Posts Tagged ‘christie’

Last week I read my first-ever Agatha Christie novel. I quite enjoyed it, and I can understand her continued appeal. Her style is charming, in the style of popular novels of the early twentieth century. The content also relies on her readership having grown up in the early twentieth century – the plot seems to indicate a fear of the younger generation, kids my parents’ age.

You know how it was when the war broke out. None of us knew whether we were on our head or on our heels. One war we’re pals with the Italians, next war we’re enemies. I don’t know which of them all was the worst. First war the Japanese were our dear allies, and the next war there they are blowing up Pearl Harbor! Never knew where you were! Start one way with the Russians, and finish the opposite way. I tell you, Poirot, nothing’s more difficult nowadays than the question of allies. They can change overnight.

For a military man, the twentieth century was a confusing, messed-up time. I imagine it was for civilians as well, but they seem more capable of focusing on their daily lives instead of international politics.

As you can see from the quotation above, I’ve finally met the inimitable Hercule Poirot. He’s a fussy little Belgian living in London, and by this point in his career he seems to avoid all the action. He reminds me of several of the older gay men I’ve known. His mustache is described as distinctive, but never actually described, so we are free to imagine as odd a mustache as we desire.

Perhaps it was true. He’d looked at her through the eyes of someone old, without admiration, to him just a girl without apparently will to please, without coquetry – a girl without any sense of her own femininity – no charm or mystery or enticement, who had nothing to offer, perhaps, but plain biological sex. So it may be that she was right in her condemnation of him. He could not help her because he did not understand her, because it was not even possible for him to appreciate her.

It seems that Christie was rather uncertain about young people herself, and by the late 1960s she had been sick of Poirot for three decades, so it’s not entirely clear why she would write this story, except that she felt an obligation to give the public what she thought they wanted. I suppose as people grow older it is inevitable that they begin to feel anachronistic, and Poirot certainly is that. Most of his clues are gathered by Mr Goby, who operates off-screen.

To my mind, the real hero here is Ariadne Oliver, a mystery writer in her sixties. She’s the one who gets out and does some sleuthing, finds the missing girl, and helps Poirot to the solution. All he does is lie to people and lock someone up in a mental hospital.

Looking back at the title, a ‘third girl’ is the third roommate in an apartment. What typically happens is a young lady gets a job and an apartment, but wants a little help paying rent, so she gets a friend to take the second bedroom. When they want a little extra cash, they advertise in the paper for a third girl, the title itself indicating that she may end up in a closet or entryway rather than in a proper bedroom. But for her it’s a cheap place to live in an expensive city, so Third Girl adverts are fairly popular. Some even advertise for a Fourth Girl. What a single person needs with that much space is beyond me, so I question the logic of First Girls who get such a big place, but it’s really none of my business.

So in Chapter One Poirot is hanging out and doing nothing in particular, when a girl pops in and asks for help solving a crime she may or may not have committed. She’s not sure whether she’s killed someone or not. But before she gets far, she decides he’s too old to help her and pops back out again. He proceeds to backseat-drive the investigation of a murder that most people don’t believe ever took place. There’s no body, no motive, and the only witness/suspect doesn’t know what happened or what she herself has done. It’s almost like he’s creating the crime as he’s solving it. The book is nearly finished before we get the second murder, immediately after which Poirot solves the mystery by blaming the drug culture of young people. Stupid baby boomers.

It bothers me that Poirot and others define femininity as a desire to please men. Our maybe-murderer is seen as a deficient woman because she doesn’t dress a certain way or flirt with a man old enough to be her father (or grandfather). Living where I do, this is a big issue. Young women are expected to make old men feel good about themselves – The Ex was so successful at this that she got fifty dollars knocked off our rent once. She saw it as a game where men are idiots that can be easily manipulated by a girl who seems helpless and grateful for masculine protection. I don’t like that game, so when I caught her doing it to me I dug in my heels and refused to do whatever she wasn’t asking me to do. I think that if a person wants something from me, she can ask me directly. But frankly, I don’t see women as a decorative gender. They have the same intellectual range as men and in nearly every profession they have an equal ability to earn a living (though they are generally paid less than men doing the same job – I’m talking about whether they can do the job as well, which they can). Most of my supervisors at work have been women; I can’t think of a man who is qualified to give me a professional reference, at this point. Women are amazing, and they deserve better than to be judged by idiots like Poirot who think that their mission in life is to serve man.

So, Agatha Christie is a delight, but rooted in the prejudices and politics of her time. Poirot is the sort of person that can be fun to read but would be incredibly annoying in real life. Highly recommended for the reader who likes mysteries but doesn’t like gore.

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It seems strange to admit that I hadn’t really heard of this book, when I consider how devoted its fan base is. In my studies, I’d run into Carmilla, but Uncle Silas is apparently not much considered in this country, not even in academia, not even in the small circle of literary scholars who study Gothic. The publisher and editor, of course, make a number of claims to the book’s singularity, but please, set those aside and remember that they’re trying to sell a product. Le Fanu is heavily indebted to Ann Radcliffe, which he acknowledges through several references to The Romance of the Forest, and he follows her strategies fairly conventionally.

Maud Ruthyn is a standard Gothic heroine. Probably beautiful, but that’s not really important. Brought up in isolation by an emotionally distant father, so most of her life takes place inside her own head. She narrates the story several years after it’s finished, so our experience comes through the lens of her perception and memory. They’re likely to be flawed, what with the constant gaslighting and other terrorist tactics used on her.

But the valley of the shadow of death has its varieties of dread. The ‘horror of great darkness’ is disturbed by voices and illumed by sights. There are periods of incapacity and collapse, followed by paroxysms of active terror. Thus in my journey during those long hours I found it – agonies subsiding into lethargies, and these breaking again into frenzy. I sometimes wonder how I carried my reason safely through the ordeal.

Maud’s father is a Swedenborgian, and the occult religion provides a rationale for the isolation so Maud doesn’t question it. Unlike most Gothic novels, though, this one doesn’t use religious difference as a sign for evil. The Swede club is composed of good guys who might be a little weird and antisocial but are also essentially kind and concerned for Maud’s well-being. The evil comes from someplace else.

Volume I is largely concerned with Madame de la Rougierre, Maud’s new governess. The book was written in 1864, so of course being French makes Madame evil. She’s drunk and careless about Maud’s education; her primary concern seems to be manipulating Maud’s father. She lies and steals and at a couple of points tries to put Maud in compromising situations. Maud’s good sense pulls her through, relatively unscathed.

Along with the bad female role model, we also have the good, Monica Knollys, a cousin of Maud’s father. Cousin Monica is older, but fun and affectionate and sometimes a little shocking. She doesn’t see through the conspiracy instantly, but she knows when things aren’t right. She doesn’t have the power to fix everything, no one person does, but she has a position in society that could really help Maud understand the social class she belongs to. The sight of Monica shocks Madame out of her French accent for a couple of sentences, so while we never explore her past, I’m inclined to think her nationality is not all it’s presented to be.

In Volume II Maud goes to live with her Uncle Silas, the secret head of the conspiracy. She’s never really met him before, but she spent her entire childhood in a house with his portrait, and as an isolated teenager she thought he was pretty sexy. There was also a mystery surrounding him, which Cousin Monica finally explains to her. It’s the now-classic locked-room mystery setup, where someone was murdered in Silas’s house but no one could figure out how. The official ruling was suicide, but everyone knows he did it, except his brother. Maud’s father thinks that he’s innocent, so Maud’s residence with him is intended to prove to everyone that Silas is no murderer, even though if she were to die he would inherit a fortune that would relieve his debts, because of which he’s about to lose his house and possibly end up in prison. In Volume II he’s rather similar to Frederick Fairlie of The Woman in White – of too delicate health to abide the stimulus of other people, so he isolates himself and throws occasional tantrums. There’s a marked change in Volume III, when he becomes more of the Count Fosco type.

Silas’s daughter Milly is Maud’s companion for most of Volume II. She’s been given almost no education, and while her father frequently insults her for her ignorance, he does nothing to remove it. She runs wild, wearing dresses short enough to climb trees in, and uses the broadest country dialect she can manage (Derbyshire).

‘Will you tell – yes or no – is my cousin in the coach?’ screamed the plump young lady, stamping her stout black boot, in a momentary lull.

Yes, I was there, sure.

‘And why the puck don’t you let her out, you stupe, you?’

Despite their obvious differences (the Gothic heroine is always dressed fit for an aristocrat’s drawing room and has a natural elegance of mind that makes her a welcome addition to the highest social circles, whether her education and experience make that realistic or not), Maud and Milly become close friends very quickly. Milly gets sent to a boarding school in France for Volume III so that the conspiracy can assault Maud more easily. If Monica and Madame are contrasting mother figures, Milly is Maud’s reflection, the example of what she could have become in different circumstances.

Silas also has a son, Dudley. He’s quite as rustic as Milly, but rather more threatening because he’s a man. As her cousin, he’s entitled to more intimacy than most men, but he’s also a viable marriage partner. His role in the conspiracy is to attract and marry Maud to save his father and himself from financial ruin, but unfortunately, he has no idea how to attract a girl like her. She’s not impressed with his bragging about himself, nor is she pleased with his prowess in fistfights or hunting. I mean, if a girl doesn’t swoon over your muscles, what else can you do? A hundred and fifty years later I can shout, You can get a job and pay your own bills, but Dudley doesn’t have the training to do any mental work, and he is too proud of his position in society to do the work he is fit for. He’s one of the idle no-longer-rich, an aggressively useless sort of person.

Rounding out the conspiracy are Dickon Hawkes and his daughter Meg, because apparently Le Fanu was caught up with alliterative names. Dickon is a one-legged abusive father; he’s the real muscle in the group. Meg gets sick and Maud takes care of her, so Meg’s loyalty to the conspiracy’s intended victim makes her the weak link. She does her best to warn Maud, even if she gets beaten for it later. She’s a good kid, but unused to kindness or even civility.

Some people have called this the first locked-room mystery, but I’m disinclined to agree – Maud is no detective. She makes absolutely no effort to find clues or solve the mystery; she only discovers the truth because the conspiracy puts her in the same locked room and tries to kill her the same way. Speaking of genre conventions, the Gothic is a bit different here than it was in Radcliffe’s time. Le Fanu spends dramatically less time describing the scenery, so I guess the picturesque nature books were out of fashion seventy-five years later. In No Name, written only a couple of years earlier than Uncle Silas, Wilkie Collins describes the scenery in the different places we go to, but it seems like he’s working for a tourist commission rather than being artistically Romantic. Le Fanu’s story takes place in more private places, but Radcliffe would have been much more rhapsodical. While there’s a general air of mystery and vague threat, the real standard plot points don’t really happen until Volume III – secret messages crying for help being discovered, servants disappearing, heroine getting drugged and taken on a mysterious journey that ends in being concealed and imprisoned inside her own house, threats of bigamy and murder, that sort of thing. In Volumes I and II there are other possible interpretations of events, but in Volume III we finally make it all the way Gothic.

Maud doesn’t go into this question, but the narrative makes me wonder: Is reform possible? Do people ever really change? It depends on what you mean by change. For example, in the last six years I’ve worked through a lot of emotional stuff, and I’m happier and more confident than I was. But I think that at bottom, who I am is still the same. I am the same person I’ve always been, but my expression of my self is less clouded by fear, pain, and shame. I am freer to be who I am. But what about murderers? I think it depends on who they are and what circumstances led to the murder. For example, I think the man who killed my uncle did it as a consequence of fear and desperation, not out of hatred or anger. They didn’t even know each other. Fear and despair can be healed and managed, so that killer learned to deal with the mess of himself before the state killed him – or in other words, they reformed him and made him no longer a murderer, and then they killed him for what he had been before. The fictional murderers seem entirely different to me. Silas spends fifteen or twenty years not growing or changing, so he deals with problems the same way he did before. Two locked-room murders in the same house, in the same room, might be a little hard to explain, but he’s not concerned about that. Hawkes doesn’t change either – some people are so self-justified that they don’t see why they should. His daughter’s bruises are no one else’s concern. Maud, on the other hand, frequently refers to her own ignorance and stupidity, leading us to believe that as an adult she’s a lot wiser and less Gothic-heroine-y than she was at seventeen. Maybe the capacity for growth is a signal for moral quality. After all, Milton’s Lucifer is defined by his refusal to grow or change, so Le Fanu made his villains adopt the same quality. In real life, people are seldom so easy to define and categorize.

In some ways, you could argue that Uncle Silas is transitional, looking both backward and forward, like Disney’s Little Mermaid. There are some allegorical touches in the film that hark back to Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, but there’s also a psychological realism and a modern representation of the female protagonist that foreshadows Beauty and the Beast and Mulan. Uncle Silas relies heavily on the Radcliffe tradition, but that wave of Gothic fiction belonged to the 1790s and was pretty much finished by 1820. The locked-room mystery aspect also looks forward to Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and the modern mystery writers. There were other Gothic heroines after 1864 (I’m thinking of Gwendolen Harleth and Mrs de Winter), but Le Fanu’s book occupies this weirdly anachronistic limbo, of not being quite one thing nor quite another. It is very enjoyable, for those of us who enjoy the Gothic fiction of previous centuries, but not as easy to categorize as scholars might desire. The strange thing is that it is so determined not to be a sensation novel, even those were so popular at the time. I think it’s better than East Lynne or Lady Audley’s Secret, but why insist so hard on not being Wilkie Collins that you end up being Radcliffe instead?