The Body In The Library

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The above image, by Andrew Davidson in The Folio Society edition of The Body In The Library, for me epitomises the “cozy” in Agatha Christie – a palm court in a hotel with Miss Marple observing crucial developments. The resemblance in the illustration’s style to the railway posters of the 1920s and 1930s – a retro feel also exploited by The British Library Crime Classics series – is marked. So the reader is very clearly steered into the appropriate vintage feel and atmosphere.

The cast of characters in The Body In The Library includes the professional dancers who were a feature of such genteel hotels in resorts such as Torquay with which Agatha would be very familiar. Dorothy L. Sayers included a similar setting and captured too the slightly shabby truth behind the glamourous facade of the dancers’ lives in Have His Carcase.

Miss Marple is frequently viewed, by both readers of the books and by protagonists within the books, as an interfering old busy-body. Murderers, to their cost, have been known to dismiss her in such terms. Even her fellow gossips in St Mary Mead often snipe behind her back about her nosiness.

However, in this instance, contrary to such sniping, she is brought into the case by Mrs Bantry, the mistress of the house in which the body is discovered. Mrs Bantry recognises the insidious power of malicious gossip in a small village and understands all too well that there will be a presumption among their neighbours that her husband, in spite of all his protestations to the contrary, will be judged by them to have been carrying on with the young woman whose body turned up overnight in their library. She foresees that he will inevitably respond to the subsequent snubs he will suffer by withdrawing into his shell. This eventuality will ruin both their lives. Mrs Bantry therefore, trusting her husband’s statement that he has never seen the girl before in his life, brings in the only person she feels can get to the bottom of the mystery and save her husband, and her, from the fate she sees awaiting them. Miss Marple is, therefore, involved from the outset of the investigation, not as a nosy bystander but as a trusted friend.

Christie’s understanding of the dynamics of relationships in a small country village and the nasty undercurrents that swirl beneath the picture book exterior makes this apparently stereotypical “cozy”, in fact, anything but cozy. It is insightful and merciless in its exposure of the unpleasant truths about human nature that are normally hidden behind the genteel facade. Layers of this facade are peeled away to reveal the seamier reality beneath.

This ability to portray so accurately the English middle class of the inter-war years, both as they wish to appear and as they actually are – identifying their fine qualities and skewering their nastiness – is frequently overlooked in Christie. It is too easy for the modern reader to dismiss her depiction of this “cozy” world as a collection of lazy, stereotypes recycled endlessly in the service of fantastic plots. In fact, like so many stereotypes, they represented an all too recognisable collection of characters, many of whom would have been recognised by her contemporary readers as portraits, albeit at times perhaps caricatured, of people they actually knew. The modern reader who fails to appreciate this important point misses a vital aspect of Christie’s brilliance and relevance to the student of the social and cultural norms of that era.

Mark

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Recommended Reading – No Spoiler Alert Required

I am continuing to work my way through the Bodies From The Library conference speakers’ recommendations. Thanks to the continuing wonder of the library service, I am able to get hold of all but the more obscure titles (sorry Martin Edwards – that means several of your recommendations!)

Without going into the plots – so no spoiler alert required – the historian in me has been piqued by the possibilities for studying the society which produced the Golden Age of Detective Fiction: Britain (for the most part) between the wars. What evidence do these novels, products of popular culture, written with no real thought for posterity but simply as entertainment, offer about the people, society and culture of those times?

Reading Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy NightUnnatural Death, and Have His Carcase, Edmund Crispin’s Love Lies Bleeding and G.K. Chesterton’s The Innocence of Father Brown, I am struck by the concern to avoid scandal and the inherent deference in the culture. Both Sayers’ and Crispin’s plots feature academic institutions – an Oxford College and a private school – whose primary concern when faced with crimes on their premises is to avoid the embarrassment of publicity rather than catching the perpetrator. The distinctly proletarian police seem more than willing to go along with this prioritisation by these upper-middle class establishments.

Indeed the class deference is taken further with the working-class police even allowing the aristocratic amateur Lord Peter Wimsey and the intellectual-elite Professor Gervase Fen not only to take an active part in the criminal investigation but at times to lead it.

That such plot devices were accepted without comment by the contemporary readers is indicative of a vastly more class-hierarchical society than modern Britain. It might be argued that readers then were less sophisticated than the modern reader and were more ready to suspend dis-belief in the interests of allowing the author to further the plot in a way that a modern audience would not because the modern audience requires the author to maintain precise accuracy in their adherence to procedures to establish their verisimilitude.

However, I suspect that such a line does a dis-service to contemporary readers between the wars. There is no reason to suppose that they were less demanding than readers now and a more plausible explanation is that the contemporary reader would find nothing comment-worthy in the deference to the elite because it reflected their own expectations of the society in which they lived.

The same could be said of the casual racism and anti-Semitism that pervades many of the novels. That a plot could hinge on a person being blackmailed over mixed-race parentage in their family, or that the idea of a white woman being abducted is more horrific because the abductor is believed to be black, indicates a level of racism inherent in the society that would be intolerable today. Indeed, notoriously, Agatha Christie’s novel Ten Little Niggers is now bowdlerised as And Then There Were None to reflect changing sensitivity in the use of the word, which is now treated by society as deeply offensive.  Yet, the use of “nigger” occurs many times in books of this era, both in the speech of characters and, perhaps more tellingly, in the author’s own voice as narrator, without arousing comment at the time of publication.

The same can be said of the treatment of Jewish characters. Often they are portrayed stereotypically, as avaricious or money-grabbing. Characters are sometimes described as being a Jew without further elaboration, as if that suffices to portray them in the reader’s mind. This cannot be put down to lazy writing on the part of the authors. For them to use this form of shorthand, the readers must have had a common understanding and set of beliefs which to the modern audience appears disturbing.

It is not, I must stress, that the authors were themselves specifically racist or anti-Semitic.  It is rather that they reflect the deep-rooted racism and anti-Semitism of their times in their writing.

I must, however, single out G.K. Chesterton for a specific prejudice which says more about him than about the society in which he lived. When reading his short stories about the Roman Catholic priest cum detective Father Brown, it soon becomes apparent that if a person is described as “atheist”, “Presbyterian” or “Calvinist” then you can safely assume that the character will be irrational, arrogant, stupid, or unhappy, and is likely to be involved in the crime as either the killer or his victim.

His conversion to Roman Catholicism is eminently predictable as a result,