Mar 07

thrillers by (grown-up) kids: some more agatha christie

FT + The Brown Wedge11 comments • 1,649 views

7 dialsok so now in my trek through a.christie decade by decade i have reached one i like unreservedly (=no.1 in the 1930s omnibus, The Sittaford Mystery, 1931, where she really finds a rhythm), so i am going to try and sum the 1920s AC for you

i. AC invented the teenager (tuppence in The Secret Adversary; anne bedingfield in The Man in the Brown Suit; bundle in The Secret of Chimneys and The Seven Dials Mystery, in this last alongside a whole bunch of generally idiotic young men)
ii. servants are largely emo, except when they are jeeves knock-offs
iii. haha the empire wtf*
iv. the appeal — besides i-iii — is that AC (and her heroines, and YOOF IN GENERAL) are BOTHERD. oh it’s a murder, oh it’s politics, oh it’s me getting married — everything is just a lark, it’s fun to play detective, nothing matters; AC is observant, clever, funny, and almost MILITANTLY flippant — people-as-types have amiable fun poked at them; she has a real ear for the rubbish people say to one another, but this isn’t SATIRE, that would imply an idealism somewhere in her and i don’t think there is, except a deep belief that whatever commitment-to-real-serious-life drives people to kill, or rob, or become politicians, IS ALL FOOLISHNESS, so you might as well just BE foolish, or clever but direct it towards frivolous puzzlesolving time-killing (bcz at least no harm can come of that?)
v. this sets her apart from her predecessors — even chesterton, who is all-fun-all-the-time, turns it to serious moral ends (he is telling us how complex people are; and father brown is a detective of the material facts of the SOUL); conan doyle is passionate about logic, rigour and evidence, and the rich variety of london; dorothy l.sayers cares about the intelligence of women as an issue, and that people are decent to one another — all three keenly sketch the shifting mores of the day; which agatha does too, except she turns it all into tintin-ish cartoons (the seven dials is as nuts as cigars of the pharoah), and it all feels second-hand in her hands (not necessarily in a bad way)
vi. maybe this is a post(great)war thing — like the anomie and jazz-age dazzle in sayers’s murder must advertise, where the Young Things party like it was already after the end of the world — anyway i’m definitely interested to see how it keeps up (i associate agatha with UNCOOL and ELDERLY detectives, after all)
*viii. to exaand on this: where real-world elements do intrude — like rhodesia or the balkans or wealth and aristocracy, AC is clearly perfectly capable of seeing right through the rubbishness of the set-up; and sort of does, the way she comments on it; but just doesn’t (even slightly) make the common next step, which is to want to do something about this…

UPDATE: i meant to include this, which is my absolute LOL-fave of a line, from seven dials: “When you ran up and said there might be danger, I was more determined than ever,” went on Loraine. “I went to Harrods and bought a pistol.”


  1. 1

    re i. strictly speaking i think all the “teenagers” mentioned are actually in their 20s, but they function as teenagers will in a later age, by virtue of their total lack of invetstment in the “grown-up” (ie daft) world — also they are all totally hormonal for one another (she does this dimension in a very dry and funny way)

  2. 2

    it is like SKINS!

  3. 3
    Tom on 30 Mar 2007 #

    “The Moving Finger” (which I just read, from 1951) has a very well-drawn proto-indie kid (who the narrator falls gradually in love with – in fact the whole thing is straight outta Belle And Sebastian).

  4. 4
    Alan on 30 Mar 2007 #

    BTW ‘graphic novel’ versions of classic AC translated from the french coming out soon (this year)

  5. 5
    alext on 30 Mar 2007 #

    I have read two vaguely contemporaneous histories of the interwar years (Ronald Blythe, The Age of Illusion and Robert Graves & Alan Hodge, The Long-Weekend, ok the latter is 1940 and the former is 1964 so ripping off the latter) of which the titles alone suggest the approach: moralising anti-flippancy (look what happened while we were gadding about!). Interesting if AC is reversing this perspective before it crystallizes, or perhaps it was the tone what the papers took at the time and she is battling against it. I suspect what attracts the TV adaptations (look flappers! period design! kerrazy cars!) are the trappings rather than the attitudes.

  6. 6

    the TV ones are also always either poirot or marple — in the ones i read so far it’s more like “ooh there’s a murder! who gets to be detective? me me me!”

    flippancy is also what wodehouse and waugh are about i guess — i struggle a bit with the former, and have only read “the ordeal of gilbert pinfold” by the latter (for some eccentric reason)

  7. 7
    jeff w on 30 Mar 2007 #

    Not always. ITV has done some Tommy & Tuppence I think.

    AND and quite a long time ago – before even the Beeb’s Marple series let alone the introduction of David Suchet as Poirot – ITV did some excellent non-Poirot/Marple AC novel adaptations … such as “Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?” which captured what you’re saying in i. (and “re i.”) really well.

  8. 8
    Pete on 31 Mar 2007 #

    Women in the(ir) twenties were proto-teenagers in a key way: when – ahem – universal suffrage was granted post Great War, women could not vote until they were 30. So coupled with a genuine man shortage (the real reason the vote for women was delayed until 30 – else there would be more women than men voting) there was a suggestion that they still were not quite grown up.

    I can’t imagine a Christie Spanish civil war novel!

  9. 9

    pete that is an awesome good point — in the uk women got equal voting rights (ie 21 rather than 30) in 1928

    having hit on this guesswork “solution” to the agatha-ethic, i have to say that so far “why didn’t they ask evans?” is confirming it big-time — surely i am just retreading ancient AC knowledge here?

  10. 10
    Agatha Christie PC games fan on 6 Sep 2009 #

    Maybe it’s because the characters you mentioned are of the upper classes, so they can afford to be young and enthusiastic and excitable like young teenagers. I noticed the same with characters in PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster. Even though like u say they’re more likely to be in their mid twenties!
    But anyway, I think that AC was very good at creating realistic and true-to life characters.

  11. 11
    Vee on 10 Jul 2010 #

    Interesting article. I prefer when they make TV adaptations of Christie novels set in the same time period as the books, even if some of the characters are a bit over the top!

Add your comment

(Register to guarantee your comments don't get marked as spam.)


Required (Your email address will not be published)

Top of page