Saturday, February 6, 2010

Reading/Re-Reading the Dame: Part 1 - The 1920s

Reading/Re-Reading the Dame: Part 1 - The 1920s
In 1976, many of Dame Agatha Christie's 79 books were reissued in paperback after her death renewed interest in her. That was just about when I started reading from the adult section of the library. As a result her books were readily available and easy to find there, so I ended up reading a lot of Agatha Christie books as a teenager. I continued to read them on and off (mostly off) in the following years.

Last summer I decided to read all 79 Agatha Christie books in order of publication. This will be a multi-year project. I just finished the 12 books she published in the 1920s, which are about a 50/50 mix between novels and short story collections. It took me 5 months to read those 12. Quite a few of the books I collected cheaply over the decades from used book shops, thrift stores, yard sales, etc. The rest, one decade at a time, I have been buying used from Amazon for about $4 including shipping.

19 Random Thoughts
Here are some random thoughts. Some are about Agatha Christie. Some are about my experiences reading her first as a teen and now as a middle-aged man. I bolded them a little bit to hopefully make the whole mess a little more readable.

1) What strikes me now as a person of 44 years living in 2010 is how incredibly snobby the books are. Thanks to the modern wonder of the Web, I now know that Dame Agatha was the daughter of a rich American father (of the New York Piedmont Morgans) and an English mother. She was born upper class and definitely had an opinion of the lower class. All of the characters so far have been "gentlefolk" like her. Inheriting money or marrying into it being much more acceptable than actually earning it. With the exception of butlers and housekeepers (which are different from maids), the servants are almost always totally undeveloped as characters.

2) Regarding butlers, it is as though the Merchant Ivory movie The Remains of the Day (which is based on a novel by by Japanese-British author Kazuo Ishiguro) is based on the butler character in The Secret of Chimneys, who reappears in the The Seven Dials Mystery. The perfect butler is a gentleman's gentleman, who never shows emotion, yada yada. I had rewatched The Remains of the Day a little before rereading Seven Dials and Chimneys, so the similarities were really evident to me. You have to wonder if Ishiguro has read The Secret of Chimneys, and/or the wonder of the perfect English butler is just common fodder.
3) Thinking back, maybe even as a teen I was aware of the snobby tone, but didn't mind it. At Father Judge High School, the Oblates tried to mold us into young gentlemen. And I bought into the gentleman thing. As a teen I thought maybe I could join the rich club someday (which seems like such an unChristian thing to do). Totally like James Mason. In my years since I've mingled with the old money rich a tiny bit and I know it's a club I don't belong in, even if I had some money. I'm whitetrash from Northeast Philly. But I've very cool with that. I'd rather be that than snobby.

4) I suspect I probably wouldn't have liked Agatha Christie as a person.

5) Some of the things she writes would have made me a socialist if I was living in 1920s England. The rich never once pondered that maybe their accident of birth resulting in their much better and totally unearned lifestyle just might be rather unjust. They considered themselves heroic in being poor while waiting for a rich relation to kack and leave them their wholly deserved inheritance. The short story collection The Golden Ball is especially appalling from that perceptive. Many times in her 1920s writings she describes servants actions as being typical of their class.

6) Selected The Golden Ball story number 1: a daydreaming office worker wins a contest and buys an expensive car, which he keeps secret from his sensible fiancee. Due to a misunderstanding (apparently cars didn't need keys back then). He gets mixed with up a group of young rich people ("The Pretty Things" - coincidentally I had a little while before watched the movie Pretty Young Things, which is about young rich English society people in the 1920s). He of course has to return to his own class after the adventure is over, but he had the joy and honor of seeing the other side briefly.

7) Selected The Golden Ball story number 2: a spoiled young man lives with his rich uncle and works for the uncle. After being hung over and late to work yet again due to staying out late with other young upper class London socialites, the uncle throws him out telling him to seize "the golden ball of opportunity". After having the butler pack his things, he does that by hanging out with a society girl with a large annuity, passing her stupid test for a husband, and getting engaged. He seized the golden ball by marrying into money. Which he joyously throws back in the uncle's face. No sense of irony there.

8) Selected The Golden Ball story number 3: a rich man poses a butler to find poor gentlefolk to let live for free (with paid-for servants) in his many houses. Who else is helping the pennyless gentlefolk, a segment that has been forgotten by society? Once the family is once again living in style, the poor widow's son even stops dating a tobacco shop owner's daughter in favor of a girl from his own class. The butler reveals that he is really the missing rich guy and proposes to the widow. The lower class continue to live in their slums.

9) Hercule Poirot appears in 6 of those 12 books and he never gets a backstory. Why is this elderly man single? Did he never marry? Is he a widower? Is there a separated wife living elsewhere? Does he have children? It seems he never married. If so, why?
Six books in and no answer.

10) Agatha Christie was a romance writer as well, having published several romances as Mary Westcott. Many of these 12 books are heavy on the romance. Don't worry, the young lovers always wind up with someone of their own class, even if it seemed that might not be so.

11) Agatha Christie was the mother of a daughter, but none of her heroines have children. I suppose being rich, her daughter was put in care of a governess and then shipped off to boarding school at some point, so maybe it was like not having a child at all. It is interesting that all of her heroines are single upper class young women, some with money and some without, but none are mothers. Not even a young war widow with child.

I remember really, really digging The Big Four whenever I first read it. It is an Ian Flemming-like world conspiracy story, very exotic. I also recall thinking after the long build-up, the ending was rushed and weak. On rereading it, I still think so. A little Wikipedia'ing reveals that The Big Four is a collection of short stories reworked into book form. It was released at the lowest point of her life when she was in need money. Later in a letter to her publisher, she refers to The Big Four as a "rotten book".

13) Two of her most likable and memorable characters, Tommy and Tuppence, appear in two books (The Secret Advisory and Partners in Crime) in the 1920s. I think they don't reappear until one of her final books in the 1970s, when they are in their 70s. it will be interesting to see if I'm wrong and they do reappear before then. Tuppence is pregnant at the end of the 2nd book, so I suspect not. (Wikipedia says they appear in 5 books, so it looks like they do. We'll see as the years and books go on). A neat thing to find out is that my wife really liked and remembered Tommy and Tuppence too.

14) I remember reading The Seven Dials Mystery which takes places at Chimneys, a country house, as a teen. I figured out that The Secret of Chimneys was the prequel. I never saw The Secret of Chimneys on the racks at my local library. Back in the early 80s, in lieu of a card catalog, the Philadelphia Free Library would print huge paper bound computer reports of its inventory, which were located in each branch. Chimneys wasn't available at any of the Northeast Philly libraries. It seemed that not all of her books were released in paperback, and Chimneys was one of those. For me it was the exotic lost Agatha Christie book. I had to put in a transfer request, which cost a quarter I think, to have a hardback copy sent to the Welsh Road library. I still had that sense of wonder when I finally obtained my own copy (in paperback) of it a few years ago. Reading the book was less magical this second time around. Still a good book, but less magic.

15) In the The Man in the Brown Suit, Christie does a great job of describing South African tourist attractions, especially Victoria Falls. And of course despite appearances the romantic interest ends up being a rich gentleman.

16) Of the 12 books, except for The Mystery of the Blue Train, I believe I had read them all previously at some point. I do lightly recall The Golden Ball, but I'm not certain. Maybe I only read a few of the stories. I believe there are many Christie books I haven't read yet; I'm surprised how heavily I had already covered the 1920s.

17) Pa
perbacks must have been a real technological marvel when they first appeared. Even now a paperback slips nicely into a jacket pocket, which must have been a design feature. While I'm waiting somewhere, I can either pull out my smart phone for entertainment or I can pull out the paperback. My phone is a lot sturdier though; the paperbacks need a good preventive application of tape to keep them functioning.

18) Some of the paperbacks I'm reading are older than me. That was normal when I was younger, now it's a bit of a marvel that they are still around. Conversely reading a paperback printed 40 years ago (that's a long time ago) and realizing I'm older than it is quite strange. On a plane to Denver, a woman next me noticed how taped up my book was and mentioned now that was an old book. I do have some old paperbacks, some that date back to the 1940s. This particular one only dated to the 70s; it was younger than me. To me it was one of the younger ones, so her friendly comment sort of made me feel old.

19) The narrator of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a doctor. He is well off enough to have live-in servants. It is interesting that the doctor and his roommate sister eat much better than what they provide for their servants.

So what was the 1920s. I'll report back after I finish her 1930s output.