My copy of, The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories, claims that Agatha Christie is ‘The Queen of Mystery’, and I’m inclined to believe that might be a fair assessment. How many other writers have won the esteem of such a vast raft of readers over so many decades? I can think of only a handful.
Most authors who have had time in the limelight eventually drift out of fashion, even in the second-hand market. Some will be picked up again by publishers who specialise in reminding us of neglected, but worthwhile reads, many more will fade. That’s fine, it has to be, or where is the room for new writers?
Agatha Christie, though, seems to have a special place in this system. I’m not going to claim she’s universally loved or admired. I’ve met plenty of people, including readers of mystery, who don’t rate her for various reasons. Still, her books continue to be published, and bought. Last time I saw my friend Ruth, the bookseller, she told me Christie was one of her most asked for authors.
So, what’s the trick? I think Christie is like a good quality bar of chocolate: comforting. In her novels we’re in fairly safe hands. The murdered are usually people we either don’t know, or aren’t sure we like, and the solution is generally tricky to predict. We might be able to identify romances in the making, but you’ve got to be a careful reader to assemble the crime-clues correctly.
Romance might be the key. Characters, generally with forgivable flaws, are gradually revealed to be secretly falling for someone who seems to be unsuitable. Often they mistakenly suspect the object of their attention is the guilty party, and are conflicted about providing vital evidence. In the process of discovering this, they learn something about themselves.
Oh dear, how cynical I sound. But, break any story down, and doesn’t it become flat? In a Christie novel main characters, even the caricatures, are not flat. They have quirky dialogue, or entertaining mannerisms. They’re active and interesting, digging up red-herrings to keep me guessing.
In the past, I’ve read a lot of Christie’s short and long fiction. As I contemplated the Harper/Collins paperback I thought about why I’ve preferred her novels. Had I given the short-stories a fair read? I flicked a couple of pages over. Nothing else had caught my eye, and this paperback was less than a pound. Reader, I bought it.
I’d like to be able to say I had a revelation, but I don’t want to mislead you. The stories are nicely written. Setting and situation are delivered economically. There’s snappy dialogue, tight plotting with twists that I mostly didn’t foresee, and neat solutions. So, I’ve been asking myself, ‘why don’t I like them?’
In general, these felt dated, and irrelevant in a way that her novels don’t. The novels draw me in gently, settle me into situations far outside of my experience, whether that means a smart ‘otel on a private island, an archaeological dig in a desert, or dinner at a crumbling stately home. There are introductions, a chance to find my feet.
The short stories dropped me into an upper-middle-class 1930s world, often with characters I’d never met before. Four of the stories featured Poirot. ‘Phew,’ I thought, ‘throw me a life-buoy, Hastings, old chap, will you? Please?’ He tried. Miss Marple tried too. I couldn’t adjust. I tried to think myself into the period. These, after all, were not written with an eye to the future. It felt like hard-work.
Sometimes a lot of characters tried to hold my attention, in others several significant doors were opened or shut in the same paragraph. The focus was on the puzzle, and some puzzles seemed big for the space they occupied.
Was there one story I liked? I’m afraid not: there were fragments.
‘Problem at Pollena Bay’ came closest. The premise was so simple I actually worked out the solution, but the characterisation was strong.
Am I sorry I read them? No, I learnt a lot by working out what I didn’t like. I’m not sure I need to re-read them, though I’ve not given up on Christie’s short stories. Apparently she wrote over 100. I’ve a long way to go.