September 28, 2020

Agatha Christie, the cheese in the ‘Mousetrap’

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She was born 15th September 1890 and died on the 12th January 1976. She has given me the greatest pleasure, leaving me tranquil and craving for more when I am through devouring one of her countless tomes. She is a philosopher of the mundane, a scholar of death, and an exquisite chronicler of decay and decadence. She wrote romances under the name of Mary Westmacott. She was born Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller and on Christmas Eve 1914 she married Archibald Christie and became Mrs. Agatha Christie, later Dame Agatha Christie. I spend as much time wondering what so mesmerizes me in her pulp fiction as I do trying to decipher her deliciously contorted stratagems.

First, there is the claustrophobia. Modernity revolves around the rapid depletion of our personal spaces – from pastures and manors to cubicles and studio apartments. Christie – like Edgar Ellen Poe before her – imbues even the most confined rooms with endless opportunities for vice and malice, where countless potential scenarios can and do unfold kaleidoscopically. A Universe of plots and countervailing subplots that permeate even the most cramped of her locations. It is nothing short of consummate magic.

Then there is the realization of the ubiquity of our pathologies. In Christie’s masterpieces, even the champions of good are paragons of mental illness. Hercules Poirot, the quintessential narcissist, self-grooming, haughty, and delusional. Miss Marple, a schizoid busybody, who savors neither human company, nor her inevitable encounters with an intruding world. Indeed, it is deformity that gifts these two with their eerily penetrating insights into the infirmities of others.

Do not forget the death of innocence. Dame Agatha’s detective novels are quaint, set in an Imperialist type Britain that is no more and likely had never existed. Technologies make their debut: the car, the telephone, the radio, and electric light. The very nature of evil is transformed from the puerile directness of the highway robber and the passion killer – to the scheming, cunning, and disguised automatism of her villains. Crime in her books is calculated, the outcome of plotting and conspiring, a confluence of unbridled and corrupted appetites and a malignant mutation of individualism. Her opus is a portrait of our age, as it emerged, all bloodied and repellent, from the womb the dying Victorian era.

Christie’s weapons of choice are simple – the surreptitious poison, a stealthy dagger, the cocked revolver, a hideous drowning. Some acquaintance with the sciences of Chemistry and Physics is indispensable, of course. Archeology comes third. But Christie’s main concerns are human nature and morality. The riddles that she so fiendishly posits cannot be solved without taking both into account.

As Miss Marple keeps insisting throughout her numerous adventures, people are the same everywhere, regardless of their social standing, wealth, or upbringing. The foibles, motives, and likely actions of protagonists – criminals as well as victims – are inferred by Marple from character studies of her village folks back home. Human nature is immutable and universal is Christie’s message.

Not so morality. Formal justice is a slippery concept, often opposed to the natural sort. Life is in shades of grey. Murders sometimes are justified, especially when they serve to rectify past wrongs or prevent a greater evil. Some victims had it coming. Crime is part of a cycle of karmic retribution. The detective’s role is to restore order to a chaotic situation, to interpret reality for us (in an inevitable final chapter), and to administer true and impartial justice, not shackled by social or legalistic norms.

‘Nothing is as it seems’ is perhaps Christie’s greatest allure. Beneath the polished, petite-bourgeois, rule-driven surface, lurks another world, replete with demons and with angels, volcanic passions and stochastic drives, the mirrors and the mirrored, where no ratio rules and no laws obtain. Catapulted into this nightmarish, surrealistic landscape, like the survivors of a shipwreck, we wander, bedazzled, readers and detectives, heroes and villains, damsels and their lovers, doomed to await the denouement. When that moment comes, redeemed by reason, we emerge, reassured, into our reinstated, ordered, Before Christ(ie) existence.

Her novels are the substance of our dreams, woven from the fabric of our fears, an open invitation to plunge into our psyches and courageously confront the abyss. Hence Christie’s irresistibility – her utter acquaintance with our deepest quiddity. Who can forgo such narcissistic pleasure? Not Georgina, for sure!

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