And I’m a One Girl Revolution*

agatha-christie-575x323As 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.

42 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie

42 responses to “And I’m a One Girl Revolution*

  1. A brilliant post Margot and an excellent homage. Great examples of her best work. I thought about writing something myself but this is far better than I could have done, so I’m going to reblog it 🙂 Happy Birthday Agatha!

  2. Reblogged this on and commented:
    It would have been the ‘Queen Of Crime’s’ Agatha Christie’s 126th birthday today. Here’s a great post from Margot Kinberg celebrating the day with some great examples of Christie’s best work. Christie was a regular flouter of the ten rules of detective fiction, woman with a brilliant mind, a great sense of humour, weaver of intricate innovative plots and a fantastic writer.

  3. I always think she gets a bit of a raw deal on the character development question. We may not see them grow or change much in the course of the books, but we do usually get a feel for why they are as they are, and some of them are unforgettable. I suspect it’s because her detectives remain rather static that she gets that reputation, but the individual characters in the different books always seem well developed to me.

    • I think so, too, FictionFan. I could a dozen non-sleuth characters from her novels and tell you about them – but I won’t put you to sleep… Christie’s character development may be subtle, but it’s definitely there. You make an interesting point, too, about her choice to make her detectives more static. I wonder if she would do that now, in our age of story arcs and evolving characters with strong personal lives.

      • Yes, it’s interesting to specualte about that, but for me, the unchanging detective is one of the things I most love about them. As you know, with contemporary fiction I often think too much time is spent on the detective’s life and not enough on the actual crime element. All crime writers should be forced to read the complete works of AC before they begin a new novel… 😉

        • Well, I wouldn’t mind that requirement, FictionFfan 😉 – In all seriousness, you make a well-taken point about that balance between wanting characters to feel real, and wanting the writer to get on with the mystery. It’s not an easy balance, and everyone’s different with respect to what the ‘right’ mix is. But I do think crime writers always do a better job when they’re well read in the genre – including Christie’s work.

  4. There’s another wonderful example of her turning things on their heads in the one where the policeman did it. I’m not naming the book, partly because I don’t want to give anything away and partly because I can’t flippin’ well remember what it was called. *senior moment*

  5. Thanks for a great and timely post about this author Margot – You point out so many of the excellent ways she led the way in crime fiction writing and she still appeals to readers today. As you know I am slowly re-reading some of these classics having found them in my teens and quite independently my daughter when she reached her teenage years chose these books as part of her transition from reading books written for her age group to ‘adult’ books. She really did manage quite a variety of different ways of telling the story, using different settings, different methods of murder but always plenty of red-herrings.

    • That’s what I think, too, Cleo. Christie experimented with all sorts of plots, voices, settings and so on. On the one hand, that has meant that not all of her books are her best at all. But at the same time, her writing continues to appeal, I think, partly because she was willing to innovate. And I’m not surprised that both you and your daughter were drawn to her writing. There’s just something about that still brings new readers even now. Thanks for the kind words.

  6. Tremendous fun to read, Margot, especially today of all days. I might disagree with you on the Motive point, but in the best way: it inspires me to write a post about Christie and motives!!! 🙂

  7. Reblogged this on e. michael helms and commented:
    Mystery writer/blogger Margot Kinberg expounds on the great Agatha Christie!

  8. My favourite kind of post about one of my favourite writers,you know how much I enjoyed this! And of course I agree – she doesn’t get enough credit for challenging conventions and making innovations. And when she used stereotypes and cliches, it was often with the intention of fooling the reader.
    We can take off our hats to her.

    • Right you are, Moira, and that’s something I didn’t have space to discuss in my post. She was very calculating in her use of stereotypes; it always was meant to lead the reader (and other characters!) up the garden path. How many times, for instance, does Poirot’s overdone ‘foreignness’ get him information he wouldn’t otherwise get? And yes, she certainly challenged conventions, and that’s part of why she is still so well-regarded by so many people. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  9. I love this post! 🙂 Christie was definitely ahead of her times and extremely creative in cooking up motives and plots.

  10. Pingback: TELL ME WHY YOU CRIED (And Why You Died on Me)* | ahsweetmysteryblog

  11. Col

    I’ll give her a try one day, Margot!

  12. tracybham

    When I started reading Christie’s books again after many years, I was amazed at the variety in her books and how she fools the reader. She doesn’t get enough credit, although the popularity of her books for so long does prove her talent.

  13. Lovely post, Margot! As you know I’ve been reading through Christie’s works for some years now and am currently reading some of her early short stories. What constantly amazes me is her enormous output and ingenuity, creating so many stories and characters, her poetry, plays and the six novels she wrote under the pseudonym of Mary Westmacott (which I’m looking forward to reading!)

    • Thank you, Margaret. I’m always amazed, too, by how much she wrote, and what variety there is in it. And you’re right; she wrote not just novels, but short stories, plays, and poetry, too. And yes, she was quite ingenious – always more going on than you think in her work…

  14. I agree with Fiction Fan above, that the character development seems to apply mostly to her static detectives, but that today’s detective seem to have almost too much of a personal life, which interferes with the mystery element.

    Another element I’d like to point out is how wonderful an introduction she is to the English language and an English way of life (even though it’s defunct now) for those of us who are foreign. She is also a great leveller in terms of age, class, interests. I remember reading her out loud to the two other ladies (one in her 60s, the other in her 80s, one an artist, the other a former lawyer who had been disgraced under the Communist regime) in my hospital ward and we had great fun trying to piece together the clues and guess the perpetrator. I was 14 at the time and had just been operated for appendicitis, and I was reading it in English to them. It just shows Agatha Christie’s universal appeal.

    • What a lovely story, Marina Sofia! Thanks for sharing it. Among other things, it really does show Christie’s appeal, I think. And you know, I hadn’t thought (for this post) about it, but you make a well-taken point about the structure of the language she used. It’s accessible, and yet it’s not contrived. And she certainly did offer a window on the lifestyles of the years during which she was writing. Yet more reasons to enjoy her work.

  15. Wonderful post, Margot. A great tribute to a lovely lady who gave a wealth of good reading and inspiration.

    Thoughts in Progress
    MC Book Tours

  16. Margot, this is a wonderful tribute to Agatha Christie. You rightly mentioned innovation and ingenuity of her plots and characters. I have read only a few of her novels and my impression is that her secondary characters, the suspects and murderers, are a vulnerable bunch even though they don’t seem to be — a contrast to Poirot’s supreme confidence. I like how in the end he brings out all the flaws in their character, which is not surprising since Poirot is considered to be a master of human behaviour.

    • I like that about him, too, Prashant. Among other things, it allowed Christie to do character development, and let us see some of those secondary characters you mention. And it’s all done in a way that falls out from the plot. Thanks for the kind words.

  17. Happy birthday, Agatha! This is such a lovely tribute to an important writer of crime fiction. She really did pave the way for so many.

  18. Great post, and thanks for this. I needed the inspiration today. Agatha Christie always reminds me to step forward in my own voice without fear.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s