This is part one of the theme month for January 2019, focusing on the works of Agatha Christie. For other posts in this series, click here.
If we are going to begin examining the works of Dame Agatha Christie, I feel it makes sense to structure this as one would the summation of a murder mystery. Motive, means, opportunity, and finally the crime itself. The four discussions in this month will follow this pattern, and I shall explain how in turn, but for now let us turn to the first of the four; motive.
In 1945, Edmund Wilson wrote an essay in the New Yorker called “Who Cares Who Murdered Roger Ackroyd?”, arguing that the very genre of the detective story itself to be a waste of time, and to not be literature.
My desire here is not to suggest he is inherently wrong. It is equal parts interesting and frustrating that evaluating any kind of fiction will require a degree of subjectivity, an idiosyncratic response to the piece. We don’t gain anything by denying these responses, saying that such a response is inherently wrong, but nor do we gain anything by pretending we may not disagree with such a response. We will focus on this more at the end of the month.
For now, I don’t want to actually respond to Wilson directly, partially because it has been a while since I’ve read the essay and I haven’t been able to find a copy of it while writing this piece. Rather I want to try and set down why I do enjoy the kind of cosy murders that Christie specialises in, and why, in that rather large genre, I like Agatha Christie so much in particular.
Cosy murders, specifically English cosy murders, tend to be set in places that are otherwise treated as being asperational. The two natural habitats of it are in high society – the first class carriage of the Orient Express, English country mansions, and archaeological digs financed by eccentric millionaires – and the English country village – quaint, quiet villages filled with “very nice people”. The show Midsomer Murders basically specialises in the latter, being set in a fictional county of the UK filled with lovely village fetes and hilariously over the top murder methods, and it is the natural haunt of Christie’s other most famous detective Ms Marple. These are locations that are usually treated as being inherently English, and therefore better. This is the idea of Middle England, a political term used to describe and often romanticise a very particular conservative image of Britain, one that lacks the poor, racial and sexual minorities, and the other countries that make up the UK (note the switch between England and Britain I used there).
And the plot of a cosy murder usually involves ripping this to shreds.
It isn’t just that one of the very nice, very proper people who live in Middle England is murdered by someone else from that community (a community that often initially assumes that it must be an outsider who did it, as they are all very nice people). Rather, the need for red herrings and to have suspicion thrown on everyone requires the entire structure to be rotten. It isn’t just that there’s a murderer in the village, but there’s at least six affairs, two cases of blackmail, and the vicar is smuggling drugs. This is kind of the appeal to the classic Poirot ending, where all the suspects are called into a room while the detective systematically rips apart the facade. Everything is revealed to everyone.
This is a nice trick that gives people two different ways to enjoy the story. If you dislike the idea of Middle England, then you can enjoy it being ripped apart, while if you are an inhabitant of Middle England, you get to see a story set in an environment you know well. I kind of hit both; I grew up in an area separate from Middle England enough for me to resent the way it was treated as an ideal to reach, but also an area with plenty of very nice people with lots of secrets, to the extent that there is actually a book heavily based on the road I grew up in that is basically about this (although the secrets are not murder. Usually)*. There’s a third way, but I’ll get into that at the end of the month.
Moving on from the sociopolitical part, while Wilson may not like the whodunnit aspect of the story, that is definitely part of the appeal. A good cosy detective book should give you the ability to follow along and try and solve the murder yourself. They are puzzle books as well as a narrative, like a crosswords book with characters. It even gives you a variety of puzzles. The difference between motive, means and opportunity is really important to these books, because each is a different kind of puzzle to solve. Want a human based psychological puzzle? Then find the motive. Want a technical puzzle? Work out how the murderer managed to kill someone in a locked room. Want a logistical puzzle? The murderer was supposed to be on the other side of the village, work out how they got to the victim and back in time for the tea and scones to be served.
On the flip side, you don’t need to have to solve the puzzle to enjoy the story. I often have cosy detective shows on as background noise while working because they tend not to be so distracting I can’t focus (unlike a more action packed police procedure), but it doesn’t matter that I miss parts because, well Poirot explains it all at the end. We have again this double appeal; if you want to pay attention and focus on the story, you get the enjoyment of solving a puzzle, while if you simply want to sit back and enjoy it, you get to enjoy the detective solving the case themselves. It even usually manages to surprise your with the answer but don’t make you feel stupid because, well, no one else got it either. The stakes of the story are high; we are trying to catch a murderer, but not too high. The fate of the world rarely hinges on this case.
Following on from this, there is also the fact that most of the detectives are just really fun. Poirot is a fussy, egg shaped dandy who’s intellect is matched only by his ego, while Ms Marple switches between acting as a doddery old dear and a honed mind who seems to take joy in matching wits with murderers. Part of this emerges from the fact that the stories are usually basically stand alone. You can’t spend time reintroducing a deep and nuanced character everytime you do a short story where they foil a jewel theft. Far easier to have one big character you can bring in quickly, and then seed bits of depth in around the main stories.
This also means that you can basically read the books in any order. Some references to earlier stories may be seeded in, but you don’t need to have read the previous book or seen earlier episodes to understand the characters and concepts for this story. This was really good for me when I was getting into the stories, since I wasn’t able to reliably obtain the books or see the episodes in the publication order.
That last point kind of borders onto a final point about Wilson’s essay. Christie’s work are not high literature. Her prose is fairly simple and straightforward, the characters are big and easy to understand, and the books are not really linked together as a series outside the premise and characters. The flip side of this is that her work is still incredibly accessible to new readers. Christie is still one of the best selling writers in the world. The simple writing leans itself well to translation into other language. They are excellent books for younger readers moving into adult writing, but the plots are complicated enough to be worth examining in greater detail. It’s a fun trick of the genre. A constant theme, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, in this essay is the idea that the stories can have seemingly mutually exclusive appeals to different readers. They both appeal to people who dislike Middle England and the residents of Middle England, they both provide a puzzle for those who want to solve it and allow those who just want a show they can enjoy with their brains in neutral to sit back and get carried along. I think that, in many ways, it is precisely this wide appeal that makes them worth examining, if not as literature, but definitely as culture.