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Agatha Christie as a “Radical Conservative?”

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Fascinating article by Johann Hari about Agatha Christie, the incredibly popular mystery writer whose stories are often subject to intense ridicule.

There seems to be no limit to English academic’s haughty contempt for Christie. Critic Peter Lennon claimed that “her dialogue is tinnitus to the ear”,
and that her denouements were ineffective because “you are not shocked that one of the pieces of cardboard has committed a felony nor do you rejoice that a brown paper bag with a perm has not.”

It would be easy to join in this sneering — but for one problem. How, if Christie wrote such rubbish, can we explain the fact that her works have resonated even at the farthest extremes of geography and history? In Buchenwald concentration camp, Jewish inmates acted out an amateur production of ‘Ten Little Niggers’, and several later claimed that this helped them retain their will to live. The Tupamaros guerrillas, who kidnapped the British ambassador to Uruguay Sir Geoffrey Jackson in 1970, adopted Miss Marple as their honorary leader. They believed that she embodied justice. Christie’s works sold over ten million copies in the Arab world alone in the 1990s. Something interesting is going on here, and it is not a universal taste for rubbish.

. . .

Her work conforms to Burkean conservatism in every respect: justice rarely comes from the state. Rather, it arises from within civil society — a private detective, a clever old spinster. Indeed, what is Miss Marple but the perfect embodiment of Burke’s thought? She has almost infinite wisdom because she has lived so very long (by the later novels, she is barely able to move and, by some calculations, over 100). She has slowly — like parliament and all traditional bodies, according to Burke — accrued “the wisdom of the ages”, and this is the key to her success. From her solitary spot in a small English village, she has learned everything about human nature. Wisdom resides, in Christie and Burke’s worlds, in the very old and the very ordinary.

This is consistent with my perspective that every writer, either consciously or subconsciously, writes stories in keeping with their own perspective of the world (their own worldview, as it were). To the extent their worldview changes, their stories change (as Hari suggests some of Christie’s later tales reflected a different perspective on the world than her early ones). Personally, I’ve never been much of a fan of Christie’s writings, prefering my mysteries a bit more “hard-boiled” (i.e., Chandler, Ross MacDonald, etc). But this piece articulates for me how even when a writer strives to eliminate overt diadactism or the sense of their story as a “morality play,” the way they tell the story cannot help but serve as a reflection of how they view the world.

Note: The author wastes a fair amount of time blogging about a variety of subjects at Walloworld, where this post originally appeared.

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About Bill Wallo

  • I enjoyed Murder on The Orient Express and certainly don’t recall reading these overtones in the story at the time. I guess maybe I just focus on story and don’t look for the underlying message when reading genre fiction.