Agatha Christie died early this year at the age of eighty-five, the author of as many books as she had years and the most widely read writer in the world. At least 400 million copies of her works have been sold, and The Mousetrap may well run longer than any other play ever produced. Curtain, her most recently published book, was at the top of the best-seller list for weeks.
The question “How did she write so much?” can be answered, if at all, by her biographer. The question “How did she become so popular?” can be raised here. Among writers of detective stories, many of whom wrote books much better than hers, Christie is the only household name. Her prose is commonplace at best. Her characters pretend to be no more than squiggles on a page. Her plots are famous, but only a few are particularly strong. The most obvious explanation for her popularity is that her conventionality and ordinariness are precisely the reasons for her success; but she had no corner on these markets. If someone buying a Christie in a drugstore or at an airport is comforted with knowing exactly what is in store, aren’t paperback stands in such places replete with other books offering that comfort?
Familiarity helped, of course, as it did her only rival in popularity, Erle Stanley Gardner. Christie wrote a number of books in the Twenties and Thirties that became famous among readers of detective stories: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Ten Little Indians, Murder on the Orient Express, The ABC Murders. Thus, when paperbacks came along in the Forties, she was already familiar. She was also still writing, unlike John Dickson Carr, say, or S. S. Van Dine, and was at the top of her form, unlike Ellery Queen. Thus, when the lending library gave way to the drugstore and airport stands, Christie was well known, prolific, and as good as ever. The rest seems to have just happened. Detective story addicts might note a bad falling off in quality in the last twenty years, but her new audience, dependent now not on “the latest Christie” but on constant reprinting of old Christies, doesn’t care.
Still, when Curtain was published last year, everyone seemed to want to respond to a “new old Christie.” This is the book in which Hercule Poirot dies. Christie had written it, and another in which Miss Marple dies, in the Forties, and had left instructions for them to be published posthumously. According to Nancy Blue Wynne in An Agatha Christie Chronology,* the success of the movie of Murder on the Orient Express induced Christie to consent to having Curtain published and, for the first time in her career, she had a book on top of the American best-seller lists. Presumably the Marple book will do the same when it appears.
Curtain is based on the interesting proposition that Iago murdered Desdemona, that someone can spend a lifetime inducing others to commit murders they secretly want to commit. Considering how often Christie got blood out of some very stony stones, one must rank this theme as promising. Unfortunately her handling of the story is scandalously mechanical, even for her; her Iago scurries around a country estate, desperately trying to get someone to murder someone else, anyone else. The problem, as usual with Christies and with most other detective stories, is the suspects, that line-up of shopworn figures, each of whom in one or two appearances must give a motive for murder, a reason for our believing he or she did do it, plus a reason for our believing he or she did not do it. The man is a bounder, seduces women; the woman has a single-minded scientist for a husband when she wanted a socialite; the other woman, who is falling in love with the scientist, is heard to say only useful people should be allowed to live.
The suspects will pass in front of us, more or less in sequence, two, three, four times. Each time Christie will drop some clues, each time she will arrange the cast so each will or will not appear suspect. The bounder can’t be a murderer because he is a bounder, the disappointed wife can’t be a murderer because she herself is murdered, and round and round it goes. Good people are shown in compromising positions, sinister ones are shown in redeeming lights. If Curtain succeeds, it does so because the reader can read as many words on the page as he or she wishes. For instance:
“It struck me that he looked a very unhappy man.”
The woman beside me said quietly:
“But of course he is. You must have realized that.”
I think I showed my surprise. I said, stammering slightly,
“No—no—I haven’t. I’ve always thought of him as absolutely wrapped up in his work.”
“So he is.”
“Do you call that unhappiness? I should have said it was the happiest state imaginable.”
“Oh yes, I’m not disputing it—but not if you’re hampered from doing what you feel it’s in you to do.”
The scientist is being hampered, and so the average reader, playing cat-and-mouse with Christie, will think about who is doing the hampering, namely, the wife. The more determined reader will know that Christie is apt to be dropping the real clue not about the scientist or his wife, but about the other speaker here, Miss Cole—why is she interested in this? This reader can follow all the clues, and, if Christie is in top form, figure out the murderer the sentence before Poirot says: “It was X, of course.” Here, incidentally, because she’s not in top form, the identity of the murderer is clear enough considerably before that point.
But many, perhaps most, of Christie’s readers are not the least determined, because they are reading it all in an hour and a half or else two pages a night. For them, there is the vague pleasure of the swirl of activity caused by using a ritualistic genre apparently to imitate the ritualistic lives of leisured English people. As the above dialogue shows the characters are neither interesting in themselves nor particularly indicative of any class or country, but the parade of the suspects can leave someone not paying much attention to believe that the carefully timed appearances of each is a sign of carefully ordered lives, lived, in spite of the overwhelming evidence, better than their own.
What animates Christie’s tireless completion of her appointed rounds is her imperious innocence. Not only is someone “guilty,” but in order for people to be suspects at all they must have done something to be guilty about. But these motives are only squiggles, passions for which Christie only knows the words. The murderer, when exposed and if male, may say “damn,” but otherwise no one is distinguishable from anyone else. All suspects get equal time, and seem guilty of nothing more than being dull. In this way Christie does what is called playing fair. Readers of mysteries want a book that stays resolutely a book, walled off from life, and there may not be so much as a whimper of humanity in all eighty-five books.
What in other writers or in life one might call sexism, snobbery, or racism is in Christie only a passion for keeping the squiggles in place. What in other writers might be an image of hell, paradise, or both—an isolated group on a train or a boat, in a country house or a village—is in Christie only a backdrop for the dance of words. At some moments in some of the books one suspects she is being shrewd or observant about a character. Perhaps she is, too, but soon that potentially interesting character, or situation, is ordered back into the lockstep of the dance, because we must get on with it.
This is certainly harmless, but in the English edition of The Dangerous Edge (although not in the American) Gavin Lambert does not approve:
The detection of crime, Poe implies, lies beyond the criminologist’s grasp and has nothing to do with the technical solution of a problem. The Man in the Crowd symbolizes everything that Dupin will never decode. Having invented the puzzle story, Poe defines its limitations. Chandler echoes him when he describes the ideal mystery as a story without an end. Most crime-artists are haunted by the idea that solving a puzzle involves dishonesty or anticlimax. To fool a reader is to cheat him.
Lambert is not the first to want to save crime and the criminal impulse from the detective story, but, as the above shows, he puts the case pretty well.
Lambert is, unfortunately, as resolutely a creature of the dark as Agatha Christie is of the light. He offers us nine “crime-artists”: Wilkie Collins, Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton, John Buchan, Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, Georges Simenon, Raymond Chandler, and Alfred Hitchcock. A mixed bag, surely, but Lambert tries to unmix it by beginning each profile with chunks of evidence about childhood terrors and by continually stressing in each writer only what is most dark and gloomy.
The sections on Greene and Ambler are the best, and on Ambler especially, because he has been written about much less often, Lambert shows, in one of his best descriptions, how the discovery in A Coffin for Dimitrios that the “dead” Dimitrios is alive, a moment everyone remembers with pleasure, is both a climax and the beginning of Charles Lattimer’s education in the way Dimitrios and society are “telepathically linked in a single organism that shares the soul of the pimp and the murderer…, the spy and the financier.”
Now this link, for Lambert, is enough by itself to elevate any ordinary book into a serious book—thus he is pretty much content to rest his praise of Simenon on Simenon’s knowledge “that there are no criminals.” Ambler, however, does more than this by not reducing his hero to either a fool or a sentimental sympathizer as he discovers these links, and he thereby keeps his book from falling victim to his idea, his vision of Europe. The Dangerous Edge does well by Ambler, and Greene, and Simenon too, for that matter, for reasons Ambler himself may not have been aware of: they are all of a single generation that lived under conditions especially conducive to the belief that surface differences between people according to class or nationality were superficial indeed when compared with the hidden link that made everyone live near the dangerous edge of violence.
It sometimes seems,” Greene has said, “as though our whole planet has swung into the fog belt of melodrama.” Sensitive and talented people who came of age during or shortly after World War I, if they wanted to write stories at all, often wrote melodramas. For Raven and Harry Lime, Dimitrios, Maigret, Verloc in Sabotage—Philip Marlowe in Chandler, too—the world is pretty much the waste land Eliot said it was. In the Thirties the train through middle Europe and the Balkans was used by Greene, Ambler, and Hitchcock. It seemed the perfect metaphor for the journey toward the bottom of the night, and no wonder they did so much better by it than Christie did. All she makes of the train is another isolating device, while they use it to tell melodramas about the fog belt into which the whole planet has swung. Just as the train was a perfect symbol for Europe becoming a unity at the turn of the century, so it was a perfect symbol for a Europe rediscovering the falseness of that unity and the terror of the revealed violence.
Lambert’s ability to succeed with these “crime artists” is precisely what makes him deficient with earlier writers. They too are pulled into the night, and everything is stressed that fits Lambert’s pattern and everything else is diminished. Raymond Chandler once said that Sherlock Holmes is only an attitude toward life and half a dozen lines of great dialogue. One need not strictly agree with this to see how right he is, because he points us toward what everyone remembers and loves: the opening of The Hound of the Baskervilles, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “Silver Blaze,” “The Speckled Band.” Doyle’s plots are usually so bad that it is only images and scenes one tends to remember. Lambert resolutely plays down all that:
Desire for money and land provokes…memorable accounts of murder and cruelty…. In The Speckled Band a stepfather contrives a diabolical murder with the aid of a trained snake. In The Copper Beeches a governess forced to cut her hair and wear a blue dress discovers she’s been hired to impersonate her employers’ daughter.
Every sentence tells the truth here, but each is false, too. What is gripping about “The Speckled Band” has nothing to do with a stepfather contriving a diabolical murder but simply the scene where Holmes and Watson wait for the snake to appear and Watson has no clue to what is happening. In “The Copper Beeches” it is not murder and cruelty that are memorable, but the oddness and piquancy of what the governess is asked to do. Doyle usually got by with a sense of evil only slightly more animated than Agatha Christie’s, and when he didn’t, he usually wrote inferior stuff. Typically, Lambert dismisses or ignores some rather good stories as “tame,” and praises “Wisteria Lodge,” “The Devil’s Foot,” and “The Veiled Lodger” only, so far as I can see, because they are dark and filled with violence.
The old truth holds: a critic with an idea is likely to forget or ignore what it is like to be a reader; readers must take stories as they come, page by page. By not taking Collins’s The Woman in White as it comes, but by beginning a third of the way in, with Count Fosco, Lambert finds himself with nothing to say about Marian Halcombe except that she has “a strongly latent lesbian attraction to her half-sister,” a remark both true and irrelevant. In the process both Marian and Fosco are diminished, since Collins constructs his story so that we move from cardboard hero-heroine-villain in the first part to the real villain and the real heroine, Fosco and Marian, with great excitement. I say “we” here because I’ve never found a reader who doesn’t respond this way.
The Woman in White, in fact, does close to the opposite of fitting Lambert’s typical pattern by taking the cast to a dark Gothic novel castle and running through a typical Gothic melodrama, which is beautifully and unnervingly scrutinized in the light of common day and common sense. Marian excites Fosco not just because he is attracted to her but because she is not out of Mrs. Radcliffe at all, but a sensible, intelligent, determined mid-Victorian woman. Fosco is forced to subdue the melodramatic excesses of his partner and to subvert Marian without exceeding one law of England. When this part of the novel is over, and here again I’ve never found a reader disagreeing, the rest is downhill, saved only by the appearance of Mrs. Catherick near the end. But Lambert must praise this latter part because it involves hunter and hunted, his meat and drink; he can even praise the tepid Walter Hartright because he can call him “the first private eye.”
One last example, because it involves a favorite book of mine, Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, about which Lambert could have been much better: “the femme fatale with the dollar-sign heart began as Velma Valento, an ambitious redheaded singer in a fifthrate downtown Los Angeles club and the girl-friend of a huge simple-minded bank robber.” So far so good, because the novel does open with Moose Malloy, fresh out of jail, looking for his old girl, Velma. But then this:
Several years later she’s become Mrs. Lewin Lockridge Grayle, a flintily gracious blonde with a made-over voice and a sad adoring elderly husband worth $20,000,000…. When Malloy (“about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food”) gets out of jail and starts looking for his Velma, she connives with the police to keep him drugged in a private sanitorium.
It is bad enough that Lambert should admire the rhetorical excess of Chandler’s phrase about Malloy. Much worse is what he does to the story. It is halfway through the book that Marlowe sees Moose in the sanitorium; it is only at the end that we learn that Velma is Mrs. Grayle and is responsible for Moose’s having been there. Everything Chandler does to put the story together one way is subverted by Lambert’s putting the story in chronological order rather than the order in which Marlowe and the reader experience it. It does no good to say later that “Her [Velma’s] previous identity and habit of killing when cornered are revealed only in the last few pages,” because anyone who can bear to tell the story as Lambert tells it can do so because he cares more about his point than about Chandler’s tale.
It is not a matter of revealing or not revealing the ending. That kind of worry can safely be left to the writers of dust jackets for mysteries like Agatha Christie’s. It is a matter of saying that events in a narrative, like lines in a lyric, go in one order and no other. The more one admires a story the more one knows this; you can’t praise a narrative and then hash it up like this.
Good books respect readers, bad books insult them. Curtain is insulting, but at least one knows what one is in for from the beginning. The Dangerous Edge didn’t have to be insulting at all, because Lambert is smart and he has some good things to say. But he shoves and hauls evidence around like most writers of PhD theses, which is a shame, and one feels cheated by it. Julian Symons’s Mortal Consequences is still the best book on the subject.
April 29, 1976