When we were first married, and before the offspring arrived and used up our money, the Old Boy and I lashed out and bought the Agatha Christie collection. That’s right: all her stories gathered together in a delightful, hard-cover set. Not realising we were immediately reducing the value to “just another lot of old books”, we got rid of the dreadful plain white paper dust-jackets. The black hard covers, with gold and red trim, looked smart, sophisticated and – yes, I’ll say it – had a semi-academic je ne sais quoi air about them as they perched on our bookshelves.
Dear “fluffy” Miss Marples is all lace, lavender and buttery cup-cakes until she figures out you’re the murderer and then watch out! Monsieur Hercule Poirot, (a Belgian, not a Frenchman) with his waxed moustaches and his hearty self-admiration seems to be a dandified figure of fun until you realise his beady little eyes don’t miss a trick. Her characters are called Colonel Arbuthnot, Major Blunt, Carstairs, and Lady Astley. So very English High Tea, old Victorian hotels, lunch at the Savoy and trains.
For the last four years the collection was on loan to a friend who had been quite ill. She’s an “Aggie” fan and being able to lose herself in vintage Christie was a much-needed distraction. We were happy to leave them there because, quite frankly, we were grateful for the room it left on our bookshelves. The books finally found their way home last week. In celebration, I picked one at random to read. It was a Poirot mystery and had all the usual elements: dead body, wrongly accused man, baffled police, etc. But, as I read I made a dreadful discovery. Agatha Christie, the Grand Dame of Crime/Mystery novels, the toast of the Who-dun-it world, really wasn’t such a good writer. (Excuse me while I let my mind have one more bout of boggling! O.O)
I can just imagine how it would go these days if she submitted her first book to an agent: Dear Ms Christie. Your point of view is all over the shop. You jump from head to head and back again a disconcerting number of times within the same chapter, without any break to show that your narrator has changed. Your dialogue often hangs in space, without any beats to anchor it in time or place. You need to work on “show not tell”. You aren’t consistent in your use of “said”. He said/ said Robert/mused Colonel So&So/Reginald uttered… Just stick to “said” and keep it after the name. No one these days says, “said he”. There is a surprising abundance of servants, yet your choice of names for them are severely limited. Every second parlourmaid is called Annie. Who the heck these days, apart from the queen, has a parlourmaid? What is a parlourmaid? The police are always buffoons totally baffled by the crime, always arresting the wrong man, in spite of being equipped with forensic science and years of experience catching villains. Yet your strange little Frenchie, or the dithery old lady, can figure it out at the drop of a hat pin. Many of your stories aren’t long enough for a novel. Some are novellas and others are glorified short stories. Unfortunately novellas and short story collections are no longer big sellers. A novel should be at least 80, 000 words or more. I wish you all the best for the future, and recommend you consider doing some sort of writing course, either on-line or in a recognised tertiary institution.
And yet, in spite of all the short-comings and the fact that they are hopelessly old-fashioned in setting and world-view, there is still something in an Aggie novel that draws you in. How did the body end up in the tea-chest? If he didn’t do it, then who could it have been? What clues is the author giving me that I’m missing? How can a character be so absurdly pompous, fastidious and irritating yet still be so likeable? How can I look at white-haired, sweet-faced, dithery old ladies in the same way, ever again?
Her books aren’t great literature. They could have done with some serious editorial work. And yet, in spite of the shortcomings, as an author she was a rip-roaring success. Her books are still loved all over the world. What is her secret? She’s a damn fine story-teller. That wins, every time.