt, and intellectual stimulation without undue effort.’

Other critics whose work is cited include Alison Light, Melissa Schaub, Kathy Mezei and Megan Hoffman. Below is a quote from Light, which particularly stood out to me, when reading this chapter:

‘If Agatha Christie is to be understood not as the doyenne of the country house fiction but as queen of the “middlebrows”, then we need to remind ourselves just how modern a conservative creature the middlebrow was.’

I found it interesting reading about how ‘interrogating domesticity and gender roles’ was ‘a crucial concern of middlebrow literature.’ The intertextuality of middlebrow mysteries is also a core concept in the chapter and Mills includes Humble’s argument that ‘middlebrow is an “essentially parasitic form, dependent on the existence of both a high and a low brow for its identity, reworking their structures and aping their insights”’. In addition, I felt that Mills used good examples from ‘The Affair at the Bungalow’ (1930) and Murder in Mesopotamia (1936) to explore how ‘middlebrow intertextuality in Christie’s work offers clues to mysteries of crime and character’. The Tommy and Tuppence Beresford short story collection, Partners in Crime (1929) is another key Christie text examined and I enjoyed Mills viewpoint on the gender aspects of the fictional detectives Tuppence parodies. Two other topic highlights of the chapter include:

  • The parallels between Jane Austen’s Emma (1815) and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
  • The inclusion of mystery writers as characters in detective novels. This is a metafictional element (that can be seen in Modernist literature too) as Victoria Stewart argues that ‘to include a character within a detective novel who is an author of detective fiction is a strategy each uses to continue the debate about the nature of the form that is begun in their critical writing. The reader is invited to measure the work s/he is reading against the paradigm presented within the work itself, and, simultaneously, the author displays self-consciousness about the task of writing.’

Chapter 3: Christie’s Clues as Information by Michelle M. Kazmer

Kazmer has previously written on this topic in The Ageless Agatha Christie: Essays on the Mysteries and the Legacy (2016) edited by J. C. Bernthal. Her focus was more on Miss Marple novels in that earlier essay, whereas in this handbook her attention rests more upon four key Poirot short stories: ‘The Second Gong,’ (1932) ‘Dead Man’s Mirror,’ (1937) ‘The Market Basing Mystery’ (1923) and ‘Murder in the Mews’ (1936). The author states that her chapter ‘takes the perspective of “clue as information object” to explore the use of clues in Agatha Christie’s mysteries’, ‘by which I mean items that can be used to change the understanding of the person who perceives them, in context’.

Cover for The Ageless Agatha Christie. Black and white in design, the cover's image focuses on a woman's eye.

Kazmer further writes that:

‘As information objects, clues manifest and work through informing the primary detective; mis-informing the other detectives in the story, including the police; and dis-informing the reader to the extent required to make the story work.’

When examining the four short stories mentioned above, the writer initially explores the similarities and differences between them in how they use certain key clues. I really enjoyed her analysis of how identical clues could be used differently and equally how different clues could be used for the same purpose. Her use of examples made this an enjoyable and clear passage to read.

Kazmer then shifts focus to comparing the differing etymology of the two words “clue” and “evidence”, as a way of understanding how clues can be received from non-visual senses. This is followed by an outline of the history of information sciences research. I found this section more hard going. This history is succeeded by ‘a sketch of how clues have been treated in analyses of detective fiction in general and Christie’s work in particular.’ The author opines that ‘direct, detailed treatment of clues per se is surprisingly limited.’ This may be true of academia but within the sphere of blogging, discussions about the nature of clues and cluing are far more prolific and it is a conversation fuelled by both blog writers and their readers. I think it is also worth mentioning John Goddard’s Agatha Christie’s Golden Age: An Analysis of Poirot’s Golden Age Puzzles (2018) and Agatha Christie’s Golden Age Volume II: Miss Marple and the Other Golden Age Puzzles (2021), which both provide a thorough examination of clues.

Good textual examples from the four short stories are deployed in later sections of the chapter on the nature of how clues are interacted with in detective fiction and how there is more than one way to interact with clues. This is one passage which particularly grabbed my attention:

‘Consider the use of clues in detective fiction: detectives interact with clues according to the information attributes most salient to the context at hand, but rarely make explicit those attributes, especially to the reader […] In ‘The Market Basing Mystery,’ Poirot and Hastings notice and discuss the handkerchief in Protheroe’s coat-sleeve. Poirot immediately grasps the salient attribute of this handkerchief is its location in Protheroe’s right coat-sleeve. In the real world, “location” is not a usual attribute when we discuss handkerchiefs independent of context; one might talk about fabric, colour, laundering procedures, monograms, and so on, but only in a specific context-of-use would “location” be salient.’

I felt this was an effective way of explaining how a successful fictional sleuth identifies the correct meaning from a clue.

Chapter 4: Reading Christie with a Feminist Lens by Mary Anna Evans

Evans’ chapter begins with a historical overview of feminist readings of Agatha Christie’s work, highlighting a paper written by Marty Knepper in 1983: ‘Agatha Christie – Feminist?’ In this essay, Knepper lays ‘out the central problem in evaluating an author as feminist or antifeminist, which is that the evaluation is subjective.’ Evans then includes Knepper’s definition of a feminist writer:

‘a writer, female or male, who shows, as a norm and not as freaks, women capable of intelligence, moral responsibility, competence, and independent action; who presents women as central characters, as the heroes, not just as ‘the other sex’ (in other words, as the wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, lovers, and servants of men); who reveals the economic, social, political and psychological problems women face as part of a patriarchal society; who explores female consciousness and female perceptions of the world; who creates women who have psychological complexity and transcend the sexist stereotypes that are as old as Eve and as limited as the lives of most fictional spinster schoolmarms.’

I found this an interesting definition and it made me wonder which other Golden Age Detective fiction writers might fit the bill. I was also intrigued by the idea that an author’s work could have feminist potential, even if the writer themselves did not identify as such.

Returning to Knepper, Evans further writes that: ‘based on these criteria, Knepper argues that Christie’s work showed feminist leanings at times when society was more open to it, while portraying women in more stereotypical ways during periods when anti-feminist thought was more prevalent.’ I felt this was a good soundbite, but I would have liked this statement to have been explored more deeply, at least to the extent of some examples being provided with the historical context alongside them.

One area, the author felt needed further scholarship was Christie’s short stories, deeming there to be ‘room […] for a thorough analysis’ of them ‘from a feminist perspective.’ To that effect Evans provides four case study examples: ‘The House of Beauty’ (1926) (which was adapted from the earlier story of ‘The House of Dreams’), ‘The Wife of the Kenite’ (1922), ‘Philomel Cottage’ (1924) and ‘Magnolia Blossom’ (1926). I was interested to learn that in her first 6 years as a published author, Christie wrote 80 short stories and 6 novels. The impact of literary marketplace requirements on authors of short stories at that time was an aspect of these case studies that I enjoyed a lot. Nevertheless, I found the analyses of the short stories a bit truncated and in some cases lacking detail. I also wonder if in the reading of ‘Philomel Cottage’ whether meaning is being imposed on to the female protagonist’s actions. Evans writes that:

‘This story of a working woman consciously choosing a relationship based on physical attraction, then extricating herself from it by her own wits, is an early example of the self-sufficient heroines who can be found at every stage of Christie’s career, questioning women’s social roles as they chart their own courses.’

I was left wondering: Does the character consciously question her role in society? It also feels a bit like the heroine’s initial foolish move of marrying a man she barely knows, is celebrated and given her chaotic choice of actions later in the story, I am not sure they are something to be proud off. I also feel like the character was less ‘chart[ing]’ the direction of her life, and more just leaping in feet first and then reacting in the moment to perceived danger. To me, the picture Evans paints is of a woman who is far more in control of her life and who is more consciously reflective of their actions.  

Chapter 5: Queer Clues to Christie by J. C. Bernthal

Bernthal jumps into his chapter with a discussion of A Caribbean Mystery (1964) and how it reveals Miss Marple’s worldliness. I found this a good choice of text and it reminded me of a 2019 blog post by Curtis Evans ‘What Would Christie Do? Judge Her by Her Works, Part One’, which looks at similar passages from the mystery. Interestingly, both Evans and Bernthal explore the ‘change in focus for television adaptations’. Bernthal suggests that the ‘considerable rebranding effort by Agatha Christie Limited’ means ‘Christie is now being understood as an author who reflected the darker aspects of the human soul’. I agree there is darkness in her works, darkness which has been overlooked in some quarters, but I don’t know if the TV adaptations have properly captured it yet. After all, I still haven’t figured out how the syphilis boil in BBC adaptation of The ABC Murders (1936) fits with Christie and her work, dark or otherwise. Following on from this, Bernthal looks at existing critical work on homosexuality, crime fiction and Christie novels, touching upon the work of John Curran. Two of the key christie novels looked at in this chapter are The Moving Finger (1942) and Nemesis (1971).

Chapter 6: Christie Does Ecocriticism by Susan Rowland

I had been looking forward to this chapter as I very much enjoyed Rowland’s From Agatha Christie to Ruth Rendell (2001). Unfortunately, I found this to be an unconvincing chapter. This chapter, in the introduction to the handbook, is described as ‘offer[ing] an earth-centred reading that shows Christie to be an important historian of the earth and our relations to it’ and to be honest I just found this too big a claim for the chapter to live up to and this is not a claim I think the chapter is able to effectively back up.

Palgrave Macmillan crime files cover for From Agatha Christie to Ruth Rendall. Cover shows a woman looking rather ill.

The chapter begins by describing some quite complex theoretical aspects of ecocriticism and I think this explanatory section needed more links to Christie’s texts. In a nutshell, Rowland defines ecocriticism as:

‘[…] earth-centred readings of literature […] It reverses the convention of considering nature in narrative as metaphors for human matters. Rather, ecocriticism looks for the ways human characters are actually representing the life of the land. This approach also responds to the recognition that the marginalisation of nature was bound up with human hegemonies of colonialism, ethnicity, race, and gender.’

Furthermore, ecocriticism is also said to explores ‘the mutual construction of the physical world in which societies and technology have always been shaped by environment and, in turn, shape it […]’.

Instead of solid examples from Christie’s stories to tie into the overarching theory, I felt Rowland overstated, in a more generalised way, what she sees Christie’s books are doing:

‘To put new ecocriticism in Christie’s terms, consider the setting she helped to popularise, the country house as crime scene. Ecocriticism can explore the ways that the country house in mysteries stands for specific historical and environmental conditions. These are largely dependent upon a particular climate. How might the fascination with this kind of crime story actually reveal something about the re-creation of the natural? Indeed, the crime genre Agatha Christie did so much crystallise can be shown to offer modes of control, blame, passion, and rationality that today are visible in ecological conundrums and climate activism.’

The last sentence in particular, to me, feels like too big a stretch. The passion involved in Death on the Nile, for example, with the two lovers really doesn’t equate to the passion involved in climate activism. I think to claims such as those made in the above paragraph needed further unpacking in order to be more convincing and clearer.

A key term for this chapter is ‘the Anthropocene’ which is described in this chapter as:

 signif[ying] a new era on this planet, one where humans have so disturbed its innate processes that we are now planet-shaping beings. Perspectives from ecology have led to the recognition of the Anthropocene, confirming that humans threaten the sustainability of the ecosphere […] Put another way, the Anthropocene is where we are because dominant societies have thought in terms of Anthropos, meaning a privileged group of humans called “Man,” to be served by everything “other.”’

This in turn is linked to archetypes, with Rowland suggesting that the Anthropocene shares with this term the common link of myths. Yet again I found the links made to Christie and her work wanting:

‘So, what do Anthropocene and archetypes have to do with Agatha Christie? One project for modern ecocriticism is a critical exploration of Anthropos, or the centrality of exclusively human concerns in connection to the biosphere. Do Christie’s country houses contribute to climate change not just because of the production of paper but because they encourage a regard for the earth as only meaningful in relation to the Anthropos? More excitingly, could critical treatments of Christie show resistance and alternatives to anthropocentric attitudes?’

Again, these claims stretch credulity too far for me. The point about Christie’s country houses affecting climate change due to paper production is a meaningless point in the sense that all paperbacks and hardbacks contribute to that situation, it doesn’t really matter what their content is.

A further tenuous link is made between environmental issues and Christie’s lead detectives:

‘[…] the detective restores her world, a drive often integral to environmental criticism and action. Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple are unlikely eco-activists yet more than Miss Marple’s gardening links them to ecology. How far is the detective’s heroic assumption of expertise and authority implicated in anthropocentric notions of stewardship or dominance in relation to nature?’

This idea might have had some mileage, but it is not particularly built upon in this chapter and at this stage in my reading I did wonder if something like Celia Fremlin’s Listening in the Dusk (1990), would be a mystery with a more ready base material for an eco-reading. Another weak connection made is based on Jo Lindsay Walton and Samantha Walton argument that:

‘[…] villainy in crime fiction can be linked to discussions of responsibility and guilt in questions of pollution and exploitation of nature. Is the greed and unfeeling selfishness at the heart of many Christie murders a dimension of such motives in the behaviour of polluting industries, governments, and persons?’

Connections like this one felt quite forced, with meaning being twisted to fit a specific viewpoint. This is also exemplified in the passage below:

‘With hands-on experience in extracting both poisons and medicines from common garden species, Christie’s murder plots can be understood as nuanced constructions of the agency of plants.’

I am pretty sure in the solution reveals, neither Poirot nor Miss Marple identifies the culprit as a rogue rhododendron. The plant material which goes into a poison has no control over what it does or who it hurts. Agency suggests choice and decision making and these are two things plants lack in this situation.

The strongest part of the chapter is based on an earlier paper Rowland wrote entitled: ‘The Wasteland and The Grail Knight’ (2010), which responds to W. H. Auden’s ‘The Guilty Vicarage’ (1948) and Auden’s idea of the detective figure restoring harmony to communities, having eradicated the person (i.e., the killer) polluting the environment. Rowland writes that:

‘Taking my cue from Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey in Strong Poison (1930) stating that detectives are the equivalent of medieval knights aiming to do good deeds, I suggest that the sleuth is on a grail quest. In fact, the detective arrives in a wasteland. The land or community is sick because of the unsolved crime. Solving murder involves asking the right question as the grail knights discovered. The solution heals the wasteland just as finding the grail did. For the grail is the healing truth as well as the re-constituted community, which is also the wasteland rejuvenated. Nature and culture are one; the wasteland is human and nonhuman society, polluted and sick.’

The chapter then returns to the idea of myth being a part of ecocriticism and the author provides six readings of Christie novels linked to different Greek goddesses. The readings are for: The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), The Murder at the Vicarage (1930), Death on the Nile, N or M? (1941), 4:50 from Paddington (1957) and Hallowe’en Party (1969). I found the readings to be weak and insufficiently connected to an overall thesis. I think there are many aspects of this depiction of ecocriticism you need to buy into to find these satisfying readings. It was also hard to determine how literal or metaphorically the readings were treating the lens of Greek goddesses, such as in passages like this:

‘In addition, the romantic tendencies of Poirot and Marple take them into Aphrodite territory. She bestows the beauty that arouses erotic love, in animals as well as human beings. Aphrodite is in the roses that adorn the bride and in the coupling of snakes. She also, I suggest inhabits mysteries by being outraged at murder, for she is the body’s joys and murder is an unnatural deprivation of them.’  

Chapter 7: Psychogeography and the Flapper Sleuth by Sarah Martin

What is psychogeography, you may ask? Well, if you didn’t, I certainly did! Fortunately, Sarah Martin helpfully gets the novice psychogeographer up to speed:

‘For many of her readers, Agatha Christie’s works are characterised by the landscape of the closed community in both rural and city settings. It is the dialectic nature of the physical space of the landscape or setting, and the figure detective (and often the criminal too), in Christie’s fiction that interests psychogeographers, who study the impact of place and space on the human psyche.’

Martin is another author in this handbook who interacts with Auden’s ‘The Guilty Vicarage’ essay. She writes that:

‘[…] he outlined the importance of place and space as an integral part of an effective detective story […] Auden’s emphasis on the detective story “requiring” a closed society for its plot and structure emphasises the key role of space within detective fiction, as well as the role the nature of the space has over character, plot, and structure.’

Auden’s essay also ‘highlights the ritualistic nature of space: “The murderer uses his knowledge of ritual to commit the crime and can be caught only by someone who acquires an equal or superior familiarity with it.”’

Having explored Auden’s comments on space and settings in detective fiction the writer shifts her attention to Tuppence Beresford in order to ‘engage[…] with that discussion of space in detective fiction, and consider[…] its relationship to gender, examining the pyschogeographical nature of the female flapper as a detective. Martin asserts that there are ‘ways in which Tuppence’s detection is inherently psychogeographic’ and her chapter ‘explores psychogeographic detection methods including clothing, walking, and inhabiting physical spaces of both the public and the private, as well as metaphysical cultural and gendered spaces.’

The socio-historical context of the changing fashion for women post WW1 is a key part of the chapter and whilst fashion history is not an interest of mine, I found Sarah Martin effectively captured my attention, writing about the topic in an interesting way, helping me to see the societal impact clothing changes had:

‘Clothes, then, allow ease of access and movement in public, social, and professional space; the tailoring of clothing develops to match these newly and more frequently inhabited spaces by women, including that of the workplace.’

This point and others are explored through Tuppence Beresford, and I felt Martin made good use of quotes to support her ideas and overall this chapter was written in an easy to follow prose style and you can see how each part of chapter builds upon the previous section. I felt this was important given the newness of the field Martin is working in, as it is likely many readers of the handbook might not be familiar with what psychogeography is.

I enjoyed a comparison which is made between Tuppence Beresford and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925), as it transpires that Woolf’s eponymous character walks down the same street as Tuppence does, in one of her cases. This in turn leads to a wider discussion of the revolutionary nature of female walking:

‘It is a revolutionary act to freely walk, and by association think, as a woman, alone, inhabiting public space and by extension inhabiting the city streets as an owned space. The connection between thinking and walking is made by Rebecca Solnit in Wanderlust. Solnit (2014) records the cultural meaning of women wandering alone through analysing its significance in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Solnit suggests that protagonist Elizabeth’s walk to Netherfield is “the first major demonstration of her unconventionality […] Elizabeth is likewise walking beyond the bounds of propriety for women of her class”’.

I found this an interesting point and I wondered if Harriet Vane’s walking holiday in Have His Carcase (1932) could be considered in a similar vein. I think it is a hallmark of a good essay that it gets you thinking about other books you have read and whether they apply or fit to the idea in question. Regarding environments impacting the mental and emotional worlds of characters, I would be interested to see what Sarah Martin made of E. M. Channon’s The Chimney Murder (1929), which interestingly sees a murder investigation empowering the female suspects, as opposed to the male characters who become more subdued by it. This was definitely a chapter I could have read more of.

Chapter 8: Christie’s Contemporary Middle East by Nadia Atia

Like Rebecca Mills in chapter 2, Atia finds an interesting context to begin her chapter with. In her case it is the friendship between Palestinian writer Jabra Ibrahim Jabra with Agatha Christie, and I liked how this friendship is a pertinent theme throughout the chapter. Jabra’s book, Princesses’ Street: Baghdad Memories includes a whole chapter about his experiences with Christie. It was fascinating seeing her through his eyes and I would be interested in reading his whole chapter.

Jabra’s enthusiasm for Christie’s books is a springboard for Atia discussing more widely the popularity of Agatha christie with Arabic readers. I really enjoyed learning about the ‘“Golden Age” of Arabic pulp fiction’ and the role of crime fiction in ‘the emergence of the novel form in Arabic’. Atia explains how important unauthorised translations were in establishing the popularity of Christie and other crime fiction writers in Arabic countries, as although ‘the first translation of Agatha Christie’s novels into Arabic officially dates to 1979’ researchers have evidence that Christie’s stories were being enjoyed much earlier. In addition, according to Atia, the popularity of these translations impacted the Arabic fiction market so much that ‘original texts written in Arabic were marketed as translated texts in order to appeal to an eager and growing audience of Arabic readers.’ Information like this was really interesting to read about, as I enjoy finding out about different people’s experiences of reading Christie in translation, as my ‘Christie in Translation: Your Experiences’ attests to.

After looking briefly at Christie’s experiences of the Middle East and how it shaped her life, the author moves on exploring how Jabra viewed two of Christie’s Middle Eastern set novels: Murder in Mesopotamia and They Came to Baghdad (1951). Atia writes that:

‘He concludes that “the atmosphere and the characters of both novels did not differ much from those of her novels set in England, except for her description of the markets at Basra in one and of the Zia Hotel and its owner in Baghdad in the other” (2055: 41-2). Jabra commends what he understands as the apolitical nature of Christie’s work, which “made no claim to be concerned with social, political, or documentary matters” […]’.

Atia shows how this viewpoint was echoed by other commentators such as Julian Symons and Christopher Baldick, the latter of whom identifies Golden Age detective puzzles as having ‘two-dimensional characters.’ It was hard to know where Atia stood on these viewpoints, however later in the chapter alternative viewpoints are included.

Atia then goes through Christie’s mysteries which are set in the Middle East and a consistent issue is the way Middle Eastern landscapes and inhabitants ‘are evoked in predictably reductive terms’ in novels such as Murder in Mesopotamia and They Came to Baghdad. In this chapter Atia is not afraid of facing the difficulties these depictions cause and directly asks:

‘How is it possible for the same woman who wrote with such warmth about the Middle East and its people in her life writing, and whom Jabra Ibrahim Jabra so admired and whose friendship he evidently valued, to present Middle Eastern characters in such a two-dimensional and reductive way in her fiction?’

From here Atia takes a closer look at Christie’s Middle-Eastern-set mysteries, not to exonerate them, but instead to uncover how this setting ‘reflects the fissures in, and anxieties of, her contemporary society’, which includes the decline of the British Empire. Atia picks up on a lot of details in mysteries such as Appointment with Death (1938), which see Christie quietly commenting on the current politics of the time in the region, that she had witnessed first-hand. The intertwining of imperialism with archaeology is another theme which crops up in the chapter too.

Part Three: Christie and Society

Chapter 9: Christie and the Carnage of War by J. C. Bernthal

This chapter commences with parallels being made between the pandemic which started in 2020 and WW2, in particular the common trend of moments of crisis, great stress and sudden changes to everyday living, encouraging people to read more crime fiction. Bernthal includes some interesting details about this from the data collected in 1944 by the Mass Observation Archive.

Commenting on Christie scholarship he also mentions that:

‘A paradox of crime fiction research, and Christie research in particular, is that it has tended to run with this reading of the genre’s enormous role and influence during the Second World War but failed to consider Christie or many of her peers as war writers. The idea of escapism seems like something worth talking about, but not like something that invites context. However, any escapist product is created in, tailored to, and honed by its own particular circumstances. The Second World War looms large in Christie’s mid-to-late career, on and off the page, while other conflicts from the Anglo-Boer War to the Cold War are never far away.’

Bernthal then moves on to the differing opinions on dates for when the Golden Age of Detection started and ended. This might seem off the topic, but I enjoyed how he made it relevant and I found this point very interesting:

‘Meanwhile, Susan Rowland uses influential novels as her bookends, stating that the Golden Age can be said to run from the publication of Christie’s debut in 1920 to that of Dorothy L. Sayers’s last crime novel in 1937 […] Rowland focuses more on the texts than the stereotypes, reflecting on the importance of Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), which introduced many of the elements of the fairly clued, upper-middle-class closed-setting world of the Golden Age mystery, and Sayers’s Busman’s Honeymoon (1937), which problematises the idea that these novels can bring closure or certainty in a morally upheaved world. However, this is not a warless characterisation, since both these novels are hugely impacted by the reality/aftermath and anticipation of international conflict, respectively. What the above definitions – and others with different, but similar start and end, points – have in common is an acknowledgement of the serious impact of war on creating a need for and then ending the easy answers of escapist puzzle-based fiction.’ [Bold added]

It intrigues me how bookending conflicts on this period had starkly contrasting effects on crime fiction. WW2 was a very productive writing period for Christie, so unsurprisingly Bernthal briefly looks at the work she was producing. However, a fun new-to-me fact that I discovered is that: ‘Christie’s wartime writing about war also included […] a recipe for “Mystery Potatoes,” which appeared in a celebrity cookbook, A Kitchen Goes to War (1940), to help the rationing effort.’

Cover for The Mysterious Affair at Styles. A night-time scene is depicted of various people in night attire looking inside a room by candle light.

Attention then shifts back to The Mysterious Affair at Styles and its WW1 context. Of this book Bernthal contends that:

‘Despite its intended purpose to divert, and “take one’s mind off one’s worries,” Styles engages directly with the war in ways that are not typical for Christie, at least as represented in most scholarship.’

Following this statement Poirot’s Belgian refugee status is explored. This aspect of the book is something I think has been previously commented on in academia and on blogs, so I didn’t feel this was an entirely new idea. However, what I think is added to the topic is a more concentrated look at how Belgium was viewed at the time by Britain.

Another Christie novel examined in detail is Taken at the Flood (1948) and I particularly enjoyed learning about how Christie’s real life war experiences made it into the plot. For example, at the start of the novel we are told how it was the basement and the roof of Gordon and Rosaleen Cloade’s residence which were damaged by a bomb, with the first floor left relatively unscathed. However, Bernthal notes that ‘this directly mirrors an account in Christie’s autobiography of a bomb’s impact on her own London property in 1940: “The effect it had on 48 Sheffield Terrace was to blow up the basement […] and to damage the roof and top floor, leaving the ground and first floors almost unharmed” […].’ The bomb damage occurring where it does is pertinent to the plot of the mystery, as it was in real life, because David Hunter in the Cloade household ‘survived because he slept, apparently dangerously, on the first floor rather than in the seemingly safe basement – a habit Christie also formed’. Bernthal concludes that:

‘This kind of insight is so counter-logical that, in a highly rational detective novel, it can only come from real life. The novel confronts the unreality of escapism in the prologue, then, but also grounds itself in an authentic and realistic, in the truest sense of the word, account of living through war.’

This section ends with the problematic ending of Taken at the Flood, which is something readers have often talked about (on the blogs I have seen at least) even if ‘generations of critics have chosen to ignore it.’

The Second World War is not the final conflict to be considered in this chapter, as the Cold War is also looked at, a conflict Bernthal argues is ‘a strong, but underexamined presence in her later work.’ The key text used to explore this idea is Passenger to Frankfurt (1970), which he describes as a ‘deeply paranoid spy narrative with mystery elements.’ Bernthal looks back to Christie’s earlier thrillers and examines how Passenger to Frankfurt connects to them, in terms of their concerns and interests and he asserts that Christie’s last thriller ‘is in a Christiean tradition of illustrating political and revolutionary movements as mechanisms for individual power plays.’

Chapter 10: Of Race, Law, and Order: Colonial Ghosts by Meta G. Carstarphen

Most Christie fans will have some understanding of the name changes which occurred for Christie’s And Then There Were None (1939). However Carstarphen provides a rich and in depth look at this topic, which I think even seasoned Christie readers will discover something new in. I particularly enjoyed learning about the history of counting nursery rhymes and how the one used for the original Christie title was re-written and re-purposed for WW1 trench newspapers. The rhyme in that context was called ‘Ten Little Soldiers’ and Carstarphen writes that rhymes like this:

‘[…] proliferated during the First World War and became known for their apparent nonsensical verses and comic sensibilities, even when cloaked in violent depictions. Such verses could also be seen as ironic representations of the violent horrors these soldiers witnessed and experienced with regularity. [Emily] Anderson’s interpretation of these poems reveals a “dissident quality” in the humour, suggesting narratives that contrasted sharply with the more sombre heroic literature of the time […] In other words, trench newspaper rhymes mocked the very ideology of the First World War as the emblem of a great military effort being fought by intrepid heroes, suggesting just the opposite.’

The chapter then moves on to looking at the ‘imperial contexts’ of And Then There Were None, homing in on Philip Lombard’s crime. The killer of this story explains that they ordered the murders, so ‘the more cold-blooded offenders’ would ‘suffer’ the most by being left until last. Philip Lombard is one of those made to wait and Carstarphen notes that the killer’s ‘reference to being cold-blooded closely reflects the manner in which Lombard relates his decision to abandon Africans to save his own life. He never reflects emotional distress about his choice, and the lack of remorse seemed to have accounted for his extended punishment on the island as one of the last two surviving victims.’

Cover for And Then There Were None. It depicts a skeletal hand pointing towards a white house on an island.

However, the author of this chapter raises an interesting point about narrative expectations:

‘And yet, as one of the last two surviving characters, Lombard becomes, over the course of the narrative, heroic in the readers’ eye – handsome, courageous and intelligent. As readers, are we being conditioned to regard his crime as one youthful deviation from an otherwise worthy character? If Christie allows us to entertain this view, our perspective must change by the story’s end, when Lombard dies and the murderer reiterates the crime for which he is condemned. It is a delicious complexity, one of many, that compels readers to returns to this story again and again.’

This got me wondering how I regarded Lombard as I read the story and it makes me keen to dig my copy out and give it a re-read (always a sign of a good essay!). I would be interested in hearing how other readers have reacted to Lombard and whether your response to him changes over the course of the book.

Chapter 11: Christie and the State by Mary Evans

Mary Evans’ chapter looks at ‘the role of the state, and the variety of ways in which the state does, or does not, intrude on the worlds which Christie creates.’ I found it interesting that she raises the issue of nostalgia affecting how this topic is perceived and moreover how this has been compounded or affirmed by TV adaptations. Yet the argument of this chapter is that there are ‘other indications and themes’ in Christie’s ‘writing’ that ‘suggest a more problematic attitude to the question of the relationship between the individual and the state than that which is generally assumed.’

Evans notes that a distance between the state and its citizens ‘is central to Christie’s world, in that it provides little or no assistance for its fictional citizens. The absence of the state as a source of material support for its citizens is central to that theme of classed precarity and instability which is central to Christie’s work.’ Financial insecurity is something the author explores in Christie’s own life as well as touching upon other pertinent pieces of socio-historical context. Evans suggests that ‘the various insecurities of the middle-class world […] provided the background to the work of Christie in the 1920s and 1930s,’ yet I wonder if this is still something we see in Christie’s post-WW2 work, such as in novels like Mrs McGinty’s Dead (1952) and After the Funeral (1953).

After exploring the more fraught and complicated relationship women might have with the state at that time, the chapter switches focus to how amateur detectives and the police are portrayed in Christie’s work. Contrasting British and American police forces at the time, Evans opines that:

‘In Britain, there is little suggestion in fiction that the police were corrupt in the same way as in the United States. The charge against them was one of limited intelligence; most particularly the inability to think outside the narrow boundaries of given stereotypes. It is perhaps this which gives Christie some claim for upholding the importance of giving credence and respect to the socially marginal. The servant, the person with little or no money or secure social position, and the young person attempting to find a place in the world are all given a place. At the other end of the social continuum, the rich and socially privileged are not depicted as free from evil or murderous intent.’

Evans then builds upon this idea by looking at how the outsider status of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple is visible in their thinking which she contends is ‘independent[…] of the assumptions made around them’ and thus contrasting their thought processes from those adopted by the police. For me, Evans perhaps stretches some comparisons in this section too far, in trying to compare the thinking capabilities of Poirot and Marple with the reluctance of interwar governments to consider alternative solutions to assuage national poverty and inequality issues. This claim felt tangential. I also thought the chapter needed more thematic cohesion, a greater sense of each part being part of a greater whole.

Chapter 12: House and Home – The Country House by Brittain Bright

Keying into the theme of Mathew Prichard’s chapter which emphasises Christie’s prioritising of family, Brittain Bright’s chapter argues that despite the ‘casual mention of “the house” in Agatha Christie’s detective novels’ conjuring up the image ‘of the “country house,” full of servants and guests, secret passages and motives,’ the home for Christie was ‘actually a surprisingly complex and flexible place’ which ‘is focused on domestic pressures, social expectations, and, particularly family.’

The country house is a well-established trope of the mystery genre and it was interesting that Bright mentioned that many interwar crime writers debuted with a country house mystery novel, including authors like Ngaio Marsh, Anthony Berkeley, Gladys Mitchell, Philip Macdonald and Margery Allingham. Nevertheless, she contends that the presence of a country house does not mean they are all used in the same way or for the same purpose:

‘That the “country house party” is considered a quintessential setting for the detective novel, from [Wilkie] Collins to [Lucy] Foley, exemplifies a critical tendency to overlook the work of place in the text. Some detective novels do feature social events in country houses, but it does not follow that all houses in all detective novels conform to such a pattern. The interwar Golden Age of detective fiction, the beginning of which is usually marked by the publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was an extraordinary fruitful period for many themes in detective fiction; however, few Golden Age novels actually revolve around shooting parties and bizarrely diverse gatherings, and Christie’s never do […] Instead, Christie develops an entirely different set of possibilities, which evolve over the course of her career. For Christie, the house represents not visitors, but inhabitants.’

I would be cautious in saying Christie ‘never’ wrote a mystery novel which ‘revolve[s] around […] bizarrely diverse gatherings’ as mulling over her oeuvre I was wondering if The Secret at Chimneys (1925) or The Seven Dials Mystery (1929), could be put under that heading. Nevertheless, I agree that there is a real family or long term residence focus to Christie’s other country-house-set mysteries. Bright has also got me thinking about whether the trope of the country house party has become more of a nostalgic cozy crime feature, which has been included as it is perceived to have been a staple of Golden Age detective fiction. Perhaps cozy crime has over inflated the prevalence of the country house parties in this earlier period of mystery writing? I would be interested to hear what others think about this.

Another thought which occurred to me was that although Bright’s chapter asks us to consider the country houses in Christie’s mysteries as family homes, rather than ‘as repositories of national character or lost civility’ (a quote she includes from the work of Alison Light), in Christie’s post-WW2 novels the family home is often overturned in these country houses, such as in They Did it with Mirrors (1952), Curtain (1975), The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962). That said Bright’s chapter is focused on the interwar novels, so therefore the comments in this chapter may not be intended to cover the whole of Christie’s writing career.

I felt the chapter might have benefitted from textual examples being included sooner, as I think they would have helped to support and underpin some of theoretical discussion. I also thought statements like this:

‘More essentially, however, nearly all the houses are rooted in a concept of family, and it is in this respect that Christie’s houses are most distinctive.’

needed more substantiating, perhaps with comparison to other contemporary crime writers and the way they depicted houses in their mysteries. However, I enjoyed Bright’s exploration of how houses in Christie’s fiction reflect their owners, how they in turn are shaped by their properties and how the way characters react to a house reveals something of their character. This latter point was brought out particularly well with an example in Death on the Nile.

Chapter 13: Agatha Christie, the Law, and Justice by Mary Anna Evans

This was a chapter I was interested in reading, having explored the theme of Miss Marple and justice in my dissertation. Mary Anna Evans states that in her chapter she:

‘[…] will discuss current scholarship on the relationship between crime fiction, the law, and this desire for justice, suggesting areas where further investigation would be valuable and presenting case studies on justice as explored in two of Agatha Christie’s most famous work: Witness for the Prosecution and Murder on the Orient Express.’

She kicks off the chapter by looking at definitions of justice and how complete justice is unachievable, which in turn leads to ambiguity, at times, over what is just in a given situation. Evans asserts that: ‘Christie explores the consequences of humans’ imperfect attempts to enact justice.’ I found the writing style in this chapter quite dense, which made it harder to read and I felt the case studies perhaps did not say a great deal but were quite long. Having chosen a text like Murder on the Orient Express, I think it is hard for someone to have something new to say about the ambiguous role of justice in this mystery.

Chapter 14: Christie and Christianity by J. C. Bernthal

50th anniversary edition cover for Star over Bethlehem. It is a red cover depicting a donkey.

This chapter looks at Christie’s own faith and Christian background, as well as the existing critical work on ‘theologically and biblically informed analyses of crime and detective fiction’. There is also a case study of Christie’s short story collection, Star Over Bethlehem (1965) which is one I have not read yet, so I particularly enjoyed learning more about it. One of the main theoretical ideas of the chapter is ‘the idea that whodunits have taken the place of religion, with detectives becoming godlike figures’ an idea Bernthal points out was ‘a hot’ topic ‘throughout the twentieth century.’ He also demonstrates a good use of examples to inform his ideas, such as when discussing how ‘a close reading of Christie’s texts shows an interest in religion and faith, and especially a fascination with how people read the Bible.’

Chapter 15: Poison in Golden Age Detective Fiction by Kathryn Harkup

Harkup is an author who has been on my radar since I first read her book, A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie (2015) and it is definitely one I would recommend reading. In some ways this chapter whets your appetite for her book. The chapter commences with an overview of the topic mentioning that ‘over two-thirds of’ Christie’s ‘books include some reference to poison, and it was the cause of approximately two-fifths of the deaths of her main characters’. I was also interested by the inclusion of John Trestrail III’s 2000 research which looked at 187 detective novels to ascertain the most used poisons. The results showed that cyanide was the most common, followed by mushrooms and then unknown poison and arsenic shared third place. However, I thought it was good of Harkup to highlight the limitations of this research.

Cover A is for Arsenic. It is art deco in design with A of the title in large art deco font, covering for top 2 thirds of the cover. The cover also shows an old fashioned green glass poison bottle.

The chapter then moves on to commenting how poison dates a novel and the differences between how poison is used in Golden Age Detective fiction and modern-day crime novels. I found this a particularly interesting section. Harkup then presents three cases studies on thallium, nicotine and arsenic and their use in six novels. Three of these are from Christie, but each Christie title is then compared with a work either written by Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham or Dorothy L. Sayers. These comparisons were one of the strengths of this chapter and I was intrigued by how Christie’s use of poisons in her mysteries was consistently different to the other writers, who tended to provide information dumps of research on the poison they were using. Harkup concludes that:

‘Christie’s focus on methods of administration and symptoms is in stark contrast to her contemporaries who tended to concentrate on forensic processes of detection. Christie was able to tailor her poison to her plot, and vice versa, far more successfully than her contemporaries, with the possible exception of Sayers.’

Part Four: Beyond the Crime Novels

Chapter 16: Hiding in Plain Sight: Mary Westmacott by Merja Makinen

Makinen is an author I have reviewed before on the blog, having read Agatha Christie: Investigating Femininity (2006) back in 2019. Makinen states that her chapter seeks:

‘[…] to instigate such a debate and to indicate a fruitful theoretical positioning of the novels within both autobiografiction and gendered historical analysis. While the Westmacott novels add little to our knowledge of Christie’s crime tropes, they give insight into the detective fictions’ social critiques.’

Of these aims, I feel the last one is perhaps not as strongly brought out in the chapter as the others. Makinen explores how the Westmacott novels should be handled when doing life writing analysis, to avoid simplistic readings. One of the key themes of this chapter was how the Westmacott novels challenge the happily ever after fairy tale trope and depict the ‘harder truths of life and sexual relationship.’ I think readings of the novels are used well here.

Chapter 17: Christie’s BBC Radio Broadcasts, 1930-55 by Vike Martina Plock

Plock begins by exploring how both the BBC and Christie as a writer and brand, were ‘products of the interwar period’. This chapter is concerned with:

‘[…] the early years of the BBC-Christie collaboration to examine how Christie drew creative inspiration and learned from the advent of radio technology in the first decades of her writing career. In revisiting materials from the BBC Written Archives Centre (BBC WAC) and the Hughes Massie Archive at the University of Exeter, it will also show that Christie’s professional confidence and her willingness to make concessions for BBC demands became inversely proportional as she began to manage her career more determinedly and effectively.

One section I found particularly interesting was Plock’s examination of Christie’s short story ‘Wireless’ (1925). For those unfamiliar with the tale, it is a:

‘[…] story deals with Mary Harter, an elderly widow with a heart condition, who is talked into the purchase of a new radio by her young nephew. Initially dismissive of “these new-fangled things” and worried about the effect of “the electric waves” on her health […] Mrs Harter is soon won over and begins to enjoy her new purchase. One evening she begins to receive strange messages from the wireless. A voice professing to be that of her deceased husband seems to be calling her from the afterlife. Increasingly worried, Mrs Harter begins to prepare for an impending death.’

Plock engagingly explore how Christie’s story reacted ‘to contemporary debates aligning new communication technologies with spiritualism.’ This was a new idea to me, but Plock argues that it ‘was not uncommon at the turn of the twentieth century to associate paranormal phenomena that had become the subject of psychical research with new technologies that were now used for communication transmission.’

Another idea which was new to me, was how the radio was ‘paradoxically […] regarded as both a domesticating and an emancipatory medium, confirming but also upsetting traditional notions of gender.’ This is a concept which was unpacked effectively, tying into the styling changes in radio programmes at that time and how the very format of a radio programme could enable a broadcaster to ‘gain[…] access not just to the home but also to the heart of the listener. In this manner, the boundary between the public and the private further disintegrated in programs that introduced (female) listeners to new and potentially radical ideas about their roles and responsibilities.’ This chapter also includes an analysis of ‘Miss Marple Tells a Story’ (1934), which was a story Christie penned for a BBC radio programme.

Chapter 18: Christie and the Theatre by Benedict Morrison

This chapter focuses on two theatrical works written by Christie, The Mousetrap (1952) and Rule of Three (1961). The latter of these featured three separate stories: The Rats, Afternoon at the Seaside and The Patient. Morrison looks at how these plays have been approached by scholars over the years. However, before doing so he actively engages with Julius Green’s Curtain Up: Agatha Christie: A Life in Theatre (2015). He regards this as ‘the pivot around which criticism of Christie’s theatrical works revolves; there is before Green and there is after Green, and it is hard to imagine that any serious criticism on the subject could be written in the future without a rigorous engagement with this book.’ I liked how the writer is not afraid of questioning some of Green’s judgements and how Morrison also advocates future researchers do not overlook Christie’s many less well-known plays. In comparison to some of the other chapters in this handbook, the case studies included felt looser and less focused.

Chapter 19: Film and TV Adaptations of Christie by Mark Aldridge

Cover for Agatha Christie on Screen. The cover depicts a grey moustache.

Previously on the blog I have reviewed Aldridge’s Agatha Christie on Screen (2016) and Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World (2020). If Christie adaptations is an area of interest of yours then I strongly recommend reading the first of these books, as the chapter in this handbook only really has the space to give a broad outline of the topic. Nevertheless, I found Aldridge’s discussion around the topic of fidelity to the text when it comes to adapting Christie mysteries, stimulating. Aldridge appreciates the intense feelings this issue can generate, being a Christie fan himself, but his discussion helps readers to take a step back and look at the underlying assumptions made about original texts in comparison to their adaptations. Furthermore, he brings up the additional ‘complicating factor’ when it comes to Christie adaptations which is ‘that most adaptations in the last forty years have featured the author’s name prominently, either above the title or in publicity material.’ I think it is possible that I prefer more fidelity to the text than Aldridge does when it comes to adaptations, but I am not unopen to films and TV series needing to make some changes. I just wish those changes, particularly when it comes to Christie stories being adapted, positively added to the viewing experience! This chapter has made me think a lot about which adaptations of books I have enjoyed, and it is interesting, to me at any rate, to see which adaptations I was more tolerant to when it came to changes being made. Two non-Christie adaptations from this category which sprang to mind were The Lady Vanishes (2013), which I felt improved upon the book’s more sedate original ending and the BBC Father Brown TV series, which has taken the eponymous character and placed him within a village setting and cases of the series’ own devising (as opposed to routinely adapting existing Father Brown stories). Reflecting on why some changes work and others do not is an important topic and I think it is one which adaptors of Christie mysteries should give more thought to, as change for change’s sake has in the past led to some poor choices in my opinion.

Chapter 20: Legacies by Barbara Peters with Martin Edwards, Rhys Bowen, Ragnar Jónasson, and L. Alison Heller

The final chapter of the handbook asks Barbara Peters (‘founder and editor-in-chief of Poisoned Pen Press and founder of The Poisoned Pen Bookstore’) and four crime writers to comment on ‘the ongoing influence of Agatha Christie’s work on modern crime fiction’. This is a chapter which promises much but unfortunately, I did not feel it lived up to expectations. Martin Edward’s entry was the exception and Ragnar Jónasson’s section was interesting, but I had been hoping for greater detail about the experience of translating Christie’s work. Barbara Peters’ opens the chapter, yet I found she repeated a lot of factual details about Agatha Christie that readers of this book would already know and/or have come across in previous chapters.

However, the weakest part of the chapter was Rhys Bowen’s section, which fulfils the category of a Christie fan who damns with faint (and in this case very faint) praise. If you were playing Christie criticism bingo then you would easily get a full house with this entry! Bowen begins by disagreeing with an article Sophie Hannah wrote praising Christie’s prose style opining that:

‘I think some of us may be laughing by now or shaking our heads. She was no Pat Conroy or Louise Penny, or even Dennis Lehane, or Reginald Hill whose novels still haunt me. Her writing is spare, not rich in vocabulary or description. She told a good tale. She kept me guessing until the end. But that was about it. Great books to read on a plane or a beach. You are never going to pause and savour an Agatha Christie turn of phrase or poetic description.’

I found it presumptuous of the author to assume what her readers’ opinions will be on Hannah’s comments and as the section unfolds there is an increase in the number of opinions which are stated in fact-like statements.

Usually, critics of Christie complain her characters are two-dimensional, but Bowen goes one further in saying that they ‘are usually rather one-dimensional’. Bowen also takes the opportunity in her section to paint a contrasting picture of how superior modern crime writing is:

‘The stories are always whodunnit and never whydunit. The crime writing field has moved into richer, more multi-layered stories in which we are involved in the private lives and histories of the sleuth and the characters and their relationships. The best mysteries today relate the personal life of the sleuth to the crime he or she has to solve. For some reason it becomes personal to them – wanting to atone for a past misstep or wanting justice when someone they loved was given none. We see none of this in Agatha. We are told the tale. It ends. We close the book.’

Passages like this perpetuate the faulty idea that modern mysteries which discuss the personal entrails of their sleuthing characters are automatically better to those that don’t. It overlooks the fact that mysteries which have detectives with past traumas to deal with are as cliched and as time worn as the trope of the body in the library. The narrative arcs of detectives with trauma can be as easily predictable too, except these days you must wade through hundreds of pages of padding to get to the end.

This section also almost adopts a whinging tone with lines such as this: ‘She does not always play fair. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is considered a clever, innovative novel, but there is an inherent unfairness to it. The narrator only tells you what he wants to and can withhold what he wants to.’ That sounds rather like the definition of a narrator, to me, and the reason why the book is clever is not because Christie produces an unsupported solution. It is because there are clues throughout the book, which the reader misses upon first reading, that this book receives the acclaim that it does.

So, what else is wrong with Christie’s work, according to Rhys Bowen? Let’s find out:

‘We have little sense of place in her books, The village. The market town. The big country house. But that is about it.’

To accept this statement, you need to ignore all the mysteries set in seaside resorts, trains, planes, London, boat mysteries, South Africa, deserts, school, the Caribbean and archaeological digs. Bowen continues:

‘We rarely know what plants are blooming, what birds are in the garden, what the air smells like, whether the scenery is wild and remote or sort and gentle.’

I have never read a book and found the setting lacking because I had not been informed what the air smelt of! Christie used punchy descriptions which stick in your mind and more importantly she left readers to fill in the gaps with their own experiences.

Sweeping generalisations are also a feature of this passage such as: ‘The books do not touch our emotions.’ Has Rhys Bowen polled every Christie reader to verify this fact-like statement? No. All Bowen can say is that her emotions are not touched.

After such a catalogue of perceived failings, it is no wonder that Bowen almost seems baffled by Christie’s popularity:

‘And yet there must be something. Agatha Christie has sold more books than any other novelist ever. That is a remarkable achievement.’

Perhaps in an endeavour to extricate herself out of the hole she has dug, (having just admitted that she owns ‘every book’ Christie ‘wrote’), Bowen suggests that ‘one of the reasons I believe that the books remain popular now is that these stories are safely removed from our own time and place.’ The escapist element or potential of Christie’s books is not something I disagree with, but that is not the sole reason Christie is so popular. You can argue that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is ‘safely removed from our own time and place’ but it is not a bestseller like Christie’s stories.

Furthermore, for someone who professes to have all of Christie’s books and presumably has read them, Bowen seems to have poor recall of the most common tropes to be found in them:

‘We enjoy the Christie novels because we’d like to spend time in a village with thatched cottages and a dotty vicar. We enjoy stepping back in time to meet dazzling and dangerous countesses and lords of the manor. We enjoy going to house parties with servants and to fancy hotels where there are handsome young men to be dancing partners.’

How many Christie stories correspond to this list of tropes? I don’t feel sufficient would, to warrant this summary of her work. For example, there are only two countesses and one viscountess I can think of in the canon (Countess Andrenyi, Countess Rossakoff and Viscountess Tamplin).

Having finished this section I was left wondering why this was included in a handbook which has been described by its own editors as ‘the first specifically academic companion to contemporary scholarship on Christie’s work’. Aren’t her backhanded compliments the very type of age worn criticism the handbook was supposed to counteracting? It is at this point that I returned to the handbook’s introduction to see how well Bowen meets the aims outlined there. Firstly, one thing the book was meant to eschew were ‘false generalities based on a fraction of her work, misremembered.’ This is not something, in my opinion, Bowen avoids doing. Having rightly challenged Julian Symons in their introduction, for his reductive and inaccurate comments on Christie’s life and work, it feels like in the final chapter he (or rather the attitudes he endorsed) has been allowed to sneak back in the closing chapter. In the introduction the editors write that:

‘Symons’s carelessness in describing Christie’s life and his failure to take her expertise in the dispensary seriously are part and parcel of this worldview that consigns her and her work to a cozy pigeonhole where they do not fit.’

Yet, Bowen herself writes that: ‘She really created the so-called cozy mystery.’ Finally, another aim of this book is that it intends to:

‘[…] set aside the false and misleading narratives that cling to the image of Agatha Christie, bringing together a diverse group of scholars who are among the most significant voices in the field, so that they can present the current state of research on her work and to point the way forward. All the voices in this volume look ahead to work yet to be done, as Christie’s oeuvre and legacy enters its second century.’

The impression Bowen’s section gave me, others may disagree, is that she does not meet the standard that was set out.

Give yourself a pat on the back for making it to the end of this rather long review! I hope it has helped to give you a good idea of what the handbook has on offer. Overall, I found it to be a thought provoking and stimulating read, which provided a variety of viewpoints to explore Christie’s work from. I enjoyed the fact that this handbook shows that even if you have read a lot about Christie and her work, there is always more that can be learnt. However, it is unfortunate that the handbook’s price is so prohibitive, as it excludes some voices from the conversation, keeping it within the walls of academia whose libraries are more likely to stock this title.

Rating: 4/5

Source: Review Copy (Bloomsbury Academic)


  1. I disagree with Rhys Bowen, and it’s a detriment to this book that such a condescending and dismissive point of view was included. You’re exactly right that this is age-worn criticism, that I’ve (unfortunately) seen way too many times.

    Christie’s often been criticized for lack of psychological depth (“one-dimensional”) but I think she had a pretty shrewd grasp of human nature, and I don’t believe the tortured and murky Freudian analyses of a Ruth Rendell are necessarily more “realistic”.

    Raymond Chandler also talked about how unrealistic Christie’s books and murders are. I love Chandler’s prose but his private detective can’t get through a single case without finding multiple dead bodies. Everyone he goes to question manages to get killed right before he arrives and yet he never happens to catch the killer in the act. I fail to comprehend how this is more “realistic”, either.

    Much of what other mystery writers have said about Christie strikes me as pretentious sneering. Some of these authors seem uncomfortable with being a mystery writer almost as if they’re afraid it’s inferior. They want their work to be taken seriously as real literature (“The crime writing field has moved into richer, more multi-layered stories blah blah blah”). There is plenty of room, and desire, for all kinds of mysteries.

    “We have little sense of place in her books”

    One of Christie’s strengths as a writer was the ability to portray people and places without using paragraphs and paragraphs of minute description. More doesn’t always mean better.

    What Bowen says about The Murder of Roger Ackroyd being unfair is flat out wrong. The book is very fairly clued, and Poirot lays out those clues clearly and succinctly when he sums up the case.

    “We enjoy stepping back in time to meet dazzling and dangerous countesses and lords of the manor. We enjoy going to house parties with servants and to fancy hotels where there are handsome young men to be dancing partners.”

    I’m not sure what Bowen is talking about here, but it bears little resemblance to Agatha Christie’s work. Maybe she should have done some re-reading of her Christie collection before contributing to this book.

    “The books do not touch our emotions.”

    As you pointed out, she should speak for herself.

    Liked by 2 people

      • I also disagree with Bowen that Christie was writing cozies, at least as I have come to know and define cozies over the years, but I figured I had ranted enough. Other mystery writers have been taking potshots at Christie for a very long time now, and it’s become something of a pet peeve of mine. Ruth Rendell said Christie’s books were inferior, because [paraphrasing] there’s no pain, where’s the pain? Well, readers don’t always pick up a book looking for pain. Readers can choose books looking for a variety of things at different times and in different moods. I think Rendell and P.D. James are enormously talented writers and I’ve admired many of their books, but I don’t assume that Christie’s books are inferior to theirs simply because they’re a different type of mystery. There are all kinds of mysteries covering a wide spectrum, and I like it that way, I don’t want the genre shrunken to only serious, “painful” books. I have read two of Rhys Bowen’s books, one of which I thought was pretty good and one I thought was just okay. Her books certainly didn’t “haunt me” as she says about writers who are supposedly so much better than Christie, whereas I recall every Christie book I’ve read. So the position of superiority Bowen adopts here I feel is misplaced. She can’t speak for all readers, and it’s arrogant of her to try.

        I ended up ranting more anyway.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Yes, those Rhys Bowne comments are a little odd, aren’t they? Very much giving vibes of someone who doesn’t like Christie — fair enough, not everyone is everyone’s cup of tea — and wants to stick the boot in a little.

    Also, I read “Ecocriticism” as “Eroticism” at first glance…and the mind boggled for a moment or two!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a funny coincidence. Rhys Bowen had remarked that Christie’s prose can’t compare to Louise Penny’s (among others), that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is unfair, and that Christie was writing cozies.

    I opened my Kindle edition of Ackroyd last night and suddenly noticed it contains an introduction by Louise Penny, which I then read for the first time. She describes Ackroyd as brilliant and well-written, and credits Christie with inspiring her to become a crime writer and with teaching her that there is no formula to crime writing. She also says that anyone who considers Christie’s books cozies hasn’t been paying close enough attention.

    “A crime novel can be warm, funny, comforting even, and still harrowing. It can be reassuring and deeply disturbing at the same time.”

    I guess the debate about Christie’s merits as a writer will continue, but it says a lot that fans of the genre still care this much 47 years after her death.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes Christie is an author who inspires strong feelings from her fans (and detractors!). Very interesting what you say about Louise Penny and her different viewpoint on Christie’s work. Christie’s work does have some ‘harrowing’ moments such as in Five Little Pigs, but I think they stand out more and have bigger impact because the surrounding text is not over saturated in gore or bleakness.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. To my very non-expert eye, and having read only your review rather than the book itself, I have the impression that the essay by Atia on reception in the Middle East and the essay by Bernthal on Christie’s religion are the most novel or fresh.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The nature of a handbook means some well-known topics do still need to be mentioned, but as you say it does include some topics which have been less well covered in the past and they are often come at from interesting angles.


  5. Thanks for your very comprehensive rundown! Some of these sections sound really interesting. Particularly the bits about the clue analysis (no amount of that is too much for me :p) and the treatment of the Middle East. I had not heard of Jabra Ibrahim Jabra before. Unfortunately I don’t think I can justify spending that much when I only want to read some of the chapters… Maybe I can find it in a university library or something.

    Liked by 1 person

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