Agatha Christie: Female Genius, Underrated

Agatha Christie’s detective fiction is not a leisurely fantasy but a clever commentary on social class. Why is that not recognised?

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.

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).

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.

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).

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.

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 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).

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).

“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.

Bibliography

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Creative Writing student in Nottingham. Published by The London Magazine, Ambit, Firewords, Poetry Society, The Moth, Acumen, etc. On Twitter as @VitovaDenisa

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