Sunday, October 11, 2015

Terror and Powerlessness:
Two by Agatha Christie

Too terrifying for me to buy at age 10, 4:50 from Paddington (formerly What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw) is as good an idea now as it ever was: a little old woman witnesses a murder on the commuter train running parallel to hers, and is powerless to stop it, or even to convince others that she saw what she knows she saw.  I held that book in one hand, and Hickory Dickory Death in the other, weighing them as if much more than $1.50 (price of a paperback in 1970) hung in the balance.  Two roads diverged in a wood; I took the one with the friendlier Mother Goose title.
The Moving Finger also takes powerlessness as its premise, as no one can stop the anonymous poison pen letters that attack characters in a small town.  Everyone has to be suspicious of everyone else; no one shares the shameful things they've read.   

Terror isn't Agatha Christie's real interest, though.  She aspires to Noel Cowardy repartee -- "Quite dreadful" someone says, viewing a corpse.  "Of course I despise money when I haven't got any," says a Wildish heir (Paddington 227).  She has observations to make about intellectuals who lack common sense, and sensible underestimated women.  She takes gratuitous swipes at an aesthete whom she calls "effeminate" and "queer," Mr. Pye in The Moving Finger.  Most interesting is the observation by the rector's wife in Finger that the unknown writer has made vile accusations while missing the real sins of the town:"Well of course there's plenty of adultery here -- and everything else.  Why doesn't the writer use these?" (59) 

Besides, Christie likes romance.  A brother and sister pair, each wanting a mate, are the protagonists in The Moving Finger, notwithstanding a late entrance by Miss Jane Marple.  The man becomes Pygmalion to the clumpy 20 year old "girl" who "hates" the village.   In 4:50, the pert young jack-of-all-trades Lucy Eylesbarrow, hired by Miss Marple to infiltrate a household, falls in love with the one decent human being in the house.  "Are we investigating crime, or are we matchmaking?" Lucy asks her (173).

While I read the novels, I enjoyed them, page by page.  Both novels did give us those kinds of coincidences that open Christie up to ridicule, when one character suddenly reveals she's actually so - and - so's long-lost French wife, or another character happens to open a book whence came all the pages cut into poison-pen messages.  

I wonder if Christie could have found a way to sustain her terrifying visions?  We've hardly explored the implications of random violence on a train when Miss Marple has discerned that the body Mrs. McGillicuddy saw must have fallen on the grounds of a country estate, domesticating the urban nightmare.  The poison pen letters result in an apparent suicide, and we're back to dealing with understandable motives.

When Christie had these visions of powerlessness facing malevolence, was she unable to spin the stories out beyond the usual tales of inheritances and infidelities, or was she unwilling?  I think I know how she may have felt:  I once brainstormed a series of detective stories set in a neighborhood like my own, but filed it all away when the idea occurred to me of a serial pet killer.  Some story ideas are too horrible to contemplate, and we want an Agatha Christie to tame them for us.

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