Murder For Introverts
On Christmas Eve, when I was 9, ITV showed Murder is Easy - an adaption of an Agatha Christie film set in a quaint English village starring Bill Bixby (from the Hulk) as the hero, and Olivia De Havilland as Mrs Waynefleet - the old lady murderer who always wore black gloves. From my council estate it all seemed impossibly glamorous, and I thus began an intense love affair with Mrs Christie which went on for the next six years. Every Saturday I would traipse to the only book shop in Peterlee town centre (it was actually a newsagent that had a tiny section which sold books), and I'd buy 2 Agatha Christie paperbacks with my pocket money (they were £1.50 each). I never solved the murder before Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple did, and I never noticed how hackneyed her stories were, how stereotyped her characters were or how her writing style was unremarkably plain, to the point of feeling like you were reading instructions to work a washing machine at times.
But it was a world of upper and middle class people (mainly southerners or Londonders), mixing with exotic foreigners in exciting places like Egypt. I thought the strange revenge mystery "And Then There Were None" (which had a racist original title), was the cleverest and most chilling piece of writing ever, while I became so addicted to Death on the Nile that I forced my eight year old sister to read it, and when she became confused by the fact that there were too many characters in it, I made her keep a record sheet with names of all the suspects. I'm sure she was grateful. I would scour the TV Times and Radio Times each Thursday to see if there'd be any Agatha Christie films that week - Christmas editions were also especially productive, as sometimes there'd be a whole season of them. When the BBC showed a series of Miss Marple, with Joan Hickson as the lead, my Friday nights were almost orgasmic.
I never told any of my friends about my Agatha Christie addiction - even the nerdy ones who liked Dungeons and Dragons or programming computers, or even doing jigsaws, because I knew that there was no way that it could be explained without me losing what little teenage "cool" status that I had. And these days, I only read them very rarely, and in a much more critical, ironic way. If anyone tells me that they like Agatha Christie, I'm afraid I look down on them a little bit (although I do have a special fondness for the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple films and the potty harpiscord music).
Agatha Christie novels are to introverts what extreme sports are to extroverts. Introverts like to stay indoors, don't like socialising too much and hate taking risks. The novels are a form of "safe danger" which is just about manageble for introverts and their over-sensitive imaginations. Unlike modern murder dramas like CSI, all of the murders in Agatha Christie novels are anti-septic with no nasty realism to make you want to look away. Mrs Christie never lingers over the gruesome forensic details of the crime, there are no rooms spattered in blood and guts, instead it's all glossed over in favour of the Sudoko-like puzzle of who had the motive, means and opportunity. And quite often, the people who get murdered are implied to be slightly rotten types who probably deserved it anyway. By the end, we rarely end up feeling particularly sorry for them, and Christie usually gets us to focus our emotional attentions on a budding romance between a mousey secretary type and a dashing young man with shiny black hair called Harry.
But Agatha Christie taught me how to be British, and also, how to be approximate a kind of fictional "middle-class" identity, which eventually came in handy when I left my council estate and was suddenly expected to interact successfully with the sorts of people who went to restaurants and went on holidays abroad. More importantly, those books were one of the few resources I had which helped me cope with my particularly difficult teenage years. And for that, whenever I'm channel-surfing and see one of her films, I silently thank her.