As usual now…
Warning: The following contains some opinion stated as fact, which doesn’t mean it isn’t open to reasonable discussion.
The Sixties may have been a groundbreaking decade in other areas of life but it was pretty poor as far as crime fiction goes. There were some excellent books written for sure, including some truly great ones, but nothing like the explosion that was the previous decade. Tellingly, most of the period’s great crime fiction was written by people who got their start in the 50s or in some cases even before. The few newcomers with lasting promise either did their best work later (Rendell, James) or had no staying power (Freeling) The only one to immediately make a lasting impact was Donald E. Westlake, though it can also be argued in his case that he really hit his stride in the following decade. There is no easy or all-encompassing explanation for this relative drought other than the publishing industry’s changing priorities: the Sixties were indeed a Golden Age for spy novels and thrillers. The trend would continue well into the Seventies which were also a time of relative drought for crime fiction.
Christie is often lambasted for her perceived writing skills. Even her defenders grant she was not much of a prose stylist and her descriptions of people and places were at best minimalistic. That led Symons to say she was not « a good writer », a verdict that has been incensing fans for decades now. Symons however also praised her ear for dialogue and it’s unfortunate that he didn’t see how crucial it was to Christie’s writing – how it was ultimately the whole point of her narrative technique. Christie doesn’t use description or narration to move her plots forward and make her characters come to life – she uses dialogue. People talk a lot in Christie’s stories, but a closer look shows they never do in vain: every one of the words they utter has its use in either conveying vital information (most of her plots depend on something someone said or didn’t say) or cast a light on the character’s personality: even the most minor one is given a « voice » of their own that reflects on both their character and social status. This is a risky approach as excessive talkiness is never far away but the fact that the dialogue is always witty and lively makes it work, and explains why Christie’s work has so successfully branched into theatre, radio, movies and television. It is not an exaggeration to call her one of the finest dialogue writers the genre has ever known and, as odd and counter-intuitive as it may seem, the closest equivalent the traditional mystery genre ever had of… Elmore Leonard, an admittedly way different writer but whose use of dialogue was strikingly similar. Drôle d’endroit pour une rencontre, as the French say.