The other day, my buddy Kate at Cross Examining Crime tried to get my goat! This is rich, coming from the woman who raises goats herself! But Kate is also a writer, writers get metaphorical, and knowing what a champion of Agatha Christie I am, Kate saw fit to warn me that not all folks see greatness in the Doyenne of Mystery.
Take Jessica Mann, a British crime writer and journalist who, starting in 1971, wrote 22 mysteries, as well as various criticisms of the genre, including 1981’s Deadlier Than the Male: An Investigation into Feminine Crime Writing. When she died in 2018, her obituary in the Telegraph described her work thusly (the italics are my own):
“ . . . her writing was characterized by the effervescence of personality and robust distaste for conventional thinking that also became familiar to radio listeners from her appearances on Any Questions? and Round Britain Quiz. She . . . was less interested in constructing cunning plots than in ranging over as wide as possible a variety of settings and characters. ‘I write books … which concentrate on people, places and puzzles, in that order,’ she once said.”
Would it shock you to learn that, rather than the analysis of female crime authors it purports to be, Mann’s book is essentially a hatchet job on GAD crime fiction in general and the Queens of Crime in particular? Sadly, many late 20th century crime writers would join her in this fun and games. Irish novelist John Banville set the tone with the standard admission (as if it was a guilty secret) of reading and liking Christie as a child, and then growing up and changing his mind:
“Nowadays I am with Edmund Wilson, the title of whose 1945 New Yorker essay, Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?, expresses my feelings exactly. I say ‘novels’, but I am not sure that is what these books are. They more resemble crossword puzzles, and finishing one of them, like finishing a puzzle, leaves one with the same ashen sense of futility and wasted time.”
Declan Hughes, who is also an Irish novelist but at least has dabbled himself in the crime genre, described Hercule Poirot as “a cartoon character in a human world,” an unbelievable figure who is only “worth putting up with” for the pleasure of encountering some of the wonderful plots in which he appears. And the great P.D. James made practically a cottage industry of writing about Christie in patronizing tones: “Agatha Christie hasn’t in my view had a profound influence on the later development of the detective story.”
The problem with critics like James and Mann is that when they write about Christie in reference to their own work and the work of their peers, they are comparing apples to oranges, with the underlying hypothesis that oranges are of course better than apples. Christie and her contemporaries are dismissed as shallow puzzle makers – albeit clever puzzle makers, while modern writers, with their focus on people and places before puzzles, are seen as “true” writers.
This comparison is unfair in several respects. On the one hand, the genre has changed – I refuse to apply the term “evolved” here, suggesting it has gotten better (although there is certainly a lot of great crime fiction being written today) – since World War II. But then all genre fiction changes: science fiction applies itself to contemporary social ills and fears, romance fiction has gotten dirtier as our moral strictures have loosened, and horror has become more grossly unpleasant in order to qualify for a film adaptation. As humanity has become more attuned to its inner life, all writing has become more psychologically centered. Let’s face it: everybody loves well-made f**ked-up characters, and coming up with an airtight puzzle plot is hard! So why not dismiss Christie and transform modern crime fiction into a “successful marriage of detective novel and ‘straight’ novel?
That last quote comes from none other than John Curran, describing Five Little Pigs. When she chose to do so, Christie could come up with a mystery that was also character-driven and psychologically rich – and she could still surprise readers at the end! In other words, P.D. James is not giving classic mysteries their due.
Look, I’m willing to concede the point that Mann makes (and that Kate worried would send me quivering to bed with each arm around a cat for support) about none other than Hercule Poirot. Mann describes him as a static character, one who functions:
“ . . . as a machine for detection, and any other collection of characteristics would have done as well, for his personality does not affect the action, except for the fact that Poirot’s solutions are usually arrived at after so many additional murders that a CID man would have been demoted to the uniformed branch and point duty.”
The thing is, she’s right! Poirot, like most of the great sleuths from Holmes to Merrivale, is a “collection of characteristics” more than he is a flesh and blood character. Christie herself gave vent to this complaint through her alter ego Ariadne Oliver, who gripes her own fictional sleuth, Sven Hjerson:
“How do I know why I ever thought of the revolting man? I must have been mad! Why a Finn when I know nothing about Finland? Why a vegetarian? Why all the idiotic mannerisms he’s got? These things just happen. You try something – and people seem to like it – and before you know it, you’ve got someone like that maddening Sven Hjerson tied to you for life. And people even write and say how fond you must be of him. Fond? If I ever met that bony gangling vegetable eating Finn in real life, I’d do a better murder than any I’ve ever invented.”
Christie playfully disparaged her Belgian Golden Goose, yet she was protective enough to remove him from the theatrical adaptations of his novels, claiming that his persona was too hard to get right and too distracting from the plot for audiences. He was her collection of tics and characteristics, and nobody was going to touch him if they couldn’t get him right.
One person who refused to see Poirot as an amalgamation of superficial qualities was David Suchet, the actor who portrayed the detective on television for twenty-four years. Suchet approached the character as any classically trained actor does: he sought to capture Poirot’s exterior mannerisms and interior life. And yet, like any actor, Suchet’s was a personal interpretation of a famous character, different from Finney and Ustinov as any portrayal of Lear or Stanley Kowalski would differ from another. This is every actor’s right, and in general Suchet is extolled for his success in these efforts. Still, some controversy arose midway through the series when the actor took on a dual credit as producer and decided to take his portrayal in a new direction by enriching the inner life of the character. At that point, the series became darker, and Suchet’s Poirot began to diverge to a greater degree from the character found in Christie’s novel than it had before.
This brings me to my friend and fellow GAD enthusiast Scott Ratner, who has been critical of Suchet. Scott is never one to shy away from strong opinions, and his recent comments on Facebook brought up strong feelings, pro and con, about what he had to say. I had the opportunity to talk to Scott before he posted, and one point he brought up about Poirot is deliciously appropriate to this discussion about characterization in GAD novels, particularly Mann’s criticism of Poirot:
“Admittedly, the character of Poirot was generally regarded as the primary focus of the (TV) series, but this in itself is a matter of a distortion of Christie’s vision. For, even a cursory reading of her novels reveals that the detective character was not the primary subject of them, the cases he solved were. Beyond the overwhelming disparity in the volume of verbiage dedicated to these two different elements, the fact that Christie was so easily able to replace Poirot in stage adaptations of her stories reveals her understanding that the plots, not her detective, were the core of them. And while I’m one who believes that her skill in characterization is largely underrated, the fact that she is widely held to be among the very greatest puzzle plotters of all time, yet not among the greatest masters of characterization in world literature (or even detective fiction), suggests that the former skill is more integral to her unrivaled popularity. Moreover, the notion that her series detectives were the basis of Christie’s appeal is further shattered by the fact that her best-selling novel, And Then There Were None (indeed, the best-selling mystery novel of all time) does not feature any of them.”
There’s no comparing Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, or Sir Henry Merrivale to Adam Dalgliesh, Harry Hole, or Dalziel and Pascoe. The modern incarnation of the detective figure has a complex backstory and even richer inner life, sometimes changing significantly from case to case. What this achieves is to make the modern mystery novel up to three times longer than the classic one, sometimes approaching in prose and tone the quality of a mainstream novel – and yet rarely providing a crime plot better than Christie, Sayers, or Carr give us.
Posit: 352 pages vs. 704 pages = No Contest!!!
Here, then is the real challenge of the mystery author when it comes to characterization. The most likely favorite character of a reader – the detective – is, by nature of the genre, an outsider. Their pasts, their day-to-day existence, their inner feelings are scarcely significant to the main story, which is that of the death of a person or persons at the hand of a person or persons unknown. There is no doubt that a true Christie fan enjoys the glimpse given of Miss Marple’s girlhood at the beginning and end of They Do It With Mirrors, but the main purpose of this is to explain how she is roped into a present-day case. I won’t say that the goofy shenanigans in which Sir Henry Merrivale engages never give us a significant clue to the case he is investigating, but the main purpose is to offer an arguably humorous detour – and how many readers have remarked on how increasingly tiresome these hijinks get? True, Lord Peter Wimsey and others meet the loves of their life in the course of a mystery, allowing their creators to chart the never smooth course of a love affair, sometimes over several books. Significantly, Harriet Vane’s greatest case (and the favorite book of many Sayers fans) separates her from her beloved, and once Peter and Harriet found wedded bliss, Dorothy L. Sayers basically dropped out of the crime fiction game.
Can you see the challenge facing a mystery writer when it comes to character? With the detective outside the plot looking in, arguably the most important character is the victim, and that person often makes the briefest of appearances – if they appear at all! Or say the victim is merely a catalyst for the unveiling of long-hidden truths, as in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead? Let’s say it’s the murderer who is the most important character, for without their act of desperation – or gain, or revenge, or sadistic madness – there’s no book! But for that character to remain hidden until the end, a certain veil must be placed over every character: true motivations must be muddied or downright obfuscated.
The classic mystery was relatively brief and had to move snappily through one or more murders, their investigation, and the reaching of a solution. All else could be seen as “padding.” Thus, many authors focused their characterization on the sleuth and, possibly, his team. This is certainly true of my most recent read, The Flying Boat Mystery. In books like these, the suspects are reduced to a few brush strokes. Many authors of early crime classics engaged in “types” – the bluff doctor, the “old bore” military man, the desiccated spinster, the “artistic” type. Americans added voluptuous femmes and rat-a-tat gangsters to the gallery. The best authors used a fine hand to sketch a humorous or original take on these hoary old chestnuts. This was certainly true in the 20’s and 30’s. Christie was no different – at first – for it allowed her puzzle plot to take over the proceedings.
It’s not that Christie couldn’t craft strong characters or invent human interactions that resonated with her audience. Some of her murderers are fascinating people. Her depiction of village life in Murder at the Vicarage is one of that novel’s greatest strengths. And the romantic triangle of Linnet Ridgeway, Simon Doyle, and Jacqueline de Bellefort that forms the center of Death on the Nile is powerful stuff.
It also signaled a coming sea change for Christie – and for many crime writers – as the 1930’s drew to a close. By 1939, with And Then There Were None, Christie expanded her focus on character and psychology, producing some of her finest writing. Book like Sad Cypress, Five Little Pigs and The Hollow may not produce the shock of Roger Ackroyd or Nile, but they are expertly plotted, with well-drawn characters and emotional twists that create a different sort of surprise ending.
Ellery Queen does the same thing in his Period Three, beginning in 1940, where he sacrifices a focus on puzzle for deeper emotional resonance. And yet few would argue that his work here doesn’t represent great mystery-writing. Carr touched on this in the 40’s, although he remained adamantly focused on the crafting of puzzles for Fell and Merrivale. Carr’s method of evolving as a writer was to step slowly away from puzzle mysteries into historical ones; there, the puzzle became secondary to the author’s fascination with getting the details of each era correct.
With Pigs, or Ten Days Wonder, or He Who Whispers, classic authors proved that a fine mystery could balance character and plot. Their work paved the way for the authors who got their start at this time: the Christianna Brands and Helen McCloys and Margaret Millars, some of whom made a career of crafting clever whodunnits, others who shifted at their own pace to the realm of psychological suspense. Still, those who had begun their careers before the Second World War largely could not shake off the aim their writing had always taken: to entertain, to provide an example of a world temporarily made chaotic and then restored to order.
The unchanging detective was an exemplar of this sense of order. Peter Wimsey and Roderick Alleyn hardly changed after they got married. If anything they became happier. Ellery Queen went through a rough period of self-doubt – his greatest period, in my opinion – but by the 1960’s he returned to form, solving stylish mysteries for cardboard characters in trouble. Carr’s detective heroes grew a bit silly but were no less canny in solving crimes; it was just the crimes themselves that got weaker.
Christie experimented with her detectives in various ways. She presented the cases of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford in a semblance of real time: yet, even as they got older, they essentially remained the same. (The dottiness they show in their final case was, sadly, that of their creator.) Miss Marple evolves in the most poignant way: although she starts out as a very old lady, she feels that age a lot more by the end, and Christie makes her a most astute observer of the social changes in England during the post-war period
And Poirot? Well, Poirot is a bit of a mystery. Christie wrote the book during WWII because the bombing of London frightened her and she wanted to leave a finale to benefit her child. Let’s surmise 1943, just for fun. Between 1943 and 1972, Christie published eleven more Poirot novels before Curtain. She certainly had the chance to bring her character ever more closely to the position in which he finds himself in that final novel. And yet, she does not. Certainly there are allusions to Poirot’s reputation fading, particularly amongst the young. Norma Restarick rejects his help, citing his age. Other characters in other books say in passing, “I thought he was dead.” And yet Christie knew how much her readers loved Poirot, so she kept him basically the same, right up to the end.
I consider this a gift. Mann and James and Wilson and Banville called it a deficit. They are missing the point of classic crime fiction. The detective is like classic Superman: shiny and strong and always there when you need him. He never deviates from that. The detective’s job is to sort out the mess, with great charm and perspicacity, and – hopefully – with a sense of logic and veracity hovering over the proceedings. He doesn’t make mistakes because his wife just died, or because his daughter is addicted to drugs, or his girlfriend just left him or he just found out he has cancer. Like us, the reader, he is focused on what matters: the crime, its victims, its perpetrators, the clues, true and false.
That, Ms. Mann, is a good thing.
26 thoughts on “THE SQUARE PEG/ROUND HOLE CONUNDRUM, or Putting Poirot in His Place”
You’ve gazumped me here, Brad, and done a far better job of a gripe that was threatening to stink up my own blog at some point — for which I thank you. Having just abandoned the twelfth book of a popular series because, man, there is so much backstory I was almost moved to write a celebration of the characterless plot — that is, the plot that is about “the crime, its victims, its perpetrators, the clues” rather than requiring us to remember what someone said or did on page 287 four books ago.
The confusion that seems to result, and that smugness of the likes of Banville you mention at the start, is that it’s acceptable to ignore plot so long as there character to relate to. And, like, since when did only one flavour work for everyone? Yes, I understand the joys of watching a TV show and having something from series 4 pay off in series 8…but not everything does that, and not everything needs to be that.
This weird sort of “let’s piss on old books” is a curious phenomenon, and not one I care for.
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Nobody loves serial fiction more than me! From Dickens to Dallas to the incredible way the new Battlestar: Galactica improved upon the old, I love heartening back to a well-placed foreshadow in Season One! But this false comparison is ludicrous and, yes, I agree with you that sometimes a relatively “characterless plot” is a relief. When I hear someone praise the latest George or Penny or the like, their focus is on the regular characters, not the mystery plot. It is a result of watching TV, to be sure, and the ironic thing is that these are the people who complain about the way these literary characters are portrayed or miscast on TV!
I don’t understand the phenomenon of knocking older books either. Agatha Christie for one, gets lots of flak from modern crime writers and they look down on her because she doesn’t pen these large tomes of books that are over 300 pages with that are mostly full dark, complex character development — mainly it’s drama and it gets in the way of the mystery which is why we turn to a mystery book. I’m not interested in these harrowing subplots with a detective with an alcoholic problem or going through a dirty divorce. For example, with Sherlock Holmes, we know that he uses cocaine to help stimulate his boredom whenever he’s not on a case and his boswell Dr. John Watson sharply criticizes Holmes’ use of it but we don’t get this long backstory or present circumstance subplot in the stories of Holmes’ addiction with long drawn out struggles like we would get in a modern mystery. Modern mystery writers take pride in their many page volumes and how realistic they are compared to GAD, but what about “ingenuity” which is something that writers like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, etc had. And these are all OLDER writers from the past. These writers laid the foundation of the mystery genre and what it wholly represents. Instead of knocking them there should be great respect. They took great care, effort and cleverness in plotting their stories. Read Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes short story for one, “The Speckled Band”, and just see the ingenuity crafted to produce such a story and the way the crime was handled. It’s hard to create a plot that is engineered so well so to knock that as shallow is a misunderstanding of what the genre entails.
I don’t understand the phenomenon of knocking older books either. Agatha Christie for one, gets lots of flak from modern crime writers and they look down on her because she doesn’t pen these large tomes of books that are over 300 pages
Sorry, Brian, but I don’t think I’ve ever come across anyone criticizing Christie’s novels on the grounds that “they look down on her because she doesn’t pen these large tomes of books that are over 300 pages.”
The slam old books phenomenon is just a special case of slam old everything. Temporal prejudice is, like all prejudices, lazy and self-aggrandizing. But it’s pretty common.
An interesting piece — many thanks. I’ve often felt that both Alleyn and Wimsey — come to think of it, Campion too — started off, like Poirot, as “collections of tics and mannerisms” but were very soon toned down by their creators.
Declan Hughes, who is also an Irish novelist but at least has dabbled himself in the crime genre
Um, so has Banville — quite extensively.
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In fact, Banville has written more crime fiction than I thought. Here’s the relevant bit of his biblio in Wikipedia:
The following have been published as Benjamin Black:
Christine Falls. London: Picador, 2006
The Silver Swan. London: Picador, 2007
A Death in Summer. London: Mantle, 2011
Elegy for April. London: Picador, 2011
Vengeance. London: Mantle, 2012
Holy Orders. New York: Henry Holt, 2013
Even the Dead. London: Penguin, 2016
The Lemur. London: Picador, 2008 (previously serialised in The New York Times)
The Black-Eyed Blonde. New York: Henry Holt, 2014 (a Philip Marlowe novel)
Prague Nights. London: Penguin, 2017 (known to U.S. readers as Wolf on a String)
The Secret Guests, 2020
I’ve read his Marlowe novel, and thought it was okay, and have had The Silver Swan sitting on my shelf for a fair while; guess I ought to get to it.
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I did not know that he was Benjamin Black!
An excellent discussion, Brad. And I’m so glad you brought up Five Little Pigs. It really does show Christie’s ability to create characters (as opposed to – dare I say it – caricatures). To me (and I know I may not be in the majority here), there’s also The Hollow, which has some very interesting characters and backstory, as well as providing a solid plot. That said, though, I think one of your central points is the most relevant. Comparing GAD fiction to modern detective/mystery fiction isn’t really a fair comparison. I have to say that I see echoes of one or another GAD author in some of today’s crime fiction. And there is still excellent traditional-style crime fiction being written (and, of course, excellent crime fiction that isn’t in that style). But ‘better than,’ or ‘not as good as’ may not be as productive as we’d wish, in my opinion.
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I can only imagine how tired P.D. James must have grown having her own work compared with Christie’s – or, at least, having Christie’s name dredged up during discussions of her own work. I can only reiterate that comparing GAD with modern crime fiction is pretty much a waste of time. Stop calling Ruth Ware “the modern Agatha Christie” – her work is nothing like!
And I wholeheartedly agree about The Hollow, Margot – complex victim, a pathetic end to the villain, and a socko finish involving the book’s most interesting character!
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Brilliant post Brad. Glad my poor read from Mann, resulted in something more pleasing and less apt to raise blood pressure. I still wonder how interchangeable Poirot’s core characteristics are. The ones he has really seem to have fired readers’ imaginations for decades. Is it the memorable characteristic choices in themselves or is there something in the way they are used which have kept people discussing him for this long? The GAD era no doubt had loads of other tic/characteristic filled fictional sleuths, yet they’ve not stood the test of time. Is their particular tics which readers didn’t get inspired by or is it the surrounding plots which have led them to obscurity?
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If we compare Christie’s description of Poirot with Mrs. Oliver’s portrait of Sven Hjerson, it’s clear that Christie is being a little tongue in cheek here, Kate. I don’t know my Finnish history, but what does being a Finn add to Hjerson’s character? How does his vegetarianism count for anything when he’s solving a case. Now consider Poirot: his OCD helps drive him to a punctilious examination of a case. (Look at how he examines the murder bedroom in his first book!) His being a Belgian refugee affects the way that he looks at the English, maintaining an affection for them even as they belittle and/or underestimate him for being a “damn foreigner.” He uses his looks to get people to dismiss him as a hairdresser or as a member of UNARCO. And the little things – the care for his mustaches and his patent leather shoes, the way his eyes glow green, his great love of food and drink – these all fill in the edges and make him a warmer character. So yes – I think some authors did the “tic thing” better than others, and Christie was one of the best.
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I enjoyed this discussion and it made me think a little more deeply about the issues (perhaps at an off topic tangent). I wonder whether sometimes one of the aspects what makes authors work last are presenting stock characters where audiences/readers can take some aspects for granted so little time is wasted in exposition but adding enough additional quirks to be memorable. In this regard I agree with the comments above in relation to many of the 1930/40s Christie’s where enough additional nuance makes the books fly.
In a theatrical example, two of the funniest nights at the theatre I have had were watching the 1990s RSC and the 2000s National Theatre productions of Goldoni’s Servant with Two Masters/ One Man Two Governors where very different approaches to the same core material based on the Commedia dell’arte stock characters both worked marvellously.
In general I do agree that complaining that an apple is not a orange is fundamentally silly, although admittedly sometimes I do prefer some blackberries in the pie as well. For example, my favourite Wimsey is Murder Must Advertise because the advertising agency aspects feel real.
I must also thank you for conjuring the thought of Peter Ustinov playing Stanley Kowalski which added to the humour of the day.
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Commedia is the perfect metaphor here! Players wandered around 17th century Italy performing the same scenarios using the same stock characters, yet no two interpretations would be exactly the same. Theatre is is like that – no wonder I love it and have dedicated my career to it! No teaching year is the same, no matter how alike the material i teach!
Yes, Commedia del arte is a great comparison. Another comparison is Restoration comedy. I have seen several bad stagings of great plays because the director would not embrace the artifice. This form has rules; the plays work well within the rules, but they are just not the same thing as a play that follows different rules, such as a Terence Rattigan or Ibsen or Neil Simon play. They are a different animal.
You may not believe me, Brad, but I was ready to say that I agreed with every word even before I got to the part where you quoted me! You said it all. Like you, I believe, I have no problem with anyone preferring character-based mystery stories, I just wish they didn’t feel the need to assert that they were superior to plot-based ones. P.D. James is the amazing one to me, as she has a habit of praising Christie quite strongly just before she draws blood with a deeply cruel and I believe irrelevant (though I admit always very intelligent) criticism. It recalls to me a line from Lubitsch’s CLUNY BROWN: “Miss Cream, you have the most charming way of tossing bouquets just as if they were bricks.”
And just so that I’m not misunderstood by those who escaped reading the entirety of my rant, I’d wish to point out that I wasn’t really disparaging either Suchet’s ability as an actor or even his portrayal of Poirot, really, just his repeated claims of being a faithful servant and guardian of Christie.
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I maintain great fondness for Suchet’s performance, although we both agree that he deviated more and more from a relatively faithful portrayal of Poirot. I have to say that some of the malaise I felt watching the later series might be due to the fact that they began scraping the bottom of the barrel with such titles as The Big Four, The Clocks, and Elephants Can Remember. And is it silly that, while I don’t love any of these books, it irritated me that the adaptations deviated so far from the originals! A late entry like After the Funeral is still considered fine because of the superiority of the source material.
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I nearly always loved his performances in the role, and several of the episodes of Poirot are among my favorite adaptations of Agatha Christie ever. However, I feel that “guardianship” of the character was more about him saying things like “I don’t think Poirot would move that way if he were fighting aliens in outer space” than “Poirot should not be fighting aliens in outer space.”
I loved Albert Finney’s Poirot. I was sad when he refused to do more.
I found Suchet’s a very close second. Ustinov was against physical type and that hurt his portrayal quite a bit. (NTM crappy casting in his Poirot movies).
Philomena McDonough’s adaptation of AtF was exceptionally good and you know how I hate when screenwriters take liberties with original materials LOL.
Another good piece and just for the record… there were a few stories where Poirot seemed “plugged” in and out of place. For instance… Sad Cypress.
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BTW, every time I see the phrase “your comment is awaiting moderation,” I respond, “But, I employed moderation in the writing of it!”
The workings of the blogosphere mystify me! I cannot respond to TomCat or Sinister John, both of whom I admire to no end.
Have you tried experimenting with your ad blocker (assuming you have one)?
I have not! Do you mean to say I can experiment with my ad blocker? How on earth would I do that, and what would it accomplish to my benefit?
If you tell it to stop blocking a particular site you may find you can comment there where previously you couldn’t.
As a long time Christie admirer – thank you for this article! I started to read her novels in my early teenage years – but many of her better novels actually grew on me while I grew up (pun very much intended).
You named a few Christie novels which I still re-read now and then because the mysteries are so well crafted AND they feature very interesting and believable characters. “Murder In The Vicarage” “Sad Cypress”, “Death On The Nile” and “Five Little Pigs” are wonderful whodunnits. “The Hollow” and “Towards Zero” are my all-time favorite Christie novels, while “The “Pale Horse” is a guilty pleasure.
That said, I’m not overly fond of Miss Marple and I never liked Poirot all that much. For me it’s actually a bonus that “Towards Zero” and “The Pale Horse” which both have very ingenious plots and interesting characters, don’t feature any of Christie’s serial detectives. So, why do I enjoy nevertheless so many Poirot- and Miss-Marple novels, although I’m not overly fond of Agatha’s good old sleuths? I think you hit the nail on it’s head: apart from the obvious duty of them going about their detection business and eventually solving the riddle, the detectives aren’t all-important as characters. Since they don’t take up so much space, and nothing serious ever happens to them personally, it’s indeed possible to excise them without hurting the underlying plot and character development.
That said, I do enjoy the recurrance of a sleuth who is credible, interesting and develops a personality and a private life of his or her own. As much as I love many Christie novels, I adore Dorothy Sayers’ Lord-Peter-Wimsey novels. And while I simply ignore Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple in order to fully enjoy many of Agatha’s ingenious novels, I don’t need and don’t want to do the same with Lord Peter, his extended family and Harriet Vane. Introducing her in “Strong Poison” was a stroke of genius. It’s a pity that Sayers simply quit writing detective novels cold turkey as soon as the wedding bells rang for the good Lord and Dorothy’s alter ego Harriet Vane, and that she only wrote religious pamphlets for the rest of her career. But then again – maybe, it was a very wise decision. The last Lord-Peter-Wimsey-and-Harriet-Vane novel is a much too sweet love novel with a little bit of detection thrown in almost as an afterthought. Maybe, Sayers avoided to turn Lord Peter and his Harriet into cyphers. Maybe, one of Sayers’ modern heirs – Elizabeth George – should’ve done the same with her own aristocratic sleuth Inspector Lynley. She choose instead to torment him and his fellow characters in an ongoing string of novels of seriously deteriorating quality, just when he seemed to have achieved a measure of private happiness. Maybe, Sayers narrowly avoided to turn Lord Peter and Harriet Vane into soap opera commodities. And thus Lord Peter Wimsey will forever remain my all-time favorite detective ☺
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Oh, Sabine, I wish I shared your passion for Peter Wimsey. In all fairness, I figure I was too young to appreciate Sayers when I tried her. I’m resolved to give Peter and Harriet another chance one of these days. Sayers is too important to the foundation of GAD for me to dismiss her.
That said, I think early Peter Wimsey is just as full of tics as Poirot or Miss Marple, and while very little happens to M. Poirot until the final chapter, Miss Marple, in subtle ways, does change from 1950 onward. I think Christie’s relationship with that old lady was too deep for her not to have imbued some of her own dark feelings about the changing of the old guard into Miss Marple.
Finally, I stand by the idea of the detective as an outsider in the GAD world, but he is integral to the world (of murder) he invades because nothing can grow in that stunted garden until (s)he effects change by solving the crime. So even if Poirot or Marple don’t change themselves, they must be there to effect change, making them the most important characters in the book!!!
So there! 🙂