A Marginal Writer Called Agatha

Popular wisdom has Golden Age, the whodunit genre and Agatha Christie inextricably linked. The First Lady of Crime, as the nickname indicates, is often seen as the epitome of the period and the genre, and the go-to author if you want a taste of both. This opinion is shared by her fans as well as her detractors. Many of the former don’t care to broaden their horizons and take a glance at her colleagues, whereas many – all too many! – of the latter use her as an easy broad brush with which they paint the whole genre, reducing it to country houses, cosy villages and nosy spinsters. They are both wrong, and it’s time Agatha is restored to her rightful place.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not about to indulge in that crime fiction critic’s péché mignon, Christie-bashing. I’m myself a fan of Mrs. Mallowan whom I think is a very underrated writer, paradoxical as it may seem. I don’t dispute her claim to be the incarnation of the Golden Age detective novel because I think she doesn’t deserve it but because this claim rests on an exceedingly narrow definition of the genre. Agatha Christie, genius as she was, is *not* the first or last word on Golden Age detective fiction; she isn’t even that representative of it to begin with.

Let’s take a look at the other three « Crime Queens » – Allingham, Marsh, Sayers. The fact that they are lumped together with Christie seems to suggest that they were all writing the same kind of detective fiction, but it is misleading as everyone who’s read their respective works knows. Christie is actually the only one of the four to adequately fulfill the standard, popular, stereotype definition of the Golden Age whodunit as one in which the guilty party always turns out to be someone the reader never envisioned, the famous « least likely suspect ».

I see you scratching your heads: aren’t surprise solutions kind of a minimum requirement for a whodunit, let alone a Golden Age one? Well, no. Whodunits all share the same basic structure – crime, investigation, solution – but what writers make with it is entirely up to them. Some follow Christie’s cue of focusing on the « Who? » but many others find the « How » and « Why » of equal if not higher import, or choose to focus on the logical soundness of the demonstration.

None of the other Crime Queens ever tied with Christie in terms of stunning solutions because most of them didn’t even try. Sayers was very much an Edwardian crime writer at heart and thus cared much more for the murderer’s method than their identity, which was often transparent to any careful reader. Allingham was a free spirit and a late-comer to the whodunit genre and while she could be quite clever when she wanted to, her plotting was more about cohesion (the famous « box with four sides ») than surprise. Marsh was probably the closest to Christie of them all as the « Who » was indeed the keystone of her plots, but even at her best she was never a threat to Dame Agatha in that department. The differences don’t end there. Allingham, Marsh and Sayers each in their own way and various degrees displayed literary ambitions that were apparently lacking in Christie’s oeuvre. They were also more adventurous in terms of characters and settings. It wouldn’t be exaggerated to say that they had more in common with each other than they had with Christie, which is very much the isolated element in the group.

We have to cross the Atlantic if we are to find authors sharing Christie’s technical prowess; the names of S.S. Van Dine, John Dickson Carr or Ellery Queen come to mind. Contemporary and later critics have indeed often grouped the last two with Christie as « The Big Three » of Golden Age detective fiction, which is certainly true in terms of plotting abilities, but less so otherwise. Both Carr and Queen’s plots deliberately lack the deceptive simplicity of Christie’s and their books thus make for more demanding reads. Neither do they have the same reassuring apparent naturalism that makes identification easier. Carr’s England is not Christie’s, and Queen’s demiurgeous criminals don’t have the « normal » motives of those unmasked by Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. Both Carr and Queen belong in another school of detective fiction, more baroque and more imaginative. Christie once again finds herself alone of her kind.

And yet many at the time and since have tried to « do the Christie » as the components seem so commonplace and the recipe so easy. They have all failed, so that it may be said that Christie is without posterity – there are lots of Sayers or Allingham followers, and even some Carr or Queen ones too but very few modern writers claim Christie as an influence and when they do it is so diluted to be unrecognizable. The world’s best-selling and most famous mystery writer ever is also one of the most marginal, a paradoxical double title she shares with Georges Simenon, her only rival in terms of sales and visibility. That she was able to turn her marginality into the center of gravity of a whole genre may be her greatest exploit.

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