Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Melodramas of rationality and conspiracism

Agatha Christie - radical conservative thinker
by Johann Hari

It is only here, in her homeland, that Agatha Christie has not been given the respect she deserves. Europeans as eminent as Roland Barthes and Umberto Eco describe her as "brilliant" and "extraordinary" without a blush; Americans as distinguished as Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder viewed her as one of the most exciting novelists of her time. The King of the self-consciously highbrow French literary scene, Michel Houllebecq, write a hymn of praise to her in his latest novel, ‘Platform’. He lauds in particular her 1946 work ‘The Hollow’ as "a strange, poignant book; these are deep waters [she writes about], with powerful undercurrents." Yet the English insist on seeing her as fodder for the tourists and perhaps the regions; a writer of elaborate crossword puzzles, not literature.

The verdict of the late novelist Anthony Burgess
accurately summarises the English intelligentsia’s
view of Christie. "She put people off reading the
higher art of detection – from the Moonstone to Gaudy
Night – by setting a lower standard and making it
somehow canonical," he wrote in the 1980s. "If she was
the queen of the whodunit, she used her royal rank to
condone flimsy characterisation, plentiful cliché,
implausibility, and verbal vacuity… All we have [in
her novels] is an abstract puzzle minimally clothed in
the garments of upper middle-class morality."

The literary critic Edmund Wilson once famously
sniffed, "Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?" (The
obvious retort to this is – err, about a billion
people, which is rather more than will ever care about
your writings, Mr Wilson.) One small fact reveals the
nature of much of the Christie-bashing lit-crit pack:
Wilson had not even read the famous 1926 novel when he
wrote his essay. Indeed, he only ever looked at one of
her works, the rather atypical ‘Death Comes As The
End’, a strange, not entirely effective story set
entirely in Pre-Dynastic Egypt.

There seems to be no limit to English academic’s
haughty contempt for Christie. Critic Peter Lennon
claimed that "her dialogue is tinnitus to the ear",
and that her dénouements were ineffective because "you
are not shocked that one of the pieces of cardboard
has committed a felony nor do you rejoice that a brown
paper bag with a perm has not."

It would be easy to join in this sneering – but for
one problem. How, if Christie wrote such rubbish, can
we explain the fact that her works have resonated even
at the farthest extremes of geography and history? In
Buchenwald concentration camp, Jewish inmates acted
out an amateur production of ‘Ten Little Niggers’, and
several later claimed that this helped them retain
their will to live. The Tupamaros guerrillas, who
kidnapped the British ambassador to Uruguay Sir
Geoffrey Jackson in 1970, adopted Miss Marple as their
honorary leader. They believed that she embodied
justice. Christie’s works sold over ten million copies
in the Arab world alone in the 1990s. Something
interesting is going on here, and it is not a
universal taste for rubbish.

The answer cannot be found in Christie’s
straightforward biography. She was born into an
uber-Victorian family in the uber-Victorian coastal
town of Torquay in 1890, as the triumphant Victorian
era was sailing peacefully towards the Somme. Other
than her famous disappearance – which has been
analysed to death elsewhere – and her extensive world
travel, Christie’s life was rather uneventful. She
loathed and avoided publicity in a way that would be
unimaginable to contemporary populist authors. She was
so cripplingly shy that when she arrived at the
Mousetrap’s tenth anniversary party at the Savoy, she
uncomplainingly allowed a doorman who didn’t recognise
her to turn her away. She returned home, downcast, and
cried. In her twenties, she was once returned to her
mother at a dance by a gentleman who explained, "Here
is your daughter. She has learned to dance. You had
better teach her to talk now."

Her famously timid nature has, however, left a false
impression of Christie as a woman who retreated from
the world and then made up stories based on a
constricted, upper-middle class world view. Far from
it: this is a woman who, after she was dumped by her
husband, took her daughter on a world tour where she
taught herself how to surf and bagged herself a
notoriously dishy man 15 years her junior. When she
became engaged to the archaeologist Max Mallowan, he
asked her if she minded marrying a man whose
profession was "digging up the dead." She placed her
hand on his and replied, "Darling, I adore corpses and

The Christie recorded by history seems likeable, dry
and clever: but this cannot account for the fact that
she is the best-selling author in human history after
the team who complied the Bible. The obvious
explanation is her capacity for finding every possible
permutation of the conventional detective story twist:
indeed, she was so successful in this pursuit that
almost nobody tries in the genre any more. To give
just a few examples: she created mysteries where the
narrator was the murderer (Roger Ackroyd), the entire
cast were the murderers (Murder on the Orient
), nobody was the murderer (it was suicide in
Elephants Never Forget), and even where Poirot was the
murderer (the extraordinary Curtain, Poirot’s final
appearance). If you are ever tempted to imagine that
writing plots like Christie’s is an easy activity, try
adapting one of her novels for the stage, as I did a
few years ago with my colleague Sarah Punshon. If we
tampered with one plot device in ‘The Secret
Adversary’, all the others untangled: her works are a
delicate ecology where every line feeds off every
other. We soon realised we needed some kind of visual
chart showing the progress and location of the main
characters. Three days later, the walls of my kitchen
were literally hidden behind a massive chart worthy of
Steven Hawking’s physics equations. I received rather
strange looks when a plumber arrived and had to peel
back large pages marked ‘Plan now to kill Jane! Take
her to house in Soho and drug her.’

But the plots alone do not explain Christie. No: I
believe that the great unappreciated aspect of her
work is that she was an intensely and relentlessly
political thinker. No, don’t throw your copy of
Prospect to one side in derision.

The first non-family member to read Christie’s fiction
was the novelist Eden Phillpotts. He told her to "try
and cut all moralisations out of your novels; you are
much too fond of them." He missed the point. Christie
– a genius when it came to narrative – did not write,
as is so often supposed, solely to tell fabulously
intricate stories. Moral and political instruction is
at the core of every Christie novel. In the Middle
East at the height of the Second World War, Graham
Greene approached her to ask if she would be prepared
to write pro-Allied propaganda. She declined – at
least in part because she was already propagandising
expertly for her own causes.

Hmmm, you may be wondering – I missed the novel where
Miss Marple offers her interpretation of ‘Das
Capital’. You can’t quite recall the book where Poirot
leads a revolution in a South American country. This
is fair enough, but there is a sustained political
analysis in Agatha’s novels, and it is explicitly
discussed in almost every text. To some extent, the
genre itself is conservative. The film critic Peter
Canby has argued that "whodunnits are politically
conservative, being artefacts of a well-ordered world
where all questions have answers, all debts are paid
and all crises rise and fall with tidal
predictability… [it] soothes the readers and helps to
put him to sleep at the end of a day spent in a very
different world." But Christie took this further: she
had, as Houllebeq argues, "a radical theoretical
engagement" with Burkean conservatism. At a time of
massive social transformations in areas as fundamental
to individual identity as gender, family and class,
Agatha offered the soothing balm of Burkean
conservatism. She offers an eternal England, a natural
order that will always act spontaneously against evil
to restore its own rural sense of calm. There is a
clear natural order to Christie’s world, and – in true
Burkean style - it is only disrupted by greed,
wickedness or misguided political ambition. The world
is not – as it seems so often – chaotic and
terrifying. No, as Poirot explains in ‘Appointment
with Death’, "the absolute logic of events is
fascinating and orderly."

Her work conforms to Burkean conservatism in every
respect: justice rarely comes from the state. Rather,
it arises from within civil society – a private
detective, a clever old spinster. Indeed, what is Miss
Marple but the perfect embodiment of Burke’s thought?
She has almost infinite wisdom because she has lived
so very long (by the later novels, she is barely able
to move and, by some calculations, over 100). She has
slowly – like parliament and all traditional bodies,
according to Burke – accrued "the wisdom of the ages",
and this is the key to her success. From her solitary
spot in a small English village, she has learned
everything about human nature. Wisdom resides, in
Christie and Burke’s worlds, in the very old and the
very ordinary.

The novels are shot through with a Burkean fear of
enlightenment rationalism. There is a persistent fear
of the young and those with grand Archimedean social
projects. Christie’s greatest anxiety, she once
explained, was of "idealists who want to make us happy
by force." The minute a character is described as an
idealist in one of her novels, you’ve found your
murderer. Any rational attempt to supersede the
‘natural’ order is terrifying for her: she could have
scripted Stanley baldwin’s comment about David Lloyd
George that he "is a dynamic force, and a dynamic
force is a very dangerous thing." In ‘They Came to
Baghdad’, a rational plan for a New World Order is
revealed to be a veil for absolutist fascism. In ‘They
Do It With Mirrors’, a plan to establish an island
which would be administered by (and eventually
rehabilitate) young offenders degenerates into
psychosis. In ‘Destination Unknown’, a communistic
scientific community turns out to be a veil for a
crazed megalomaniac. This list could go on for a very
long time.

Her protagonists stand, novel after novel, against
those who seek to disrupt the natural order and
interpret the world with a misleading ‘rationalism’.
As one of her heroes explains, "We’re humble-minded
men. We don’t expect to save the world, only pick up
one or two broken pieces and remove a spanner or two
when it’s jamming up the works." Or, as another
heroine asks, "Isn’t muddle a better breeding ground
for kindliness and individuality than a world order
that’s imposed?"

In its ugliest moments, Christie’s conservatism
crossed over into a contempt for Jews, who are so
often associated with rationalist political
philosophies and a ‘cosmopolitanism’ that is
antithetical to the Burkean paradigm of the English
village. There is a streak of anti-Semitism running
through the pre-1950s novels which cannot be denied
even by her admirers. ‘The Mysterious Mr Quinn’ has an
ugly passage about "men of Hebraic extraction, sallow
men with hooked noses, wearing flamboyant jewellery."
‘Peril At End House’ has a character referred to as
"the long-nosed Mr Lazarus", of whom somebody says,
"he’s a Jew, of course, but a frightfully decent one."
Against this, it is worth pointing out that her novel
‘Giant’s Bread’ (written under the pseudonym of Mary
Westmacott) features an extremely sympathetic portrait
of the Levinnes, a Jewish family who suffer from
anti-Semitism in England. Christie’s hostility to Jews
was, I suspect, more political than personal (and no
less reprehensible for that).

The other aspect of her conservatism which seems most
unsavoury today is her hostility to feminism. She
believed that Victorian women had a privileged place
which women’s liberation – another rationalist
movement tampering with the natural order – threatened
to undermine. In the 1960s, she was sent a
questionnaire by an Italian magazine investigating the
attitudes of prominent women towards feminism. In
response to a question about the cause of women’s
increasingly active role in the workplace, Agatha
attributed it to "the foolishness of women in
relinquishing their position of privilege obtained
after many centuries of civilisation. Primitive women
toil incessantly. We seem determined to return to that
state voluntarily."

Christie’s ouevre up until, say, ‘Cat Amongst the
Pigeons’ in the late 1950s is an intriguing – if
conventional - study in Burkean philosophy. What makes
her more than that – what pushes her work into a
higher realm – is that she was a clever enough woman
to realise that the Burkean order she loved was
becoming less and less tenable as social change
accelerated. Often, the novels she wrote as an old
woman from the 1960s until her death in 1974 are
dismissed as inferior to the more famous early works,
and it is undoubtedly the case that the plots are less
sharp and imaginative. But I have always believed that
they are the most intriguing: they chart the nervous
breakdown of Burke’s England, and the intellectual
bankruptcy of a conservatism derived from Disraeli and
Baldwin, better than any other writer I know.

The best way to illustrate this is to look at two
novels which almost book-end her oeuvre: her second
novel, ‘The Secret Adversary’, written in 1921, and
her penultimate work, ‘Passenger to Frankfurt’,
written in 1970. Both are explicitly political works,
yet the calm, certain conservatism of Adversary has,
by 1970, disintegrated into a chaotic, trembling fear
of change.

‘The Secret Adversary’ is an irresistible, bizarre
reactionary fable written at the height of public
anxieties about a general strike and the possibility
of a British revolution. Tommy and Tuppence –
Christie’s most under-rated recurring characters – are
a sprightly young couple recently demobbed from the
First World War forces and in search of a distraction
from their tedious new lives. Gradually, they begin to
investigate a powerful man "who lives in the shadows"
known only as ‘Mr Brown’. He is a figure at the heart
of the English establishment who is seeking to
destabilise the nation and forment anarchy so that he
can seize absolute power for himself. Gradually – in a
politically outrageous development – it emerges that
Brown is secretly controlling almost every progressive
force in Britain: the trade unions, Irish nationalism,
the Labour Party and others. It is even implied that
he was behind the Russian Revolution.

In several brief, lucid passages, Christie dramatises
the bourgeois fears of social disorder in a way that
has yet to be bettered. One young thug fantasises
about "diamonds and pearls rolling in the gutter," an
image which is central to the novel as the ultimate
signifier of the breakdown of all that is decent. Mr
Brown is, of course, apprehended and English order
restored by the last page. What is striking in
relation to the later works is the confidence with
which Christie imagines social order can be restored:
Britain is brought to the brink of revolution, but the
apprehension of one man (who turns out to be a King’s
Counsel and close friend of the Prime Minister) puts
all those social anxieties back in the box. It is not
hard to see why this would have been reassuring to a
1920s middle class readership: it applies the same
model for extirpating evil to the political sphere as
Christie applies to the world of the English village.
Miss Marple catches the murderer and the world goes
back to the way it was before the awful act took
place; Tommy and Tuppence catch the revolutionary, and
the world goes back to the way it was before the
political troubles began. Burke’s principles are again
central: the natural order is only disrupted by
malice; society tends towards a benevolent stasis
which is only interfered with by the wicked.

Skip, then, to ‘Passenger to Frankfurt’. Again, a
normal person (this time an English civil servant, Sir
Stafford Nye) is slightly bored and begins to stumble
upon an occluded, ideologically-driven political force
that seeks to destabilise the world and seize control
(in this novel, they are a strange cult who worship
the bastard son of Adolf Hitler). But even before the
chaos begins, there is a sense that we are no longer
in Miss Marple’s England. Sir Stafford notes to
himself as he reads his newspaper, "No child has been
kidnapped or raped this morning. That was a nice

The simple binary division of the world in ‘Adversary’
– you are either with Mr Brown or with us – is gone
too. There were the political idealists – power hungry
and wrong-headed – and then there was the great mass
of humanity, who sought clam and order. Yet in
Frankfurt, the characters themselves see that the
world has become so complex that Manichean simplicity
is no longer possible. Of a secret agent, one
character asks, "Is she ours or is she theirs, if you
know who ‘theirs’ is?… What with the Chinese and the
Ruskies and the rather queer crowd that’s behind all
the student troubles and the New Mafia and the rather
odd lot on South America." The conservative stability
of the earlier novels has collapsed; Christie herself
saw that, the further her stories travelled from the
English villages of the 1930s, the less credible the
belief system of that world became. Forced out into a
complex urban environment – or, increasingly, an
international one – she saw that Burke’s thought had
no real application any longer.

Yet she obviously misses it like a lost limb. She
cannot quite accept that bad things can happen without
a malicious human agent standing somewhere behind
them. Social change is still regarded as the result of
a bad person: she seriously suggests repeatedly in the
novel that drug use is being promoted among the young
to make them unthinking and therefore susceptible to
the charms of a new fascistic leader. Whereas in
‘Adversary’ she ties up all the loose ends neatly, she
feels unable to in ‘Passenger’ – the world she has
created or, as she saw it, reflected is so inherently
unstable that the old conservative resolution is no
longer possible. The novel’s narrative simply peters
out, and her readers are left simply with a pervasive
fear and the suggestion that Christie’s – and their –
nexus for understanding the world, small-c
conservatism, is not longer tenable.

The journey from Adversary to Passenger was a gradual
one. The rural England she loved slowly dies in the
novels as the years pass. In ‘Nemesis’, written in the
late 1960s, Miss Marple laments that her natural
habitat is vanishing when she says of St Mary Mead,
"It used to be a very pretty old-world village but of
course, like everything else it’s becoming what they
call ‘developed’ these days." Another character adds,
"Nothing is like it used to be – it’s all spoilt –

The death of the old conservatism has been confusing
for the right across the world. Stanley Baldwin took
it for granted that his conservatism would rule his
party forever, but now the Tory party advocate the
rationalist politics he loathed: in her recent book,
‘Statecraft’, Margaret Thatcher explicitly endorses
the US constitutional model over the evolutionary
Burkean constitution of Britain. She sees that her old
conservative world is dying, and so is the way she
understood it, and she would, I suspect, have recoiled
from the neocons.

The Burkean conservatism that Christie loved is now
officially dead. Nobody seriously espouses it any
longer, and when John Major tried to play some of its
tunes a decade ago he sounded ridiculous. There are a
few isolated people – Roger Scruton, the Salisbury
Review and Prince Charles spring to mind – who try to
revive it, but they are an eccentric fringe. I am not
a conservative, or anything like it, but the closest I
have ever come to seeing its appeal was when I read
Christie. She is a political propagandist and literary
figure of remarkable power.

The philosophy she espouses – of a world stable and
ordered if only these pesky progressives wouldn’t make
such an unseemly fuss – remains across the world a far
more powerful force than many of us on the left admit.
Some people will always resist the appeal of
Enlightenment optimism in favour of a mythical Burkean
natural order that they believe we tamper with at our
peril. If the neoconservatives and Wilsonians (I bunch
myself in the latter category) who today are trying to
restructure the Middle East want to understand why
this is, then the novels of Agatha Christie are a very
good place to start.

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