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A Talent for Deception

By (March 1, 2012) No Comment

Lady Max Mallowan, wife of the distinguished archaeologist, is now over 120 years old, and if she was still with us, she’d be bringing forth to the world her 120th book. As any mystery buff worth their game of Clue knows, Lady Mallowan is also Dame Agatha Christie (knighted in 1971). And it is no mean feat, that after all these years, her appeal remains undiminished. The fact is, 36 years after her death in 1976, in the school of detective fiction she is still undisputed Head Girl.

To date, she continues to be outsold only by Shakespeare and the Bible; her works have been translated into over one hundred foreign languages. Plus, she’s the author of the longest running play ever seen on the London stage, The Mousetrap. (Much more about that play later.)

Last year, HarperCollins, Christie’s global publisher, reissued Agatha Christie: An Autobiography, originally published posthumously in 1977. They also published Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making: More Stories and Secrets from her Notebooks, by Christie expert John Curran. In addition, they are publishing a trade paperback edition of 2010’s award-winning (Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity Awards) Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, also compiled by Curran. The notebooks are a veritable treasure trove of revelations about her books and how they evolved. They include previously unpublished material—and what gems! They are an intriguing look into the mind and craft of one of the world’s most prolific and beloved authors.

There has always been a voracious demand for books by and about Christie, and many of her staunchest admirers have been fellow writers.

Let us begin with the distinguished poet, Robert Graves, speaking of Christie in a letter dated 1944 and quoted by P.D. James in her Talking About Detective Fiction:

Agatha’s best work is, like P.G. Wodehouse and Noel Coward’s best work, the most characteristic pleasure-writing of this epoch and will appear one day in all decent literary histories. As writing it is not distinguished, but as story it is superb.

Christie was a great admirer of Wodehouse and called him “the magician of Blandings Castle” in An Autobiography. As for P.D. James on Christie:

Above all she is a literary conjuror. Game after game we are confident that this time we will turn up the card with the face of the true murderer, and time after time her cunning defeats us. And with a Christie mystery no suspect can safely be eliminated, even the narrator of the story…at her best the ingenuity is dazzling. Her prime skill as a storyteller is the talent to deceive…she seduces us into deceiving ourselves. …And her clues are brilliantly designed to confuse….the reader is in general treated fairly and falls more often than not into a pit of his own devising…. Agatha Christie has provided entertainment, suspense and temporary relief from the anxieties and traumas of life for millions throughout the world and this is an achievement which merits our gratitude and respect.

Then there is the very versatile and talented Robert Barnard from his superb A Talent to Deceive: An Appreciation of Agatha Christie:

…the traditional whodunit is a popular fictional form that is viable, satisfying and stimulating in an entirely worthy way…Agatha Christie is a supremely gifted practitioner of this—we won’t say art, but—craft….It is the wonderful simplicity of Agatha Christie’s deceptions of the reader that keeps the stories of her classic period so fresh and readable. You always want to kick yourself at the end—rather than the author…. The great joy of reading vintage Christie is the knowledge that no holds are barred, that no one is exempt: it is when we forget this that she pulls her most dazzling tricks…. Christie’s habitual procedures in her classic phase: the plot is meticulously thought through, not a detail is misplaced or without significance in the total scheme, and above all the reader has that satisfying sense that the clues have all been fairly and squarely placed in front of him—even if he has somehow been induced to look out of the window at the crucial moment of placing.

Julian Symons in Mortal Consequences called this

…her characteristic sleights of hand by which the reader is deceived into making what prove to be unjustifiable assumptions…. She shows us the ace of spades face up. Then she turns it over, but we still know where it is, so how has it been transformed into the five of diamonds?

Rex Stout was fond of saying that he refuses to die before her, “Because of what I would miss.”

He didn’t miss much: he died in 1975, a year before Christie. By the by, Christie called Stout’s trusty leg man, Archie Goodwin, “A splendid character.”

Then there’s John Dickson Carr, himself no slouch when it comes to creating puzzles, who asserted that:

…she has probably invented more ways of bamboozling the reader than any other living writer. Any young writer would find a whole course of instruction by studying her novels: watching her deft characterization while in full view she palms the ace.

As for the Royals, Christie adored the Queen Mum and ‘tis said it was mutual. Queen Elizabeth is also known to be an avid fan. Christie writes in her autobiography,

I will confess here and now that of the two things that have excited me most in my life the first was my car: my grey bottle-nosed Morris Cowley.

(She bought it with the ₤500 she received in 1923 for serial rights to The Mystery of the Mill House which she rechristened The Man in the Brown Suit.)

The second was dining with the Queen at Buckingham Palace about forty years later.

And in 1971 that Queen, Elizabeth, made her a Dame of the British Empire.

The best for last. From the Bedside, Bathtub & Armchair Companion to Agatha Christie:

Rx: Dr. Freud. According to Freud’s daughter Anna, Dr. Freud had a great love for detective stories, especially following operations. Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers were special favorites.

I like to believe this charmed her, given her penchant for using wordplay as clues; toying with deliberate grammatical errors, mixing up names and their pronunciation; and generally sprinkling a healthy dose of so-called Freudian slips into her novels.

Lady Mallowan did not by any means spring full-blown into print. The first Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was several years in finding a publisher and then sat neglected for still another year before it appeared in 1920. Styles allegedly grew out of a wager with her sister. The story of the bet may be apocryphal. Still, it is unassailable fact that Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie (she married Archie Christie of the Royal Flying Corps in 1914) made full use of her first-rate knowledge of poisons due to war work in a Red Cross hospital, and came into her own with her very first novel.

Although The Mysterious Affair at Styles has a plethora of red herrings, her inventions of situations and skill in plotting are well developed. Her hand was much too liberal with clues, but it was still highly cunning work, even at this stage. There were some nice reviews of Styles, but it is fitting of Dame Agatha that the one that pleased her most appeared in The Pharmaceutical Journal. It praised “this detective story for dealing with poisons in a knowledgeable way, and not with the nonsense about untraceable substances that so often happens. Miss Agatha Christie,” they said, “knows her job.”

Of course, The Mysterious Affair at Styles is most famous for introducing the world to the inimitable sleuth, Hercule Poirot. By the time we meet him, he has retired from the Belgian police force but shows no predisposition to remain in retirement when an interesting case appears. A diminutive five-feet-four inches tall, Poirot is endowed with an egg-shaped head and catlike eyes that grow greener as the solution draws near. His upper lip is graced with a carefully waxed and meticulously twirled mustache. His most obvious characteristic is his dandyism. He dyes his hair. Vanity compels him to squeeze into pointy patent-leather shoes ill-suited to walking the grounds of the country houses where he most often does his sleuthing. Poirot says that in interrogations, he always exaggerates his foreignness. The person being questioned then takes him less seriously and in consequence tells him more. Relying upon his sharp brain—his “little grey cells”—he insists on “order and method,” and his personal style emphasizes the pursuit of the psychological flaw. Poirot’s raison d’étre, as it were, is epitomized by this declaration, “I have a bourgeois attitude to murder: I disapprove of it.”

His first Watson was Captain Hastings. Stupid, naïve, ingenuous, and the perfect foil for Poirot. Christie tired of Hastings in 1937 with Poirot Loses a Client (U.K. Dumb Witness), and banished him to marriage and Argentina, bringing him back for Poirot’s last case Curtain (1975).

As the years went by, Christie confessed to tiring of Poirot, calling him,

The detective who came to hang around my neck like The Old Man and the Sea.

In moments of irritation I point out that by a few strokes of the Pen (or taps on the typewriter) I could destroy him utterly.
He replies grandiloquently: “Impossible to get rid of Hercule Poirot like that. He is much too clever.”

And so, as usual, the little man has the last word.

Of her sixty-six detective novels, Poirot appears in over half. He is also the star of numerous short story collections. Top drawer, as they say, is The Labours of Hercules (1947). John Curran, among others, called it Christie’s greatest short story collection and perhaps one of the greatest collections in the entire crime fiction genre.

The turning point in Christie’s career occurred in 1926 with the appearance of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  With it her position among the foremost crime writers in the so-called Golden Age of crime fiction became assured and indisputable. Its highly original solution precipitated a furor of a kind that any tradition-shattering “first” does. But as Dorothy Sayers, Christie’s brilliant contemporary, put it, “It is the reader’s business to suspect everybody.”   

There is also a curious real-life mystery associated with Roger Ackroyd. Seven months after publication, with the book a phenomenal success, Mrs. Christie disappeared. After a nationwide search she was found suffering from amnesia in a famous spa registered under the name of the woman with whom Archie was having an affair. After “rescuing” her, he persuaded her to give him a divorce. She weathered the crisis, and married Professor Max Mallowan in 1930. They remained happily married until her death. But she never recovered from the journalistic barbs that labeled her disappearance a publicity stunt, and remained relatively shy of the fourth estate all her life. Mysteriously, there is no mention of the incident in her autobiography.

In 1920, with Murder at the Vicarage, Christie introduced Miss Jane Marple, who seems, at first, to be a sweetly bewildered old lady—just an old pussy who knits constantly and needn’t command our attention. Wrong! She is a steely-minded detective. Since her introduction she has placidly knitted her way through many a complicated case. She makes it a rule to believe the worst of everyone and she reports with regret that experience has confirmed her in this point of view. Miss Marple is the apple of Mrs. Christie’s “I”. Victorian to the core, she loves to gossip, and her piercing blue eyes twinkle as she solves the most heinous crimes with the use of analogies to life in her archetypal English village of St. Mary Mead. “So like little Jimmy T., you know, put a frog in his teacher’s ormolu clock.” And thereby hangs a grisly murder.  As so aptly expressed in The Body in the Library by one of her ardent admirers, retired Commissioner of Scotland Yard Sir Henry Clithering,

Downstairs in the lounge, by the third pillar from the left, there sits an old lady with a sweet, placid, spinsterish face, and a mind that has plumbed the depths of human iniquity and taken it as all in the day’s work. Her name’s Miss Marple. She comes from the village of St. Mary Mead…and where crime is concerned she’s the goods.

And again in A Murder is Announced:

She’s just the finest detective God ever made. Natural genius cultivated in a suitable soil.

No Christie retrospective would be complete without the inclusion of Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s alter ego. She is a recurrent character who is a detective-story writer. Her detective is Finnish, a vegetarian, and has an unpronounceable name, Sven Hjerson. She and Christie like well-cooked meals, comfortable shoes, Shakespearean names, and privacy. In each of the seven novels in which she appears, someone always takes the straight-man role, feeding her a line which allows her to assert a Christie policy or feeling. Oliver sits in an office at “a table on which were a typewriter…general confusion…and a large bag of apples.”  In her autobiography Christie claimed she worked in much the same conditions.  

Most incredible of all statistics connected with the work of Dame Agatha is the fact that The Mousetrap, written by request as a radio play for the eightieth birthday of Queen Mary, was successfully transferred to the stage and is still running strong, having just celebrated its diamond (60th) anniversary. The ending of the play has earned her, once again, the title arch-breaker of rules, or mistress of the misleading clue. Audiences are admonished at the end of the play not to reveal same. I may be naïve, but I don’t think anybody ever has. (The title, in case you were uncertain, is from Hamlet. “King Claudius: What do you call the play? Hamlet: The Mousetrap…. Tis a knavish piece of work: but what of that?”)

This past January the theater critic for The New York Times, Ben Brantley, a lifelong Christie fan, went to see the play on the occasion of its anniversary. According to his article, the producers have recently announced that they had licensed 60 productions worldwide, and that for the first time the show would tour Britain.  Meanwhile, the London production is booking “until doomsday.”  And according to the program for the show, if everyone who had seen it stood in line, the queue would reach Nairobi. There is nobody like this Dame!

I cannot completely ignore the films made from Christie’s work although, alas, most of them should be ignored. Miss Marple has been portrayed in several films by that formidable actress, Margaret Rutherford, but I must bear witness for Marple fans the world over and declare that Rutherford, a super lady in her own right, was not (through no fault of her own) “our Miss Marple.” The year 1945 saw the release of one of the very few classic screen versions of an Agatha Christie story, And Then There Were None. Based on her ingenious 1939 novel with the politically incorrect title, Ten Little Niggers, it was directed by the great Rene Clair and had an all-star cast including Judith Anderson, Barry Fitzgerald and Walter Huston. Agatha’s favorite was the second undisputed classic Christie movie, Witness for the Prosecution. Made in 1957, it starred Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power and Charles Laughton and was directed by Billy Wilder. And while cinema was not kind to Poirot, there was one exception, the 1974 film Murder on the Orient Express. Directed by Sidney Lumet, it had a cast of luminaries including Albert Finney as Poirot and John Gielgud as the butler. It earned high praise from Dame Agatha.

Television has been kinder to Christie, although she did not possess a TV set until very late in life and disapproved of the medium, as she felt it had an adverse affect on one’s quality of life. PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery series continues to produce the most consistently well-done Christies. It is a shame she did not live to see David Suchet play Poirot—he is perfection, down to his very own, very authentic. mustache. In his introduction to Murder in the Making, Suchet writes that Curran “becomes himself the veritable Hercule—well…almost.” Miss Marple didn’t fare very well until 1984 when the BBC launched Joan Hickson as the ideal lady detective in The Body in the library. Recently, PBS introduced a new Miss Marple but Hickson is still the one, hands down.
So much for history. Herewith my sampler of vintage Christie titles (in addition to those cited above).

It is a maddening fact of the mystery buff’s life that the works of English authors too frequently reach this shore with a different title. More than one of us has found himself buying The Boomerang Clue, say, only to discover it’s already been read as Why Didn’t They Ask Evans. For this listing I will use the American title; wherever there has been a title change, the English title will be cited in parentheses. Incidental intelligence: none of those queried in a brief survey of publishing types could explain the rationale for such title changes.

The Tuesday Club Murders (The Thirteen Problems) (1932). This is Miss Marple’s second introduction to the public. This time it is via a group of short stories, several of them gems.

Murder in the Calais Coach (Murder on the Orient Express) (1934). This is a tour de force that gives Poirot license to let the murderer go. Impeccably clued, it holds up, with or without the movie. Don’t miss the nifty manservant who sets his master’s teeth in water before retiring.

It is worth noting that in 1934 Christie came out with a collection that included a short story titled “The Rajah’s Emerald.” In it, one James Bond, an Englishman with more luck than skill, solves the mystery. The story is mediocre but is included in The Golden Ball and Other Stories(1971).

The A.B.C. Murders (1936). This is a classic that might have been inspired by a remark of Father Brown, G.K. Chesterton’s priest-cum-detective who once said, “Where to hide a tree but in a forest?” Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” also comes to mind. Poirot is in his element, and the case nicely complements Murder in the Calais Coach.

Murder for Christmas (Hercule Poirot’s Christmas) (1938). A mischievous old patriarch, tyrant and sinner gets his just deserts. This novel contains the oft-cited example of Christie’s skill in clueing. Poirot asks the butler Tresillian (yes, Tresillian) whether the wall calendar has been changed since the murder. Tresillian walks over and peers at it. The reader wonders over the significance of the date and whether it has been changed, whereas the real fact of significance is that Poirot hereby establishes the state of the butler’s eyesight.

The Body in the Library(1942). Dame Agatha takes a cliché and with great virtuosity makes it work. One of Miss Marple’s best!

Crooked House (1949). Murder, madness and megalomania among an exceptionally dysfunctional family. In a specially written introduction to the Penguin paperback edition Christie wrote: “This book is one of my own special favorites. I saved it up for years…saying to myself ‘One day when I’ve plenty of time, and really want to enjoy myself—I’ll begin it.’”

A Murder is Announced (1950).  Her fiftieth and super-smooth! Miss Marple is hostess, along with an assortment of her famous red herrings, all beautifully marinated. One of my favorites. Watch out for those real fake pearls.

Endless Night(1967). The creator of Roger Ackroyd does it again. “Mille tonerres,” as Poirot would say—revealing more would be criminal.

Elephant’s Can Remember (1972). Hercule Poirot and Ariadne Oliver reconstruct a crime for the sake of two young lovers. The title harks back to A Murder is Announced and the character in it who wrote Elephants do Forget.

Curtain (1975). Written in the ‘forties, designed for publication after Christie’s death but issued just before it. Poirot’s last case and the old grand master’s powers of invention and execution have never been stronger. The only flaw, one that has accompanied Poirot from the start, is Hastings. Otherwise, kudos.

And finally, one last delicious tidbit. In Murder in the Making there is a 1950 notebook entry which incorporates these details: THE CLUEDO CASE starring Professor Plum. Col. Mustard, Mrs. Peacock, Mrs. White, Miss Scarlet, Reverend Green. What Evidence? She saw Professor Plum in the library with the candlestick. Board game? Curran says:

What a wonderful idea – the ultimate deviser of detective puzzles adapting the classic country-house murder mystery board game.

As a certain Belgian might say, ‘It gives one furiously to think, does it not…?’  

Certainly Agatha Christie’s durability is astonishing and there is no sign of it waning. Roger Ackroyd was murdered more than 80 years ago, yet there are still as many people as ever who care who killed him. She nourished our instinctive hopes that in the end right and truth will triumph over the evil and the obscure.

To close, I return to P.D. James for one of my favorite quotes about Dame Agatha:

I suspect that a traveler, stranded in an airport hotel overnight and finding in the bedside cabinet two novels, the latest winner of a prestigious literary prize and an Agatha Christie, would reach for the latter to assuage the half-acknowledged fear of contemporary travel and the discomfort and boredom of a long night.

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.

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