On the virtues of Agatha Christie novels

There’s a reason why the BBC do an Agatha Christie adaptation every darn Christmas.

In the run-up to the festive season, I was looking for a festive read. And by that I mean my kind of festive read. No twee little gatherings by the fire, no adorable reindeer or polar bears. Nope, I wanted a murder.

I haven’t a clue why I associate a good parlour room murder mystery with Christmas, but clearly, I’m not alone. The British Broadcasting Company is totally with me when it comes to dusting off a moth-eaten copy of ‘Hercule Poirot’s Christmas’ alongside the tree decorations. But why?

Why do we associate murder with the most wonderful time of the year?

Agatha Christie murders are not real murders

Let’s be honest. Agatha Christie novels are not Scandi-noirs. Her victims usually die painlessly, bloodlessly and conveniently.

Over Christmas, I read ‘And Then There Were None’, which is widely considered to be Christie’s bleakest mystery. Read no further if you don’t want any spoilers!

It tells of a group of strangers who are invited to a gathering on a secluded island off the British coast. But when they arrive, they realise that they have been invited under false pretences.

As they become acquainted, they realise that it’s not just their host that has something to hide. As the body count begins to climb, their suspicions turn inward – but who’s the mastermind behind this grand riddle?

Despite the astonishingly high mortality rate, there is nerry a blood splatter to be seen. Even with a shot to the heart and a cranial bludgeoning on the murderous modus operandi list.

We wouldn’t want gore at Christmas. Nobody watches ‘Saw’ or ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ at Christmas. Or if they do, we would probably stop our children spending time with them.

Now, you might correctly point out that there’s a whole sub-genre of Christmas horror films which turn Santa Claus into an axe-wielding maniac, but you would also subsequently have to admit that these are incredibly camp and the gore is not intended to be emotive or realistic.

Unlike, say, ‘The Bridge’, which would not make good December viewing at all. Partly for its gore, and partly for its un-festive insistence on depicting its characters as alternately psychopathic or depressive.

So at Christmas, we’d like to see a murder, but not a realistic, emotional or significant one.

Murder as a parlour game

Guess what else gets rolled out at Christmas? Cluedo. Or ‘Clue’, for my American readers.

For some unsettling reason, we like to treat murder as a puzzle. Was it Miss Scarlett in the Billiard Room with the Candlestick?

Cluedo and Agatha Christie allow us to solve a ghoulish puzzle without having to do the usual subsequent police procedural, display of moral decency, or detailed examination of the human psyche.

We get to experience the shudder brought on by mingled horror and delight without having to berate ourselves for being dreadful, twisted humans.

We like murder mysteries in the same way we like board games; as a brainteaser with a satisfying, and morally rewarding pay-off. Double win.

A murder not too close to home

Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries do not feature gang-related stabbings, murder in self-defence, rapists, home invasions, serial killers, or indeed anything else that goes bump in the night in our actual world.

Instead, they almost always centre around a group of attractive, privileged middle-class white people, brought together usually in a comfortable mansion or exotic holiday home; one of whom murders the other with a perfectly rational motive which can be easily explained by the investigator-hero at the denouement.

In short, it is a situation from which most of us can exclude ourselves immediately. Have we a mortal enemy who we will see at our next extravagant dinner party? Probably not. Perhaps a jilted lover who may turn up in disguise during our next tour of the Mediterranean? Best not take that cruise.

Plus, the mystery is always solved. No murderer is left to wander the streets after Miss Marple has been on the case. Order is always restored by the genius of an amateur sleuth.

Caroline Crampton, from ‘Shedunnit’ podcast, agrees with me:

“In the books, the murders happen in a controlled, ordered way and are solved by clever detectives, unlike the chaotic unresolved fears we might have in real life.”

With Agatha Christie, we get a nice, clean, rational murder of a character we don’t sympathise with, to provide the context of an unthreatening mystery for us to solve.

What better past-time for a quiet evening by the fire?

What do you guys think of murder mysteries? Do you ever feel a bit twisted reading them? Do you think that some murder stories make for more comfortable reading than others? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!



One thought on “On the virtues of Agatha Christie novels

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  1. Cat, thank you for clearing up this mystery! I confess that I have never been drawn to the genre, perhaps for the reason that you put your finger on–that it is reduced (insulated from emotion and meaning) to a mental puzzle. Or perhaps because I spent a career in law enforcement, it seemed more like “work” than entertainment! Lol. Writing my first crime mystery/thriller, I felt a little insecure because of that lack of background in the genre and sent the story out to professional editors (more than one) to make sure I was on track. It worked out, but it was not Agatha Christie fare and magic got mixed with murder and mayhem.


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