The mystery of Agatha Christie’s extraordinary appeal is the subject for investigation in this engaging study by Robert Barnard, and by the end of the book you should be a lot clearer about the reasons for applauding the ingenious lady. It’s well-known, of course, that she played around with the original detective-story formula until she’d invented a puzzle of infinite adaptability. Tricks, complications, a great deal of stage management and endless activity all went into it, leaving no room for subtlety in characterisation or distinction in the writing. At best, her literary style is workmanlike; and Barnard argues plausibly that this, along with the clusters of cut-out figures she kept at her disposal, is not the defect it would have been in a different kind of fiction. It’s certain that there is nothing, in Agatha Christie’s novels, to distract you from the intricate workings of the plot.
She’s made the best possible use of her stereotypes, too, relying on the expectations they arouse to hoodwink the reader. It ‘s foolish to assume, in a Christie novel, that the usual embodiments of innocence are innocent; the astute author doesn’t hesitate to trade on her readers’ sentimentality about the weak and unprotected. She trades on many other assumptions as well, and she’s careful not to disclose her own tastes or views; she does nothing, in other words, that might interfere with her function as ‘a public deceiver’. Occasionally it was felt that she went too far. When The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, her most celebrated work, came out in 1926 it was followed by an outcry: had the author played fair, or hadn’t she? Actually, if there’s an instance of cheating in Agatha Christie it occurs in The Body in the Library (1942) when the murderer, in a moment of informality and apparent sincerity, announces to the investigator, ‘I didn’t do it, you know. ‘ He’s lying, but the atmosphere surrounding the incident persuades us he isn’t.
Of course, there are many people who find detective fiction boring and trashy, and these will concur with the exasperation expressed by Edmund when he wrote an essay entitled, ‘Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?’ But it doesn’t take Robert Barnard long to come up with an answer to that one: quite a lot of people, actually. (Enough to make the author a person whose sales figures are beaten only by the Bible.) A liking for the genre is not an uncommon taste, whether it’s craftsmanship, formality of design, or just the sensational element that’s being appreciated. All the basic emotions the detective story panders to – the craving for order, etc. – are examined by Robert Barnard and given due weight in accounting for his subject’s popularity. Only in the last paragraph, when he claims that Christie saw evil ‘in our wives, our friends, the quiet circle of which we are a part’ does he misinterpret the feeling of the books. There is no sense of evil, or horror, in Christie’s murders: they are just part of the package. The movement in the stories is towards the restoration of tidiness, nothing more. The last thing she does is chill our blood. But she dazzles our minds, continually. Who would have thought the old lady to have had so much deviousness in her?
If Christie made the detective novel popular, Sayers was supposed to have given it a literary flavour – one that quickly became unpalatable, however. It’s not the trimmings in her books that make them remarkable – the showy erudition, the connoisseurship, facetiousness passing for wit – but her sheer skill in working up multi-layered and convoluted plots. At their best, these are just as spectacular as Christie’s, and rather less mechanical.
Robert Barnard has written a book to please the general run of Christie addicts; but Trevor H. Hall’s Dorothy L. Sayers: Nine Literary Studies is aimed at the specialist. Not only the Sayers specialist, but the Conan Doyle specialist, the psychical research specialist, the cook book specialist, to say nothing of the frantic chronologist (‘… The second point of interest in the English page-proofs is that they are dated 1936 on the title page …’). Dr Hall’s ‘modest hope that the odds and ends of information assembled here may be of some small assistance and interest to future students of Miss Sayers’ work’ (no doubt they will be) soon gives way to a distinctly less modest tone: ‘I am in a position to describe one contretemps that is certainly worthy of record’; ‘so far as I am aware my solution … has not previously been suggested by any literary commentary’. He even mentions, in a footnote, the fact that Lord Snow agreed with a point made in one of his previous books (there’s a place for drawing readers’ attention to this sort of thing: the back of the dustwrapper, since it comes better from publisher than author).
Many of Dr Hall’s deductions and discoveries aren’t exactly startling. He cites Dorothy L. Sayers’s use of the word ‘singular’ as evidence that she had read the Sherlock Holmes stories and was influenced by them, facts that no one ever doubted. Sayers is not by any means a witty writer but she’s often blandly humorous, and it seems obvious that this is the tone she’s adopting when she causes Wimsey to address Harriet Vane on one occasion as ‘Watson’, and on another as ‘Sherlock’. Hardly worth noting, one would have thought; but Dr Hall rushes in to assure us that these are ‘harmless lapses’, soliciting our indulgence for an author suddenly confused about the gender of one of her principal characters. As he sees it, to call a woman by a man’s name can only be a lapse of one sort or another.
A cookery book compiled by Sayers’s husband Atherton Fleming comes in for extensive consideration (‘The story of the cookery book is of great interest … it consists of XIV + 278 pages’). Poor Mr Fleming is taken to task for making pronouncements about the American breakfast when there’s no proof that he ever ate one. Worse, Dr Hall has found out that two of Fleming’s recipes (‘Ham in Hades’ and ‘Alderman’s Walk’) are lifted from a publication entitled The Recipe Book of the Mustard Club, and to prove it he quotes both the original and the copy. We seem to have got a long way from Dorothy L. Sayers and the literary study. Dr Hall is much given to scholarly digressions, and he can’t resist the temptation to put down information – any information. He never mentions a book without telling us how his own copy was come by (‘found for me by my friend and coauthor, Percy H. Muir’; ‘it came to me as a gift from my friend the late Frank Beckwith, MA, MPhil …’). There’s one institution in particular – the Leeds Library – which he simply can’t refer to without noting the date of its foundation (1768).
He tells us, in detail, what The Nine Tailors owed to The Nebuly Coat by John Meade Falkner – I don’t think Sayers would have been pleased to find her sources of information tracked down with such diligence. To be fair to Dr Hall, he is diligent – and he’s come up with at least one fact which is genuinely interesting, that the central thesis in The Documents in the Case is invalidated by a technical error. But exhaustiveness is no substitute for illumination.