How does she do it?
In my last post, I wrote about the pleasure of getting my reading mojo back when I embarked on Martin Edwards’s new novel, Mortmain Hall. I loved the book, romped through it, thoroughly enjoying it, but the relief was only temporary and when I’d finished it, I was back in my state of reading apathy.
After moping around the house for a while, it came to me that what I really wanted to read next was an Agatha Christie. But wasn’t I too familiar with them all? I picked Hallowe’en Party off the shelf and read the first few pages. And bingo! I couldn’t remember who had done it. In fact, I didn’t even remember reading it. And so it was that I passed a very agreeable two or three hours in the company of Agatha Christie. And yet I have to admit that this is not one of her best books. It was published in 1969, and there are signs of decline – she didn’t pull the wool over my eyes as effectively as usual – but it was still very enjoyable. As well as Poirot, Ariadne Oliver is involved, always a plus for me – and Superintendent Spence, too, retired now. There is also a splendid headmistress, Miss Emlyn. Mrs Oliver is clearly a self-portrait and I love her thoughts about writing and her encounters with her readers. “‘I read one of your books, said [sixteen year old] Ann to Mrs Oliver. ‘The Dying Goldfish. It was quite good,’ she added kindly.”
How does Agatha Christie do it, I ask myself. What makes her so wonderfully readable? It is not just the puzzle and the superlative plotting, important though that is. She is also a mistress of narrative pace: there is enough detail, but never too much. Though she has sometimes been accused of creating two-dimensional characters, I don’t find them so and feel that her characters are plausible, if a little stereotypical sometimes. But there’s more. There is something about her narrative voice that I find attractive. I get the impression that though she takes her writing seriously, she does not take herself too seriously – the element of self-parody shows that. She is enjoying herself, and it shows. She is also a surprisingly funny writer in a sly way.
In sum, few writers can have given, and still give, more pleasure than Agatha Christie and as I closed my copy of Hallowe’en Party, I said a silent thank you to her for seeing me through another solitary evening in semi-lockdown.
My battered old paperback has the splendid Tom Adams cover shown here. He died only recently on the 17th December 2019 aged 93.