Agatha Christie and Guilt

When I was poorly, I listened once again to my cherished recording of Agatha Christie’s Murder of the Orient Express, read by David Suchet, the actor who has become the perfect embodiment of Poirot. His voice is extraordinary, and it’s a story that I never tire of hearing because it is so well structured. Christie was always acclaimed for her plots (usually at the expense of her credibility as a ‘literary’ author – quite unfair in my estimation) and the way that she handles a cast of a dozen or more suspects, trapped on their snowbound train with the reviled child murderer, Cassetti, lying stabbed in his compartment, is magisterial. The novel is an interesting exercise in reception; on the one hand the events are quite possibly impossible – at the least they stretch credibility to the utmost. And yet, as Christie moves you through her narrative, she renders the amazing ending utterly plausible. If you let the story happen to you, if you don’t enter it as a cynic in a critical state of mind, then the outcome starts to take on an overwhelming necessity, and more than that, to be moving, affecting, devastating. It’s one of those stories that I appreciate more, the more I become familiar with it.

It’s also, implicitly, a study in the complexity of guilt. Guilt interests me because it’s an emotion responsible for so many behavioural consequences; feeling guilty is something that really affects what we do and say, how we respond to others, and yet it’s a very masked emotion nowadays, a really uncomfortable one to have in a society in which we are increasingly intolerant of mistakes and increasingly unwilling to take the responsibility for them. But guilt is a given in life, in things big and small we offend, we transgress, we fail. Surely it’s better to have a sensible response to it, to think on how we might exercise compassion and humility, than to attempt the impossible and legislate against anything, ever, going wrong? Ah, but this is something we might all agree to in the abstract, but struggle with in reality. The desire to be self-righteously innocent is a powerful one, and the inevitable counterpart of the aggressive wish to destroy what threatens.

The crime novel is the place where the problem of guilt finds an imaginative exorcism. The reader can be transported into a place of exquisite vulnerability, brought up sharp against violence and fear and evil, but safe in the knowledge that the story will reach a satisfying resolution with order and peace restored. Genre writing really makes sense from an emotional point of view – crime fiction scares us, but in order to make us feel safer in the long run, reassured that criminals will be hunted down, isolated and removed. One theoretical critic, the delightfully named Slavoj Žižek, wrote about the significance of the term ‘arrest’. When the conclusion of the narrative is reached, and the arrest is made, not only is the criminal identified and his threat neutralized, but the uncertain guilt that stalks the community is finally halted in its tracks. Think of the way that Hercule Poirot will collect the suspects together in the drawing room and gradually work his way through them, implicating each one in the crime before dismissing them and moving on. The finger of guilt hovers over each before finally coming to a rest, before finally being arrested, by the absolute guilt of one individual. And at that point, we can all breathe more easily, we can all be at rest. The reader, caught up in the emotional coils of the characters through the force of the imagination, is equally involved in the unfolding of suspicion, fear and innocence; we can all have a rest from that nagging, endless suspicion that we’ve done something wrong, that we are the guilty party. Because look! It’s turned out to be someone else being handcuffed and led away to the police van.

Now of course you might say that the crime novel is just a bit of fun that doesn’t mean anything much at all. But books exercise a formidable black magic over their readers, allowed, as they are, such free ingress into the intimate realms of their minds. It’s not like anyone picks up a crime novel for the pleasure of watching a serial killer run off scot free at the end of it. There’s a process that we want to see enacted every time. And this is one of the reasons why I love Murder on the Orient Express so, because it takes an unusual perspective on guilt and succeeds so well with it. I can’t say more because any trace of spoiler here would be all kinds of wrong. But it moves guilt from being a moral issue, bound up in rigid rules and regulations, to being an ethical problem, complex and flexible in relation to the other person and what may be considered their due. I can’t think of any other golden age crime novel that does that, or indeed, does it so very well.

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18 thoughts on “Agatha Christie and Guilt

  1. I’ve just finished reading this as well – fortunately I’d read it before, as some enterprising library patron who had it before me highlighted all the clues in orange. :P That’s an interesting point you make about mystery novels, and I think quite right. Some of my favorite mysteries are the ones that explore the limitations of the “detect – solve – arrest” sequence of events. Like this one! Sayers’ Gaudy Night is good in this way as well, because it also explores the tension between one’s integrity and one’s human responsibility to people – a problem Poirot handles neatly in Orient Express, I think.

  2. Great post. And of course not only can we breathe more easily with the finger of guilt gone, but so can everyone in the story–that’s when they all go on their merry ways, pairing off romantically where necessary, leaving the scene of the crime, getting on with their lives in general. It’s a huge catharsis for them and often prompts them to make some sort of life change as a result.

    Also, I never knew David Suchet read any of the audiobooks. I must get this now!

  3. I’ve read Christie once, long ago when I was about 13, The Mirror Cracked I think it was, and we didn’t get on. It has prejudiced me ever since. But lately I’ve been thinking I should try again sometime. What you say about guilt is quite interesting. I always get nervous when I see the police and I laugh at myself and think, I have done nothing wrong. But then in the next instant I worry that maybe I have but just didn’t know it but the police do! When I think of books about guilt though I always think of The Scarlet Letter. Hester wore her guilt for all to see while Dimsdale kept his secret and perhaps suffered the more for it. Gee, now I am going to have to re-read Hawthorne and give Christie a try. Thanks a lot! ;)

  4. Oh this is a fabulous review, Litlove. A lovely thought provoking riff on guilt, it’s made me put the book on my list. A like Christie’s Poirot books but never read that one (or saw the movie), probably because it’s so well known. Now I’m going to!

  5. What a fascinating post – I’m all too guilty of reading an Agatha Christie and thinking no more about it (and, actually, it’s been about 6 years since I read one) – so much more to mine from them, I see.

  6. From the time I was 16 until I turned 18, I lived on the road. This was in England and many years ago now, so apart from two close-calls, I was uncomfortable at times but perfectly safe. I would go weeks without talking to people and months without significant social interaction. Then my life turned and I decided to go back to London and get a job.

    I found working Monday to Friday (at a publishing house) significantly more difficult to tolerate than cold barns and days without a hot drink. It was Agatha Christie that taught me how to cope.

    I read everything she wrote. I would take the train and then the tube and then walk to work, all the while working my way through book after book. (I ran into a lightpost more than once.) I don’t know about the guilt thing, but the social mores, the ways and means of getting by, the rules for getting around other rules, all those things are in Christie. I managed to keep the job, for quite a long time, despite the desire to bump down to the country again. There was something about the calm certainty of the world she created, and yet it was a world where murder and other mayhem could and did erupt. It taught me that both worlds are really the same world. That was something I really needed to learn at the time.

    Now, when I need comfort, I read works that make me feel what Christie did all those years ago. It’s a great gift that such writers have.

  7. I haven’t heard this particular version, Litlove, but I have a new credit today with Audible and I might just be exploring this. Is it unabridged? I think one of the most important things about genre fiction was pinpointed several years ago now by Philip Pullman when he said (Carnegie acceptance speech??) that if you wanted a really good story – and which of us doesn’t – you either had to go to children’s fiction or to genre novels. And to a large extent he is right. If you just want to get wrapped up in a really good plot then genre fiction is the way to go. While I agree that Christie is more than plot it is very often just that element of her work that I find I crave.

  8. Murder on the Orient Express was the very first Agatha Christie I read, and it remains a favorite. Plot drives the mystery novel more than others, I agree, but I think that questions of moral (if not physical) guilt propel them as well. Otherwise, where is the point? Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, P.D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh, Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski all address such issues–directly or indirectly. It is part of the books’ “black magic.” Perhaps we read them in part to absolve ourselves…Wonderful, thought-provoking stuff as always, litlove. Thank you.

  9. Jenny – I can’t believe that someone would highlight the clues!! How dreadful is that? One more on the list of offences that need to be punishable crimes… I agree with you that Gaudy Night is a very intriguing story, and I remember enjoying very much in your post the point that Peter and Harriet have to work out their relationship to the previous case and each other through the events of this one – quite unusual in the mystery formula. I do love Golden Age crime – it is satisfying on so many levels!

    Nicole – what a good point – you’re right, the arrest of guilt is a moment of supreme liberation for the characters. I like that thought. Oh and Suchet is just wonderful on audio book. We also have the early cases of Poirot that are narrated partly by him and partly by Hugh Fraser who plays Hastings in the television series.

    Stefanie – now I have been meaning to read The Scarlet Letter for about a decade, too! I really must tackle it one of these days. Also, I am just the same when it comes to noticing the police in my rear view mirror. :) What’s that great word..? Oh I know, post-lapsarian; I am definitely conscious of my fall from an edenic state of grace! ;) You might prefer Poirot to Miss Marple when it comes to Christie, or one of her detective-less tales like Sparkling Cyanide or The Pale Horse. She’s definitely worth a second try one day.

    Lilian – I know, some of the really well known ones seem to permeate one’s consciousness and reading the book seems excessive effort! But I do like this one, particularly. I’d love to know how you get on with it if you do read it! And I’m so very glad you enjoyed the review. :)

    Simon – oh one of the great pleasure of a Christie novel is that it permits itself to be greedily consumed, and I wouldn’t miss out on that for the world! But on the third or fourth time around, you can take things slower and play some good lit crit games! :)

    Mary – what an incredible story. I read all of Christie’s novels as an awkward adolescent. By no means as dispossessed as you were in your story, but I appreciated her reassuring safety, too. The work of narrative to pose a problem and then solve it with perfect closure is known as the rescuing function, and I guess that when we needed rescue, it was there in bookish form, even if not there abundantly in reality. I couldn’t agree with you more that it’s a great gift, and one I’m often grateful for, too.

    Ann – it IS unabridged, which is nice as so few audio books are (unless you pay a fortune or manage to find them at the library). I must check out Audible, which sounds like a rather good thing. I do agree with Philip Pullman and with you – some times it just has to be the plot and nothing else will do.

  10. ds – your comment came in while I was replying! Oh what a fantastic line up of detectives you have there. I haven’t read a Sara Paretsky novel in years and years and you give me a sudden longing to do so. It does have to be about the morals/ethics, doesn’t it? There has to be engagement with the complexities of right and wrong, even from the obviously wrong standpoint of the murder charge. It’s always interesting to see how guilt and innocence get negotiated.

  11. Christie is fabulous. And, it’s interesting I was just thinking of how I tend to read even more mysteries when I’ve got a lot on my mind – they sort of become my comfort books. How odd that murder and mayhem is what I turn to but I guess because I like how the good guys win (usually!) and everything gets resolved in the end.

  12. Really interesting ideas about how crime stories lift guilt from readers and characters, I never thought of that and what a really necessary space they are for readers to play with the idea of guilt (at the same time we’re all trying to hide our work mistakes and look like perfect employees).

    I have a big compendium of Christie stories, including ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’, have you read that?

  13. You make me want to read the book again! I haven’t read much Christie, but I remember reading that one as a much younger person and really loving it. Genre writing can be so satisfying, as you describe here, and it really is fascinating to think about what that sense of satisfaction actually means. I do wish you could join my mystery/detective book group!

  14. How refreshing to hear Christie praised instead of denigrated. Given the volume of her output, it’s perhaps inevitable that not all her novels are praiseworthy, but she had a pretty good hit rate and quite a number leave a sympathetic reader with a sense of conventions gently twisted to present a new perspective. It seems distinctly presumptuous to disagree with Litlove, (particularly as this is my first ever venture into the blogosphere), but I would venture to suggest that there is a small but fine sub-genre of crime writing exploring the victim who ‘deserves to die’, the sympathetic killer and the detective forced to choose one kind of right over another. A couple of prime examples: Nicholas Blake (pseudonym of C Day Lewis and a quite brilliant detective novelist) in ‘End of Chapter’, and Margery Allingham (with a similar, though much earlier, publishing-house scenario) in ‘Flowers for the Judge’ – both of which, incidentally, seem to foreshadow P D James’s ‘Original Sin’ to a quite startling degree.

  15. If you want to talk guilt, Litlove, then how about the shameful fact that I’ve not read a single Agatha Christie but must have seen the film adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express AT LEAST half a dozen times?! Terrible!

  16. I feel guilty that I’m falling behind the blogs here. Not just reading books but blogs as well! But I loved this review and this sounds like a perfect present for a family member. (I followed your advice and bought my sister the DVDs of two EM Forster novels so your blog is proving a good source of gift inspiration.) Still trying to think of a Cape Town krimi (as they are called here for some reason) that you might like.

  17. iliana – I know just what you mean! I always say that I find it far more soothing to read about people murdering each other than to read about them falling in love! Although I do mean puzzle mysteries, rather than forensic crime, on the whole. I love Christie, really I do.

    Jodie – oh The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a classic! I love that one, too. Would love to know what you think of it if you do pick it up. Talking of work mistakes, I am just about to attempt to teach a group of history students how to structure an essay with a spoof crime fiction story. I’ve given them a load of facts and they have to reconstruct the murder. I’ve never done it before and can only hope it turns out okay and I do not have to spend the entire weekend reading Christie to recover!! :)

    Dorothy – I wish I could join your book group too! If only someone would invent the teleporter! I’m really glad to know you enjoyed this Christie novel – I read it first as a teenager and was greatly taken by it. I think genre writing is wonderful to analyse as it uses all the tropes of literary fiction only with more clarity and evident intent. :)

    Jane – welcome to the blog and thank you for your lovely comment! You are more than welcome to disagree with me if you’d like to, although I would classify your remarks here as adding to my field of knowledge, which I love people to do. I’ve read Marjorie Allingham but don’t recall reading that one (her books tends to merge in my mind though, it must be said) and Nicholas Blake is entirely new to me. Amazon here I come! I’ve only read a few P D James novels, also, and only those featuring Dalgleish. If only there were more hours in the day!

    Doctordi – I personally absolve you of all guilt in the matter of not reading Christie. I think I have seen the film adaptation of this – with Peter Ustinov? Or is my memory playing tricks? Anyway, the book is better, but there is nothing wrong with watching the movie instead. :)

    Pete – I do like that term ‘krimi’ – how cute is that? And you are sweet to think of one for me. I do hope your sister enjoys the Forster movies – let me know how she gets on as I will have everything crossed!

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