The Gentle Art of Murder: The Detective Fiction of Agatha Christie

By Earl F. Bargainnier | Go to book overview

Chapter I

Golden Age Detective Fiction:
An Introduction to Christie's Genre

...detective stories have nothing to do with works of art.

W.H. Auden

If you can grow lyrical over Proust's crumb of cake in the teacup, you can find charm in the ambiguity of any clue.

Jacques Barzun

Detective nouels ... were no more intended to be judged by realistic standards than one would judge Watteau's shepherds and shepherdesses in terms of contemporary sheep-farming.

Robert Graves & Alan Hodge

Though her books span a period from 1920 to 1976, Agatha Christie's detective fiction is essentially of the type called "Golden Age," or classic, that is of the period between the two world wars. She could and did change various elements within her work as time passed, but the basic form of her fiction did not change. Each new "Christie for Christmas" could be counted upon to be another surprising variation on the general pattern. Therefore, an examination of the nature of Golden Age detective fiction is a necessary first step in evaluating Christie's work.

Nearly every writer on detective fiction has resorted to analogy as an aid to definition or explanation. The analogies have varied considerably, from religious ritual to the minuet, but three large groups have been most prominent: games, logic and mathematics, and other literary forms. The analogies to games range from card games and jigsaw and crossword puzzles to football and other sports. R. Austin Freeman called the genre "an exhibition of mental gymnastics," and he was joined by Willard Huntington Wright, who not only described detective fiction as "a kind of intellectual game ... a sporting event," but even as "a complicated and extended puzzle cast in fictional form." 1 Numerous other critics have followed this line. Julian Symons' characterization of such fiction as "an exercise in logic" and Dorothy Sayers' statement that in "its severest form, the mystery story is a pure analytical exercise" are typical of the second group. 2 Often, however, blame is implied by such analogies, as in Mary McCarthy's view that the characters in such stories are "about as real as the A and B of the algebra problems"; on the other hand, John Leonard uses the same analogy

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