You have permission to edit this article.
Edit

Commentary: Keep calm and read Agatha Christie

  • Updated
  • 0
  • 4 min to read
Joel Rice

Read other columns by Joel Rice at www.mcsweeneys.net/authors/joel-rice.

The question is: How to cope with the angst associated with the COVID-19 era, the election, the economy and insert ______ fresh horror 2020 sees fit to propagate?

One can, the CDC suggests, take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including those on social media. Hearing about the pandemic repeatedly can be upsetting. (Please, I beg you, don’t stop reading this story.) (Thanks in advance.) (You’re the best!)

One can binge-watch prestige programming, lavish productions such as the nostalgic sitcom "Friends."

One can learn to bake sourdough, Napoleons, lemon meringue pie and baklava.  

(COVID may take our lives, but it  won’t take our baklava!)

To this insipid, lackluster litany I would like to add one more diversionary tactic — a recipe, if you will, for tasteful escapism: In the evening read — as my wife and I have taken to reading — Agatha Christie, particularly her posthumously published memoir entitled simply "Agatha Christie: An Autobiography," released in 1977, almost two years after her death.

(A reporter picked up this eponymous 519-page tome for a pittance — a song — at the Williamson County library book sale, back when masks were a mere affectation more often associated with the late Michael Jackson.)

Now, I know what you’re thinking. "When can I start frequenting pool parties without facing fatal consequences — remote learning is a contradiction in terms — my children are monsters — OH MY GOD somebody, anybody, help me please!!!"

I know you are also thinking, "Given that Agatha Christie was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) for her contributions to literature, you could be forgiven for assuming 'The Queen of Crime' would come across as an emotionally distant Grande Dame, a prim, quite possibly repressed, late-Victorian lady, loathe to reveal anything truly personal."

The literary critic Edmund Wilson once said, “Her writing is of a mawkishness and banality that seem to me impossible to read.”

AKA, this book — her autobiography — sounds “bloody awful” — boring, at best.

Au contraire mon frère! Bollocks! Poppycock!

What’s so lovely about Agatha Christie’s memoir is how shockingly unpretentious, and, indeed, LOL, Agatha Christie, actually is.

As a narrator she is a sheer delight, and absolutely determined to entertain the reader with a convivial, candid anecdotal style.

You can almost classify her, first and foremost, as a first-rate comic with — believe it or not — a scatological streak.

Here’s Mrs. Christie on why she thinks children shouldn’t be invited to parties.

“I remember one little girl of only two whose mother had been persuaded, against the advice of her experienced nanny, to bring her child to one party. … As soon as they got to the party her mother, to be on the safe side, marched her to a potty. Annette, worked up to a fever of excitement, was quite unable to do her little performance. … They came downstairs and when a conjuror was producing things of every kind from his ears and his nose, and making the children laugh, and they were all standing round shouting and clapping their hands, the worst happened.

“‘My dear,” said an elderly aunt, recounting this to my mother. “You really have never seen anything like it — poor child. Right in the middle of the floor. Just like a horse, it was.’”

Lesson learned: Adam Sandler has no monopoly on bathroom humor. Making light of the lavatory did not begin with MTV’s "Jackass." As long as there’s been toilets, there has been toilet humor.

My wife and I are hardly alone in loving aspects of Agatha Christie. (Her books have supposedly sold in excess of 2 billion.)

We are, however, in the minority in that we read her primarily for her humor — comic relief rather than suspense.

As a child, Agatha Christie, whose father was American, had a small Yorkshire terrier christened George Washington, but whom she took to calling Tony. (Tony!) If you don’t find that an absolutely delightful detail, you’re ahedonic, dead inside. (No offense.)

Wanting to dig deeper into the reasons for Agatha Christie’s place in posterity, I even engaged in a little extensive investigative reporting ... i.e., I asked my ever-obliging spouse what she liked about Agatha Christie.

“Me? You asked me this a million times,” she said, tenderly. “I like that there’s a silliness and a constant curiosity to Agatha Christie. A whimsy. I know it’s embarrassing, but I do like the poo humor. She seems like someone who I would love to be friends with. Please go away. I’m sleepy.”

Ah, domestic bliss. Love is patient. Love is kind.

Christie also offers a vanished era’s wisdom, the kind that one pines for in this polarized period in American history.

“We didn’t need pep pills, or sedatives, we had belief and joy in life,” she says. “We had our own personal disappointments — moments of unhappiness — but on the whole life was fun.”

She even devotes several exhilarating passages to surfing, a sport with which Christie became conversant during a matrimonial trip to Hawaii.

“Nothing like that rushing through the water at what seems to you a speed of about two hundred miles an hour; ... until you arrived, gently slowing down,  on the beach, and foundered among the soft flowing waves. It is one of the most perfect physical pleasures I have ever known.”

If you can make allowances for how horribly hierarchical her Anglophilic-world was, you can take relatively innocent enjoyment in her soothing company, her cozy social context. (Woke she ain’t.) (No one would mistake her for a Marxist.)

“Cozy” mysteries, incidentally, are those whodunits set in bucolic locales, often English villages, until an act of violence intrudes like a snake in Eden.

Agatha Christie, alongside the likes of Dorothy L. Sayers, helped perfect the form, reigning over the so-called “Golden Age” of detective fiction, i.e., narratives that involve butlers, hunting parties and country estates where everyone is a suspect.

Still, if you’re looking for Christie writing in her most comic register, the perfect companion to Agatha Christie’s autobiography is "Tommy and Tuppence: Partners in Crime," her effervescent accounts of a husband and wife detective duo. The superior televised rendition was broadcast on the BBC in 1983 and starred the enchanting James Warwick and Francesca Annis, swanning about like a Jazz-age Audrey Hepburn.

Fun fact: it was a hard-boiled San Franciscan — and former Pinkerton agent —  Dashiell Hammett — himself a serious communist sympathizer — who helped replace the “cozies” with a starker vision — a bleaker, decidedly more violent paradigm.

(Hammett’s first novel, "Red Harvest," about a corrupt town called Personville, helped dethrone the “Queen of Crime” and end Dame Agatha’s preeminence.)

As Raymond Chandler said memorably of his master, Hammett, “[He took] murder away from the upper classes, the weekend house party and the vicar’s rose garden and [gave it] back to the people who are really good at it.”

***

Ultimately, Christie seems to speak with something resembling clairvoyance about our own moment in history, sounding a hopeful note, aiding you, The Reader, with a cold comfort.

“The time of the tigers is over; now, no doubt, we shall have the time of the rogues and the charlatans, of the thieves, the robbers and pickpockets; but that is better — it is a stage on the upward way.”

So listen here, old chap!

Whenever you’re sick of Zoom calls, masks and virtual kindergarten classes — don’t reach for the Xanax — reach for the Agatha Christie.

Cheerio.

Joel Rice is a writer and Franklin resident. Read other columns by Rice at www.mcsweeneys.net/authors/joel-rice.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.