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December 14, 2018 3:09 PM   Subscribe

For the murder to make sense, it must be true that somebody isn’t who we think they are – but who do we think they are? How do we know who is and who isn’t what they seem to be? How do the characters know? In essence, that is what detective fiction is: a mystery about which of a particular cast of characters isn’t who they say they are. And that, I suggest, is a, perhaps even the, core reason for Christie’s appeal to so many readers in so many different times and places.

Spoilers for many of Christie's most famous works! That said:
...it’s a peculiar property of Christie’s work, speaking as someone who has reread several of the books multiple times, that you quite often forget, until you’re a significant way in, that you’ve read the book before; and even after that, you quite often forget whodunnit. Quite a few Christie fans have told me they’ve had the same experience. These are signs, perhaps, that the specifics of outcome are as unimportant to Christie’s readers as they were to her, and the main interest on both sides is formal and technical. You don’t mind rereading in the same way you don’t mind rereading a poem; you don’t care about re-encountering plot details just as you don’t care about re-encountering a rhyme.
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Christie: Christie non-fiction: Others:

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posted by chappell, ambrose (30 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
User 49620 to the white courtesy phone, please.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 3:11 PM on December 14, 2018 [5 favorites]


...it’s a peculiar property of Christie’s work, speaking as someone who has reread several of the books multiple times, that you quite often forget, until you’re a significant way in, that you’ve read the book before; and even after that, you quite often forget whodunnit. Quite a few Christie fans have told me they’ve had the same experience. These are signs, perhaps, that the specifics of outcome are as unimportant to Christie’s readers as they were to her,

There's a really interesting discussion of exactly this (not remembering how an Agatha Christie book did it and whodunnit) in the High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel. I quite enjoyed it.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 3:24 PM on December 14, 2018


I'm reminded of this previous discussion of Christie on the blue.
posted by tavella at 3:25 PM on December 14, 2018 [1 favorite]


Stop blubbing, Wimsey.

The author of this essay is a monster and it makes it harder to take them seriously about Christie when they get Sayers this wrong.
posted by corb at 3:41 PM on December 14, 2018 [17 favorites]


*slumps in armchair*
posted by roger ackroyd at 3:51 PM on December 14, 2018 [37 favorites]


No discussion of British mystery is complete without The Awdrey-Gore Legacy.

I’m rereading the Wimsey novels now. They’ve dated poorly in some ways, particularly as to anti-Semitism and homophobia, but they do not deserve the status of also-ran that this essay gives them. It’s been said that Sayers was a little in love with her hero, although whether that is misogyny or not I could not say. The books are often so erudite that you feel you need annotations.

Another writer, whose name I forget, points out that no members of the lower classes ever in fact Did It in a Christie novel. This wasn’t out of kindness on Christie’s part; it was because they were disqualified from the elevated levels of motivation and planning that a Christie murderer required. I think about that a lot when I write; I don’t know why.
posted by Countess Elena at 4:15 PM on December 14, 2018 [13 favorites]


When I was much younger, I read Christie a lot. Of course, I also read Sayers and Marsh and any other detective / murder books that came my way. I hated Poirot so I only read Miss Marple after a while. And the only one I still read is Sayers, partially because she is interested in ethical and philosophical questions, giving her stories heft. As to this essayist, he seems to have become enamored with Christie early on and feels the need to heap her with encomiums in order to justify his devotion.
posted by MovableBookLady at 4:37 PM on December 14, 2018 [7 favorites]


no members of the lower classes ever in fact Did It in a Christie novel

She has had a very middle-class person whom the upper class all look down on for her very-middle-class aspirations Do It, though. (After the Funeral). Not sure what that says about Christie's view of the middle class.
posted by agentofselection at 4:51 PM on December 14, 2018 [1 favorite]


I am admittedly a huge Christie fan, so I’m sure that colors my perspective, but I thought this was a very fair essay. The point is that Christie is hugely popular, and he was trying to muse on why that is when she does have many shortcomings as a writer, which he notes. I think Christie is very very good at one very specific thing, the puzzle, and that is why she has appeal. Certainly that was what has always appealed to me; I am not bothered by her lack of characterization, because that’s not what I’m looking for as a reader. I don’t want introspection or philosophical musings in my murder mystery—I just want a really intriguing riddle to solve.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 4:56 PM on December 14, 2018 [11 favorites]


In essence, that is what detective fiction is: a mystery about which of a particular cast of characters isn’t who they say they are.

I was once interrogated by CSIS because of my relationship with a Russian spy. Literally the first words said to me after being badged were, "I'm here because someone you know isn't who they claim to be."
posted by dobbs at 5:59 PM on December 14, 2018 [17 favorites]


I was once interrogated by CSIS because of my relationship with a Russian spy.

...go on.
posted by schadenfrau at 6:02 PM on December 14, 2018 [23 favorites]


Is there any way to read this without having to give them my email address?
posted by hippybear at 7:38 PM on December 14, 2018


If you read the last two lines in the fpp, you might find a clue as to how to avoid the e-mail trap.
posted by valkane at 7:40 PM on December 14, 2018 [2 favorites]


It is in character that the most famous thing which ever happened to Christie was that she ran away and disappeared for a few days, a classic fugue which ended with her being found living under an assumed name in a hotel in Harrogate. Perhaps her entire being, her inner life, was a kind of absence, a variety of fugue.

And for me, this little detail makes Christie the coolest mystery writer ever.
posted by valkane at 7:47 PM on December 14, 2018 [1 favorite]


Ah, cool. Got that sorted. Thanks for pointing that out.

I read all of Christie when I was 11 or 12, so I really haven't experienced it as an adult. But she's very very addictive to read. Or she was, for me, when I was that age back then.

I've been binge-watching all 19 seasons of Midsomer Murders on Netflix and I'm in season 15 or something and I mostly use it for wallpaper. That has been an interesting experience. It's very much like Christie in a lot of ways, as far as its formalism goes.
posted by hippybear at 8:24 PM on December 14, 2018 [7 favorites]


I was once interrogated by CSIS because of my relationship with a Russian spy.

("Having sex for an ulterior motive" should be listed in urbandictionary under "Butina call".)
posted by Jpfed at 9:37 PM on December 14, 2018 [6 favorites]


It is in character that the most famous thing which ever happened to Christie was that she ran away and disappeared for a few days, a classic fugue which ended with her being found living under an assumed name in a hotel in Harrogate.

Wasn't that about the same time as the still unsolved Harrogate murders?
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:38 PM on December 14, 2018 [1 favorite]


Fun fact: It was Christie's 1926 disappearance which inspired the notorious pre-war British newspaper promotion built round a "missing man" called Lobby Lud. Lobby is reincarnated both as "Kolly Kibber" in Graham Greene's 1938 novel Brighton Rock, and again as "Lucky Len" in a 1993 episode of the Poirot TV series.
posted by Paul Slade at 2:03 AM on December 15, 2018 [3 favorites]


An interesting essay, but I disagree with Lanchester's conclusion:

In essence, that is what detective fiction is: a mystery about which of a particular cast of characters isn’t who they say they are.

This is one kind of detective fiction, yes, and one in which Christie excelled, but it's surely not the essence of detective fiction. Another equally important strand of the genre is concerned with the mystery of how the crime was committed rather than who and why—for example it's common in the works of Dorothy L. Sayers for there only to be one real suspect, whose motives are quite apparent, the problem being for the detective to figure out the mechanism by which crime was committed. And in inverted detective fiction (invented by R. Austin Freeman but popularized by Columbo) the details of the crime are known to the reader, the mystery being what chain of evidence the detective will use to establish the criminal's guilt.

In my opinion, Christie's at her best when she manages to misdirect us as to the relationships between the characters, rather than their identities. A situation that she uses multiple times is that of the love triangle, where it appears that A has abandoned (or is about to abandon) B for C, but actually
SpoilersA and B are in league against C (for example, 'Triangle at Rhodes', 'Witness for the Prosecution', Evil Under the Sun, Death on the Nile, Five Little Pigs).

But Lanchester is onto something with regard to Christie's many stories where one person is literally not who they claim to be. The kind of impersonation in
SpoilersMurder in Mespotamia, where a woman's second husband turns out to be her first husband in disguise
is too absurd to be understood realistically, forcing us to interpret it as an allegory for the way in which the people closest to you can turn out to having been lying to you all along about who they really are.
posted by cyanistes at 2:37 AM on December 15, 2018 [4 favorites]


The people closest to you can turn out to having been lying to you all along about who they really are.

The fact that Christie's first husband left her to go and live with his mistress may have played into this aspect of her work. It was her final showdown with him which led to her disappearance later that same day.
posted by Paul Slade at 4:15 AM on December 15, 2018 [6 favorites]


I'm a big fan of Christie and Sayers both and actually reread a lot of both of them during my recent pregnancy (detective fiction is pretty much all I can read while pregnant, for some reason). I think the article is pretty fair. I hadn't reread Sayers since I was a teenager. I still loved it, but have to admit I found some of it faintly embarrassing. The poetry quoting and the flowery descriptions of Lord Peter and the whole part of Murder Must Advertise where he adopts an acrobatic alter-ego named Harlequin (!). I say this as an enormous fan; I still love the books and I remember being madly in love with Wimsey at 14 in a way that Sayers clearly is throughout.

I appreciated the article's point about Christie's cold-blooded approach - I really noticed that when rereading her; she is all about the murder and the murderer. There are few accidents or extenuating circumstances, just a victim and someone who wanted to kill them.
posted by cpatterson at 6:26 AM on December 15, 2018 [4 favorites]


I tried to read it on my phone and it still wanted an e-mail address, as did incognito mode.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:55 AM on December 15, 2018


Yup! Reader mode in Safari (It's under the View menu) worked for me. Mobile wanted email, despite what the FPP suggests.
posted by hippybear at 7:01 AM on December 15, 2018 [2 favorites]


The books are often so erudite that you feel you need annotations.


A couple of the Harriet Vane books are barely even genre fiction - they use his Lordship as a backdrop for genuinely introspective and emotionally complex novels. It's been years since my last Christie binge, but the last few I read had much more of a methodical "get me to the puzzle" approach (which I often prefer, TBH).

it's surely not the essence of detective fiction.
Agreed, an editor should have tossed that assertion - AFACT it's not necessary for the article's premise.
posted by aspersioncast at 3:29 PM on December 15, 2018 [1 favorite]


Apologies, hippybear. I don’t encounter the registration problem on mobile (Safari / iPhone). If I hadn’t decided to include the amazon links at the last moment I wouldn’t have known at all, as I normally compose posts on my phone.

I’m not totally sure what they’re playing at with this drive to make people register. The LRB famously haemorrhages money - I think it loses on the order of millions per year. But it doesn’t really matter, because it’s bankrolled by the very deep pockets of the editor, Mary-Kay Wilmers. To be clear, this strikes me as an excellent way to spend a fortune. They pay their contributors very, very well, and they produce great work (despite the odd misfire like their Grenfell Tower piece). I’d be surprised if their current model can be made sustainable at all without the Wilmer family trust, but their current approach seems like a reasonable attempt - they have a clear, easily understandable website with a nice chunk of content available without subscription each fortnight, but there’s clearly a lot more available in a big obvious list of links of content that’s only for subscribers. If that isn’t driving people to subscribe, then I fail to see how collecting email addresses of non-subscribers (and presumably emailing them to ask them to subscribe?) is going to help. Still, up to them.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 6:36 PM on December 15, 2018 [1 favorite]


A couple of the Harriet Vane books are barely even genre fiction - they use his Lordship as a backdrop for genuinely introspective and emotionally complex novels. `

This, which makes them both more rereadable and also less about the actual murder puzzle.

The romance with Harriet Vane, which the author of the essay decries, isn't just about 'boy meets girl'. It's 'man and woman both like each other, but have to figure out how to deal with the complex power dynamics around their first encounter and the difficulty of them both being fully functioning adults who have to learn how to live together without making it unbearable for any of them. 'Gaudy Night' /is/ actually quite a mystery novel, but it's also one of the most romantic books I've ever read, in a adults-are-being-adults way.

I love Christie as well - both of them are my comfort reads, but in a very different way. It's worth noting that Christie's books are also romances - just romances for a time, which makes itself felt nearly immediately in the vast majority of her books. They are romantic for a time which fell away after the first Great War - a time of grand houses and plethoras of servants and rigid etiquette rules. The Problem Of Servants weaves itself through nearly every Christie novel I can remember - the Marples, which show more feeling, most of all. There's a weird blended sense of both cozy comfort and loss, melded together, in them, which I find absolutely fascinating.
posted by corb at 8:17 PM on December 15, 2018 [6 favorites]


My favorite little factoid about Agatha Christie is that the idea for the twist in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was given to her in conversation at a party. This is the only documented case in history where some random person tells a writer about the idea they've had for a novel and it turns out to be non-terrible.
posted by Kattullus at 1:13 PM on December 17, 2018 [4 favorites]


Partly inspired by this thread, I just reread 'Murder on the Orient Express." There's the scene where Poirot, about to use his 'little grey cells,' encourages his two teammates in the investigation to do so as well, and then they will check in. Christie describes how the doctor starts thinking about the case but then drifts off very quickly into lurid thoughts about his affair with his secretary. At the the of the time, Poirot asks them what they came up with.

"I too, have reflected with great earnestness," said the doctor unblushingly, recalling his thoughts from certain pornographic details. "I have thought of many possible theories, but not one that really satisfies me."

Ok, that is pretty witty innuendo for a woman of her time, isn't it? I'm not so sure she's such a utilitarian writer as this article would seem to imply. There's always more fun details to catch.

Also like when, distressed about memory of the kidnapping and murder of the toddler Lucy Armstrong, the German maid exclaims, plum between the world wars, "The good God should not allow such things. We are not so wicked as that in Germany." Though that is unwitting, since it was also written between the wars. Though after Hitler was already starting to rise to power.
posted by Salamandrous at 6:33 PM on December 17, 2018 [3 favorites]


I'm not so sure she's such a utilitarian writer as this article would seem to imply.

Oh, definitely not, it's just that the writing is often just backdrop for the "mystery," so the books are often . . . underwritten, I guess? When Christie bothered to break out of that she could be quite complex.
posted by aspersioncast at 5:13 AM on December 20, 2018 [1 favorite]


the idea for the twist in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was given to her in conversation at a party.
I like to think it was a conversation with Dorothy Sayers.
posted by aspersioncast at 7:50 PM on December 25, 2018 [3 favorites]


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