In Praise of Agatha Christie’s Accidental Sleuths

Radhika Jones in New York Times:

AgathaI don’t remember ever buying one. They just materialized in the house when I was 12, a row of well-thumbed paperbacks, in the bookcase under the basement stairs. I read them over and over, until the pages were soft as cotton. On a visit to Portland, Ore., in January, browsing the shelves of Powell’s Books, I felt the familiar pull. I walked out with “Ordeal by Innocence,” an Agatha Christie sleeper hit (no one I ask ever seems to know it), in which a young man, Jack Argyle, one of an adopted brood in postwar England, is found to be innocent of the murder of his mother, for which he’d been convicted. Terrific news, until it sinks in that someone else in the family must be guilty. Christie loved coincidence. (A stranger could have vouched for Jack, had the stranger not been knocked down by a lorry, then recovered consciousness and immediately left town for a two-year expedition to Antarctica.) She kept her crime scenes conveniently sealed. (Whoever hit Jack’s mother with a poker was already at the house; no random intruders allowed.) She’d lean hard on a tic or a recurring expression (a sister’s feline affect, a brother’s scowl). Her secretaries came in two varieties: young and pretty or old and frumpy.

And yet. In Christie’s expansive repertoire — more than 200 novels, stories and plays, from “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” (1920) to “Sleeping Murder” (1976) — she captures something elemental about mysteries: that motive and opportunity may suffice for a crime, but the satisfying part is the detective’s revelation of whodunit, how and why. I never tried to piece together the clues. I vastly preferred to hear it from Hercule Poirot or Jane Marple. Why spend time with such endearing, clever characters if you’re not going to let them do their job? And while their job was ostensibly solving crimes, really it was storytelling.

More here.