A post on Agatha Christie, in which I examine a vexed and vexing question and come to a (sort of) conclusion
Earlier this month, on the 15th to be exact, The Irish Times published a feature with this provocative title: Agatha Christie: genius or hack? Crime writers pass judgment and pick favourites. The ostensible occasion is the 125th anniversary of Christie’s birth, but probably, any excuse to write about ‘the Queen of Crime’ will suffice. Among the authors who contributed to this worthy enterprise are Val McDermott, Sophie Hannah, Linwood Barclay, Laura Wilson, Dror Mishani, and Joseph Finder. Several indicated that it was their youthful reading in the Christie oeuvre that was part of the reason that they themselves entered the field of crime writing.
One person who is emphatically not of this viewpoint is John Banville. Here’s the first paragraph of his comments:
When I was a boy, back around the close of the Stone Age, I was an avid reader of the novels of Agatha Christie. 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.
“Ashen sense of futility and wasted time”? That’s a pretty harsh judgment, I think. For my part, when I finish a Christie book or story, I usually think, Well, that was a pleasant interlude – or sentiments to that effect. True, I’m not ordinarily raised to a state of exaltation – but neither am I cast down as Banville apparently is.
At any rate, John Banville has been taken to task for these sour sentiments by Xavier Lechard on his excellent blog Up at the Villa Rose. See “A Neanderthalian view of Christie.”
Meanwhile this past Thursday, the blogger at The Passing Tramp (I believe this is Curtis Evans’s blog) posted a compilation of top twenty Christie books from thirty-one lists. (He also appends a list from The World’s Favorite Christie.) There’s more Christie lore to be found on The Passing Tramp.
And Then There Were None repeatedly appears as readers’ favorite Christie novel. Some years ago, when I finally got around to reading this book, I was already a confirmed Christie fan. With regard to this particular title, I’d been forewarned that it contained some offensive material. Nevertheless, I was stopped in my tracks when, early on, I came upon a tossed off sentence containing a disparaging reference to a particular ethnic group – mine, as it happens.
Reading on, I encountered more of this sort of thing, including the repugnant “n” word, freely used. (It’s worth recalling that this novel has gone through several title changes before acquiring the one presently in common usage. You can find comprehensive coverage of the book’s publication history in the Wikipedia entry, but please be advised: once there, you’ll be confronted by the original, obectionable – at least, to present day eyes – cover image.)
The question arises as to what attitude one is to adopt with regard to these offensive expressions. It’s certainly understandable that a reader might think, “This is intolerable’ and set the volume aside. Or you can cope with your annoyance by remembering the historical context and soldier on, forgiving to an extent but not forgetting.
In her biography of Agatha Christie, published in 1990, Gillian Gill states:
A kind of jingoistic, knee-jerk anti-Semitism colors the presentation of Jewish characters in many of her early novels, and Christie reveals herself to be as unreflective and conventional as the majority of her compatriots.
Then several pages later, on the same subject:
Christie’s anti-Semitism had always been of the stupidly unthinking rather than the deliberately vicious kind. As her circle of acquaintances widened and she grew to understand what Nazism really meant for Jewish people, Christie abandoned her knee-jerk anti-Semitism. What is more, even at her most thoughtless and prejudiced, Christie saw Jews as different, alien, and un-English, rather than as depraved or dangerous–people one does not know rather than people one fears.
Whether the above elucidation can be taken as exculpatory or not depends on the individual reader.
In the years immediately following the Second World War, Dodd Mead, Christie’s American publisher, began to receive objections from the reading public to the anti-Semitic comments found in her books. Christie’s literary agents then provided assurances that such denigration would not appear in future publications. In addition, Dodd Mead was given permission to delete those that were present in existing texts.
I can only assume that later versions of the novels in question – the ones that were ‘scrubbed’ by Dodd Mead – were reissued in their original form. My copy of And Then There Were None was published by St. Martin’s Paperbacks in May 2001.
According to Malcolm J. Turnbull, in Victims or Villains:
Although “foreigners” continued to be targeted by the writer from time to time, most strikingly, the household of international eccentrics in Hickory Dickory Dock, with one minor exception Jews ceased to figure negatively in Christie’s work from that time on.
(The exception being referred to appears in They Came to Baghdad, which was published in 1951.)
Agatha Christie wrote an autobiography, the composition of which took place over period of years, roughly from 1950 to 1965. It did not, however, reach the public until after her death in 1976. (It was actually first published in November 1977.) In it, Christie describes her experiences accompanying her husband, the distinguished archaeologist Max Mallowan, on his various “digs” in the Middle East. In the early 1930s, they became acquainted with Dr. Julius Jordan, the German Director of Antiquities in Baghdad.
Dr. Jordan invited the couple to be his guests, along with others, for tea at his house. He entertained them by playing works by Beethoven on the piano. What followed is best told in Christie’s own words:
He had a fine head, and I thought, looking at him, what a splendid man he was. He had seemed always gentle and considerate. Then there was mention by someone, quite casually, of Jews. His face changed; changed in an extraordinary way that I had never noticed on anyone’s face before.
He said: “You do not understand. Our Jews are perhaps different from yours. They are a danger. They should be exterminated. Nothing else will really do but that.”
I stared at him unbelievingly. He meant it. It was the first time I had come across any hint of what was to come later from Germany. People who had travelled there, were, I suppose, already realising it at that time, but for ordinary people in 1932 and 1933, there was a complete lack of fore-knowledge.
She reflects further:
On that day as we sat in Dr. Jordan’s sitting-room and he played the piano, I saw my first Nazi – and I discovered later that his wife was an even fiercer Nazi than he was. They had a duty to perform there: not only be Director of Antiquities or even to work for their country, but also to spy on their own German ambassador.
And finally, this concluding sentence:
There are things in life that make one truly sad when one can make oneself believe them.
End of subject.
I was born into a Jewish family. My parents were first generation Americans, their parents – my grandparents – having emigrated to this country from the Ukraine, then a part of the Russian Empire, in the years immediately preceding the First World War. Ours was not an especially religious household. But we lived in a primarily Jewish city – Miami Beach, Florida, in the 1950s and 1690s. Ethnically we were thoroughly Jewish. Matzoh brei, gefilte fish, kasha varnishkes, temple on the High Holy Days. It was all there.
For me, the practice of the religion and its attendant rituals has largely fallen away. But I am still Jewish, oh yes, to the soles of my feet I am. I’ve been fortunate in experiencing very little in the way of overt anti-Semitism. But I can tell you, on the one or two occasions when I have, it is felt like the proverbial blow to the solar plexus.
Any instance of anti-Semitic expression makes me both angry and sad. I hate any and all expressions of ethnic and racial bias, but of course, one feels it most keenly when it’s one’s own group that is targeted. So how do I feel about the presence of such material in the works of Agatha Christie?
I wish it were not there. I find it frustrating, offensive, dispiriting. And yet…Do I close the book? Do I stop reading? No. I come back to Gillian Gill’s adjectives: ‘knee-jerk,’ ‘unreflective.’ I accept that description of Agatha Christie’s negative portrayal of certain of her Jewish characters. I wish she’d been more reflective. But she was not. At least, not in the early years of her authorial career.
I am speaking as one who continues to read and enjoy the works of this extraordinarily gifted writer of crime fiction. She was not perfect, but then neither am I. I wish I could have known her. I cherish fond memories of visiting her home, in company of the remarkably Christie scholar John Curran.
More on the novels and stories in posts to come. I welcome comments on the above.
Gillian Gill has more to say on this subject in her Christie biography. As for Malcolm J. Turnbull’s book, its full title is Victims or Villains: Jewish Images in Classic English Detective Fiction. It was published by Bowling Green State University Press in 1998. Several years ago, I read a reference to it and ordered it immediately. I then placed it in among my mystery collections and forgot about it. Writing this post served as a reminder that I do in fact own it.
One final word on And Then There Were None. My recollection of the novel – apart from what was discussed above – is that it consisted of an elaborately contrived plot with virtually no attention paid to character development or mood. I admit I’m puzzled by its great popularity.
Grandson Welles recently celebrated his second birthday. And boy, did he celebrate – we all did!
First, Big Sister Etta decided to dress stylishly for the occasion. We were banned from sneaking a peek, until she appeared at the top of the stairs looking like this:
The party had a fire engine theme. This is because Welles’s imagination, currently in a vehicular stage, is especially centered on fire trucks. His resourceful Mom found great decorations, such as
Earlier in the day, it had rained hard, and we were apprehensive about what the weather would do later in the day, at party time. As you can see, it cleared up and turned into a beautiful day, made all the more beautiful by everyone’s happiness and the presence of so many children, carefree and exuberant.
Recently the Usual Suspects enjoyed a discussion of The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin. Set in Istanbul in the early 1800s, this book is by turns exotic and obscure. Mostly it’s just plain fun, so long as you don’t let yourself get tied up in knots over the plot.
I say this because the plot was truly…well, Byzantine.
But despite the challenging story line, we felt that the novel possessed many enjoyable qualities, not the least of these being its engaging protagonist, Investigator Yashim. Here is how Goodwin introduced us to him in the first chapter:
Yashim knew that it hardly mattered what he wore. He was a tall, well-built man in his late thirties, with a thick mop of black curls, a few white hairs, no beard, but a curly black mustache. He had the high cheekbones of the Turks, and the slanting gray eyes of a people who had lived on the great Eurasian steppe for thousands of years. In European trousers, perhaps, he would be noticeable, but in a brown cloak— no. Nobody noticed him very much. That was his special talent, if it was a talent at all. More likely, as the marquise had been saying, it was a condition of mind. A condition of the body.
Intriguing, and beautifully expressed, right? But wait – there’s more:
Yashim had many things— innate charm, a gift for languages, and the ability to open those gray eyes suddenly wide. Both men and women had found themselves strangely hypnotized by his voice, before they had even noticed who was speaking. But he lacked balls.
Not in the vulgar sense: Yashim was reasonably brave.
But he was that creature rare even in nineteenth-century Istanbul.
Yashim was a eunuch.
Over the years, in the course of my compulsive reading of crime fiction, I’ve encountered many different kinds of detectives. This, for me, was a first. But I found, as I got deeper into the novel, that Yashim’s other laudable qualities shone forth. He is indeed brave, also resourceful and perceptive. But he harbors an inward bitterness, which one suspects has its origin in the life-altering thing that was done to him, and could not be undone.
Yashim manages to stay astride the wild horse that is this novel’s plot. I admit, I was at a loss much of the time, due to its complexity. In addition, the cast of characters was large; I had trouble remembering exactly who they were and what function they served in the story. So yes, at times my interest flagged. But Goodwin’s marvelous descriptions and set pieces inevitably brought me back into the action.
Next up for the Suspects is A Possibility of Violence by D.A. Mishani. Set in present day Israel, this police procedural features Inspector Avraham Avraham. One reads on, thoroughly absorbed, as several parallel story lines run their respective courses, erratically and unpredictably, until they inevitably converge.
I finished it last week and all I can say is, I was riveted. This is the best mystery I’ve read this year for the Suspects – the best mystery I’ve read in a long time period.
During our discussion of The Janissary Tree, the question arose (posed by Frank?) as to whether, in the annals of crime fiction, there exists such a thing as a protagonist who is at the same time an action hero – think James Bond – and an introspective individual – think Adam Dalgliesh or Reg Wexford. I personally think it would be hard to cram all that into a single personality. But with Avraham Avraham, D.A. Mishani comes close. Avraham also exemplifies the “secret sorrow” paradigm which Marge and I have noted as a characteristic of quite a few fictional policeman. It’s not so much that the source of the grief is hidden, but rather that it is of a deep and personal nature.
This description does not apply to Peter Diamond, even though in Diamond Dust (2002), he does suffer a devastating loss. Diamond Dust was the seventh entry in Peter Lovesey’s outstanding series. The Amazon.com review of this novel describes Peter Diamond as “combative and curmudgeonly.” It’s a persona that helps him to evade introspection and to generally keep “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” from wounding him too deeply.
At any rate, he’s certainly his old curmudgeonly self in Down Among the Dead Men, the latest series entry. His mood is not helped by the fact that he’s assigned to an internal affairs investigation in the neighboring jurisdiction of Sussex. Worse, he’ll be accompanying the Assistant Chief Constable Georgina Dallymore. To say that she’s a woman whose company Diamond does not particularly enjoy is to put it mildly indeed.
As usual, I loved this book from beginning to end. It’s elegantly written, meticulously plotted, and very witty. And Lovesey writes delightful dialog, like this exchange between Diamond and Henrietta Mallin, a policewoman he’s long known and admired:
How’s your head now?” she asked him. “Jesus Christ, you’re looking groggy again. Don’t you think we should call it a day and get you back to the hotel?”
“I’m better than I look.” He was lying, but so what?
“Men have been saying that to me all my adult life and it just ain’t true.”
Meanwhile, I’ve been happily traversing the world of British Golden Age crime writing, courtesy of the British Library Crime Classics series and the expert guidance of Martin Edwards. Here’s what Ive read and enjoyed so far in the British Library series:
I’ve almost finished this one , but I confess I’ve been dragging my feet because I don’t want it to end. Like Resorting To Murder (above), Capital Crimes is a story collection edited by Martin Edwards. The stories range from mildly entertaining to outstanding. There’s one that is completely unique, however. It has been placed right at the beginning of the book, and I’m not sure it should’ve been. It’s a shocker written by, of all people, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is not a Sherlock Holmes tale. I think it is more a horror story than a mystery. You can judge for yourself, if you dare. The full text is available online; it is called “The Case of Lady Sannox.”
Another much less unsettling story included in Capital Crimes is “Wind in the East” by Henry Wade. It’s a cunningly wrought little tale. I just finished Mist on the Saltings, a full length novel by this same author. It comes warmly recommended by Martin Edwards, and I can see why. Its atmospheric setting on the East Anglian seacoast, characters both ordinary and enigmatic caught up in a web of lies, deceit, and conflicting passions – all contribute to the making of a first rate crime novel.
Originally published in 1933, Mist on the Saltings is somewhat dated in regard to the condescending comments about women lobbed from time to time like small but stinging missiles into the midst of the narrative. One wishes Wade had refrained from doing this, but for me, these passages, while irritating, constitute the novel’s sole flaw. I find them easier to push aside than the genteel anti-Semitism one occasionally encounters in the fiction of this period.
I loved this book’s title from the first I heard of it, without knowing what the “Saltings” were. Here is Wade’s description of the setting of the setting of his novel:
Bryde-by-the-Sea, though nominally a harbour, lies nearly a mile back from the ocean which surges invisibly against the line of low sand dunes limiting the northern horizon. In between lies a wide expanse of weed-grown mud, intersected by a maze of channels which at high tide are full to the brim of salt water and at low are mere trenches of black and treacherous ooze. These are the Saltings; the home of a hundred varieties of sea-birds, of countless sea-plants, of insects, reptiles, fishes, animals–according to the state of the tides and the time of year; at one time a silvery dazzle of southernwood, at another green with samphire, at another brown with sea-churned mud, and sometimes–at the highest of the ‘springs’–completely submerged under the smooth, swirling waters of the flowing tide.
Wade ends with this observation:
Dreary and desolate though they are, the Saltings have for those who love them a fascination which no written word can describe, a beauty which defies the most skillful brush.
(The brush is a reference to artist John Pansel, who has come with his wife Hilary to Bryde-by-the-Sea to paint, and to recover from the lingering trauma of his service in the First World War.)
As you have probably already surmised, this singular landscape is a crucial component of the strange and tragic story that unfolds in Mist on the Saltings.
Here’s an interesting sideline: When I looked up Henry Wade on Wikipedia, I was startled by this image: There was a good deal of pseudonymous authorship during England’s Golden Age of crime writing. “Henry Wade” was the pen name of Sir Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher, 6th Baronet.
Meantime, on this side of the Atlantic, crime fiction readers have new reason to rejoice with the release of a two volume boxed set from the Library of America entitled Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s. Here’s the breakdown:
Laura by Vera Caspary
The Horizontal Man by Helen Eustis
In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes
The Blank Wall by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding
Mischief by Charlotte Armstrong
The Blunderer by Patricia Highsmith
Beast in View by Margaret Millar
Fool’s Gold by Dolores Hitchens
This careful selection, made by editor Sarah Weinman, is winning plaudits from readers and critics alike. In his write-up in the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout says of the chosen novels that “…they are all exceptionally fine, as much so as any of the crime novels written by men that were published in this country in the 1940s and 1950s.” Here’s how Teachout concludes his review:
I cannot praise Ms Weinman enough for having collected [these novels] in a single boxed set and for having annotated them with such discreet skill. She has chosen wisely and well–enough so to make me long for a sequel.
In her newsletter The Crime Lady #037, dated September 2, Sarah Weinman exults: “At last, at last, Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s, is out in the world.” (She also provides a link to the companion website.) You get the sense that this is the culmination of a labor of considerable duration. Well, she can be proud, and we can be grateful. I can’t wait to dive in to these books!
(If you go to Sarah Weinman’s website, you can find instructions for subscribing to The Crime Lady. I recommend this newsletter highly. It’s chock full of news about crime fiction and true crime; in addition, Weinman provides terrific links and reading and viewing recommendations.)
At this point, I feel as though the work being done by such expert curators as Martin Edwards and Sarah Weinman is opening up new and intriguing vistas of reading for all of us. It is almost as though we’re entering a Golden Age of Looking Back.
Why so? Originality of concept, mastery in execution, depth of characterization, excellent writing (kudos to translator Paul Norlen), and a story whose momentum builds slowly but surely until the tension becomes palpable and unrelenting.
A caveat, though: the story gets off to a slow start: a slow, strange start. We find ourselves in an upscale residential neighborhood in Sweden where several retired scholars and professors dwell in leafy, comfortable surroundings. Suddenly, unexpected news of great import arrives in their midst: Professor Bertram von Ohler, an 84-year-old widower, has just been awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine. This revelation disturbs the peaceful aura of the place. Buried resentments start rising to the surface. Associate Professor Gregor Johansson, for instance, a fellow researcher and former colleague of von Ohler’s, is dismayed at not being recognized for his own contribution to the research credited to von Ohler by the Nobel Committee.
And there’s Agnes Andersson, who has served as Bertram von Ohler’s housekeeper for decades, living in his house and attending to his every need. He’s becoming increasingly difficult to deal with; as for her, after the passage of all these years, she is feeling the pull of Gräsö, her island home.
The terrain of her childhood stood out increasingly often and ever clearer to her. She sensed that it was age. She had reached the crown and could only look back, and down, at the laborious uphill ascent that had been her life.
Open Grave clocks in at under 300 pages, and you’re a third of the way in before the police component of this police procedural enters the narrative. At this point, there has still been no crime committed – at least, none that we know of. Now the reader may be forgiven for wondering just where the plot is headed. So far, we’re dealing primarily with a couple of elderly academics exhibiting their complaints and crotchets. Oh, and there’s also a landscape gardener named Karsten Haller who’s doing major work at one of the residences. At one point, Haller throws a small rock at Professor von Ohler’s house. It rolls off the roof without doing any damage.
What exactly is going on here? Patience, all will be revealed in good time….
Back to the police: the person in the Uppsala Police Department with whom we’re chiefly concerned is Detective Ann Lindell. She’s a recurring character; this is her sixth outing so far in the books in this series that have thus far been translated into English. I find Lindell exceptionally appealing, both as an investigator and as a woman who’s had more than her share of trouble in her personal life.
Open Grave is structured in an unorthodox manner; I admit that at the outset, the book had me scratching my head in some bewilderment. But the cumulative power of the narrative eventually gripped and held me right to the (somewhat ambiguous) end.
This is the fourth novel I’ve read in this series. I very much look forward to reading more. (Here’s my review of The Demon of Dakar.)