NOTE: This piece was originally published on AgathaChristie.Com, and copyright belongs to Agatha Christie Ltd/Acorn Media. See the original post here.
When I’m looking for a witty one-liner I turn to Oscar Wilde… or Agatha Christie. What? You don’t think she can be funny? Shame on you.
A few well-chosen words can sketch a scene or convey a character. First impressions of Hercule Poirot:
And a well-chosen character can be very funny indeed. Take Miss Marple, ‘a white-haired old lady’ who is more deadly than arsenic to anyone harbouring a guilty secret. She knows everything. After all,
“All young people think old people are fools – but old people know that young people are fools.” (The Murder at the Vicarage, 1930)
Or take Anne Beddingfeld, the bright young thing who has to make her own way in the world. It could have been preachy. Instead, Anne notes,
“It is really a hard life. Men will not be nice to you if you are not good-looking, and women will not be nice to you if you are.” (The Man in the Brown Suit, 1924)
Then there’s Mrs Oliver, the well-known crime writer, who is never seen without a trail of apple cores and disparate plot ideas. She doesn’t even have a secretary, let alone that new-fangled convenience, a computer.
“There’s a proverb which that says ‘To err is human,’ but a human error is nothing compared to what a computer can do if it tries!” (Hallowe’en Party, 1969)
Hardly irrelevant in this day and age. Mrs Oliver prefers detective stories to life – the latter is ‘badly constructed’. But even imitating the idols of fiction, Christie’s detectives are antiheroic:
“‘If you must be Sherlock Holmes,’ she observed, ‘I’ll get you a nice little syringe and a bottle labelled Cocaine, but for God’s sake leave that violin alone.’” (Partners in Crime, 1929)
‘I don’t write about immorality,’ Christie once claimed, ‘only murder’. How droll. Plots came to her at the strangest moments (she felt particularly inclined to think up murders while doing the dishes). Then came the glamorous business of working it all out:
“One walks along the street, passing all the shops one meant to go into, … talking to oneself… and rolling one’s eyes expressively, and then one suddenly sees people looking at one and drawing slightly aside, clearly thinking one is mad.” (An Autobiography, 1977)
Maybe she should have teamed up, and shared the creative load?
“I’ve always believed in writing without a collaborator, because where two people are writing the same book, each believes he gets all the worry and only half the royalties.”
I love this down-to-earth spirit. Reading Christie is like indulging in a surprisingly well-structured gossip with an old friend. Who else could write so well without grandiose-ness? Speaking of grandiose-ness, I’ve barely mentioned Poirot, the self-styled ‘greatest detective in the world’ who is a law unto himself. I defy you to read Poirot Investigates without giggling.
As a parting gift, here’s something Agatha Christie didn’t say. It’s printed under her name on bookmarks, tea-towels, and all over the internet. By the time she died, Christie was irked by her connection with this line, which was sourced from a 1956 interview with Time Magazine. In the interview, readers were told that Christie ‘enjoys quoting’ this maxim, coined by a housewife she met on an archaeological dig.
“An archaeologist is the best husband a woman can have. The older she gets, the more interested in her he gets.”
Oh, Agatha. Her husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, never commented on this – well, not publicly.
Also, contrary to the best typo I’ve seen in a blog, Christie never wrote a book called And Then There Were Nuns.
The Seven Dials Mystery (1928)
Lady Eileen (Bundle) Brent is left alone with her senile father, after her mother ‘got tired of having nothing but girls and died.’ Bored, she goes driving at top speed and eventually runs into someone. Of course, he utters cryptic last words before dying. With a network of pompous asses and adventurers, Bundle tracks down the shady ‘Seven Dials’ organization. She foils dodgy diplomats and dubious countesses without spilling her martini. See also the gloriously far-fetched The Secret of Chimneys (1925), which features the same characters.
The Body in the Library (1942)
Colonel Bantry’s wife is dreaming about a garden show where the vicar’s wife has forgotten her clothes. She is woken by the maid announcing that a glamorous young woman has been found dead in her husband’s library. Bodies in the library were clichéd when Christie wrote this book. She had fun thinking up the most incongruous corpse to adorn the hearth rug of a fusty pillar of the community. See also Spider’s Web (1954), a bonkers farce of a play, with bodies, espionage, and secret passages, novelised by Charles Osborne in 2001.
Come, Tell Me How You Live (1946)
From the opening passage, a very bad parody of a poem by Lewis Carol, this memoir is charmingly quirky. Christie tells us all about the characters she encountered during excavations with her husband in Syria and Iraq. It’s worth reading just for her description of arguments with clothes shop assistants (‘Oh no, modom, we do not keep out-sizes’). But the human side of archaeology is equally splendid. See also An Autobiography (1977). Surprisingly enough, it’s an autobiography.