John Banville is no fan of Agatha Christie and is not afraid to speak his mind:
When I was a boy, back around the close of the Stone Age, I was an avid reader of the novels of Agatha Christie. Nowadays I am with Edmund Wilson, the title of whose 1945 New Yorker essay, Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?, expresses my feelings exactly. I say ‘novels’, but I am not sure that is what these books are. They more resemble crossword puzzles, and finishing one of them, like finishing a puzzle, leaves one with the same ashen sense of futility and wasted time.
Christie is certainly a kind of genius, but one cannot help feeling she would have been better off employed in Bletchley Park as a code-breaker, or working for a manufacturer of board games. Her plots, while highly ingenious, are also wildly improbable, if for no other reason than that the characters who drive them are not characters at all, but marionettes, jerking lifelessly on the ends of their all too visible strings. Her worst fault, however, is that we never feel the slightest twitch of sympathy for, or empathy with, the victim, lying there in the library in a neat puddle of blood. Who could possibly care?
Well billions of readers worldwide, Mr. Banville. I’m not sure there are quite as many caring for the fate of Christine Falls, but I digress. This diatribe suggests that speaking of the « Stone Age » Mr. Banville’s thinking has not much evolved since then. It’s 2015 and he still regards Edmund Wilson (whom I previously called a « buffoon » but there is a sadly untranslatable French three-letter word that describes him even better) as an authority on crime fiction and regurgitates « arguments » that have long been dismissed such as Christie’s alleged poor characterization (guess he hasn’t read Five Little Pigs or The Hollow in ages) or the improbability of her plots (inherent to the genre and bothering only to unimaginative sourpusses) As to the bit about the supposed emotionless treatment of victims it is another chestnut which Banville borrowed from Chandler and Robin Cook and like them his case is solid only to those who never read Christie seriously. Oh, and he apparently believes novels he doesn’t approve are no proper novels.
Banville defenders will probably say I don’t provide any counter-example or counter-argument and I agree – but living in a country that has long been inhospitable to traditional crime fiction I have spent the best years of my life fighting against such ill-informed, prejudiced bile and I have no desire to reiterate what I have said many and many times. My only advice is go and read Christie and make your mind for yourself rather than taking the word of people who diss her (and writers of her school) for not providing what they regard as paramount in fiction and don’t see that she does, though not in the flashy, ponderous way they favor. Literary-minded people (and that includes some genre writers and fans) have no clue or appreciation of what the genre is and should be and that’s why they’re forever troting out Wilson or The Simple Art of Murder. We really don’t need them spoiling our fun and should not take them seriously or waste our time replying. I just did and I already regret it. The piece suggests that, all things balanced, modern crime writers are more up-to-date in their understanding of the genre than Bainville’s antiquated views make them appear to be. Let’s forget about him and curl ourselves up in an armchair with one of Christie’s best (or weakest, they all have something to offer – well, maybe not Postern of Fate) That’s what life is for.