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December 2001
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Today I Killed Grandather

Recently I have taken to rereading Agatha Christie mysteries. Once upon a time, decades ago, I acquired, read, and reread them all. From time to time in the subsequent years I might pick one up and reread it but for the most part they, like so many other of my books, remained second class citizens in my library, although "library" is scarcely an accurate term for the disorganized clutter of books that encumbered my living space for many a year.

A disarray of books (one of those plurals like "a pride of lions") is, I suppose, natural for any one with a serious book habit. Even if one has had one's books organized, arranged, and properly shelved at some point in one's life there are three little ogres of entropy that ensure that such an unnatural state of affairs does not last.

The least and smallest of these ogres is that one continues to acquire books. Like moth and rust, the steady trickle of incoming books erodes all arrangements and all organization. It is true enough that this flow can be managed if one is vigilant about ensuring that each tome receives its proper home. However the price of order is eternal vigilance. Once that vigilance is relaxed the erosion begins.

Enter the second ogre, who wears a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan, "Get A Life." I have no idea what the slogan means; it's not something I would think of doing personally. Still, there are often periods in one's life when one spends much of one's free time in activities that have little to do with books - pursuing a mate, hacking computers, getting gloriously drunk on champagne, manipulating the downfall of rivals in company politics, riding to the hounds, and the like. Most of these activities are incompatible with reading books. It is not at all advisable, for example, to be reading a tome on equestrianship whilst clearing a hurdle. When dining intimately with one's chosen paramour (particularly if she is not yet one's paramour) it is inadvisable to spend the meal reading the latest novel. This is not always true. Two soulmates may indeed dine quietly, each reading their own volume, in perfect albeit silent companionship. This practice, however, is frowned upon in fine restaurants.

The second ogre provides occasion for the first to work its evil. The third ogre, on the other hand, works its evil in one sudden glorious disaster. Its name is MOVING. It would be convenient for the true book junkie if he or she were never to move. In the early years of the addiction moving is only a minor inconvenience. In later years, however, moving to a new residence means that books must be laboriously packed into box after box. All too often the careful sorting and arranging is disrupted if indeed it ever existed at all.

Once the dozens upon dozens of boxes have been shipped and have arrived at their new home they must be unpacked. It is at this point the two truths of moving are learned. The first is that unpacking and shelving large numbers of books is a lot of work. The second is that the shelving in the new residence is totally inadequate. This is inevitable; houses simply are not constructed with an adequate amount of book shelf space. In one's old residence there may have been enough shelf space, shelving that had been added over the years - or not; one motive for moving is find enough space for one's books.

What happens in the new place is simple enough; the boxes do not all get unpacked and there are major disruptions in system and order. All too often they never get unpacked. They remain closed, silent witnesses to one's failure to come to terms with the new residence. I know of people who have moved half a dozen times with each move accompanied by boxes that never got unpacked from the first move.

From this plaint you may correctly infer that I have recently moved and that I am, in my own dilatory way, struggling with the aftermath of moving. This is not all bad. As one erects new shelving one opens boxes and discovers treasures that one had quite forgotten about.

I cannot say that Agatha Christie mysteries are a forgotten treasure. "Treasure" is not an appropriate term. Christie mysteries are declasse. Reading them is the sort of thing that everyone has done in their life but no one talks about. At least that used to be true; reading Christie mysteries may be like playing bridge. In the first half of the twentieth century and well into the second half playing contract bridge was a major pastime. Colleges were infested with bridge bums who made slams in lieu of taking tests. Books on better bridge were best sellers, the equivalent of "Thinner thighs in thirty days" in a more innocent time. Bridge tournaments were major events. That time is past; the sun is setting on contract bridge. The great bridge tournaments keep declining in size and the participants are grayer each year. Young people do not play bridge. The same may be true for Agatha Christie; perhaps she goes unread by the young and her readership is a dwindling band of graybeards who read her as an act of ritual bonding with their youth. It may be so; I wouldn't know.

And yet it might not be so. Mysteries retain their popularity. For the most part they are written by women and consumed by women, a circumstance that should give men occasion for apprehension. And if mysteries are still consumed then Agatha Christie, like Sherlock Holmes, is there to be reckoned with, a landmark out of the past.

Be that as it may my Christie's have turned up like soil brought to the surface by a plow and I have taken to reading some of them.

It is hard to think of the right term for them. For the first time reader Christie mysteries are ingenious puzzles and may be enjoyed as such. If one is rereading them that doesn't apply; one knows, after all, whodunnit. Agatha Christie novels have almost none of the features that an approved realistic novel is supposed to have; her characters are drawn from a rotating collection of caricatures and her prose is workmanlike rather than elegant.

A conventional term for such fiction - popular but not written for the academe - is mind candy. I do not think that is an appropriate term; a Christie novel is not sweet. Nor is "junk food for the mind" suitable. Still, she does not call to mind haute cuisine or gourmet dining. Since her novels are pre-eminently a consumer good, something to be consumed, one might call them comfort food.

However "comfort food" calls up the wrong image. Comfort food is food that is consumed almost without acknowledgement of its gustatory merits. Christie novels are more like tea and scones - pleasant but unchallenging and a satisfying ritual. Even better, Christie novels are like a shaggy dog, an old companion whose company one enjoys without any great cerebral reflection.

The striking thing about her novels is that there are so few striking lines, scenes or lines with strong emotional impact. It may be that this is one of the things that makes them so comfortable. And yet this is not invariably true. Here and there one finds such a line. For example, in the novel Crooked House the narrator opens a child's diary and reads the words,

"Today I killed grandfather."


This page was last updated December 1, 2001.

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December 2001
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