Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Dame Agatha, My Cup Runneth Over!

I love Agatha Christie. I might love Agatha Christie more than any other author. I've read every novel, every short story and her autobiography (which is excellent). I re-read her books more frequently than I care to admit - I read them whenever I am sick or sad or distracted or have insomnia. I would happily defend her oeuvre with my dying breath. Look, are her books great literature? Of course not. She knew that herself and had no shame about it. But she wrote clearly and well, she was often very funny and was almost never dull. Her mysteries are remarkably consistent.

I've brought this up here and there on facebook and elsewhere and many people admit to reading and admiring her Poirot books. A smaller group of readers admit to enjoying her Miss Marple books. The one subset of her mystery oeuvre that gets no love whatsoever are what I refer to as her madcap flapper books. They include* early books such as The Secret Adversary, The Man in the Brown Suit, Partners in Crime, The Secret of Chimneys, The Mystery of the Blue Train, Why Didn't They Ask Evans?, and later books such as They Came to Baghdad and Destination Unknown.

The Tommy and Tuppence books seem to be held in particular disdain. They were introduced in Dame Agatha's second novel, The Secret Adversary, in 1922. Childhood friends Thomas Beresford and Prudence "Tuppence" Cowley run into each other in London, where they are both broke, unemployed and at loose ends after the Great War. They decide to advertise as adventurers and get embroiled in an admittedly ludicrous narrative that involves secret plans, the sinking of the Lusitania, amnesia, a millionaire from Texas, Bolsheviks, poorly understood politics (on Mrs. Christie's part), labor riots, kidnapping and (of course!) a wicked criminal mastermind who is behind it all. Sigh. I know. I first read it when I was about eleven, and I ate it up. I liked all of the subsequent books that follow them into adulthood and then even old age.

Look. I know what all the considerable problems are with many of the books listed above. The plots are preposterous, the politics are simultaneously simple minded, right wing and often times racist. Off setting that are her gallery of high-spirited, intelligent, adventurous and fearless young women who are full of self determination and blithely travel across the globe solving crimes. And if such a young women appears in one of the Poirot books of the twenties or early thirties, she may even wind up being a murderer.

I think the First World War effected the greatest social change of the Twentieth Century. Suddenly, women were working and earning their own money, they were unchaperoned, they drove, they lived outside of the home, they drank cocktails, they were freed from the tyranny of the corset. Agatha Christie didn't invent the detective novel or the female detective. Wilkie Collins (the remarkably feminist inventor of the mystery novel) wrote The Law and the Lady in 1875 in which Valeria Woodville solves the murder of her husband's first wife (and there is a mad, legless genius named Miserrimus Dexter, and if this isn't enough to make you want to read this book, you are clearly reading the wrong blog), and Baroness Orczy wrote Lady Molly of Scotland Yard in 1910. But though the mystery writers of the 20s and 30s may not have invented the genre, Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and others made them modern. The Secret Adversary was published just twelve years after Lady Molly, but they clearly inhabit different universes. There's a giddy excitement in Christie's flapper adventures that has always appealed to me, maybe because they smell of a new found freedom.

*in my head - as this is a category I've pretty much invented, er, identified rather, myself.


Fuzzy said...

Okay, that Wilike Collins sounds like I have to read it.

Great post!

Kerrie said...

Would you like to submit this post to the next Agatha Christie Reading Challenge Blog Carnival? The submit spot is <a href=">here.</a>

Caviglia said...

Hi, Kerrie. I'd be happy to. Thanks!