BY RUCHIRA GHOSH
She may well have been an icon of colonialism, pertaining to a bygone era, but modern-day aficionados of English literature in my home country India simply cannot do without Agatha Christie.
This prolific author whose novels were outsold only by The Bible and Shakespeare (an unbroken record yet) still enjoys global popularity (including erstwhile colonies of Great Britain) decades after she walked into sunset. This year as the literary world celebrates her 130th birthday her aura and charm remain undiminished.
Like any true blue Briton she was passionately in love with her native tongue. Agatha’s diction, rich vocabulary and writing styles are outstanding, like no other. Her in-depth study and profound knowledge of The Bible, legends of Greece & Rome, and Shakespeare were her pillars of strength and enriched her creations. All discerning and extensive readers of her novels will invariably note how she copiously borrows from Shakespeare’s plays and aptly uses them in her stories.
I am sure most people will agree with me that Christie’s novels take the readers on a virtual world tour. She selects exotic locations as settings of her novels; places that are breathtakingly beautiful, popular with tourists and replete with deep significance. In many cases, the titles themselves are catchy and whet the readers’ appetite for mystery and adventure. Passengers to Frankfurt, They Came To Baghdad, Death on the Nile, while not forgetting the sensational Murder on the Orient Express are as good examples as any. On a personal note my first ever Agatha Christie novel was A Caribbean Mystery with the picturesque West Indies as the backdrop. Equally mesmerising was Appointment with Death. Here the drama unfolds amidst the craggy granite cliffs and undulating desert sands of Petra in Jordan.
Coming to Christie’s sleuths … let us consider the nondescript ones first. The detective couple Tommy and Tuppence are active in cases like Postern of Fate, N or M? By the Pricking of My Thumbs to name a few. They solve the cases assiduously, painstakingly; yet their personalities fail to remain etched permanently in the readers’ minds. Likewise, Parker Pyne also disappoints. The elderly, balding gentleman, a self- proclaimed “heart specialist” turns out to be a genial do-gooder who solves a few mysteries along the way. He is found in action in the novels like The House of Shiraz, The Oracle at Delphi et al.
By any computation, the two colossal detectives created by Agatha Christie are Miss Jane Marple and Monsieur Hercules Poirot. Larger than life, their follies and foibles notwithstanding, the duo have been immortalised by master strokes of artistic craft; consequently, almost a century after they made their respective debuts, their popularity refuses to wane.
As an avid reader of Agatha Christie’s thrillers my personal favourite has always been Miss Marple. She is depicted as an elderly (at least a septuagenarian from all accounts) spinster who lives in the little English village of St. Mary Mead. She is the quintessential British gentry, resourceful enough to escape working for a living. She even owns and drives a car! We find her knowledgeable with taste for the good things in life. She always dresses in tweed and is seen either knitting (her favourite pink wool) or weeding her home garden. Her twinkling blue eyes give an inkling of her agile mind and amiable disposition. Her aged appearance is a blessing in disguise for the lady sleuth. Be it in hotels or other public places, Marple smoothly mingles into the background. But her sharp ears seldom miss out snatches of conversation that prove useful later. Suspects are thrown off their guard (who could imagine an old lady to be a detective?) and tend to blurt out secrets in her presence! Her penchant for gossip camouflages her shrewd intelligence and relentless quest for truth. She possesses a sharp logical mind coupled with a deep insight into the entire gamut of human emotions. Miss Marple does not let any opportunity slip by to observe human nature, and her oft quoted phrase is, “There is a great deal of wickedness in village life”. It would not be wrong to say that criminals and murderers fail to realize that with every knit and purl she is not making a sweater but solving a crime.
On the other hand, Hercules Poirot is a formidable character by way of his foreign origin. (He is a French speaking Belgian). Diminutive in appearance, an oval head always perched a little on one side, a stiff and military moustache with pointed ends and a pink-tipped nose. That about sums up Poirot. He is intelligent, suave, wearing arrogance on his sleeve. His accented English is laced with French idioms and phrases. Poirot is projected as a conventional, clue-based, and logical detective. This is mirrored in his familiar phrases e.g use of “the little grey cells” and “order and method”. In The Clocks we discover he has an ear for classical music. Poirot is a stickler for punctuality and is seldom seen without his pocket watch. He is impeccably dressed and is so fastidious about cleanliness that a speck of dust is more painful to him than a bullet wound. At times Christie adds a human touch by portraying him as prone to sickness. Here is a man who is always careful about his digestive system. For Poirot eating not only implies physical pleasure, but also an intellectual exploration.
Poirot makes it a point on getting people to talk. In the earlier cases he adopted the role of “Papa Poirot”, a benign confessor, especially to young women. In later cases Christie makes Poirot supply false information about himself or his background to assist him in collecting more facts. In the long run, either through a lie, or through truth, people give themselves away. Ultimately Poirot is seen furnishing elaborate details of his observations, the sequence of events and his deductions, to a room full of people (including the suspect/s), which makes it easy for the constable to nab the culprit.
Like many of her contemporary writers, Agatha Christie had her fair share of criticism. Some critics opine, her plots, while highly ingenious, also appear improbable. Why? Because the characters who drive them are not characters at all, but puppets, jerking lifelessly on the ends of visible strings. She was also slammed for racist streaks in her stories, which subtly seemed to indicate superiority of the white race. Consider this extract from The Caribbean Mystery: “Victoria Johnson rolled over and sat up in bed. The St. Honoré girl was a magnificent creature with a torso of black marble such as a sculptor would have enjoyed. She ran her fingers through her dark, tightly curling hair.”
Or the following lines from Cat Among Pigeons: “African chiefs have the most polished manners,’ said her father, who had recently returned from a short business trip to Ghana. ‘So do Arab sheiks (sic)’ said Mrs. Sutcliffe. ‘Really courtly.” ‘D’you remember that sheik’s feast we went to?’ said Jennifer. ‘And how he picked out the sheep’s eye and gave it to you, and Uncle Bob nudged you not to make a fuss and to eat it?’”
As an ardent follower, I would venture to add that Christie’s shortcoming might be easily glossed over owing to the fact that her style is superb. Reading just a few pages is enough to set your Adrenalin rushing; whip up your curiosity to discover whodunit and wonder about the outcome. I confess, once you take up an Agatha Christie case, it is tough to disengage yourself until you have read it from cover to cover!