Kicking Christie

Reading & Writing

Into this fan frenzy steps muggins…

Yesterday I was on a panel at London’s literary crime festival in the Grand Connaught Hotel (as featured in Sherlock Holmes stories), discussing her with four aficionados; her being Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie, Lady Mallowan, DBE, 1890-1976, known for 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections. The panel, which had real Christie experts on it, guardians of the Christie flame, praised her to the heavens, with one writer, Sophie Hannah, who has inherited the poisoned chalice of writing the Poirot books, going so far as to proclaim that she never reads any other author.

And I’m thinking, I’d better keep my mouth shut…

Christie was born wealthy and upper-middle class in Torquay, Devon, back when it was still the genteel home of maiden aunts and retired colonels. Torquay is a surfers town now, which is why as a young woman she was photographed with a surfboard in Hawaii.

She’s the world’s biggest-selling author and by far the most translated. Her books are diagrammatic frameworks as rigid as a mathematics puzzle that deliver mild amusement topped with a surprise. Her lead characters are not three-dimensional and have no more than three or four characteristics. She is obsessed with egress. ‘It was a fine old library with only one door and a pair of French windows leading to the closed garden.’ Her detective judges characters by their appearance; ‘she was a common-looking girl’ or ‘he had the shifty look of an Italian’.

We still enjoy Christie because the books have no time or place (there is no real sense of location in them), and they are easy and satisfying to read. She ushers us into a lost world of colonels, housemaids, vicars, butlers, flighty debutantes and dowager duchesses. At the time when they were written nobody found them realistic. Christie’s murder victims apparently received dozens of visitors in the moments before they died, and her victims were killed by doctored pots of jam, guns attached to bits of string and poisoned trifles, not far off from the implausibilities of John Dickson Carr.

As much as I enjoyed them when I was younger, the only thing I ever learned from an Agatha Christie novel was the lengths to which county people would go to show how much they hated each other. Although there is something brilliant about being able to construct a whodunnit so beautifully that you can reread it and still be fooled all over again. I’ve read the extremely dark and cruel ‘Endless Night’ three times, and always forget how it was done. Similarly, ‘Five Little Pigs’, ‘Curtain’ and ‘And Then There Were None’ are word-perfect examples of Christie at the top of her game. ‘Curtain’, particularly, is an outrageously brilliant way to end a series, written three decades in advance of being needed.

Back in the Grand Connaught, we’re all still lavishing unqualified praise on the Queen of Crime. Nobody mentions the snobbery and casual colonial arrogance of the books – after all, wasn’t Poirot Belgian? He was, in name at least – even though the only vaguely Belgian thing about him was the odd French phrase, a British affectation, and Christie’s international’s success rested on the simple sentence constructions that allowed her books be taught as ESL texts to children overseas.

Into this fan frenzy steps muggins here, who denounces ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ as one of the silliest books ever written, nothing more than a series of drab interviews in a series of little boxes. Cue gasps and much pearl-clutching around the hall as your writer realises that he is a/ out of place in this room and b/ might not make it out alive.

I had been sitting there with head nodding along when I realised, hey, I’m qualified to speak here, I’ve written a Christie-style book, ‘Hall of Mirrors’, I have a voice. And a funny thing happens. Some audience members start to agree. Later I get notes from readers wondering why the discussion had been so devoid of criticism. Surely unanimous praise leads nowhere, while critique raises questions? Isn’t this what panels are for?

The good thing is that Capital Crime, London’s first proper crime festival, looks set to stay. Well organised, full of stars and first-timers, in a glamorous setting, it was like playing the Palladium after touring the provinces.

22 comments on “Kicking Christie”

  1. Brooke says:

    Well done, you!

  2. Dave Kearns says:

    If I hadn’t started reading Christie in my teens I might not have been reading Fowler in my 60s. So there’s that.

  3. Peter Tromans says:

    Even if I read Christie’s Poirot, I see David Suchet’s TV characterisation. I had a great friend and colleague who was French Belgian, a brilliant person. Certainly, Suchet’s version captures many Walloon qualities and mannerisms that Dame Agatha may have missed.

  4. Arledn says:

    I must read your fiction to see if it’s likely to be read 50 years from now or if,just perhaps, you’ve missed something important in her writing from which yours could profit.

  5. Brian Evans says:

    Peter-if I read a Wodehouse “Jeeves and Wooster” I still picture Ian Carmichael and Dennis Price despite the brilliant Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie.

    The one good thing about Christie’s novels is that they are all totally readable in any order and they are completely stand alone. With so many now, eg Peter Robinson, Susan Hill and Stephen Booth there is so much baggage concerning the families’ of the copper and their dramas, that they have to be read in sequence as they don’t make sense otherwise. It sometimes seems like the authors would prefer to write a family saga as the murder seems to get in the way of the drama. Robinson (of Inspector Banks) once did the unforgivable in one novel of giving away the name of the murderer in the previous novel. Chris’s B and M are almost stand alone but not quite.

    I like the fantastical tongue in cheek “Midsomer Murders” on TV as they are stand alone. I believe there were only 4 original novels written.

    Also, why is the detective’s boss always such a lamebrain and yet he or she is of senior rank?

    Also, the detective’s boss is usually a total lamebrain that you wonder why he is the superior.

  6. Brian Evans says:

    Delete the last sentence in above!

  7. Helen Martin says:

    There certainly are an incredible number of phrases and descriptions that we would never put in books today and that is one reason I would prefer not to use them as ESL reading. Pity, because otherwise, as you say, they would be very useful.
    We’re getting Tommy and Tuppence just now and one thing you can say for Dame Agatha, there are lots of capable women in her books, women just getting on with life. Of course some of that getting on involves killing women who get in the way, but no path is totally clear.

  8. admin says:

    Arledn – a good point.
    Her timelessness and simplicity stand her in good stead for the future – but I don’t want to write timelessly, and I can’t because I live in a real world that’s changing fast. It would feel wrong not to reflect that.

  9. Martin Tolley says:

    Simple sentence construction certainly helps. Simenon’s Maigret stories are mostly written in French easy enough for my 50 years ago O-level French grade E to get a handle on even today.

  10. Brooke says:

    well said, Mr. Fowler.

  11. Ken Mann says:

    Dramatisation of good books often falls short of what was in your head when you read them. Dramatisation of bad books allows good actors to put in the characterisation that the original author left out. Exhibit A, every actor who has ever played Poirot. Exhibit B, John Thaw as Morse.

  12. Ian Luck says:

    On an episode of BBC Radio 4’s show ‘I’m Sorry, I Haven’t A Clue’ that came from Oxford, Jack Dee, in his introduction, mentioned that when Colin Dexter presented his manuscript about a middle aged, real ale loving, crossword solving genius misanthropist, he had to re-name the main character to ‘Morse’, as the publishers didn’t like his character’s original name, ‘Pub Bore’.

  13. Helen Martin says:

    Ian, renaming Morse (you are kidding, surely?) made possible the theme music for the television series.

  14. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – Radio 4’s ‘I’m Sorry, I haven’t A Clue’, is possibly one of the funniest things on radio. Ever. Jack Dee is a superb host, whose dry, misanthropic demeanour is perfect for the show, which was previously hosted by Jazz legend Humphrey Littleton, until his death, and he chaired the show in a state of constant bewilderment, which was hilarious in itself. It also meant that some extremely rude jokes slipped past the censors (and still do). The show is broadcast from various places in the UK, and Dee gives an introduction to the locale each episode, usually damning the place with faint praise, which they’ve always done. The show is described as ‘The antidote to panel games’, with chairman Jack Dee giving four panellists ‘Silly things to do’. The ‘Morse’ intro came from a trip to Oxford. And Barrington Phelong’s theme to ‘Inspector Morse’ (a show I loved), had Morse Code worked into the opening bars, and every episode was different. Why? Because the code spelled out a name. Usually that week’s villain.

  15. Ian Luck says:

    On reflection, I probably would watch a show or read a book featuring ‘Inspector Pub Bore’…

  16. Helen Martin says:

    Now I’m going to have to find episodes and see if you’re correct about the code. I understood it was either just the letter M or the name Morse. There’s always something to research.

  17. Wayne Mook says:

    I heard it was also supposed to give his first name which wasn’t given until almost the end of the book series.

    I like Christie, some are a lot better than others. ‘And Then There Were None’ is a favourite too, the Rene Claire film version is splendid.

    At times she does seem to be mocking her own style, ‘Evil Under the Sun’ feels like this. There are easy reading, I must say I’ve not read one for some years.

    Here big selling rival in the US was Earle Stanley Gardner, but he hardly seems to get a mention these days with his locked door mysteries. (Well more how dunnit?)


  18. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – I’m only going on whst Barrington Phelong said on a TV show – one of those ‘The Greatest Cops On The Box’ things.

  19. Brian says:

    Helen – to help with your “research” the Morse code is played for about 5 seconds then bleeds into the music. It’s not exactly a secret as it has been widely reported. However, as far I can tell it only spells out Morse although, as Ian says, it has been mentioned by some that he inserted other clues into the music but I can’t find it in the particular recording I have. He was a mad crossword enthusiast so it wouldn’t surprise me.

    Sadly, he died just a couple of months ago when he was back home here in Australia.

  20. Ian Luck says:

    For many years, you couldn’t include Morse Code, specifically ‘S.O.S.’ on recordings that would be broadcast – I imagine that there might have been automated systems that could filter out emergency signals that might have been triggered by the use of
    …—… on a recording. Nowadays, it’s use (Morse Code) has dwindled to the point that nobody seems to notice any more.

  21. Ian Luck says:

    Hmm. Seems to have joined up the dashes –
    . . .- – -. . . is what I typed. S.O.S., as any ABBA fan kno.

  22. Helen Martin says:

    That is too bad about Barrington Phelong. I have loved most of his theme music and his name is one of my favourites. Definitely my idea of a “deep” English name, the only improvement I could think of would be Phelong-Jones.

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