Books

Killing Agatha

Killing Agatha Christie is a popular sport with writers of detective fiction. It’s also something of a rite of passage. A public sneer at Christie is a practical necessity for the nervous beginner testing the waters. If one declares Hercule Poirot insufferable and Miss Marple certifiable, one is already midstream. The other side, the greener one, is literary fiction. The muck still sticking to the skin is detective stuff. The writer, gaining the shore, may yell her lungs out that detective fiction is literary, but nobody’s really listening until she attacks Agatha Christie. Shadow boxing with Poirot and Miss Marple just isn’t enough any more. One must go straight for the jugular, and murder Agatha Christie.

That’s the M.O. But murder is not easy, not this one, and Christie has been, overlong, a serial murderee.

Why is she so difficult to kill?

Let’s take a look at what her murderers have.

Enough motives

The Motive, as Hercule Poirot sublimely remarked, is always money. Christie sells more than anyone else. (J. K. Rowling? Careful — oh-oh, disapparated already?) Wait on, there’s more — Christie dominates libraries, which takes her a notch beyond, and makes her also the most read. After the initial colic of envy, this could be a good thing for the literary writer. It proves how irredeemably vulgar Christie must be. Literary fiction, of course, can only be read by the truly literate, the sort who, horrid thought, cozies up with Edmund Wilson — today remembered for little beyond his neurotic “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” (1945) tantrum in The New Yorker.

Not only do her bad books sell by the million, but Agatha Christie is dead too, and that’s an injustice difficult to ignore.

Think of it. The day your new book is out, nobody notices. On your way to work, the guy on the seat next to you misses his stop because he’s reading N or M? On the way back home he’s still reading the book and he misses his stop again. And just when did she write the darn book? 1941?

Even his dad wasn’t born then, what’s he doing reading retro stuff when he could be normal and ask after your book? Not that you’d ever mention it, but it’s difficult to miss, title coyly peeping over the wraparound Economic Times. In a perfect world this is when he pulls the chain, stops the train, and smashes into the nearest bookstore to grab a copy. Except that the nearest bookstore has never heard of your book, but N or M? eyeballs you the moment you cross the threshold.

These are strong currents, not to be quieted by the unguent of a good review or two. Wet work is called for, definitely.

The Weapon — ah, no matter how they dress it up, the weapon’s always the same: Agatha Christie can’t write. Now this is a clumsy weapon to wield against a woman who wrote relentlessly for 65 years, unless you can get a bit specific.

Which brings us to Opportunity. Things really lush up here. Almost every book offers an opportunity for attack: plot, characters, locale — they are all flawed, and my dear, have you even considered her prose?

Every murderer needs an alibi. Best not to look too closely at this one, or we might land up finding Christie characters and plots in the murderer’s own oeuvre. Even Colin Watson, after his satirical Mayhem Parva, went on to give us Miss Silver who is only Marple gone giddy on whisky and sex.

All this worked well in the postmodern fug of mannered ennui and cynicism, but in the second decade of the third millennium, it reads so yesterday. We need to let in daylight now, and seriously examine why it is so difficult murdering Agatha Christie.

At the end of the first page of any Christie novel, the reader is infected with a delicious sense of anticipation. Nothing has happened as yet — no corpse, no murderous thought, no simmering resentments — yet the page trills with excitement. In the voice of Dolly Bantry, the reader’s thought is “This is my murder, and I intend to enjoy it!”

Christie intended to appetize us for murder. And how well she succeeds. We’re avid for murder before she so much as hints at the corpse around the corner.

The trick is simple, and not easy to duplicate. Christie is not writing for the reader. She’s writing in real time, as she watches the story unfold. The excitement we feel is her own.

If there is any skill at all to writing, it is this. A supreme lack of self-consciousness, an indifference to detail except for what moves the moment, the flow from now to next.

I didn’t see that — did you? is the question the reader keeps asking because the scenery is flying past the window, and it’s all familiar, so how can we tell what we missed?

Banal prose? Did I hear you mutter banal? When was the banal so dangerous as with Agatha Christie?

Christie limned society in shrewd spare lines (most of them spoken). The very economy of those lines gave her characters the annoying clarity of strangers glimpsed across the aisle: the little you saw or overheard compelled you to vividly imagine the rest.

The next accusation is that Christie was prolific — and what can be produced so fast but trash? The same argument is levelled at two other successful hacks whose anniversaries were recently celebrated — P. G. Wodehouse and Charles Dickens. There’s a paradox here, one generally overlooked. People wrote more, and much faster before computers. In fact, the messier the implements, the faster they wrote. Shakespeare wrote faster than Scott who wrote faster than Dickens who wrote faster than P.G. Wodehouse who ran neck-to-neck with Christie most of the time.

So if Christie pulled off six impossible books before breakfast, how did she do it? She doesn’t tell. Her Autobiography, published posthumously in 1977, is her most accomplished work of fiction. It is completely opaque.

The real story

Try reading a Christie novel without its detective. The book does not collapse. The story still moves. You realise then that the game in which you were earlier caught up, with its clues and red herrings and breathless denouement is merely impasto, an overlay on the real story, the one you’re left with when you close the book. Murder is merely a colour that makes one narrative emerge, but there are other stories in flux — like that other dystopia we call life.

This is why Christie’s books are addictive. We recognise the dystopia because it locates familiar irrationalities, discrepancies, anarchies, misfits, and we’re asking all the time what if this means murder? The cannibalistic sadist, the tragic necrophiliac, even the cellar with its layers of bodies, seem puerile next to Christie’s respectable murderers. For her solid tax-paying men and women, murder’s merely another domestic chore.

Time we saw this really, because when paraphilias are passé and axe murderers put to grass, there’s still the misfit, the discrepancy, the odd detail that nags, and we do need to find out what it means. And that is why it is impossible to murder Agatha Christie.

Bombay, The Ides of March, 2012


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