Inside Story

The afterlife of Agatha Christie

Books | A new Hercule Poirot novel is a reminder of the remarkable narrative skills of his creator, writes John Rickard

John Rickard 5 February 2015 2079 words

Brilliantly deceptive: Agatha Christie in 1946. AAP Image

The Monogram Murders: The New Hercule Poirot Mystery
By Sophie Hannah | Harper Collins Publishers | $29.99

I first encountered Agatha Christie at the Seagull Library in Dee Why, one of those small lending libraries that every suburban shopping centre used to have before they were put out of business by the proliferation of paperbacks. I was no more than twelve, and it’s possible my mother or elder sister may have left an Agatha Christie lying around the house that aroused my interest. But several of us at school had comparing notes about whodunits, and not just Christie but many of the famous names of that so-called “golden age” of detective fiction: John Dickson Carr, for instance, who specialised in locked room mysteries and whose detective, Dr Fell, was apparently based on G.K. Chesterton; and a bevy of other “queens of crime” who could never rival Christie but enjoyed some success, including Marjorie Allingham, whose unconventional detective Albert Campion attracted a following, and the American Mignon Eberhart, who was strong on atmospherics and has been described as one of the founders of “the modern romantic suspense novel.” Dorothy Sayers did not feature on our lists, being perhaps a bit too intellectual for our juvenile tastes.

As I worked my way along the shelves of the Seagull Library, though, Agatha Christie soon became my favourite, and it occurs to me now that there is a lot to be said for this genre as “young adult fiction”: highly readable, presenting a challenging problem to be solved, with the recognition of clues and the sniffing out of red herrings, and of course the drama of the denouement. And there was the appropriate nod to morality, in so far as the murderer was usually caught.

Agatha Christie has become a remarkable institution, her standing as a novelist reinforced by her stage successes, particularly The Mousetrap, which, running continuously in the West End since 1952, has become one of London’s major tourist attractions. With Christie recognised as a publishing phenomenon, the “brand” is a very valuable asset indeed. So it was a major event when Agatha Christie Limited for the first time gave permission for Hercule Poirot to be exhumed from his literary grave and to have his “little grey cells” reactivated in Sophie Hannah’s The Monogram Murders. “Continuation literature,” a form of appropriation encouraged by postmodernism, appears to be flourishing, but it could be argued that more is at stake with Agatha Christie, in so far as she is the most widely published novelist ever. (Indeed, she is sometimes said to be up there with Shakespeare and the Bible.)

Hannah sets the action in 1929, which places the action, as a Poirot case, not long after the legendary The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), of which more anon, and between The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928) and Peril at End House (1932). Hannah is nothing if not ambitious, beginning with not one corpse but three, all of them apparently killed in their rooms at the posh Bloxham Hotel on the same evening, each laid out in the same way, with a monogrammed cufflink placed on the tongue. In fact, the complications of this deathly trio make it harder for her to create a narrative with anything like the Christie drive and efficiency.

The story is told by Edward Catchpole, a thirty-two-year-old Scotland Yard policeman with a decidedly inconvenient aversion to looking at dead bodies. The reason for this emerges gradually, and is presumably designed to humanise Catchpole, but in fact he remains a dull figure, lacking even the stiff-upper-lip likeableness and courage of Christie’s best-known Watson-type figure, Arthur Hastings.

Poirot is recognisable: the familiar mannerisms are all there, but there is something laboured about the characterisation, evident in the relentless way we are repeatedly reminded of those “little grey cells.” Although Catchpole is the narrator, there are chapters written in the third person in which he reports Poirot’s activities when he was not present. And, relatively early in the investigation, Poirot disappears from the narrative entirely for three chapters when he dispatches Catchpole to the village of Great Holling, where the crime had its origins sixteen years earlier.

It is an awkward narrative, as indeed is the solution. Following the Christie tradition, it is revealed in a gathering of all the suspects and, it seems, virtually the entire staff of the Bloxham Hotel. Incredibly, it takes Poirot sixty-six laborious pages to explain the solution, and includes another murder in full view of those assembled, thrown in for a bit of climactic excitement, which rather suggests that Poirot has been uncharacteristically careless, to say the least, in his staging of the denouement. This drawn-out finale is not in the Christie tradition, and is a product of the convolutions of Hannah’s plot.

Take, for example, the classic Christie thriller, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the remarkable solution of which takes a mere thirty-one pages to unravel. However intricate Christie’s plotting might be in the placing of clues and red herrings, there was usually a grand, overriding simplicity to the solution. One has only to think of the inventive audacity of Murder on the Orient Express or And Then There Were None. (Originally published in England in 1939 as Ten Little Niggers, it was sometimes changed to Ten Little Indians. In the United States the title And Then There Were None was preferred, but it was not until 1985 that this was used in England – an interesting example of racism in reluctant retreat.)

So, too, when The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was published in 1926, the simplicity of the idea at its core was breathtaking, for it broke, if not one of the accepted rules of the detective story, then certainly one of its conventions. Now there is also a convention that a critic should not reveal the identity of the murderer/s, and I have observed it in commenting on The Monogram Murders, but Roger Ackroyd is now almost ninety years old, and, in any case, Christie herself didn’t observe the convention in writing her Autobiography, which she completed in 1965 but was only published after her death in 1976.

Christie relates how her brother-in-law, putting down a detective story he had been reading, remarked that almost anyone in detective stories could turn out to be the murderer, even the detective, but that what he would like to see was “a Watson who turned out to be the criminal.” Agatha was struck by this thought, but it was Lord Louis Mountbatten who added a further dimension to the challenge: why not “a story narrated in the first person by someone who later turned out to be the murderer.” She thought the difficulties of bringing off such a coup without actually “cheating” – that is to say, by not providing sufficient clues for the attentive reader to identify the murderer – were immense. Nor could she conceive of turning the loyal Hastings into a murderer, so she would have to invent a new “Watson.” Enter Dr Sheppard.

James Sheppard is the local doctor in the village of King’s Abbott, where he lives with his sister Caroline. It is a disarming narrative, and not without humour, particularly in the depiction of his relationship with Caroline, whose principal concern is keeping up with village gossip. They have just acquired a new neighbour, and Caroline is frustrated because she can’t find out anything about him, except that his name is “Mr Porrot.” Sheppard thinks that, judging by his moustache, “Porrot” must be a retired hairdresser. So we are introduced to Poirot from Sheppard’s perspective.

Some critics dismiss Christie’s writing as being no more than serviceable. But in Roger Ackroyd village life is shrewdly described from Sheppard’s rather satirical perspective, including an amusing mahjong evening where the gossip and play are beautifully entwined. And in providing the essential clues, the narrative is brilliantly deceptive.

One example. After dinner at Ackroyd’s house, Sheppard has been invited to accompany Ackroyd to his study to discuss confidential matters. The actual commission of the murder is disguised in this paragraph:

The letter had been brought in at twenty minutes to nine. It was just ten minutes to nine when I left him, the letter still unread. I hesitated with my hand on the door handle, looking back and wondering if there was anything I had left undone. I could think of nothing. With a shake of the head I passed out and closed the door behind me.

It sounds harmless. But as Sheppard points out, after Poirot has unmasked him, if he had placed a row of stars separating the first sentence from what follows, the reader might wonder what had happened in that vital ten minutes. Had he left anything undone? Far from it! Other clues are carefully placed in Sheppard’s text, pointing to the doctor’s guilt.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is an early and particularly deadly example of the unreliable narrator, a figure that has become so fashionable in contemporary literature. Partly for that reason, it has continued to be a subject for discussion both in the annals of detective fiction and beyond.

A surprising addition to this literature is a book by French psychoanalyst and critic, Pierre Bayard, Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? The Mystery Behind the Agatha Christie Mystery. Bayard proposes an alternative solution to the crime: what if the murderer was not Dr Sheppard but his sister Caroline? Drawing on psychoanalysis, Bayard sees it as a significant oversight on Christie’s part that Caroline is never included as a suspect who has to account for her movements: she is just the bearer of village gossip.

It is an interesting and ingenious game that Bayard is playing, for what he is suggesting is that a reader’s solution of the mystery might have as much legitimacy as the author’s. This is a truly postmodern take on detective fiction, positing a kind of open-endedness that subverts the comforting certainties of “golden age” detective fiction.

Whodunits in the tradition of the fiction pioneered by Christie, John Dickson Carr and co, are still being published. But much detective fiction has morphed into the broader category of crime fiction, which in turn may overlap with true crime writing, so that a book such as Helen Garner’s recent House of Grief, an account of the Robert Farquharson case, can be seen as having links with detective fiction: did Farquharson deliberately drive his car into the dam with his three children on board, or was it an accident? With the verdict of not one but two juries, House of Grief offers a measure of certainty, but it also conveys a sense of small-town tragedy.

Of course, in “golden age” detective fiction we do not expect to be emotionally engaged in this way: that is not the nature of the beast. For the Christie devotee it is the lure of the puzzle that was her special talent, although now there is the added fascination, for a historian particularly, of the depiction of that comfortable, middle-class English society – often in a deceptively peaceful village setting like King’s Abbott – complete with its prejudices and the imperial self-satisfaction of the time. In this picture-postcard world evil lurks, but it is evil of a purely personal kind: social evil is not on the agenda. This is a self-contained, fictional world, a bit like an engrossing board game.

Dennis Altman is among those drawn to this lost world: he relates how he shared his passion for Christie with the poet Dorothy Porter. For them it was comfort reading that could be revisited even when you remembered the outcome. That is certainly true for me too, but in my case I think that in revisiting Christie I am also revisiting my childhood, capturing a whiff of that new, intoxicating pleasure of devouring a book in twenty-four hours. Christie is part of my lost world, treasured along with a classic of “children’s literature” like Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians.

So, Christie lives on. But she lives on in spite of, rather than because of, The Monogram Murders, which does not measure up as the genuine article. •