A year of murder

Technically, the murders started late last year, at least for me, with Roger Ackroyd and nine odious and unlucky people trapped with a sociopath (also odious) on an island.

Yesterday, I went to La Guardia at 12:30pm to catch a plane. Eight hours later and from a different terminal, I flew out (to the wrong city, but got home eventually). During that time, I had to rebook a flight, go through security twice, retrieve my bag and re-check it, tour two terminals, and run for a connection. I was also able to work a little, and read a lot.

Reading a lot has been my go-to this year. I have mostly confined my reading to the Kindle (maybe 10 paper books at most – most at Wasaga Beach in August), and it’s been every novel and short story Agatha Christie wrote. I read a few other things as well, but for the most part, I stuck to Christie. And yesterday either in LGA or in the air, I finished.

I read 35 books on Kindle last year, for reference, and averaged around 30 prior to that.

These books are extremely easy to get through, and I think I needed something to turn my sharpened attention towards, otherwise I wouldn’t have ever been able to sleep. As it is, I did not sleep much, averaging around 6 to 6.5 hours of sleep a night. And I filled that awake time with murder most foul.

Here are things I learned about Agatha Christie’s universe and writing.

  1. Not just murder! Christie also has written supernatural and occult tales (typically she plays with this theme in short stories), the cold war, spies, and unrequited love. But, mostly murder.
  2. Following the first world war, all the young men were wounded or dead, and all the young women were widows. Everyone became extremely callous about death, which greatly worried all the elderly people at the country house parties that everyone was at.
  3. Following the second world war, Communism was just a red herring, but everyone really was a spy. Bureaucracy became particularly stilted and people had constant meetings at Whitehall. Everyone was in an excruciating state of boredom for some reason.
  4. The inheritance tax really harshed everyone’s buzz.
  5. In the sixties and seventies, the women of the day were always shocking everyone with their smoking, dirty hair, and unshapely clothes. Even those women with money. As Sister Anna from my high school would say, they were rude, crude, and thoroughly unattractive (good for them).
  6. Prejudice. Wow, don’t try to be not English in an English novel, it won’t go your way. Christie is hard to figure out sometimes, as she very obviously plays up to stereotypes of the time, sometimes to fool the reader, and sometimes to stack the deck against someone. A lot of people had Teutonic foreheads, whatever that means (it means the main character shouldn’t have trusted them). People of the working class always took a crude delight in murder, quite as much as literally all the rich people who were also delighting in dishing about murder. Servants were hard to keep in remote locations that didn’t have cinemas nearby (but rich people love lying around bored sighing about being bored – and I mean that). People had shifty eyes (what), typical of their lower class, fine foreheads (what) and aquiline noses if they were uppercrust, brave mouths (what), and foreign hands (what). Describing people gets Christie into trouble.
  7. Christie is absolutely brutal describing characters.

Wow. Get ’em, Agatha, god damn. It took me several pages to realize that “pussies” means “old lady” in this context. It was jarring, and all over the Miss Marples.

8. Christie wrote herself into her novels. Ariadne Oliver appears across several novels. She is the one who “tries a fringe.” Mrs. Oliver, the lady novelist, had created a character, a Finnish detective, from a country (presumably Finland) that she knew nothing about, hated him, and wanted to kill him off. I can’t imagine what that could be in reference to. Oliver starts out a figure of fun, but eventually grows more featured and smart.

9. Christie famously hated Poirot. She ended up killing him. Spoiler.

10. Men in her novels are constantly saying things like, “dash it all, Sylvia!” and “Probably the bloody Americans” and such. If they come from good families (regardless of if they still have money – aforementioned inheritance tax) they tend to brood in a way that I think is supposed to be charming. They are very often murderers. If they’re not murderers, they’re getting smashed in the head and are very self deprecating. They stand near women they have just met a page or two before and say “Cynthia, you must know how I feel!” and while no one in the world could possibly interpret that in any way, these two idiots will then get married immediately.

11. Women are both smart and constantly getting rescued. They also marry men that stand near them at intervals. It boggles the mind. Tuppence, from the Tommy and Tuppence series, is one of the better women written (with later versions of Ariadne Oliver). She is smarter than her husband, who knows it and adores her for it, and she is constantly foiling the fifth column. There is a time period when young women were “fast” and drove their own cars. It didn’t last long.

12. I think Christie took joy in devising business names, particularly law firms. They are not flattering.

13. She likes to quote Shakespeare – in successive novels, she plays around with different interpretations of the same quote. One short story is built on the three witches in Macbeth being just ordinary village women.

14. Her narrative description, when there are no murders actually happening, is very like stage direction. Colonel Arbuthnot is standing by the window smoking when Miss Lake enters from the hall door. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, she passes through the window. I suppose there was a long period of time when French doors were described just as windows – and how everyone wasn’t in a constant state of confusion is beyond me. I realize Christie did write plays, but I did not read them, and I’ve never see The Mousetrap. Scripts don’t do it for me.

15. After reading The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and And Then There were None, I backed up and read through all the Poirots first. Then the Miss Marples, the Tommy and Tuppences, the Harley Quinns, Parker Pyne, and then the rest of her novels in chronological order. This worked, but there are actually several collections of short stories featuring all of these characters that appear in no apparent order, so months after the death of Poirot, I’d encounter him again in a short story involving an apartment building and a woman living resolutely with great pride and no money. Christie let her characters age – Tommy and Tuppence start out mere youths of 18 or so, and grow to be elder adults with grown children. Poirot started old and got much, much older. The world changes around the characters, with very definite themes heavily measured out according to world events. It probably would have been better to read the entire collection chronologically and be immersed in each time period.

16. Endlessly reexamining these themes can get a bit tedious. Only so many people can be secret millionaires who lure the world’s most bright scientists away to a secret compound in the Atlas mountains where they are brainwashed to be mere tools in a new world order. But in Christie’s world, it happens constantly! The different horrific ways a new world order could come about seemed to be fertile ground.

17. Sometimes her editor was on vacation, but mostly just during the late Poirots. I guess when you’re rolling in money, you don’t have to try too hard.

18. Seaside resorts in England is where you go to be kicked directly in the teeth and/or pride, and the south of France is where you go when you’re rich (you do not get kicked in the teeth, but you may get murdered). When Christie’s English travel, they only do so with other English people. They see all the same people at all the same resorts, and shun the natives or the bloody Americans. They truly abhor foreigners, and it matters not when they are the foreign ones.

19. Nearly everyone is terrible at driving, and the grinding of gears seems to permeate the local streets. Be suspicious of anyone who is an excellent driver, unless that is their job (and then it’s 50/50 if they’re a murderer).

20. Ageism. “She was forty but still pleasant in appearance.” REALLY. Men over forty get gout and young wives, but women over forty are lucky to not have died of extreme old age already. Old women are constantly referred to as pussies, which, again, is very confusing. Probably the only people who actually have it good are the spinsters who end up living with other spinsters (“just good friends,” I’m sure). Though quite often, one ends up killing the other. But I bet that pre-murder, it’s a pretty good life.

People have been asking me what I’m going to read next. In my wandering of Terminal B last night, I picked up Cloud Cuckoo Land, which I’m very pleased about, because I love to read Anthony Doerr. But prior to finding that, I was lost – seeing the end of the Agatha journey rapidly approaching, and not having any ideas. Someone suggested Dune, because I guess it goes on forever. For now, though, I think I’ll take it one book at a time.

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