Theory and Practice of Classic Detective Fiction

By Jerome H. Delamater; Ruth Prigozy | Go to book overview

8
Christie's Narrative Games

Robert Merrill

Agatha Christie continues to appeal to us because she devised intellectual challenges or games of unusual, even unparalled ingenuity. This remark may seem a virtual commonplace, but it often seems contradicted by critical writing on detective fiction in general and on Christie in particular. General studies tend to emphasize the ideological element in crime fiction (as in books by Dennis Porter and Stephen Knight) or its sociological insights (as in John Cawelti's discussion of classic detective fiction). Book-length studies of Christie acknowledge her skill as a maker of puzzles but spend very few pages on the subject, preferring instead to stress Christie's characterizations: Maida and Spornick devote seventeen pages to what they call “The Puzzle-Game” (68-84) eighty-five pages to Christie's various detectives (85–170); Bargainnier's chapter on Christie's plots covers twenty-three pages (144–66), whereas his chapter on her characters runs to 106 pages (38–143); and even Gillian Gill, who offers the best commentary on Christie's narrative strategies, intersperses her remarks on plot throughout a narrative largely devoted to biographical matters. Thus, we have what seems to me the central irony about Christie's reputation: Everyone knows that her distinction lies in her clever plots, but no one bothers to say much about them. To explain a Christie plot is apparently equivalent to explaining a joke—not so hard to do, perhaps, but somewhat in poor taste.1

My own view is that no other approach will tell us much about Christie's distinction as a detective writer. Our supreme puzzlemaker, Christie succeeds as a maker of engaging plots or does not succeed at all. I adopt the plural form in “games” and “plots” because I think Christie excels in offering successful variations on the classic formula defined by Cawelti and others. Like her peers, Christie introduces her detective, provides a crime and clues, details an investigation, permits her detective to announce his or her solution and to ex

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