Day: January 20, 2021

Agatha Christie : One hundred years of confinement

by Sebastian Beck & Dominique Jeannerod

Exactly a 100 years ago, on the 21st January 1921, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the first novel by Agatha Christie was published in the UK. It had been published first in the USA in October 1920 by John Lane, who also co-founded Bodley Head, the UK publisher. Since then, Christie’s two most prominent detectives, the Belgian Hercule Poirot and British Miss Marple have been investigators in 45 novels for 46 years and all over the globe: in the Caribbean, in the Middle East, but most of all in Europe and especially in England. We took this anniversary as an opportunity to have a closer look at the different dimensions of space in these 45 novels and how the places where homicides were committed have evolved over the course of Christie’s career.

Although Poirot and Marple both applied their unique skills in different parts of the world, a predominant number of Christie’s novels are set in England, most of them in Devon (10) or London (7). Besides Three Act Tragedy (1935), set partly in Cornwall but for the most part in Yorkshire and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938) also in Yorkshire, all other novels are set in the Middle or South of England. It is therefore not surprising that the majority of the investigated murders happened in London (19) or Devon (15). Only 8 murders were committed north of England’s capital (Three Act Tragedy (1935): Bartholomew Strange, Margaret de Rushbridger; The A.B.C. Murders (1936): George Earlsfield; The Big Four (1927): Mr. Paynter; Elephants Can Remember (1927): Dorothea Jarrow; After the Funeral (1953): Cora Lansquenet; Sad Cypress (1940): Mary Gerrard, Laura Welman).

With regard to the distribution of locations in Poirot and Marple novels, it is noticeable that most novels are set in a rural location (41,66%) and only 22,91% take place in an urban environment. Miss Marple has an even higher percentage of rural settings (66,66%), which is due to the fact that her small hometown, St. Mary Mead, in fictional Downshire, South-East England, is located in a rural area and the crime scene of several murders. Famously, ‘there is a great deal of wickedness in village life’. By contrast, Hercule Poirot lives in the metropolitan area of London and consequently moves in more urban settings (27,77%) than his female counterpart.

When looking at the rural settings, one English county stands out: Devon, home of several Agatha Christie landmarks, from her native Torquay, to Greenway House, to Burgh Island (And then, there were none), Hampsley/Kents Cavern (The Man in the Brown Suit) and Elberry Cove (The A.B.C. Murders). Unlike Poirot and Marple, who always manage to find the solution in the end, readers and researchers find it often challenging to try and locate the places of murder in their cases. Many locations, for starters, are fictional. While some fictional locations like St. Mary Mead, functioning as the typical English small town (the TV adaptations have located it in Kent) are the setting for multiple novels (The Murder at the Vicarage (1930), The Body in the Library (1942), The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962)) others refer to actual cities like St. Loo (in Peril at End House (1932) and Evil Under the Sun (1941)) which is most probably the famous bathing resort and Christie’s hometown Torquay.

Regardless of the geographical basis of their settings, there are recognizable patterns for the places of murder. Only about a quarter of the crimes happened outside (27,27%), most of them happened in confined space (53,72%), such as houses in the countryside. And inside these houses, as to be expected, locked rooms and confined spaces do indeed feature prominently: the library, the bedroom. Also, while travelling, quarantine-like situations, with passengers locked in a train, on a boat or a plane, and separated from the outside world. The trademark combination of rurality and separation manifests itself already  in the first chapter of the first novel:

I descended from the train at Styles St. Mary, an absurd little station, with no apparent reason for existence, perched up in the midst of green fields and country lanes […] The village of Styles St. Mary was situated about two miles from the little station, and Styles Court lay a mile the other side of it. It was a still, warm day in early July. As one looked out over the flat Essex country, lying so green and peaceful under the afternoon sun, it seemed almost impossible to believe that, not so very far away, a great war was running its appointed course. I felt I had suddenly strayed into another world. (The Mysterious Affair at Styles)

The apparent serenity of such microcosms is deceptive. It contrasts with the affects of those  who inhabit them. Christie explores how people interact when confined together: resentment, passions, violence, and ultimately murder. As in And then there were none, hers are novels about being locked down with quite insufferable and potentially hateful and harmful people.

Her novels, even when set in distant countries she knew very well such as Iraq (1936), Egypt (1937), and Jordan (1938), or in the Caribbean (1964) on the whole, do not really engage with exoticism, as they are more inward-looking, focused on the psychology of very vivid characters and their interactions. Characters nearly always seem more colourful than settings. 

Does this make Christie’s work essential reading during confinement? As Walter Benjamin perceptively observed, Crime Fiction works as an exorcism and an antidote to our fears, by projecting them. It is not only the fear of the unknown, the outside and the intruders that are coded in Crime Fiction, but as Christie exemplifies, family abuse and domestic violence can also be projected in this way.

The seemingly high number of murders perpetrated in domestic, confined spaces in Christie’s novels should not be dismissed as pure fantasy either. These are actually eerily similar to today’s official (pre-confinement) numbers. The Homicide Index which shows where victims in England and Wales were killed from March 2018 – March 2019 confirms this for the male victims (39%). Female victims were killed in or around the house at an even higher percentage (71%). Of course, account needs to be taken here of the spread of urbanization since the publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles

https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/articles/homicideinenglandandwales/yearendingmarch2019

The meaning of confined spaces, houses, dwellings on the one hand and boats, trains or planes on the other, is inverted in Christie’s world. They are changed into places of danger rather than shelter, and of stasis rather than movement. From tokens of wealth and freedom, they are turned into symbols of restrictions and closure. They epitomise the feeling of being trapped. Nobody can get out. Additionally, vehicles are most often in motion and project their occupiers in life-threatening spatial environments (sea, sky, etc.). These circumstances confront the possible victim with a situation where there is no escape. Christie used those settings in her novels The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928), Murder on the Orient Express (1934), Death in the Clouds (1935) and Death on the Nile (1937).

Despite Benjamin’s intuition, reading about confined family murders (often the case in Christie’s books) while confined with your family actually might not always help to keep tragic projections and domestic fears at a distance. But because of the focus on interiors and interiority, her novels, which have been branded as “escapist”, seem on the face of it to represent rather the opposite, a sort of ‘captivism’. Not so much a literature of escape but one of captivity.  One which thrills readers with literary fantasies of captivity. What captivates us here is the very dysfunctional society of very strange characters stuck together for the duration of the novels. And also the fact that there is a release on the horizon, provoked first by a crisis, the crime, and then by its resolution. Reason and lucidity always triumph over madness, even if justice is not always served. So as a “Captivist” literature, Agatha Christie’s novels seem to be very apt confinement literature, addressing both the perils of this unnatural proximity to other people and the hope for the restauration of a form of normality.