S. S. Van Dine on Agatha Christie
I’m personally very fond of Christie’s work, especially the Poirot Books (of which Van Dine was especially dismissive), but I have to admit that Van Dine’s criticisms are difficult to dismiss. I do often feel when reading Christie that she doesn’t play fair with the reader and I think Van Dine has a point when he says that Poirot’s “intuitive” methods often seem to go beyond intuitive into the realm of clairvoyance. And as Van Dine suggests, there are also times when Christie just outright cheats.
While Christie might seem to some to be the archetypal writer of golden age detective stories she actually strikes me as being more typical of an earlier period. In fact they almost seem closer to the Sherlock Holmes stories than to the works of her contemporaries. If you’re the sort of person who loves the Sherlock Holmes stories (and I’m definitely of that number) you don’t read them for their intricate and watertight plotting. You read them because Sherlock Holmes is such a delightful character. And that’s the reason I enjoy the Poirot stories - I find Poirot such delightful fun.
If you want intricate and careful plotting then you’re probably going to agree with Raymond Chandler that no-one did that better than Freeman Wills Crofts. But Christie’s books have outsold the combined outputs of all her contemporaries many times over. Does this perhaps suggest that readers in general don’t really care about plotting? That perhaps most readers are more interested in the personalities of the detectives rather than on plot? And perhaps this was true even in the heyday of the fair-play detective story.
Of course none of this changes the fact that I thoroughly enjoy Agatha Christie’s books.