The Dame Herself: Susan Isaacs on Agatha Christie
Susan Isaacs, author of Goldberg Variations, on the brilliant plotting of Agatha Christie.
God knows my admiration for Agatha Christie is not based on her character development. Her recurring protagonists, Jane Marple, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, Hercule Poirot, et al., are only slightly less thin than the paper they’re written on.
And I despise her biases. Frankly, I’d like to punch her in the snoot for the offhand anti-Semitism and racism she displays, especially in her earlier books. (And Then There Were None’s original title was Ten Little Niggers.)
But while I wouldn’t take tea with her, were she still around, I must acknowledge her virtuosity in plotting. Murder on the Orient Express has been read, filmed, and imitated so many times it now seems old hat. Yet she not only provides that gratifying narrative rush, but also shocking endings. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd broke one of the cardinal rules of the genre—a twist ending and a major no-no for any pedestrian writer. But Christie, with genius and hard work, pulled off that cheat with a brilliant casual audacity.
Her play The Mousetrap also twisted the standard rules of the whodunit forms: gasps, applause, stellar reviews. It’s been running steadily on the London stage since 1952. Her astonishing plotting made The Witness for the Prosecution a winner as a short story, play, film (should be #1 on your must-see list), and TV play.
So boo-hiss for Christie’s prejudice and many of her protagonists’ utter lack of depth. But yay for her skill in making a story not only hurtle along, but end with a big bang.
Susan Isaacs’s most recent novel is Goldberg Variations. She is currently at work on her next book, a mystery. Her previous books, Compromising Positions and Long Time No See, are available as ebooks from Open Road Media.