A Talent to Deceive: An Appreciation of Agatha Christie
Dodd, Mead & Company, 1980
Literary criticism, in theory at least, is not concerned with criticism, but rather shedding new light on a subject. Crime writer Robert Barnard takes this idea and runs with it. He acknowledges Christie’s flaws, then sets out in the next 30, 000 words why Agatha Christie is great. Robert Barnard likes Agatha Christie, and all he wants is to tell us about it. It is all incredibly refreshing.
But, for all this, we still learn things. The art of criticism is pointing out the obvious things that the average reader might forget, and it is in this that Barnard excels. We are reminded that, in Christie’s heyday, detective fiction was as popular as Coronation Street. A reference which ages the book a bit but, oh, for those days!
We also forget, in an age where no-one but the super-rich have servants, that Agatha Christie was a member of the middle-middle class who wrote almost exclusively about other members of the middle-middle class. And yet, despite this, her stories are universal. Her characters are sketches, and always secondary to the plot, yet Barnard reminds us that this is what makes Christie work: Miss Marple is equally evocative for an Italian grandmother or a Norwegian teenager, but in different ways. Each itineration of Marple is different, whether on stage, screen or in our minds, but because of Christie’s universality we fill in the gaps ourselves and they are all, somehow, Marple.
Christie herself isn’t studied in detail, her background – her marriages, disappearance, and Little England political views – are sketched in only to aid understanding of her novels. Because Barnard treats Christie the way Christies treats character: as secondary to the plots because Christie, in Barnard’s eyes, is all about the puzzle.
This does lead to some contentious points; the copy of An Appreciation held by Five Minute Mysteries has been extensively annotated by a previous owner who liked Christie but disliked Barnard and repeatedly made their views known. Which goes to prove that, within any genre, opinions diverge. In Barnard’s case, like many ‘cold mystery’ fans, he doesn’t like Sayers and takes the opportunity to say so at length. And this is a pity. Barnard defends Christie by pointing out that the common criticisms of her – fill-in-the-blank characters, dull writing, cardboard detectives – may be true but they don’t detract from enjoyment of the novels. He then goes on to needlessly reiterate the criticisms of Sayers that we’ve all heard before – that she’s pretentious, that she over-writes, that she was probably in love with her main character – as if they are the last word on the subject. That Sayers ‘flings around quotations like ping-pong balls’ is undoubtedly true but, like Christie’s attitude to character, this is something that adds to the charm of the novels, and pitting the two doyennes of detective fiction against each other does seem needlessly cheap when, as Barnard tells us, it was Sayers who publicly defended Christie when the public cried ‘foul!’ over the end of Ackroyd.
But it is when speaking of Christie’s writing that Barnard comes to his strengths, acknowledging criticisms and turning them into eloquent compliments. He understands that Poirot, for example, is a pretty cardboard character, but turns this into a larger point about how all Christie’s detectives are observers. With no loves or family or friends themselves, they provide a far better window onto other characters than detectives who get involved do, and it is this that raised Poirot and Marple to the level of Holmes. Christie was, first and foremost, a puzzler and entertainer, and Barnard argues persuasively that writers who try to combine a good detective story with good writing are likely to fail at both:
“One might cite an analogous case from another art. The opera singer who is hailed as a “great actress” would probably be tittered off the stage at a provincial rep.”
In short, criticising Christie for not being a good writer is missing the point as she isn’t trying to be. In Barnard’s words, Roger Ackroyd is not a failed Middlemarch. Much as, in Christie, a certain sidekick is not an inferior Poirot, but instead the supreme Hastings!
But Barnard doesn’t only believe that the strength of Christie’s fiction is murder-as-puzzle, he believes murder is only the puzzle. And he can take this too far. It is true that ‘Poirot and Hastings’ as a double act is an inferior version of ‘Holmes and Watson’. It is definitely true that Hastings isn’t a very good character. But what is undeniable is that first-person narration Christie has a verve to it that many of the other stories lack, and that there’s a human side to a detective with friends that we miss when it goes. But then Barnard is probably right to say that writing and character have never been the ultimate point of Christie. Does this make her better or worse?
It’s difficult to say, but one thing is certain. Fifty years down the line, we still care.