Warning: The following contains some opinion stated as fact, which doesn’t mean it isn’t open to reasonable discussion.
Agatha Christie’s short fiction is often overlooked, overshadowed that it is by the many classic novels she wrote, and she rarely is cited as one of the masters of the form – rather unfairly in my opinion. Granted, very few of her short stories offer the kind of spectacular plot twists that her fans and indeed everybody expect from her, and those that do may not necessarily be the best of the lot. What makes them worth reading however is how they allow Christie to display virtues of hers that are more subdued or less obvious in her novels, and precisely because of the avoidance of outrageous stunts. Murder in the Mews and Triangle at Rhodes which I read in a row this weekend are cases in point. None of them are ha-ha-you-didn’t-see-that-one-coming-did-you stories the way Roger Ackroyd, Murder on the Orient Express or Three Blind Mice are, even though they’re every bit as virtuoso in their hiding of the truth – and yet they tell us a lot about Christie’s technique. Dame Agatha is often praised or ridiculed for her uncanny ability to surprise the reader with casting least likely (and sometimes downright unlikely) suspects as her guilty parties, but it actually is only the tip of the iceberg. What lies beneath and is less often discussed is her mastery of narration. Most of Christie’s plots hinge on what she agrees to tell us, and how she tells it. Both Mews and Triangle appear to tell a straightforward story – well, straightforward by Christie’s standards – and the reader is firmly convinced that they know what is happening. Christie doesn’t hide anything, or at least appears not to hide anything. The final revelation is thus all the more shocking as it turns out everything that preceded was a misinterpretation. Only Poirot saw throught it throughout, and yet he saw and heard the same things that we did. (This is what makes him a Great Detective, for the distinctive ability of the species since Dupin is not its ratiocinative skills, but its ability to see beyond appearances.) Christie bamboozled us not by hiding facts like a lesser writer would have done, but by the way she presented them to us. It is deception for sure, but one that is both literary and psychological, using narration and the author’s knowledge of the way the reader’s mind works. This method is Christie’s real trademark and very few of her contemporaries and followers were able to master it, hence her absence of genuine « descendants ». No matter what her critics may say, Christie’s plotting skills were not the sole reason of her success; her literary abilities played a big part too.
Whether you call them Patrick Quentin, Q. Patrick or Jonathan Stagge, the Webb Factory as I call them played a major role in the history of crime fiction, perhaps greater if less obvious than that of the other « dynamic duo », Ellery Queen. The latter certainly was more inventive, more clever and fathered one of the all-time greatest fictional detectives, but the Webb Factory, especially in its Webb-Wheeler incarnation, changed the direction of the genre forever with only one seemingly self-evident but actually decisive finding: personal involvement. Wait, you’ll say, wasn’t Ellery personally involved in cases like Calamity Town or Double, Double? He indeed was to the extent that he knew and sometimes loved the people involved in the cases he was investigating, but he rarely had anything at stake himself; like most Great Detectives he was mostly a more active kind of innocent bystander. The Webb Factory on the other hand put its protagonists in real danger, either because they might be killed too or because they were prime suspects. They went one step further in breaking off with the tradition by casting ordinary people as their series characters. Neither Peter Duluth or Hugh Westlake are Great Detectives in the usual meaning of the words. Duluth for instance relies on a secondary character to solve his first three cases, and Westlake often needs help from his policeman friend whose name eludes me at the moment. Neither are they white knights fighting crime to protect the innocent and restore order. They are standard human beings with standard lives and concerns with a « talent » for stepping on crime at every corner. What’s more, crime is not a mere puzzle to them; it often hits close to home with potentially dire consequences for them. Peter Duluth in particular often bets his life, either figuratively (Puzzle for Players) or literally (Puzzle for Fiends) This new, more « human » approach played a great part in the enthusiastic reception of the duo in Europe after the war, and certainly paved the way for the appearance then domination of pyschological suspense like French critic François Rivière pointed out.
(Personal involvement was not entirely a Webb-Wheeler invention, though. It was one of the several innovations in E.C. Bentley’s landmark Trent’s Last Case and the only one that the Golden Age writers completely ignored, probably out of realizing that not every case could be a life-changing or life-threatening experience for a series character. Sayers rediscovered it with the Harriet Vane books and Allingham made a bold attempt with Traitor’s Purse, but Webb-Wheeler were the first to systematize it.)
Curtis Evans wrote extensively on the Webb Factory on his excellent Passing Tramp blog.