November 12th, 2006

Christie Again

Agatha Christie's Elephants Do Remember edges forward in long, looping, repetitive stretches of dialogue. It occurs to me that this is- God help us- an experimental novel. It makes me think of Pinter, Robbe Grillet, even Beckett.

Christie wrote it in her early 80s. How many novelists- popular or otherwise- have still been putting it out at that age?

Am I fooling myself or is Christie what she seems to be- a daring stylist, a risk-taker, an innovator, a quintessential modernist?

How liberating to be a famous writer of detective fiction. So long as you deliver the essentials- a much loved detective, carefully hidden clues, a surprising twist at the end- you can do whatever else you like. You can experiment to your heart's content and your readers will hardly notice.

I Google Christie. It's all about plots and cover art and actors who have played Poirot. She draws very little serious, critical attention. But she's such a tight, essential writer that you can hardly discuss her craft without spoilers.

Take characterization. I've read that her people are all stereotypes. But that's not true at all. They may be presented as stereotypes, but then she presdigitates away and shows you who they really- surprisingly- are. I'd like to discuss examples, but if I did I'd be revealing who is or isn't the murderer.

The word is that she's just a middlebrow entertainer. Yeah, sure, but if so, she's in a class of her own. Middlebrow entertainers peak and fall and are forgotten as the world moves on. But Christie is still as popular as she ever was. All her stuff is in print. All of it. That's something like 100 titles. Books she wrote over 80 years ago are still as bright and fresh and readable as they ever were. And, more than that, she's the world's number one best-selling novelist. She tops the charts everywhere, even in France. The only two things that have outsold her- and they've had a big head start- are the Bible and Shakespeare.

I'm not saying popularity equals literary greatness, but popularity on this scale- abiding popularity- is something you can't just shrug off. She's a massive cultural phenomenon. Unparallelled. Unprecedented.

And what I'm saying is it's not some bizarre fluke, it's because she was an artist.