Every couple years the “public” rediscovers Agatha. As there’s a new film of Murder on the Orient Express due in the fall, non-crime readers have been looking for that particular book. In general, however, Christie remains our bestselling author as her appeal is timeless. I was thinking about the innovations she brought to crime fiction and thought about her plots, for which she is justly famous.
She came up several tropes that are still in pretty much constant circulation: the narrator is unreliable/the killer (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd); everyone is the killer (Murder on the Orient Express); everyone is killed (And Then There Were None); or someone long dead is found to be unjustly accused, causing an uproar in the present (Murder in Retrospect). Oh, and she also wrote a very early example of psychological suspense, Endless Night (1967). Though Josephine Tey wrote earlier versions of psychological suspense (The Franchise Affair, 1948 and Brat Farrar, 1949) Tey’s clung to some remnants of traditional detection. Christie’s story is so modern it could easily find a market today and it might be written by someone like Ruth Ware or Belinda Bauer (or, earlier, Ruth Rendell).
People dismiss her as “simplistic” or “easy reading” but something as finely tuned and assembled as her stories are is neither. The actions seem to grow organically, one from the next – while some of the situations are indeed fantastic (a poison dart in an airplane, for example) they never seem forced – they seem like a natural part of the plot.
In middle school I read the books one after another and after book 25 or so my dim mind began to perceive how her brilliant one worked and I could begin to figure out where she was headed. She’s always an expert in misdirection – she gets you to focus on one thing, when the thing that’s important may sit quietly in the background and you, as a reader, overlook it.
The other thing Christie did and which has been endlessly imitated is to create Miss Marple. While I am a Poirot fan, he has his ancestors. He didn’t spring out of nowhere. The quietly subversive Miss Marple, however, is another story entirely. Miss Marple makes her first appearance in 1930 (The Murder at the Vicarage), and while Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver appeared slightly earlier (Grey Mask, 1928), the first Miss Silver book is a very far cry from her later incarnation. In the first book Miss Silver is almost a cold and ruthless figure. She only becomes the familiar Miss Silver with the publication of The Case is Closed (1937) when her knitting and innate kindness come to the fore.
Miss Marple, however, springs to life as “fluffy,” the village busybody who nevertheless has a penetrating intelligence (another hallmark of Miss Silver). Both of them are often overlooked and ignored by virtue of their age and their gender. Talk about misdirection – this is as quietly subversive as it gets. While Miss Marple and Miss Silver sit knitting in a corner, they’ve figured everything out. Miss Marple famously compares everyone to the villagers in St. Mary Meade, asserting that people are types and are the same everywhere. This may be Christie’s most radical notion, and the older I get, I can’t disagree with it. Never take Agatha for granted – she’s one step ahead and she’s come up with about every plot. Any reader could do worse than spending the rest of their lives reading and re-reading Agatha Christie.