I was watching an episode of Doctor Who, The Unicorn and the Wasp, featuring (Dame) Agatha Christie, the Queen of Mystery. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a very good episode, so in between picking the events of the episode to pieces I had some time to ponder.
At one point in the story, a character asserted that Christie would be the ideal person to investigate an actual murder because her novels demonstrated that she “understood people”. I’m reasonably certain that’s rubbish. Christie’s mystery novels are excellent, of much higher quality than most works in the genre, but for reasons rather different than the show suggested.
I don’t truly know whether Christie was a master of characterization. I’ve always found her characters stereotypical, almost to the point of gentle parody. But who at this point can say whether people were like that at the time she wrote about? Particularly in such a conformity-loving society as Great Britain was, or so I’m told.
Christie’s genius lay in misdirection. Many of her novels, and as far as I’m concerned all of her best ones, involved taking advantages of the assumptions and prejudices of her readers. This isn’t exactly something she pioneered – it was a technique going back way before “the butler did it!” But she mastered it. There is a very good reason Murder on the Orient Express and And Then There Were None are classics, and particularly popular and well-known classics at that.
Writing a compelling and entertaining text, much less a mystery, takes very different skills than investigating a real crime, in almost the same way being good at playing a doctor in a television program doesn’t qualify you to practice medicine. It’s not quite an equivalence: there are certain kinds of cleverness that are necessary to write a good book that would probably stand you in good stead if you tried to solve a mystery. But still, they require very different skill sets. Like stage magic, the audience doesn’t want to be able to figure it out, it wants to be awed by cleverness taking place right under its nose. Christie was very, very good at lexical legerdemain.
I sometimes wonder if the insight she had into her readers’ psychological blind spots lead her into contempt. I know the books she wrote late in her life crossed over from possible implicit critiques to explicit, outright mockery. Perhaps she became weary of writing the same tricks over and over again in order to satiate the endless desire of the public for more books. I like to think that the books she wrote under pseudonyms were some comfort to her.