« Blair and the memorial service | Main | John Pilger defines antisemitism »

October 08, 2003

Comments

Jimmy Doyle

Hmmm...Hari is so off-base here it makes one wonder about his views on other, more important subjects.

Jeremy

Well, I think the original article was right about Brits liking to bash her work.

Mostly popular among people in hospitals. Hrrrmph.

Also, one of the basic rules of mystery writing (or fiction writing in general) is that if you make the murderer someone with simply a walk-on part, it's not very satisfying to the reader.

David Duff

There is, or to be precise (and you need to be precise on this site!), there *was* another class of people who lapped up Christie's books, the young! Oh all right then, me, when I was young.

I first got into the habit of reading via the excellent offices of 'Wizard' and 'Rover' comics. In retrospect, I realise that such notions of morality and honour that I possess come almost entireley from those tales of 'jolly good chaps' from public schools (which might as well have been Mars as far as I was concerned) doing the right thing in dire circumstances.

Then I grew up, or rather, I reached the very low teens which seemed like 'grown up' at the time and I started to read my mother's library books which included Agatha Christies galore. I was hooked! And devouring those books etched into my life the habit of reading so I bless the memory of that ambiguous Lady.

I suppose my then extreme youth and naiveté confirm Oliver's basic premise that Christie's work does not bear close examination but what the hell, I loved them and most of all I loved the puzzles! It is an odd quirk of human nature that so many of us do, indeed, you only have to look at the amount of shelf space given over to adult puzzle books in any newsagent's shop to see the proof. They do delight and the solution when found (or read) is intensely satisfying.
David Duff

ilana

There was one story - don't remember the name - where the murder was committed by the lady's maid, on a train, although of course it later emerged that she wasn't a **real** domestic (i.e. a borderline retarded village girl) but an international criminal in disguise. I love Christie's books but you are right about the snobbery and I have certainly never thought of them as literature.

Natalie Solent

BEWARE SPOILER although if you've agreed with the post so far you won't care. In "Hercule Poirot's Christmas", if I remember right, the murderer is hidden by his relatively humble status vis a vis the rich folk in the house party. He is the policeman investigating the case, who, it turns out, is the resentful illegitimate son of the victim. Someone says explicitly that people always forget that policemen are human beings who have feelings of their own.

That's the best I could do in defence of Aggie. I feel moved to defend her for reasons very similar to those expressed by David Duff. The first grown up book I ever read for pleasure was "They came to Baghdad."

BTW It's noticeable that as she moved up in the world so did her characters.

David Duff

May I add one further comment in praise of the (ITV, I think!) TV versions with the superb David Suchet as Poirot. His characterisation is *exactly* as I imagine Poirot to be with his little snobberies, his shudders at the crassness of les Anglaises, his hooded, intelligent eyes, his little mincing walk - all beautifully observed. I like to think that Agatha would have approved.
David Duff

Anthony C

I broadly agree with Oliver's analysis, but as with certain others, I feel the need to mount a slight defence of Christie on a purely personal, nostalgic basis.

"Murder on the Orient Express" was the first book of its type I ever read (I was very young - in fact my father read it to me) and it had a massive impact. I found it both thrilling and, at my young age, rather scary. I followed it up with "And Then There Were None" (as it is now called) and that scared the heck out of me.

I concede that most of her output is trite. However ,these two books had an enormous impact when I first read them.

Simon

yes, I was at uni with Hari...never been a big fan (to say the least), and this seems like someone has been reading 'Dial M...' and 'Reflections on the Revolution in France' and decided that there was another crumby column there.

Dom

Agatha Christie wrote Whodunits, not Detective Fiction. In Detective Fiction, you never really care to guess the murderer, you just want to see how the detective goes about solving the crime. In Christie, there is nothing but guessing the ending. Ackroyd is her best novel, because the ending is such a shock, and any number of other novels can rank as her worst, especially the ones that depend on a plot twist in the last 5 pages. Whodunits are pleasant ways to idle away the time on a long plane ride.

I'll never understand why so many British critics comment on her snobbery. That never comes up in American commentators, and frankly I don't see it.

David Duff

Dom,
You need to be English to understand the 'infinite variety' of the class system here. On my one and only visit to the States, I was struck by the absence of all those tiny signals one Englishman picks up which allows him to instantly categorise another Englishman by class.

I remember sitting in a Bar in New Hampshire talking to two men and it was only after a considerable conversation that I was able to deduce that one was a postman and the other a rich lawyer!

Well, as the 'surrender monkeys' say, "Vive la difference"!
David Duff

Hilary Wade

Hi Oliver,

Well, it looks like nobody else is going to say it, so I guess it's up to me. Despite the best efforts of yourself and Martin Gardner, I have to tell you that there is not, repeat not, going to be a mass G.K. Chesterton revival. It isn't going to happen. And the reason for this is that Chesterton is not, in fact, an outstanding prose writer. First-rate thinker, yes, okay, but absolutely not a first-rate writer. His style may be compared, as indeed I think it has been by Max Beerbohm, to "death by a thousand blows, not one of which quite hits the nail on the head." It's intrusive, didactic and overwritten. Consider if you will the following passage from "the Blue Cross":

"The glory of heaven deepened and darkened around the sublime vulgarity of man; and standing on the slope and looking out across the valley, Valentin behold the thing which he sought."

Martin Gardner thinks this sentence is "arresting" and "beautifully worded." Well, Mr Gardner is a terrific maths writer, but before passing judgments like this he really ought to check out Chesterton's exact contemporary Saki, whose treatment of a parallel scene shows up Chesterton's shortcomings for exactly what they are:

"A dwindling rim of red sun showed still on the skyline, and the next turning must bring him in view of the ill-assorted couple he was pursuing. Then the colour went suddenly out of things, and a grey light settled itself with a quick shiver over the landscape. Van Cheele heard a shrill wail of fear, and stopped running."
(Gabriel-Ernest)

Chesterton's schtick was to take Wildean paradox and level it at the lazy moralisers of his day - which is why his essay on Job is so sympathetic - and it's a great technique, works well on the Jehovah's Witnesses, but it's not quite the same thing as literature.

Another thing you've done is to accuse Agatha Christie of snobbery, as if this was somehow a literary defect. I'd say that actually a measure of snobbery in one form or another is more or less a prerequisite for writing good dialogue. Look at Alan Bennett. Well, look at Jane Austen, for that matter. Chesterton wasn't a snob, ergo he can't write dialogue. There's no nuance there, no insecurity. His characters don't converse, they lurch violently from one declamatory attitude to another. A typical piece of Chesterton business would go something like (I extemporise) '"But don't you see," cried out Father Brown in a sudden burst of desperate exultation,"it's all wrong."' The cumulative effect of this kind of thing is to leave the casual reader with the feeling that Father Brown's more excitable conversations are conducted in a series of hysterical shrieks.

And as for any suggestion that the Father Brown plots are varied, pfaugh. I once had an idea for a spoof Father Brown story that encapsulates every single real story in the canon. A horrible murder has been committed. The only four possible suspects are Cardinal Salvador Torturossa, Seamus "Psych" O'Path, Joey "the Shrimp" Gamberetti and the Revered Theophilius Thorogood, rector of Little St Mary's-near-the-Windle. "The answer is obvious," said Father Brown after a brief pause. "It was the Reverend Mr Thorogood. He's the only one who isn't a Catholic."

Regards


David Duff

Thanks are due to Hilary Wade for an interesting comment which provokes me to scratch an old itch! Discussions on the *literary* merit of various writers always leaves a half-educated, uni-of-life man like me, baffled. I have read Hilary’s quotes from Chesterton and Saki and they both strike me as windy verging on downright overblown.

It seems to me that the heart of good fiction writing lies in character, plot and dialogue. Once a writer leaves those shores and ventures on to a sea of metaphor (see, it’s getting to me now!) they risk drowning in either obfuscation or embarrassment. I mean, really:

“Then the colour went suddenly out of things, and a grey light settled itself with a quick shiver over the landscape.”

I’m not saying that sort of writing never works, only that it is mighty dangerous in that usually it only appeals to a tiny minority of literary ‘anoraks’ none of whom ever agree with each other and risks receiving rather loud raspberries from oiks like me!

Finally, an aside on the subject of snobbery which has been raised here with regard to Agatha Christie and on other sites in reply to Minnette Marrin’s recent onslaught against the ‘new religion’ of football and its ghastly acolytes. I suppose one man’s snobbery is another man’s aesthetic good taste. It strikes me as a useful rhetorical word to stab back at someone personally whose argument you dislike but can snobbery be defined in any objective way?

Oh dear, I've just realised that I've opened myself to a deliciously snobbish put down!
David Duff

Hilary Wade

David, please do read the whole of "Gabriel-Ernest" from start to finish if you haven't done so. Don't let me put you off with quotes. It's a brilliant short story, very brief, but by the time you get to the above excerpt you're devouring it at breakneck speed - your eye is skimming over the text and you don't even consciously notice its 'literary' qualities, let alone recoil from them. In order to write the above I had to go back and check up on Saki's legerdemain, word by word, before I could quote him, otherwise I would simply have been left thinking "How the hell did he do that?!"

G.K. Chesterton has never managed that trick with me. I find his style's too "tell not show." Although he often has an original message to put across across in his fiction, the fiction isn't (of itself) absorbing enough to let me lose sight of that fact. And also many of the Father Brown murders are frankly ludicrous. But of course that's purely my own reaction.

David Duff

Hilary,
On my desk is a pile of blank request forms from my excellent village library and I have already filled in "Gabrielle-Ernest". I will take the liberty of letting you know how I get on by e-mail in due course.

One phrase you used instantly took my attention: ".. you don't even consciously notice its 'literary' qualities.." That seems to me to be the essence of the matter. The writers 'literary qualities' should be like an artist's brush strokes, lost in the general build up of the picture and of interest only to the experts. Sometimes I think some of these novelists are trying to write poetry rather than prose.

Anyway, thanks for the tip.
David Duff

Dave F

Hilary is right about GKC's sentence compared to H H Munro's (Saki). Overblown or not, Saki tries to describe what is there to describe. Chesterton invests his scene with some metaphysical bullshit that is entirely a vanity of his own, and a clumsy one to boot. No bleeding contest.

The comments to this entry are closed.