They Do It with Nursery Rhymes. the Mystery of Intertextuality in Agatha Christie's Detective Fiction from a Literary Critic's and a Translator's Perspective

By Percec, Dana; Pungă, Loredana | British and American Studies, January 1, 2019 | Go to article overview

They Do It with Nursery Rhymes. the Mystery of Intertextuality in Agatha Christie's Detective Fiction from a Literary Critic's and a Translator's Perspective


Percec, Dana, Pungă, Loredana, British and American Studies


1. Introduction

Almost 130 years after her birth, Agatha Christie continues to be one of the best known and best-selling authors of detective fiction worldwide. Even if she wrote books pertaining to a genre that was - and still is - regarded as popular, lowbrow, her influence and authority over later generations of writers and the elements of the narrative which became, due to her contribution, invariables of this genre, undoubtedly turn her into an auteur. Moreover, as the most notable female writer of detective fiction and the creator of the best known lady sleuth as well as of the equally famous Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie gives readers and literary critics solid grounds for regarding her work as a convincing instance of écriture feminine.

Last but not least, this writer offers as many puzzles to her translators as to her general public, among other things, in the subtle tension she creates between the titles of her novels and their plot. Sometimes, she gives her books titles with a strong intertextual resonance, this highly literary connection extending its aura of authority and prestige to the thriller, which, in this way, remains not only a good example of craftsmanship, but also a piece that claims canonicity.

On many occasions, Agatha Christie intrigues her readers by giving her stories titles which contradict the very expectations of a detective story. She employs many easily recognizable lines extracted from nursery rhymes and fairy tales, a strategy which may be given a complex justification. The contrast between the serenity and innocence promised by a genre for children and the technicality of the most atrocious murder has an almost cathartic effect on the readers. Beyond the individual drama which is singled out in the story, with a victim whose violent death is avenged by a clever detective, these "world-of-innocence" additions are reassuring in the sense that a universal tendency towards order will always prevail. In this paper, we analyze several examples of Christie's titles containing nursery rhymes and elements of other texts for children, discussing whether the choices made by the translators when rendering these titles into Romanian are true to the author's original intentions or not and, implicitly, whether they are as functional in the translated versions as they are in the original.

2.All's well that ends well? The literary critic's perspective on intertextuality in Agatha Christie's titles

Many recent analysts of the detective genre insist on the contribution of women writers to the stability and credibility of this fictional mode in a century which has been very whimsical in its support and appreciation of literary movements and their representatives. After the genre was established in the 19th century as a witness of the middle-class respect for order, the early decades of the 20th century consolidated it as a male domain, in the shape of hard boiled narratives. But quite a few women writers tackled this genre and succeeded, with less stereotypical heroes, more colourful and detailed settings, or more socially sensitive subjects, in keeping the whodunit afloat and alive in the attention of readers and critics. Sally R. Munt (1994: 5) observes that, in contrast with early versions of whodunits, dominated by the "sizzling irrelevance" of female characters, in the recent years, the feminine version of the crime narrative has consistently rewritten the archetypal masculine framework.

One of the most prominent contributors to the genre was Agatha Christie, who gave a particular twist to the image of the average private investigator. Not only is Poirot a sophisticated, exotic gentleman with a slightly effeminate inclination towards fashionable elegance, refined cuisine and comfortable domesticity, but Miss Marple, in her very ordinariness, is one of the most extraordinary sleuths. An elderly, middle-class, provincial lady, with a passion for knitting, she is a singular focalizer of post-war British lifestyle, mentalities and social order. …

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