When I first began dating my wife Carolyn Raship she was still blogging regularly here. It was one of the countless things we had in common. Since then, she’s focused like a laser beam on her visual art, and the world can be glad she has. But she remains a wonderful writer, and as energized on cultural topics (pop and otherwise) as I am. Indeed there are entire massive realms in pop culture where her knowledge exceeds mine, to put it mildly. One of them is the mystery genre. When she proposed a series of posts on Agatha Christie (whose birthday it is today), I leapt at it with alacrity. I was planning to eventually do something on the great mystery writer, but it would have been nothing like this. The series starts today, with succeeding posts to take place every few days over the course of the next few weeks. I turn you now over to her.
I love Agatha Christie. I might love her more than any other author. This doesn’t mean I think she’s the greatest author, or the most indispensable or important author. It just means she’s the one I love best. Her books are the ones I turn to when I’m sad or have the flu or am up late with insomnia. I’ve read every novel, every short story, her autobiography and piles of criticism. Tom Adams, the artist who illustrated her covers in the 60s and 70s remains a tremendous influence on me as an illustrator. I’ve seen nearly every filmed adaptation.
I bought this tea.
In fact, I’m drinking it right now. From this mug.
This week marks Agatha Christie’s 128th birthday and your usual host, Mr. Trav S.D. has graciously invited me to use this space to discuss, at appalling length, all of Ms. Christie’s works (that is to say, everything written under the name “Agatha Christie”). I’ve been thinking a great deal about why her works appeal to me so much. There are the obvious answers, such as her books exist in a morally simple universe where things are solved. It’s immensely satisfying. And, if you’re the kind of person who likes puzzles (I am the kind of person who likes puzzles) her twisty plots are catnip. Though, as she would be the first to admit, her books aren’t great literature, she wrote clearly and well, she was consistently funny and her dialogue was often great.
There are other aspects to her work that I hear talked about less frequently. Her books engendered in me a yearning for travel, to see places like Istanbul, Bagdad, Petra and instilled in me a lifetime fascination with the Jazz Age Middle East. Another aspect of her work which is often flattened out by the frequent BBC adaptations is that none were nostalgia pieces when they were written, the filter through which we most often view her work today. Each of her novels (with one exception) are set in the time they were written. Reading through her oeuvre, you can track the changes in British society as the small village shops give way to supermarkets and housing developments, as her flappers become WRENs become beatniks become hippies. And if you’ve ever said to yourself, “Oh, why can’t there be an acid freakout scene in this Point novel?”, you simply haven’t read deeply enough, because THERE IS AN ACID FREAKOUT SCENE IN A POIROT NOVEL.
Christie liked Greek myths and Shakespeare and commedia del’arte and her books were the first places I learned about a lot of these things. And poison. Christie worked in a hospital pharmacy during WWI with a handsy psychopath who later became the model for one of her murderers 50 years down the road. She found the work interesting and kept up with the toxicology journals for her books. She’s very, very accurate and I believe she’s the only mystery novelist who was honored by having her books reviewed in scientific journals. The poison experts adore her for getting it (mostly) right.
Her upbringing was not dissimilar from that of the storied Mitford sisters, though she was several degrees less posh. She had no formal education, her father was a sad, incompetent man who mostly wasted his life playing cards at his club and lost all his inherited fortune through inattention and negligence. Her mother was brilliant and dynamic, she read and wrote and enjoyed trying different religions on for size. Her sister had a play produced in the West End before Agatha published anything. Her friends were mostly imaginary. She had a morbid streak (she liked to play funeral) and was gifted at both math and music. She was extremely shy and remained so throughout her life.
All the above being true, I am not unaware of her faults. The most important of which was her inability to transcend the prejudices of her time and her class. She exhibits all the typical racism and antisemitism that was pretty much a given in upper class English people prior to WWII. She never transcended it, and I fear it’s worse than I know as her American publishers were given permission to soften anything they found offensive. I never really put it together before, but the most appalling things I’ve read in her books were in British editions. As with her Detection Club compatriots Sayers and Chesterton, as with Wilde and Orwell and Dickens and Trollope, I’m not certain how we handle this. If we were to stop reading all pre-WWII novelists with horrific or dismissive views on people who are neither Christian or white, we’ll pretty much be stuck reading Wilkie Collins novels over and over again. This isn’t an excuse, and I’m not giving her a pass. It needs to be acknowledged and discussed and decried. I’ll take the unexpurgated reality over the sanitized, huggy view of class relations in Downton Abbey any day, because at least it’s there: to be identified, dug out and not replicated. I think it’s important to understand that we can hold affection for artists of the past while simultaneously understanding they held views which are now unacceptable.
That said, I look forward to discussing her 66 novels and 14 short story collections, and the adaptations of same, warts and all, with both affection and a critical eye.