Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The Abba syndrome in Agatha Christie

“Whatever [Agatha] Christie's literary limitations, and even such admirers as P.D. James are more than ready to point them out, she remains the most famous of English crime writers, comfortably outselling everyone else in the field, translated into multiple languages and the subject of numerous highly successful film and TV adaptations... But what is the reason for Christie's continuing success?

“[E]ven her most devoted admirer would be hard-pressed to make a case for Christie as a literary stylist. Her use of language is rudimentary and her characterisations thin. By her own admission, she spent more time working on her plots than anything else, after which, she said, the actual writing of the books was something of a chore. For these reasons and more, she had become terminally unfashionable by the 1970s, despite the fact that her books continued to sell in their millions.

“But very few British crime writers would write her off unequivocally. Many sheepishly admit to being devoted admirers who reread the books with pleasure at frequent intervals. They know the limitations, but disregard them. There is something of an Abba syndrome when it comes to Agatha Christie. It is now OK to mutter: yes, we know this isn't great art, but it's shamelessly enjoyable popular entertainment, isn't it? Crime readers are more than happy to descend from the slopes of Mount Parnassus and bask in the simple comfort-food pleasures that Christie affords.”

-- “The curious case of the author who would not die,” in The Independent

I grew up reading Agatha Christie. From an earlier post:

The first “grown-up” book I read was Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express--grown-up only in the sense that it was the first book my mother allowed me to read from her restricted bookshelf, which had Harold Robbins, Sidney Sheldon, Robert Ludlum, Frederick Forsyth, Anya Seton, Victoria Holt, Jeffrey Archer, all the potboilers. I was 10 or 11 years old, and by then I had gone through every single Hardy Boys title, and had waded through my Lolo's Readers' Digest collection that went as far back as 1947. Murder on the Orient Express had a sprawling cast of characters and a convoluted storyline. Mother said if I could tell her who the murderer was at the end of the story, I was free to browse through her books. I got it right; every major character in that story plunged the knife into the poor victim. Outlandish plot, but it had me feeling very clever for days.

The movie adaptations were even more enjoyable, especially Death On the Nile, with Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot and a gaggle of other idiosyncratic actors in period costume--Mia Farrow, Maggie Smith, Bette Davis, David Niven, Angela Lansbury... It's been years since my last Agatha Christie novel--The Moving Finger, if I remember correctly. For a time I lighted up on Chandler and Hammett and James Ellroy, the latter's whiz-bang prose always a welcome jolt on a listless evening. Joseph Wambaugh, too, for haunting true-crime reportage like The Onion Field, a worthy successor to Capote's In Cold Blood. Ranged against these tough, streetwise evocations of gritty lives and bloody deaths, Agatha Christie's neat poison-and-dagger tales often set in manor houses do seem a throwback to a tweedy, faded world--in Barry Forshaw's words, an “idyllic Albion.” But I'm nothing if not loyal. Plain prose and all, I'd take the lady anytime over, say, John Grisham or Dan Brown.


Dennis Marasigan said...

Gibbs! I didn't know we shared Agatha Christie! My first Christie book was THERE IS A TIDE (TAKEN AT THE FLOOD) which I read when I was still a fourteen year old high school student. By the time I entered UP I had gone through, among others, CURTAIN, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, DEATH ON THE NILE, SAD CYPRESS, AND THEN THERE WERE NONE, all of which became favorites. In no time, I had converted my sister, and between us, we ended up owning 80 out of 86 Agatha Christie and Mary Westmacott titles. albeit in paperback. Too bad that our old house in Lipa also was home to termites, and by the time we discovered their presence, they had eaten through most of the collection.


Dennis Marasigan said...

And by the way, TUKSO was inspired by an Agatha Christie short story, DEATH BY DROWNING.

gibbs cadiz said...

80 out of 86??? wow, you and your sister must be counted among her greatest devotees, DENNIS. am sure there's a worldwide fans' club keeping track of such things. :)

ian said...

i only read Curtain for my book review back in high school and i must say, she writes so well. may i ask how many books are there in that series featuring the French detective? last na pala yung Curtain eh... wanted to buy the earlier books sana... :) thanks!

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