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Tony Grist

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Christie Again [Nov. 12th, 2006|01:48 pm]
Tony Grist
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.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: methodius
2006-11-12 01:14 pm (UTC)

Detective fiction

It's a long time since I've read Christie. I read a fair bit of detective fiction, and right now I'm wading through The lighthouse by PD James, and am finding it surprisingly heavy going. Maybe James is past it, and losing her touch, or I'm just not in the mood for whodunits at the moment. I suppose part of it must be the inability to suspend disbelief. Dalgliesh is far to be hold to be having a girlfriend he's thinking of marrying. He must be pushing 80 himself. And coming after A short history of tractors in Ukraininan, it seems that is a more likely scenario than Dalgliesh.

But that's not Christie, who I don't think goes into the private lives of her detective heroes.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2006-11-12 02:21 pm (UTC)

Re: Detective fiction

I think it's a big mistake for fictional detectives to have private lives. It very much distracts from the business in hand.

The problem with too many detective writers is they want to transform the genre and raise it to the heights of literachur. P.D. James is a prime offender- following in the footsteps of Dorothy L. Sayers. My experience is that the more literary a detective novel becomes the more insufferable it is.

Christie is never literary in the way James and Sayers aspire to be, but she's a finer artist than either of them. She accepts the limitations of the genre and plays with them like the virtuoso she is.

Poirot first appears- as a middle-aged man- in 1916 and is still chipper in 1973, by which stage he must be about 100. His death- in a novel written out of sequence and published in 1975- seems to have occured around 1946.
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[User Picture]From: methodius
2006-11-12 11:27 pm (UTC)

Re: Detective fiction

Most whodunits these days seem to go into the private lives of the detectives.

Morse died.

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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2006-11-13 11:09 am (UTC)

Re: Detective fiction

I don't read contemporary detective fiction. Well, hardly at all. I don't want my detectives to have girlfriends and drink problems and inner demons; I just want them to do some detecting.
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[User Picture]From: jenny_evergreen
2006-11-12 02:30 pm (UTC)
I love Christie. And I agree.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2006-11-12 02:40 pm (UTC)
I read a couple of her books in my teens and found them dull. I now believe it was because she was just too subtle for me.
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[User Picture]From: jenny_evergreen
2006-11-12 03:47 pm (UTC)
I went from Nancy Drew directly to Christie and Conan Doyle and never stopped. I'm still trying to find Christies I haven't read yet. (I should have kept track!)
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2006-11-13 11:04 am (UTC)
I started with G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories. I read them all when I was 10-11.

An early favourite of mine was John Dickson Carr- master of the locked room mystery. He seems to be all but forgotten now.
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[User Picture]From: jenny_evergreen
2006-11-13 02:34 pm (UTC)
Neither is forgotten by me, although I haven't read *much* of either, either. (Hrm. I pronounce those last two "either"s differently. Do you?)
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2006-11-13 09:44 pm (UTC)
You know, I believe I do....
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[User Picture]From: pondhopper
2006-11-12 03:08 pm (UTC)
It´s been a while since I´ve had a good dose of Christie. Manolo reads everything of hers he can get his hands on as long as he can get the books in English. She is also very popular translated into Spanish but my picky translator´s mind hasn´t found an adequate version yet and he prefers original versions whenever possible.
I do think I had to grow into her, also. My dad would often get her books from the library and I´d pick up one or another now and then and think "boring". In later years I began seeing what a mistress of precision she was with words when I started working with them myself.

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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2006-11-13 11:01 am (UTC)
I've come to Christie through the TV movies. I didn't think I'd ever say this- being a huge fan of David Suchet's- but the books are better.
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[User Picture]From: pondhopper
2006-11-13 03:26 pm (UTC)
(points at my icon)

I agree! Suchet truly is a fine Poirot, though.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2006-11-13 10:01 pm (UTC)
Suchet is terrific. I've collect his "cases" on DVD.
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[User Picture]From: jenny_evergreen
2006-11-13 02:35 pm (UTC)
I LOVE your icon! :)
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[User Picture]From: pondhopper
2006-11-13 03:27 pm (UTC)
You´re welcome to take it if you´d like!
:)
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[User Picture]From: jenny_evergreen
2006-11-13 04:09 pm (UTC)
Thanks! *saves* :)
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From: senordildo
2006-11-12 04:35 pm (UTC)
It would be interesting to list experimental works by popular, best-selling novelists. One for the list would be Ian Fleming's The Spy Who Loved Me, which was written from the first person viewpoint of the Bond girl and only features Bond in its last third. It's probably the most despised of the Bond novels but I think it was a pretty bold book, and except for a couple of howlers it holds up well.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2006-11-13 10:59 am (UTC)
I haven't read that, I'm afraid.

The problem for any novelist- especially a popular one- is that you get into a rut. Experiment would be a way of keeping the work- and your own interest in it- alive.
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[User Picture]From: mummm
2006-11-12 05:47 pm (UTC)
Other people can say what they like, I love Agatha's books.
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[User Picture]From: mummm
2006-11-12 05:53 pm (UTC)

This seems like a nice site...

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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2006-11-13 10:43 am (UTC)

Re: This seems like a nice site...

Ah, yes. I took a wander round that the other day.
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