Wednesday, December 24, 2014
A Half-Century With Agatha Christie
The first adult mystery novel I read was Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia. I was 12 years old at the time, and, my moral scruples not being as fully developed as they are now, I cheated and looked at the last page to see who the killer was. I still got it wrong.
As I recall, the book was one of several on a shelf in a cabin our family was occupying in Jackson Hole, WY. The cabin was located at a beautiful cattle ranch that was one of the inspirations for the ranch in my first mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance. There was no TV, the summer nights were long, and I was one of those kids who never had to be prodded to read a book.
Murder in Mesopotamia was one of the Hercule Poirot mysteries, and I went on to read most of them by the time I finished junior high school. It was the beginning of a lifelong mystery habit.
Coming to Appreciate Miss Marple
During that period I checked out a couple of the Miss Marple mysteries and a couple of the non-Poirot stand-alone books. I didn’t much care for them, which is on me far more than on Dame Agatha. Something about Poirot and his “little grey cells” appealed to my keen adolescent mind.
After ripping through the Christie oeuvre in my youth, I pretty much left her alone for a couple of decades. There were plenty of other mysteries to read, and I read as many as I could. My preference is for British writers, though I am no absolutist on that score, and one preference I inherited from Christie is an appreciation for a story that wraps up all the loose ends. Few things in a mystery novel annoy me as much as a puzzle that’s dangled before the reader, then never explained at the end — especially when it’s clearly a case of carelessness rather than calculated ambiguity.
In recent years I’ve started dipping into Agatha Christie’s books again. With the passage of a few decades, my perspective has changed. Poirot I now find a bit pedantic, while the virtues of Miss Marple have risen steadily in my estimation.
Echoes of Austen and Hardy
What appeals now in the Marple books is the moral understanding of human frailty. Miss Marple repeatedly points out that having spent her life in a small English village, she has witnessed every form of folly and depravity there is. The people who pine for a Mayberry society should take note. And when Christie develops a theme fully and richly, as in The Mirror Crack’d, the sense of damage done by personal obliviousness calls to mind the irony of Jane Austen, and the way in which a casual, unthinking act can unleash a chain of awful circumstances recalls Thomas Hardy.
(We’ve even rented some of the Miss Marple films, starring Margaret Rutherford, from the early 1960s on Netflix. They’re not at all what Agatha Christie intended, but are well-done and entertaining in their own right.)
Something I haven’t done, and don’t intend to do, is re-read Murder in Mesopotamia. I want that book to remain forever fixed in my mind the way I first read it and experienced it, as a 12-year-old in a cabin on a ranch in Wyoming, with the summer sun setting at last. There are some things you just shouldn’t mess with.
Slightly edited version of original post from March 2013