Thursday, December 13, 2018

"She believed in evil"

Anyone who has followed this blog at all knows that my favorite light reading consists of mysteries and suspense. That started early and at some point I read my way through much of Agatha Christie. She was still writing when I was young — one book a year published before Christmas: buy a "Christie for Christmas." This long essay, "The Case of Agatha Christie," begins by comparing Christie's mysteries to the work of two other "Golden Age" authors, Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham (both of whom I like very much), and speculating why Christie has been so much more successful and widely read. Two paragraphs from the essay (read it all):
A novel in which the detective did it. A novel in which the entire structure of the story was suggested by a title that popped into Christie’s head: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? A novel in which the victims are killed in alphabetical order. A novel in which all the characters are murdered, except that one of them turns out to have done it. (Christie herself gave a rare glimpse of what she really thought about her own craft when she described that book, And Then There Were None, as a ‘technical extravaganza’. With its intense atmosphere of claustrophobia, menace and darkness, it remains genuinely frightening. It’s also the only book I’ve ever read three times under three different titles.) A novel in which the crime was solved long ago, and the murderer convicted and hanged, but the mystery is now unsolved by the appearance of a crucial witness, whose evidence proves that someone else – a hitherto unsuspected family member – must be guilty. (That novel, Ordeal by Innocence, is another one in which the psychological atmosphere is distinctly oppressive.) A novel which is based on the game of bridge, explained in detail and with diagrams, and in which the crucial evidence is the character revealed by the way one player copes with one particular hand. A novel based on a murder glimpsed through a train window. A novel where the murder happens on a small aeroplane, complete with seat diagram. A novel where the time and place of the murder are announced in advance in a newspaper ad. ....

Christie was very, very good at murder: it’s right at the top of her strengths. This is sometimes credited to the fact that she had trained as a pharmacist and had a solid, matter-of-fact education in the precise details of how people can and do poison each other. This is certainly important in her books, where the murders have none of the fun nonsense of the Conan Doyle type: poisonous snake sliding down a rope, giant mutant hound with flames coming out of its arse etc. Christie’s murder methods aren’t like that. Her killings are practical-minded and often involve poison, about which she did indeed have a good working knowledge. That helps, but it isn’t the crucial component of her credibility in this respect. Christie’s great talent for fictional murder is to do with her understanding of, and complete belief in, human malignity. She knew that people could hate each other, and act on their hate. Her plots are complicated, designedly so, and the backstories and red herrings involved are often ornate, but in the end, the reason one person murders another in her work comes down to avarice and/or hate. She believed in evil, not necessarily in a theological sense – that’s a topic she doesn’t explore – but as a plain fact about human beings and their actions. She isn’t much interested in the ethics or metaphysics of why people do the bad things they do. But she is unflinchingly willing to look directly at the truth that they do them. ....(more)