October is racing by, which means the Tuesday Night Bloggers’ discussion of all things Christie is, alas, drawing to a close. Curtis Evans, our fearless leader, gathered a group of us together a few weeks ago with an offer to let us expound on anything we liked about the Mistress of Mystery. (Check out Curt’s blog, The Passing Tramp, here.
Curt, Bev Hankins, Moira Redmond, Helen Szamuely, Jeffrey Marks, Noah Stewart and I have been having a ball with this. Now Noah has suggested we switch up each month with a new GAD classic author. (See his blog entry here, and get involved to your heart’s content – and check out Noah or Curt for links to everyone’s blog here.
So here I go with this week’s entry:
Agatha Christie’s sensibilities were clearly rooted in the middle class. Few of her characters were titled. Few male or female characters lived lives of leisure; everybody worked. I thought it would be interesting to examine how Dame Agatha viewed the professionals who populated her fiction as suspects and victims. I informally surveyed the jobs found within the canon (novels only, no short stories) and thought I would offer some highly unscientific observations about her take on those jobs that appear most frequently. While this should include policemen and servants, they exist primarily to help or hinder the main detective or serve as witnesses of varying degrees of reliability, so I will leave it to others to comment on these two groups.
When you tally up all the jobs Christie made use of and remove the clerics and companions, the haberdashers and housekeepers, the athletes and architects, six professions emerge with the most frequency. In ascending order, they are as follows:
NUMBER SIX: BUSINESSMEN Thirteen major businessmen populate Christie’s novels, and it seems clear that she didn’t think much of those who spent their lives making money. These are self-made men, most of whom have not polished their manners to match their newfound wealth. They spend the early part of a novel antagonizing everyone in their family and work circles. Christie kills off six of them, and good riddance to the lot! Interestingly enough, none of her businessmen seem to have the smarts to plan or execute a murder.
MOST ODIOUS BUSINESSMAN: Rex Fortescue in A Pocketful of Rye. His staff won’t miss him, his children hate him, and even his widow can’t hide the smile on her face when she’s told of his death.
FAVORITE BUSINESSMAN: A tie between Roger Ackroyd, who essentially dies for love, and Mr. Rafiel from both A Caribbean Mystery and Nemesis, who is smart enough to assess Miss Marple’s value in society!
There are fifteen major attorneys or judges. Christie’s legal men tend to be dry to the point of dullness, with keen minds that can suss out a situation or a person’s character, but they have limited or unsuccessful personal lives. If they are killers (and four of them are!) they do not kill for greed but for a misguided sense of love or social betterment.
FAVORITE VICTIM: Mr. Treves from Toward Zero. He is that juicy character in crime fiction: the man who knew too much. He recognizes a psychopath from amongst a charming group of people and reveals the clue that we need to identify this person. His death is also one of the more risky and intriguing in Christie’s work: murder by broken elevator!!
FAVORITE KILLER: I’m not telling! But you all know who it is!
The eighteen men and women hover who in the background as secretaries are the height of efficiency, but who knows what emotions bubble beneath their unemotional surface? Only two of them are victims, so Christie must have been aware of the importance of having one’s secretary beside her. While the males are young and ambitious, often hoping to marry the boss’ daughter, most of the females are middle-aged and in love with their bosses. Five of them use their cool brains to murder others, and I can only imagine how distraught their employers must be when they see these invaluable aides carted off to jail.
FAVORITE SECRETARY: I know, it should go to Miss Lemon, Poirot’s perfect assistant, but the honors go to the shapely Ann Shapland in Cat Among the Pigeons. Her observations of the peculiar goings-on at Meadowbanks School add to the enjoyment of this mystery and ultimately play a major part in the unmasking of a cold-blooded killer.
I counted eighteen active or retired soldiers. Christie’s first husband Archie was a soldier, and although he made her deeply unhappy, he was a handsome charmer. Max Mallowan, Christie’s second husband, was an archeologist. There are fewer archeologists found in Christie, yet both professions are presented with a sort of nobility. Only one archeologist is a killer; only two soldiers are murderers, and all three of these criminals are arguably sympathetic right to the end. Archeologists are obsessive about their work, but Christie was clearly interested in the subject and presents various tells and diggings as places holding great fascination. In contrast, soldiers in Christie are often bores, hanging out in their clubs and trapping unwilling listeners with yet another tale of bagging a tiger or fighting off natives in the Far East. Still, Christie shows fondness and respect for her soldiers, so I can imagine that the memories of her first marriage weren’t all painful.
MOST DASHING SOLDIER: Major Despard in Cards on the Table. Of the four suspects in the book, he’s the one you most hope didn’t do it!
BIGGEST BORE: Major Palgrave in A Caribbean Mystery. With his glass eye bulging, who wouldn’t want to escape one of his old stories . . . unless he’s telling you about murderers he has known, in which case you would do well to listen carefully before he gets bumped off!
I have lumped artists and actors into this category and come up with a total of twenty-five major representatives from that field. Christie was a fan of the theatre and the art world, and her actors and painters make up some of the richest characters in her books. Many of them possess overweening egos to the point of sociopathy, so it’s no wonder that there are a half dozen murderers among them. The theatre is a world of illusion and therefore a perfect breeding ground for a cleverly disguised murder. Surprisingly, Christie, a successful playwright herself, never set a book in the world of the theatre. Her actors bring their drama out into the light of the real world, often using their skills to mask their true feelings or even to play a disguised character. While actors tend to be quite bright – Donald Ross in Lord Edgware Dies dies because of his intelligence – actresses tend to be gorgeous and stupid, or ruthlessly single-minded. Jane Wilkinson in Lord Edgware Dies and Arlena Marshall in Evil Under the Sun are beautiful, vain and self-serving. Only after she dies does Poirot show us that Arlena was a born victim and worthy of our sympathy.
For artists, their work is the consuming passion in their lives, more important than the people who love them. Two perfect examples are Amyas Crale in Five Little Pigs and Henrietta Savernake in The Hollow. Amyas is one of the most vividly drawn of all her murder victims, a man of enormous appetites and unmitigated ego, adored by both wife and mistress and worshipped by his best friend, despite his flaws. His relationships with his wife and the five “little pigs” are so richly characterized that the novel earns its place regularly among top ten lists for critics and fans alike.
Henrietta is a woman of extraordinary depth, capable of great love and loyalty but a slave to her artistic sensibilities. She has no guilt in being involved in an extramarital affair, yet her love for this man extends to a great sense of compassion and responsibility toward his wife. And at the end, no matter how badly the events at the Hollow have hurt her, Henrietta summons up the artist inside her to turn her personal tragedy into an artistic triumph.
And finally . . .
Thirty-two characters make their living as doctors, nurses or drug dispensers. Christie was a drug dispenser during WWI; hence, her vast knowledge of poisons and her respect for the medical profession. Doctors count as among the most honorable characters and the most cold-bloodedly heinous. With their easy access to poisons, is it any wonder that seven of these characters kill, most likely with poison used in the cleverest of fashions?
Many doctors are bluff and hearty, like Owen Griffiths in The Moving Finger and Dr. Roberts in Cards on the Table. Dr. Haydock appears throughout the Miss Marple series, most relevantly in The Murder at the Vicarage, where his suspicious behavior is a result of his great compassion for his patients.
Dr. John Cristow in The Hollow is a different sort, as intriguing a victim as Amyas Crale: cold and selfish in his personal life, he reserves his true passions for the cure he is seeking and the patients who suffer. His love for Henrietta is strongly based on her understanding and sympathy for his professional passion. Sarah King in Appointment With Death is that rarest of breeds, a female doctor, and one of the best of Christie’s young women who act as guides throughout a Poirot case. (Amy Leatheran, in her capacity as nurse, admirably fulfills the same function in A Murder in Mesopotamia. Amy is never a suspect, though, while Sarah has a very good reason to kill the loathsome Mrs. Boynton!)
Finally, a word about dentists: There are two in Christie, and both provide a vivid display of Christie’s capacity for humor within the grimness of a murder investigation. Mr. Morley in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe is a source of great anxiety for Poirot, which makes the sleuth’s investigation into his death all the more poignant. And Norman Gale makes us smile in Death in the Clouds as his business dries up: “Who wants to go to a dentist who may be a murderer?” he moans.