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Sunday 20 June 2021

Agatha Christie: Mistress of Smoke and Mirrors

 The Golden Age

by Carol Westron

In the 1920s and 1930s spiritualism became very popular in many different ways. As the later years of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle illustrate, some people suffered such grief and loss in the First World War they drew great comfort from the belief that they could contact the dead. In the last years of his life Conan Doyle gave up writing fiction in order to spend all his time writing and lecturing about spiritualism. However, Conan Doyle's interest in spiritualism had started many years before, when he was still a doctor in Portsmouth, and one of his patients, General Drayson, invited him to participate in table-turning sittings at his home. Conan Doyle's interest was caught and, as he explained in his autobiographical Memories and Adventures (1924), 'I was so impressed that I wrote an
account of it to Light, the psychic weekly paper.'
In 1893, Conan Doyle joined The British Society for Psychical Research, a society formed in Cambridge, whose brief was to investigate scientifically the claims of Spiritualism and other paranormal phenomena. This Society had eminent scientists, politicians and philosophers amongst its members. From the late-Victorian period through to the 1930s it was quite normal for people to consult mediums, either in small private sittings or large gatherings in public halls, in the hope that they could gain contact with dead loved ones.

During this time, there was another, lighter side to exploring the supernatural: the use of seances and table-turning for entertainment. Bright Young Things at house parties and bored old ladies in boarding houses all had fun with the supernatural. How could any inventive crime novelist ignore the opportunities offered to them by the supernatural, spiritualism, superstition and magic?

Of course, Agatha Christie was a magician amongst crime writers, a mistress of the art of distraction, hiding the solution in plain sight and then revealing it with a flourish to amaze her audience. Many Golden Age detectives have a similarity to conjurers, none more so than the consummate showman, Hercule Poirot.

Christie uses the supernatural in many ways but her most frequent use of it is as camouflage. In the short story The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb (Poirot Investigates, 1924) Lady Willard consults Poirot after the death of her husband, Sir John Willard, in Egypt. Sir John was an archaeologist and his death occurred soon after the opening of the Tomb of King Men-her-Ra. Two other deaths occurred soon afterwards: one was Mr Bleibner, who was Sir John's partner in the excavations, the other was the suicide of Mr Bleibner's nephew, who had returned from Egypt to New York. Superstitious rumours declare that there is a curse on those who investigate the tomb and Lady Willard is frightened for the safety of her son, who has travelled to Egypt to continue his father's work. When she asks Poirot for his views on superstition he astonishes Hastings by replying, ''”I too believe in the force of superstition, one of the greatest forces the world has ever known.”' Poirot and Hastings travel to Egypt and uncover the identity of the person who has been exploiting fear of the supernatural to achieve material gain. Only then does Poirot explain his true meaning to Hastings: '“What I meant was that I believe in the terrific force of superstition. Once get it firmly established that a series of deaths are supernatural, and you might almost stab a man in broad daylight, and it would still be put down to the curse, so strongly is the instinct of the supernatural implanted in the human race. I suspected from the first that a man was taking advantage of that instinct.”'

Christie uses the same instinct to believe in the supernatural in The Pale Horse (1961) but uses a wonderful double-pronged superstition: for those who are too sophisticated to believe in magic there is the fear of radical scientific discoveries. In The Pale Horse people are dying of various causes and there is no connection between them, save that they are all inconvenient people who stand between other people and their desires, whether it be freedom to remarry or the inheritance of wealth. Mark Easterbrook is a conventional man, occupied with writing an academic book on Mogul architecture, but curiosity draws him into seeking the truth behind these deaths. His quest leads him to a house, once an inn, called The Pale Horse. The three woman who live there claim to be witches. When Mark sets up a suitable cover story about wishing to rid himself of an estranged wife, the leader of the three witches claims to be able to cause death by witchcraft mixed with science. Mark supplies an article of clothing belonging to the young woman who has insisted on helping with his investigation. He then attends a séance, which involves a fascinating cocktail of supernatural beliefs, animal sacrifice, and a 'scientific' box that, it is claimed, sends out strange rays. To Mark's horror, his friend becomes very ill: 'I saw in my mind's eye Sybil in her peacock dress with its scrawled symbols of evil. I heard Thyrza's voice, willing, commanding... On the chalked floor, Bella, chanting her evil spells, held up a struggling cock...

Nonsense, all nonsense... Of course it was all superstitious nonsense…
The box – not so easy, somehow, to dismiss the box. The box represented, not human superstition, but a development of scientific possibility... But it wasn't possible – it couldn't be possible that-'

Of course, when the truth is discovered, it is not supernatural evil but human wickedness that is the cause of so many deaths.

Christie uses the same basic premise for her short story The Flock of Geryon (published as a collection The

Labours of Hercules, 1947) in which an unscrupulous criminal has set himself up a a religious leader and is prevailing upon vulnerable women to make their wills in his favour. Of course, as soon as they have done this, the women become ill and die.

Christie makes the same point about the superstitious belief in 'scientific magic' in A Pocketful of Rye (1953):'Nobody believes in magicians any more, nobody believes that anyone can come along and wave a wand and turn you into a frog. But if you read in the paper that by injecting certain glands scientists can alter your vital tissues and you'll develop frog-like characteristics, well, everybody would believe that.'

Several Miss Marple short stories also trade on the trappings being so remarkable that nobody looks at the simple facts of the crime... nobody but Miss Marple, that is. This is true of three of the short stories in The Thirteen Problems, (several individual short stories had been published before but it was published as a collection in 1932.) Two of these depend very much on the surrounding ambience: The Idol House of Astarte relies on a belief in classical myth and sacrifice; The Bloodstained Pavement depends on the tendency of Cornish villagers to tell an impressive, spooky tale. However The Blue Geranium is set in an ordinary, English, upper middle-class setting, where a woman who believes herself to be an invalid indulges in having a fortune teller visit her to tell her future. The fortune teller warns the woman that when the flowers on her wallpaper turn blue she will die. This starts to happen and the terrified woman locks herself in her room, but the next morning, when her husband and servants break in, she is dead and a bunch of the flowers on her bedroom wallpaper have turned blue. Of course, as soon as she hears the story, Miss Marple realises the truth: '“I think that the warnings and the blue flowers were, if I may use a military term,” she laughed self-consciously - “just camouflage.”'

Christie uses the popular pastime of table turning in two of her books. In Dumb Witness ((1937) table turning sets the scene for the death of Emily Arundell, a wealthy, elderly woman whose family is eager to inherit her wealth. The would-be spiritualists are Julia and Isabel Tripp, two middle-aged, spinsters who embrace various causes with indiscriminate enthusiasm. As a bemused Captain Hastings observes: 'As far as I could make out, the Misses Tripp were vegetarians, theosophists, British, Israelites, Christian Scientists, spiritualists and enthusiastic amateur photographers.'

Miss Arundell finds the Misses Tripp absurd but tolerates them for the sake of her companion, Minnie Lawson, who describes an afternoon spent in spiritualistic pursuits with her friends. '“I – I do wish you'd been there... I feel, you know, that you're not quite a believer yet. But tonight there was a message for E.A., the initials came quite definitely. It was from a man who had passed over many years ago – a very good-looking military man – Isabel saw him quite distinctly. It must have been dear General Arundell. Such a beautiful message, so full of love and comfort, and how through patience all could be attained.”
“Those sentiments sound very unlike Papa,” said Miss Arundell.'

To indulge Minnie, Miss Arundell allows her to invite the Misses Tripp for a séance followed by supper. Shortly after this, Miss Arundell dies. As Julia Tripp explains to Poirot: “It was the night dear Miss Arundell was taken ill. My sister and I went round after dinner, and we had a sitting – just for the four of us. And you know we saw – we all three saw – most distinctly a kind of halo around Miss Arundell's head.”

“Yes. It was a kind of luminous haze.” She turned to her sister. “Isn't that how you would describe it, Isabel?”

“Yes. Yes, just that. A luminous haze gradually surrounding Miss Arundell's head – an aureole of faint light. It was a sign – we know that now – a sign that she was about to pass over to the other side.”

“Remarkable,” said Poirot in a suitably impressed voice. “It was dark in the room, yes?”

Sandwiched between the description of the Misses Tripp's eccentric beliefs and their reminiscences of being visited by a spirit called Fatima, this very relevant piece of information slides past most readers as it does Hastings, but, of course, Poirot can see through the trappings to establish the facts of the case.

In The Sittaford Mystery (1931) six people living in the small village of Sittaford are practically cut off from the rest of the world by a heavy fall of snow. To alleviate their boredom they indulge in a little harmless table turning. 'A small round table with a polished top was brought in from an adjoining room. It was set in front of the fire and everyone took his place round it with the lights switched off.' Some time into the activity a message comes through tapping out the name Trevelyan. Captain Trevelyan is the owner of the house, at present living in a nearby town, and, at first it is assumed the message is for him, but the table has other ideas:

'The table began to rock – slowly, rhythmically. So slowly that it was easy to count the letters.

“D -” a pause. “E – AD.”

“Somebody is dead?”

Instead of Yes or No, the table began to rock again until it reached the letter T.

“T – do you mean Trevelyan?”


“You don't mean Trevelyan is dead?”


A very sharp rock. “Yes.”
Somebody gasped. There was a faint stir all round the table.

Ronnie's voice as he resumed his questions held a different note – an awed uneasy note.
“You mean – that Captain Trevelyan is dead?”


There was a pause. It was as though no one knew what to ask next, or how to take this unexpected development.

And in the pause, the table started rocking again.

Rhythmically and slowly, Ronnie spelled out the letters aloud... “M-U-R-D-E-R...'

Captain Trevelyan's friend, Major Burnaby, is one of the people present at the séance. He insists on braving the snowstorm to check on the Captain's well-being and discovers him dead. The doctor's estimate of the time of death encompasses the time in which the ghostly message was received. Once more Christie deflects the attention of both detective and reader from what actually happened by the use of sensational trappings and the air of mysticism that surrounds the crime.

Hallowe'en Party (1969) is a story with layers of superstition that can be peeled away to reveal the darkness at its core. The action opens with preparations for a village Halloween party for children between ten and seventeen. Mrs Oliver is visiting an acquaintance, Judith Butler and her daughter, Miranda, and is drawn into helping with the party. The party has lots of traditional games, like girls looking into a mirror and seeing the man they are going to marry, a competition for the best decorated broomstick, and apple bobbing, but the fun turns to horror when one of the young girls is discovered dead; she has been drowned by being held down in a bucket of water. Mrs Oliver calls upon Poirot to investigate. His enquiries take him to a beautiful garden with a wishing well and as he probes deeper he reveals a darker superstition, which has madness at its heart.

Poirot is fond of dramatic endings in which he can reveal the murderer in a flamboyant way, and in Peril at End House (1932) he stages his own séance complete with the appearance of a 'ghost.' This has the clever effect of ensnaring two lesser villains and lulling the real murderer into a sense of false security.

The Hound of Death (1933) consists of a number of short stories most of which have a supernatural theme. The exception to this is Witness for the Prosecution, which Christie later turned into a very successful play. A few of the stories in The Hound of Death are classic Christie tricks where the supernatural is used as camouflage for a criminal act; The Blue Jar and Wireless fall into this category. Other stories of the supernatural are more ambivalent: The Red Signal could be a case of premonition or merely of intuition based on unconsciously noticed signs. The Lamp could be a ghost story or a tale of superstition and grief. Some stories, such as The Fourth Man, describe events that could be caused by mental illness or supernatural powers. However other stories, such as The Hound of Death, are totally based in the supernatural, with a foolish and greedy man attempting to harness mystical powers of 'the crystal' to bring about destruction.

Perhaps the most extraordinary supernatural stories that Christie created were those featuring Harley Quin, which were written at intervals and first published as a collection, The Mysterious Mr Quin (1930.) The stories are told in the viewpoint of Mr Satterthwaite, a wealthy, snobbish but kind-hearted, little man, who is a gossip and looker-on at life. In each of the twelve stories Mr Quin's appearance helps Mr Satterthwaite to rise to a challenge that restores the balance of justice by revealing the truth behind a crime or preventing it. Christie wrote a foreword for The Mysterious Mr Quin in which she explains that she had always been fascinated by a set of Dresden figures on her mother's mantelpiece: 'They represented the Italian commedia dell'arte: Harlequin, Columbine, Pierrot, Pierrette, Punchinello and Punchinella.'  As a girl she wrote a series of poems about them, one of which, Harlequin's Song was her first appearance in print. Christie explains that when she turned to writing crime 'Harlequin finally reappeared; a figure invisible except when he chose, not quite human, yet concerned with the affairs of human beings and particularly of lovers. He is also the advocate of the dead.'

The Mr Quin stories are a strange mixture of the writing ingredients that Christie used with such skill: crime, romance and a mystical, supernatural element, but it is in his role, as an advocate for the dead, that Mr Quin is often at his most powerful, as at the conclusion of The Man From the Sea:

'Mr Quin pointed a long, lean finger down at the blue depths below. “A man was drowned down there twenty-two years ago.”
“I know – but I don't see - “
“Supposing that, after all, that man loved his young wife. Love can make devils of men as well as angels. She had a girlish adoration for him, but he could never touch the woman in her – and that drove him mad. He tortured her because he loved her. Such things happen. You know that as well as I do.”
“Yes,” admitted Mr Satterthwaite, “I have seen such things – but rarely – very rarely...”
“Yes,” admitted Mr Satterthwaite, “I have seen such things – but rarely – very rarely...”
“And you have also seen, more commonly, that there is such a thing as remorse – the desire to make amends – at all costs to make amends.”
“Yes, but death came too soon...”
“Death!” There was contempt in Mr Quin's voice. “You believe in a life after death, do you not? And who are you to say that the same wishes, the same desires, may not operate in that other life. If the desire is strong enough – a messenger may be found.”'

Other Golden Age writers also occasionally used the supernatural. Ngaio Marsh uses superstitions to camouflage the truth of the crime: sometimes these are the superstitions of the theatre, as in Light Thickens (1982), or the belief in healing places, as in Dead Water (1964). In A Surfeit of Lampreys (1941) black magic and madness go hand-in-hand. Dorothy L. Sayers uses a fake séance in Strong Poison (1930) in order to uncover a vital clue. Also it is interesting that, in Murder Must Advertise (1933), Wimsey uses the bizarre ploy of dressing up as Harlequin when he is attempting to intrigue a wealthy, society drug addict into giving him information. In Sweet Danger (1933) Margery Allingham has a sub-plot in which madness, murder and the belief in black magic are intertwined.

While other writers dabbled with the supernatural, Christie was the was a great mistress of diversion and managed to fool most of her readers all the time. As the vicar's wife in The Pale Horse remarks: '”I'm being stupid... I know I'm being stupid. Trappings! We're letting ourselves be obsessed with trappings. I can't help feeling that we're thinking the way they want us to think?”'

Generations of readers have agreed with her. Although we know that we're being fooled, Christie's use of smoke and mirrors still manages to fool us, until she shows us how the trick was worked.

 Carol Westron is a successful author and a Creative Writing teacher.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  Her first book The Terminal Velocity of Cats was published in 2013. Since then, she has since written 5 further mysteries. 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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