‘My Life With Agatha’ By Sue Brown
There were many book cases in my childhood home, one of which I brought to Australia when Mother died. It’s a fine piece of furniture—solid oak, presented to my grandfather on his retirement by his grateful parishioners. It had stood in our sitting room exhibiting such books as the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the Complete Works of Shakespeare, twelve volumes of the Everyman Encyclopaedias and sundry classics bound in the Collin’s published cloth editions. Thus, we displayed that we were a family of good reading.
But if one was to venture upstairs there was a small bookcase almost hidden on the landing which contained all the paperbacks to date by Agatha Christie.
The detective novels were the only books that were read by every member of the family and in hierarchical order. Dad, Mum, older brother and lastly younger sister. As the lucky last, I was encouraged to join in this family trait at quite a young age, but these books, unlike others, were never discussed. You may think it was because no-one wanted to give away the villain, but I suspect my parents, who were grappling with the societal changes during the 1960’s, had no wish to answer questions from their teenage children. Particularly those concerning incest, adultery, same sex relations, not to mention incipient racism.
My parents definitely did enjoy the naïve descriptions of life between the wars where there was social order and an aura of gentility. As I got older, however, I was frankly astounded they encouraged me to read Christie; true when I was younger many of the plots went over my head, but as I got older, they probably did more to inform me of infidelities and indiscreet sexual conduct than Germaine Greer.
They were a wonderful distraction, which, apart from being a good story, also had the advantage of being short, light both in weight and substance, and gripping, so one finished them in a relatively short space of time. Perfectly suited to reading under the bed clothes in the pre-electric blanket era, they could be slipped into a briefcase or handbag with ease, and were invariably a conversation starter with anyone you might have wished to meet.
It’s interesting to note that early detective writers Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins and Conan Doyle were consigned to my grandfather’s bookcase, whereas Christie did not join them. Is it because she was a woman, because her writing was thought less scholarly or because her books are formulaic? The latter point is often driven home by critics and it is true but I still look forward to the end chapter when all the threads come together and the murderer is unmasked. Usually this elicits the thought bubble “Oh, I should have guessed that.” To be honest though, I stopped trying to work out the murderer long ago and read them purely for the narrative.
If we criticise formulaic writing, then why do we teach it in this genre? Aspirant crime writers choose their sub genres among such headings as: the hardboiled detective; the whodunit; the police procedural; fantasy; and of course, the cosy category where Agatha Christie’s writings are pigeonholed. Anthony Horwitz, one of the original script writers of the successful TV drama, Midsomer Murders, which is repeated ad nauseum on cable TV, acknowledges he followed her style.
But Agatha Christie is an enigma. Here is this nicely brought up lady, from good parentage who went to finishing school in Paris, writing about turbulent emotions within the drawing room with such grace as to mask the baser urges of her characters. But then one thing is clear: she understood her market, a lesson to all of us aspirant writers.