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Deconstructing Agatha Christie

I want to start this post with the clarification that I enjoy Agatha Christie immensely. I have watched all the David Suchet Hercule Poirot programs (some of which digress or depart from the Christie originals), probably all the movies, all the Joan Hickson, Geraldine McEwan, Helen Hayes Julie McKenzie, and Margaret Rutherford iterations of Miss Marple (and I’ve put them in order of quality, of course; whoever thought to put Margaret Rutherford in adaptations of Agatha Christie should have been fired.)


I have found that the audiobooks of just about all of her novels are on YouTube (often pirated, I fear), and I am working through all of them. To say I am a fan is kind of a “duh” statement




She is not without her flaws. She cranked out at least a novel a year, to say nothing of short stories and plays, and that level of output is going to lessen the quality. And she did write until she was well into her 80s (dying at 86, here last novel published at about 84).  But, of course, she was not trying to win the Nobel Prize for literature. She wanted to tell stories and make money. And she did.


Right now I am listening to The Mirror Cracked from Side to Side, even though I know the basic plot. The outcome of the story disturbs me greatly, because it is, well, a rip-off of what happened to Gene Tierney, who I think is the model for the Marina Gregg character, even down to her marriages. You can read the Wikipedia page to get the point, but taking the tragedy of a famous film star (and one I like a lot) and recycling it for a plot seems to border on unconscionable.  However, the child born with disabilities in the tragic situation is called an “imbecile” and “idiot.” There is also an ethnic slur (“wop” for Italian, although the origin of the word is “guapo,”or handsome).


Now, there is always the question, and one I have struggled with: If you put objectionable words in the mouths of characters to define those characters, is that the same as condoning the language? Or in fiction, are there no limits if it fits the story and delineates character? Was she having the character call a disabled child an imbecile to show how unfeeling the character was, or was she just using a distasteful word.  Of course, earlier in the 20th century it was a category of mental retardation, a mental age of 3-7. She wrote this novel in 1962—so is she off the hook? “Idiot” also was a now discarded category of intellectual disability.


By that time, there were more clinical words in use (I know because of family experience), so I don’t think she is. Likewise, though, Dorothy Sayers used racial slurs in the 1930s to refer to dark-skinned South Asians, and I believe Christie did the same.


Beyond those two major indiscretions of writing, I have to admit that writing fiction well means one has to face these questions. My most recent character has a medical disorder that a woman in my church has. Am I honoring the woman by creating a character with the same disorder for her courage in living with it, or just using my friend as fodder for my writing? (I won’t say to make money because I haven’t yet!)  Likewise, my last novel has as its inciting incident the burning of a Black church in 1959. That happened a lot. Was I taking advantage of those crimes, or drawing attention to these travesties? Even worse, my first novel, which I do not publicize now, involved an incident that happened to a neighbor that changed her life; I am still not sure I had the right to do that (which is why I do not publicize the novel).


As for language, well, there’s the “use damn and hell but keep God out of it.”  Then there are two whole other classes of language, what I would call vulgarisms. My last novel used quite a few of them, consistently, because some of the characters were wild, rude, immature teenaged boys; but I won’t go to words that involve sexual acts, if you get the drift. I can’t do that. And the final class is racial or ethnic slurs. In my first novel, my publisher allowed me to use one, which I have regretted ever since, but the publisher was not from the South and apparently didn’t see the problem…..


I won’t stop listening to Christie, but these contemplations have left a bad taste in my mouth. I really think she could have done better, but I know that she used local news stories frequently; the plot of The Mousetrap is based on a famous crime in the 1940s involving a family of siblings put into foster care, and Evil Under the Sun plays on that tune as well. Is that cold, manipulative, and exploitative? Is using any of life fair game for the fiction writer?


Where do we draw the line?

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Thanks for making us think about the way we address sensitive subjects.

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