At Bertram’s Hotel

by Henry on January 9, 2019

I really enjoyed this John Lanchester essay on Agatha Christie, which came out a little before Christmas. I thought it was even better after watching John Malkovich play Poirot in the new BBC version of The ABC Murders. The essay explains in advance why the adaptation failed. Poirot is not so much a character as a bundle of mannerisms. To provide him with an interior life, much less a Secret Wound that drives his quest for justice, is to miss the point completely.

I’ve been listening to Agatha Christie adaptations a lot over the last several months. If you have a ten year old and a twelve year old, they turn out to be an admirable introduction to beginning-to-be grown up fiction, as well as an excellent way of keeping them quiet in the car. Christie is a much better prose stylist than people give her credit for being and is often deft and funny. It certainly helps that several of the Miss Marple audiobooks are narrated by Richard E. Grant.

But what’s original about Lanchester’s essay is his argument that Christie is best thought of as an exponent of formalist modernism.

Her career amounts to a systematic exploration of formal devices and narrative structures, all through a genre with strictly defined rules and a specified character list: a murder must happen, it must be solved by a detective, there must be a murderer, a victim, a set of characters who might be the murderer but turn out not to be, a number of possible motives, most of which turn out to be misleading; the setting must be circumscribed, the list of suspects finite, the motive and crucial evidence something disclosed to the reader but preferably not shown to be significant. And it must come in at around 50,000 words – that’s not a genre rule, it’s just how long Christie thought a murder story should be. From within this narrow framework, Christie produced a range of formal experiments so extensive that it’s quite difficult to think of an idea she didn’t try, short of setting a Poirot novel in a school for wizards.

and:

The least believable detective of all is in numerical terms the most successful. Readers understand and resonate to the profoundly artificial, conventional nature of Christie’s fictions; Poirot is understood and accepted, indeed actively enjoyed, as a formal device, an almost Brechtian reminder of the artifice in which we are being invited to participate. He’s the most popular detective because he is the least plausible.

As Lanchester notes, what Christie is good at is not character, but social setting.

She isn’t thought of as a realist writer, and with good reason, but the 20th century is one of the main characters in her books: she turned ten in its first year, and was well placed to notice the many changes in manners, mores and styles of life that happened throughout the five and a half decades of her career. You can trace it in the buildings, from the ‘fine old house’ of Styles Court in 1920, with two wings and a gallery and a separate set of servants’ quarters, to the ‘modern bungalow of the better type’ in 1934, to the millionaire-built ‘luxurious modern house’ of 1939 and the cottage of 1942, which ‘consisted of all modern amenities enclosed in a hideous shell of half timbering and sham tudor’, sited on a ‘new building estate’; by 1961 we’re in a world of rented flats and espresso machines and ‘refrigerators, pressure cookers, whining vacuum cleaners’, where ‘the girls looked, as girls always looked to me nowadays, dirty.’ Social and economic change of this type isn’t one of Christie’s subjects, not directly, but it is something she never fails to register, and like Miss Marple, she misses very little.

Lanchester only mentions Christie’s “strange self-pastiching late novel At Bertram’s Hotel” in passing. Given his thesis, it deserves further discussion. Not because it’s a good detective novel. Indeed, it’s actively bad. It has a large scale criminal conspiracy, the kind of thing that Christie was never much cop at (her proper murders are small time affairs, carried out for money, vengeance or petty personal motives). The book is full of loose ends. But it feels all the more weirdly modernistic for it. Why does the gang of thieves impersonate respectable members of society, complete with similar cars with fake license plates, while carrying out their crimes? By the standards of the crime novel, or indeed ordinary common sense, it is ridiculous. But if it had appeared in a book or film by Alain Robbe-Grillet, it would seem appropriate amidst all the other incongruities.

The difference though is that Christie was not looking to explore the possibilities of the form. Instead, she was trying to make a point, albeit somewhat clumsily. The book centers on Bertram’ Hotel, which appears to be a post-war survival from the old pre-war regime. It makes all of the delicious food that one can’t get elsewhere: proper seed-cake, delicious buttered muffins (the word ‘muffin’ appears 23 times in the text). The “real chambermaid [looks] unreal, wearing a striped lavender print dress and actually a cap, a freshly laundered cap. A smiling, rosy, positively countrified face. Where did they find these people?”

It turn out that none of this is real at all (the real-unreal chambermaid turns out to be a paid actress and a gang member). Bertram’s Hotel isn’t economically viable any more as a hotel. It’s a front; a means for a highly organized criminal conspiracy to organize and launder its crimes. The old world of charm, comfort and convenience that Bertram’s seemed to preserve is an artifice, hiding something very different.

On one possible reading, this is a meta-commentary on the entire old fashioned society described in so many of Christie’s books. The country houses, the libraries in which bodies were so awkwardly discovered, the resorts and Nile cruises; all those too depended on one or another form of looting. I don’t know whether Christie completely intends this – she was probably politically quite conservative. Still, she seems at least to be playing with the idea. After all, a world in which it is easy to mistake criminals for “a High Court judge, an archdeacon, an admiral, a major general,” is plausibly a world in which the high court judge, the archdeacon, the admiral and the major general themselves had criminal qualities. At Bertram’s Hotel is not, under any reasonable definition, a good book or a good detective story. But precisely because it isn’t good, it’s easier to see the artifice, and think about what it might be supposed to do.

{ 10 comments }

1

Adam Roberts 01.09.19 at 8:40 pm

I recommend Alan Jacobs’ essay ‘Miss Marple and the Problem of Modern Identity’ which discusses exactly these questions, treats Christie as a serious writer worth engaging critically with, and predates Lanchester’s essay too.

2

Neville Morley 01.09.19 at 9:05 pm

I devoured Christie in my youth – if only because the local library appeared to have an infinite supply, whereas they had only two Ngaio Marsh and three Dorothy L. Sayers that my parents didn’t already own – in more or less these terms, enjoying minor variations on the formula. This does articulate it very well, and certainly explains why At Bertram’s Hotel is so odd; it’s Philip K. Dick’s Time Out Of Joint, isn’t it?

3

Henry 01.09.19 at 9:23 pm

Adam – thanks for the essay which looks great. Neville – just so.

4

Doug K 01.09.19 at 10:53 pm

thank you, had read and enjoyed the LRB article.

The plotto device of ‘criminal poses as wealthy financier’ is quite common I think, fairly sure Dickens and Conrad both used it. In terms of strange artifice, the Edgar Wallace novel The Frogs hinges on that same device.

I look forward to the other Christie novels gradually emerging from copyright..

5

Josep 01.10.19 at 12:47 am

Poirot is not so much a character as a bundle of mannerisms.

I haven’t seen the Malkovich, but off-hand I don’t know why you’d try to improve on the David Suchet performances of Poirot, which I would think exhaust what can be done. (An odd thought: did they do anything with Hastings? There’s more range in how Watson can be played than Holmes…)

I’ve been listening to Agatha Christie adaptations a lot over the last several months.

I’ve listened to some myself, though they didn’t grab me much. But then I can’t say I’m a Christie fan.

I’d recommend the BBC productions of the Dorothy Sayers stories, with Ian Carmichael as Peter Whimsey. They’re up at the internet archive these days:

https://archive.org/search.php?query=creator%3A%28dorothy%20sayers%29%20AND%20mediatype%3A%28audio%29

The Lancaster piece actually annoyed me slightly– it has the look of being written by someone who knows Agatha Christie well, but his aquaintence with everything else in the rather wide field of the murder mystery seems shallow. I have the feeling that some “firsts” he’s attributing to Christie were arrived at elsewhere, but it’d take some research on my part to confirm that, one way or another.

I mean, Lancaster uses three block quotes comparing different writers to establish that Christie’s prose was simple and unchallenging, and yes, it’s pretty obvious that that’s going to work better for light reading than something more prolix, isn’t it? Lancaster goes on about this without quite just saying that… And if you want to talk about a stripped-down, simplified style Dashiel Hammet started publishing in 1922 (two years after Christie’s “Styles”, which was still doing Conan Doyle pastiche).

And “formalist modernism”? Well– Christie wasn’t really about atmosphere, or local color, or snappy dialog or anything else you might associate with the surface appearence of a story, right? When Lancaster calls her a “formalist”, he means that she’s almost entirely about exploring variations in logical structure, right?

(Serious question: is Blues music an example of “formalist modernism”?)

6

Scratch 01.10.19 at 12:25 pm

You can trace it in the buildings, from the ‘fine old house’ of Styles Court in 1920, with two wings and a gallery and a separate set of servants’ quarters, to the ‘modern bungalow of the better type’ in 1934, to the millionaire-built ‘luxurious modern house’ of 1939 and the cottage of 1942, which ‘consisted of all modern amenities enclosed in a hideous shell of half timbering and sham tudor’, sited on a ‘new building estate’; by 1961 we’re in a world of rented flats and espresso machines and ‘refrigerators, pressure cookers, whining vacuum cleaners’, where ‘the girls looked, as girls always looked to me nowadays, dirty.’ Social and economic change of this type isn’t one of Christie’s subjects, not directly, but it is something she never fails to register, and like Miss Marple, she misses very little.

Either that or she was familiar with the oeuvre of Osbert Lancaster.

7

Brian 01.10.19 at 4:30 pm

Sebastian Knight would certainly agree that “formalist modernism” is quite apt.

8

oldster 01.10.19 at 5:49 pm

We already have a word for this kind of “formalism,” and that word is “formulaic.”

I adore Agatha Christie, but this looks like a misplaced attempt to dress up mutton as fricassee d’agneau. Better to enjoy her for what she is.

Also: isn’t it clear why Poirot succeeds so brilliantly? It’s because foreigners are funny! They talk funny. They have funny habits. They even think funny thoughts! It’s great fun to laugh at foreigners.

9

Tom Hurka 01.10.19 at 8:23 pm

The Lanchester is fun but underplays how to read a Christie-type mystery is, for most readers, to play a game, i.e. that of trying to figure out who did it, and thus more like doing a crossword puzzle than like reading War and Peace. At end what you admire is how skillfully the crucial clue was both there in plain sight and hidden; it’s like admiring a clever clue in the Times or Guardian crossword. And it’s why a lot of realistic character development, as in P.D. James, just gets in the way — it’s irrelevant to the puzzle or game. To me, to think of a Christie-type mystery as primarily a novel or work of art, as Lanchester tends to, is to put it in the wrong category.

10

peter 01.12.19 at 2:09 pm

Tom Hurka @9:

You are completely correct. Reading detective and espionage fiction is a form of thinking, much closer to deductive mathematical reasoning than is the verbal, poetic thinking involved in reading literary fiction. The lack of any mathematical ability of most literary critics is no doubt why so often they have disparaged these genres.

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