The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie Hardcover – Mar 1983
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From Publishers Weekly
Though she has been dead for 25 years, was fond of self-deprecating comments ("What I'm writing is meant to be entertainment") and many of her later books suffered from faults that would have derailed the career of a lesser author, Agatha Christie remains a beloved figure. She also remains a reliable source of mystery sales and a subject of critical attention. Osborne, who has successfully novelized three of Christie's plays (Black Coffee; Spider's Web; and The Unexpected Guest), here offers a (largely) chronological listing of the author's oeuvre complete with biographical notes that form a useful context for readers. In the preface, the author assures the reader that nowhere will he reveal the identity of any of Christie's murderers. In fact, he warns readers of instances where Christie reveals in one novel who the murder was in a previous case. Osborne does, however, offer frequent advice about clues the reader should pay particular attention to advice not all readers will welcome. Osborne is an exceedingly forgiving critic; he acknowledges the frequent anti-Semitic elements in the early writings, the careless errors throughout her work and the increasingly sloppy efforts that marred the last of her novels, but he always finds redeeming value. At the end are bibliographies of novels, short stories, plays and films, as well as a useful index. Television treatments are dealt with in the text. (June 4)Encyclopedia (2000) provided extensive descriptive coverage of the same material but only a brief biographical sketch.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.--This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.
'Charles Osborne deserves a medal - his own writing slips down a treat, and I was surprised to find (this book) a pleasure' - Sunday Telegraph 'A delightful bedside companion' - The Tablet --This text refers to the Paperback edition.See all Product Description
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Throughout, Osborne reveals a tri-fold misunderstanding of the essence of fiction. Despite his own comment, "It is fortunate that fictional chronology can be flexible," he tediously cites examples in which it is not. Also, he assumes that each story should be consistent with the others, and that full explanations should be given for what he considers to be improbable occurrences. Let us consider each of these problems in turn.
Rarely is fiction intended to occur in real time. Plays, novels or short stories often cover periods from a few hours to a lifetime, or longer. Regardless of the time taken to write or publish a work, it must always stand up on its own. The particular time period that elapses between the appearance of two works does not of itself imply the actual amount of time that the author intended should pass. For example, that Albert should be fifteen years old in Partners in Crime (1929) does not imply that he was only nine in The Secret Adversary (1922) as Osborne suggests (pp. 68-69). That real time is not intended is exemplified further when Miss Marple says in Nemesis (1971) that she met Jason Rafiel (A Caribbean Mystery, 1964), "just over a year ago. In the West Indies." The only chronology upon which we can rely is that provided by the author. We must take each story as a group of events in the characters' lives and avoid forcing our own sense of time on them.
Consistency and continuity
That Dame Agatha has given us clues to the actual whereabouts of her stories should be seen as remarkable, if not extraordinary. Fiction, after all, is constructed from the imaginings of the author. Unless we have been given clear evidence to the contrary, we must always assume that the people and places are made up. Because some authors appear to be more consistent from one story to another does not mean that all novelists must be. Fiction is fiction. It only has to be believable; it does not have to be true. Science fiction depends on this premise.
Of the apparent inconsistencies, Randall Toye (1980), author of The Agatha Christie Who's Who, graciously concedes that these caprices are "one more mystery for the readers of Agatha Christie to solve, a mystery for which you will have to rely on your own `little grey cells.'"
Osborne levies a number of criticisms at the plots themselves. In his entry for Sparkling Cyanide (p. 211), for example, he scoffs at the idea that a group of guests could leave a table, forget where they sat, and then re-seat themselves on the basis of the location of a purse. Perhaps in his own sterile study, this scenario seems implausible. However, it would be easy to become confused when everyone had left a large round table simultaneously and then tried, without such a landmark, to return to his or her own chair. Although it might feel a little awkward, in a low-lit room, after some drinks and dancing, a purse could be the only thing to indicate where people had sat earlier. Doubtless, Dame Agatha actually observed this confusion on some occasion.
In Dead Man's Folly, Osborne (p. 281) doubts that someone could change his appearance so as to become unrecognizable just by growing a beard, but, the narrative is quite clear - most of those who would have recognized him had moved away. Not only that, but war changes people - sometimes quite dramatically - literally aging their appearance by more years than the duration of the conflict. Noncombatants will never understand how war can change someone. More than that, we often see what we expect to see. If having been told that someone was killed during the war, why shouldn't we believe it? Indeed, a full beard would cover the most recognizable features of a man's face.
Improbables do not demand explanations. Just because a situation seems improbable to us, doesn't mean that it is. The available facts may not be all of the facts. Even when Dame Agatha does give us clues, most of us can't identify the murderer; and her alleged peccadilloes have done nothing to dissuade readers from buying hundreds of millions of her books.
Osborne's writing style
This review would be incomplete if it failed to mention Osborne's own struggle with words: split infinitives, the odd incomplete sentence, and excessively long constructions. Here is one example of the latter: "After some months, Agatha decided to join her husband in London where, after living briefly in service flats, first in Half Moon Street and then in Park Place, `with noisy sessions of bombs going off all around,' they were about to move into their house in Sheffield Terrace, the people to whom they had rented it having asked if they could be allowed to relinquish the lease, as they wished to leave London" (p. 180).
A more complete table of contents would have been helpful so that entries about specific works could have been found easily. As it is, one has to look up the publication date at the back, and then search for it in the relevant section. Overall, the reader should use this book for reference only and ignore the rest of it.
While in general affectionately and reverently written, Osbourne remained impartial and did not skim over Agatha Christie's limitations as a writer of sorts:
(1) As a Poet - "...talent for poetry was genuine, but modest and of no startling originality..."
(2) Grasp of French language - "...despite her Paris finishing school, Ms. Christie's French was to remain obstinately unidiomatic..." in reference to Poirot's characterization.
(3) Heavy-handedness - "...construction of English sentences a trifle more exotic than needs be".
(4) Subjectivity - "...you won't turn people into angels by appealing to their better nature yet awhile - but by judicious force...."
(5) Occasional propensity to not play fair by non-disclosure - "I have a certain amount of rules. No false words must be uttered by me....but it's not unfair to leave things out".
(6) Carelessness - "Mrs. Christie's carelessness again? Or simply a misprint in certain editions? Or has Poirot moved without telling even his creator?" and "She tells us that Ackroyd is nearly 50 years of age,...later it becomes clear that he could not have been older than 43" and "now in the 80s, Dame Agatha is more careless than ever. Improbabilities are not explained, certain things do not quite add up....".
(7) Recycling of plots - "Variations of one of the plot of one of the stories....will be presented in...Murder in the Mews and in the novel, Evil Under the Sun....the plot of another story...will be made use of again in the novel...an element in the plot of ....will re-occur in ....".
(8) Limited literary range - "....examine various aspects of human behavior that is impressive, rather than the actual quality of her writing, though her prose is never less than adequate to convey mood and meaning..." and "...Death by Drowning which is also one of the few occasions when Agatha Christie strayed into working class territory".
(9) Monotony & Repetition - "...for they are (Miss Marple's tales) all very sedentary stories whose action is recounted in retrospect..." and "...the reader is plunged again into Christiean nursery rhyme syndrome: a series of murders committed concurrently with the progress of the images in a nursery rhyme".
(10) Anti-Semitism - "The mandatory racial slurs...have been edited out of more recent American editions....".
I disagree with reviewers who criticized Osbourne's book for being biased for he has ostensibly studied and researched the subject matter to the point that he could thoroughly cross-reference both the good and the bad in Agatha Christie's works (read: inconsistencies/flaws/negligence/carelessness, or that of her editors*). Having personally read the entire oeuvre of Christie's crime novels, I believe Osbourne's conclusion that "the plotting of some of Poirot and Miss Marple novels which Agatha Christie wrote in the last 15 years of her life is a more than a trifle lax" is more than justified.
*Not only did Osbourne not give away the plots, he also painstakingly forewarned would-be readers of Christie's crime novels to be wary of untimely revelation of plots/true identities of murderers - "...Cards on the Table quite gratuitously reveals the solution to Murder on the Orient Express. Readers of "Cards" who have not already read "Murder" should get a friend to block out the sentence..." and "In Chapter 18 (of "Dumb Witness"), the author allows Poirot to mention the names of four delightful personalities, all of whom were murderers....the danger could be avoided by deleting 5 or 6 lines...".
It has been 20 years since I last read Agatha Christie's books. With a keen mind and depth of knowledge, Osbourne fairly documented ideas and goings-on pertaining to the Queen of Detective Stories, not least enunciated many of the thoughts and views I (and probably representative as one voice of those of her fans) concluded in passing while reading Christie's books.
In fact, Osbourne's excellent biographical companion has since reawakened my desire to re-read Dame Christie's selective works, her creme de la creme - "Murder of Roger Ackroyd", "Murder on the Orient Express", "And Then There Were None", to name just a few - written during her most prolific years in the 1930s and 40s.
But beyond delving too deep into the meaning of mystery novels, my biggest issue is that his over-analysing seems to have created plot inconsistencies where there were none. For example, when outlining "Murder on the Links" (1923) Mr. Osborne writes about how the face of the murdered man is described in detail, then Poirot tells Hastings that a piece of lead pipe discovered near the body was intended to disfigure the murdered man's face. "Poirot's theory of the crime, fortunately, does not hinge upon this point!" Mr. Osborne writes. In fact, his theory DOES hinge on that point. The man who was killed was not the intended victim. The victim had brought the lead pipe himself in order to disfigure another man's face to fake his own death. Then, ironically, he was murdered himself. This is made absolutely clear, and it was baffling to me that Mr. Osborne could make this and other such a misinformed statement about the book. It was almost as though he had been skimming through the novels for the sole purpose of discovering flaws to "catch" her at. "Look! Nobody else noticed this mistake she made but me!"
So while it is interesting to read about what was going on in her life while she was writing each work, it just feels like Mr. Osborne is trying too hard to be more clever than Agatha Christie. Sorry Mr. Osborne, but there is a reason why more people have heard of her than you!
Published in 1982, Charles Osborne's THE LIFE AND CRIMES OF AGATHA CHRISTIE is typical of the numerous "Life and Works" books re Christie: it tells you nothing you will not find in a dozen sources or more. But it does so in meticulous detail, covering what is known of Christie's life and tying it to her various works. From her earliest book to her last, the book offers dates, publishing information, plot outlines, character notes, and all the rest--and ties each work to what Christie herself happened to be doing at the time. It's a handy sort of reference.
Unfortunately, I have some issues with Osborne's skill as a critic. Or more specifically, his lack thereof. Osborne is fond of shrugging off Christie's distinctly superior works in favor of her less successful efforts. He also "toes the line" in terms of what Christie fans want to hear (and in some cases prefer not to hear) about their favorite author. So while the book is interesting, useful, and even entertaining in a factual sense, it is considerably less so in an interpretive one. Recommended, but only just.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer