Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Dame Agatha's Labours


Like nearly every other genre writer of her era, Agatha Christie wrote piles of short stories of varying quality and subject matter. Genre short stories seem to be having something of a resurgence (go internet!), for which I am really, really happy. I mean, I like Raymond Carver as much as the next person, but Alice Munroe aside, doesn't the traditional New Yorker-style short story seem kind of, like, over?

When I was young and living in my parents' house, my favorite reading spot was a decrepit arm-chair in a corner of the dining room. It was conveniently situated next to a large floor to ceiling bookcase. Coincidentally or not, the books within reaching distance of my chair were art books and mysteries. I'll surely write about art books another time, but back to mysteries. One of the earliest Agatha Christie books I remember reaching over, grabbing and devouring was the short story anthology The Labours of Hercules (which I just discovered, is out of print in the US. For shame! But you can get a digital version. Is this where we are heading? Where is my Luddite sledgehammer?). In it, Hercule Poirot decides to accept only cases that conform to the famous labors of his mythical namesake.

Agatha Christie loved literary allusions and played with them often. In this collection, her versions of Hercules' labors are particularly clever. Cerberus lives in a fashionable London nightclub called Hell (what else would they name their dog?), the Nemean Lion concerns a pekingese, The Stymphalean Birds are pure red herring (FYI - I love this story), the Arcadian Deer is about a Russian ballet dancer, The Lernean Hydra is about a vicious rumor. They are all completely enjoyable. Maybe it's Agatha Christie's consistency that I admire almost more than anything. In this collection, and in the bulk of her career, she managed to very, very rarely turn out a bad book. I think some of this is attributable to her complete understanding of the sort of writer she was and didn't feel the need to "prove she could write serious fiction". Something that has been the downfall of several splendid genre writers - frequent Christie detractor P.D. James jumps immediately to mind.

Sometimes, I believe, people think writing entertainment is somehow easy. There's a very tiresome part of my brain that will forever believe writing a well planned out, clearly written, funny mystery novel is one of the most difficult tasks one can set oneself. The short story versions aren't so easy either. The fact that Dame Agatha managed to achieve this something like 50 times is just gobsmacking.

Note: this post is a participant in the Agatha Christie Blog Tour commemorating her 120th birthday.

1 comment:

Margot Kinberg said...

Thanks for these terrific posts about Agatha Christie's work. You've hit on some of the things that made her work so superior. I agree about the consistency of her work, too; admittedly, some of her books outshine some others, but rarely was there a really weak one.