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.”