First, a disclaimer. I’m not an Agatha Christie obsessive. I’m not some sort of superfan or zealot or literary Jihadist.
But I have actually read her. And I know a thing or two about English society in the interwar years.
I’ve always been interested in why her books (or, more latterly, adaptations of her books) have always been so popular.
I think I know bits of the answer. Enough to roll my eyes when I read a glib hatchet job, like the one Andy Martin served up recently on the Independent website. I’ll link to it below if you’re interested.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read this article. It has been regurgitated with monotonous regularity since Christie’s death in the mid 1970s – and of course many of its classic elements were set in stone early on, with the publication in 1979 of Colin Watson’s Snobbery With Violence. The most egregious recent example was Andrew Marr’s cringe-making attempt to skewer the topic in his series on successful fiction genres, Sleuths, Spies and Sorcerers.
It’s a curious phenomenon. Because of course no-one who’s actually ever engaged with any of Christie’s books would feel comfortable with the regurgitation process.
And I suppose I’m curious as to why they’re so devoid of curiosity.
Actually, they’re almost militant about this. Martin apparently bases much of his thesis on the shoot-from-the-hip views of one of his mates, who he quotes as saying: “I’ve never read a single Christie and I’m not planning to either… You don’t need to read any of the books.”
I expect Andy Martin would be astonished to learn that Christie didn’t write many classic country house mysteries. In fact, you could argue (though I can hear the snorts of derision as I write this) none at all. He might also be amused to discover that the Poirot of the books was (comically) obsessed with money. And anyone who thinks the inter-war years were a “Golden Age of orthodoxy, conformism and shockability” needs their head examining. That or a library ticket.
But of course this isn’t really about books or criticism or aesthetics.
For weekend iconoclasts, Christie is seen, perhaps quite rightly, as a low risk target – and dishing it to her as the laureate of petite-bourgeois, reactionary tastes is a handy way for academia’s nearly-men to prove their class war credentials.
The real story is a good deal more complicated than that. As a whole host of cultural critics have pointed out, Christie and a handful of fellow post-Great War writers were actually charting the rise of a new class, one that (whatever Martin and his editors at the Independent would have you believe) has continued to grow and evolve.
Martin argues that the middle classes have all but disappeared. Well, perhaps. But the next time he’s in Cambridge, girding his loins for a spot of teaching, he should actually look around him.
And he might care to make use of one of the college libraries. There a whole other critical universe out there. Since the 1930s, clever and creative and interesting people have had insightful things to say about the whodunit in general and Christie in particular. Addicts of the genre like, for instance, W H Auden.
There’s also a strand of French literary criticism arguing that Christie is one of the least acknowledged progenitors of meta-fiction. You know: the murder is a red herring; the gig is really all about a narrator (the detective) spinning a narrative out of other people’s stories.
But then, as one of my mates, a former polytechnic lecturer, puts it: “I’ve never read a single work of French literary criticism and I’m not planning to either… You don’t need to.”
Whether they know it or not (or, indeed, whether they like it or not), those toiling at the “serious” end of the book trade inhabit an intellectual universe heavily indebted to Raymond Williams. A prominent Cambridge academic from a humble background in the Welsh marches, Williams was not just England’s foremost literary critic in the Swinging Sixties, he was an energetic Marxist who had a dominant influence on the ideological shaping of the New Left’s cultural studies agenda.
And of course this agenda, in dilute form, now dominates our liberal-left consensus as to the roles and responsibilities of literature in a progressivist society.
Williams was particularly adept at tracing the evolution of the English pastoral tradition – and, sadly perhaps, few of England’s most-loved 20th Century authors survive his scrutiny. In what was possibly his most important book, The Country and the City, he argued that, by the Edwardian era, the pastoral game was all but up. Here he is formulating his case that, in the late novels of Henry James, something really rather revealing was happening to the country house, as portrayed in literary fiction.
It has been said that James did not know or understand the best country-house in England, but it seems to me that he knew it all too well. For the shell, the façade, of a quite different way of living, was now the reality. It was possible, of course, to seal off the shell, to concentrate, meticulously, on its internal involutions, as in Ivy Compton-Burnett and some other successors. But more commonly the façade has been presented with an increasing grossness, and James’s moral anxieties have been reduced to a mechanical transience and intricacy. Anyone who wanted to isolate human relationships now had this conventionally isolating and theatrical scene in which to perform. There have been some ludicrous examples, in novels offering themselves as serious, into our own generation. There have also been a few consciously reactionary idealisations of this supposed class and its way of life, as in Evelyn Waugh.
But the true fate of the country-house novel was its evolution into the middle-class detective story. It was in its very quality of abstraction, and yet of superficially impressive survival, that the country-house could be made the place of isolated assembly of a group of people whose immediate and transient relations were decipherable by a mode of detection rather than by the full and connected analysis of any more general understanding. Sometimes the formula is merely instrumental, as in Agatha Christie and others. Sometimes, as in Dorothy Sayers, it is combined with middle-class fantasies about the human nature of the traditional inhabitants. But tradition, elsewhere, is reduced to old architecture, old trees and the occasional ghost. It seems to me very fitting that a mode of analysis of human relationships which came out of Baker Street, out of the fogs of the transient city, should find a temporary resting-place in this façade way of life, before it returned eventually to its true place in the streets. For the country-house, while it retained its emotional hold, was indeed a proper setting for an opaqueness that can be penetrated in only a single dimension: all real questions of social and personal relationship left aside except in their capacity to instigate an instrumental deciphering. In very recent times it had been leased again as a centre for criminal planning or espionage or the secret police. But the point is that the country-house, in the twentieth century, has just this quality of abstract disposability and indifference of function. The real houses can be anything from schools and colleges and hospitals to business retreats, estate offices and subsidised museums. In the same way, emotionally, they can be the centres of isolated power, graft or intrigue, or what are called the “status symbols” – meaning the abstractions – of success, power and money which are founded elsewhere but left conveniently out of sight. It is not a sad end; it is a fitting end. The essential features were always there, and much of the history that changed them came out of them, in their original and continuing domination and alienation.
Postscript: the country manor house actually survived in the pages of literary fiction (which is to say, Bookerish books) right up until Valentine’s Day 2013, when it was burned down by Jim Crace.