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Monday, 10 August 2020

The Fictional World of Agatha Christie

Golden Age
by Carol Westron

One of the unique things about Agatha Christie was her use and reuse of her fictional characters. Of course, all writers of series have characters that recur, sometimes inevery book and sometimes occasionally, that is the way the author builds up acommunity surrounding their protagonist and engages their readers. Christie certainly did this, but she was also the queen of crime fiction mix-an-match, creating, discarding, refashioning and reusing her characters, depending on the story she wished to tell.During her long and prolific career, she reused characters from one series in otherseries or in stand-alones, though often in quite minor roles or merely by mentioning them. In this way she created a complex fictional world, in which all of herprotagonists exist, although the major players never encounter each other.

Television dramatisations have clouded the relationships that Christie created. Even the excellent early series featuring Joan Hickson as Miss Marple gave Detective Inspector Slack a role in several investigations in which he did not originally feature, although they never subverted Christie’s fundamental characterisation and plots. Later television series have had Miss Marple crammed into stories that Christie had written as stand-alones, and on at least one occasion combined her with Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. It is an increasing trend for Christie’s characters and plots to be altered out of all recognition. David Suchet is a fine Poirot but the community that has been manufactured around him to give him a ‘family’, makes the whole atmosphere incredibly cosy, and loses the subtle, lonelier picture that Christie built up of Poirot’s later years. This article will consider the Christie books, not television or film adaptations.

Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford and Parker Pyne never encountered each other in any of Christie’s novels or short stories. However, Christie does have fun playing with the barriers that divide fact and fiction in the reader’s mind. In Partners in Crime (1929), the collection of linked short stories featuring Tommy and Tuppence, the protagonists are working for the government by posing as private detectives. To add spice to the genuine cases they are investigating, they approach each one in the manner of a different popular fictional detective, although their fictional status is never categorically stated, as the way they are referred to could also apply to well-chronicled, real-life detectives. In Tommy and Tuppence’s final case in Partners in Crime, The Man who was Number Sixteen, Christie parodies her own early Poirot mystery, The Big Four (1927). Christie plays a similar trick in the short story The Flock of Geryon, part of the collection published as The Labours of Hercules (1947), where Miss Carnaby, a lady who has good reason to be grateful to Poirot, describes the activities of her Pekinese dog: ‘“As for Augustus, we have taught him a new trick. We say, “Die for Sherlock Holmes, die for Mr Fortune, die for Sir Henry Merivale, and then die for M. Hercule Poirot” and he goes down and lies like a log – lies absolutely still without moving until we say the word!”’ In this way, Poirot is again classified with three well known fictional detectives, although again their fictional status is not made clear. It is also interesting that in the Poirot novel Cards on the Table (1936), one of the characters asks if Mrs Oliver is the author of ‘The Body in the Library’, a title that Christie reused six years later for her second Miss Marple novel and described in the foreword as ‘one of the cliches of detective fiction’.

Captain Arthur Hastings is not part of Christie’s wider fictional world because he only appears in stories featuring Poirot, but he is so integral to Poirot’s story that a short introduction to his involvement seems necessary. Hastings had known Hercule Poirot before the First World War and they meet again when Poirot is a refugee, at which point Hastings becomes involved in the iconic detective’s first investigation in Britain, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920). From the first, Hastings’ function is to be the solidly English foil to Poirot’s foreign mannerisms, and, more importantly, to act as Poirot’s biographer, in much the same manner as Dr Watson retold the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. However, Poirot and Hastings are far less irrevocably joined than Holmes and Watson. After The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) and a large number of short stories, eleven of which were published as the collection Poirot Investigates (1924), Christie wrote her second Poirot novel, Murder on the Links (1923). At the end of this book, Christie frees herself from the shackles of narrating Poirot’s adventures through the first-person viewpoint of Hastings by marrying him off and sending him and his wife to Argentina. However, this did not prevent Christie from bringing Hastings back to visit Poirot whenever she felt his viewpoint would be useful, and Hastings took a central role in six other Poirot novels and one play (Black Coffee, 1930). Hastings is also the chronicler in Poirot’s Early Cases, short stories which were published in 1974 but, as the title suggests, were set much earlier. In fact, only one of the eighteen short stories, The Cornish Mystery, was published for the first time in 1974, all of the others had been written and published between 1924 and 1961. Regarding novels, all of Hastings’ appearances were in books published in the 1920s or 1930s, apart from Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, which was published in 1975, shortly before Christie’s death, but had been written decades earlier, in the 1940s, during the Second World War.

Another enduring character in the Poirot stories is his valet, George (or as Poirot prefers to call him, Georges). Georges is in the background of many Poirot stories and often supplies his master with useful information, especially about his ‘specialist subject’ the English upper class. He is very much part of the fabric of Poirot’s life but does not appear in Christie’s wider fictional world.

Like Captain Hastings, Detective Inspector James Japp (later Chief Inspector) appeared in the first Poirot adventure, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), and continued to appear regularly until 1940. In total Jappfeatured in seven Poirot novels, two short story collections and the play Black Coffee (1930). After 1940 he is mentioned on several occasions, but does not appear, apart from in Poirot’s Early Cases (1974), which, as has already been mentioned, were set much earlier.

Five of the novels Japp appeared in were narrated by Captain Hastings and Japp is therefore depicted through his eyes. There are few physical descriptions of Japp but Hastings speaks of recognising ‘a little ferret-faced fellow... he was an old acquaintance of Poirot’s – Detective Inspector Japp, supposed to be one of the smartest of Scotland Yard’s officers.’ (The Kidnapped Prime Minister: Poirot Investigates, 1924.) In The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim, another story from the Poirot Investigates collection, the intimacy between Japp and Poirot seems to have increased as Hastings describes ‘expecting our old friend Inspector Japp of Scotland Yard to tea.’ On this occasion Japp expresses his belief in the importance of material evidence ‘a footprint, or a cigar-ash, or a crumb even’ and wagers £5 that Poirot cannot solve the mystery that Japp is investigating without moving from his chair. As he is leaving, Japp comments to Hastings that to take Poirot’s money is ‘“Like robbing a child.”’ It is inevitable that the joke is ultimately on Japp and when Poirot receives an envelope containing the wagered amount, he remarks, ‘“It was really too easy. I am ashamed. I, who would not rob a child.”’

Japp often seems to play the same role as Inspector Lestrade in the Sherlock Holmes adventures, although there is a warmer relationship between Japp and Poirot. In later novels, he is shown to be an able detective, although not Poirot’s equal. In the last novel to feature him, One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940), he is suspicious from the start that the apparent suicide of a dentist was in fact foul play, basing his concern on both instinct and physical evidence. ‘“Well, there was the way he was lying. I wouldn’t say a man couldn’t fall like that – but it wasn’t quite right somehow! And there was a trace or two on the carpet – as though something had been dragged along it.”’

Although he is mentioned a few times in later Poirot books, Japp disappears from the Poirot investigations at roughly the same time as Hastings. However, Japp does have one link to Christie’s wider imaginary world. In 1924, two years after his first appearance, he is mentioned in The Secret Adversary (1922), the first book to feature Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, when his card is brought in to Julius Hersheimmer, who is hunting for a young woman last heard of as having survived the sinking of the Lusitania. ‘“Inspector Japp. C.I.D. Scotland Yard again. Another man this time. What does he expect I can tell him that I didn’t tell the first chap. I hope they haven’t lost that photograph.”’ Of course, the first detective was an imposter who made off with vital evidence, and (as anyone who had read The Mysterious Affair at Styles would know) it is Japp who is the genuine representative of Scotland Yard.

To some extent, Japp’s role was taken by Superintendent Spence, who appears in three Poirot novels, Taken at the Flood (1948), Mrs McGinty’s Dead (1952) and Halloween Party (1969). The two later books also involve Mrs Ariadne Oliver, who has links to Christie’ wider fictional world, but Spence himself does not appear in Christie’s wider canon, nor does he feature frequently or significantly in the wider canon of Christie’s work.

Superintendent Battle is another Scotland Yard detective who makes regular appearances in Christie’s work for the first two decades of her writing career. As with many of her detectives, Christie’s description of Battle’s physical appearance belies his ability as a detective: ‘A big, square, wooden-faced man moved forward. Not only did the onlooker feel that Superintendent Battle was carved out of wood – he also managed to convey the impression that the wood in question was the timber out of a battleship. Superintendent Battle was supposed to be Scotland Yard’s best representative. He always looked stolid and rather stupid.’ (Cards on the Table, 1936.)

Battle’s first appearances are in the adventure mystery novels The Secret of Chimneys (1925) and The Seven Dials Mystery (1929), these two books are linked by several characters, notably Lady Eileen (Bundle) Brent and Bill Eversleigh, and by the location, Chimneys, the home of Bundle’s father, Lord Caterham. Battle is also mentioned in the stand-alone novel Murder is Easy (1939) and is the investigating officer in the murder mystery Towards Zero (1946).

Battle is one of the investigators, and the official police presence, in the Poirot novel Cards on the Table (1934), in which Poirot and three other sleuths of varying status, have to discover which of four suspects murdered their host while the detectives were in the adjoining room. All of Battle’s appearances are in the role of Scotland Yard detective and they show him as regular inhabitant of Christie’s fictional world.

Colonel Race makes his first appearance in the stand-alone adventure novel The Man in the Brown Suit (1924), in which the first person narrator, Anne Bedingfeld, describes him as ‘a tall, soldierly-looking man with dark hair and a bronzed face... I put him down as one of the strong, silent men of Rhodesia. He was about forty, with a touch of greying hair at either temple, and was easily the best-looking man on board.’ Race reappears twelve years later in Cards on the Table (1936). ‘Poirot had not previously met Colonel Race, but he knew something about him. A dark, handsome, deeply bronzed man of fifty, he was usually to be found in some outpost of empire – especially if there were trouble brewing. Secret Service is a melodramatic term, but it described pretty accurately to the lay mind the nature and scope of Colonel Race’s activities.’ Race helps to investigate in two more Poirot mysteries, Death on the Nile (1937) and Sparkling Cyanide (1946). It is only in the last novel that his first name is mentioned as being Johnny, a name that Christie obviously favoured for explorers with a military rank, as she used it again for Major Despard.

Mrs Ariadne Oliver is the detective fiction novelist that is believed to be a humorous caricature of Christie herself. Her first appearance is in two short stories in the collection Parker Pyne Investigates (1934). Parker Pyne is a retired civil servant who claims to cure people’s unhappiness and he employs Mrs Oliver to create adventures for people who are unhappy with their lives. In The Case of the Discontented Soldier, Parker Pyne apologetically suggests that perhaps Mrs Oliver’s scenarios may be old-fashioned and melodramatic and she explains that people want to experience the things they read about in novels or see in films.

Soon after this, in Cards on the Table (1936) Mrs Oliver joins Poirot, Battle and Race in investigating the murder of their host. She was ‘extremely well known as one of the foremost writers of detective and other sensational stories’ and is described as ‘an agreeable woman of middle age, handsome in a rather untidy fashion with fine eyes, substantial shoulders and a large quantity of rebellious grey hair with which she was continually experimenting.’ Mrs Oliver seems to have an unfortunate knack for encountering crime in her everyday life and ends up assisting Poirot in five more novels, although, unlike the police professionals, her initial involvement is accidental. She also plays a role in the stand-alone novel, The Pale Horse (1961), where once again her initial involvement is purely fortuitous.

Like Mrs Oliver, Miss Felicity Lemon first worked for Parker Pyne (Parker Pyne Investigates, 1934). She appeared in two of the short stories, The Case of the Middle-aged Wife and The Case of the Discontented Soldier and at this point she was described as ‘a young woman.’ Her first appearance as Hercule Poirot’s secretary was in the short story How Does Your Garden Grow?, which was first published in 1935. The next time she occurs is in The Nemean Lion, the first of The Labours of Hercules (1947), when she disappoints Poirot’s dreams of an important case, by offering him a letter from a man who wants Poirot to investigate the disappearance of his wife’s Pekinese dog. ‘Poirot... threw a glance of deep reproach at Miss Lemon. She did not notice it. She had begun to type. She typed with the speed and precision of a quick-firing tank. Poirot was shaken; shaken and embittered. Miss Lemon, the efficient Miss Lemon, had let him down! A Pekinese dog. A Pekinese dog!’ However, Miss Lemon’s instinct is correct, and, although the case does not involve a serious crime, it is far more interesting than Poirot anticipates.

The next time Miss Lemon is mentioned is in Hickory, Dickory Dock (1955). It is twenty-one years since readers had first encountered her, when she was working for Parker Pyne, and she is no longer a young woman. In Hickory, Dickory Dock, she is still Poirot’s secretary but she has a far more significant role than usual because, when she introduces Poirot to a new case, it is not in her official role but through her personal life. The story starts with Poirot realising for the first time that Miss Lemon has a life apart from being his perfect secretary. It is in this book that Poirot (and the reader) discover that Miss Lemon’s first name is Felicity.
‘Hercule Poirot frowned.
“Miss Lemon,” he said.
“Yes, M. Poirot?”
“There are three mistakes in this letter.
His voice held incredulity. For Miss Lemon, that hideous and efficient woman, never made mistakes. She was never ill, never tired, never upset, never inaccurate, For all practical purposes, that is to say, she was not a woman at all. She was a machine – the perfect secretary.’...
  … ‘Miss Lemon took the letter. She looked at it. For the first time in his life, Poirot saw her blush; a deep ugly unbecoming flush that dyed her face right up to the roots of her strong, grizzled hair.
“Oh, dear.” she said. “I can’t think how – at least, I can. It’s because of my sister.”
“Your sister?”

Another shock. Poirot had never conceived of Miss Lemon’s having a sister. Or, for that matter, having a father, mother or even grandparents. Miss Lemon, somehow, was so completely machine made – a precision instrument, so to speak – that to think of her having affections, or anxieties, or family worries, seemed quite ludicrous. It was well known that the whole of Miss Lemon’s heart and mind was given, when she was not on duty, to the perfection of a new filing system, which was to be patented and bear her name.’

Miss Lemon stays in Poirot’s employ and has a small part in three more Poirot novels, including Elephants Can Remember (1972).

While Mrs Oliver and Miss Lemon tie together Christie’s fictional worlds of Poirot and Parker Pyne, Mr Satterthwaite joins the fictional worlds of Poirot and Mr Harley Quin. Mr Satterthwaite is a sociable, wealthy, little man who moves in the highest society and loves gossip. ‘A dried-up little pipkin of a man, Mr Satterthwaite, a patron of art and the drama, a determined but pleasant snob, always included in the more important house-parties and social functions... Withal a man of considerable intelligence and a very shrewd observer of people and things.’ Three Act Tragedy (1935)

Mr Satterthwaite has always been an observer of those around him but has never been deeply involved. ‘The principal interest of Mr Satterthwaite’s life was people. He was on the whole more interested in women than in men... Women all his life had confided in him, but they had never taken him seriously. Sometimes he felt a little bitter about this. He was, he felt, always in the stalls watching the play, never on the stage taking part in the drama. But, in truth, the role of onlooker suited him very well.’ Three Act Tragedy (1935)

The short story collection The Mysterious Mr Quin (1930), chronicles how Mr Satterthwaite meets the mysterious Mr Quin and finds himself involved in solving many puzzles and crimes with a supernatural twist, usually involving coming to the aid of lovers. In Three Act Tragedy (1935) Mr Satterthwaite is present at a cocktail party, at which an elderly and inoffensive vicar is poisoned. Poirot is also present at the party and he and Mr Satterthwaite join forces to investigate.

Miss Jane Marple’s fictional world is much more self-contained than Poirot’s. Although characters often recur in several of the novels and short stories featuring her, none of her detectives, such as Detective Inspector Slack, Detective Inspector Craddock or Sir Henry Clithering, turn up in the novels starring her other protagonists or in stand-alone novels. Nor do most of her friends, such as Colonel and Mrs Bantry, Dr Haydock or the other inhabitants of St Mary Mead. Also absent from other protagonists’ books are Miss Marple’s nephew, Raymond West and his wife and family. However, there are links that tie Miss Marple’s world to that of Poirot. One such link is in The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928), in which Katherine Grey is reported to have come from the village of St. Mary Mead. The Miss Marple series began in 1930 with The Murder at the Vicarage, which is set in St. Mary Mead, the village that became synonymous with her, however no mention of Katherine Grey is made in that or following books.

As has already been mentioned, Cards on the Table (1936) brought together many different strands of Christie’s fictional world and two of the characters were Major John Despard and Rhoda Dawes, who become engaged to be married at the end of the book. In the stand-alone novel The Pale Horse (1961), even more links between Christie’s protagonists are introduced. The book features Mrs Oliver, who is present in the worlds of both Poirot and Parker Pyne; it also features Major Despard and his wife, Rhoda, who are part of one of Poirot’s investigations. Even more significantly, John and Rhoda Despard are friends with the Reverend Caleb and Mrs Maud Dane Calthrop, who are part of one of Poirot’s investigations. Even more significantly, John and Rhoda Despard are friends with the Reverend Caleb and Mrs Maud Dane Calthrop, who are also friends of Miss Marple, and had called her in to investigate the anonymous letters that led to murder in The Moving Finger (1942). It is fascinating to find five inhabitants of Christie’s wider fictional world taking tea together after helping to organise a village fête, and interesting to hear Mrs Oliver referring to an earlier case in which she helped Poirot to investigate, (Dead Man’s Folly, 1956.)
‘Mrs Dane Calthrop, a disconcerting woman, with fine eyes was studying Mrs Oliver thoughtfully. She asked abruptly: “What did you expect to happen at this fête?”
“Well. Really, a murder or something like that?”
Mrs Dane Calthrop looked interested. “But why should it?”
“No reason at all. Most unlikely really. But there was one at the last fête I went to.”

The Tommy and Tuppence series was much shorter than those of Poirot and Miss Marple, and, although they had recurring characters, most notably Albert, their servant, and Mr Carter, their contact with the Secret Service, they had very few links with Christie’s wider world. As mentioned earlier, Detective Inspector Japp was mentioned in The Secret Adversary, but only two other characters appear in the Tommy and Tuppence stories and those of the wider world. One of these is Colonel Ephraim Pikeaway, a member of the British Secret Service. We first meet Pikeaway in the Poirot novel, Cat Among the Pigeons (1959), in which he is described as ‘a fat, middle-aged man slumped in a chair, he was wearing a crumpled suit, the front of which was smothered in cigar ash... It was said of Colonel Pikeaway that his eyes were always just closing in sleep, or just opening after sleep. It was also said that his name was not Pikeaway and that he was not a colonel.’ Pikeaway also appears in two very late Christie novels, the stand-alone Passenger to Frankfurt (1970) and the final Tommy and Tuppence novel, Postern of Fate (1973).

One minor character spans the worlds of Poirot, Miss Marple, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, and a stand-alone adventure, and that is Mr Robinson, a man who knows about money. Despite his name and his impeccable English accent, Mr Robinson is a foreigner, although nobody knows exactly where he originated. He is a very fat man with ‘a large yellow face’ and when Poirot questions him he explains his occupation as ‘“a very old trade... and a lucrative one. There are quite a lot of us, a network all over the globe. We are, how shall I put it, the Arrangers behind the scenes. For kings, for presidents, for politicians, for all those, in fact, upon whom the fierce light beats, as a poet has put it. We work with one another and remember this: we keep faith. Our profits are large but we are honest. Our services are costly – but we do render service.”’ (Cat Among the Pigeons 1959).

Mr Robinson appears in the Poirot novel, Cat Among the Pigeons (1959); the Miss Marple novel, At Bertram’s Hotel (1965); the Tommy and Tuppence novel, Postern of Fate (1973); and a stand-alone novel, Passenger to Frankfurt (1970). He is the link that joins many strands of Christie’s fictional world.

Christie’s recurring characters are so numerous that it is impossible to cover all of them in one article, especially as her use of them is sometimes subtle, such as a one line reference in Cat Among the Pigeons (1959) to Maureen Summerhayes, a character Poirot encountered in Mrs McGinty’s Dead (1952); or a legacy to Miss Marple from Jason Rafiel, who she met in A Caribbean Mystery (1964), which forms the starting point in Nemesis (1971). Then there is the intriguing question of whether the Pierre Michel who was a guard on the Blue Train in The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928), was the same Pierre Michel who was a guard on the Orient Express in Murder on the Orient Express (1934). It is quite possible that Christie decided to reuse that minor character and give him a more significant role. It is equally possible that she thought the name was a suitable one for a guard on a continental train and used it twice by chance. Christie was writing before computers were available to make checking as easy as it is nowadays and she did make continuity errors, such as changing the name of Raymond West’s wife from Joyce to Joan. Not to mention not rectifying Sleeping Murder (1976), the final Miss Marple novel that she wrote during the Second World War, decades before its publication, which resulted in Colonel Bantry, who had been dead since The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side (1962), miraculously returning to life.

Of course, it makes sense for Christie to reuse her characters: why create a new protagonist when a perfectly serviceable one is there already made? But I believe that there is more than mere economy in Christie’s recurring characters, there is a wonderful sense of playfulness as well. It is evident in Cards on the Table (1930), when she brought together three protagonists that she had introduced in other situations and turned them loose to investigate alongside Poirot. Perhaps she was thinking, ‘I wonder what will happen if I do that?’ Also brilliant is the one-off juxtaposition of Poirot and Mr Satterthwaite as partners in investigation, a pairing that is truly inspired. (Three Act Tragedy, 1935).
Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Carol recently gave an interview to Mystery People. To read the interview click on the link below.                         
To read a review of Carol latest book This Game of Ghosts click on the title.  

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