This was going to be a piece of fan-fiction, inspired by my mother, detailing the impeachment of the Flaming Cheeto due to the expert sleuthing of England’s favorite old maid.
But in thinking of writing that piece, I realized I wanted to write this piece instead. Sorry, Ma!
I’ve read some Agatha Christie in my day. I spent the majority of my college interview (successful, by the way) talking about her. Hercule Poirot, Tommy and Tuppence, and, of course, the dame herself Miss Marple.
I’ve had a fascination with these mysteries since I was young, but it was only recently that I began to ask why. Certainly the mysteries themselves are unparalleled. The uniqueness of the clues, expertly revealed, the characters ever so perfectly caricatures of themselves.
But it took our current state of disorder for me to hit upon the real reason I love Agatha Christie so much. I finally realized that despite the occasional cringe-worthy description, Christie’s works are inherently and deeply anti-hierarchical.
Agatha Christie’s career stretched from the 1920s through to the 1970s, influenced by her experience in both world wars and by the politics of England. Her settings, either the international affairs and intrigues of Hercule Poirot or the stifling little village of Miss Marple, set the scene of a confused and changing society, one in which everything must be questioned.
The very thing for which Christie’s mysteries are best known, their seemingly impossible solutions, call us to question who we trust. The culprits are always, invariably, the last people we suspect. Often they are people of standing within society: doctors, judges, lawyers and police officers. In these cases, we are blinded by our inherent trust of society and its pillars.
In other cases, the culprit is someone who passes unseen within the world: a missing child now grown, an old woman everyone considers to be harmless, an old man unable to walk. These stories reveal the side of ourselves that underestimates those whom society deems unable to accomplish anything.
In either case, the plots themselves force us to reconsider who we trust and who we believe has power. The fact that anyone could have done it levels the playing field, creating an alternate reality within the outwardly stifling confines of the book. In this reality, all are suspect and all have equal power.
The contrast between this chaotically egalitarian internal structure and the repressive confines of the external world (e.g. St. Mary Mead or post-war conservative London) drives home for the reader the message: that we must question everything if we are to find the solution.
And, yes, I’ve been told that the structure of a mystery is inherently comforting. In the end, we know who did it and we can go home to bed happy.
But the great thing about Agatha Christie, her very best works at least, is that what you learned in the mystery, in that anarchic bubble of reality, stays with you long after you’ve closed the book. In the words of Umberto Eco “any true detection should prove that we are the guilty party.”
And this is exactly what Christie reveals. That we are blinded by our inherent faith in a system that is unjust and corrupt. That we overlook and underestimate those who the system tells us have no power. That we are only cogs in the machine, unable to think for ourselves.
Until we wake up one day and start to solve the mysteries ourselves.