The purest essence of genre fiction is found, perhaps, in the detective novels of Agatha Christie. Many admire her works, but few consider them to be literature. In “The Typology of Detective Fiction“, Tzvetan Todorov makes the distinction that great literature is that which transgresses the norms of a genre, an thus creates its own genre. Christie’s novels are the archetypal “whodunits” for Todorov, not concerned with transgressing norms, but with bringing them to a “geometrical perfection”. On one hand, this is an admirable quality, but on the other it is easy to see how such a technical perfection might be considered inferior to a more humanistic literature, as a triumph of the mechanical intellect over the dynamical (as Carlyle would say). Christie is therefore a perfect plotting machine, but not a great writer.
So, on opening The Body in the Library (1942) recently, this distinction was one I had in mind. In mind, also, was how Christie would stand up after so many years. In my early teenage years, I had read her books voraciously, transfixed by her ingenuity, methodical plotting, and clear, unobstructed style. But I had long ago moved on to other things.
The Body in the Library opens unexpectedly: with a dream scene. We are inside the consciousness of the sleeping Mrs Bantry. Even in her subconscious, however, this Christie character is evidently pretty tame. She is dreaming of winning the local flower show. On a slightly less banal note, the Vicar’s wife inhabits the dream dressed in a bathing suit, in a touch that signifies the surrealism of the dream world, or that, perhaps, hints at a submerged homoeroticism in Mrs Bantry.
In general, Christie spends very little time in her characters’ consciousness. There is much external focalization and very little internal focalization, in Genette’s terms. Mrs Bantry is woken by a maid with the news that there is, as the title predicted, A Body in the Library. Christie, again against the conception of her as a mechanical writer, has a bit of “meta” fun with this body (e.g. a character says, “Bodies are always being found in libraries in books. I’ve never known a case in real life.”[Harper Collins, 2011, 4]).
This is a Miss Marple book. Up to the point I have read (about half way), Miss Marple’s investigation is intercut with that of Colonel Melchett, the Chief Constable in charge of the case. He gets just as much space as her, but it is clear that Miss Marple has access to modes of investigation he cannot reach. She has, according to another character (Sir Henry Clithering) “specialized knowledge”: “Miss Marple has an interesting, though occasionally trivial, series of parallels from village life” (93). Precisely because of her sheltered and boring existence, without apparent profession and without close family, she has observed her own microcosm of life in the village with such acuity that she can apply her learning to the whole of humanity, having a convenient parallel for every occurrence. That’s the idea in this book, at least; it would be interesting to see if Christie takes it to spaces beyond the English country village. There is, thus far, no mention of the clue-based rationalism of Holmes or Poirot; this is a psychology-based insight into crime, based on a close examination of a rural slice of human nature, and a conviction that “Human nature is very much the same anywhere” (99).
As for the politics of Christie, or at least of the “implied author” here. What looms large in Library is the generation gap, the near-absolute incompatibility of the ways of life involved. Representing the youth, first of all, is the murder victim herself, who appears in the opening pages as the titular body, a body that is somehow “cheap, tawdry, flamboyant” (11). Throughout, as her life is pieced together by investigators, Ruby Keene is spoken of in curiously disparaging terms by almost all characters. Even Miss Marple herself is surprisingly dismissive of Ruby’s personality. For example, here. in the context of her relationship with an older man, and what he saw in her:
“[…] She may have had some remarkable qualities.”
“Probably not”, said Miss Marple placidly.
“This girl saw her opportunity and played it for all she was worth!” [said Miss Marple.] (95-96)
Ruby is a lower-class person, a dancer by trade; she is also virgo intacta, according to the doctor who examined her body. Perhaps it is all a ruse by Christie, and the denouement will reveal that Ruby was something other than she has appeared, but Miss Marple’s dismissal of her suggests otherwise, and it is a little discomfiting to read the contempt with which she is discussed (“weaselly” and “stupid” are two epithets I recall being used by other characters about her), and to consider it in the light of the class politics of the novel.
But one must emphasize the generational conflict at the heart of the novel. This is manifest in the suspicion with which Ruby’s attachment to an older, wealthier man is discussed. It is manifest in the early pages when Miss Marple reflects that this tawdry body must have originated at one of young Basil Blake’s house parties:
It seemed to me that the only possible explanation was Basil Blake. He does have parties […]. Shouting and singing – the most terrible noise – everyone very drunk, I’m afraid – and the mess and the broken glass next morning simply unbelievable[.] (17)
When the police pay a visit to Blake, it is revealed that he lives in a “hideous shell of half timbering and sham Tudor” (20). A hideous shell! And this is the narrator, the mild, blank Christiean narrator who makes this judgement. The young in The Body in the Library are a threat, an obscene irruption, oversexed and underclothed, vulgar and tasteless. As such, the novel is reading to me at the moment almost as a middle-class and middle-aged fantasy of revenge. There, perhaps, is the significance of the dream opening: a clue to the fantasmic underpinning of the novel. But perhaps I have merely been taken in by Christie and by the end I will have been forced to changed my mind. In any case, finishing the book will be a pleasure, for the unobstructed clarity of Christie’s prose and her narrative drive have not changed.