By Robert Merrill.
Chapter 8 of Theory and Practice of Classic Detective Fiction (1997). Edited by Jerome H. Delamater and Ruth Prigozy (TOC HERE) (PDF).
Article (15 pages, plus 5 pages of introductory material).
Online (HERE) (PDF).
(SPOILER ALERT! Plot giveaways, especially whodunit, are everywhere in the essay.)
"Robert Merrill's detailed, intriguing study of Christie's 'games' and 'plots' seeks to answer the basic question commonly raised about Christie: whether her work does warrant serious critical attention."ISN'T IT SELF-EVIDENT that for almost a century Agatha has managed to get along without any "serious critical attention" from academia or, for that matter, anybody else? Anyhow,
our author does a very good job of examining the indispensable element of Christie's writing, her elaborate and deliciously complex plotting, that most scholars have either ignored or downplayed in favor of sociological and biographical commentary, and in so doing dispelling some common myths about her fiction. (Final SPOILER warning: You
might not have read all of the books or seen the film adaptations discussed here; consult
the "Works discussed" list near the end of this posting first.)
Part I: Theoretical Approaches to the Genre:
"In recent years the detective genre has been the site of every form of critical inquiry and theoretical postulation. Although there may still be those who disdain the mystery novel and its heirs, specialists in modern literature, film, and popular culture have clearly found the detective story a congenial object of study. Exploring the nature of the genre, its audience, and its relationship to other literary forms has become almost as much of a cottage industry as the writing of detective fiction itself."
Part II: Agatha Christie and British Detective Fiction:
"For the better part of the twentieth century, Agatha Christie has been perhaps the most popular, and certainly the best-selling, mystery writer in the world. Until the past ten years, little critical attention has been paid to what exactly constitutes her appeal, the nature of her art, and the relationship between the author, her readers, and her literary heirs.
"In the essays that follow [in the full text], contemporary critics approach Christie from a variety of perspectives and shed new light on what now we may regard as a complex relationship between the author and her world. Further, this section seeks to explore the contemporary British detective fiction that shares the 'classic' structure Christie (and her progenitors) developed. It considers too other modern writers who employ techniques and venues similar to Christie's but depart radically from her emphasis on puzzles and solutions in order to explore the insoluble mysteries of the human psyche that earlier detective fiction only faintly implied."
(2) Chapter 8: "Christie's Narrative Games" by Robert Merrill:
"Thus, we have what seems to me the central irony about Christie's reputation: Everyone knows that her distinction lies in her clever plots, but no one bothers to say much about them. To explain a Christie plot is apparently equivalent to explaining a joke—not so hard
to do, perhaps, but somewhat in poor taste."
~ Representative Plots:
"Critics as diverse as Dennis Porter, George Grella, and Dorothy Sayers agree that 'the Least Likely Person ploy,' as Maida and Spornick call it (Maida and Spornick 40), is the standard device in classic detective fiction (Porter 137; Grella 86; Sayers 82).
"Indeed, Sayers refers to this ploy as already old hat in 1928, at least in the form in which the guilty party is simply ignored until the conclusion (Sayers 106). Christie herself has her fictional counterpart, Ariadne Oliver, exclaim, 'It's always the least likely person who did it' (Cards on the Table 145), and Christie's critics have tended to see her use of this tactic as 'notorious' (Bargainnier 123) and as nothing less than her 'trademark' (Maida and Spornick 40). In truth, however, Christie almost never employs this device . . . and the occasional novel in which Christie does settle for the marginal outsider whose motivation is obscure is the exception that proves the rule."
~ Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple:
"A complete analysis of Christie's narrative games would proceed to place all her detective novels along the spectrum I have posited. I would like to pursue a more realistic goal, that of summarizing two broad narrative patterns typical of the thirty-three Poirot novels and the twelve Miss Marple novels, respectively. The games played in the two series are as different as the two detectives themselves, and even a brief review should point up the attractive diversity of Christie's narratives."
"As someone who both chooses to play and enjoys Christie's game(s), I think it is useful to understand why we are taken with fictions like Christie's. Christie's claims on us are not those of a major novelist, but this does not alter the fact that she did what she did as well as anyone has ever done."
References (2 pages)
Among the Christie books and film adaptations that Robert Merrill comments on in detail are:
~ Death on the Nile (book, 1937; films, 1978 and 2004) and Evil Under the Sun (book, 1941; films, 1982 and 2001):
". . . the two films share a plot structure extremely popular with television productions such as Murder, She Wrote, innumerable detective novelists throughout the century, and
the Christie of such books as Evil Under the Sun. In this structure nearly every character introduced is a plausible suspect with an equally reasonable motive and opportunity to commit the crime."
~ Ten Little Indians (And Then There Were None) (book, 1939; films, 1945, 1965, and 2015):"Christie's victory, if I may call it that, comes in forcing us to entertain unlikely solutions we cannot dismiss even though we cannot believe in them. After all, we know by the rules of the game that someone must be guilty. Near the end of this novel, however, all ten suspects seem to be exonerated by nothing less than death itself."
"Only once, in Cards on the Table, does Christie play a version of her game in which all the suspects are equally plausible. . . . all suspects get virtually equal treatment in what Christie notes in her introduction is a narrative experiment. Surely, it is no accident that the book has only four suspects (the lowest number in any Christie novel), for perfectly equal treatment for a dozen suspects would give Christie's novels an absolute symmetry and totally artificial character only someone like Poirot could appreciate."
"The Hollow and Ten Little Indians also illustrate Christie's use of techniques we usually identify with serious fiction. In each case, Christie again devises a detective plot in which she is required to do interesting things with character or (in Ten Little Indians) the image of human nature projected by the novel as a whole. As I remarked earlier, The Hollow is one of Christie's most interesting books from a psychological point of view, including as it does a number of character studies far more extensive and compelling than we usually find in classic detective fiction."
- Here's the publisher's summary of Theory and Practice of Classic Detective Fiction (1997):
"Combining theoretical and practical approaches, this collection of essays explores classic detective fiction from a variety of contemporary viewpoints. Among the diverse perspectives are those which interrogate the way the genre reflects important social and cultural attitudes, contributes to a reader's ability to adapt to the challenges of daily life, and provides alterna-tive takes on the role of the detective as an investigator and arbiter of 'truth'.
"Part 1 looks at the nature of and the audience for detective fiction, as well as the genre as a literary form. This section includes an inquiry into the role of the detective; an application of object-relations psychology to the genre; and analyses of recent literary criticism positing that traditional detective fiction contained the seeds of its own subversion.
"Part 2 applies a variety of theoretical positions to Agatha Christie and her heirs in the British ratiocinative tradition. A concluding essay positions the genre within the middle-class traditions of the novel since its inception in the 18th century."
- Previous Miscellaneous Mondays: Number One (HERE), Number Two (HERE), and Number Three (HERE).