I will say that I was shocked recently when, in a bookstore, I turned Agatha Christie’s book, Five Little Pigs, to its backside and read: “Agatha Christie is the most widely published author of all time, outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare.”
Later, in Gillian Gill’s biography of Agatha Christie, I found out she has now outsold Shakespeare. Gill’s book is also the source of the quote in the title of this post:
“The most famous woman writer ever, perhaps the most famous writer, period!”(x).
And yet I had never read one of Christie’s books. I had heard of her. Sure. I even recognized titles from some movies I had seen based on her books. And, the television show, “Murder She Wrote” inspired by Christie and her work, was very popular when I was growing up.
But to offer Agatha Christie, the woman writer, any esteem, to admire and acknowledge her as extremely successful in her craft, remarkably clever in her plot lines, crafty and genius in her puzzles as well as a feminist who created self-identified, female characters at a time when most women didn’t even know what that meant, I had never done.
In Agatha Christie: Investigating Femininity, Merja Makinen writes:
“Christie’s female characters are diverse, dominant, swashbuckling and violently active and, at a time when women were still seen as second-class citizens, Christie’s portrayals are determinedly and deliberately egalitarian in relation to gender. Focus on Christie as the ‘mistress of plotting’, ingenious at concealing the murderer, which has concentrated analysis on the ending rather than the process of the novel as a whole, alongside crime criticism’s fetishisation of the detective to the detriment of all other characterisations, has prevented a true celebration of Christie’s fiction’s intervention in the representation of gender formations and expectations from 1920 to the early 1970s”(2).
Why had this feminist and giant of the literary world escaped my interest? It had to be about more than the fact that she flourished in a genre I didn’t often read: the mystery and detective novel.
As with many highly successful women writers, she, her work and her HUGE success have been and still are often ignored, minimized, and trivialized.
“It is claimed on good authority that Agatha Christie has sold more copies and earned more in royalties than any other writer. The author of seventy-eight crime novels, approximately 150 short stories, six “straight” novels, four nonfiction books, and 19 plays, she is estimated to have sold 2 billion copies in 104 languages, outselling even William Shakespeare… It turns out, however, to be Christie’s very success that has made her uninteresting to critics. A woman writer who fails to go mad, have “interesting” lovers, bear illegitimate children, commit suicide, or die in poverty is simply no fun. It is Christie’s relentless productivity over almost sixty years, her accelerating sales and ever-increasing fame, her personal invisibility to misfortune and disaster, that have made her so unrewarding a biographical subject”(Gill xi).
I wanted to know more about this fascinating woman writer, so I dove in.
I began by reading Gill’s biography: Agatha Christie: The Woman and Her Mysteries, Christie’s memoir of time spent on archaeological digs in Syria in the 1930s, Come, Tell Me How You Live: An Archaeological Memoir, and four of her mystery novels: Murder on the Orient Express, Five Little Pigs, The Murder at the Vicarage, and 4:50 from Paddington.
I could have kept on reading, I was enjoying her writing so much, but I have to produce one of these posts every two weeks, so I could not hang out with Christie as long as I would have wanted to.
I intend, however, to continue to read her books which are enjoyable, well-written, and incredibly interesting.
Agatha Christie (1890-1976) is now added to my list of inspirational and #nasty women writers that precede me. Ironically, she lived as a contemporary to Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), yet I have not found anything about her in any of Woolf’s writings or writings about Woolf. I am not sure if they ever met, though it would have been impossible for them to not know of one another.
Christie, in fact, succeeded in breaking many of the barriers to women that Woolf speaks of. More than “money and a room of her own,” Agatha Christie had a mansion of her own, and, in her own lifetime, was able to earn millions of dollars on her own merit. She lived her life as she wished to, not under the rules or demands of any man.
For many reasons, Christie deliberately and successfully avoided the press, and absolutely resisted a public life. She had a bad experience with the press in her younger years, during a crisis in her first marriage, where she, a naturally shy and private person, found herself a public story and did not enjoy it. She decided she was done with all that. Good for her.
Since she wrote consistently for so many of her 86 years, one can see the progression of her thoughts, her movement and change with the times, and witness improvement in her writing.
By the time she gets to 4:50 From Paddington published in 1957 when she is 67 years old, the characters are more fully developed and the story has richness and depth. There are strong female characters and quite a lot of feminist themes.
Through the character of Miss Marple, Christie has fun with the “old woman” stereotype, creating it and then shattering it over and over again, revealing to the reader their own ageist tendencies. Portrayed as a busybody and gossip by her fellow villagers, Miss Marple is truly the crone: an independent woman, one who knows the community thoroughly and understands human behavior and motivation.
“In a Christie novel, young men are often frivolous sex objects, and appreciated as such, while young women are the solid breadwinners. A woman over sixty can not only dominate the life of her family and community but also seek to promote her personal happiness through marriage to a much younger mate. Christie’s heroines — as also her murderesses—do not easily toe the patriarchal line. Handsome, hard headed, and ambitious, they desire money and men, and are active in their pursuit of both. Furthermore, Christie is a pioneer in the fictional presentation of gifted active older people, particularly older women”(Gill 7).
In The Murder at the Vicarage, the narrator and Vicar walks into a room with four of his parishioners and describes the two older women sitting there.
“Miss Marple is a white haired old lady with a gentle, appealing manner—Miss Wetherby is a mixture of vinegar and gush. Of the two Miss Marple is much the more dangerous”(13).
An older, independent woman with her wits about her, understanding the villagers and the motives, watching and keeping track of it all, is a dangerous thing. Dangerous in the way that people can’t get away with crime or other, shall we say, indiscretions. Dangerous in the way that she may hold you accountable.
Later in the same novel, Chief Constable Colonel Melchett says to the Vicar:
“I really believe that wizened-up old maid thinks she knows everything there is to know. And hardly been out of this village all her life. Preposterous. What can she know of life?”
I said mildly that though doubtless Miss Marple knew next to nothing of Life with a capital L, she knew practically everything that went on in St. Mary Mead.
Melchett admitted that grudgingly. She was a valuable witness—particularly valuable from Mrs. Protheroe’s point of view.
“I suppose there’s no doubt about what she says, eh?”
“If Miss Marple says she had no pistol with her, you can take it for granted that it is so,” I said. “If there was the least possibility of such a thing, Miss Marple would have been onto it like a knife.”(85).
In 4:50 from Paddington, a friend of Miss Marple witnesses a murder and no one believes her. Miss Marple believes her and sets out to solve it. She is older in this book and has some physical limitations but not enough to stop her:
“Though in speech Miss Marple was wooly and diffuse, in mind she was clear and sharp”(25).
Miss Marple finds a clever way to pursue the murderer by inviting a friend of hers, a young woman named Lucy Eyelesbarrow, to be hired on as a housekeeper in the house where she suspects the murder took place. In this position, Lucy can snoop around for Miss Marple. Together, they solve the murder.
At one point, Lucy says to Miss Marple: “A hundred years ago you would certainly have been burned as a witch!” (181).
Yes indeed, Christie is saying, the independent old woman has always had a valuable function in village life. One that has often been unappreciated by those who are up to no good.
In Five Little Pigs, published in 1942, a young woman hires famous detective Hercule Poirot to investigate the long-ago murder of her artist father. That same young woman’s mother was convicted of the crime and subsequently died but she left her daughter a letter to be opened on her 21st birthday, telling her she was innocent.
Thus the closed case is reopened. Five Little Pigs is told in memories of those present at the time of the crime combined with Hercule Poirot’s interactions with those same characters who are still alive. He also has them write their memories of that time down, which we get to read.
Gill emphasizes Christie’s use of “textual or written clues” in her novels:
“Wills, letters, checks, maps, plans, signatures, etc., are essential elements in many of Christie’s greatest mysteries, and they are one of the keys to her success in the genre”(49).
Gill believes that this puts the reader on equal par to figure out the mystery.
“Textual clues in the novel play the same role as visual clues in the motion picture, allowing the reader to put his skills against those of the Great Detective, and if not prevail, at the very least offer informed appreciation. By the preference Christie displays for textual clues over material ones, she plays fairer with the reader than almost any other mystery writer. This is no doubt one of the reasons we still like her books”(50).
Five Little Pigs has a nostalgic and melancholic quality to it. The descriptions of the landscape where the events took place are moving and beautiful as Christie’s love for the coast and countryside of England pours through.
“Hercule Poirot went to bed thoughtful,” Christie writes, “He was fascinated by the problem of personality”(44).
As was Christie and that is also part of what makes her books so good. The interest in human personalities, motives, psychology, and what drives people. The distance between what they say and what they do. You can’t really believe what anyone says, is one of the main messages. You must observe what they do.
Everyone has secrets. Even if they have not committed the crime at hand, the investigation of that crime may turn up other secrets. Everyone has them and Christie’s plot lines and meandering prose exposes them.
Five Little Pigs is not only about “who done it” but why do it? And what a pity and waste that they did do it. The futility of crime and the cost to those caught in the consequences of crime take center stage. It is truly devastating.
Born Agatha Miller, Agatha Christie’s father died when she was young, leaving her mother, Clara, without a proper income to continue her lifestyle with ease. Agatha Miller’s desire was to regain that income and lifestyle for her mother, to whom she was extremely close. She deliberately set out to do it through writing books.
“Fiction writing has since the eighteenth century been one of the rare ways that educated women could earn a living, and by the early twentieth century detective fiction was already a lucrative genre”(Gill 32).
She was inspired to write by her elder sister Madge who was also a writer. Detective fiction was well-loved in their household. Her sister challenged her to write a mystery. That is where she got her start.
“Agatha says that her mother was convinced that her daughters could do anything they seriously put their minds to, and none of their achievements ever took her by surprise. This kind of blanket confidence is something mothers have traditionally given their sons, but its importance in the development of a woman’s self-identity is probably even more crucial. Agatha drew a store of self-esteem from the love and respect she and her mother offered each other. This primary mother-daughter relationship was the rock upon which Agatha built a long, successful, achieving and happy life, and the confident sense of female identity it gave her is at the heart of the relationships and power structures of Christie’s detective fiction”(Gill 22).
What a wonderful gift Clara gave to us all.
Agatha Christie is a #Nasty Woman Writer.
© Theresa C. Dintino 2022
Christie, Agatha. Five Little Pigs. William Morrow, 1942.
___________. 4:50 from Paddington. William Morrow. 1957.
___________. Murder on the Orient Express. William Morrow, 1934.
___________. The Murder at the Vicarage. William Morrow, 1930.
Gill, Gillian. Agatha Christie: The Woman and Her Mysteries. London. Robson Books, 1990.
Makinen, Merja. Agatha Christie: Investigating Femininity. Palgrave Macmillan. 2006. https://literariness.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Literariness.org-Merja-Makinen-auth.-Agatha-Christie_-Investigating-Femininity-Palgrave-Macmillan-UK-2006.pdf
Mallowan, Agatha Christie. Come, Tell Me How You Live: An Archaeological Memoir. William Morrow, 1946.