Saturday, 15 June 2013

The Chink in Agatha Christie's Armour

 In college, my Monday afternoons went towards attending meetings of the Quiz Society. At the starting of the year, we divided up into groups of two, each group responsible for conducting about one quiz every two months on a rotational basis. The rest of the society would participate.
A bad quiz to my eyes, were those coming under the broad heading of Pop Culture quizzes, concentrating almost exclusively on the Godfather films (that I hadn’t seen), and a couple of bands I had never heard (okay fine, I don’t really listen to anything besides Bollywood).
A good quiz on the other hand was universally recognized as one with questions that were workout-able. The emphasis was on how much the quizzers could figure out from the clues in the question, rather than how much they knew.
The same metric should equally be applicable to detective fiction. After all, the primary pleasure in reading these arises from solving the mystery, along with the detective.  By this standard, anything that Agatha Christie wrote would come out tops. It helped that her detectives were regular people, amateurs and even when not, they relied more on order and method than on brilliance. In contrast, if Sherlock Holmes were to occupy a guest-bedroom in Styles Court or Chimneys, the solution would be forthcoming in a matter of minutes. Thus, it’s only right that he features in fantastical settings where his intelligence is suitably challenged. And where readers have no inkling as to where things are heading.
Going back to Christie, a delightful aspect of her writing is her repertoire of heroines. As is to be expected, they are morally upright but in a very unprincipled sort of way. While they pursue noble ends-to clear the name of a fiancé, or to seek the truth in their quest for adventure, they are not shy of fibbing or outright manipulation, when these are required. Even the secondary female characters are interesting. Consider Ms. Percehouse in the Sittaford Mystery. When her nephew talks of her, she comes across as a caricature of the typical old spinster-a lonely curmudgeon. When the readers see her for the first time however, you realise that she is a curmudgeon, but only in the eyes of her nephew, who she sets to work around her home. She herself wishes that the nephew stood up to her bullying at times. He would appear more sincere if he did. Moreover, she combines this good judgement of character with a healthy curiosity, making her altogether a most real person.
The problem arises when the readers start expecting every female character to be ‘strong’. And suspecting everyone who is not.  So, when an elderly spinster is described as intelligent at the beginning, and she says “Men are deeper thinkers than women”, you can’t help but feel that she is being disingenuous, and you are already on your guard. Or when others commiserate with a character who is helpless, described as having “no money or place to go”, you wonder why she also lacks initiative. And true enough, she turns out to have that in abundance. So much so, that she turns out to be the master-mind of the entire problem.
Then again, in the Sittaford mystery, I kept suspecting the Willett mother-daughter duo have to be culpable somehow, since the daughter couldn’t just be a “pretty girl-scraggy,” who took to squealing and fainting, when something slightly sinister happened.
Yes, I could have titled the post: "Christie can do no Wrong"

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