After re-watching David Suchet as Hercule Poirot and Joan Hickson as Miss Marple, I set about to re-read one of Christie’s mysteries (maybe 15 years after the first time) and I enjoyed it just as the first time around, like a cake you remember eating in your childhood and you would find again now in a bakery by chance.
It also struck me as readable on different levels. [Beware, possible spoilers ahead, although I won’t tell the plot and murderer’s name]. It was written not so near the end of WW2 but the overwhelming feeling is one of grief for the old world and bitterness about the new society. An interesting point is that the first chapter is seen from the old butler’s point of view, a nice way to have us understand the family dynamics and but also an unconventional view from “below the stairs” that departs from traditional rules of mystery-writing. Indeed, you may remember the so-called Sayers Rules, or the even more explicit rules established in 1928 by S.S. Van Dine (another forgotten mystery writer) that states:
11. A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person — one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion.
(you may raise an eyebrow or two at this peculiar distinction: servants can’t be considered fair play in a mystery, because they just can’t be considered on an equal footing with their masters). But here this choice of point of view is actually telling a lot: the war has confused social classes and people literally aren’t who they’re supposed to be anymore. Masters don’t have money, they have to work and sell their property, servants can choose where they prefer to work and aren’t so devoted anymore. In this mystery, the older generation complains a lot about the younger one’s weaknesses and moral flaws, but both generations essentially share the same: lazy, grasping, cold-blooded, over-ambitious etc.. The main difference is that the young generation’s means can’t keep up with their weaknesses and that they might act out more easily, including resort to crime. The social upheaval caused by the war may also lead some people to try to regain what they’ve lost, including through violent means.
This re-reading made me wish to read more about the social or psychological innuendos of classic mysteries. I heard about a book by French literary critics and psychoanalyst Pierre Bayard called “Who killed Roger Ackroyd?” that sets about to review Agatha Christie’s famous novel and contest Hercule Poirot’s conclusion as to who is the killer. At the very least, it should be a daring book! I ordered it from the central library, we’ll see…