It is Christmas Eve and everyone in the house hears the crashing of furniture, followed by a bestial and hellish scream. When they get to Simeon Lee’s room it is locked from the inside and they have to break the door down. When they finally get through the door, the father of the family is dead, his throat slit, in a great pool of blood. This is Merry Christmas the Agatha Christie way…Luckily for everyone, except the corpse and the culprit, Hercule Poirot is waddling through the county at this festive time.
Don’t worry, I won’t give away the plot here, you can read on!
For the December meeting of the Oxfam Muswell Hill Book Group we wanted to be a little bit festive and discuss something that had the backdrop of Christmas but was not A Christmas Carol. We were surprised to find very few options outside of the so-called ‘Chic-lit’ genre but, as the last of David Suchet’s Poirot episodes were being aired on television, we hit upon the solution. We would turn our little grey cells to one of Christie’s Christmas capers.
As a 2006 Guardian article puts it ‘her whodunits belong to a still slightly disreputable sub-species of literature. The last page turned, they tend to be casually left behind in railway carriages or abandoned on poolside loungers. They are tricks, one-night-stands.’ We were aware that, whilst not exactly dealing with a high brow piece of literature, we were looking at an author whose recorded sales are rivaled only by the Bible and Shakespeare; she may not be deep but she was and still is a global success.
Christie’s novels were shamelessly constructed to a winning, repeated formulae and the reader can sense it. That is perhaps why it is the embarrassing cousin on the bookshelf. I was personally reminded of what Dolly Parton says about herself – that it takes a lot of money to look this cheap. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas smacks of something that has taken a little too much effort to appear seamless; it’s seemed too self-consciously smug with its fantastical sleight of hand plot.
What was very apparent was just how tailor written the novels are for transference to stage and screen. The dialogue reads like an actor’s lines and descriptive passages read more like a stage set guidance than a fictional prose paragraph. Our modern lives and outlook found little to relate to in the insular evocation of a 1930s reactionary country house and we were galled by the lack of engagement the book had with anything outside of the four walls featured in the novel. Given the heightened political tensions in Europe at the time the book was written in 1938, Christie’s writing came across as solipsistic and her drama as self-centered.
One aspect of the discussion looked at how much of a character and presence Agatha Christie makes herself in the book. At times we thought she was the puppet master and the cat playing with the mouse. At other moments she seemed to be standing inside one of the female characters in the novel and advocating a demure feminine role for women and contentment with an ample dress allowance that is at odds with the celebrity she by then was. However, we found this opinion to be supported in Laura Thompson’s recent biography Agatha Christie. An English Mystery.
But how could we finish without Hercule Poirot himself at our side? He is indeed a creation worthy of Shakespeare! Although we are still recovering from the revelation that Poirot dyes his moustache, the great little Belgian is a winner every time.
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