“Good reactionary fun.” That’s how Robert Barnard, an English crime writer, critic and lecturer, described The Secret Adversary, Agatha Christie’s second novel and her first dip into espionage fiction. The book, which tells the tale of two “Bright Young Things” of the Jazz Age and their battle against an octopus-like conspiracy of the radical left, does not treat its ideological opponents well. The Secret Adversary, which was published in 1922, feels more like something that should have been written during World War I rather than after it. Combining patriotic bravado with a steadfast belief that Britain’s enemies — no matter their political doctrine — were all uniformly evil, the novel is indeed the dictionary definition of “good reactionary fun.”
“Reactionary” and “fun” are also two apt adjectives for Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie herself. A capital “C” conservative with the look of a quintessential granny, she is the very embodiment of the British “Golden Age” of detective fiction. Her two most famous creations — Hercule Poirot, the Belgian fop with the outlandish mustache and the prissiness of a pampered house cat, and Miss Marple, the spinster detective who often substitutes gossip for clues — have graced countless books, television screens and film theaters, while legions of imitators have masqueraded behind the cover of Christie’s infectious style. Swift, intellectually engaging and reassuring in tone as well as reaffirming in their conclusions, her detective books are rightfully popular and actually much better than detractors would lead you to believe.
In a typical Christie novel, some kind of sleuth and a representative from the public order (usually the police, sometimes the army) goes up against a culprit or culprits guilty of murder (murder always, but sometimes blackmail and other assorted crimes as well). These criminals almost always represent some sort of larger evil, from insatiable lust to supreme egoism; on other occasions, the criminals and their like-minded coterie of aimless young people embody direct political threats to the preconceived “natural order” of Englishness. In Death on the Nile, for example, Mr. Ferguson bores fellow passengers with his nihilistic and openly violent brand of Marxism, while the fake Italian archaeologist Guido Richetti turns out to be a wanted agitator and bomb-maker.
Invariably, a certain set of rules hold fast in these novels: The detective is right and is on the side of justice, whether or not they decide to hand the matter over to the police. On top of this, the method of unveiling the criminal — often called the “big reveal” — is characteristically elaborate, especially in the Poirot novels. The criminals hardly ever fight the accusation and most just submit to the great will and intellect of the detective. Thus, the basic Christie novel finishes clean and the world returns to normal. Bodies are kept out of libraries until the next book release, while Halloween parties sans corpses in the apple-bobbing tub go on as usual.
If anything, the world inside of a Christie novel is predictable and lighthearted — or as lighthearted as murder mysteries can be. Coupled with Christie’s inherent preference for the status quo and the simple mores of small English villages, the routine nature of many of her potboilers have earned her scorn from critical circles and other members of the literati. In his venomous 1944 column in The New Yorker, Edmund Wilson posed the question “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?” Wilson, an American critic, literary scholar and snob of the highest order, took to task not only Christie (whose 1926 The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was parodied by Wilson in his next column, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”, which ironically never mentions Christie) but the entire genre of detective fiction:
So I have read also the new Agatha Christie, Death Comes as the End, and I confess that I have been had by Mrs. Christie. I did not guess who the murderer was, I was incited to keep on and find out, and when I did finally find out, I was surprised. Yet I did not care for Agatha Christie and I never expect to read another of her books. … Mrs. Christie, in proportion as she is more expert and concentrates more narrowly on the puzzle, has to eliminate human interest completely, or rather fill in the picture with what seems to me a distasteful parody of it.
At the time, Wilson received angry letters protesting his pronouncements. Many claimed that he had read only the bad mystery novels, while others simply stated that they would not again read his column until he penned an apology to the entire field. Wilson did no such thing, probably out of conviction and pride. Fortunately, time has proven him wrong.
Christie’s novels are more interesting and more engaging than mere puzzles. In some instances, such as The Murder on the Orient Express, she works through real-life tragedies within the cozy confines of thoroughly unrealistic fiction. In the novel, Christie loads a train car traveling from Istanbul to London with a seemingly diverse array of passengers, but in actuality each one is somehow connected with the kidnapping and murder of the three-year-old heiress Daisy Armstrong, which happened years before in the United States; the Armstrong case is a thinly veiled allusion to the Lindbergh Kidnapping of 1932, which similarly ended in the death of a very young child. (Charles Lindbergh, Jr. was only 20-months-old when he was horribly killed by a blow from a blunt object that resulted in a massive skull fracture.) In The A.B.C. Murders, Christie draws an early portrait of a serial killer, while And Then There were None, arguably Christie’s most beloved standalone novel, details the dangers of vigilantism. For a novelist who is often denounced for being middle-brow and the stuff of Book of the Month clubs, Christie shows an urbanity and serious preoccupation with modern times, especially the seedier sides of life in the 20th century.
Most important is the effect Christie has had on the reading world. As the woman who wrote the archetype of the British detective novel over and over again, she is unquestionably one of the greatest genre writers of the last hundred years. Her tics and rhythms, along with her plots and characterizations, may no longer be in fashion, but they are easily recognizable, even among Wilson-like naysayers. Furthermore, Christie exists in an exclusive club, which is in truth almost a party of one. Only her novels are treated like sacred mysteries — artifacts which must be enjoyed in the proper sequence of events. To skip ahead in a Christie novel is sacrilege, and to give away an ending before the proper time is grounds for early termination. Even her plays are not without such reverence: Christie’s The Mousetrap, which has been running continuously since 1952, forces its audience to keep the production’s plot mum when around the uninitiated.
Considering all of these unwritten rules, there’s a logical reason why the Devil (as played by Peter Cook in 1967’s Bedazzled) finds “routine mischief” in tearing out the final pages of Christie novels. Her readers, maybe more so than others, are really invested in the “Who?” of whodunit. And rather than being an example of plot and puzzle dominating all else, this investment is really an indication of the power of Christie’s writing. We’ve been reading since 1920, and there’s no sign that we’ll stop anytime soon.
Benjamin Welton is a freelance writer based in Burlington, Vermont. He prefers “Ben” or “Benzo,” and his writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Crime Magazine, The Crime Factory, Seven Days and Ravenous Monster. He used to teach English at the University of Vermont, but now just drinks beer and runs his own blog called The Trebuchet.
KEEP READING: More on Novelists