Saturday, March 9, 2019

Understanding Agatha

RHYS BOWEN:

When I’m stressed, overwhelmed, overworked, I tend to reach for a comfort read. And often those reads are an Agatha Christie book. I have them all on my shelf. All 81 books/short story collections that she published. I am reading one now (or rather re-reading, as I have read them all several times): After the Funeral. Her books are short, slight and in many ways superficial, so I’m wondering why she is so popular.


These are some observations:
1.She ever engages the reader emotionally. We do not weep for the body in the library!

2.We have multiple points of view so that we are not actually following one sleuth.

3.The book is presented more like a movie: we go from scene to scene, watch different people interacting, rather than following the journey of the sleuth until he or she solves the crime.

4.The sleuth is more vehicle than character. We know little of his or her personal life. We never see the sleuth battling their own demons, trying to make up for past mistakes or finding the crime to be horribly personal. We only know that Poirot  is Belgian, was in the police and, I believe has a brother called something else classical. We don’t know of past mistakes, loves, aspirations. We never see what traumas he overcame to escape to England during WW1. He enjoys the company of Hastings, but is remarkably without need of other people.
Ditto Miss Marple, although she seems to enjoy company more. But we know nothing of her past life (although the TV series has tried to hint at a doomed romance in WWI there is nothing of this in the books.)

5: The books focus only on the crime. We come across it near the beginning or at the beginning of every book and the story is just in service of the solving of the crime. Setting and character are merely hinted at. Houses are only described if it is important to know why slept in which room. The part of England is only alluded to if it is important, near the cliffs, on the bank of a river etc.
The characters are seldom complex. Most can be summed up in one sentence:: the nosy old spinster, the vain young actress, the not-quite-straight younger son who has charm but no conscience.

6: The motives make sense. The clues are clever. The puzzle is all important.(although she does occasionally cheat, when Hercule Poirot knows something the reader can’t, or when the narrator is the murderer and keeps that fact from us!)

7: There is a clear sense of right v. wrong and justice being served at the end of the story.
So why are they popular? For the very reasons quoted above. They do not touch us emotionally. They are terrific books to read without getting involved, depressed, scared or upset. The sort of books one can read while waiting for a flight or trying to sleep in a strange hotel room. As I write this I notice that in her later years her books did show more depth. Curtain, for example, shows a sympathetic Poirot facing his own death. And BY THE PRICKING OF MY THUMBS puts an elderly Tuppence in danger and aware of her own limitations.

So why do I like them? Because I know what I'm going to get. I know there will be no blood and gore. I know I will not be shocked or weep for a character. It's like a pleasant afternoon tea party: satisfying but not too rich and not too long. And I have to confess, when I look at those Agatha teapots on my shelf I give her a little nod of thanks for creating a genre where I have been so happy!

How about you? Are you a Christie fan? Do you think that the evolution of the mystery into a more complex literary form is a good thing?  Do you like to have a sleuth whose personal life is important to the story, who evolves through a series, who actually matters to you? Some of the letters I get about Lady Georgie show that my readers consider her a real person, a friend. Do you want more setting, background, local color? More of what’s going on in the outside world?

I find that I do, most of the time. It’s just when I’m extra tired, stressed, tense that I reach for Dame Agatha and there is a body on the hearthrug in a small English village.

43 comments:

  1. Yes, I am most definitely an Agatha Christie fan. And, while I enjoy her stories, I also enjoy the more complex form with greater depth of characterization, the setting, background, and local color. I love series where the character grows over the course of many stories and, as much as I enjoy the Agatha Christie stories, I am happy that the genre has evolved . . . .

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  2. I have spent more time with Christie plays than I have the novels themselves. She does a wonderful puzzle. I do like series regulars we get to know who evolve over time, and I find her characters a little thin. On the other hand, the overdone characters that can take away from the plot drive me crazy as well, especially if they have a tragic backstory.

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  3. I have such a special place in my heart for Agatha Christie's books. I read them all in my 20s, after I'd gotten married at 22 and before I had children at 29. I had moved away from my hometown and family and friends there to the other side of the state, and Agatha's books were such a comfort to me. I fell in love with mysteries for good then. I especially loved Miss Marple and the village of St. Mary Mead. I am beginning to pick out some Agatha Christie's that I want to read again. I like the trade paperback editions as opposed to the mass paperbacks that I read way back when, and, of course, being older I like a bit larger print. I recently bought Hallowe'en Party and 4:50 from Paddington. In my new fascination with the Dell Mapback series of mysteries, I bought four or five Agatha Christie Mapbacks from Mystery Mike's at St. Pete's Bouchercon. I do so want to visit Agatha sites in England one of these days soon.

    I do prefer more fully developed characters though. I love the back stories of characters and how they came to be as they now are. As you mentioned, Rhys, my favorite characters in series do indeed seem like old friends, and I become quite emotionally invested in their lives. Lady Georgie is certainly one of those for me. Setting is another element I savor, and my travel bucket list is filled with the places I've become acquainted with in books. So, I enjoy and prefer the more complex evolution, but, as I said, I think I'd like to revisit a few of my favorite simpler stories, too.

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    1. I also love 4:50 From Paddington and have read it many times. Love the way that story is told.

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  4. I clearly need to go back and do some re-reading! I grew up next to my mother's shelves of Christie and read them possibly before high school. So it's been a while.

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  5. I think I was in seventh grade when I started reading Christie and I just loved them. But now I find that characters are more important than the puzzle which is why I enjoy the series that I do. I always look forward to checking in with my favorite people with each new book.

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  6. Rhys, interesting topic this morning. I love Agatha Christie, although I haven't read all of her books. Even though we didn't get much backstory, I did and do find her main characters distinctive. And the setting--you're right--not a great deal of detail, but to me there was always a sense of 'Britishness' about them, a sense of lives lived that were very different (in time and place) than mine and so they widened my small world as a young reader. I keep The Nemesis and The Moving Finger in my re-read rotation.

    That said, I grew into reading more sophisticated mysteries and greatly enjoy those, especially series with characters I find appealing, settings I'd love to visit one day. One wouldn't say that Alexander McCall Smith's mysteries are dark psychological dramas, the 'mystery' is often very slight--but I love reading those. Just as I do those lighter mysteries with a froth of comedy for our added pleasure (Lady Georgie, I'm looking at you!), and certainly what I find to be darker, more complex mysteries (Deborah Crombie, Julia Spencer Fleming, Louise Penny, for examples). Charles Todd--even thinking of The Gatekeeper makes me want to weep for her character. When the same book can make me laugh out loud and bring me to tears later, you can bet I'll be reading more of that author.

    What I steer away from is any writing that bores me--I don't care how clever the backstory or different the character or exotic the setting--if the writing comes across as mechanical or formulaic, I'm done.

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  7. Oh, absolutely! Absolutely. I remember reading murder on the Orient Express, and gasping with how brilliant it was. I bet I was about nine! Same with the murder of Roger Ackroyd. Genius genius genius. More to come… Got to run. But I am with you leading the standing ovation.

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  8. Christie's books are puzzles, light, but with a bite as the sleuth unravels ( like Jane's ball of yarn) the mystery and identifies the culprit. Recent TV and movie adaptations tend toward a darker, more introspective interpretation of her sleuths.

    I return to a series because I like the characters: Inspector Bruno, Ruth Galloway, Vera Stanhope, Armand Gamache.

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    1. All of these series are my favorites, Margaret, because the sleuths are real, like able essentially good people! I,not keen on tortured, anti social sleuths on the whole

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  9. This analysis is completely brilliant, Rhys - what fun to wake up to into a Saturday morning. Don't you think the books are also funny? There's an archness in her character description, satire of the kind Jane Austen brought to her pages. Miss Marple's back story is one crying out to be written? Some day someone will do it when they stop being afraid of getting sued by the estate.

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    1. Especially the Tommy and Tuppence books, Hallie. Which were always my personal favorites for their wit.

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    2. Oh yes, Hallie, there is a touch of wicked observance to her writing, not quite a sharp as Jane Austen,but very witty. I especially enjoy Miss arple's comments

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  10. You summed up every reason I’m addicted to Christie. I began reading her at 14 to kill time while commuting to the city for an acting program and had all her books by the end of the summer. I go back to them regular. I also have about a half dozen books about her and her writing. One thing I also love is her flashes of wit and simple but vivid description . She described one woman as having eyes the color of “boiled gooseberries.” I love that. My favorite might be “Sleeping Murder.” It’s a very melancholy book and haunting. And the biggest clue revolves around one of my favorite Jacobean plays, “The Duchess if Malfi.”

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    1. Sleeping Murder is among my favorite Christie books as well. I've read it many times and enjoyed it each time.

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    2. Sleeping Murder is brilliant!

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  11. Pardon my typos! Writing on my phone, which I hate doing.

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  12. This is incredibly astute, Rhys! And correct. I started reading them at 12, while babysitting for some avid mystery readers who had all the books, and I still read them (and Ngaoi Marsh's books) on a regular basis. I do think they offer nostalgia re good vs. evil, which makes them comforting now. And a guaranteed way to rest my overactive brain. I love her vivid locations and worlds. Death on the Nile is one of my favorites, and I also loved all the Tommy and Tuppence books.

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    1. Tommy and Tuppence are fun but also a bit silly when they get into serious spying. I want to shout, " Don't go in there, you idiot!"

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  13. I loved your analysis of Christie's writing, Rhys! And she is definitely on my list of comfort authors. I have special favorites that I've read over and over through the years. As you mentioned, you know exactly what you'll get and even though I know the solution to the puzzle, I love the stories anyway. I read mysteries for the puzzle and also for the characters. Yes, if the author seems to focus on the puzzle, the characters are often not so completely described, but that's why I read long-running series. I am probably more fond of Miss Marple, but I certainly have my Poirot favorites s well. SLEEPING MURDER might be my favorite Christie book of all. I remember watching the TV adaptation of it (the one with Joan Hickson as Miss Marple) many years ago with my daughter. The 'monkey paws' parts of it totally freaked her out. Ha! Oh, and my favorite actors for the characters are Joan Hickson and David Suchet. Lovely, both of them.

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    1. My favorites too, Kaye. I wish they wouldn't keep remaking Miss Marple as nobody else does her as well as Joan Hickson. She's exactly right!

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    2. Joan Hickson was a marvel as Miss Marple--wonderful performances!

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  14. Such an interesting analysis! Thank you.I hadn't read any Christie in many decades and recently re-read Death on the Nile. I'd forgotten how very good she was, how smoothly she brought us right into the story, and the touches of satire. And now you have told me how she did it! Yes, in general I prefer mysteries with a lot more background and layers, characters resembling real people. The genre has evolved. But we all have times we need those old favorites, as you've described so well,that feel so familiar and comforting, that pass the time and won't keep us up at night.

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  15. Rhys, I had no idea there were 81 Christie mysteries. Clearly, I have catching up to do.

    I will have to revisit her books. At one point in the late 70's (?) I somehow ended up on the Mystery Book Club--remember those? It broadened my taste level for mysteries, beyond the generic English village type. I also used to read books I did not think of as classic mysteries: Sidney Shelton, etc. That was really the last time I read Agatha Christie, sadly, although one of my daughters was obsessed with her books in early high school. She left most of them here, I think.

    My taste runs in clumps. For a long time I read suspense, but now it bothers me a lot to read anything too tense-making. Sounds like Christie would be a perfect antidote.

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    1. Me too, Karen! I devoured Mary Higgins Ckark for a long time and suddenly couldn't take it any more, especially children in jeooardy

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    2. Exactly right. I had to stop reading Patricia Cornwell and Allison Brennan for that reason, although women in jeopardy. Life is horrifying enough without making stuff up.

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    3. I have had the same reaction to certain authors, and you've named two of them--Mary Higgins Clark and Patricia Cornwell. The violence just becomes too much for me after a certain point.

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  16. I always think of Christie as the gateway drug. Like many of you, I started reading her books when I was 13 or 14, and read as many as I could all through high school. That got me hooked on mystery as a genre. I haven't really gone back to Christie's books since, but I probably should, to look at them from a more adult perspective. I have long admired her as a role model and a feminist pioneer, as well as a good writer.

    And, while I really enjoy more complex characters and deeper stories these days, I will always step up to defend what I call "popcorn books." They may not have a lot of nutritional value, but on days when I'm super-stressed and just want a risk-free, not-very-complicated escape, they are so, so perfectly delicious and filling.

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  17. Big Agatha fan here. I loved this line in your blog post: “It's like a pleasant afternoon tea party: satisfying but not too rich and not too long.” In a world that is often too much, or “extra” as the kids say these days, I find great joy in the clever and witty and not emotionally overwrought books by Christie.

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  18. Rhys- thank you for bringing something to my attention. I now realize that I have not read much Christie but I've seen loads of her work. The sparseness of character and setting have never been apparent to me because the visual nature of cinema filled in all the blanks! I need to re-introduce myself to Dame Agatha and find out if I'm a fan of her writing. How fun!

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  19. I am a huge Christie fan and I read them for much the same reasons. I'm stressed or out of sorts, and I want something simple and relaxing. I am a fan of Christie's plotting, but as you poing out in your (brilliant) analysis above, she breaks a lot of modern "rules" - yet manages to endure. And frankly, when they introduced the more emotional backstory in the movies (like Poirot's angst in David Suchet's MOTOE) I get a little annoyed.

    So yes. Most of the time I want a rich story with complex characters and setting and everything - but sometimes I just want to wrap a warm blanket around me and have a nice cup of tea and a cookie.

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  20. I came to Christie late in life when touring Ireland with my cousin in 2002. We came into the B&B from dinner and found the landlady watching TV. She patted the couch and said, "I love Miss Marple". I've been hooked in Christie since. I love the puzzle. She was a genius, if you ask me.

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  21. I have read many of her books.
    I have two problems with them.
    1-The Poirot books have a lot of French in them and it is not translated. As a person who took Spanish in high school, this irritates me because I lose part of the story.
    2-I feel that she often kept critical information until the very end, the "A ha!", making it impossible for the reader to fairly try to determine the who done it.

    Miss Marple is rather delightful, however, and Joan Hickson was her embodiment.
    Who on earth thought to use Margaret Rutherford???

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  22. The plot. The puzzle. Fair play. That's why I continue to enjoy Christie, and reread six or so every year.

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  23. Rhys, I have been a fan of Agatha Christie since I read At Bertram's Hotel. I was 12 years old and it was quite a challenge to read with many unfamiliar words. Now it is easy to read. I like the fact that there is no blood and gore. Agatha Christie once wrote in her autobiography that her brother in law complained that there is no blood in her books. LOL. To me, your Constable Evans novels and Lady Georgie are my comfort books. I like being able to follow the story. I am trying to pinpoint if it is the characters or plot or both. I think of Miss Marple as Joan Hickson and she was perfect for that role! And David Suchet made a perfect Hercule Poirot, though I am not a fan of the recent adaptations to screen.

    Diana

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  24. Rhys, what a wonderful analysis, and a great thing to wake up to on a Saturday morning! Like so many of us--and as Gigi says so perfectly--Christie was my "gateway drug." I read every one I could get my hands on in my early teens, and then moved on to Marsh and Sayers and Allingham, and then to PD James. I loved the puzzle aspect then, and I still admire books that are very deftly plotted (two of my favorites are Reginald Hill's On Beulah Height, and Rhys's Twelve Clues of Christmas) although I read more for character and setting these days.

    Christie was a fascinating person, and I think has been under-rated an a writer. That they are "easy to read" is a sign of good craft. Her social satire is marvelous, and they provide a wonderful snapshot of British life in a certain era. And although her crimes tended to be fairly "bloodless" on the page, some of them are really quite horrible. She wasn't squeamish!

    My favorites were always the Tommy and Tuppence novels, for their charm. And my all-time favorite Christie is a standalone, They Came to Bagdad. You really see her deep knowledge and love of the setting. I do need to renew my acquaintance with some of the series books, especially the Marples. Maybe I'll start with At Bertram's Hotel.

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  25. Like many of you as a young reader Agatha Christie was my first introduction to the world of mysteries and she didn't disappoint. I loved her logical approach to the murder in hand, the uncluttered character analysis and the comfort of knowing that all would be revealed within the book covers. All that and a good cup of tea (or glass of wine - sorry Agatha, not sherry) are still the perfect occassional 'disconnect' for me today.

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  26. Yes, Agatha Christie came after Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys in my mystery history. I do remember feeling sad about some of the victims but a lot were very nasty people who had many enemies(suspects). Now I think I like knowing more about the detective and family and friends but as a teenager/young adult the puzzle and plot were more important.

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  27. Obviously my education is lacking, I have not read anything by Agatha Christie, forgive me. I read Nancy Drew, my cousin introduced me to her. I've been thinking about what would be my "go to read", the one author that might be my touchstone of comfort - I don't think I have one. There are times that I read the same author/series, 2 or 3 books but usually to catch up. Keller, Tracy, Penny, all you talented authors.... Must find a Christie.....

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  28. Got caught in the filter I think

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  29. Thanks, Rhys, for the wonderful post. Like you, I'm a huge Agatha fan and I turn to her in times of stress. In fact I wrote a blog post about doing that very thing when my daughter had a double transplant. Miss Marple definitely calms the nerves. While I've read the books and short stories, I also like to watch the old Miss Marple series with Joan Hickson. She is the ultimate Marple and I don't think anyone will ever replace her. I'm also entranced by any biographical info about Agatha I can get my hands on. For instance, there's a good interview with her grandson on a Lucy Worsley show about British Murder. Sorry -- I could go on and on. Just thank you for reminding me how much I love her and how much I need her when life is unsettled.

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