She [Agatha Christie] employs no great psychological subtlety in her characterization; her villains and suspects are drawn in broad and clear outlines, and perhaps because of this, they have a universality which readers worldwide can instantly recognize and feel at home with. Above all she is a literary conjuror who places her pasteboard characters face downwards and shuffles them with practiced cunning. Game after game we are confident that this time we will turn up the card with the face of the true murderer, and time after time she defeats us.
But does P.D. James’s claim that Agatha Christie’s characters are mere pasteboard characters identify a defect? Part of what’s delightful about an Agatha Christie mystery is precisely that her characters are caricatures of the upper class in Britain. (This is in addition, of course, to the clever puzzle she sets for the reader to solve, namely spot the killer before all is revealed by Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple or one of her other clever sleuths.) But the important question is: is there anything wrong with caricatures or sketches? Consider the following two portraits, neither of which involves any great psychological subtlety in characterization, both drawn in broad, clear outlines:
They are clearly different, reflecting different artists, done in their distinctive styles, but does one convey more information about character than the other?
Now consider the painting by Rembrandt, Portrait of an Old Man in Red 1652-54, below and compare it to the ones by Da Vinci and Picasso above. Does it give us more information about the character of the old man?
Maybe the problem is that the question—is any one of the portraits superior to the others?—doesn’t make sense. Why? Because that question always presupposes that we know the answer to a prior question: For what purpose was the portrait created?
Da Vinci wanted, with his caricatures of five old men, to preserve for use in his future paintings a humorous look at the deformities brought about by old age.
Picasso wanted to capture, with a few deft stokes of charcoal, the essential character of Igor Stravinsky.
And Rembrandt, with his masterful use of radiant light, wanted to reveal the dignity of an old man.
Similarly, Agatha Christie by creating caricatures of the upper class in Britain and setting us a puzzle to solve wanted to entertain us. Her purpose was not, as was P.D. James’s, to provide us with psychological studies of the characters embroiled in her plots.
But what do you think?