As you’ll know, as this is posted, it would have been Agatha Christie’s 127th birthday. And, if you’ve been kind enough to visit this blog even a few times, you’ll have guessed that I’m very much a fan of her work. That doesn’t mean I’m blind (I hope!) to the fact that not all of her work is truly excellent, shall we say. But taken as a whole, Christie’s body of work merits its place, I think, on the list of top crime fiction.
Christie isn’t always noted for strong character development. And it’s true that, in some of her work, the plot outshines the characters. But she did create some memorable characters, too. Several of them have stayed with me over the years, and I’ll bet you have your own list, too. Here are just a few on my list (in no particular order).
We meet Lucy in 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw). She’s a professional housekeeper who is so good at her job that she’s very much in demand. She sets her own schedule and dictates the terms under which she’ll work. That’s how skilled and in-demand she is. And in this novel, she helps Miss Marple solve a baffling murder and find a missing body. She’s quite independent, and doesn’t get her sense of identity from a relationship, or even her profession, really. That doesn’t mean she’s averse to falling in love. But she doesn’t let that side of her life define her. And Christie added enough layers to her character to make her interesting.
Mr. Satterthwaite appears in more than one of Christie’s stories (e.g. Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts) and the short story collection The Mysterious Mr. Quin). A bit of a social snob, Mr. Satterthwaite enjoys parties and other affairs where ‘the best people’ meet. He himself isn’t of noble birth, but he’s always on the ‘also attending’ list for such events. Through his eyes, we see the other characters in the story, and this gives them more depth. Mr. Sattherthwaite may prefer the company of the crème de la crème, but he’s not autocratic. He’s approachable – even friendly – and doesn’t intimidate or alienate household staff who might have valuable information to share. He’s a bit old-fashioned in his outlook on life, but he also knows that times must change. Christie tells us enough about him to make him human, but there’s enough mystery to make him interesting, too.
Miss Bulstrode is the headmistress of Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school that features in Cat Among the Pigeons. She and her partner, Miss Chadwick, founded the school, and it’s become the place to send one’s daughter if she’s accepted. Miss Bulstrode is both shrewd and intelligent, and has a solid understanding of human nature. But even she’s put to the test when the school’s new games mistress is murdered. Then, there’s a kidnapping. And another murder. Now, parents are scrambling to remove their daughters, and the school faces a very uncertain future. Hercule Poirot is drawn into the mystery, and he works with Miss Bulstrode and the police to find the killer. But even the – er – confident Poirot depends on Miss Bulstrode’s knowledge, grit, and tact to solve the case. Miss Bulstrode has compassion and a lot of understanding, but at the same time, she is a force to be reckoned with; she’s a strong character.
Dr. James Sheppard
Dr. Sheppard is the narrator of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. He’s the local GP for the village of Kings Abbot, and knows just about everybody in the area. So, when Sheppard’s friend, Roger Ackroyd, is murdered, he naturally gets involved. Hercule Poirot has taken the house next door to Sheppard’s, and he’s drawn into the case when the victim’s niece, Flora, asks him to clear her fiancé’s name. Poirot sees that Sheppard knows everyone, and can give him useful background on the village. So, he cultivates a relationship with Sheppard, and invites him to be a part of the investigation. Sheppard is smart, and he’s fairly good at ‘reading’ people. And, since he tells the story, we do learn about him. He’s an interesting character, and has stayed with me.
We ‘meet’ Jane Wilkinson in Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner). She’s a famous American actress who’s married to the 4th Baron Edgware. But she wants a divorce, so that she can marry the Duke of Merton. So, she enlists Hercule Poirot’s help. She tells Poirot that her husband won’t grant her a divorce, and asks him to persuade Lord Edgware to change his mind. Poirot isn’t happy about the idea, but he agrees to at least visit the man. He and Captain Hastings are in for a surprise, though. Lord Edgware says he’s withdrawn his objection, and has already let his wife know that. Then, that night, Edgware is stabbed. Jane is, naturally, the prime suspect. But she says she was at a dinner party in another part of London at the time, and twelve people are ready to swear that she was there. So, Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp have to look elsewhere for the murderer. Throughout the novel, we get to know Jane. On the one hand, she’s utterly self-absorbed. On the other, she’s remarkably shrewd in her way. At the same time as she can’t tell the difference between ‘AM’ and ‘PM,’ she’s quite skilled at what she does, and has her own kind of intelligence.
Dr. John Christow
Christow’s a Harley Street specialist who is passionate about finding a cure for Ridgeway’s Disease. He’s also married to Gerda, and the father of Terry and Zena. Although he’s dedicated to his profession, he’s not at all perfect; in fact, he’s strayed more than once. And he’s had a long-term relationship with a sculptor, Henrietta Savernake. But he is,
‘…so vital, so alive…’
He’s self-absorbed in his way, but he’s generous, friendly, and provides well for his family. And he’s fully aware that he has his faults. In fact, when he meets up with an old flame, he tells her he’s,
‘A man you don’t even know – and whom I daresay you wouldn’t like much if you did.’
When Christow is shot one Sunday afternoon, Hercule Poirot is drawn into the investigation, and he works with Inspector Grange to find the killer. Christow may be the victim in this novel, but he’s a layered, interesting character.
And that’s the thing about Agatha Christie. It’s true that she’s perhaps much better known for her plots than for her characters. But she created several that have stayed with me. Which have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bennie Benjamin and Sol Marcus’ Fabulous Character.