Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Agatha Christie Speaks

Julie Bosman has an article about Dame Agatha Christie (1890-1976) in the September 15th edition of The New York Times: "Tapes Offer New Clues to a Master of Mystery." The article was published to coincide with what would have been Christie's 118th birthday. The big news is that 27 reels of audio tape were recently discovered by her grandson. Dating from the 1960s, the reels record Christie's dictations for what eventually became her posthumously published autobiography. She recorded comments on her famous detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, thoughts about what went into the writing of some of her books, and other things.

It should come as no surprise that I am a big fan of Agatha Christie's mysteries. She apparently published 66 mysteries. About 15 years ago, I started reading each of them in the order they were published (I'm currently somewhere in the 1960s). Critics often consider her earlier works to be better than her later works, and in general I have to agree. After about 1950 the books start pandering to newer trends and styles in mystery writing (i.e., her competition). In her defense, Christie was trying to keep up with the times and write more contemporary work, but traditional writing and storylines were her greatest strengths. If ever there was a master (mistress?) of the tea-cozy, grand-English-estate murder mystery, it was Christie. Though her writing is easy to read, she manages to weave tales that always leave you guessing. You rarely can guess the ending, so you're always surprised by the climax, the revelation that he (or she) committed the crime. If the English countryside wasn't enough, her knowledge of archaeology allowed her to bring her readers to exotic locations--Egypt, Mesopotamia, Morocco--where a reader learns that human nature does not change just because the locale has changed. Reading her books now with a more openly gay sensibility, I find that one of the brilliant things she was able to accomplish was the not infrequent inclusion of queerness, from flamboyant gay men and butch lesbians, to cross-dressing and the occasional fetish. She was able to write about these things using innuendo, conveying her intent without full blatant acknowledgment. Admittedly, some of the stories also reek with prejudices, but when you consider she began writing immediately after World War I and through World War II, xenophobia was not uncommon, especially when so many Europeans and Asians were flooding into England looking for a new life at the time. As a result, her stories reveal a social truth, but then often stealthily point out how such prejudices are misguided.

Which Christie books are among my favorites? The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) are classic Poirot mysteries not to be missed. 4:50 from Paddington (1957) is a Miss Marple mystery and has one of the greatest visual devices--a passenger riding on a train who witnesses a murder on a bypassing train (a plot I now recall with a grin every time I'm on the subway and I can see people in another subway running alongside). If you haven't already been spoiled by the plots of some of her classics, then definitely check out Murder on the Orient Express (1934) and Death on the Nile (1937). Recent film adaptations of Christie's mysteries have been quite good; I think David Suchet is superb as Poirot. For more, check out The Official Agathe Christie Website, run by her grandson.

One of the greatest mysteries about Christie was an incident in her own life, when she disappeared for about two weeks, and no one ever discovered what happened to her. Of course, those of you who are Doctor Who fans know what really happened. Check out this plot summary of the episode "The Unicorn and the Wasp" from the most recent season, when the Doctor and Donna Noble visited her and others at a country estate, where of course murder (and a little sci-fi) ensued.

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