Reading Agatha Christie

My mother has, at one time in her life, had every Agatha Christie book. Perhaps, like me, she feels that reading Agatha Christie is a good bet: not especially demanding, intriguing and an interesting insight into a way of life – house parties, butlers, and maids who lived up the back stair – which has disappeared from all but the most privileged households. (And recently watching episodes of ‘The Crown’, I’m not even sure I would ever want to be part of that kind of privilege.)

AC’s books also offer intriguing insights into the moral standards of the time, for example, that it was shameful for a woman of a certain class to work, to earn her way by serving others behind the counter, or in a dress shop. No young lady worth her salt would stoop to anything too grubby – she would certainly not serve as a waitress in a Lyon’s tea house – but even helping others to choose dresses was considered rather shameful. (Coincidentally, understanding this kind of social nuance also helps me to grasp why Jane Fairfax, in ‘Emma’ is so utterly appalled at the prospect of working as a governess…) How times have changed.

Social mores apart, Christie’s books are also intriguing because of the way the plots are set up, the old device of having a fixed number of characters, all congregated in the same place. “And Then There Were None” (I regret to say, my daughter’s favourite AC book) gives one of the most contrived examples of this; so contrived that I have great difficulty admiring anything else that might be considered ingenious about this particular story. If some old bam-pot wrote anonymously to me, I’d hardly be likely to turn up chez lui… but then, perhaps we are also expected to suspend our sense of reality, when reading mystery stories.

Except that, for me, one of the most compelling elements of thriller writing is realism – or at least, an integrated reality, however fanciful its premises might be.

Since Mum has left her home in France and come to live in Scotland, I am sent regular packages with AC books in them. I am reliably informed that, “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” is considered her masterpiece, so I’m saving that for last. I’ll let you know what I think of it, when I finally read it.

 

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