I was pondering, whilst reading ‘Hercule Poirot’s Christmas’, which quality must exist to make Dame Agatha’s books – for all her weaknesses as an author – so readable. And I’ve come to the conclusion that that quality is probably ‘consistency’.
In another writer’s work – say, for example, Raymond Chandler’s – a scant description, a thin characterisation or a stretch of dialogue which bears virtually no resemblance to any conversation ever had between human beings, would immediately strike a duff note. He’s such a strong writer, that a grand misjudgement of that kind would take the reader out of the book and shatter the illusion of his world. But because Christie makes these same mistakes again and again, they become part of her world. The reader enters a strange fantasy land, where no locale is anything more than vague, characters are little better than ill-developed stock types and everyone speaks in the most artificial manner ever put into print. And because Dame Agatha never corrects these mistakes, she manages to create her own world where all of this makes sense and is – because it is so consistent – actually convincing.
For example, the opening chapters of this book feature various husbands telling their life stories to their wives, even though it’s perfectly clear that the wives already know their husband’s life stories and are, indeed, chipping in with valuable pieces of information. Dame Agatha has decided that this is the best way to get vital plot points over to her reader, and as such we have character after character explaining things they each already know to each other, in a way which would raise eyebrows in the real world. And although the reader might sneer the first time he or she is confronted with these odd marital scenes, the fact that they happen again and again means that they just end up going along with it. The reader has left the real world and gone to Christie-land, where these types of conversation take place and a murder will happen soon to distract us from the thinness of the characters.
If I had to raise one grudge against this festive read, it’s that it isn’t very Christmassy. Indeed December the 25th manages to pass with scant mention of the occasion, and it’s only on the 27th that two of the characters discover the decorations for what should have been a typical English Christmas. The story is thus: a cruel old millionaire invites his family to join him at Christmas, threatens to change his will and is promptly bumped off. Luckily Hercule Poirot is on hand to investigate. One has to admire the mechanics of it all, and the way in which Dame Agatha – for all her other flaws – manages to keep the central guessing game going right until the end.
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