As this is posted, it would have been Agatha Christie’s 126th birthday. If you’re kind enough to read this blog even occasionally, you’ll know that I’ve been much inspired by her work, and am a great admirer of it. So my view of her writing is biased. Even so, I think it’s fair to say that her work has had a tremendous influence on writing in general and on crime fiction in particular.
Much has been written about Christie’s skill at plots and plot twists. That’s always been regarded as one of her strongest points as a crime writer. Another of her skills was arguably innovation.
We can look at Christie’s innovation on more than one level, too. On a personal level (that is, with respect to her own writing), she experimented with a wide variety of story structures, plot points and settings. Here are just a few examples: Death Comes as the End takes place in Ancient Egypt; The Murder at the Vicarage is an English-village whodunit; and They Came to Baghdad is an international adventure novel. Fans will also know that she wrote romances under the name of Mary Westmacott. Admittedly, some of her efforts turned out to be a lot more successful and well-regarded than others. But that’s one of the consequences of innovating with one’s writing – with ‘stretching’ oneself; it’s not always a success.
Christie was also an innovator when it came to the detective story itself. She knew the traditions of the detective story, and sometimes turned them completely around. For example, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot retires (or so he thinks) to the village of King’s Abbot. He’s soon drawn into a murder mystery when wealthy, retired business magnate Roger Ackroyd is stabbed in his study. The most likely suspect is Ackroyd’s stepson Captain Ralph Paton, but he’s gone missing and won’t, or can’t, account for himself. Still, Paton’s fiancée, Flora Ackroyd, is convinced he’s innocent, and asks Poirot to look into the matter. In this case, we have a victim, a household full of likely suspects, a (possibly) wrongly-accused person, in short, a not-very-unusual setup for a Golden Age novel. But as anyone who’s read this book knows, Christie turned that tradition on its head in this novel.
She did in Murder on the Orient Express, too. In that novel, wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett is stabbed during the second night of a three-day train journey across Europe. The only possible suspects are the other people who were in the same carriage. Hercule Poirot is on that train, and works to find out who the killer is. Again, on the surface, it sounds like a fairly straightforward Golden Age mystery. There’s an unpleasant victim, a group of suspects who are hiding different things, and a host of clues, both real and faked. But again, Christie turned that tradition around. Oh, and as a side note, if you haven’t read this one, then don’t read Cards on the Table until you do. There’s an obvious spoiler in the latter novel.
Christie took quite a lot of criticism for her innovations in these novels, especially for The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. It was said that she wasn’t ‘playing fair.’ But if you read those books, you see that the clues are there. It’s just a matter of making sense of them. And, perhaps not surprisingly, both novels are regarded now as some of her best work. The very innovations that a lot of people might not have liked at the time have become highly praised – even legendary.
Christie hasn’t been best known for her character development. But there are several novels and stories in which we meet well-developed, even innovative characters. Just as one example, we can look at her depiction of women in professions, something that was much less common when she was writing than it is now.
In Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings work with Chief Inspector Japp to solve the murder of Lord Edgware. The prime suspect is his wife, famous actress Jane Wilkinson. She had a good motive, and she’d even threatened to kill him. But she claims that she was at a dinner party in another part of London at the time, and there are twelve other people who will vouch for her presence there. So the detectives have to look elsewhere for the killer. Then there’s another murder. It’s very likely the two deaths are connected, although it’s not clear at first how. Part of the trail leads to milliner Jenny Driver, who was a friend of the second victim. Admittedly, she doesn’t play a major role in the novel. But she is smart, capable, and quite independent. Christie fans will know that she created several other smart, independent professional female characters as well (some more likeable than others). For example, there’s Rosamund Darnley (Evil Under the Sun), Cynthia Dacres (Three Act Tragedy) and Lucy Eyelesbarrow (4:50 From Paddington). There are plenty more, too. These characters may fall in love, or even get/be married. But they don’t get their sense of identity from their romances. Nor are they helpless and foolish (although they do make mistakes). You could argue that Christie was at least a bit ahead of her time on that.
Christie also arguably innovated when it came to the characters of her victims and murderers. There are, admittedly, not that many credible motives for murder. But even within those parameters, she experimented with different sorts of characters who are killed (or who kill) for different reasons. And in several cases (I can’t be specific, for fear of spoilers), her killers’ characters are developed to the point that we can understand them, even have sympathy for them. Her sleuths are as much concerned with human nature and psychology as they are with whodunit. So in her novels, we see a range of character types. In fact, Poirot reflects on that at the end of After the Funeral. There’s also some discussion of it in Dumb Witness.
Christie’s not the only writer, of course, who’s experimented with different kinds of stories, or who’s innovated with plots, or created different sorts of characters. But as a package, if I may put it that way, she was arguably a real innovator who wasn’t afraid to try new things and experiment. I think that’s part of what’s kept her work so appealing to so many people for so long.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Superchick’s One Girl Revolution.