Understanding Agatha Christie (Understanding Contemporary British Literature)

Image of Understanding Agatha Christie (Understanding Contemporary British Literature)
Release Date: 
August 10, 2023
University of South Carolina Press
Reviewed by: 

“A fussy old queen asks the ladies whom he’s invited to tea and elderberry wine, ‘What have I got to hide?’ to which Miss Marple in her delicious English ignorance says, ‘I’m sure I wouldn’t know,’ while of course knowing all along.”

Agatha Christie has been so much written about that what more can one say? Apparently a lot in Tison Pugh’s Understanding Agatha Christie, which is part of the Understanding British Litgerature series published by the University of South Carolina.

This is not at all an academic book, but one full of facts and anecdotes that even the most devoted Christie reader might not have heard of. The short 137-page monograph delivers plenty of bang for the buck. It covers not only Christie’s famous detectives Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, but also a dozen other lesser known ones that populate her many short stories, novels, and plays (Tony Randall played Poirot? Who knew?)

The appeal of Pugh’s book is his examination of what he sees as “seven paradoxes” in Christie’s output. Collectively these are

            (1) the many autobiographical references in her novels despite her well-known “reclusive persona;” his arguments here are persuasive

            (2) her induction into the Golden Age of Detective Fiction “while ignoring her peers’ [such as Dorothy Sayers] protocols for the genre,”

            (3) her reputation as the “queen of cozies” despite her often hardboiled themes,

            (4) her literary interests that broke through rigid forms of existing genre fiction, 

            (5) her frequent shifting between comic and tragic perspectives, by which she unsettles readers’ expectations,

            (6) her “simultaneous endorsement and critique of English insularity,” and

            (7) her distain of theatrical and film adaptations that nonetheless boosted her success and considerable fortune.

As to the latter, she came to loathe her association with MGM and Margaret Rutherford’s portrayal of Miss Marple. “I feel sick and ashamed of what I did when I joined up with MGM . . . One does things for money and one is wrong to do so,” she later lamented.

Pugh maintains that these paradoxes “illuminate but cannot define Christie fully.” Fair enough. But how, he asks, can her books be simple enough for a 12 year old to understand yet so complex as to pose an “impossible challenge” to the adult reader? Exploring that question, and others, is what makes this book enjoyable for even the most knowledgeable Christie fans.

In these dense and revealing pages Agatha Christie emerges as much more than a divorced housewife who languished until she met Max Malowan, or worked as a sometimes pharmaceutical clerk who took advantage of her circumstance to familiarize herself with poisons.

In 1934 alone, she published five books. In earlier years she penned six novels under the name of Mary Westmacot. Pugh brings out Christie’s resilience and determination when she was beset time and again by trying circumstances.

She knew that her writing—succinct, precise, direct—fit the detective genre that required a quick pace. “Economy is particularly necessary in detective stories.” She also envisioned her murders theatrically, which made them easy to adapt to the stage. Always she was under no illusion as to where here writing stood in popular culture, yet she lamented that ungenerous critics “too often assessed her writing as if she were attempting to be the next Virginia Woolf.”

One of Pugh’s more interesting and unexpected explorations is Christie’s queer sensibility that is scattered throughout her stories. Compared to the typically coded nature of homosexual life during the period, her references are very much in the open.

A Passenger to Frankfurt makes reference to a “rent boy,” or a gay prostitute. Miss Hinchcliffe and Miss Murgatroyd are obviously lesbians in A Murder is Announced, as are Chlothilde and the late lamented “much loved” Verity in Nemesis. And in Murder at the Vicarage, a fussy old queen asks the ladies whom he’s invited to tea and elderberry wine, “What have I got to hide?” to which Miss Marple in her delicious and decorous English ignorance says, “I’m sure I wouldn’t know” while of course knowing all along.

Pugh reminds us once again of why Christie remains one of the most popular writers in the world.