Thursday, May 23, 2013

A Talent to Deceive: an Appreciation of Agatha Christie

I have been a fan of Robert Barnard for many years. He has been writing mysteries for over 35 years and has published over 40 mystery novels or books of short stories. He has also written several non-fiction books, and one of these is an appreciation of the writings of Agatha Christie. That book is titled A Talent to Deceive, and was published in 1980, when Barnard had published only five or six mystery novels.

Excerpts from the dust jacket:
Robert Barnard, himself a crime writer and professor of English literature, has brought insight and sound judgement to his study of Agatha Christie's books. He examines the qualities that made them, as every one knows, the third-best-selling books in the world after the Bible and Shakespeare. He discusses her thrillers and especially her crime novels - those "intellectual puzzles of a certain rarefied kind." There is an analysis of her masterful solutions, of her stratagems of deception, including her ability to divert the reader's attention from the matter of real importance, and of her skill in making the clues relate to the reader's own experience.
And...
... he places Christie firmly in her own social class and time. There is an in-depth study of three Christie novels and of her detective characters.
Recently, when I began reading Christie's novels (or, in some cases, re-reading), I decided to find a copy of that book. It took a while, but I found a nice copy. When I received it, I was disappointed because he tells me, up front, that he has included spoilers.
I found it impossible to write a book of this sort, dealing to a large extent with the kinds of deception Christie practices on her readers, without revealing solutions from time to time.
I should have known better. Most of the mystery reference books I own do mention facts that I consider spoilers, even though they may not reveal the solution or the culprit. So, since I really do not want to know who is the culprit in the Agatha Christie books I read, I will have to make do with reading portions here and there until I have read all or most of her books.

Barnard tells the reader that most spoilers would be in in chapters IV -VI, so I can probably read around those chapters.

In the first chapter, he discusses criticisms of Christie's style of writing. He explains where these criticisms may be valid. In the second chapter, he talks about the books written in the 1920's. They are about evenly divided between thrillers involving espionage and conspiracy theories, and straight detective stories. He says that Christie found the detective story harder to write, and was honing her skills in that area at that time.

The third chapter is titled "The Road to Mayhem Parva" and talks mainly about her development of the type of story set in an English village. This type of English village was given the name Mayhem Parva by Colin Watson in his book, Snobbery with Violence.

And now I am at Chapter IV and will not read further. Yet. I found the first three chapters and the Preface very interesting. He notes in the Preface that this book is not written as literary criticism or an academic study, but as an appreciation. What I had not realized until I started reading the book is that it was written when Barnard had only published a few (five or six?) of the mystery novels he authored.

12 comments:

  1. Great choice TracyK - I have gone back to Barnard's study of Christie many times over the years, especially for its very hand index of her books at the back. I sometimes wish he would revisit it to see if his opinions have changed.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sergio, I am glad you mentioned the indexes. They are very useful. I also wondered what his opinions would be now.

      Delete
  2. I haven't heard of this book Tracy, but I will look out for it. As I've read all of Christie's books, spoilers wouldn't make much difference to me but it would be a nightmare if I didn't know the plot.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sarah, I think you would like it, given that you are a Christie fan and Barnard has interesting insights.

      Delete
  3. I'm probably not going to be looking out for this one. I haven't read Christie since my schooldays, though I did recently acquire a copy of Roger Ackroyd on a recommendation from Margot. I ought to try at least one in my adult reading life!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Col, I plan to re-read Roger Ackroyd but since it is the only one I remember, I am putting it off for a while. I think.

      Delete
  4. Tracy - Oh, I'm so glad you got the chance to enjoy this one. Barnard does a terrific job of discussing Christie's skill and her legacy. Very nice review, for which thanks.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Margot. The nice thing is I have lots more of the book to read, eventually, and it is the kind of book I can refer to often.

      Delete
  5. Tracy, thanks for bringing this book to my notice. The author's reference to "the kinds of deception Christie practices on her readers, without revealing solutions from time to time" echoes the ambivalence I have often felt about her stories. There is a certain abstractness in her plots. I'd like to read this book though, spoilers or no. The one book that I have been meaning to read for a while now is her Autobiography.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Prashant, reading the first chapters of this book made me want to read more about her life also. Maybe the autobiography.

      Delete
  6. Tracy, I can see it would be disappointing not to be able to read this now, but it will be worth it when you have read all the Christie books! I love the Barnard book, and enjoy the fact that he openly discusses the solutions in some cases - he is very funny and clever. Most writers on detective fiction feel they have to tread a line of not spoilering too much; so it's nice that this once he felt able to let rip. (Though annoying for you.) There's an interesting point he makes in the book - that in one piece of dialogue in one of her books she reveals the names of several of her murderers. Surprising but true.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Moira, good to hear that you liked this book. Having read and enjoyed the first few chapters, now I have something to look forward to.

      Delete