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Agatha Christie’ Review: The Queen of the Cozy

From The Wall Street Journal:

Raymond Chandler found her novels irritating. They “fake the clues, the timing, the play of coincidence,” he complained, and “fake character, which hits me hardest of all, because I have a sense of character.” Robert Graves declared that “her English was schoolgirlish, her situations for the most part artificial, and her detail faulty.” And he was a friend. Bernard Levin “found not one of the books worth the time of an intelligent adult”; Francis Wyndham called them “animated algebra”; Julian Symons considered them “riddles rather than books.” More recently, Ruth Rendell lamented, “When I read one of her books, I don’t feel as though I have a piece of fiction worthy of the name in front of me,” while Michael Dibdin deemed Agatha Christie “a killer [whose] victim was the British crime novel.” Nevertheless, when Edmund Wilson, in a 1945 essay, famously asked, “Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?,” the answer was—and still is—tens of millions of Agatha Christie readers: the “Low Brows,” as Christie affectionately referred to them in 1956, by which time she had sold more than 50 million books world-wide.

When she died in 1976, aged 85, Christie left behind over a hundred works of fiction and drama, some poems, an autobiography . . . and a great deal of stuff. Stuff that made Laura Thompson, her new biographer, fairly swoon as she rummaged through it. “The notebooks with their agonised jottings. The fur coats that smell still of distant scent. The soft pools of christening lace. . . . The attaché case that contained Archie Christie’s love letters, and the wedding ring he gave her. . . . So many things kept,” and not in sterile archives but in situ, throughout her longtime home, Greenway House in Devon, “filling every cupboard, every attic, every secret drawer.” In “Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life,” Ms. Thompson mines this trove for clues not only to the writer’s inner life but also to her fiction’s recurring themes and enduring appeal. She also unearths a vanished era—of villages and servants, tea and vicars—long regarded as quintessentially British.

. . . .

Christie’s birthplace is gone and Ms. Thompson revisiting the site could be Charles Ryder returning to Brideshead, so fierce is her nostalgia and dismay. “The 1851 town hall now a branch of Tesco,” she wails, with “junkies and asylum-seekers lurching along Higher Union Street.” It seems an odd introduction to a biography, this spasm of xenophobic throat clearing. Then again, Ms. Thompson spent years embedded with the Mitford family—her previous book was “The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters” (2015)—and some of that dunderhead glibness was bound to rub off.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal


9 Comments to “Agatha Christie’ Review: The Queen of the Cozy”

  1. I couldn’t into the Miss Marple stories I’ve tried.

    I’d like to try a couple of Hercule Peroit stories since I like the David Suchet videos so much.

    • Ditto here. Lord knows I’ve tried to like Dame Agatha. There’s got to be something in the person to whom Guinness gave the title of “world’s bestselling novelist,” but it beats me what it is. I enjoy watching David Suchet’s Poirot occasionally, but as soon as I start reading anything by the Dame, I wiggle my toes in my cowboy boots, realize that I hate sensible shoes, and go off to eat chili verde with an unholy quantity of El Yucateco Salsa Picante de Chile Habanero Green to shake off the feeling that I’m trapped in a parallel universe that’s no fun. Just something I do.

      • The best I can make out, after repeated encounters with her stuff, is that Christie didn’t write stories at all, but the narrative equivalent of crossword puzzles. If you’re reading for interesting characters, for realistic human motivations, or for any kind of event except highly contrived and improbable murders, you need to look elsewhere.

  2. I liked this book when it was called “Agatha Christie: An English Mystery” and was published in 2007.

    This is a reissue of the same book. I can’t understand why Anna Mundow can write “Ms. Thompson’s is not, of course, the first excavation. There have been many previous portraits and studies of Christie, the most satisfying perhaps being Janet Morgan’s measured, conscientious biography, published in 1984.” without having stumbled on this edition.

    Even the reviewer in Publisher’s Weekly is treating this as a new book.

    • Thanks Bill–that was the point I was going to raise! I went to Goodreads to put the book on my TBR list and found all the previous editions. This might explain why there’s no ebook edition of the 2018 book, which retails at over £20 here in the UK (I did find a link to a 2018 ebook but it took me to a page-not-found on Amazon). I just bought the 2013 Kindle edition for £0.99 on the assumption that this was just a case of selling the rights and republishing.

      Caveat emptor.

  3. [critics criticizing]

    Like Mickey Spillane, Louis L’Amour, or Amanda Hocking… attaboys are nice, but sleeping on piles of money is better.

    • Couldn’t agree more!

    • False dichotomy. Plenty of writers have earned piles of money big enough to sleep on with original, wonderfully-written novels, and that’s my goal, too…but should the piles of money never materialize, I’ll at least still be able to take pride in my writing. You can’t do that if you don’t set high standards for writing to begin with.

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