Saturday, May 17, 2014

Extraordinary Women: Agatha Christie (BBC/PBS, c. 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The show Charles and I watched last night was an Extraordinary Women episode on Agatha Christie, who with one exception — her mysterious “disappearance” in 1926, shortly after she suffered the double whammy of the death of her mother and her first husband’s request for a divorce because he’d fallen in love with someone else — led a long and singularly boring life. Indeed, like Alfred Hitchcock, Christie is of interest mainly because of the bizarre incongruity between the dark subject matter of her stories (not only murder but particularly nasty murders — the show made the point that she’d worked as a volunteer nurse during World War I and much of her job had been to hand out medications, many of them with highly toxic side effects, and this had led her to research poisons and use poison as a murder weapon in a lot of her stories) and the dull, respectable British lifestyle she lived. I’ve never been a big Christie fan for the same reason Raymond Chandler wasn’t — he said she ignored character and created stick-figure people just to set up a “whodunit” puzzle — though he admitted to admiring one of Christie’s most famous “trick” books, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, in which the story’s narrator, the assistant to detective Hercule Poirot turns out to be the murderer — it was attacked at the time for violating the conventions of mystery fiction but Chandler, in what was just about the only nice thing he ever said about Christie, said that it was so obvious that the narrator was the only possible murderer that instead of a puzzle it was a challenge to the reader to “catch me if you can.”

The show also covered the often estranged relationship between Christie and her daughter, and claimed that the publication of Curtain, the novel Christie wrote in the early 1950’s in which Poirot is killed off, was authorized by Christie’s daughter against Christie’s own wishes. (My understanding was she had written stories in which both Poirot and Miss Marple died — the one that killed off Miss Marple was Sleeping Murder — with the intent that these be released immediately after her own death so the cycles featuring her two most famous characters would both come to a close once she was no longer around to write them.) The show noted that, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Christie became bored with her most famous detective character but felt compelled to continue writing about him simply because he was so popular and lucrative. Christie was one of those authors who was shy, reclusive, odd-looking — when they first showed a photo of her in her dotage I joked, “She looks like a cross-breed between Eleanor Roosevelt and the Queen” — and in a film clip of the real Christie (there aren’t many film clips of the real Christie, especially ones in which she both shows herself and speaks) on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of her play The Mousetrap — the longest-running theatrical production in history — she talks about how much she hates making public appearances and being interviewed. I’ve never been that interested in Agatha Christie — though I read her book Ten Little Indians (originally it had a considerably less P.C. title!) in the 1960’s and quite liked it, and more recently I was startled when Charles and I watched the 1937 British film Love with a Stranger, based on a Christie story called “Philomel Cottage,” and I called it “a real surprise since it’s a psychological thriller rather than a whodunit, and is one of the few times in her writing career that Christie actually gave a damn about character development and real emotion instead of just creating stick-figure people and having them enact a murder mystery.” Frankly, I wish she’d done more stories like that, though I certainly can’t fault her for being the kind of writer she was and giving the people what they wanted!