Monday 14 December 2009

James on Christie

I’ve mentioned how much I enjoyed P.D. James’ new book, Talking About Detective Fiction. That does not mean, of course, that I agree with every view expressed in it. For example, I felt she was rather hard on Agatha Christie, even though she does express admiration for Christie’s mastery of her craft.

‘The last thing we get from a Christie novel is the disturbing presence of evil,’ James argues. I just don’t think that’s right, just as I’m rather surprised that James does not pay much attention to the fact that Christie’s settings were very varied indeed – she was far from being someone who specialised in village-based whodunits, even though many people associate her more or less exclusively with the Mayhem Parva type of mystery.

There has been an interesting discussion on the Golden Age Detection discussion forum about Christie and evil, and I’m with those who believe that Christie had a strong sense of evil, and let it show clearly in quite a number of her books. The closing paragraphs of Five Little Pigs and 4.50 from Paddington illustrate the point, and there are plenty of other examples.

I was also startled that James said of Christie: ‘She wasn’t an innovative writer and had no interest in exploring the possibilities of the genre.’ Blimey. What about The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The ABC Murders, Death Comes as the End, Murder on the Orient Express, Endless Night, and Curtain? I’m not sure how many detective story writers have been more innovative than Christie.

But there you go. Only a dull study of detective fiction would fail to spark debate, and this is a book without a dull paragraph. No doubt there are many people who agree with P.D. James on the subject of Christie. just as I agree with her when she concludes this fascinating book by predicting that: ‘in the twenty-first century, as in the past, many of us will continue to turn for relief, entertainment and mild intellectual challenge to these unpretentious celebrations of reason and order in our increasingly complex and disorderly world.’


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Maybe she was trying to engender some lively debate to influence book sales? :)

I completely disagree with her and am surprised that's her opinion on Christie.

I felt a strong presence of evil--and Christie's thoughts on it--in nearly all of her books.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Jenn said...

I've just finished reading this book too - while in the main I enjoyed it, I was left feeling it was a much slighter and more superficial read than I expected - with many of the chapters being simply descriptions of an author's life and works rather than including any actual discussion of form, context etc. I also thought she was very harsh on Agatha Christie, and spent a disproportionate amount of time on Golden Age and earlier fiction, totally missing out modern and post modern crime and detective novels.

I've asked for Julian Symmons for Christmas - I know you recommend his book. Is it better than the P D James?

Anonymous said...

Martin - Thanks for your comments about Christie and your discussion of James' comments on her. I'd have to say that I agree with you completely. Christie was, indeed, an innovative writer who, in my opinion, dealt with complex topics and sometimess, very much before her contemporaries would have. I won't take up a lot of comment space listing examples, but she was, indeed, innovative and creative, and you're right; she addressed the presence of evil in more than one book.

C. N. Nevets said...

I'm not much of a Christie fan, but I completely disagree with James' assertion that she was not innovative. While she may not have tinkered a lot with the form, she did some marvelously clever things with plot. I think we have also lost sight of how innovative some of her choices were for main characters in her day and time.

That said, I do know what James means about there not being much of a sense of an evil presence in her work. It's why Christie's stuff doesn't appeal to me that much. Yes, she does bring evil into her stories sometimes, but what she rarely does is create an atmosphere of true dread. Evil is more like a character who enters the scene and then exits S.L. -- not part of the setting and mood.

Ann Elle Altman said...

I have read all of Agatha Christie's books and have read many of P.D. James (especially the Delgliesh series) and I have to say, I do find AC a much more enjoyable read.

Another example is the 'Moving Finger' I believe that was also written from the POV of the murderer and I think AC really showed a 'disturbing presence of evil.'

I don't think any modern author should compare themselves to AC and criticize.

Loved your article.

Anonymous said...

Crikey! I thought that Christie was heralded as being innovative in the genre, for the works you had mentioned. There was even an incident near my hometown, many years ago, about a man who tried to kill his wife using the method in The ABC Murders!

I am a James fan as she is a really great story-teller who's very adept at weaving intricate tales, but I have to disagree with her on this point.

Thanks for posting!

Deb said...

I love P.D. James, but I have to disagree with her on this one. Evil is a real presence in a number of Christie's books, especially those involving Miss Marple. The Miss Marple books are much more concerned with evil (or, as Miss M. would put it, "wickedness") than the Poirot books. Miss Marple knows that human nature never changes and that is why she is able to associate a current crime with a past event, even when it seems to everyone else to be a complete non-sequiter. In some odd ways, Miss Marple reminds me of the narrative voice in Flannery O'Connor's stories: Clear-eyed, aware of evil, with no illusions about human nature.

Meanwhile, the Poirot books are much more intellectual puzzles, with Hercule working his "little grey cells." Yes, there is evil, but Poirot often sees that as an affront to him rather than an affront to mankind.

seana graham said...

I wonder if there's some sort of "anxiety of influence" thing going on here. I suppose all modern mystery writers, and especially current reigning British queens of mystery must take on Christie in some sense before they even start their careers, looking at the work and seeing how they would do it differently.

I've loved P.D. James' books since I first started reading her, but my appreciation of Christie's work has grown over time and is unlikely to diminish.

Dorte H said...

When I was young, I grew tired of Hercule Poirot who is rather full of himself, but I cannot agree that Christie was not innovative, and today I enjoy reading one of her stories once in a while. Not as much as I enjoy an Adam Dalgliesh story, but again, that has something to do with the characters ;).

Sixret said...

Spot on,Seana!I could not agree more.

Martin Edwards said...

Jenn, I think I've read nearly all the major books written about crime fiction, and I think Symons' Bloody Murder is definitely the best. Some of the others are great, but Symons is truly outstanding as a critic, even if one doesn't always agree with him (and I don't.)
I've added your blog to the blogroll, by the way.

Martin Edwards said...

I'm grateful for these comments. I would have been interested if there was a consensus supporting PDJ, but clearly there is not. It's interesting to me, too, that notable contemporary writers and readers on both sides of the Atlantic continue to respect Christie's achievements, as I do. We are in good company - Robert Barnard and Val McDermid are among her many other fans.

vegetableduck said...

Martin, I still say it must have been tiring for PD James (and Ruth Rendell) to be compared to Christie so frequently in the 1960s and 1970s. I can't help thinking some of their carping over the years may be due to that in part. Admittedly, the Christie comparisons were rather off base, but that's the publishing world for you.

I could tell when reading the James book that some passages were drawn from earlier critical commentary by her (this should have been acknowledged somewhere). James was more favorable to Christie that she ever had been when she was speaking to Christie's most recent biographer, however; and it was interesting seeing her admit in Talking About Detective Fiction that she had reread some Christie recently and found some of it, including A Murder Is Announced, better than she remembered.

I think younger detective fiction writers, who don't have to worry about being compared to Christie all the time, may not feel such a need to sort of denigrate her. Though the stereotype of her as a cozy puzzler with no literary writing skill whatsoever is quite ingrained in many quarters now, unfortunately.

It's interesting that Robert Barnard, an English Ph.D. and former professor, has a much higher opinion of her than many critics. His book on Christie remains an insightful piece of work.

I'm quite critical of Symons in some regards, but I agree his Bloody Murder remains the best survey. There's certainly no academic survey to compare with it and James' new book is much too impressionistic to be competition as a survey (I was not expecting that it would be, however). Are people forgetting Bloody Murder today? Of course the last edition is now seventeen years old, but really anyone who wants to begin to understand the crime fiction genre needs to start with it, in my opinion.

Lauren said...

I thought I'd add this comment somewhat belatedly, but I'm teaching a course on crime fiction this semester (well, it's actually advanced ESL using crime fiction) and the general impression of Agatha Christie has been incredibly negative. My students tolerate Miss Marple, but they all loathe Poirot and think Hastings is an idiot. It's not just a language issue either, as both Sayers and Conan Doyle have been much more popular despite being objectively "harder" to read.

Ngaio Marsh was also not viewed favourably, although that was more disinterest. With Christie it was active dislike, which surprised me.

We're finishing with PD James, so I'll be interested to compare the reactions! (And hopefully read the book when I get time in March.)

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Lauren. Interesting insight. I'm surprised, too, given how well Christie continues to sell overseas as well as here.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Lauren. Interesting insight. I'm surprised, too, given how well Christie continues to sell overseas as well as here.