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A Talent to Deceive

A Talent to Deceive, an Appreciation of Agatha Christie: Robert Barnard, Dodd Mead & Company, 1980, ISBN 0-396-07827-3


Barnard is (or was as the case may be) a Professor of English Literature at the University of Tromso and the author of a number of crime novels. This book is one of a class of books which analyze in no great depth the body of work of a popular author. At this point there is the temptation to snidely note that, given the author in question, depth is out of the question. The matter, however, is not that simple.

Agatha Christie is probably the most widely read author of all time. Almost everybody who reads has read one or more of her novels at one time or another. Moreover her popularity is enduring. Her mysteries remain continually in print and they sell, generation after generation of readers. This is no small thing. It is, if nothing else, a phenomenon to be explained.

And yet there is this difficulty. By the criteria ordinarily used in literary criticism there is almost nothing there to criticize or to commend. One does not go to Agatha Christie for a character study in depth. Her characters are stock stereotypes and are quite interchangeable from novel to novel. If they are a cut above Colonel Mustard in the Library they are, none-the-less, none of them Madame Bovary. Nor are her descriptions of place and setting anything other than pedestrian. Barnard quite carefully considers the curious lack of definiteness about Mayhem Parvu. Her prose is plain and workmanlike; she does not play with language. Her purple prose is faded lavender at most - quite appropriate for Miss Marple. Her books do not sparkle with wit even though there is more humor in them than one tends to recall. And so on and so forth.

Barnard struggles manfully with the difficulties. He makes the usual observation that the criteria for genre fiction are different from those of the realistic novel. He speculates on the impact of her divorce from Colonel Christie. He makes some acute observations on her techniques for deceiving the reader. He analyzes her prejudices and her preferences in social classes. And so and so forth. Little of this rises above the normal superficiality of the work of appreciation.

There are some acute points. The vagueness of her descriptions and the stereotyped characters are strengths rather than weaknesses. They let the reader, so to speak, fill in the blanks. That is, the reader rather than the author constructs the characters and the settings. An author creating a memorable character, say Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair, shows us a distinct particular person. The author does the work. Christie gives us caricatures; insensibly the reader does the work of creating the characters. This makes for universality.

I am not so sure that this thesis is correct; the notion is intriguing, though.

The end result is that Barnard does not satisfy; the mystery is not explained. Christie may write mind candy but it is inordinately successful mind candy; the nature of that success is the mystery. I am reminded of a bit in a Father Brown story by Chesterton. Father Brown contrasts mystery cults and the Church. He says that in mystery cults a great show is made of hidden truths wrapped in the trappings of the occult which, when exposed to the daylight, turn to be trite platitudes whereas with the Church the truth is in plain sight and none-the-less remains mysterious. So it is with Christie. The works and the popularity are in plain sight and the result is mysterious.


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