I’ve never understood people who say detective fiction is like ‘animated algebra’; those who dismiss Agatha Christie and her contemporaries as hacks who were good at inventing riddles but didn’t write ‘literature’. A lot of people have said this, giving Christie what Alison Light calls ‘a particularly cold shoulder’. But half the time, it turns out, these critics haven’t read Christie for years, if at all, and are mostly getting their ideas from TV adaptations and general chit chat. You can see this all play out in PD James’s muddled chapter on the golden age of crime in Talking About Detective Fiction. In it, James makes a series of sweeping generalisations about the books being twee, nostalgic, and detached from reality. In the footnotes, she admits that she hadn’t read them for half a century before writing that chapter, and provides a set of examples that contradict her thesis.
As a child, I read Agatha Christie for the puzzles – sort of. When I got round to the most famous ones, around the age of ten, I’d already seen the films and wanted to see if I could spot the clues in order. I’d also go back and reread others straight away for the same reason. Even accepting that the puzzle was (then) my main reason for reading, clearly something drew me to the books; I didn’t just cast them aside having found out whodunit.
Throughout adolescence, I reread them whenever I was feeling lonely or unfulfilled. It was like being told a story by a very old friend: it wasn’t the puzzle hooking me on the fifth or sixth reread, but the writing: the wonderfully pithy way Christie nails a character in one or two lines, the beautiful way she orchestrates events, and the really profound insights into big issues.
For example, Death on the Nile always stuck with me, not so much because of the mystery (I’d already seen the 1978 film by the time I first read it) but because of the beautiful structure of the novel.
We open with Simon and Jacqui, a young raw-sexy couple who are poor but ambitious. Like nearly everyone else in the novel, their whole future rests in the palm of Jacqui’s best friend, a 20 year-old American who is about to come into a fortune. Linnet is both a millionaire and a beautiful woman: she is all lined up to marry an English peer. Instead, she marries Simon and they honeymoon on the Nile. While the newspapers praise this ‘fairy-tale’ marriage, a great many people are put out, and they all happen to be on the cruise: a solicitor who doesn’t want to give up Linnet’s money, a communist who thinks the wedding symbolises everything wrong in the world, and of Jacqui, who follows them in a jealous rage. A great deal of drama ensues, the result of which is Linnet is shot on the first night.
Poirot uncovers an elaborate plan, naming Simon and Jacqui as the murderers: Simon married Linnet for her money and the whole fall-out with Jacqui has been a charade. At the end of the novel, two minor characters announce their engagement to marry: a rather camp jewel thief who lives under his mother’s thumb, and the embittered, recently orphaned daughter of a domineering alcoholic.
What I loved about this, very simply, as a ten year-old, was that the fairy tale was never supposed to hold good. The pretty people getting married were part of an elaborate lie; on one side, it was all about money, while the person who seemed to hold power was just a child, being used in a bigger scheme by self-serving men. Meanwhile, the misfits – the not-very-manly man and the woman who’s turned her back on the world – find happiness, away from their dysfunctional families.
When I started researching Christie as a student, I started to explore the context of Death on the Nile. I learned about colonialism, and the significant fact that this is a group of people traveling in Egypt in 1937 – in the wake of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 and on the eve of monumental war. What does this say about the world of entitlement and privilege, encapsulated by a group of back-stabbers, thieves, and embezzlers, all turning in on one another while imagining themselves the civilised ‘other’ to the world, the people, and the river that carries them?
I learned about the increasing prominence of fairy-tales in Anglo-American culture: the rise of Disney and, in 1937, Snow White, in which a girl is brought to life when a rich pretty boy kisses her corpse and ensures she will stay rich and pretty and passive forever. I learned that, in 1937, everyone knew a Second World War was coming: was Christie saying, as Britain prepared for the loss of a new generation in combat, that fairy tale couples don’t work; we have to broaden our horizons?
This is the tip of the iceberg – there’s much more to Death on the Nile and even more to many of the other books. In my opinion, most Christies deserve annotated editions!
I know that context annoys a lot of readers – and that’s fine; you don’t need it. The satisfaction I got from Death on the Nile wasn’t contextualised; it was timeless. Likewise, the beautiful, stark, and ultimately not-so-clean cut solution of Murder on the Orient Express is breathtaking in its context, but also says a lot to us today about how we draw sharp lines between good and bad, right and wrong.
Some famous words of Poirot’s, in Death on the Nile, seem appropriate here: ‘Do not open your heart to evil … Because – if you do – evil will come…It will enter in and make its home within you, and after a little while it will no longer be possible to drive it out.’ This is brilliant in itself – it’s good advice – and it lets us probe the question of power which is at the heart of the novel: everyone is using one character and being used by another, and the greatest evil of modern times is behind it all: money. But the comment is also an impeccably placed clue to the mystery: it only makes partial sense when you don’t know that Poirot is addressing the murderer. That was the secret to Christie’s clues: she’d give you something profound to take away from them, so that you wouldn’t notice their role in the plot.
So I can accept that not everyone wants life lessons and historical context when they settle down to escape with a book. What I can’t accept is what a well-known Christie scholar once told me: ‘It didn’t have to be set [on the Nile]. It could have taken place anywhere. It’s the puzzle that’s important.’ If that were true, Christie’s Endless Night, which has virtually the same murder plot at its heart, would read similarly. But it doesn’t. Endless Night is a totally different, rather intense psychological study. It’s about obsession and fetishisation, and it’s brilliant. If you haven’t read it, read it now.
In fact, I’d bet that very few Agatha Christie fans just read her books for the puzzles, which is something her critics continue to not understand. Each novel is made up of elements, and plot is a vital part of that, but so is everything else. More than any other writer, Agatha Christie never wasted a word.