Agatha and the Academics: Another Angle

Our intrepid heroine, eschewing the need for a room of one’s own and setting up camp at the dinner table (not really — but that’s what she told the press).

This week, Dominique Jeannerod, Brett Jacob, and I released some research which the national and international press were keen to discuss. Commissioned by UKTV Drama, we came up with two ‘Agatha Christie formulas’: one to see ‘how she did it’, and one for ‘how to solve whodunit.’

I have now given nearly fifty media interviews throughout the week, and the story has appeared in over two hundred newspapers and magazines. By far the most repeated question has been ‘Aren’t you sapping the fun out of them?’ Several Daily Mail commentators seem affronted that ‘Mrs. Christie’ is being ‘ruined’ by ‘loons with too much time on their hands’, Quill and Quire accused us of murdering a good read, and somebody at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, asked ‘what would Agatha Christie have made of this?’

As spokesperson for the project, my response is that this is a bit of fun; we are not trying to spoil the books but to bring a new angle to them and enjoy them in a different way, in honour of Christie’s 125th birthday. Personally, I would say that Christie would have found the study hilarious.

Some lovely archival finds from fellow Exeter researchers working with the Red Cross in 2014.

There is a strong anti-intellectualism in this and other fan-communities but I have come to believe that most of this is manufactured by journalists. Most fans I have spoken to have found the story an interesting curiosity. Perhaps they are holding back because many are personal friends, but somehow I don’t think so. When I gave a talk at the International Agatha Christie Festival entitled ‘Agatha Christie at the University’ it sold out quickly and the response from fellow enthusiasts was great: they liked to see that their favourite author was being taken seriously.

Christie herself was marketed as anti-intellectual. When she gained a CBE, she wrote to her agent, “One up to the low-brows!!” (note the double exclamation mark). She’d been – at this stage – denied a Damehood on the grounds that she was “not worth more than the CBE” according to leaked correspondence. Her books are full of references to naiive highbrows. Miss Marple, she notes in A Caribbean Mysteries, knows more about sex (and therefore the human condition) than any of those “clever young men from Oxford who wrote books”.

The study that set the ball rolling. I’m afraid I haven’t read it. Have you?

But is there another side to this? As I have stated elsewhere, we need to take seriously that Agatha Christie knew what she was doing. And she is not an isolated case. There is more to any enduring crowd-pleaser than meets the eye. Dare I say that Dickens entered respectability more quickly than Christie because he was male, and certainly not on the grounds of literary merit? I think – and many would disagree – in fact, I would have disagreed until recently – that Christie would be very happy with the glut of scholarship surrounding her work today. In fact, I think that she would have joined in.

In the 1960s, an American academic called Gordon C. Ramsay produced the first academic study of Christie’s fiction. The story goes that she wrote to him thanking him for his work and informing him that she hadn’t understood a word of it. This fits the stereotype nicely but is actually entirely untrue. In fact, as material on Martin Edwards’ website indicates, she was keen to get involved, reading and correcting the proofs. This was not a case of making sure that no solutions had been given away – although that was part of it – but detailed and enthusiastic attention to what was being said. As Edwards notes, the manuscript was returned with a few factual errors corrected but no serious upheavals. And as we know, she was not afraid of interfering! Just read Hubert Gregg’s colourful memoirs, Agatha Christie and All that Mousetrap, for details on the approach of this “sceptic bitch” to irreverent directors! We can conclude that Christie respected the job of the academic.

She also encouraged a postgraduate researcher (now a relatively famous actor) in the 1960s who wanted to study her plays, but as that correspondence is under copyright I can’t talk about it here.

What did Christie object to? People disrespecting the entertainment value of her novels. Ariadne Oliver, the greatest fictional alter ego in history, provides many examples of this. She gets cross in Mrs McGinty’s Dead when a reader corrects her on the length of a blowpipe – this happened in real life – because it doesn’t matter, and elsewhere she pontificates: “I don’t care two pins about accuracy. Who is accurate? Nobody nowadays […]  I don’t see that it matters if I mix up police ranks and say a revolver when I mean an automatic, and a dictograph when I mean a phonograph, and use a poison that just allows you to gasp one dying sentence and no more.”

As academics, we are not trying to pick holes in these books for the sake of picking holes or scoring points. We are trying to take them seriously, look into them deeply the better to appreciate them, and to produce scholarship that reflects their high value as successful entertainment. I think that Christie would have raised her glass of cream (ask any fan about that) to the sentiment.