A month goes by between the first two entries in A Reading Journal of the Plague Year and then two come at once. If you haven’t read those first two entries you should do so right after you read this one: the first by Peter Stokes and the second by Mahmud Rahman. This third entry is by another old friend, Aparna Balachandran. I first met Aparna on an Indian culture forum I used to run a long time ago. She was then finishing up her PhD in Indian history in New York. I can’t remember if we ever met in person while she was in the US. But we’ve been meeting and hanging out on all our trips to India ever since she went back to start teaching at Delhi University. A number of my meal reports from Delhi over the years have been of meals in her company—and it’s very good company indeed. We are also in a small WhatsApp group together. For the last two months our primary topics of conversation, like everyone else’s, have been the pandemic and our coping strategies. Aparna kept talking about the books she was reading and so I began working on her to make a contribution to this occasional series. After giving a lot of what in Delhi University we call “pricey ones” she finally agreed—though she refused to make public the genre that is her true primary reading and threatened me with violence if I disclosed it. Instead she said she would write a piece on Agatha Christie.
I’m not sure what Agatha Christie’s standing in the UK and US is now outside of crime novel circles but she has had a long afterlife in India—as have many other popular English writers of the early and mid-20th century. I grew up reading her—she’s one of the few extremely prolific writers whose every novel I’ve read (well, all the crime novels at any rate)—which is something I couldn’t say even of my other prolific teenage love, P.G. Wodehouse. My own collection is in a trunk in my parents’ house—reading Aparna’s wonderful piece about the pleasures (and complications) of Christie, I’m wishing I had some of them with me.
(The purchase links below once again go to Content, the excellent indie bookstore in our town. Content is owned by friends but I have no financial relationship with them and make nothing from these links. They ship all over the country so please consider buying from them and supporting an indie bookstore. Indie bookstores need support at the best of times and even more so in these times that are so far from being the best of times.)
A Reading Journal of the Plague Year ~ Aparna Balachandran
We have been in a pretty draconian lockdown for more than six weeks now. I haven’t stepped out of our little “housing society” in East Delhi except to buy fruit and vegetables from a small shop a few yards from the front gate. I take a walk in the compound every evening at seven, and have grown to know its four red brick buildings and the park in a close, almost intimate way. Over this time, I have seen the roses and chrysanthemums of Delhi’s short spring give way to hibiscus and jasmine. I can now tell the society cats apart. I know which flats have avid gardeners, their balconies and front porches covered in potted plants. But more than anything else my walks let me indulge in a guilty pleasure – looking into lit ground floor homes with their curtains askew or their chiks rolled up. I find one house in particular quite intriguing. Every inch is covered with dusty papers and books, some in totteringly high piles. I always see the back of the head of a young man who is lying on a bed – as far as I can see, the only furniture in the flat – with his legs crossed. He is always motionless but his cell phone screen flickers.
Strangely, I now know my neighbours better than I ever did when things were “normal.” This is partly because of our very opinionated Residents WhatsApp Group, meant to exchange important information at this time, but which is a jumble of political opinions, bad jokes, gossip and from time to time, panic. But more than anything else, the fact that the summer is here in right earnest has meant that everyone’s doors and windows are wide open during the day, and I am privy to all kinds of conversations and arguments from the flats nearest to mine, just as my neighbours are to ours. We have all reached a point where we really don’t care about privacy.
I admit my little preface is a bit of an indulgence, but it does in fact connect to some of my comfort reading at this very strange time – my dog-eared copies of Agatha Christie’s novels. My life these days constantly reminds of the settings of her stories- country houses cut off by snow storms, schools in desolate locales, cruise ships and trains. The classic characteristics of Christie’s books are circumscribed situations, a plethora of clues, red herrings and above all, the murderer as someone inside, never an outsider. This is a writing style that was shared by authors who belonged to the so-called Golden Era of Detective Fiction, the 1920s and 1930s, but Christie was faithful to this pattern well into the 1970s when she wrote her last book, Sleeping Murder.
Christie’s stories seldom show character development or emotional depth, her overwhelming focus being on a tightly controlled plot and the solving of carefully built up puzzles by her detectives, the most famous of whom were the eccentric little Belgian ex-policeman, Hercule Poirot, and elderly spinster Miss Marple – about whom I will say more soon. Many crime fiction writers since Christie have conceived of the detective story as the backdrop to explore the human condition, and some do it magnificently – including the two British authors who are often called her successors, Ruth Rendell and P.D James. To be fair, Christie has occasionally tried her hand at writing more dramatic and less structured stories, for instance, the gothic romance, Endless Night or the psychological thriller, Ordeal By Innocence, both of which I re-read not too long ago. Growing up, I enjoyed these aberrations from the formula hugely, but alas, in my opinion, they have not aged well; this kind of writing is not Christie’s forte, and these novels feel forced and theatrical.
At her very best, the mystery is supreme, and Christie’s greatness lies in her complete mastery of narratives that unmask and untwist the skeins of her riddles. The reader is always also the detective, and while Christie will – as she must as per the rules of the genre – lead you astray, she nearly never cheats. Which is to say, if you follow her clues carefully enough, you will know who the killer is. That was my – and many other viewers’ – problem with the recent glamorous Christie adaptations on the BBC by Sarah Phelps. It wasn’t just the absolute lack of cosiness, although it is true that death as narrated by Christie is never as graphically violent or distressing in the way that Phelps reimagines her stories. It is the fact that her plots just weren’t honest – the revelations were inevitably shocking and unexpected to the viewer – because the clues didn’t add up, or simply weren’t there.
I read something by Raymond Chandler a long time ago that accused Agatha Christie and other Golden Age authors of writing exclusively about the English upper and middle class gentry. This is entirely true. She is also deaf to the issue of race relations in Britain and the working classes who occasionally appear as house-maids and tradesmen in her stories are set up as the unkempt foil to the genteel folk who are always her main protagonists. Christie is also studiously English, and her writing is littered with stereotypes about continentals and orientals. And then there is her embarrassing belief that the propensity to criminal behavior is hereditary, that evil runs in the blood.
But I insist that there is much that redeemable in Christie, and her stories often end up subverting her own prejudices. After all, her brainiest character, Poirot is a foreigner, and Hastings, who is implacably English is one of the stupidest sidekicks ever. But what I find particularly endearing about Christie is her celebration of singlehood. Single people are the heroes of Christie’s mysteries, they are cleverer, happier and more interesting than married ones. Miss Marple, like Poirot is a decidedly contented singleton, and while she would not dream of calling herself a feminist, is often self-congratulatory about not being saddled with a husband.
Over the weekend, I read two Christie classics, The Murder at the The Vicarage and A Murder is Announced, the detective in both being the aforementioned elderly and seemingly harmless and wooly Miss Marple, who is surely Christie’s greatest creation. They are both set in picturesque English villages with pretty cottages, retired colonels and bumbling vicars. In The Murder at the Vicarage, written in 1930 and the first full length novel that features Miss Marple, unpleasant and wealthy Colonel Protheroe is killed in the vicar’s study in the village of St Mary Mead. In the second, A Murder is Announced (1950) which is one of my favourite Christies ever, an advertisement for a murder to be held that same evening at Little Paddocks, the home of the respectable Letitia Blackclock, appears in the local paper. Various assorted neighbors and friends turn up at the appointed hour expecting a party – and instead, a real murder takes place. In both cases, the police are inadequate to the task, and the seemingly innocuous Miss Marple finds the murderer for them. A brief digression here: A Murder is Announced has in recent times been applauded for its portrayal of a lesbian couple, Murgotroyd and Hinchcliff. I am not particularly convinced that Christie thought of them as such; her books are full of non-traditional relationships, with deep friendships between women often being represented as much more valuable than marriage.
Why is Jane Marple such a successful detective? Miss Marple is an acute and intent observer of people and things and has a close and intimate knowledge of the closed, placid world of the English village – and so when is something is out of place, or someone behaves oddly, she notices it immediately. The physical setting of the mystery is a key element in Christie’s stories, and Miss Marple is particularly aware of her environs; she knows the church, the vicarage, the shops, and the homes and gardens of her neighbours like the back of the her hand (Murder at the Vicarage actually includes a map and two floor plans). She also listens. There are no hurried or distracted conversations for her – each exchange over tea or at the fishmongers has something to tell her that brings her closer to the truth .
The lockdown has made me see Miss Marple, and Christie quite differently. I still enjoy the stories, they are ripping good yarns. But I also now think about what allowed Miss Marple to be the kind of detective she was, and I realize that her life – slow, quiet and repetitive – enabled her to gaze at, absorb and apprehend the world around her, and penetrate its placid exterior. To use that dreadful word, her mindfulness was the key to her being a successful detective in the Christie world.
The pandemic has slowed down my life in a way I frankly thought was impossible. I am no exception of course – I hear this all the time, and everyone has different ideas as to what to do with the time that has been suddenly granted to them. As a Miss Marple fan, I feel that I am duty bound to write a murder mystery set in my housing society. I’ll start as soon as I decide which of my neighbours I’d like to kill off.
 An important aside: The best, and most faithful Christie adaptation on television or on the big screen is the BBC series from the 1980s starring the brilliant Joan Hickson. The more recent new and brash Miss Marples are totally avoidable; the Hickson version captures the pace and essence of Christie’s novels. As my brother-in-law, who was made to watch the series cruelly said, it’s like listening to the radio.
Aparna Balachandran lives in Patparganj, East Delhi and teaches History at the University of Delhi. She hopes to write a murder mystery one day. It will be a best seller, and she will be rich and move to South Delhi.
Yay Aparna – can’t wait to read your Delhi murder mystery! I can think of so many relatives there whom I wouldn’t mind killing off.