Saturday, 27 July 2013

Agatha Christie and murder mysteries

A few days ago I drove down to Arundel and bought two works of fiction at Kim's, the secondhand bookshop there.

One was The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers. This was published in 1903, and the plot centres on secret German naval preparations in the years before the first World War, as discovered by intrepid Britons in a sailing boat. It caused a great stir. It seemed like a wake-up call, a trumpet blast when the serene reign of Victoria was as yet hardly over, and the pompous but frivolous new reign of Edward VII hardly begun.

I see the entire period since 1900 as a prolonged effort of the British people as a whole to get to grips with the realities of the world, an effort that is still going on. Immigrants are as guilty as native Anglo-Saxons in maintaining an image of Britain that is always behind the times, always stuck with certain illusions that carry on through generations, as if they were viruses that can mutate to resist demise. I dare say all countries are the same. But we live on an island, and still have some prestige and influence and clout, and these facts make it all the harder to discard old attitudes. There is in fact no pressing need to. We muddled through in 1914-18; we did so again in 1939-45; and we are still muddling through, never quite sorting out the important issues of the day, merely tinkering, like a committee that likes to be fair to all points of view but ends up being fair to nobody, and making no decisions worth the name. Inertia is a national failing and a national disgrace. The Riddle of the Sands was a book to disturb the complacency of 1903. I look forward to reading it. I expect to find that it somehow has a modern ring.

But just now I'm well into the other book, Agatha Christie's murder whodunnit, Cards on the Table, published in 1936. This seems to be classic Agatha Christie. In the 1960s and 1970s I owned quite a collection of her novels, and was a big fan. I admired her Hercule Poirot very much, although I never cared for Miss Marple.

Then I got tired of her, and in the 1980s I turned instead to Dorothy L Sayers, whose Lord Peter Wimsey was by then more to my taste.

Lord Peter was a more interesting character than you might suppose: he had seen the horrors of the first World War, and it had moulded him, put him in touch with the common man, so that although he remained a rich aristocrat, and one of effortless talents at that, he strove to be down-to-earth.

The key books for me were Have His Carcase (1932), about a man found murdered on a Devon beach; and The Nine Tailors (1934), about the death of a man in a church bellfry and set in the Fens. Dorothy L Sayers was very good at creating atmosphere, describing a local way of life and the local people that fit the scene. Have His Carcase is a summer season world of hotels and tea dances, immigrant waiters and lonely ladies on separate tables. The Nine Tailors is a world of agricultural tradition in which passions are kept well hidden, about the mysteries of church bells and how they are rung - she spent a long time learning all about bellringing in order to lend authenticity to the plot - and the ever-present threat of catastrophic flooding in this, the most low-lying part of East Anglia. (The ending is biblical in more than one sense) There was also the ongoing attraction between Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, whereas Hercule Poirot, though gallant, was too old and dignified to woo anyone.

Eventually I got tired of Dorothy L Sayers too.

I flirted with yet another British writer, Margery Allingham (the Albert Campion books), as well as American writers such as, obviously, Raymond Chandler (with his creation Philip Marlowe). I also tried 'historic' whodunnits, such as Judge Dee in the books of Robert van Gulik, and in the 1990s brother Cadfael in the books of Ellis Peters. More lately I have acquired a collection of Henning Mankells (that's the police detective Wallander, in Sweden).

To a greater or lesser extent these were all worth reading, but ultimately they didn't hold my attention. Somewhere along the line, in one of my house moves, I jettisoned nearly all of my Agatha Christies and all of my Dorothy L Sayers. Now I expect I'll be looking for some of them again in secondhand bookshops!

I still have a little-known Agatha Christie book, Death Comes as the End, which I bought when on holiday with my parents in Cornwall, maybe in 1967. This is set in ancient Egypt, and is a sort of murder investigation at a time when the accepted methods of sleuthing were unknown. She knew what she was writing about, having an archaeological connection, and the book is pervaded with the heavy atmosphere of the tomb, but I don't recommend it if you like swift action. I also used to own Ten Little Niggers, which is about ten people who have committed murder - or have at least been morally or carelessly responsible for the death of someone else - but were beyond the reach of the law. A retired judge invites them to his Devon island, and then bumps them off one by one. It was made into a successful film. In recent decades the title of this book, which refers to a macabre nursery rhyme, has had to be changed, and I doubt whether it's now possible to find an original copy.

What is the charm of the Agatha Christies of the 1930s? Take this book I'm into, Cards on the Table. It's about comfortable pre-War London, and airy villas in the country that you can reach easily by catching the 4.48pm from Paddington. It's about dinner parties with bridge afterwards. About one particular dinner party, in which the caddish host gets a stiletto plunged into his chest while a game of bridge takes place only a few yards away. About the four persons who were playing that game, who may each have had a past death on their hands, who were afraid of exposure and instant arrest at the word of their host. One of them must have done it. Four other persons, including Hercule Poirot, who were in another room and could not possibly have done it, set about sifting the evidence. Great stuff.

But the book is interesting also for the characterisations and the attitudes. One of the four possible suspects is a nervous young woman, so lacking in self-confidence and nous that I can't imagine her existing today. Another is an older woman of my own age, shrewd and full of life's wisdom, who could also be a cool and efficient murderer. Then there is a doctor, a clever and quick-thinking man with, of course, handy clinical knowledge. And, last of the four suspects, a military man of action: Major Despard (he might as well be called James Bond). Apart from Monsieur Poirot, the other four - the investigating team, you might say - consist of a police Superintendent, a female crime novelist, and a secret service Colonel.

Perfectly typical 1930s people! No doubt the two military types smoked De Reszke cigarettes.

The thing that strikes me is how straightforward it would be to hold a conversation with these people. Mostly the language hasn't changed. Much the same idioms and expressions. But with of course a few jarring notes here and there. For instance, Colonel Race insisting that Major Despard couldn't have done it because

'...he's a stout fellow. Record quite unblemished. Strict disciplinarian. Liked and trusted by the natives everywhere. One of their cumbrous names for him in Afica, where they go in for such things, is ''The man who keeps his mouth shut and judges fairly''. General opinion of the white races that Despard is a Pukka Sahib. Fine shot. Cool head. Generally long-sighted and dependable...Despard's a white man, and I don't believe he's ever been a murderer. That's my opinion. And I know something of men.'

Ouch. The forthrightness and condescension of 1936! Or this exchange between Anne Meredith, the nervous young woman, and her much-less-nervous companion Rhoda Dawes about the solicitor Anne had just seen, at the suggestion of Major Despard:

'...What was the solicitor like? Very dry and legal?'
'Rather alert and Jewish.'

Ouch again, although the solicitor's alertness won Rhoda's approval:

'Sounds all right.'

And so on. The prejudices of the inter-war years have largely been replaced by new modern prejudices that will themselves take decades to recede. I suppose the 1930s attitudes expressed by Agatha Christie's characters seem 'in period' nowadays, a passing fact of historical record, as innocuous as anything expressed by a Dickens character. But if you happen to be an African, or a solicitor who lives in north London, then passages in this book could make you feel uncomfortable. I remember another 1930s book, possibly also by Agatha Christie, that featured a homosexual man. His flat had a cliché green decor. The investigating police inspector sneered at it, with 'Pretty, very pretty' on his lips. There were lots of ways in which to seem questionable and unpukka before the War. She was reflecting what her readers thought at the time, and it wasn't always nice.

All this said, it remains a fascinating era. I'm still wondering who stuck that knife in, and what will happen when the truth is revealed. I bet it was Major Despard after all! (Maybe)

I've finished the book. A clever ending, but I'm not saying who did it!


  1. It must be great to be able to sit and read a novel. I can't do that, reading fiction is something of no interest to me much preferring factual literature as I do. Of the two books you mention I can only remember the first, 'Riddle of the sands' as it was made into a movie which I have seen three times over the years. It stars Michael York and Simon Mac Corkindale and it was a good film for its day.

    Shirley Anne x

  2. I dislike murder mysteries that are too realistic. Murder is a horrible business and I don't find many of the TV Cop portrayals particularly entertaining. However, the conceited yet infectiously entertaining Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple and her 'chocolate box' home of St Mary Mead, and above all the blue-blooded sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, who solves murders for a hobby, live in a world just far enough removed from reality to make them entertaining.

    A team of ringers in Cornwall once patiently tried to teach me their art. I never progressed beyond the simple stuff, but learned enough to ensure that Dorothy Sayers' Nine Tailors would be my all-time favourite. The opening lines (not actually written by Sayers) are as memorable to me as Dylan Thomas's “To begin at the beginning...”:

    The coil of rope which is it necessary to hold in the hand, before, and whilst raising a bell, always puzzles the learner; it gets in his face and perhaps round his neck (in which case he may be hanged!).

  3. Actually, most of my reading is factual, and not fiction. I'll expand in a forthcoming post on books and book-buying, and the possible future of traditional books.


  4. One book I tend to recommend is Jill Paton Walsh's 'Thrones, dominations' which was authorised by the Sayers estate and based on some notes by Sayers. Often such things are fairly simplistic reruns, but this actually gives Wimsey something close to believability, a real treat.

  5. In the 80's on a trip to Dumfries we took a Dorothy Sayers book, something like Five Red Herrings, and used it as a guide book and it worked perfectly because of her fine descriptions...

    A German friend read Agatha Christie in English because the language is so correct, then she read them in French and recently in Spanish!


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