Sophie Hannah has written a defence of Agatha Christie for yesterday’s Guardian Review, who she says is ‘a writer too often dismissed as merely a brilliant plotter of mysteries.’ This is, Sophie says, ‘a charge that’s grossly unfair. Christie’s books are so much more than great puzzles. Each of her novels demonstrates a profound understanding of people – how they think, feel and behave – all delivered in her crisp, elegant, addictively readable style.’
Now, critics have two views of Christie:
1) Agatha Christie was amazing. She created memorable characters and superb plots and her insights into human nature still endure today. There’s a reason her books still sell and new generations of readers discover anew her delightful protagonists and marvellous storytelling.
2) Agatha Christie was a hack. Her characters are ridiculous cartoons, her plots that seem so intricate and dazzling were churned out with no more skill than you need to compile a crossword. Her simplistic and conservative view of the world is completely outmoded in the 21st century and she should be consigned to Mills and Boon status by any serious reader.
I burned through dozens of Agatha Christie books as a kid, mainly the Poirots, and also enjoyed Sophie Hannah’s own Poirot story, The Monogram Murders – surely the only recent revival novel that actually works. I can understand both sets of views: the plotting is fantastic but, as I believe Christopher Booker said, the conclusion does leave you feeling empty. A sense that things in life aren’t wrapped up so conclusively, and maybe shouldn’t be. Perhaps that’s the case with all endings in crime, though I don’t find that with Sophie’s own crime novels, some of which – The Point of Rescue, Lasting Damage – I go back to every year. Hannah’s books tell you something new. Christie’s insights for me were just glimpses into the awkward English disease that permeates most twentieth century literary fiction.
There has as Sophie said been a condescension towards Christie’s work, but also appreciation from more literary writers. The novelist Michel Houellebecq devotes several pages of Platform to a Christie analysis: ‘Fundamentally conservative, and hostile to any idea of the social redistribution of wealth, Agatha Christie adopted very clear-cut ideological positions throughout her career as a writer. In practise, this radical theoretical engagement nonetheless made it possible for her to be frequently cruel in her descriptions of the English aristocracy, whose privileges she so staunchly defended.’ He praises The Hollow: ‘a strange, poignant book’ with ‘powerful undercurrents’. Houellebecq returns to this in his next novel The Possibility of an Island, whose narrator weeps at Poirot’s suicide note: We shall not hunt together again, my friend.
No one before Agatha Christie had been able to portray in such a heart-rending way the sadness of physical decrepitude, of the gradual loss of all that gave life meaning and joy; and no one since has succeeded in equalling her.
Which is all to say: does the grand old lady really need defending? Her books are still read, the CWA voted her number one crime writer. The condescension of posterity was never less effective. Meanwhile generic mystery novels, some of which are not that good, continue to sell. What is Sophie kicking against here? She writes this, about Raymond Chandler:
Chandler sneered that a Poirot mystery was ‘guaranteed to knock the keenest mind for a loop. Only a half-wit could guess it.’ He dismissed the British golden age detective novel as ‘futzing around with timetables and bits of charred paper and who trampled the jolly old flowering arbutus under the library window’. Chandler described the crime cases in his own novels as ‘a perfunctory mystery element dropped in like the olive in a martini’. Surely anyone who doesn’t care about puzzles or mysteries should write in a different genre: letters of apology to greater writers than oneself that one has unfairly maligned, perhaps.
It is surprising that Chandler, so full of British influence – he was educated at P G Wodehouse’s old school, knew Natasha Spender and other English grandees, and his Marlowe is basically an English amateur sleuth – should say this: but he was entitled to his opinion, and it’s not necessary to ‘forgive’ him as Sophie says. Chandler wrote very different novels, very well. And Jess Meacham points out that the ‘olive in a martini’ line is a misquote – it’s from his essay ‘The Simple Art of Murder’ and Chandler was talking about Dashiel Hammett: ‘And there arc still quite a few people around who say that Hammett did not write detective stories at all, merely hardboiled chronicles of mean streets with a perfunctory mystery element dropped in like the olive in a martini.’ Chandler is also right about the use of detail in mystery: ‘the same utterly incomprehensible trick of how somebody stabbed Mrs. Pottington Postlethwaite III with the solid platinum poignard just as she flatted on the top note of the Bell Song from Lakmé in the presence of fifteen ill-assorted guests’. Detail is an art – contrivance is not. The spirit of fan-love is a fine thing in many ways, but it shouldn’t seduce the reader into losing yourself in a golden age.