Evidently Phelps in making this declaration is relying on her self-professed knowledge of the "secret, sinister" Agatha whom she has divined (see my last post), the one who would have enjoyed using the, erm, more forthright four-letter words and who, "if she could," would have included in her books such Phelps scripted scenes as these from The ABC Murders, described in a revolted article in The Atlantic:
Phelps has taken the grande dame of drawing room detective fiction and made her stories so grotesque, so deranged, that they're almost comical. The low point for me in The ABC Murders...was the focus on a yellow, pus-filled boil on the back of a man's neck--so yellow it seemed almost to vibrate on camera--as another man grimly spears open the yolk of his fried egg. In another scene, the actor Shirley Henderson's character, lipstick smeared all over her face, berates the daughter she rents out to men for a shilling, screeching, "I wish I'd used a knitting needle on you."
....Phelps has dreamed [additional scenes] featuring the use of high heels and silk stockings in sexualized torture rituals....It might seem unimaginable in Christie's genteel but biting stories to insert, say, a visual of an overflowing receptacle of urine. Not for Phelps, though, who's now used this motif twice, in The ABC Murders as well in the grimly vicious Ordeal by Innocence.
These are the adaptations which have prompted Christie great-grandson James Prichard not to high dudgeon but to a meek thanks to Phelps for having helped him learn "a lot about my great-grandmother's work...." He adds: "I now read it differently." Oh, my dear James, I'm afraid you've been led up a (rather dark) garden.
Instead of looking for subtextual clues to this putative "secret, sinister" Agatha--the Agatha whom Phelps feels sure wanted really to write about stiletto-heeled sadists, pus-filled boils and overflowing urine--why not look at the words Christie actually wrote right up front in her books, words which seem to make clear how she felt about such matters?
Here is, I think, the voice of Christie, expressed through Miss Marple, on modern novels in her detective novel A Caribbean Mystery (1964):
|modern filmmakers should find |
this Christie cover most congenial
Her glance strayed for a moment to the book lying on her lap open at page twenty-three which was as far as she had got (and indeed as far as she felt like getting!):
"Do you mean that you've had no sexual experience at ALL?" demanded the young man incredulously. "At nineteen? But you must. It's vital."
The girl hung her head unhappily, her straight, greasy hair fell forward over her face.
"I know," she muttered. "I know."
He looked at her, the stained jersey, the bare feet, the dirty toe nails, the smell of rancid fat....He wondered why he found her so maddeningly attractive.
Miss Marple wondered too. And really! To have sex experience urged on you exactly as if it was an iron tonic. Poor young things....
"My dear Aunt Jane, why must you bury your head in the sand like a very delightful ostrich. All bound up in this idyllic rural life of yours. REAL LIFE--that's what matters."
Thus Raymond. And his Aunt Jane had looked properly abashed and said "Yes," she was afraid she was rather old-fashioned.
Though really rural life was far from idyllic. People like Raymond were so ignorant. In the course of her duties in a country parish, Jane Marple had acquired quite a comprehensive knowledge of the facts of rural life. She had no urge to talk about them, far less to write about them--but she knew them. Plenty of sex, natural and unnatural. Rape, incest, perversion of all kinds. (Some kinds, indeed, that even the clever young men from Oxford who wrote about books didn't seem to have heard about.)
|Scene from A Taste of Honey (1961)|
kitchen sink realism was not really Christie's thing
It's hard for me not to see this passage as a defense by Christie of the so-called "cozy" style of crime writing against all the postwar up-and-comers who had gained ground since the Second World War. People like the hard-boiled writers and the noirists, such as Patrica Highsmith and Jim Thompson, who did focus on the seamy side of life (and death). Christie appears to be saying, look, I know all that nastiness too, but I choose not to write about it, at least not explicitly. And she utterly rejected Phelps's squalid nihilism.
Although Christie then was a worldwide bestseller, before people like myself (and I assume Ms. Phelps) were born, there nevertheless were plenty of smart critics condemning Christie for being old-fashioned and out-of-touch with the unpleasant realities that everyone allegedly wanted to read about in the Atomic Age. Of course the truth is that a lot of people didn't want to read about those things, which I why they read Agatha Christie, and Patricia Wentworth, and Ngaio Marsh, and Michael Innes, and John Dickson Carr, and Rex Stout, and Ellery Queen. It doesn't mean, by the way, that these works were all anodyne and insubstantial, but it does mean that in them one won't be reading about the sort of repulsive sordidness which so obviously intrigues Sarah Phelps and many television reviewers.
|there were plenty of people in |
the 1950s and 1960s including
more explicit sex and violence in
their crime fiction--Agatha Christie
simply did not want to be one
of these people
Some of Christie's standalone mysteries, like Ordeal by Innocence and Endless Night, represent Phelps's "secret, sinister" Christie, in that they presage modern-day psychological suspense and the dysfunctional family gloom of the modern crime novel (puzzle purist Jacques Barzun hated Ordeal by Innocence). This, by the by, makes it all the more troubling that Phelps, ostensibly mindful of the "secret, sinister" Christie, chose so to alter Ordeal by Innocence.
Even some of the cozier Marples, to be sure, have some dark threads in the cozy quilt. For example, I've always found the posthumously published Sleeping Murder, which I believe would have been titled Cover Her Face had PD James not preempted Christie with her debut 1962 mystery, highly sinister. Since Phelps likes portraying sexually perverse behavior so much, this one should have been a natural for her.
But it's not just the explicit sexuality and four-letter words in Phelps' adaptations which would have bothered Christie, it's most of all the relentless and determined ugliness and the seemingly irredeemably pessimistic view of human nature. Look at that above quotation from A Caribbean Mystery again.
What bothered Christie about the modern novels which she lampoons wasn't so much the sex per se, but the utter gloomy squalidness of it all. Look how she complains about that poor young woman's greasy straight hair and rancid fat and dirty toe nails. If she's going to get it on, Christie must have been thinking, why can't she at least bathe first and brush her hair? But, most of all, having sex, if you're going to do it, is something to be enjoyed (and it helps if neither partner smells). People didn't seem to enjoy sex, or anything else, in modern novels. Just like they don't in Phelps' film adaptations of Christie's novels, where everyone seems determined to be utterly miserable.
I may be beating a dead (pale) horse at this point, but to say that these latest Christie adaptations represent the sort of thing Christie really wanted to write strikes me as self-deluding at best and damnably disingenuous at worst. Were the Queen of Crime resurrected and given a choice strictly between writing Phelps' sort of nasty, nihilistic noir or modern-day cozy cat crimes, I think the meows most definitely would have it.