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Agatha Christie

The short answer is a lot, which is saying something for a person who left this world nearly a half-century ago. But Christie had much to say in a life that spanned over eight decades and a writing career that produced a multitude of novels and short stories. As for impact, Agatha Christie is the most widely read fiction writer since William Shakespeare and, by some accounts, she is also the most widely read novelist in history. Her work has sold over 4 billion copies collectively.

But while Christie is widely hailed as an ingenious writer, her genre of choice—crime/mystery novels and short stories—is not a classic style. So it is not unusual to find analysts who believe her work does not stand up when compared to the work of other widely read British authors, including Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the prodigious but unevenly evaluated Anthony Trollope.

There is a different conclusion about Christie’s work if you view it through the lens of understanding human behavior and social circumstances. Then Christie speaks loudly and with a distinctly Progressive slant.

Christie offers an unvarnished portrait of the British upper class, especially about the foibles and pretenses of people self-absorbed in status and money—and hell-bent on securing or retaining both.

At the macro-level, Christie offers an unvarnished portrait of the British upper class, especially about the foibles and pretenses of people self-absorbed in status and money—and hell-bent on securing or retaining both. What Christie wrote starting in the 1920s links well to what is happening during today’s ‘Roaring 20s.’ One example is her novel, Endless Night (1967), which chronicles the devious lengths people will go to for wealth.

At the micro-level, I marvel at how Christie conceived and constructed her stories—an approach that is distinctly underrepresented in today’s hyperactive, quickly-on-to-the-next-thing world. Christie gives considerable attention to detail— to ‘the little things,’ which almost never turn out to be ‘little.’ An example is Christie’s 1937 novel, Dumb Witness.

A wealthy woman falls down a flight of stairs while walking from her bedroom to the kitchen. It is a prelude to her impending murder. The initial conclusion is that she tripped over a dog’s ball, which was found at the top of the stairs at the spot where the fall began.

‘Bob,’ we learn, is an energetic and inventive Wirehair Fox Terrier. In a dramatized version of the story (1996), Bob is seen carrying his ball from the ground floor to the top of the stairs. There, he releases the ball, races to the bottom of the stairs, catches the ball, and retreats with the ball to his basket. He repeats this pattern without alteration, which means the ball never ends up at the top of the stairs; it always ends up with Bob in his basket at the bottom of the stairs. That understood, investigators believe that somebody placed the ball deliberately to incriminate Bob.

A small hole is found in the wall at the top of the stairs, just large enough for a peg to be inserted—to hold something—which turns out to be a string tied to the staircase. A perpetrator’s tripwire caused the fall, not Bob.

It takes patience, observation, and discipline to get to a conclusion like that. And it is also about being open to alternative explanations, which requires questioning, critiquing, and avoiding ‘falling in love’ with a preferred conclusion. Think about those descriptors, and then tell me you believe they are plentiful today. You cannot because they are not. Proof? Read your Facebook feed.

Then there is a related theme in Christie’s work. Namely, the answer is in clear view, but we did not see it at first. ‘Seeing’ requires making connections—typically in most unusual and unexpected ways. A good example is Christie’s 1940 novel, Sad Cypress.

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A murder suspect at the scene of a crime could not have possibly been the murderer (that is the preliminary conclusion) because she, too, drank the tea that included the poison that killed a lunch companion. Tests confirmed that Morphine was introduced into the tea, and (later) a label is discovered with the words, morphine hydrochloride.

But she is the murderer. Note the lower-case ‘m’ in the word ‘morphine.’ On the label, the ‘M’ should have been capitalized, but on the slightly torn label it is not. Why? The letters ‘Apo’ are missing. Apomorphine Hydrochloride is an emetic—an antidote to Morphine when ingested or injected—which is exactly what the murderer did. After drinking the poisonous brew, the perpetrator left for the kitchen under the pretense that she would prepare another pot of tea. There, she injected the emetic and vomited in the sink. Soon, she returned full of life to find her lunch companion dead.

It took some time to unravel the ruse. And consider the skill it takes to get to that result. It makes one wonder how anyone could assail the value of thinking critically—let us call it ‘analyzing critically’—to be more specific. Yet, today, many people assail critical thinking/analyzing and do so energetically.

And there is a companion ability that seems out-of-style—the capacity to turn the lens critically on self. In Christie’s Poirot series (33 novels, two plays, and more than 50 short stories from 1920-1975), Poirot is constantly announced as one of the most celebrated detectives of his time. Yet, he is self-deprecating, too: “How could I have been so blind!”I am an imbecile!” Poirot pushes himself to be diligent at task. He does not seek an easy way out. He does not search for a quick solution. He is slow, deliberate, systematic, and self-evaluative—all traits that would seem to never go out of style but, in so many ways, have. Think of Trump’s style.

Finally, there is another theme in Christie’s writing that aligns well what we experience in ‘The Age of Trump.’ What you see is not what you get; it is what somebody wants you to see. An example is Christie’s Death on the Nile (1937).

A presumably jilted lover stalks her former lover and fiancé, who is now married to a rich young woman. Things get to a fever pitch when the stalker shoots (but does not kill) her former lover in a publicly witnessed scene. But it is all for effect. She is neither jilted nor a stalker. She and her former fiancé are co-conspirators in a quest to cash in on a fortune—a fortune possessed by the young woman whom the former lover had married, but soon murders, with the intent of inheriting her money and marrying the woman who appears to be stalking him.

Agatha Christie

How clever, right? But ideas for Christie’s stories are not the product of imagination only. They are also a manifestation of context. She witnessed much during a lifetime that spanned the rise of corporate giants (people and corporations), the World at War twice, The Great Flu Pandemic, the Roaring ’20s, The Great Depression, the rise/diminishment of the British Empire, and the emergence of the Nuclear Era, among other epochal events.

Through it all, Agatha Christie observed human nature in its various forms and proclivities. But she wrote using an unpretentious platform—too easily viewed for entertainment value and too easily sold short as a portrait of human behavior and society.

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The entertainment value continues, and the portrait has not faded with time. Most likely, neither ever will.

You can listen to this essay on my podcast channel, Under the Radar with Host Frank Fear.

Frank Fear