October 15, 2003

Burkean Mysteries

I've long had a vague notion that reading an Agatha Christie mystery must be like curling up in an overstuffed chair in front of a blazing fire, with a pot of tea and a plate of biscuits. But I don't know this firsthand because there's no fireplace in our NYC apartment and anyway, I've yet to read an Agatha Christie mystery. No, not a one. But perhaps I should read Christie?

In "Agatha Christie - radical conservative thinker", Johann Hari seeks to rescue Christie from the enormous condescension of the English intelligentsia. As an example of the "Christie-bashing lit-crit pack" perspective, Hari cites the views of Anthony Burgess, who once opined that:

'If she was the queen of the whodunit, she used her royal rank to condone flimsy characterisation, plentiful cliché, implausibility, and verbal vacuity… All we have [in her novels] is an abstract puzzle minimally clothed in the garments of upper middle-class morality.'

Hey, don't sugarcoat it, Burgess: tell us what you really think.

So maybe Christie was a mystery-writing hack, of mediocre talents and middlebrow sensibilities? I wouldn't hold it against her if she were, and frankly, I might even count it in her favour. I'm always looking for something good to read in the tea-and-bickies mode, even though (or perhaps because) we don't have a fireplace.

But Hari suggests there is something else going on in Christie's world, which I find rather intriguing. More specifically, he reads Christie as a Burkean radical conservative:

Her work conforms to Burkean conservatism in every respect: justice rarely comes from the state. Rather, it arises from within civil society – a private detective, a clever old spinster. Indeed, what is Miss Marple but the perfect embodiment of Burke’s thought? She has almost infinite wisdom because she has lived so very long (by the later novels, she is barely able to move and, by some calculations, over 100). She has slowly – like parliament and all traditional bodies, according to Burke – accrued "the wisdom of the ages", and this is the key to her success. From her solitary spot in a small English village, she has learned everything about human nature. Wisdom resides, in Christie and Burke’s worlds, in the very old and the very ordinary.

Alright, I'll confess it: I've got a soft spot for Edmund Burke (which is why I think Kieran Healy should have emerged as the one and only winner in that Political Theory Pick-up Line contest that Josh Chaftez held many months ago). Burke or Paine? At the end of day, well, Paine, of course -- but there's something about Burke that I find strangely compelling.

"In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows." I love that line. And in this case, I think he was right. Not that he was right about everything, or even about most things. And all that purple prose about blood and chivalry and ancient ties:

But age of chivalry is gone.--That of sophisters, oeconomists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom (Reflections on the Revolution in France).

What utter nonsense. Paine was surely right when he wrote of Burke that "He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird" (Rights of Man). And yet. "But age of chivalry is gone.--That of sophisters, oeconomists, and calculators, has succeeded." Who can fail to be moved by such words? (though don't even get me started on those latter-day sophisters, oeconomists, and calculators who seek to assimilate Burke to their own decidedly anti-Burkean agenda. Sorry guys, but Burke was not on your side, and as a matter of fact, he devoted no small amount of time, enery and rhetorical brilliance to the task of opposing you).

But back to Agatha Christie. Hari admits there are a couple of stumbling blocks to an appreciation of her mysteries: namely, her "hostility to feminism" and the "streak of anti-Semitism" that runs through much of her work. I'm not much bothered by the romantic fiddle-faddle of her opposition to feminism (see the Hari piece for details). On the other hand, the anti-Semitism is just ugly. Apparently, Jews figure, at least in the pre-1950s novels, as rootless cosmopolitans: Jewish characters, Hari writes, are "associated with rationalist political philosophies and a ‘cosmopolitanism’ that is antithetical to the Burkean paradigm of the English village." She did write a novel with "an extremely sympathetic portrait of the Levinnes, a Jewish family who suffer from
anti-Semitism in England," but I don't think this enough to atone for "an ugly passage" in The Mysterious Mr Quinn about "'men of Hebraic extraction, sallow men with hooked noses, wearing flamboyant jewellery.'"

So is Christe worth reading? I'm intrigued, but not quite convinced. Is there something interesting going on in her novels that can be convincingly linked to the work of Burke? Or is this just an idiosyncratic reading on the part of Hari? Or perhaps an all-too-predictable and formulaic apology (since, after all, just about any valorization of "Little England" might be tagged as Burkean)? As usual, I defer to my readers...

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at October 15, 2003 07:57 PM

How annoying do you find Dorothy Sayers' Jewish characters? because they're shown according to stereotype, but I don't think Wimsey is unfriendly. Of course, generous condescension isn't the most challenging of virtues.

Posted by: clew at October 15, 2003 09:31 PM

Yes, Christie's well worth reading. That article mentions some of her books with unusual solutions, and I'd go with those.

Posted by: Bruce Baugh at October 15, 2003 10:21 PM

I never cottoned much to Christie (which says nothing about Christie, just about my taste in mysteries). I preferred Poirot to Miss Marple, although Captain Hastings is annoyingly thick-skulled--a bad misreading of Dr. Watson. IIRC, Dorothy L. Sayers (who I do like) tones down the anti-Semitism very noticeably in the late Wimseys.

Of the Golden Age mystery novelists, my own favorite is probably John Dickson Carr, who specialized in locked room mysteries.

Posted by: Miriam at October 15, 2003 11:28 PM

I wouldn't take Hari's piece too seriously. Quoting French intellectuals doesn't help his case. They liked, still like, as far as I know, Edgarpoe (and there are some similarities between Poe and Christie). Nor do his strawman dismissals of Christie. Both Wilson and Burgess (similar figures, too) are just emitting irritated belches.

He's built a rather too large structure on a simple truth: detective stories are consoling. There is great reassurance in seeing this vast machinery move and all come right at the end. Apparently they're also consoling to their writers. Carolyn Heibrun (to bring the conversation back to the ills of academe) wrote a series of mysteries under the name Amanda Cross in which she took out her frustrations on her Columbia colleagues. In one of them a character very much like Edward Said (though, of course, not in any way meant to be Edward Said) gets thrown through a window. Ah.

Posted by: jam at October 16, 2003 09:01 AM

Burgess' evaluation of Christie strikes me as dead on. An incredibly overrated writer. But conceptually there's no reason she can't be both a bad mystery writer and Burkean.

BTW, if you're interesting in thrillers, try Mystic River by Dennis Lehane. A remarkable book.

Posted by: JT at October 16, 2003 09:24 AM

"But conceptually there's no reason she can't be both a bad mystery writer and Burkean."

Exactly. Which is why I'm wondering: Is it Burkean in an interesting way, or in a merely formulaic manner that might apply to anything with cosy English villages and clever old spinsters?

So far, comments seem to be running 2 to 1 against Christie. I'll probably give her a try, but also appreciate the other suggestions.

"In one of them a character very much like Edward Said (though, of course, not in any way meant to be Edward Said) gets thrown through a window." Which novel is this?

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at October 16, 2003 09:38 AM

"A Trap for Fools"

People at Columbia claim to be able to identify the window.

Posted by: jam at October 16, 2003 09:49 AM

I found the Poirot and Marple novels good fluff reading; I haven't had the strong urge to reread any of them (except Murder on the Orient Express), but it's at least worthwhile to check a few out from the library. And the film adaptations starring David Suchet as Poirot are definitely worth watching.

Posted by: Castiron at October 16, 2003 11:12 AM

Well, Miss Marple/Burkean mysteries are consoling, because they return practically everything to the state of Right Order; the evil deed is usually attached to an evil person, and they're excised together. Wedding of innocents ensues, curtain down.

Some mysteries are only temporarily consoling, because the investigation has shown inherent flaws in the original state, or the crime was something anyone could be driven to, or the Furies have required blood to be washed out with blood. That seems realistic to me. Is it Paine?

Posted by: clew at October 16, 2003 02:36 PM

Christie is a terrible writer who can be utterly addictive. One of my brothers went through an Agatha phase, and I picked up The Murder of Roger Ackroyd out of curiosity, devoured it, and ran through a dozen or so more before (feeling slightly sickish) I put her down for good. Now that I think of it, it's like the summer I spent hooked on All My Children (my mother's favorite soap). If you're in the mood for trashy fun, give it a shot -- but if you can't take the wooden prose and cardboard characters, you can turn away without any nagging guilt that you're missing something of importance.

Posted by: language hat at October 16, 2003 08:19 PM

Her books aren't exactly long or difficult; you're not going to waste much time if you find you dislike them. I certainly agree that the adaptations with David Suchet are worth watching.
Start with Murder on the Orient Express or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd -- though the article has ruined much of the point of them for you. Or even And then there were none/Ten little Indians.
My fondness is always for her play, which my grandparents took me to when I was about 8. I was scared every time I heard "three blind mice" for years after. (It was a very effective performance.)

Posted by: wolfangel at October 16, 2003 09:03 PM

My advice would be to give Agatha Christie a try, but for Christ's sake give up Johann Hari. I've never read such windy pseudery.

Posted by: dsquared at October 17, 2003 03:50 AM

Christie's books are actually fairly repetitive and after reading a few, you can almost always see the end coming.

Like a lot of mediocre writers of thrillers and mysteries (John Grisham, Tom Clancy etc.), her books translate to film really well. In fact, I'd say watch the films of her books (outrageous cliches and simple plot devices tend to work better on screen than in novels).

I'd also agree with the person who made the comment abt Dorothy Sayers (the same is true of John Buchan who wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps). Sayers and Christie were writing in inter-war Britain---the period of Oswald Mosley, the Cliveden Set etc. Britons were (and to some degree, still are) not especially open-minded abt those whom they regard as foreign. I love the British deeply (I'm a British historian) but they are an incredibly xenophobic people (all that business of being an island). This xenophobia translates into a dislike of Jews, the French, the Italians (who are also skewerd in Christie's works as greasy etc.), the Germans and yup, even the Belgians (look closely at Poiret and you'll see Christie's contempt for his Continental weirdness).

As a mystery fan, there are a lot better writers I'd suggest. If you want to keep it British, try: Reginald Hill, Ruth Rendell (aka Barbara Vine), Gwendolyn Butler, Ann Graham (don't know if she is available here) etc.

Posted by: Albion at October 17, 2003 11:54 AM

Josephine Tey: there's another one. I was reading the first book, "Man in the Queue"(?), after a friend recommended her. At one point, Tey's detective speculates that because the crime struck him as "oriental" in nature he should seek a Middle Eastern man. (The crime was stabbing someone in the back.) For a second, I thought that Tey was either joking or portraying her detective as a total idiot. But then I realized this was a logical deduction for her and would lead to something in the plot. I'm willing to put up with outdated racialist notions like that in old books but not when it stoops to this level of idiocy. I put that book down and never picked it up again.

Rendell/Vine: uneven but at her best she is great.

Posted by: JT at October 17, 2003 12:52 PM

If you want to get a funny look at British culture and the inter-war fascination with murder mysteries (Christie included), read Connie Willis' To Say Nothing of The Dog. It's brilliant (a parody of Jerome Jerome's Three Men and A Dog but also a hilarious look at British culture). And if you want to understand British xenophobia, check out David Ives' wonderful children's book, Monsieur Eek.

Posted by: Albion at October 17, 2003 01:20 PM

Current British mystery authors: also Minette Walters. The earlier stuff is better. For non-British, my first suggestion is Carol O'Connell.

Posted by: wolfangel at October 17, 2003 03:34 PM

Ditto on Walters (although the last two were not so good) and also Reginald Hill. Stephen Booth, sort of a sub-Hill, is also quite enjoyable (in a grim, tortured sort of way). And Ian Rankin, if you don't mind unpleasant protagonists.

Posted by: Miriam at October 17, 2003 04:43 PM

Christie was great fun when I was 12. She's still fun, but really annoying. I think she was best summed up in "Murder by Death", when IIRC, her characters were accused of cheating because they always had access to knowledge the audience doesn't. Sayers is much better (although the complaints above are valid), and definitely Minette Walters.

I second the vote for Reginald Hill -- but prefer Joe Sixsmith to Dalziel and Pascoe. For real fun, I go for Caleb Carr (smart books by a historian) and I've heard Janet Evanovich is a hoot.

Posted by: Another Damned Medievalist at October 17, 2003 09:18 PM

Like ADM, I read stacks and stacks of Christie at 12 and 13 years old...I used to have a huge collection in paperback, which has vanished under the burden of many moves. Everyone talks about Miss Marple or Poiriot (I agree with the person who said that she writes with a sort of contept for him), but I had a soft spot for Tommy & Tuppence.

I'd agree that they're good for an afternoon's read, and in fact, the discussion makes me nostalgic enough for those days of my youth (so to speak!) that I may go put some on reserve at the library. :)

Posted by: Elaine at October 17, 2003 11:43 PM

Minette Walters: I have read three of her books and NOT ONE has a plot that will hold up to any level of scrutiny. "The Breakers" was the best one but even that... Highly overrated -- and preachy, too.

Posted by: JT at October 20, 2003 09:14 AM

The problem with Christie is that her language, sentence by sentence is simply deadly. Flat.

This morning I was introducing 20 18-year-olds to one of the original mysteries, Oedipus Rex. And though we are reading it in translation (Fitts & Fitzgerald) I noted the importance of the details of the language. Christie has no details. One is reminded of the rich American woman who came to Freud for analysis. After a brief interview the master informed her that he could not psychoanalyze her because she "had no unconscious."

Or perhaps we could think of Christies novels as murder-comedies. It's Nietzsche, isn't it, who notes that comedy begins in disorder & ends in order, usually represented by marriage, while tragedy begins with a settled state of affairs & ends in chaos, dissolution & death? Christie's novels make a comedy of death. Perhaps there is a deep Christianity here that echoes Dante. Nah.

Posted by: chujoe at October 20, 2003 09:44 PM

No, I don't think that Christie's books are Burkean in any interesting way. Actually, they always struck me as being subversive in spite of themselves. Because Christie, unlike some other "classic" mystery writers, was genuinely committed to making the culprit a surprise, the message winds up being that anyone, not just the "Other" (sorry for the jargon) can be a murderer. Frequently the murderer turns out to be someone whom she appeared, up to that point, to thoroughly sympathize with. And--a point that Hari missed--the reason Miss Marple is so "wise" is that all the crimes she's asked to solve have had their counterparts in the cozy village where she lives. (But I prefer the Poirot books anyway.)

Aside from the books mentioned above, "Cards on the Table" is particularly ingenious. (The murder took place during an evening of bridge, and the only clues are the scoresheets.) And "Pale Horse," a late, non-series book, genuinely creeped me out when I read it.

Picking up on the Christie's books as comedies, in almost all the ones I've read a young couple either gets together or reaffirms a strained relationship in the course of the book. It's never a major plot strand, but she nearly always sticks it in.

Posted by: Adam at October 21, 2003 10:22 PM