Agatha Christie: one tea, one crime, two sugars

Some authors seem immortal, others sink into oblivion. After a while, what remains? In his monthly series Should I reread… ?, The duty revisits one of these writers with the help of admirers and attentive observers. Today, back, time for a cup of tea, on the art and manner of the queen of crime, famous throughout the world, but who, out of modesty or a sense of self-mockery, did not hesitate to call themselves a “sausage machine”: Agatha Christie (1890-1976).

Never the New York Times had not had the audacity of such a fantasy, thus revealing the mythical dimension of the character: in 1975, the most famous Belgian detective in detective literature, Hercule Poirot, was entitled to his obituary notice, “murdered” by its demiurge, the very british Agatha Christie. The character considered cumbersome, but certainly not in the eyes of her millions of readers, she had drawn a line under the one who had, in part, made her glory, appeared from her very first novel, The Mysterious Case of Styles (1920).

The novelist, and also playwright, could not have imagined how much crime would pay off for her, so famous that many believed that she had literally invented the ” detective story “. It is however nothing. She is rather the worthy heiress of Edgar Allan Poe, who laid the foundations of the genre before losing interest in it, and of Sir Conan Doyle, the father of Sherlock Holmes, the archetype of the investigator whose physical and clothing characteristics set him apart from all.

From the 1920s to the 1970s, driven by a creative fever – and a great desire for financial independence – Agatha Christie would write 66 novels, 14 short stories, as well as plays. His most famous The Mousetrap (1952), gives brew looks like a commercial failure: nearly 28,500 performances in London’s West End. Not to mention that this whodunit a little dusty will land with great fanfare on Broadway in 2023. Filmmaker Tom George also kindly made fun of it in See How They Run, with Sam Rockwell as a disillusioned inspector and Shirley Henderson, in an amusing parody of Agatha Christie.

Global Success

Translated into 45 languages, his books starring Hercule Poirot, Jane Marple, Albert Spence and Ariadne Oliver have sold more than two billion copies. For generations of readers, they were an essential introduction to detective literature, sometimes to literature at all, thanks to proven narrative mechanics, familiar figures and exotic settings. For far beyond Egypt (Death on the Nile) or Iraq (Murder in Mesopotacrumb), post-Victorian England offers a real change of scenery, at least from a North American point of view.

The frequentation of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, but also Agatha Christie will make Joanne Bayly, journalist at CBC Montreal, a true Anglophile. As a teenager in the 1970s, her discovery of Champagne Murder marked the beginning of a deep and lasting affection for the prolific novelist. To the point of undertaking today the project of re-reading all his novels over the next few years.

Agatha Christie before Romain Gary

“I read the majority of his books, underlines this graduate in English literature. I continue to do so because the identity of the murderer, more often than not, we do not remember! His current reading is necessarily tinted by his literary culture… and the surrounding culture. “I have to admit that I judge them a little harsher. The psychology of the characters is quite superficial, his books convey a lot of stereotypes, about doctors or lords, and a lot of prejudices against Chinese, Jews or Blacks. Fortunately, from the 1960s, she stopped doing this, taking note of the society in which she lived. »

Fetish detectives

Richard Saint-Gelais, professor of literature at Laval University, shares with Joanne Bayly the same detestation for a book rarely appreciated by amateurs: The fourth. For this detective novel specialist, it was a real missed date with Agatha Christie as a teenager, when she is often the favorite of young readers. “It was the literary studies that brought me back to her,” he insists. I then understood that she was not only a great detective novel technician, but a strategist, someone who thought a lot about how to bamboozle readers. This return to favor was facilitated by the work that many consider to be his masterpiece, The Murder of Roger Ackroyda point of view shared by Richard Saint-Gelais, calling it an “extraordinary case” and “absolutely infernal mechanics”.

This does not prevent him from relativizing his importance in the great constellation of the universe of the detective novel. Even if he precedes Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle possesses, in the eyes of Richard Saint-Gelais, the same technical qualities, but proved to be a great creator of atmospheres, including those of the slums of Victorian London, and made of Sherlock Holmes “a true modern myth”. “The corpus is less imposing; 56 short stories and 4 novels, but it generated 100 times more texts, images and adaptations than Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. »

These two characters nevertheless remain inseparable from the world of Agatha Christie, very often the subject of television series, television films and sumptuous cinematographic productions, the most recent being those of Kenneth Branagh. Marie-Eve Denis, literature professor at Cégep de l’Outaouais, notes that her students often enter her world in this way. For her part, she was rather caught up in the books that lined her grandmother’s library, beginning a long association as soon as she readAB.VS. against Poirotto the point of later signing a master’s thesis at UQAM on the figure of the detective in the work of PD James and Agatha Christie.

In her classes, Marie-Eve Denis insists on emphasizing the classic and modern character of her novels, using The Labors of Hercules to approach mythology and highlighting the singular, independent character of its female characters. “It is of course a representation of herself,” says this passionate detective novel. Agatha Christie was very comfortable financially, drove a car, practiced surfing, all that in a world of men. Not to mention that she did not hesitate to follow her second husband, Max Mallowan, in his archaeological digs, particularly in Iraq.

While admirers of Hercule Poirot are legion, Marie-Eve Denis displays a particular affection for Miss Marple, she whose banality is only apparent. ” In The Tuesday Club, she embodies the perfect image of the detective well settled in her armchair and capable of solving all the enigmas. A respect shared by Richard Saint-Gelais. “It’s an unexpected figure, it plays the old lady that we imagine in the process of knitting. But this is a ruse: people are not suspicious of her, which makes her even more formidable. »

Agatha Christie’s popularity is just as formidable, partly based on a reassuring vision of the world… and of crime. “The reader is never present when the murders occur”, observes Joanne Bayly, to underline how her universe is “comfortable”. When the detective appears, his main function is to restore a social order that the murderer has upset. “But from the 1930s, insists Richard Saint-Gelais, authors such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett opened a breach in the detective novel, took an interest in the psychological and social dimensions of the characters and showed to what extent a whole system is rotten. You’ll never get that from Agatha Christie. »

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Agatha Christie: one tea, one crime, two sugars