When I was about ten years old, a school friend lent me a copy of an Agatha Christie whodunit. It was a revelation to me. Not only was the book relatively short – which for me was a sine qua non – but I got a great deal of pleasure from trying to work out who the murderer was and discussing it with my friend.
Agatha Christie is, of course, the world’s best-known mystery writer of all time. Her books have been translated into over 40 languages and have sold over two billion copies. Apart from the Bible and Shakespeare she is top dog in terms of sales. Her oeuvre covers 78 mystery novels, 19 plays, and over 100 short stories. This is a staggering output. In fact she was so prolific that she once wrote an entire novel over the course of one weekend: Absent in the Spring under the name Mary Westmacott.
My own personal favorite was Hercule Poirot, the Belgian bon-vivant detective who appears in 33 novels and more than 50 short stories. I loved the way he hardly seemed to do any detective work: a question here, a conversation there – and always with very little in the way of hard facts until right near the end. The classic conclusion is where he gathers all the suspects together in the same room and says something like, “I suppose you are all wondering why I have gathered you here. One of you is the murderer…”
It wasn’t until years later that it dawned on me how gruesome those books were. Poisoning, bludgeoning, stabbing, hanging, shooting – all horrible ways to end one’s days. And there I was at the tender age of ten reading one after the other. Perhaps what makes the whole thing less horrific is the way in which the detective treats it, not as the snuffing out of a human life, but as an intellectual conundrum that has to be solved. The characters were all cardboard cutouts – the colonel, the doctor, the nurse, the governess, the young couple etc..
They were all taken from her stock of regular characters albeit with the names changed for each book. And that lack of real humanity is what made it acceptable to deal with the murder on a cerebral level rather than as a terrible human tragedy. And that’s also what makes these kinds of detective novels slightly distasteful. If we ourselves had been witness to one of those ghastly murders, we would probably need a course of counseling and Prozac to recover from it. Agatha Christie’s characters take it in their stride (after all, they had already been through it all before in her previous books).
Some of the best exponents of the classic whodunit are women: apart from Agatha Christie, there is Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers, Josephine Tey, P.D. James, Mary Higgins Clark, Janet Evanovich, Donna Leon, and so on. Why is that? Perhaps the reason why they are so good at it lies in the natural female ability to empathize with various characters and therefore adopt various different characters’ points of view and emotional reactions. That, of course, is essential if you want to write a convincing whodunit. Whatever the reason, these women have become adept at portraying brutal killings and their aftermath in a convincing way.
Agatha Christie’s novels always wrap themselves up quite satisfactorily at the end with no loose ends left dangling from the end pages. But, paradoxically, the best whodunits are only partly satisfying. If the author has portrayed the characters in a convincing enough way, then we hate to see them disappear when we get to the end of the book. We want to know what happens to them after we have turned the last page. We care about them enough to want to spend more time in their company and resent it slightly when the author has drawn the action to a close. And, ultimately, isn’t that feeling of loss more satisfying than a clever deus ex machina from Agatha?