Agatha Christie has to be my ultimate comfort read. I can always trace my state of mind by looking on my ‘recently read’ on my Kindle – lots of Christie means that my life has been too stressful to contemplate difficult literature and that my need for escapism has been urgent. The Queen of Crime has never let me down. Her writing is accomplished enough that it never grates, even when I’m at my most moody and critical. Also, she wrote enough and the stories are so twisty that I’m always guaranteed at least one novel which I’ve forgotten and can read fresh.
I was guardedly optimistic about the publication of a ‘new’ Poirot novel. If Sophie Hannah could truly resurrect that great detective there would be a very welcome addition to the ‘It’s Sunday Evening and I’m Tense About Tomorrow’ pile.
Firstly, I must commend Hannah on the writing style. I had been concerned because, frankly, if more people could write as well as Agatha Christie, she would not have maintained such exclusive rights to her crown. Hannah does an excellent job of replicating her fluent, unfussy and highly accomplished prose. Also, the plot is appropriately twisty and and I was suitably confounded by the end. I think Hannah should be congratulated for re-creating an authentic Christie-style scenario and motive. I got really angry with the new Sherlock Holmes novel from a few years ago, because the motivations and themes were just too twenty-first century for me, this book managed it much better.
Overall though, this blog is not going to be a review about ‘The Monogram Murders’. Instead, reading this book helped me analyse what it was that made me love the originals so much and I have decided that it’s a) style (see previous paragraph) and b) period.
Agatha Christie published her books from 1920 until the late 1970s. Right now they’re historical and period and I love them for this, but at the time they were contemporary and so present a wonderful scrapbook of half a century of British life. I was really upset at the absence of WW1 in ‘The Monogram Murders’, the early part of the story took place in 1911, the main action occurs in 1939 and yet no one has a war record, no one is injured and the major trauma suffered by a quiet English village was the death of their vicar 16 years before. It really brought home to me how central the period details are to my love of Christie’s novels, so below are my top ten period mystery reads (in chronological order, obviously):
1920 – The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Did you ever wonder why Poirot lived in England (except for the fact that he only seemed to know about five words of French)? Well he first moved here as a war refugee, when he was offered asylum by Mrs. Ingelthorp (step mother of Hasting’s childhood friend). Why is Hastings staying in the same house? Because he had been invalided home from the front and was bored during his month’s sick leave.
1930 – Murder at the Vicarage. Two great things about this, one is the ‘servant problem’ which was as much a reality for readers at the time as issues with mobile phones and technology are for us. Do servants make life better or make life worse? No one in this book seems to know. The servant problem is going to become such a Christie trope that Hannah will resurrect it in ‘The Monogram Murders’ and ‘Murder at the Vicarage’ contains one of my favourite variations on the theme The other reason to love this book is the fashionably listless Lettice Protheroe. She doesn’t only have a great name, she’s also the most bored and self-centred teenager in any book of this period and the novel is almost worth reading for her alone. I was misled by reading Enid Blyton’s 1940s boarding school stories – Agatha Christie shows us that the irritatingly superior teenager existed in English literature well before the Beatles!
1935 – Death in the Clouds – I first traveled by plane in the 1980s, but I know I will never be able to experience flying as glamorous as this. I would also like to add ‘Murder on the Blue Train’, (pub. 1928), ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ (1934) and ‘Death on the Nile’ (1937) to the list of classic stylish travel reads.
1941 – Evil Under the Sun. In the same way as murders in Christie are pleasingly bloodless (my comfort reads never include gore), the war on drugs is also pleasantly untraumatic. This isn’t the result of some kind of ‘simpler, happier time’ of course – these characters have survived WWI, but it does make things relaxing for me as a reader. I also have a huge fondness for any book in which someone discovers that a white power is cocaine by tasting a bit. This book is set on an English holiday resort and it would be a great beach read, but I’d hate to restrict it’s usage; I find perfect for a gloomy Sunday evening, and a reminder of the kind of world I missed out on by being born over forty years too late.
1950 – A Murder is Announced – This is an example of the kind of Christie novel that causes her to be remembered as a 1930s writer. It’s hard for a wee nipper like myself to really understand quite how long rationing lasted for in Britain. Over a decade after the end of WW2, rationing was the key issue in the 1950s general election; Labour had no intention of ending it, and they won but with such a small majority that they called another election twenty months later. Ironically they then lost the 1951 election, but rationing on meat and other foods would still be in action for another three years. Anyway, this novel combines gentrified country life with austerity politics and I think it’s great. Yes, I’m troubled by the comedy ‘paranoid’ refugee, but I do think it’s interesting how Christie presents the British as so determined to put the previous decade behind them and so unsympathetic to anyone who appears traumatized by the second world war.
1953 – A Pocket Full of Rye – I come from a family of doctors and the NHS is near and dear to my heart. It was a complete culture shock then, to read the start of ‘A Pocket Full of Rye’, where the start of a National Health Service is met with bemusement, confusion and suspicion. The NHS was founded in 1948, but in this novel we can see it filtering down into everyday society five years later and it’s still the case that no one knows how it works or what it does. Doctors, of course, play a huge role in loads of Christie’s work, but the first chapter in this book (where no one in a busy office knows how to find or contact one) is a personal favourite.
1961 – The Pale Horse – I love London, both in life and in literature. One of the great things about the city is how it’s always changing. The thing is, culturally, change quickly gets forgotten. Take the borough of Chelsea, its most common current media portrayal is through the perception of the Sloane Ranger (think Princess Diana) and reality TV shows like ‘Made in Chelsea’, as Channel 4 puts it: ‘An eye-opening reality series that follows the lives and loves of the socially elite 20-somethings who live in some of London’s most exclusive postcodes‘. ‘The Pale Horse’ shows how new this Chelsea really is. It takes place just before the start of the Swinging 60s and invites readers into a seedy, bohemian and slightly outré part of the city. This is a must read for anyone interested in the London of the 20th Century.
1962 – The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side – this isn’t my favourite of Agatha Christie’s mysteries (I think because it’s one of the few plots I consistently remember and I don’t get to re-read it cold and re-live the baffling confusion of trying to solve the puzzle). I do love it, however, for the way it gently touches on so many contemporary issues. I’m sorry, but I can’t be the only person who finds books about 1960s social housing fascinating. Of course, added to the charm here, is the weight of expectations; we all know that Christie is a writer of the rich and posh, with butlers and stately homes all over the place. How exciting to learn that even St Mary Mead is subject to the ravages of time – there’s a new council estate built! This is a personal reason for being happy; for the first time, I found that Christie was writing about a world which resembled the 1980s England that I grew up in.
1965 – At Bertram’s Hotel – I love this book. It shows the Queen of Crime at her knowing best, fully aware that everyone reads her books for the nostalgia, but refusing to let this compromise her engagement in contemporary life. Bertram’s Hotel is the perfect setting for any Christie lover, it’s basically a period theme park, set up to look like the 1920s, but secretly provided with all mod cons. Your tea will be brought by a polite maid in a uniform, but you’re also living in the comfort of central heating. As Miss Marple notes, the practicality and smooth running bears no resemblance to the domestic realities of the past. She’s also aware that it must cost a lot of money to really indulge in full-blown nostalgia. Very few people who are used to modern plumbing and electricity would actually enjoy even a short visit to the discomforts of the ‘golden age’, unless their modern expectations of basic hygiene and convenience were also subtly catered for. This novel is a joke at and with devoted Christie readers, allowing us to both have our cake and eat it too.
1966 – Third Girl – This is another Swinging Sixties book. Girls are bohemian, artistic and independent. In fact, I think of this as being the (possibly slightly less literary) younger sister of Lynne Reid Banks’ ‘The L Shaped Room’ (published 1960). There’s a lot of anxiety about girls working and living away from home. Also, given the subject matter, there’s a lovely even-handed presentation of the sexual revolution – some girls who live in rented rooms might be pairing off with all and sundry, others are determinedly straight-laced. This novel is far away from a traditional ‘The Butler Did It’ scenario and instead moves murder into flats and the isolation of the big city. It’s well over forty years after Styles, but Christie (and Poirot) are still going strong.
OK, this post has become ridiculously long, but that’s what happens once I get started on Agatha Christie. I suppose the final word has to be a big thank you to Sophie Hannah for allowing me to wallow in so many of my favourite comfort readers. Given the way publishing is moving, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more ‘modern’ Poirots in the future; I certainly won’t be surprised to find myself succumbing and reading them all. Long Live the Queen of Crime!