Interlude: well of course Agatha Christie is political

José Rodrigues dos Santos asked in The Guardian whether Agatha Christie was political—as a novelist, presumably—a question I already had my own ideas about. My interest piqued, I waded into what turned out to be a curious column loaded with bizarre assumptions. Rodrigues dos Santos begins by mentioning three novels, including one by Christie, that he determines (with no explanation) “are not political.” Rodrigues dos Santos does, helpfully, define politics, as “an activity related to the management of societies,” but after mentioning a few more novels that are political, including 1984 and The Grapes of Wrath, he asks whether this second list should be considered superior to the first because they are political. What?

Apparently, “[t]hese are not easy questions, but they do point in different directions and help us clarify things a bit. A novel can be literary without an obvious political message. And the fact that the novel has a political message is not tantamount to a quality novel.” Did anyone ever think novels couldn’t be literary without an obvious political message, or that political novels are higher-quality? OVertly political novels run a very real risk of being didactic rather than artful. I felt like I had accidentally stumbled into a Socialist Realist time warp reading insights about how “[a] literary work can be political or not political, and yet be a literary work.”

Rodrigues dos Santos ends by saying that Christie is indeed a political novelist because the message of a work like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is “thou shalt not kill.” I won’t argue that this isn’t a political message, but it misses too much of Christie’s politics for me to let this pass unnoted. Christie was a political novelist in two ways.

The first is related, as Rodrigues dos Santos points out, to the murder investigations themselves. Both Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple not only investigate crimes but decide what to do about what they find out. They make decisions about what to keep secret, from whom, for how long, even in some cases letting the criminal “get away with it” (usually via suicide, however). Both detectives also have frequent religious references in their stories.

But there’s another bit of politics in Christie’s work. In The Hollow, a young cousin makes a fool of himself spouting socialist bromides to a salesgirl he takes for idle rich. In 4:50 from Paddington, the ridiculously charitable doctor who will only work for the still-new NHS is a particularly depraved murderer. In A Murder Is Announced, Christie makes another young Communist look foolish.

This second bit is funnier, though the first is more important—but it’s also much, much more than “thou shalt not kill.” Every reader of mysteries knows that detectives are ethical beings who make different choices about right and wrong, in both solving and disposing of the crimes they investigate.

And in all the English villages there is wailing, because she will pass through the midst of them

About halfway through Ben Jeffery’s fabulous Quarterly Conversation essay “What’s Next Isn’t the Point: Philip Roth in Age,” he writes, a propos of the novelist’s latest work:

It was my impression until fairly recently that the word nemesis meant something roughly like “arch-enemy,” but in fact this isn’t quite true. More accurately, nemesis means divine retribution; an inevitable penalty or price. The fear it inspires is the fear of what is due and what cannot be prevented—aging, decline, failure, death. Catastrophes.

Recently re-watching my favorite episode of Miss Marple, “Nemesis” (Joan Hickson edition, thankyouverymuch, and I bet you didn’t think I’d get there from Roth), I finally deigned to look up the source of what is obviously a biblical quotation in the letter Jason Rafiel has written to Jane Marple. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everlasting stream.” It’s always struck me; it’s a very fitting quote for what Miss Marple accomplishes (and what Rafiel knows she can do), but almost absurdly so—it is, after all, a little old lady who will let this justice roll down. And it fits in perfectly with Rafiel’s conception of Marple as nemesis, by Jeffery’s description above.

The novel Nemesis, now that I look it up, says that the verse is from Amos, but I’d never read it so I didn’t have much of an idea (though I suspected Old Testament). Amos was not a book I knew at all, so I read Amos 5 in its entirety to find an unexpected context (though I suspect it should not have been unexpected…). The Lord is angry with the Jews:

18Alas, you who are longing for the day of the LORD,
For what purpose will the day of the LORD be to you?
It will be darkness and not light;

19As when a man flees from a lion
And a bear meets him,
Or goes home, leans his hand against the wall
And a snake bites him.

20Will not the day of the LORD be darkness instead of light,
Even gloom with no brightness in it?

21“I hate, I reject your festivals,
Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies.

22“Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings.

23“Take away from Me the noise of your songs;
I will not even listen to the sound of your harps.

24“But let justice roll down like waters
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

25“Did you present Me with sacrifices and grain offerings in the wilderness for forty years, O house of Israel? 26“You also carried along Sikkuth your king and Kiyyun, your images, the star of your gods which you made for yourselves. 27“Therefore, I will make you go into exile beyond Damascus,” says the LORD, whose name is the God of hosts.

(New American Standard translation via Biblos.com)

I love the images of verse 19. Who doesn’t know what it’s like to be running away from a lion only to run into a bear? And the second one so much homier. The angry, perhaps even petulant Lord—“I hate…nor do I delight…I will not even listen to the sound of your harps”!—rejects but still demands, delivering at the end of his tirade the line that for me will always also be sanctified by the memory of Jason Rafiel: “righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Boom!

Among the phrases Jeffery uses above to characterize nemesis is “what cannot be prevented”; he also uses the term “inevitable.” This fatalism (nemesis is Greek after all) also connected to another biblical passage I looked up this week because of a pop cultural reference, this time one from the very end of Revelation:

“Let the one who does wrong, still do wrong; and the one who is filthy, still be filthy; and let the one who is righteous, still practice righteousness; and the one who is holy, still keep himself holy.”

The helpful commentaries at Biblos.com confirmed my own confused reading of this verse, “that when these events were consummated, everything would be fixed and unchanging” and that “[t]here is nothing more awful than the idea that a polluted soul will be always polluted; that a heart corrupt will be always corrupt; that the defiled will be put forever beyond the possibility of being cleansed from sin.” The knowledge of the immutability of corruption and defilement is horrible; hell is sin. Which, once again, harks back to that Miss Marple mystery and the claustrophobic, sick lives of the guilty parties.

Accidental mystery time

Last week’s NYRB fun was so, well, fun, that I’d decided to do my own little imprint-week this week. All Hesperus Press, all the time! That was the plan, but as you may have noticed if you follow my sidebar or list of books finished this year, I’ve fallen into a bit of an Agatha Christie hole.

I only read my first Christie a relatively short time ago. Nearly two years now, but anything I’ve read since I’ve been blogging still seems recent. But I’d been watching Poirot and Miss Marple (David Suchet and Joan Hickson versions, respectively) like a fiend for years. I can watch an episode of Poirot for the twelfth time and still not necessarily remember who did it—or, more usually, how exactly Poirot figures it all out. (I’m the same with jokes. You can tell me the same joke, at least annually, and I will laugh every time like I’ve never heard the punchline. Should I be worried?)

The point is that for ages my only Christie reading experience was of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, an anomaly in some important ways. About six weeks ago, when I picked up Poirot Investigates, a collection of extremely short stories previously beloved to me in the form of 45-minute television programs, I discovered something amazing: Hastings is the narrator.

Captain Arthur Hastings is Poirot’s detective-fiction sidekick. He’s gullible, apt to fall for beautiful women at the bat of an eyelash, so pure that he can hardly imagine anyone could be evil, and not very bright. He does see some things Poirot doesn’t, like the detective’s tendency to conceitedness. But he is a bit simple. A darling! But simple.

In the mysteries narrated by Hastings, we witness his confusion, and his charm, from the inside. We also witness the quiet dignity of his sense that Poirot is wrong to make fun of his intellect. And I feel like as I’ve made my way through from The Mysterious Affair at Styles to Lord Edgware Dies (I’m now working in order) he’s also grown a bit of a backbone and gets some good gibes in at Poirot.

Aside from The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the only other non-Hastings book I’ve read thus far is The Mystery of the Blue Train and I have to say it suffered from his absence. It wasn’t just that I missed the familiar personality; the narration felt so impersonal, it gave the mystery a completely different ambiance. Another point—Roger Ackroyd isn’t Hastings, but it is first-person; Blue Train is third-person omniscient. The omniscience is just as off-putting as the missing Captain, suddenly seeing what witnesses see rather than seeing them describe it later.

The missing Captain is also a problem for another reason; these books, for me at least, rest completely on the strength of the characters, especially the recurring ones. If you don’t love the detective and his sidekick, you will not love the books. I was actually almost surprised at the extent to which this was true; I think I expected to think more of Christie’s writing? In any case, I am certainly enjoying it, and that’s what mystery holes are about.

And I promise lots of lovely Hesperus once I’ve crawled out!

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

The Murder of Roger AckroydThe Murder of Roger Ackroyd is one of those books where the ending was spoiled for me long before I ever picked it up, and in this case that pretty seriously affected my reading of the book. So my discussion will assume you know who murdered Roger Ackroyd, and if you don’t want to find out—well, read at your own peril.

Continue reading The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie