Agatha Christie’s name is practically synonymous with comfort reading. Her publishers used to promise readers “a Christie for Christmas,” and her works are the inspiration for the mystery subgenre known as “cozies.” Quaint little English villages, low-rent lords and shady ladies, just a spot of murder before tea at the vicarage—this is Dame Agatha’s public image.
But on the occasion of her 125th birthday, we might do well to remember that both of Christie’s most memorable detectives hid their true characters under a silly exterior. Not only murderers but fellow sleuths were always underestimating fluffy Miss Marple, with her head full of anecdotes from her childhood in St. Mary Mead, and Hercule Poirot with his malapropisms and waxed mustaches. Even Christie’s admirers tend to underestimate her. She’ll get some praise for her algebraic plots and excruciatingly fair mysteries—you’ll kick yourself because you think you could’ve guessed, yet somehow you never do. She sometimes gets praised for the sheer wiggy variety of her solutions: Everybody did it, nobody did it, I did it! (With just a touch more postmodernism she could’ve convinced you that you did it.) But if you want subtle characterization in a murder mystery, the conventional wisdom goes, you need somebody like Dorothy L. Sayers. Christie only does cartoons.
Whereas what always struck me most about Christie was her Dostoyevskyan ability to create characters who embody a particular extreme human mood, or mode of being. They’re not “realistic” exactly, any more than the Karamazov brothers, but they are recognizable. They are what we, the asymptotes, lean toward. They are who we are when we’re pushed to the edge. I’m afraid to become like some of those Christie creatures—like Edward Angkatell in The Hollow, collapsed into a black hole of narcissistic self-neglect; like the murderer in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, all self-righteous agony.
And I’m haunted by those moments Christie can create. Her vision is dark; as a mystery writer she’s got to be on the side of justice, on the side of solutions and reckonings, but she knows that justice can taste like metal on the tongue. Cozy Christie gave us a woman coming into a bedroom, smelling the sharp tang of seaweed, and suddenly deciding to die. She gave us a girl in a painting utterly filled with life, laughing at her married lover, in the last happy moment she’d ever know. Hercule Poirot has his uncompromising refrain, “I do not approve of murder,” but he was capable of sympathy for all the human wreckage he surveyed. Christie gave us several tales about the cruelty of judging and chasing criminals, including one novel that is a sort of fractal portrait of merciless justice: What if the merciless were themselves judged by one without mercy—and then this judge was captured by the unsparing pen of the novelist?
Christie’s profession required her to act as though all human beings were capable of murder. She had to make everybody a plausible suspect. Yet only rarely does this universal capacity for crime feel like the conceit of the author or the necessity of the genre. Christie shows us the kaleidoscopic variety of the human species: so many different kinds of murderer.
As social commentary, too, Christie’s novels don’t fit the “cozy” stereotype. That peaceful village of St. Mary Mead is almost always a memory, often contrasted to the postwar reality. Christie’s first mystery was published in 1919, but she kept up a furious pace in the interwar and post-World War II periods. In the later books Miss Marple thinks often about how much the war has changed her world. People no longer know their neighbors. The Christie world is a world of fresh starts and forged identities, anonymous prefab houses and “third girls” who share an apartment with strangers in order to afford the rent. Christie reassures us that human nature is always the same—Miss Marple’s “village equivalents” always do prove relevant in the overturned world—but there’s a less conservative, more existentialist lesson as well. The world in which we no longer know our neighbors turns out to be, when all is revealed, the world in which we never knew our wives, our best friends, or ourselves. The postwar displacement that makes so many cunning plots possible turns out to be yet another synecdoche for that oldest human displacement, the original exile without which none of Christie’s plots would have been conceived.
Christie is often self-conscious—and sometimes playful—about her role as defender of the authority of a vanishing worldview. (Christie’s humor, and especially her satirical talent, is often underrated. Her nonexistent avant-garde play, They Walked Without Feet, surely stands in the ranks of the great titles-without-works, alongside Florence King’s gay Southern novel Time Is a Lost Flute.) My favorite example is the striking passage in The Pale Horse about how nobody uses the word “wicked” anymore.
And Christie provides a terrific parody of her own cozy reputation: She is Bertram’s Hotel, that nostalgia palace, the place where childhood memories are preserved in amber and every need is subtly, plushly catered to. The houses to the right and to the left of it were destroyed in the war, “but Bertram’s itself remained unscathed.” And when you stepped inside, “You were in Edwardian England once more.”
“Old-fashioned beefsteak pudding,” logs crackling in the fireplace, fluttering old duchesses who don’t like what progress has done to the loos—nothing could be sweeter! But of course in At Bertram’s Hotel Miss Marple uncovers impersonation, gang robbery, and murder. A deceptively cozy old lady investigates a deceptively cozy luxury hotel, and it’s all described by a deceptively cozy Christmas-basket author.
Never trust the cute ones.
Eve Tushnet writes from Washington, D.C. She is author, most recently of Amends, a novel.