I always knew that detective stories— as well as other genre fiction — are routinely mocked as beach reads incapable of deep social analysis that remains reserved for the canon of “real literature” (a premise I resolutely reject). I was, however, surprised to learn that not all detective fiction faces such harsh prejudices — many male writers of detective novels are actually celebrated as geniuses by literary critics. Take Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, or — one of the subjects of this article — Raymond Chandler. (If you look at other genres, like sci-fi, horror, or fantasy, you will notice the same: Isaac Asimov, Stephen King, and J.R.R. Tolkien are all proud members of the “male-genius” club.). The stories of these authors have earned respect as works of literature, and rightly so; however, the same cannot be said of most female genre writers.
Agatha Christie, one of the most influential authors of all time, belongs to these underrated female geniuses — a fact that becomes especially apparent whenever Hercule Poirot, her signature character, is compared to detectives created by men, such as Chandler’s Philip Marlowe.
Agatha Christie’s “cosy, conservative Englishness”?
“Much of Christie’s work seeks to bolster the rigid class system,” argues Christine Ro in her Ploughshares essay.
Critics often describe Christie’s texts as an idealised representation of “a cosy, conservative Englishness” (Makinen 416), without acknowledging her ability to portray the “new kinds of anxiety about English social life and new ideas of the English” (Light 64–5). These emerged in the interwar Britain, the so-called Golden Age of whodunit detective fiction.
Particularly during the 1920s, when Christie wrote her acclaimed novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the traditional English social order was undergoing significant changes, as “the English middle classes”, according to Arpine Akficici, “had witnessed the crumbling of the empires, the flourishing of Labour parties, and the collapse of middle-class standards” (3). Thus, in the aftermath of the First World War, the British upper classes were weakened while the working class gained political power through strikes and the middle class was growing rapidly (Robb 50).
Christie depicts this new social order despite (or perhaps through) her frequent use of class-related stereotypes, such as the choice of a stately home as the crime scene, seeming marginalisation of servants in her stories as well as a lack of social mobility, and a traditionally male, bourgeois detective. However, Christie did not employ these clichés in order to reinforce them but rather to mislead the reader before revealing not only the murderer but also “more complex masked depths” of the changing social order (Makinen 416).
Raymond Chandler’s “realistic portrait of a corrupted city”?
In contrast, Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled thrillers, first published almost two decades after Christie’s debut novel, are praised for their realism and accurate depictions of the 1930s and 1940s social strata of Los Angeles as well as America in general (Thorpe 11). According to Balazs Biro, Chandler “approached his stories on another level by creating a realistic portrait of a corrupted city […], expos[ing] less savoury aspects of [American] society” (1).
However, to accurately represent the American social order, Chandler’s work, written at the end of the Great Depression and at the beginning of the Second World War, would have to portray the lines between different social classes as less distinct. This is due to the fact that both the profound financial crisis and “propaganda for the war encouraged all Americans to be united, something that blurred class lines” (Samuel 10).
Since Chandler fails to capture this changing social order in his fiction, his texts gravitate much stronger towards a nostalgic fantasy than Christie’s work does. An example of this is Chandler’s 1940 novel Farewell, My Lovely which borrows its main themes from Victorian detective fiction: an upper-class family estate as an important venue, the maintenance of clear class distinctions at the centre of the story, and a traditionally masculine, knightly figure as the detective.
Whodunit vs hardboiled thriller
Although Chandler relies on Victorian elements when depicting American society of his time, his novels are, as opposed to Christie’s, never labelled as “conservative”.
One of the reasons for the striking discrepancy in the assessment of Christie’s and Chandler’s literary works is the difference in their respective subgenres: the whodunit and the hardboiled thriller.
Firstly, Christie employs the classical whodunit formula, i.e. the primacy of plot and analytic deduction over character psychology or development (Scaggs 35), established by Edgar Allan Poe in the nineteenth century (Scaggs 19). Since Christie’s novels follow this tradition, they are automatically perceived as conservative and nostalgic.
On the other hand, the hardboiled thrillers emerging in the 1920s America broke the whodunit formula by primarily focusing on suspense and the detective, who, unlike classical detectives, is actively involved in violent action (Scaggs 59–61). For this alone, many readers and critics understand Chandler’s Philip Marlowe as a modern character able to capture the American changing social order during the Great Depression. At the same time, they denounce Hercule Poirot as a conservative figure striving to restore the Victorian class system.
Christie’s vs Chandler’s representations of class
Now, let’s have a look at the different ways in which Christie and Chandler depict the class system of their respective countries, Britain and the US.
1. Old money vs the nouveaux riches
In her work, Christie often chooses an upper-class family’s country house as the crime scene. At first, focusing on a rural or otherwise isolated estates in a whodunit seems like a conservative move. Snell argues that a meticulously depicted country house, with plans of the rooms often included, at the centre of a detective novel is “a sign of its insular and secluded world” (28). According to Snell, the characters of Christie’s novels, in particular the detective searching the interior for anything out of place, are “responding to momentous social and economic changes with a fussy last-ditch insistence upon the rightness of precise internal arrangements” (28).
On closer inspection, however, the use of the traditional rural estate setting actually helps Christie to unveil the new class structure emerging in the 1920s Britain. Opposing Snell’s view, Light refuses the notion that Christie’s obsession with the upper-class country house is a demonstration of “a romantic conservatism, cleaving to the aristocratic as a mark for a better past” (79). Rather, she argues that Christie “speaks to a readership reconciled to the present, unfrightened by change and confidently domestic. In fact Christie is likely to be fascinated by ‘new money’ as she is by new homes” (Light 81–2).
Chandler, in contrast to Christie, mocks the new-money gentry. Thus, Chandler reinforces the notion that he would much rather restore the pre-war order in which the vieux riches had the most power. Since Chandler had been living in England from 1895 to 1912 before leaving for America (Norman 90), this stay “provided him with a code of behaviour […] of the Victorian gentleman” and a perception of clear class distinctions that were less obvious in the US (Hamilton 147). As a result, Chandler became obsessed with the idea of England as “a nation of cultural and educational tradition, ethical virtue, and refined taste”, which were all qualities he identified with the aristocratic upper classes (Norman 90–1).
Upon returning to America, Chandler began to despise the “vulgar” nouveaux riches who formed the elite in American society and who seemed to perpetuate the modern American lifestyle he considered decadent and tasteless (Norman 94). In his novel, Chandler often mocks the new-money upper classes, while elevating the old-money elite.
2. Upper class vs working class
Ro argues that servants in Christie’s fiction “are almost invariably vapid, as if suggesting that their natural place in the social order is a lesser one”, while Snell adds that
“[o]ne rarely finds much social breadth in this [detective] fiction. Servants appear, but rarely as developed characters” (28).
However, these theses do not apply to Christie’s body of work. Let’s take her masterpiece The Murder of Roger Ackroyd as an example, where Ursula Bourne, Ackroyd’s maid, is one of the most mysterious and intriguing characters. Regardless of the fact that she is a servant, Ursula herself is given much space in the novel.
A good example of this is chapter twenty-two, which is titled after her and gives a detailed insight into her backstory. In “Ursula’s story”, we learn that Bourne is, in fact, of noble birth, since her family is described as “impoverished Irish gentlefolk” (Christie 256).
The reference to Ursula’s Irish origin once again provides a timely social commentary on the 1920s Britain, since many Irish immigrants during this time — members of the gentry included — struggled to rebuild their lives in England (Moulton 225). As some Irish aristocrats were forced to become servants upon immigrating, the distinctions between classes in Britain became less clear. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Christie reflects on these changes in the class system when she has Ursula call herself a “lady parlourmaid” (256). Thus, Christie draws attention to the fact that Bourne is neither a typical aristocrat nor a typical working class member. This hybridity further demonstrates Christie’s awareness of the fact that the traditional class system was crumbling and that the classes were merging.
Lastly, one of the biggest revelations in the novel is the announcement that “penniless” Ursula Bourne is secretly married to Ackroyd’s wealthy son, Ralph Paton (Christie 257). Again, Christie transcends the rigid class system of pre-war England by having a servant marry her master. Thereby, she proves to be a historically relevant writer who commented on the social conditions of her time rather than a mere entertainer of the masses still clinging to pre-war social standards.
While the “happily-ever-after” cross-class marriage between Ursula Bourne and Ralph Paton highlights rising social mobility after the Great War, Chandler portrays an intra-class relationship as a scandal. Rather than the social standards of the 1920s and 1930s America which tended to romanticise cross-class love (Sharot 89), Chandler refers to those of the Victorian period.
According to Ginger S. Frost, women in the nineteenth-century England“were not to leap too many social barriers. Middle-class prescriptive literature emphasised the dangers of interclass love. One writer in the 1890s insisted that all cross-class matings ended in ‘trouble and humiliation and shame’” (81).
As Frost adds, the social barriers hindering an intra-class marriage included not only economic inequality but also the potential wife’s lack of chastity or respectability of her occupation (84).
For instance, “[a]ny woman working in a bar or hotel, particularly as a barmaid, was suspected of being a prostitute, or at best a woman of easy virtue” (Frost 82).
Hence, such women were ineligible as wives for middle and upper-class gentlemen.
In his novel Farewell, My Lovely, Chandler alludes to similar Victorian values. Despite having a lower-class prostitute and a night-club singer, Velma, to marry an upper-class radio station owner, Mr. Grayle, Chandler allows this cross-class marriage only to illustrate, as Victorian writers did, the dangers of intra-class relationships. As soon as Velma’s true identity is revealed by the detective, her intra-class marriage falls apart. Thereby, the Victorian social order of very limited social mobility is restored.
Moreover, the perils of a cross-class marriage are exaggerated in the novel. In contrast to Christie’s Ursula, a likable representative of the increasing class hybridity, Velma is an unfaithful wife. As Marlowe discovers, she is also a cold-hearted murderer prepared to silence anyone who could publicly reveal her lower-class origin as well as her indecent past. For instance, Jessie Florian, “a shabby old woman” from a poor neighbourhood, recognizes Velma, and thus “ha[s] to be kept quiet” through monthly payments (Chandler 294). Similarly, Lindsey Marriott, a snobbish socialite, who also knows about Velma’s past, becomes a “menace” to her upper-class status and so has to be murdered (Chandler 294). The fact that Velma has to resort to such immoral and extreme actions like bribery and murder in order to liberate herself from her original social class suggests that to climb the social ladder is in itself a sin.
Furthermore, Velma’s past still haunts her even after she marries into the upper class. The fact that she only “escapes” her roots by committing suicide implies that a woman can neither ever fully leave the class she was born into nor free herself from the label of a “fallen woman” — a term often used among Victorians to describe a sexually promiscuous woman irrevocably marked by sin, and thus ostracized from society (Michell x). Notably, such and similar beliefs were already old-fashioned by the time Farewell, My Lovely had been published.
As Stephen Sharot remarks,
in the 1930s, films, together with popular novels and magazine stories, portray sexually emancipated women, and even some gold diggers, sympathetically. Unlike the earlier heroines of popular literature, who face threats to their virtue or whose illicit sex leads to death or ruined lives, the sexual activism of the new heroines does not necessarily prevent them ending up happily married […]. (101)
According to Sharot, the 1930s attitude of the majority of Americans towards sexually emancipated women using their sensuality to climb the social ladder was a rather liberal one, open towards the idea of social mobility. However, Chandler’s novel rejects these modern values and rather perpetuates the Victorian ideal of clear class distinctions.
3. Little Man vs Noble Knight
In contrast to Chandler, Christie defies the rigid pre-war order not only through her affirmative attitude towards social mobility, but also by employing an untraditional detective figure.
Light argues that, because of his status “as a foreigner, Poirot cannot be a gentleman. He is, however, a bourgeois and proud of it. […] Like so many of the anti-heroes of the period, Poirot is ‘a little man’” (78).
This pride in being a common man and a member of the middle class was not typical in Victorian detective fiction. While many detectives before Poirot, such as Sherlock Holmes, did not belong to the upper class, they would not explicitly discuss their status or money, since such manners did not comply with the ideal image of a Victorian gentleman (Girouard 59). In contrast, Poirot does not hide that he is keen on earning money: “Money, it means much to me and always has done” (Christie 78).
Another significant change in British society after the Great War was the reconstruction of masculinity: the ideal man became domesticated and effeminate as opposed to the ideal of a powerful nobleman (Kingsley-Kent 287). Poirot, or the “little man”, as he is referred to seventeen times throughout the novel, fits this new ideal of “unmanly”, domestic bourgeois perfectly.
As Knight argues, Christie “alters Doyle’s pattern towards a passive problem-solving that rejects romantic male heroism as a protecting force. Hercule Poirot is a fussy, unheroic figure. His physical vanity is foolish but his brain works well: what is of value in him is not tied to masculine stereotypes” (108).
Philip Marlowe strongly differs from Poirot. As opposed to Christie’s “little man”, Marlowe is “an idealised figure, a questing knight of romance transplanted into the mean streets of mid-twentieth-century Los Angeles. Like the questing knight, Marlowe’s is a quest to restore justice and order motivated by his own personal code of honour” (Scaggs 62). Similar to a knight, Marlowe “seeks a grail, a moral justice transcending the tawdry and corrupt routines of society’s legality” (Cawelti 181).
In this sense, Chandler’s detective does not provide a critical social commentary on the Great Depression in America, but rather reflects the Victorian society’s preoccupation with medieval stories about knights, chivalry, and courtly love (Kaeuper 176).
By creating a knightly detective, Chandler again perpetuates the sense of nostalgic longing for the Victorian social order in his fiction. Notably, the Victorian medievalism, i.e. revival of medieval culture (Simmons 2), was, as Clare A. Simmons explains, the society’s response to the rigid class system:
“Parallel with the idea of chivalric honor runs another form of reimagining the medieval past of more appeal to those whose social status did not allow them to identify with knights and ladies” (6).
Despite still not widely accepted as a historically and socially relevant author, Christie’s novel certainly proves to be far more than “a leisured-class fantasy” (Ro).
To conclude, Christie reveals the changing order of British society marked by crumbling class distinctions, new ideals, and a power shift from the ranks of nobility to the growing middle and working classes. The rising importance of the bourgeoisie and the weakening power of the aristocracy seem to be the pivotal themes in Christie’s novels, which further emphasises her lack of nostalgic longing for a conservative, rigid class system.
Considering Christopher Prior’s claim that “Christie’s continuing evocation of a relatively sustainable middle class is in accord with the modern historiographical tendency to view the late 1940s and 1950s as an era of middle-class confidence” (206), Christie’s work, starting already in the 20s, can be considered not only a portrayal of British class system but also a powerful, prescient description of the transforming social structure. Thus, despite still not widely accepted as a historically and socially relevant author, Christie’s novel certainly proves to be far more than “a leisured-class fantasy” (Ro).
Paradoxically, Chandler’s “hardboiled crime fiction […] [which] is popularly supposed to be a native genre that evolved organically from the American literary and cultural environment” (Norman 91), does not, in fact, mirror American society of the Great Depression. Rather, it refers back to the British social order of the Victorian period. In the manner of Victorian detectives, Marlowe mourns the loss of elegant old-money estates, warns against the increasing social mobility, and represents a man who claims back the traditional masculinity and knightly chivalry of medievalist, Arthurian characters popular during the Victorian era.
Thus, while Christie was often criticised for painting a picture of British society stuck in time, it was actually Chandler whose “notions of Englishness, though formed in the early twentieth century, were primarily of a culture emptied of modernity, a timeless pastoral” (Norman 93).
What do you think? Are attitudes towards female genre writers changing or is their contribution to literature still not taken seriously?
Christie, Agatha. 1926. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Croydon: Harper Collins, 2013. Print.
Chandler, Raymond. 1940. Farewell, My Lovely. St Ives: Penguin Books, 2010. Print.
Akficici, Arpine Mizikyan. “Hercule Poirot, The Order Restorer: Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.” English Studies: New Perspectives. Eds. Mehmet Ali Celikel and Baysar Taniyan. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015. 1–10. Print.
Biro, Balazs. “Raymond Chandler: Breaking the Norms of the Detective Genre.” Diss. University of Karlstadt, 2002. Web. 15 Jan 2019.
Cawelti, John G. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 1976. Print.
Frost, Ginger Suzanne. Promises Broken: Courtship, Class, and Gender in Victorian England. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1995. Print.
Girouard, Mark. “Victorian Values and the Upper Classes.” Proceedings of the British Academy (1978): 49–60. Print.
Hamilton, Cynthia S. Western and Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction in America. London: MacMillian P, 1987, Print.
Kaeuper, Richard W. “John Ruskin, the Medieval Ordines, and Meritorious Suffering.” Reading Medieval Studies XL (2014): 176–191. Print.
Kingsley-Kent, Susan. Gender and Power in Britain, 1640–1990. New York: Routledge, 1999. Print.
Light, Alison. 1991. Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism between the Wars. London: Routledge, 2005. Print.
Makinen, Merja. “Agatha Christie (1890–1976).” A Companion to Crime Fiction. Eds. Charles J. Rzepka and Lee Horsley. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. 415–26. Print.
Michell, Sally. The Fallen Angel: Chastity, Class and Women’s Reading 1835–1880. Ohio: Bowling Green Popular P, 1981. Print.
Moulton, Mo. “A Decaying World in Exile.” Irishness in Interwar England. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2014. Print.
Norman, Will. Transatlantic Aliens: Modernism, Exile, and Culture in Midcentury America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2016. Print.
Prior, Christopher. “An Empire Gone Bad: Agatha Christie, Anglocentrism and Decolonization.” Cultural and Social History 15.2 (2018): 197–213. Print.
Ro, Christine. “Casual Classicism of Agatha Christie.” Ploughshares Blog (2017): n. pag. Web. 15 Nov 2018.
Robb, George. 2002. British Culture and the First World War. London: Palgrave, 2015. Print.
Samuel, Lawrence R. The American Middle Class: A Cultural History. New York: Routledge, 2014. Print.
Scaggs, John. Crime Fiction. London: Routledge, 2005. Print.
Sharot, Stephen. “Wealth and/or Love: Class and Gender in the Cross-class Romance Films of the Great Depression.” Journal of American Studies 47.1 (2013): 89 –108. Print.
Simmons, Clare A. Popular Medievalism in Romantic-era Britain. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011. Print.
Snell, K.D.M. “A Drop of Water from a Stagnant Pool? Inter-war Detective Fiction and the Rural Community.” Social History 33.1 (2010): 21–50. Print.
Thorpe, Edward. Chandlertown: The Los Angeles of Philip Marlowe. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983. Print.