When it came to bad reviews by good critics of her many crime novels, Agatha Christie may have led all other writers. For she was both a prolific author and her own most memorable character — no matter which fictional identity she was assuming at the mysterious moment.
Whether it was the fussy Hercule Poirot dabbing away at his always carefully tended mustache or the seemingly harmless Miss Marple, none of them charmed Ms. Christie’s all too sophisticated critics. But like the most enduring and endearing characters in literature, they all seem to have taken up permanent residences in the imaginations of the rest of us.
According to Anna Mundow, author of “Agatha Christie Review: The Queen of the Cozy” in the Wall Street Journal of March 2, Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was born at the high tide of Victorian sensibilities on Sept. 15, 1890, to Clara and Frederick Miller, an easy-going chap who would die in 1901, leaving his family in reduced but scarcely desperate circumstances. Which meant the Millers were obliged to rent out their house and go wandering off to exotic locales like Paris and Cairo. A little fiscal distress wasn’t a disaster in those well-cushioned days for respectable middle-class families like the Millers. As snubbed as the Victorians are by present-day arbiters of cultural fashion, the Millers had a respect for the decencies of bourgeois life that has grown rare in today’s more tumultuous times.
Since her mother disapproved of formal education for young children, little Agatha had to teach herself how to read, much as that kind of auto-education was frowned upon by Mrs. Miller. So her nanny had to break the sad news to the rest of the family. “I’m afraid Miss Agatha can read, ma’am,” the nanny had to announce when the girl was just 4 years old. Even though teaching herself how to read was considered a tragedy by her nearest and dearest, the achievement opened her mind to a wealth of experience that she would draw upon for the rest of her well-traveled life.
By the time she was 15, Miss Agatha would have gone to genteel schools like Miss Dryden’s in Paris and taken up the piano and vocal instruction, becoming a musician if not one of the first rank. To quote one of her biographers: “Writing, for her, was the thing she did because she failed at music.” Yet she retained an ear for dialogue and the sounds of ordinary street life. One of her biographers took notice of her exquisite sensibility to a wide variety of sounds from her earliest days: “The rattle of the curtain rings on the stairs as the housemaid drew them, the noises of the second housemaid’s dustpan and brush in the passage outside. In the distance the heavy noise of the front-door bolt being drawn back.”
But her gifted ear did not inspire compliments from critics who were interested only in her plots rather than the poetry of sounds she captured. Just as critics of Shakespeare may ignore the sound of his language to point out that he borrowed his stories from other sources. Raymond Chandler, no mean stylist himself, found Ms. Christie’s novels annoying. They “fake the clues, the timing, the play of coincidence,” he griped. What’s more, he complained, “they fake character, which hits me hardest of all, because I have a sense of character.”
The late great Robert Graves, scholar and poet, claimed Ms. Christie’s “English was schoolgirlish, her situations for the most part artificial, and her detail faulty.” Bernard Levin found not a single book of hers “worth the time of an intelligent adult.” And, mind you, he was a friend. So you can imagine what her enemies were saying about her. But you don’t have to imagine, it’s all there in the record, written down in black and white. Not even one of her masterpieces like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd impressed her critics.
Alatter-day critic, Ruth Rendell, said of Agatha Christie’s work: “When I read one of her books, I don’t feel as though I have a piece of fiction worthy of the name in front of me.” Another nitpicker, Michael Dibdin, called Ms. Christie a killer whose “victim was the British crime novel.” So when the pedantic critic Edmund (Bunny) Wilson asked, “Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?” the answer is: the tens of millions of Agatha Christie fans — indeed, addicts — who bought some 50 million of her books throughout the world. She wasn’t just a writer but a one-woman industry.
The sepia-tinted photograph of Ms. Christie in the Wall Street Journal that shows her flanked by twin towers of her books reveals the kind of middle-aged if not older lady who used to run the world before women became chief executives in pursuit of profits rather than authors who knew how to tell a tale.
The picture brought to mind a lady I used to work for at the Missouri State Historical Society when I was a young graduate student. I made a thoughtless comment about how it was a pity so much Southern gallantry was sacrificed in a less than noble cause, for all in all it was a good thing the Union had been preserved. To which the grand old lady responded by passing on a comment her own grandmother had made when she was just an innocent girl. “Child,” the grandmother told her, taking her granddaughter in her arms, “if I ever hear you say such a thing again, I’ll slit your throat from ear to ear.” Wars leave a lasting legacy in the minds of nations. Just as literature does.
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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer Prizewinning editorial writer and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.