Genre in Transit: Agatha Christie, Trains, and the Whodunit

By Ewers, Chris | Journal of Narrative Theory, Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

Genre in Transit: Agatha Christie, Trains, and the Whodunit


Ewers, Chris, Journal of Narrative Theory


Agatha Christie is the most widely read author of the twentieth century; in fact, as her publisher HarperCollins is quick to proclaim, she is "outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare." However, while a bibliography of exegesis on the Bible or Shakespeare's works could fill up a telephone directory, there was a time when the number of critics writing about Christie could fit in a telephone box. Academic critics, in a dubious critical move, have classified Christie as a "lowbrow" author, the type of writer who is devoured and then forgotten; conversely, they compensate writers of greater weight for their lack of sales by emphasizing how influential they are. By a reverse logic, the more you are read, the less impact you have. The contemporary move towards studying texts excluded from the literary canon has spurred a growing interest in Christie but she is still underrepresented. Jesper Gulddal and Alistair Rolls, guest editors for a special issue on Christie of the detective fiction journal Clues, bemoan the fact that "the extensive fan community and the flourishing Christie industry tend to steer reception of her writing away from academic critics."

Christie's neglect in academic circles is due, in part, to her reputation for providing easy page-turners that allow readers a simple form of closure at the end. Warren Cherniak notes that Christie's novels "are often characterized as conservative and class-ridden, comforting in their predictability, presenting an idealized landscape shaped to fit the prejudices of their mid- dle-class audience" (104-5). Yet to describe texts like Christie's, in which most of the characters are in some way suspect, as depicting a world where nothing needs to change is debatable, at best. Even stranger is the critical neglect of Christie's narrative strategies, among them her signature "structural playfulness" (Rushing 100), which more than any other element constitutes her unique approach to detective fiction.

My aim in this article is to shed light on Christie's narrative ingenuity by examining how she uses train travel in her fiction to modify and investigate the genre conventions of the whodunit. I shall focus, chiefly, on her two best train novels, Murder on the Orient Express (1934) and 4.50 from Paddington (1957). The train, a master trope of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, introduces a number of expectations concerning modernity, linearity, mobility, and a new world of transit. Such powerful tropes inject extra-textual referents that can alter or disrupt the norms of narrative. Reception theorist Wolfgang Iser, in The Act of Reading (1978), insists on the importance of the element of information that readers bring to the text in order to fill inevitable narrative gaps. Not all such narrative gaps are the same, however. In contrast to the exhaustive presentation of the railway journey typical of such nineteenth-century realist novels as Dombey and Son (1848) or Jude the Obscure (1895), Christie's descriptions of train travel are sparse. She barely describes the 4.50 from Paddington, and in Murder on the Orient Express she relies on readers to draw on their own knowledge about "arguably the most famous train name in history" (Zimmermann 15). However, the train still has a very real presence in the way Christie modifies the usual tropes associated with railway journeys and subverts the expectations of the reader.

In both novels Christie defamiliarizes the train motif, deconstructs the usual space-time continuum of the railway journey, and in the process disturbs expected genre conventions, introducing mobility into an oeuvre known for its domestication of the crime novel. Colin Watson notes that the usual setting for Christie and what he terms the Mayhem Parva school of crime writing tends to be "a cross between a village and a commuters' dormitory in the South of England" (169). Literary critics, when discussing the geography of a text, tend to be fascinated by ideas about place and locale, rather than the world of mobility. …

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