[note – this started as a Facebook status and kind of spiralled, so it’s not structured or referenced or remotely polished.]
OK. Just in case you didn’t know, I think Agatha Christie is a very good writer. One of the most profound social commentators of the twentieth century and with an incredible insight into the human condition.
Anyway, the shocking news that I’m a fan aside, the traditional view of Christie-the-author really angers me. Yes, she called herself a lowbrow, and talked about dashing off books in three days. She compared herself to a sausage factory and said that she didn’t need a room of her own, but just a typewriter. Her books, she said, were ‘neat tricks,’ not serious works of art, and she always insisted on being listed as a housewife, not a writer, on her passport. ‘Men have much better minds than women, don’t you think?’ she said in a rare interview with the Sunday Times. Etc. Etc.
Can we just think for five minutes about a few facts?
1) The bestselling author in history clearly knew how to exploit a market.
2) The market was demonstrably and obviously sexist.
3) It is kind of abusive to attack a victim of misogyny with their own self-deprecation.
The truth is, her books are not remotely standardised. And they are never just puzzles. Her neatest, most tightly-plotted mysteries of the 1920s and 1930s are rife with self-referentiality and seem to do nothing but play with their fictional status. In later books, those fans tend to dismiss as the products of dementia or pretention, she sometimes abandons the whodunit formula altogether. We tend to forget these, merge them with TV adaptations, or excuse them as ‘duds’ and ‘failures’. (Note that when a male writer moves away from what made him famous, he is ‘experimenting’ or ‘branching out’ but when a female writer does this she has ‘lost it’ or is ‘lost to pretention’.)
Slap another name on THE PALE HORSE (1961) or ENDLESS NIGHT (1967) and sell them today, with slight modifications. They’d top the New York Times bestseller lists. Market THE LABOURS OF HERCULES as a series of observations on interwar culture, under some stale pale male name from the recesses of the academe and it would whizz onto university syllabuses across the nation.
Think about Miss Marple for a second. She changes, she grows as a character. Because she is always fifty years out of date. And in the novels, all structured along similar lines but dealing with shocking themes from incest to paedophilia, this picture of conservative bitterness (Marple is not nice at all) provides a running commentary on how alike people are throughout the ages
— she solves murders by comparing the present cast of characters to people she met in her village — the ultimate two fingers to masculine security and forensic science. She is not a character but a sign. A literary device. A very clever commentary on the stereotypes and labels that inhabit St Mary Mead in the 1920s, through to the 1970s. When her trendy modernist writer of a nephew tries to impress her by boasting about his ‘queer’ friends she sits back and thinks of all the perversions she has experienced. ‘Some … that even clever young men from Oxford who wrote books did not seem to have heard of.’
Christie’s crafty exploitation of anti-intellectualism and the way she marketed herself as unthreateningly domestic, ‘gentle’ and ladylike rather than obtuse and threatening gave her a voice in a hostile world. But surely now we can appreciate her, rather than throwing the insults she pre-empted back at her. Surely we can grow out of being afraid of women with the confidence of commentary and self-expression?
In the twenty-first century, a writer of Christie’s calibre deserves the respect afforded to any other popular genius. Instead, we continue to keep her down via the twee sexism she so shrewdly worked around.