I’ve always been intrigued by the concept of “good writer.” I’ve long thought I was a “good writer.” Some begged to disagree. So I’ve often pondered whether it would be possible to find some sort of measurement; or at least a way to compare such and such piece of writing with such and such piece of writing, and come away with a neutral, commonly accepted tool to say: this sucks.
Since no tool is yet available, or will ever be, enter John Lanchester, who is not a good novelist (his most famous novel, “Capital,” is meandering, repetitive, pious, and pretty plotless) but is an absolutely top-notch essayist. Lanchester recently wrote in the London Review of Books about Agatha Christie, who was a terrible and yet extremely successful writer:
Agatha Christie is, according to her website, ‘the world’s bestselling novelist’. That is a difficult claim to prove, and the official site makes no attempt to do so, but when you think that she wrote 66 novels and 14 short story collections, all of them still in print in multiple formats in dozens of languages, you can begin to see how she got to a total of one billion copies sold in English and another billion-odd in translation. Oh, and the longest-running play in the history of the world. Sceptics would be well advised to admit defeat on the issue of whether or not she sold more books than any other novelist ever has, and instead pivot to a more interesting question: why?
In case you were tempted to think that Christie, despite such success, was indeed a good writer, Lanchester summons the brilliant critic Edmund Wilson, who wrote this in his 1945 essay-review, ‘Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?’
Her writing is of a mawkishness and banality that seem to me literally impossible to read. You cannot read such a book, you run through it to see the problem worked out; and you cannot become interested in the characters, because they never can be allowed an existence of their own even in a flat two dimensions but have always to be contrived so that they can seem either reliable or sinister, depending on which quarter, at the moment, is to be baited for the reader’s suspicion … Mrs Christie, in proportion as she is more expert and concentrates more narrowly on the puzzle, has to eliminate human interest completely, or, rather, fill in the picture with what seems to me a distasteful parody of it. In this new novel, she has to provide herself with puppets who will be good for three stages of suspense: you must first wonder who is going to be murdered, you must then wonder who is committing the murders, and you must finally be unable to foresee which of two men the heroine will marry. It is all like a sleight-of-hand trick, in which the magician diverts your attention from the awkward or irrelevant movements that conceal the manipulation of the cards, and it may mildly entertain and astonish you, as such a sleight-of-hand performance may.
Lanchester (and I) can only nod:
It’s not as if anyone, even her hardest-core fans, ever makes any claims for Christie as a writer per se. Her prose is flat and functional, her characters on a spectrum between types, stereotypes and caricatures; so, you might well ask, what’s to like?
Lanchester then goes on to compare Christie’s writing with that of two of her direct rivals in detective fiction’s ‘golden age’, two women: Margery Allingham and Dorothy Sayers. He quotes a paragraph of Allingham, from her masterpiece, The Tiger in the Smoke:
She did not reply at once and he glanced at her sharply, accepting the pain it gave him. She was so lovely. Queen Nefertiti in a Dior ensemble. Her clothes seemed a part of her. Her plum-coloured redingote with its absurd collar arched like a sail emphasised her slenderness. Since it was fashionable to do so, she looked bendable, bone and muscle fluid like a cat’s. A swathe of flax-white hair protruded from a twist of felt, and underneath was something not quite true. Exquisite bone hid under delicate faintly painted flesh, each tone subtly emphasising and leading up to the wide eyes, lighter than Scandinavian blue and deeper than Saxon grey. She had a short fine nose and a wide softly painted mouth, quite unreal, one might have thought, until she spoke. She had a husky voice, also fashionable, but her intonation was alive and ingenuous. Even before one heard the words one realised, albeit with surprise, that she was both honest and not very old.
And then one of Sayers, from Gaudy Night:
Harriet was glad that in these days she could afford her own little car. Her entry into Oxford would bear no resemblance to those earlier arrivals by train. For a few hours longer she could ignore the whimpering ghost of her dead youth and tell herself that she was a stranger and a sojourner, a well-to-do woman with a position in the world. The hot road spun away behind her; towns rose from the green landscape, crowded close about her with their inn-signs and petrol-pumps, their shops and police and perambulators, then reeled back and were forgotten. June was dying among the roses, the hedges were darkening to a duller green; the blatancy of red brick sprawled along the highway was a reminder that the present builds inexorably over the empty fields of the past. She lunched in High Wycombe, solidly, comfortably, ordering a half-bottle of white wine and tipping the waitress generously. She was eager to distinguish herself as sharply as possible from that former undergraduate who would have had to be content with a packet of sandwiches and a flask of coffee beneath the bough in a by-lane. As one grew older, as one established oneself, one gained a new delight in formality. Her dress for the garden party, chosen to combine suitably with full academicals, lay, neatly folded, inside her suitcase. It was long and severe, of plain black georgette, wholly and unimpeachably correct. Beneath it was an evening dress for the Gaudy Dinner, of a rich petunia colour, excellently cut on restrained lines, with no unbecoming display of back or breast; it would not affront the portraits of dead Wardens, gazing down from the slowly mellowing oak of the Hall.
These two ladies were Good Writers. They knew how to Write. Now, for comparison, Lanchester comes up with three paragraphs from Christie’s “The Body in the Library”:
The knock came at the door. Automatically from the depths of her dreams Mrs Bantry said, ‘Come in.’ The door opened – now there would be the chink of curtain-rings as the curtains were drawn back.
But there was no chink of curtain-rings. Out of the dim green light Mary’s voice came – breathless, hysterical. ‘Oh ma’am, oh, ma’am, there’s a body in the library.’
And then with a hysterical burst of sobs she rushed out of the room again.
Lanchester makes an interesting distinction between the work of Allingham and Sayers: “Allingham could write, and more or less any paragraph by her has energy and momentum and detail – you want to read more. The case of Sayers is odder: her prose has force and at the same time there is something monstrous about her writing; it’s the kind of style which has a built-in falsity to it and the reader is likely either to swallow it as good old-school fun or reject it wholesale”… (That was a sore point for Sayers, who started out wanting to be a poet and in the latter part of her career dedicated years to translating Dante.)”
Also, Lanchester adds, there’s the issue of style. Both Allingham and Sayers had it. So their novels sound like products of their time. Christie had none so (at least, in terms of style) her novels are outside of the grasp of time, like a black hole stuffed with banalities that grew to immense proportions and dominates the galaxy: “A greater percentage of writerliness involves a higher risk of failure, in genre terms,” Lanchester says, very accurately.
The distinction I made about Christie’s novels not being of their own time only applies to style, though. Again, Lanchester makes a very astute point that Christie, by not striving to look modern, ahead of her own time, managed to avoid a lot of pitfalls:
Allingham and Sayers considered themselves more progressive thinkers than Christie. Allingham’s main character, Albert Campion, is a toff, but her female characters had proper jobs: Lady Amanda Fitton, Campion’s eventual wife, is an aircraft designer, and his sister, Val, worked in fashion, as we learn in The Fashion in Shrouds (great title). Val marries a good man, Alan Dell, with the following deal: he will take ‘full responsibility for her’, but he demands in return ‘your independence, the enthusiasm which you give your career, your time and your thought’. She is delighted to accept. This is joltingly hard to read today – even P.D. James, no slave to political correctness, calls it ‘blatant misogyny’. It goes a long way to ruining what is otherwise a prime example of golden age detective fiction. Sayers gets into similar difficulties with the character of Harriet Vane, who is unmarried but has a lover; Sayers put so much effort and energy into congratulating herself on the modernness of this that she ends up seeming old-fashioned, just as old-fashioned as when she compliments her aristocratic hero for having ‘shoulders tailored to swooning point’. Christie’s books are naturally saturated with ideology, just like everyone else’s, but because the ideology is implicit most of the time there is less of it to attract this kind of readerly dissent. That often happens in genre fiction: the aspect of the writer’s interest which seems most advanced to her is the one that seems most regressive to us, simply because the world has moved on so far that even to ask these questions seems glaringly outdated. I’ve spent some time wondering why Christie seems, to me and, on the evidence of her sales, not just to me, to have a strange exemption from this. I say this as someone who thinks that marking the report card of the past from the ideological perspective of the present is an unproductive use of leisure time – since what we’re talking about here is reading for pleasure. But the fact is that Allingham and Sayers, both better writers than Christie, are more likely to break the containment field of the detective genre, in ways that end up distracting you or putting you off their books.
Lanchester then goes on to provide another example of the “broken containment field”: the work of Arthur Upfield, who wrote a series of novels in the 1930s and onwards featuring an indigenous Australian detective, Bony, short for Napoleon Bonaparte:
Upfield’s masterpiece, The Sands of Windee, is a well-realised and vivid book, and teaches you a lot about the 1930s outback. Driving to a dance at a nearby farmer’s house, a party of cars comes to a dirt track. The car carrying the women stops and waits five minutes for the other car to get far enough away for the settling dust not to ruin their frocks. Only someone who had been there and done that could have written this scene. (The thoroughness of Upfield’s researches became famous. In 1929 a stockman called Snowy Rowles overheard Upfield discussing the body disposal technique he planned to use in The Sands of Windee, and copied it to commit three murders of his own, leading to what was at the time a hugely famous trial. Rowles’s mistake was to have failed to melt down one of his victims’ rings sufficiently thoroughly: it retained a distinctive soldering mark from an earlier repair. Upfield was called to give evidence at the trial.) Upfield clearly saw his decision to have his Sherlock Holmes figure be indigenous as a sign of his progressive views on race, but the meditations on race in the Bony books – the constant discussion, to take just one example, of how the ‘half-caste’ Bony is involved in a war between his atavistic black blood and the civilising instinct of his white ancestry – isn’t just offensive: it verges on nauseating. Christie has moments when she gives away attitudes and prejudices characteristic of her time and milieu – I’m thinking of the ‘yellow-faced Hebrew financier’ in The Secret of Chimneys from 1925, inter alia – but she doesn’t seem to have been all that interested in gender or race, and doesn’t muse at length on either subject. It is one of the factors that help her books stay within their lane.
All of this gives some hope. Not a lot, but some: that writers who have secured fame and fortune by pandering to the prejudices of our time will, one day, when they and I are all dead, will be much more forgotten than they can ever suspect.
At the same time, it’s reassuring to think that Agatha Christie would have cared little, not nothing but little, about her persistent, centuries-spanning present fame. Lanchester is a bit puzzled by this…
Absence, the things that aren’t said, and aren’t necessarily there even in the unsaid, is very important to Christie. Her autobiographical writing is startlingly lacking in introspection, so much so that it makes you wonder at the nature of the psychological absence inside Christie, the space and silence where certain kinds of conversation with herself might be expected to take place. Come, Tell Me How You Live, a memoir about her life with her second husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, is a serious contender for the least revealing autobiographical book ever written, strongly rivalled by her Autobiography, which does at least contain some factual details from her childhood. It is in character that the most famous thing which ever happened to Christie was that she ran away and disappeared for a few days, a classic fugue which ended with her being found living under an assumed name in a hotel in Harrogate. Perhaps her entire being, her inner life, was a kind of absence, a variety of fugue.
… but she shouldn’t be. Christie needed money, and she had no interest of telling anything of relevance because she enjoyed her privacy. So she didn’t, and still got the money. Christie was just very smart, uninterested in Art or Beauty or Truth. Lanchester calls her “devoutly unexperimental,” which — if I were a commercial publisher — is an expression I’d perceive as high praise.
Lanchester does enthusiastically look for nuggets of Art in her work. For example, he notes that people re-read her novels even while not noticing that they’re doing so, but he doesn’t realise that’s simply a testament to these facts:
a) She wrote a ton of similar but different enough novels with similar but different enough plots, so the suspicion that you read this one already is always strong, even if you didn’t.
b) Christie readers only care how who did the deed; having read so many novels, they tend to forget the specifics of each case, so they enjoy the chase again when confronted by the same book.
Instead, Lanchester thinks that Christie’s readers have a “formal and technical” interest in her work, which makes no sense whatsoever. Formally and technically, Christie’s novels are very average. It’s their very averageness that is appealing. They are exchangeable and, sadly, that’s what most readers of whodunits look for. Christie was also good with plotting, and masking who did it through multiple tricks, not all of them as novel as Lanchester seems to believe:
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is her breakthrough novel, not just one of her best books but one of the unquestioned masterpieces of the genre. It’s a story in which the narrator of the book performed the murder – as daring a formal experiment as anyone has ever pulled off in a genre or popular novel. Another, almost equally remarkable book is one in which the murder was committed not by one of the suspects, but by all of them. That novel, Murder on the Orient Express, is a radical experiment because all the characters are acting in concert: the whole point is that the evidence cannot be assembled into a coherent puzzle for the detective to solve. The evidence deliberately contradicts itself and fails to make sense: it’s a pointillist portrait constructed in such a way as not to cohere into a painting. (And a great gift for the theatrical profession, since every one of the characters is an equal ‘turn’; the result is that adaptations tend to become films in which actors are chewing the scenery while also phoning it in. Witness the completely pointless recent remake with Kenneth Branagh as Poirot… A novel in which the detective did it. A novel in which the entire structure of the story was suggested by a title that popped into Christie’s head: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? A novel in which the victims are killed in alphabetical order. A novel in which all the characters are murdered, except that one of them turns out to have done it. (Christie herself gave a rare glimpse of what she really thought about her own craft when she described that book, And Then There Were None, as a ‘technical extravaganza’. With its intense atmosphere of claustrophobia, menace and darkness, it remains genuinely frightening. It’s also the only book I’ve ever read three times under three different titles.) A novel in which the crime was solved long ago, and the murderer convicted and hanged, but the mystery is now unsolved by the appearance of a crucial witness, whose evidence proves that someone else – a hitherto unsuspected family member – must be guilty. (That novel, Ordeal by Innocence, is another one in which the psychological atmosphere is distinctly oppressive.) A novel which is based on the game of bridge, explained in detail and with diagrams, and in which the crucial evidence is the character revealed by the way one player copes with one particular hand. A novel based on a murder glimpsed through a train window. A novel where the murder happens on a small aeroplane, complete with seat diagram. A novel where the time and place of the murder are announced in advance in a newspaper ad.
Then there’s the fact that, in a genre stuffed with Sherlock Holmes variations, “the most popular detective writer of all time had as her principal character a man who is, by general agreement, the worst detective of all.” Hercule Poirot. It’s good to be reminded that, despite the often whimsical trickery described above, Christie’s ouevre boils down to some basics:
The elements of Christie’s fiction are all already in place: a country house, a finite list of suspects, the outsider detective intruding into a place of order and hierarchy that has been disrupted by a crime. The world of Christie’s books is something like the ‘imaginary’ as described by Cornelius Castoriadis, a mental representation in which this orderly household stands for a whole society as a shared universe of meaning, with values and social roles encoded everywhere we look – and then, into this world comes a murder, and a detective trying to solve the murder. Something doesn’t mean what we thought it meant; someone isn’t who they appear to be; something didn’t happen the way it was said to have happened.
And this is what the crime fiction reader wants. Which is the reason why I’m not a crime fiction reader. I’ve read dozens of such books, perhaps hundreds, but stopped doing it regularly a long time ago, because I’m tired of the whole routine. For me, the murder and who did it is, to some extent, uninteresting. In my own crime novel, there’s only one real suspect, even if this person is a pretty well-known person. It’s everything else I care about: the setting, the mindsets, the life around the death.
A few years ago I read a short novel written by the famous Sicilian writer Andrea Camilleri. Boring as hell. Somebody is killed, a number of suspects are contemplated, and one in the end turns up to be the culprit. Why would I care? As a I read, I was intrigued not by the plot, twisted but not that unpredictable, but by the glimpses os Sicilian life and society, of the way real estate deals are done in Sicily, the way celebrity works in Sicilian culture, what they eat and drink in Sicily.
Camilleri gave me almost nothing of this: just the minimum possible dose to create a halfway realistic world. No real explanations, no insight: just the hint that something real beyond bullshit murders is lurking in the background. Chances are, Camilleri didn’t really know how any of this works, he just added some stuffing so that the book would reach 150 pages and the publisher could sell it for 10 euros.
Camilleri was a wildly successful writer, of course.