Sunday, February 24, 2019

What Would Christie Do? Judge Her by Her Works, Part One

At a screening of The ABC Murders in December of last year, scripter Sarah Phelps dismissed as "manufactured outrage" all the complaints from Agatha Christie traditionalists about the massive alterations of Christie's works in Phelps' recent adaptations.  Conceding that in her books the Queen of Crime "might not have written any sex or swearing or drug-taking and whatever," Phelps nevertheless declared, "I'm sure she would have if she could."

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
She thought, on the whole, that [her nephew Raymond West] was fond of her--he always had been--in a slightly exasperated and contemptuous way!  Always trying to bring her up to date.  Sending her books to read.  Modern novels.  So difficult--all about such unpleasant people, doing such very odd things and not, apparently, even enjoying them.  "Sex" as a word had not been mentioned in Miss Marple's young days, but there had been plenty of it--not talked about so much--but enjoyed far more than nowadays, or so it seemed to her.  Though usually labeled Sin, she couldn't help feeling that that was preferable to what it seemed to be nowadays--a kind of Duty.

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
Sure, Christie got tired of Hercule Poirot, with all his arguably forced Belgian whimsy and his artificial mannerisms and--don't discount this--his devilishly difficult to write clue puzzles.  For relief from Poirot, Christie turned to the standalone mysteries, Tommy and Tuppence (still rather jolly, if superannuated) and, most of all, Miss Marple, the country-est and coziest of her sleuths.  Miss Marple, who started off representing her mother's and grandmother's generations, more and more came to represent the author herself. 

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.


  1. Hi, maybe part of the problem with Phelps is that they are tv adaptations.On tv it's harder to portray the intricacies of plot and character that can be portrayed in a novel. In Ordeal by Innocence, for example, it was probably easier for Phelps to change whodunit rather than try to portray the psychological subtleties of the original solution, which was complex and much more satisfying.
    I've really enjoyed your last two pieces- not for coruscating Phelps but for the discussion on authors and their attitude towards adaptations. More please!

    1. I think the Phelps preferred her own psychology in this case to Christie's. With Christie SPOILER you have a poor deluded middle aged foreign domestic servant as the culprit END SPOILER while Phelps went with a very different sort of person, really diametrically opposed you might say.

      I wasn't going to even get involved with this Christie controversy, live and let live, but this claim that this really represents the spirit of the "true Agatha" has rather set me off. ;)

      My next piece will be about what Christie thought of adapters altering the characters of detectives. Didn't like!

  2. I have chosen not to watch "The ABC Murders" as frankly there is enough death and dismay around in real life. I have read lots of Christie and seen several stage adaptations. I must say though if anyone wants to make a very different version of an author's work, and mine it for deep and dark themes that were never intended, I think that it is a poor literary technique. Christie wrote to entertain and at worse, sell books. I believe that the interest in crime classics reveals a wish for a certain type of crime writing, and that there is plenty of more modern inspirations to draw from for tv drama. Why not "Inspired By" rather than adapted from? Leave Christie alone and write something else?

    1. I'm with you on that one. Why not write something and put it out under one's own name? I am also a fan of Sherlock Holmes but I'm never annoyed by the plethora of new stories that have been published; Holmes vs. Dracula, Holmes vs. Cthulhu, Holmes in Japan etc., because the authors publish under their own names. They don't mangle the existing canon or insist that Conan Doyle would have preferred to write darker, deeper stuff.

    2. I agree it would be nice to see them try some other crime writers for a chance. Even in the 1980s, they were doing Sayers and Allingham and Marsh, for example. I’d like to see a new round of those, and others. Let Agatha alone for a while! But even with all the new reprints she stands over the mystery world like a colossus.

  3. "When I go to the theatre I don't want to see lust, rape, incest and sodomy. I can get all that at home."
    - Dudley Moore

  4. Over the years I have picked up and started to read but quickly been put totally off by adaptations and many "carry on" novels by a number of authors. I particularly find those which use either other authors as characters or who in some way cannibalize other books into theirs. One example is the series of books using Daphne du Maurier (which were puerile, silly and almost totally unreadable -- at least for me). Most were so poorly plotted and written that using a real author as a character was beyond insulting -- it seemed to be character assassination and theft of intellectual property as well. I've been very surprised that the estates (for instance) of Daphne du Maurier didn't institute legal proceedings to prevent further such use, use which verges on actual abuse. I have not seen the Phelps' adaptations of the Christie novels (though I have read many of the Christie books and watched some others such as the movies and TV series which featured the redoubtable Margaret Rutherford and those with Joan Hickson. They actually venerate Christie and while adaptations, remain true to the intent (or what we think is the intent) and the spirit. In the current situation it is unfortunate that Christie's estate isn't protesting what appears to be dramatic alterations to Mrs. Christie's books. She is not alive to explain or defend her works. Making changes in such a fashion should be either illegal or hedged by numerous protections for the author, particularly one who is deceased. The estate should be protecting rather than exploiting (presumably the estate is being well paid for the use of the books) the titles. Folks need to vote with their feet and their purse -- do not patronize or pay for the adulterated versions. Pay for and patronize the "real thing."

    1. Please add "reprehensible" into the second sentence. It should read: "I particularly find those reprehensible which use......"

    2. The estate may feel Christie is being done a good turn with these adaptations since they have received high praise in some corners but it’s Phelps changes which are being praised by and large, not Christie’s original work. The artistic vision in these films largely is Phelps not Christie’s. I don’t believe Christie, who had great reason to take pride in her accomplishments, would be pleased with this, however her desendants feel about it.

    3. I do remember reading in an article about the adaptation of Ordeal by Innocence that the change of perpetrator was justified because 'Christie knew the value of re-writes'. She did indeed; but she would no doubt have preferred that the re-writes were done by herself, not by someone having no respect for, or input into, the original work.

    4. Yes, I think Christie had ample time to rewrite this book had she wanted to. I'm not sure she would appreciate rewrites by other hands, made on no textual basis whatsoever.

  5. If you want a dark, foggy city populated by pharmacists, solicitors and market research agencies who [spoiler alert] front for a sinister organisation with tentacles everywhere, and a smiling countryside populated by modern witches (not sure Mrs Dane Calthrop isn't the real thing here) - try The Pale Horse.

    1. I’ll be interested to see what happens with this, with our spirited , charming young couple and Ariadne Oliver. A version was done nearly 20 years ago, with Andy Serkis no less.

  6. I agree with all you wrote but I think you miss the the key motivation: contempt. Phelps has contempt for those Britons (and doubtless all Westerners) not in her caste: the bourgeoisie, the lower class, end especially and particularly those with the bad taste to have lived before she was born. This is a common enough attitude in our self styled elite; Phelps is just a particularly extreme example. That is WHY she thinks she knows the “real” AC: the real AC, as a writer, would have been like me and part of my caste. I will rescue her from her contemporaries.

    1. Well, I know nothing about Phelps on the personal level, but apparently she wanted to make ABC Murders an anti-Brexit parable. In a lot of her social views Christie was conservative and for all I know she might have supported Brexit. Most vintage British mystery writers who spoke out about it that I know of were critical of the post WW2 liberal regime. I’m guessing Christie’s and Phelps’ social and political views aren’t too in accord. But there’s always the secret, sinister” Agatha of course!