What is the hold that Agatha Christie’s work has had over so many people for such a long time? One obvious answer to that question is that she wrote novels and stories with strong plots and solid characters. For instance, her sleuths Jane Marple, Hercule Poirot, and Tommy and Tuppence Beresford are beloved by millions; you know a character has an impact when there are spirited debates about which actor is the best portrayer of that character. Christie was a genius at plot twists, deceptive “red herrings” and surprises, too. I’m not going to list all of the novels in which she manages to surprise the reader, even while “playing fair.” But beyond that obvious answer, I think one reason Christie’s work is still so highly regarded is that she also wove several other themes into her work. Her stories and novels had depth and richness because she held up a mirror to the society in which she lived and showed what she saw to the world.
One of the recurring themes in Christie’s work is the social reality of class differences. In Sad Cypress, for instance, we meet Mary Gerrard, daughter of the lodgekeeper at Hunterby, an estate owned by wealthy Laura Welman. Mrs. Welman has always taken a special interest in Mary and educated her “above her station.” In some ways, this has been helpful to Mary but in other ways, it’s caused her trouble. Her father takes gibes at her “fine lady ways,” and many of the locals think she’s “above herself.” Mary herself isn’t sure what she’s going to do; she’s well-educated and “finished,” but she knows she’s not part of the upper class. On the other hand, she no longer “fits in” with members of her own social class. There matters stand when she meets Laura Welman’s nephew Roderick “Roddy” Welman, whom she knew when both were children. He and his fiancée, Elinor Carlisle, have come to Hunterby to visit “Aunt Laura,” who’s had a stroke. Roddy is soon deeply infatuated with Mary, and even asks her to marry him. Then one afternoon, Mary suddenly dies of what turns out to be poisoning. Elinor Carlisle is arrested and charged with the crime, which is logical since she had motive and she prepared the last meal that Mary ate. Dr. Peter Lord, Laura Welman’s doctor, asks Hercule Poirot to clear Elinor’s name; he’s infatuated with her and doesn’t want her convicted of the crime. One interesting point in this novel is that, as Poirot interviews various people, more than one say that Elinor wouldn’t have committed the crime because she was “a nice young lady.”
Class is also a theme in The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), in which Poirot investigates the shooting death of Harley Street doctor John Christow. Christow and his wife Gerda are week-end guests at the home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell, as are several Angkatell relations. Porot, who’s taken a cottage nearby as a week-end getaway, is invited for lunch on the Sunday, and comes upon the murder scene. As he and Inspector Grange investigate the shooting, we see the differences between the life that the wealthy, “well-born” Angkatells lead, and the life of Midge Hardcastle, whose mother was an Angkatell, but who isn’t a member of the upper class. This theme of social class differences and the gap that divides the working class from the moneyed class adds an important layer of interest to this novel. Christie addresses this theme in several other novels and stories, too.
But class isn’t the only theme Christie explores. Her novels also address some important themes of social change. For example, in The Mirror Crack’d (AKA The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side), Miss Marple and her friend, Dolly Bantry, investigate the poisoning murder of Heather Badcock, who lives with her husband Arthur in one of the new council houses that have come to the village of St. Mary Mead. As Miss Marple looks into Heather’s death, we see the many changes that came to English village life after World War II. Council housing, supermarkets, and modern conveniences are just a few of the changes to traditional village life that Miss Marple reflects on as the novel goes on.
We also see the theme of social change in After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal). When wealthy Richard Abernethie dies, the members of his family gather for the funeral and the reading of his will. His youngest sister, Cora Lansquenet, says that he was murdered, but no-one really believes her – until the next day when she is brutally murdered herself. Mr. Entwhistle, the family attorney, asks Poirot to investigate, and he agrees to look into the case. As Poirot gets to know the various members of the Abernethie family, we see the effect of social change on all of them. None of the younger generation is interested in living at Enderby, the old Victorian family home. In fact, they’re only too happy to have the home sold and turned into a hostel or a Guest House. That theme – of the older estates being sold for development – is also addressed in Dead Man’s Folly, in which Poirot investigates the strangling murder of fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker during a fête at Nasse House. In that novel, too, we learn that several of the local former estates have been turned into hostels and Guest Houses. You could say that this breakup of the old estates is symbolic of all of the social changes that took place during the fifty years that Christie wrote.
Christie also addressed the theme of racial and ethnic prejudice in her work. For instance, in Murder on the Orient Express, Poirot investigates the stabbing death of wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett while he’s traveling on the famous Orient Express train through Eastern Europe. In the same carriage as Mr. Ratchett are other travelers from a wide variety of countries and backgrounds; one of them is Italian-American businessman Antonio Foscarelli. He immediately becomes the most likely suspect to M. Bouc, who represents the Compagnie Internationale de Wagons Lits. M. Bouc assumes Foscarelli is the killer because Ratchett was stabbed and,
“An Italian’s weapon is the knife.”
The issue of prejudice is also addressed in Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death). In that novel, Poirot’s secretary Miss Lemon asks him to help her sister Mrs. Hubbard investigate a mysterious series of thefts and other strange events at the hostel she manages. Poirot agrees and visits the hostel. On the night of his visit, Celia Austin, one of the residents, confesses that she’s responsible for the thefts. Everyone thinks that the matter is settled – until Celia herself dies two days later in an apparent suicide. It’s soon proven that Celia was murdered, and Poirot and the police investigate the death. As they do, they get to know the various residents of the hostel. Racial and ethnic prejudice is mentioned a few times in this novel, since several of the residents are non-white. Through the words and actions of the characters, Christie shares several of the then-prevailing sentiments about members of different groups.
That’s also evident in Murder in Mesopotamia, in which Poirot finds out who murdered Louise Leidner, wife of noted archeologist Eric Leidner. Leidner is leading a dig at a site a few hours from Baghdad, and hires English nurse Amy Leatheran to look after his wife, who’s been suffering from anxiety and seems to have all sorts of fears. Since the story is told from Nurse Leatheran’s viewpoint, we see the Middle East through her eyes, and it’s interesting to see how she regards the local culture. She sees the market as
“…quaint – but just a lot of rubbish and hammering away at copper pans till they make your head ache – and not what I’d like to use myself…”
When Nurse Leatheran joins the household, Mrs. Leidner shows her around and lets her know how to ask for things like extra hot water. Mrs. Leidner reminds the nurse to
“…be sure and shout it. Arabs don’t understand anything said in an ordinary ‘English’ voice.”
Christie didn’t specifically use her novels to preach against intolerance, or the class system, or any of the changes that came to England during her life. Rather, she used her novels as a looking-glass to show readers the realities of life during the years that she wrote. That, to me, is part of what gives her books enduring appeal. Her books serve as “windows” into life at the time she wrote. They also touch on issues we still face today; yet Christie doesn’t take away from skillful plots and well-drawn characters by preaching. Little wonder Christie’s work is still as popular as it is, and little wonder so much of my bookshelf space is devoted to her books.
NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by The Police.