Of course I realize that I’m not the only one who loves Agatha Christie’s mysteries. There are lots and lots of us around — that’s why her books have never gone out of print since her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles was first published in 1920. She wrote her last mystery, Postern of Fate, in 1973, when she was 82 years old. And they’re all still in print, more than 35 years after her death.
For some reason, I’ve been thinking a lot about Christie’s mysteries on these rainy, weirdly spring-like days in Seattle. (Maybe it’s the grey skies.) I just finished reading the last page of a “must read” for Christie fan(atic)s — Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks: Fifty Years of Mysteries in the Making (Harper 2010) by John Curran. Did you know that, as Curran says, “It is possible to read a different Christie title every month for almost seven years … And it is possible to watch a different dramatization every month for two years.”
Pretty impressive, isn’t it?
What especially interests me, though, is why people enjoy her books so much, and, more specifically, why I read and reread her mysteries on a fairly regular basis. (I’ve never read one of her non-mysteries, all of which were written under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott.) The odd part for me is that her great strength, which is her genius at plotting, is something that is generally not important to me in what I read. I’m always much more interested in character development and the quality of the writing than I am in what happens in any particular book. The books I love best tend to be character, rather than story, driven and always, always distinguished by gorgeous writing. But Christie’s characters are as thin as paper; they tend to be stock characters — the dim-witted housemaid, the bluff retired army officer, the ne’er do well child who leaves home at an early age and returns as an adult. Even her major characters, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, have no depth. Poirot is always described in terms of his mustaches, his love of tisanes, his compulsive neatness, his egg shaped head, and the little grey cells he puts to good use for detecting. And Miss Marple, dithery and a knitter, is a whiz at reading people. But that’s all we know about them — there’s no inner life for us to discover. And don’t get me started on Captain Hastings — I was very happy when Christie sent him off to the Argentine to raise cattle! Plus, her writing, while hardly clunky, is not what you read the books for. Her actual prose is serviceable and unobtrusive. But her storytelling is brilliant, and her talent for writing the puzzler sort of mystery is unmatched. I can’t think of anyone else who can give the reader all the clues necessary to solve the case, and yet whose ability to disguise them in such a diabolical fashion means that you’re unlikely to guess whodunit before all is revealed in the last scene.
Over the years I must have bought hundreds of copies of her books. I’d start out by reading or rereading one of them and then feel compelled to read them all. When I finished, I couldn’t imagine ever reading them again, so I’d donate them to the library book sale or give them to friends. Then, a year or so later, perhaps, I’d be lying in bed and a scene from one of her books would flash into my head and I’d want to reread it; so I’d have to buy a copy, since (sadly) it was unlikely to be in at the library at just the moment I wanted it. Inevitably, after finishing that one, I’d want to go back and reread them all again (always, of course, having forgotten in the meantime who the murderer was). Which meant I had to buy them all once again. This has happened too many times for me to count. I was very happy when the publishing company Black Dog & Leventhal reprinted several of them in hardcover, because, psychologically, they’re harder for me to give away. I just went through this same process — obsessively rereading her oeuvre — and now have another complete set of her mysteries. I sincerely hope that I’ve learned my lesson and will not get rid of any of these.
My all time favorite novel of hers is one in which neither Poirot or Marple appears. It’s called either Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? or The Boomerang Clue, depending on where and when it was published.