Few (literary) critics of any real ability have chosen to engage wholeheartedly with the Agatha Christie phenomenon, even at a superficial or “post modern” level. (Perhaps, indeed, she needs someone to do for her what Borges did for Conan Doyle.) The conventional literary take on Christie is that she inhabits a fawning world of drab conservatism; and that, while her plots may be really rather diverting, her writing style is tiresomely (perhaps even comically) dull.
This, we would argue, is to miss the point by a country mile.
That’s not to suggest that she is a neglected master of narrative prose. She isn’t. But it’s also true to say, for instance, that it’s terribly hard to mimic her style. And that’s because there’s a lot more going on there than first meets the eye.
There’s pastiche, sly digs at Edwardian literary conventions; and what can only be described as an archness. “It is an archness one hears again and again in the period – in Wooster, in Wimsey, but also in Waugh and Huxley, and in the essays of Virginia Woolf – a refusal of seiousness, of the cumbrous and weighty, as well as of the moral sententiousness of the older generation,” says Alison Light. “Christie’s dialogue is mimimalist; the conversation between her young people aims, like Coward’s, at a ‘delightful silliness’; like his, her conversation pieces perfect the art of the throwaway remark, the topical and perishable.”
Alison Light’s 1991 study, published in a collection called Forever England, is fascinating in its attempt to restore Christie to a more meaningful context. What we fail to see now, she argues, was that Christie was at the leading edge of something really rather interesting. She was, in point of fact, a “conservative modernist.”
What’s more, she continues, Christie was more sophisticated and forward-looking than the likes of Raymond Chandler, whose “tough guy” protagonists were a throwback to an earlier Bulldog Drummond era.
But of course that’s all rather academic now. Though Christie’s stock (thanks to ITV’s long-running commitment to both Poirot and Marple) has never been higher, no-one actually reads her any more.
And TV’s Christie is in some respects the Christie that the laziest critics of an earlier generation offered us. A nostalgic, High Tory, snobbish Christie.
The thing is, that’s not Christie at all.
If country houses evoke ancestry, settled traditions and kinship, Christie’s, when they do feature, fail on all counts, seeming mainly to interest the writer at the point at which they are no longer inhabited by aristocrats but are modernised by the middle classes… [she] has no Brideshead and there is more flirtation with the idea of the landed gentry as the civilised class in Virginia Woolf or DH Lawrence than in her work. The whodunits are not excuses for bemoaning the decline and fall of the big house, and the death-throes of liberal culture. Where she does use big houses, they are seldom described as repositories of national character or a lost civility; it is their character as private homes which appeals to her. Hers is not a romantic conservatism, cleaving to the aristocratic as a mark of a better past or a model for the good life. Rather she speaks to a readership reconciled to the present, unfrightened by change and confidently domestic. In fact Christie is as likely to be [as] fascinated by “new money” as she is by new homes: both offer different possibilities for economies of desire, for exploring the tensions which lie within any domestic life.
From Forever England by Alison Light, 1991
Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, ITV, 8pm, 13 November 2013