Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Long Live the Queen of Mystery!

Quick! Name a book genre!

Did you guess mystery?  If so, then you picked the second most popular genre of fiction books (it just cannot beat that steamy ol' romance genre).  Mysteries range from espionage mysteries to fantasy mysteries to themed mysteries to horror mysteries; the sub genres go on and on. However, in the end, there is no mystery like the classic mystery, with a plucky, eccentric sleuth coming upon a problem (almost always murder) and then proceeding to solve said problem with cunning and little outside help.  This is the tried and true method for writing a mystery and it has endured since the debut of the mystery genre.

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However, no one has quite mastered the art of turning the simplistic formula into a complicated and articulate story like Dame Agatha Christie.  Born in 1890, the English author began her lengthy career during the "Golden Age of Detective Fiction" (1920's and 1930's).  However, where many, many others quit, lost steam, or faded into obscurity, Christie continued to be a roaring force of mystery fiction, producing some her best works later in life.  Her personal life read as a mystery/romance novel as well, from her vastly publicized disappearance in 1926 (the stress of her husband's affair and demand for divorce left her distraught, thus prompting her flight), her eventual marriage to archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan (she loved him because "the older I grow, the more he appreciates me,"), to the international whirlwind success of her writing career.  Christie was not only confident in her success, she also served as a figurehead for female authors breaking into the mystery genre, a book form which has been previously dominated by men.  Christie wrote books that appealed to both men and women, both in England and abroad. Her books have been published in at least 103 languages. 

Christie came onto the literary scene in 1920 with The Mysterious Affair at Styles.  The novel also marked the debut of Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective with the egg-shaped head, who brought Christie international literary fame and remains today what she is best known for.  Poirot starred in thirty-nine of Christie's novels.  The novels were marked with a flair of international jet-setting and class; the mysteries revolved around the rich and the famous, those desperate to keep their crimes and secrets to themselves.  However, as Poirot reminds the reader again and again, "Papa Poirot" sees everything. Everything about Poirot is lovable yet antagonizing; he is able to deduce solutions from his keen sense of awareness and his brilliance at being able to tailor a situation to work in his favor.  Despite the fact that the ingenious but often haughty detective vastly annoyed Christie towards the end of her career, her last published book during her lifetime was Poirot's final Curtain in 1975; early on she had recognized the fame of Poirot, thus had written his ending book early on, while she was still physically able.  By the time the novel debuted, Poirot had become so internationally popular, his literary death received an obituary from The New York Times, the only fictional character ever to receive such.

Christie did the same for her other literary sleuth, Miss Marple, an English spinster whose quiet observations of her English village give her great insight into the human psyche.  Sleeping Murder was published in 1976, the year of Christie's death.  However, Christie did not live to see her favorite sleuth's literary journey end.  Marple was the star of twelve novels, starting with The Murder at the Vicarage (1930); yet, to some readers, Marple's legacy as the amateur sleuth is overlooked most mystery readers. The tone of the Marple novels are different that the Poirot ones; these are more simple, quaint, and tend to less complex plots, yet retaining their signature Christie twists and turns.  There is a much greater cosmopolitan sense in the Poirot novels, yet the Marple novels exude a distinctly English feel, luring the reader into the eccentricities and dangers of countryside English life.  Miss Marple is the perfect English gentlewoman; however, she is cunning, sly, and uses anecdotes and her deep understanding of the human condition makes her a different sleuth than most.  She is not worldly or fancy.  Yet, in her simplicity lies a genius that makes her more interesting to read about than Poirot.

So, yes, I am telling you to read mysteries from the 1920's to 1970's (Christie kept busy).  Why? Several reasons.  There are no modern frills with these novels; the lack of modern communication and technology makes the mysteries very exciting and twisting. Without technology dating the novels, the stories are able to be timeless, with the crimes and solutions based entirely on human emotions, passions, and folly.  It is solely up to the smarts and observations of the sleuth to deduce the solution, therefore bringing forth the quintessential strength of Christie's talent.  The context in which Christie was writing is also worth the attention.  The life of England past is filled with servants, mansions, manners, class distinctions, and speech that is indicative of times past.  The reader is transported to a world and lifestyle that reigned not even a hundred years ago, yet is so different from modern times it nearly seems fabricated.  The historical aspect of the novels is also interesting.  The publications span from the end of World War 1 to past World War 2, offering glimpses into how people lived and thought during Christie's time periods.  Clearly, real life and culture are infused in fiction, so it is only natural to connect with history through Christie's characters and settings.  Lastly, and most importantly, Christie's novels are intriguing.  They remain relevant in today's world.  The whodunit is almost always a surprise (READ THE BOOKS!), yet Christie manages to engage the reader in the cat and mouse game that is and will always be the classic mystery.  She is a writer for the ages and her books, although short, will thrill to the very end.

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