Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Duller of the Duo

Death in the Clouds, by Agatha Christie, Read by Hugh Fraser, The Audio Partners Publishing Corp., 2001

Thirteen at Dinner, by Agatha Christie, Read by Hugh Fraser, The Audio Partners Publishing Corp., 2002

I’m pretty convinced Agatha Christie had a relatively low opinion of her readers’ intelligence. To be fair, her mysteries are generally tightly woven, with all the clues out in the open waiting to be interpreted properly, and they are entertaining diversions written with kind of bonhomie of someone who generally did get a kick out of life. But puzzle mysteries of the kind she produced in such volume are kind of like taunts, as if to say, look how easily I fox you, my friends. Aren’t you just a bunch of simpletons?

This view isn’t so prominently displayed in the first of the two mysteries under review, as it is almost entirely Hercule Poirot on his own in one of Christie’s patented specials, a clever variation on the locked door murder. Death in the Clouds takes the then novelty of jet flight and has the victim fall prey while in mid-flight, the murderer having just the bad luck of one of his fellow passengers being a certain curious little Belgian.

In this particular novel, Poirot moves mostly on his own, although befriending some of the suspects and using them in his own peculiar brand of cat and mouse. In omniscient narration (or even in third person), there is less opportunity for the disdain for the average person to shine. Not so the case in our second book under consideration, Thirteen at Dinner, narrated by Poirot’s friend and sometimes sidekick Captain Hastings.

The sidekick in any mystery featuring a brilliant detective is the Average Reader Stand-In. He or she is there for the purpose of acting as a foil for the brilliance to better shine in relation to, for the exposition of the detective of certain theories, and to throw up any number of red herring inclinations. It is a type of character wherein the author, who must be as clever as the detective, gets to patronize the less-informed. It can be used as a kind of dishonest trick by some authors (Christie uses it in this fashion to fabulous ends), but mostly it is there to break it down for us blockheads in the cheap seats.

Arthur Conan Doyle didn’t invent the detective sidekick (Poe laid all the groundwork with Dupin and his unnamed biographer), though his Watson is the premier example. What was at least sporting and decent about Doyle’s opinions of his readers is how Watson in the stories is above average in intelligence (he is a doctor after all). He may fail to see as acutely as Holmes, but he is nowhere near the pop-eyed cretin, all appetite and homunculus bluster, that the Basil Rathbone films portray him as.

One might just as well put Hastings into the sub-mental category. He really is too dull for words.

The captain is considerably less perceptive than Watson, and there are moments in which he is just plain thicker than shit. In Thirteen, after the dead man’s secretary tells of how she witnessed the suspect come in at the door and walk down the hall, and she saw it from the floor above by the stairs, Poirot asks Hastings to watch from the same spot as he and the police detective walk the same path. Hastings doesn't put this together with what the secretary JUST SAID and thinks Poirot asks him for some totally different reason.

Later when it is revealed that the secretary couldn't have seen the face of the woman who entered the house, Hastings takes the secretary’s side in disagreement with Poirot, arguing that someone's walk and voice are just as distinctive as her face. This despite the fact that only earlier in the week he and Poirot were at the theatre and saw an accomplished mimic, Carlotta Adams, who included an imitation of the suspect, Jane Wilkinson, and was brilliantly convincing.

It's almost as if Hastings has Asperger's Syndrome so incapable is he of reading people save in the broadest possible actions of theirs. Someone stammers through an answer and changes color, he seems incapable of connecting that behavior to the question just asked milliseconds before. Why is this? A sidekick is a story necessity at times, it allows the detective to credibly think aloud for our assistance, but Hastings’ impenetrability defies everything save Christie’s belief that her readers would need things spelled out in a quite elementary manner.

Even better is when Christie gives Poirot a speech at a dinner where the detective "compliments" Hastings as an wonderfully normal example of the average person. When Hastings is irritated vaguely, thinking that there might be a hidden insult in all of this, he is quickly fobbed off by Poirot calling his friend's blundering obviousness a "great gift." Even this scene is illustrative as to how thick the man is, with just enough wit to suspect an insult but not enough to catch it.

Of course, Christie might be having some fun with Hastings for her readers’ amusement too. It’s not as if that idea hadn’t occurred to me. Perhaps we too are supposed to laugh at Hastings and to feel superior to him, to revel in our role above the captain but below the detective, like all of humanity, suspended between the angels and the apes.

Nevertheless, both stories are filled with all the usual Christie touches as well as a few new elements including a race against time to stop another murder, a brilliant psychopath who writes a letter to Poirot that closes one book on a chilling note, and a few other pleasant suprises. Part of the fun, like a good Wodehouse (is there another kind?), is how much repetition the author can get away with from one book to another. Poirot gives us his usual spiel about not getting obsessed with physical evidence as it can often be misleading, his observers often consider him batty and having lost his marbles this time for sure, the sniffs of “foreigner” by people who dislike the detective, Poirot’s little vanities about his mustaches. All of these charming bits of character return in each book and are a delight even if you’ve read them a hundred times already.

Which is Christie’s real power as an author. No one will ever accuse her or the sainted Wodehouse of ever being great important capital-L literature, pushing the boundaries of the English language or calling attention to great social wrongs. And it isn’t even the cleverness of her mysteries, as they remain just as enjoyable (if not more so) on the second, third, and fourth read. It’s that the novels are grand fun, not just amusing piffles as soon forgotten as put down, but the kind of ebullient, joyful, amor fati of which Nietzsche wrote. We return to these tropes eternally and find our hearts sing.

There are few better readers of Agatha Christie’s work than Hugh Fraser, the hapless Hastings in the television adaptations of the Poirot mysteries, save perhaps David Suchet who picked up the role of the detective himself. Fraser’s got a good knack for distinct voices though after a few books you begin to tire of the uniformity of his female characters and his Americans. They are both delivered with their own voice, but it is the same voice for every woman and for every American. This is one bit of sameness we could do without.

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