Touching the Public Soul
By Leonard Freeman
Agatha Christie, a lifelong member of the Church of England, kept her mother’s copy of The Imitation of Christ on her bedside throughout her life. That image provides an important clue to why her mysteries were so appealing and challenging. Her Christian presuppositions shaped the elements that made her mysteries different from the run of the mill, her work touching something significant in the public soul.
In the 100 years since the publication of her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1920, Agatha Christie’s literary empire has produced more than two billion books in 44 languages, 66 detective novels, 14 short stories, and the longest continuously running play in history, The Mousetrap.
The secret to Agatha Christie lies at least partly in her theological presuppositions, her underlying assumptions about human nature, original sin, and moral choice. They differ from the traditional formula of detective fiction.
Fiction writers, by definition, have to play God to tell a story. They must create a universe, populate it, establish basic pattern of relationships, and present that world’s possibilities, dangers, and hopes. Most popular writers do that by formula, presenting a repetitive, familiar statement of reality that readers unconsciously accept.
The classic detective story rules are not that tricky. The reader should have the clues, the detective should be the hero, good and evil should be represented by the detective and the culprit, and good should win the day. Evil should not stand unpunished.
Christie, on the other hand, while staying well within the genre, regularly broke those rules and expectations because of her beliefs. Along with wonderful plotting skill, therein lay the core of her genius.
Christie’s novels, particularly the Jane Marple stories, are often set in “the kind of village where nothing ever happens, exactly like a stagnant pond” (Sleeping Murder, 1976), which makes Miss Marple a super sleuth, “just the finest detective God ever made” (A Murder Is Announced, 1950).
“Living in a village as I do, one gets to know so much about human nature,” Miss Marple says in 13 Clues for Miss Marple (1966). “Really, I have no gifts — no gifts at all — except perhaps a certain knowledge of human nature. People I find are apt to be far too trustful. I’m afraid that I have tendency to always believe the worst. Not a nice trait, but so often justified by subsequent events” (A Murder Is Announced).
Explaining to her friends why they did not suspect the real murderer in Sleeping Murder: “You believed what he said. It is really very dangerous to believe people. I never have for years” (Sleeping Murder). As a longtime parish priest, I can feel the resonance.
So what is human nature like for Dame Agatha? She and St. Augustine might well have been soulmates. “The depravity of human nature is unbelievable,” Miss Marple tells us in A Murder is Announced. “Everybody is very much alike, really.”
This is the real point at which Mrs. Christie breaks the rules. Simply put, she does not play by the formula of good and evil. Original sin taints everyone and everything.
In a Christie story, to assume that people are innocent and telling the truth because of their role or position would be just as absurd as judging people by their social class or old-school ties or economic status in real life, which of course we do.
Bindweed & Original Sin
Mrs. Christie articulates a marvelous recurring symbol of original sin’s clutch on human nature, and our hope for deliverance in bindweed. An innocuous plant, easily overlooked, bindweed starts as a tender, climbing vine, but if left unchecked it will kill all in its path. It is a reminder of the constant struggle that must be fought against an implacable foe.
Chapter eighteen of Sleeping Murder opens with this striking paragraph. “Miss Marple bent down on the terrace outside the French window and dealt with some insidious bindweed. It was only a minor victory, since beneath the surface the bindweed remained in possession as always. But at least the delphiniums knew a temporary deliverance.”
That could serve as a paradigm for the Christie mysteries, which deal only in temporary victories against the eruption of human sin. The heart within is still captive, and sin will surface again But there can be some deliverance, a foretaste of the kingdom now.
Christie novels have hope because Mrs. Christie believes in moral choice.
Theological perspectives about the road to human salvation and hope have historically pushed out to the opposing edges of total individual free will and responsibility or predestination and determinism. For the most part, on the everyday parish level, we tend to work with these in the balancing ground of inborn tendencies, the givens of our human nature, and the push-pull of our circumstances: individual choices made amid systemic shaping.
The choice that murderers make, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple affirm, is moral in nature. Tendencies and temptations and circumstances to the contrary, it is always possible that people will make the moral choice.
Miss Marple is by her hard-nosed admission not a very “nice” person. But she is strong, and strength of moral character matters very much. “Weak and kindly people are often very treacherous … if they’ve got a grudge against life it saps the little moral strength they may possess,” she says in A Murder Announced.
The twin hopes of the detective novel have been human reason and intuition. And the hope has been, of course, to solve and settle everything right now within this world.
In her last two cases, Curtain for Hercule Poirot, Sleeping Murder for Miss Marple, Mrs. Christie noted the fallibility of these hopes.
Hercule Poirot, the grandmaster of logic, awaits his death “not knowing” and contemplating that this might be appropriate for someone who had always been so self-assured. He ends his career trusting not his “little gray cells” but in “le bon dieu — humble and like a little child,” (Matt. 18:4), with a prayer that God’s punishment or mercy for Poirot’s moral choices will be swift.
Miss Marple departs the literary stage reminding us that “one’s feelings are not always reliable guides” (Sleeping Murder).
In the startling final confrontation of Nemesis (1971), Miss Marple rises up in her shawl to confront the murderer — an implied living embodiment of that namesake goddess of retribution. When a detective inspector tells Miss Marple that he hit upon a major clue by pure chance, she responds: “I think you were led to it, Inspector … but then I’m old-fashioned” (A Murder Is Announced).
In words reminiscent of Jesus’ evocation of the kingdom, Miss Marple expresses her personal key to life as what goes on within the human heart in its quiet interaction with God. “It’s what’s in yourself that makes you happy or unhappy,” she says in A Murder Is Announced.
It was when I realized that Mrs. Christie genuinely believed in original sin that it all came together. Anyone really could do it — all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. As in life, the clues are there in her stories. She doesn’t cheat. We are blinded to what she lays out because we are blinded by our presuppositions.
The theology of Dame Agatha’s books is essentially Christian, with a deep sense of the wickedness and corruptibility of human nature. But she’s not cynical and despairing. She holds love, moral character, choice, and justice out as the instances for at least temporary deliverance from the clutch of original sin. It’s a taste within this life of what life can be like within a world innately connected to a larger moral arc.
Hers is a world in which we can recognize ourselves: broken yet searching for, and trusting in, redemption and le bon dieu. This is why she continues to touch the public soul.
The Rev. Leonard Freeman is a veteran journalist, retired priest, and contributor to The Living Church.