Thursday, 29 September 2011

The Marvellous Mrs Christie

When I was quite a young child (eight at the most) one of the delights of my life was to sneak quietly into the 'attic', i.e. the room next to my third floor bedroom in our terrace house in Belfast, and explore the piles of stuff kept there for want of space elsewhere. Some of the most exciting things were the books which were by no means intended to be thrown out, but which just didn't have a current home in one of the bookcases downstairs. On a red letter day, I curiously picked up one of my mother's books, a fat dark green hardback (I can still visualise it clearly) with the intriguing title, Partners in Crime. This was my first introduction to one of my all time favourite writers, Agatha Christie.

Partners in Crime is a lovely book. It is a set of short stories featuring the young couple Tommy and Tuppence who first appeared in Christie's second book, The Secret Adversary. Taking over a detective agency at the suggestion of Tommy's boss in the Secret Service, with the aim of tracking down the spies who are using it, Tommy and Tuppence decide that they should use the experience they've gained by reading 'every detective story that has been published in the last ten years' to solve the crimes which come their way from bona fide customers. Thus, in one story Tommy takes on the role of Sherlock Holmes, in another Father Brown, while in others Tuppence is the less well known Roger Sheringham or Mr. Fortune.  This makes for an amusing and entertaining series of stories, as well as excellent mysteries with the usual Christie twist in the tail. (Incidentally, it introduced me to a range of other writers whom I tracked down over the years and whom I still enjoy.) I particularly love the fact that the male, Tommy, and the female character, Tuppence, play equal parts in solving the various crimes.

Of course, at the age of eight or so, I didn't appreciate the skilful parodies as much as they deserved, but I was enthralled and engrossed by the stories, and fell in love with the two main characters.  I have to admit that when I reached The Man in the Mist, the Father Brown parody, I was so terrified that I dropped the book with a thud, had a series of nightmares over the following week, and didn't go back to Mrs Christie for at least another year.  But once I did, I read everything I could get my hands on, and have been steadily re-reading her ever since.

Agatha Christie is obviously best known as the creator of Hercule Poirot, and to an almost equal extent of Miss Marple.  While I love these characters and everything she's written about them, I have to confess that my own favourites amongst Christie's writing are, firstly, her various short stories; and secondly, the books where she takes a young couple as central characters.  My early experience of her may well be influencing me here!

She wrote at least as many books of this type as about either of her better known detectives. They Came To Bagdad is one of my personal favourites, but so is The Man in the Brown Suit, Why Didn't they ask Evens?, Destination Unknown, The Sittaford Mystery, The Pale Horse, etc, etc etc.   I'm tempted to include here The Moving Finger, in which, to be sure, Miss Marple eventually makes a brief appearance and solves the mystery, but which is mainly about Jerry and Megan  – a couple I really like.  The Moving Finger, incidentally, has one of Christie's cleverest plots, and one which has been copied by a number of other writers (such as Harlan Coben) because it's so good. If you don't already know what it is, I'm certainly not going to spoil it for you.

As a writer of short stories, Agatha Christie has few equals. The Mysterious Mr Quin is a book I return to probably more than any other. The originality of the main character, the excellent plots, and the touch of enchantment which runs throughout make it an experience which I want to have over and over again. The only problem with this is that I over-read it, and sometimes have to lay it aside for longer than I'd like before I can fully enjoy it again.

Then there's Parker Pine Investigates, The Hound of Death, and my favourite Miss Marple book, The Thirteen Problems.  Thirteen short stories, in which Miss Marple pits her wits against a group of clever people and consistently wins. The first six stories are about the 'Tuesday Night Club', where six people meet once a week, and each tells a story with the solution left out for the others to guess. The next six stories are similar, with a final one showing Miss Marple in action rather than sitting and thinking.

The Poirot short stories, to my mind, are not on an equal footing with these.  Poirot developed as the books went on, and it's the middle period which shows him, and Christie, at their best. Sad Cypress, for instance, is among the more enjoyable, or Five Little Pigs (one I particularly like) or The Hollow, or Taken at the Flood.  The well known Death On the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express always surprise me by how good I find them when I come back to them, for in between readings I tend to begin thinking of them as less good than they are.  Cards On The Table is one I particularly love, and I was, therefore, greatly annoyed by the TV version a few years ago which mucked up the plot something chronic!

Agatha Christie herself agreed that a book needs some changes before it can be successfully transferred to stage or film, and in fact changed the ending of the book now known as Then There Were None for the film version, re-writing it herself. However, her general opinion of people who want to change her books for this purpose can be seen in the very amusing passages of Mrs McGinty's Dead which deal with Mrs Oliver's feelings on this subject. Mrs Oliver is a very witty take-off of Christie herself, and I always love reading the books in which she plays a role. In Mrs McGinty's Dead, she is attempting to work on a stage adaptation of one of her detective stories with an opinionated young playwright who wants to completely change the age and character of her well-known and popular detective. 'Then he can't be Sven Hjerson. Just make him a Norwegian young man who's in the Resistance movement,' she says, and when the reply is that the whole idea is to have a play about Sven Hjerson, who is 'box-office', she wails that her readers know what he's like. But, she's told, that's got nothing to do with the stage! (For stage, read Television.)

As I start to write about them, I realise how many of the Poirot books I really like, as well as the other, non series, type.

I see that so far I haven't mentioned Mrs Dane Calthrop, a brilliant character who appears in The Moving Finger and in The Pale Horse, and adds considerably to the attraction of these two excellent books.  Speaking of her husband, the vicar, who has received an anonymous letter accusing him of carrying on with the school mistress, she says, 'Quite absurd, because Caleb has absolutely no taste for fornication. He never has had. So lucky, being a clergyman.'  Laugh out loud stuff, for me anyway. But Mrs Dane Calthrop is not just amusing, she's an impressive character, and no one should write about Agatha Christie without at least mentioning her.

This blog is already rather long. Much as I'm enjoying writing it, I'd better stop now. Next time I'll be writing about a new book rather than an old favourite, but after that again I plan to post Part 2 of my thoughts on Agatha Christie – this time about 'Mary Westmacott', the pseudonym she was forced to adopt when she wanted to write books which didn't fit into the detective story genre.  Hope to see you then!


  1. Wonderful Gerry. I watch these time and again on TV re-runs.I know all the stories inside out but how marvellous and timeless they are.

  2. Aren't they, Tee? She gets credit for her plots, but I think her character drawing and her wit deserve praise too.

  3. Apparently people have been having problems leaving comments on this blog. I've made an attempt to fix it – hope it works! Please let me know if you still have problems.

  4. What a pleasure to read a sincere tribute to a great writer. Far too many people sneer at Agatha Christie, assuming that, because of her popular success, she must have been a poor writer. How wrong they are and how right you are.


  5. Thank you, Charles. It's lovely to hear from someone else who appreciates Agatha Christie as she deserves.

  6. As I live just around the corner from her old house and that my friend Josephine is a guide around her estate, I know 'Greenaway', which is now owned by the national Trust, and not long ago went it underwent a massive refurbishment. If you haven't already, Charles...If you are ever 'down sarf' doing a me and we can visit it together with the delightful Jose as our guide.
    Cheers, Rags

  7. Raymond and I tried to visit Greenaway when on holiday in Cornwall (since we were passing near the house) a couple of summers ago, but as it happened it was closed at the time. It would be lovely to see it – next time we'll find out beforehand what the opening hours and days are!