In Defense of Agatha Christie

P.D. James, in her recent book, Talking About Detective Fiction, pp. 97-98, writes:

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:

The one on the left is a caricature of several old men by Leonardo Da Vinci, the other a sketch of Igor Stravinsky by Picasso.

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?

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10 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I’ve always viewed Christie’s novels as entertainment, so her characters suit me just fine. In addition to Poirot and Marple, I love the few books she wrote starring Tommy and Tuppence. I have a few Christie titles waiting for a reread. I may have to move a couple closer to the top of my TBR stack.

    • Pat,
      I love her Tommy and Tuppence novels, too! She is my very favorite author. I pick up an Agatha Christie every few months to re-read.

  2. I love how visual your post is. To the novice and the expert alike this is an easy example that stimulates the thought process. Great!
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

    • Nancy,
      Many thanks!. My eye is always drawn by visuals, so I try to include them.

  3. Like the look. Interesting to see the Picasso drawing that became famous for me from the Drawing From the Right Side of the Brain. That’s one of the sketches she used and it was turned upside down so artists would learn to draw lines instead of images.

    Good luck!

    • Monti,
      Thanks! Was the idea in your drawing class to make you really look at what you were drawing? A friend of mine took a class where the instructor turned off the light in the room and made them draw in the dark so the students would learn to draw like artists rather than merely copy what they saw.

  4. If a story draws me in and entertains me, I don’t worry about psychological studies and such. If a character pulls some bizarre stunt out of left field because they’re supposed to be the token villain or whatever (Ghostwritten V. C. Andrews, anyone?), then yeah. I’m left scratching my head and wondering why that character did that particular thing.

    • I couldn’t agree more!

  5. I’ve always enjoyed Christie’s surface characterizations, because I think she implies depths, whether she meant to or not! Her catch-phrase, “Anyone is capable of murder” forces the reader to bring his or her own psychological understanding to the book in trying to guess who might have what motive that nobody knows about. Worlds within worlds!

    Marian Allen

    • Marian,

      You’ve put your finger on it, exactly. Instead of having everything about the character all laid out for you, she makes you think. And I’ll just bet that’s why I can re-read her books so often and with such enjoyment. Each time I see something new—which is true of all great art.

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