The curious case of the author who would not die

The characters are cardboard, the plots rely on chance and the settings are implausible. But no one can resist an Agatha Christie, says Barry Forshaw
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The Independent Culture

Britain's best-selling crime writer, Ian Rankin, was hopping mad when Tessa Jowell objected to spending money on saving the boarded-up Surrey home of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as he did not "occupy a significant enough position in the nation's consciousness". "Bullshit!" was Rankin's succinct comment to this newspaper. Would such political philistinism have come into play had Agatha Christie's holiday home, Greenway, been similarly in danger of falling into disrepair?

Fortunately, the question is academic. The house, a Georgian mansion overlooking the river Dart in the West Country, has finally reopened to the public after a National Trust restoration, and may be visited rather than just be seen on a hillside from river cruises. Perhaps Jowell might have been prepared to concede that Agatha Christie was central to the nation's consciousness. Conan Doyle, after all, was a Scot, and in many ways the Dame is the emblematic crime writer for this isle.

Whatever Christie's literary limitations, and even such admirers as P D James are more than ready to point them out, she remains the most famous of English crime writers, comfortably outselling everyone else in the field, translated into multiple languages and the subject of numerous highly successful film and TV adaptations. Chorion, the company owning the copyright to the works, has sanctioned new TV adaptations of her signature characters, Marple and Poirot. But what is the reason for Christie's continuing success? After all, surely she wrote about a never-never-land Britain, massively elitist, in which the working-class characters are in the forelock-tugging mould, and her detectives, the physically bizarre Belgian Hercule Poirot and the interfering spinster Jane Marple, are really collections of tics or eccentric physical characteristics, with nothing to match the rich portrayal of the denizen of 221B Baker Street.

For those ready to mount an attack on Agatha Christie, the ammunition is plentifully to hand. There is more than a smidgen of truth in all the previous accusations, and even her most devoted admirer would be hard-pressed to make a case for Christie as a literary stylist.

Her use of language is rudimentary and her characterisations thin. By her own admission, she spent more time working on her plots than anything else, after which, she said, the actual writing of the books was something of a chore. This attitude echoed that of another great British export, Alfred Hitchcock, who enjoyed the planning of his films far more than their actual making. And there was a time when Christie's literary heirs – British crime writers – would rather have turned in their Dagger Awards than admit to liking Christie. For these reasons and more, she had become terminally unfashionable by the 1970s, despite the fact that her books continued to sell in their millions.

Of course, this inconvenient fact was snootily dismissed by her detractors on the basis that it was the very simplicity of her writing that guaranteed her appeal to the masses. Teachers of English to foreign students recommend her books because the uncomplicated language is perfect for those who struggle with more complex sentences. In other words, what might be ideal for those with a poor grasp of the language is hardly suitable for anyone with more ambitious literary aspirations.

But very few British crime writers would write her off unequivocally. Many sheepishly admit to being devoted admirers who reread the books with pleasure at frequent intervals. They know the limitations, but disregard them. There is something of an Abba syndrome when it comes to Agatha Christie. It is now OK to mutter: yes, we know this isn't great art, but it's shamelessly enjoyable popular entertainment, isn't it? Crime readers are more than happy to descend from the slopes of Mount Parnassus and bask in the simple comfort-food pleasures that Christie affords.

But what is her secret? There are several factors. First, of course, there is the nonpareil plotting. Christie was justifiably proud of her accomplishments in this area, and regarded it as her métier. And although the machine-tooled plots of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd et al are perhaps less admired these days than they used to be, it is still immensely pleasurable to be taken by the hand and led down a series of twisting garden paths in which misdirection is all.

Yes, some of the plot revelations in Christie are absurd, but so such things were in the writer who inspired her, Conan Doyle. And, for that matter, in the writer who inspired Conan Doyle – Edgar Allan Poe. It is clearly an occupational hazard for the great masters of the genre. Anyone who has savoured Murder on the Orient Express and The Hollow, or the groundbreaking Roger Ackroyd with its audacious subversion of the conventional mystery scenario, will know just how authoritative Christie is in this area. And even though later writers such as P D James were to add a whole stratum of subtle psychological underpinnings to Christie-style material, she was the ultimate narrative technician. The books still read amazingly well, unlike other popular novelists of her day such as Dennis Wheatley and Edgar Wallace, whose appeal has evaporated.

There are the characters, too, of course. Miss Marple remains a highly unlikely protagonist – an elderly busybody whose attempts at sleuthing are welcomed by the police, rather than rebuffed as they would be in real life. And Monsieur Poirot is not really a character at all but a collection of grotesqueries. He never coalesces in the way that Holmes does, and is not allowed an organic growth in the fashion of Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey. But they are memorable, distinctive protagonists. The various film and TV incarnations over the years have helped to cement their popularity, although only Joan Hickson has managed to make a real human being out of Miss Marple by her subtle underplaying. David Suchet, for all his ability, still presents a slightly parodic pantomime turn as Poirot, as did Albert Finney. What else, after all, could he do?

Finally, though, it is the vision of England that Christie presents that has ensured her immortality, one gained from the unreal aspects that so alienated later crime writers for whom a social conscience and a more analytical view of society were necessary accoutrements.

The England Agatha Christie creates in the fictional village of St Mary Mead is very much John Major's land of warm beer and cricket grounds. There is no urban decay. Crimes are not committed by stupid, disadvantaged people for boringly quotidian reasons but to create an arcane and fascinating puzzle that the detective and the reader can attempt to solve.

One of the most devastating critiques of Christie's style was by the American writer Raymond Chandler in The Simple Art of Murder. He claimed that authors such as Dashiell Hammett rescued crime writing from the unrealities of the "body in the library" school – clearly Christie – and gave it back to people who committed murder "for a reason, rather than just to provide a body".

But a great many of us are perfectly happy to immerse ourselves in the idyllic Albion of Christie's novels. Who cares that this is not the real world? People still send letters to 221B Baker Street, and there is an equal number of foreigners whose vision of this country is conditioned by Christie's books and the TV adaptations. This, they believe, is the real Britain.

But let's not be sniffy about this. Truthfully, aren't we rather proud of the fact that Christie is such a copper-bottomed British export?

Barry Forshaw is editor of British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia