From the Guardian: Agatha Christie: why I got fed up with Poirot
In a long-lost essay from the 1930s, the novelist reflects on the art of
detective fiction as well as the strengths and weaknesses of her
What kind of people read detective stories and why? Invariably, I think,
the busy people, the workers of the world. Highly placed men in the
scientific world, even if they read nothing else, seem to have time for a
detective story; perhaps because a detective story is complete
relaxation, an escape from the realism of everyday life. It has, too,
the tonic value of a puzzle – a challenge to the ingenuity. It sharpens
your wits – makes you mentally alert. To follow a detective story
closely you need concentration. To spot the criminal needs acumen and
good reasoning powers. It has also a sporting interest and is much less
expensive than betting on horses or gambling at cards. Its ethical
background is usually sound. Very, very rarely is the criminal the hero
of the book. Society unites to hunt him down, and the reader can have
all the fun of the chase without moving from a comfortable armchair.
Before speaking of present-day English writers, I must first pay tribute to Conan Doyle,
the pioneer of detective writing, with his two great creations Sherlock
Holmes and Watson – Watson, perhaps the greater creation of the two.
Holmes after all has his properties, his violin, his dressing gown, his
cocaine, etc – Watson has just himself – lovable, obtuse, faithful,
maddening, guaranteed to be always wrong, and perpetually in a state of
admiration. How badly we all need a Watson in our lives!
detective writing since then is modelled roughly on the same structure.
The detective is the "central character". But there has come to be
something too artificial about a "private investigator". The essence of a
detective story is that it shall be "natural" in its setting and
characters. My own Hercule Poirot
is often somewhat of an embarrassment to me – not in himself, but in
the calling of his life. Would anyone go and "consult" him? One feels
not. So, more and more, his entry into a murder drama has to be
fortuitous. My Miss Marple
is more happily placed – an elderly, gossipy lady in a small village,
who pokes her nose into all that does or does not concern her, and draws
deductions based on years of experience of human nature.
At the present day, I should call Margery Allingham one of the foremost writers of detective fiction.
Not only does she write excellent English, but her drawing of character
is masterly and she has wonderful power in creating atmosphere. You can
feel the sinister influences behind the scenes, and her characters live
on in your memory long after you have put the book away; the grim
autocrat Mrs Faraday of Police at the Funeral. The kindly and lovable "belle" in Death of a Ghost.
Jimmy Sutane, the sad-faced dancer with the twinkling feet. They are
unusual but real personalities, vividly interesting. And through the
books moves "Mr Campion", apparently vacuous, actually keenly acute, and
with him the faithful Lugg (in whom, alas, I never can quite believe).
The pleasant negative inconsequence of Campion makes a dramatic contrast
with the undercurrent of suspicion and fear that grows to a climax –
particularly in Flowers for the Judge.
Sometimes, one feels, Allingham is inclined to subordinate plot to
characters. She is so interested in them that the dénouement of the
crime sometimes comes rather flatly as inevitable, rather than as a
alas, has wearied of the detective story and has turned her attention
elsewhere. We all regret it, for she was such an exceptionally good
detective story writer and a delightfully witty one. Her earlier books Whose Body?, Unnatural Death, Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
are decidedly her best, having greater simplicity and more "punch" to
them. Also her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, whose face was originally
piquantly described as "emerging from his top hat like a maggot emerging
from a gorgonzola cheese", became through the course of years merely a
"handsome hero", and admirers of his early prowess can hardly forgive
his attachment to, and lengthy courtship of, a tiresome young woman
called Harriet. One had hoped that, once married to her, he would resume
his old form, but alas, Lord Peter remains an example of a good man
(or Carter Dickson, for they are one and the same) is a master
magician. I believe that only those who write detective stories
themselves can really appreciate his marvellous sleight of hand. For
that is what it is – he is the supreme conjurer, the king of the art of
misdirection. Each of his books is a brilliant, fantastic, quite
impossible conjuring trick: "You watch my hands, ladies and gentlemen,
you watch my sleeves, the hat is empty, nothing anywhere – Hey presto! A
He has, too, the gift of storytelling; once you
begin a book of his, you simply cannot put it down. As each chapter
draws to a close, you see ahead a reasonable explanation, then, like
Alice through the Looking Glass's path, it seems to shake itself, and
off it goes in a twist of fresh bewilderment. His characterisation is
not particularly good, his people talk in a way quite unlike life, his
events are fantastic. It is all stagey – set behind footlights – but
what a performance!
His penchant is for the impossible situation.
He starts with that – either with the familiar "closed room" or "closed
circle" or with, as in the "Arabian Nights Mystery", a setting of pure
fantasy, with a set of people behaving apparently like lunatics. Then a
shake of the kaleidoscope, and you get the reason of it, the thing is
after all quite normal – and then fresh impossibilities, fresh
rationalisations. For some people, the twists of the plot may be too
complicated. He can certainly be accused of occasionally loading the
dice, but that crime can be forgiven for the brilliance with which it is
done. The clues to the truth are so slight as to be almost unfair. One
little sentence slipped into the middle of a tense situation. A mention
of a car radiator on page 30 that does not agree with the same car's
radiator on page 180. Do you notice it? Of course not! Your eyes are
riveted on a suspicious circumstance which you think only you have
spotted. Misdirection again.
A crowd of people are assembled round a dinner table in The Red Widow Murders.
There is a sinister room in the house, nailed up for many years. Anyone
who stays in it alone is found dead. A man goes in, locks himself in
while the others wait outside. Every quarter of an hour they call to him
and he replies – but when the door is opened the man is dead, in a room
with locked shutters and no secret ways in or out, and, what is more,
that man has been dead for over an hour. The impossible has happened.
You never noticed a little descriptive phrase about the man at dinner;
pale, nervous, eating nothing but soup … your clue was there, in those
Dickson Carr's detective is the beer drinking Dr Fell,
Carter Dickson's sleuth is Sir Henry Merrivale, the "old man", a former
chief of military intelligence. I much prefer him of the two – but it
is the actual unfolding of the story that is the real strength of Carr's
genius. He is a male Scheherazade – and certainly no cruel empress
could order his execution until she had heard the next instalment.
Ngaio Marsh is another deservedly popular detective writer. Her style is amusing and her characterisations excellent. Surfeit of Lampreys was a delightful book, though perhaps one so enjoyed the Lamprey family that one rather forgot about the murder. Death in Ecstasy
is a very clever picture of a little coterie of worshippers in a "New
Religion" adroitly put over by the infamous Father Garnett. Artists in Crime is a good story of murder among a collection of painters. Both the atmosphere and the people are first rate.
There are many other good detective writers – space forbids the mention of all of them. There is Michael Innes, a brilliant and witty writer. There is Gladys Mitchell with her fascinating Mrs Bradley, ugly as a toad and armed with the latest up-to-date theories of psychology. R Austin Freeman's books remain interesting examples of scientific methods of crime deduction.
have chosen for fullest description those writers whom I myself admire
most and consider at the top of their profession. And now I may say,
perhaps, a few words about myself. Since I have been writing detective
stories for a quarter of a century and have some 40-odd novels to my
credit, I may lay claim at least to being an industrious craftsman. A
more aristocratic title was given to me by an American paper, which
dubbed me "the Duchess of Death".
I have enjoyed writing detective
stories, and I think the austerity and stern discipline that goes to
making a "tight" detective plot is good for one's thought processes. It
is the kind of writing that does not permit loose or slipshod thinking.
It all has to dovetail, to fit in as part of a carefully constructed
whole. You must have your blueprint first and it needs really
constructive thinking to make a workmanlike job of it.
one's methods alter. I have become more interested as the years go on in
the preliminaries of crime. The interplay of character upon character,
the deep smouldering resentments and dissatisfactions that do not always
come to the surface but which may suddenly explode into violence. I
have written light-hearted murder stories, and serious crime stories,
and technical extravaganzas like Ten Little Niggers.
I have laid a crime story in ancient Egypt, and a murder play on a
modern Nile steamer. I have had the conventional body in the library,
and bodies in aeroplanes, and on boats and in trans-European Trains.
Hercule Poirot has made quite a place for himself in the world and is
regarded perhaps with more affection by outsiders than by his own
creator. I would give one piece of advice to young detective writers: be
very careful what central character you create – you may have him with
you for a very long time!