Agatha Christie and Dorothy L.Sayers

I was reading the Oxford Companion to English Literature yesterday, looking up the entries for various Golden Age detective fiction writers (as I’m planning a mystery series set in the 1920’s). What intrigued me was the contrast in the entries for Agatha Christie and Dorothy L.Sayers, who of course were two of the period’s most celebrated crime writers, especially the summing-up.
Agatha Christie: ‘Her prodigious international success seems due to her matchless ingenuity in conceiving plots, sustaining suspense, and misdirecting the reader, to her ear for dialogue and brisk, unsentimental commonsense and humour. Her style is undistinguished and her characterisation slight, but sufficient for the exigencies of the form.’
Dorothy L.Sayers: ‘Her detective fiction is among the classics of the genre, being outstanding for its well-researched backgrounds, distinguished style, observant characterisation, and for its amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey.’

It is, I think, an extraordinarily clear indication of just how far literary snobbery can blind people to the actual qualities of a writer’s work. As I’ve been re-reading both Christie and Sayers extensively recently(as well as others)–a rereading that’s ctually probably the fourth or fifth time since I first came across their work at the age of about 14–I have become more and more aware of several things. First of all, that both writers do indeed have a ‘distinguished’ style and a very distinctive voice. There is nothing formulaic about either, unless formula is using your own voice and presence within your work in a particular genre. Sayers, an Oxford-educated classics scholar and clergyman’s daughter, who went to work as a copywriter before turning her hand to detective fiction, and Christie, whose well-off American father died when she was a child, who never went to university but worked in a hospital dispensary and married early before turning to detective fiction(in competition with her sister Madge, who’d had several stories published in Vanity Fair), express very much their life experiences and ideas within their work: and I’m sorry, but I can’t agree that an Oxford education somehow makes you that much more distinguished!
Both writers use archetypes to construct characters who in Christie’s case are sketched in a few pungent phrases, and who in Sayers’ case are exhaustively described. Both writers combine social observation, humour, romance and the macabre, though in my opinion Christie does it much more effectively. In both cases the stories are interesting in themselves and make you want to turn the pages–though Sayers can sometimes blether on at a tangent–an interesting tangent, but still! She uses more words than Christie, but since when is that the ‘mark of distinction’?
The real difference in the writers’ work, in my opinion, is that Agatha Christie can be read by just about anybody–the clear limpidity of her style, especially of her best work, the warmth and intelligence of her personality(which comes through quite clearly), the sense you have that you are being told a story, and to gather around, and the sharpness of her character portraits and settings, all make for easy reading. There’s something timelessly sparkling about her work–rather, like, say the feeling of a Hitchcock film, or a Tintin comic strip adventure–which nevertheless has some very hard things to say about human evil–and suffering.
Compared to this, Dorothy L. Sayers’ work, though charming and readable, is both less accessible and much more dated. Though intelligent, her work is sometimes too conscious of its own intelligence; and though she hit on the perfect fantasy figure with Lord Peter Wimsey–who has a rather Scarlet Pimpernel-like mask of upperclass buffoonery whilst being of course as sharp as a tack–he is much more firmly situated in his own time than are either Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, who, like Tintin, somehow transcend their times. Just how difficult it is to reproduce that Christie style is evident to me from reading the ‘novelisation’ of Christie’s play Black Coffee by Australian Christie expert, actor and writer Charles Osborne(who’s also written a wonderful guide for Christie fans, The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie) . The author had the dialogue of the play; the story of the play; and all the puzzle element and so on; yet the novel is utterly flat, without any of the pleasure of a Christie, and with a singularly unreal feel. The authors of the Oxford Companion should take note–Christie’s style is so distinctive that even with all those elements they mention, someone else simply cannot do it!
If I had to make a choice between Christie and Sayers, I’d say that Agatha Christie was the better writer, not only because her work is still so extraordinarily popular, but because in fact her work is more satisfying–at least for me. It leaves more room for my own imagination; it allows me to create my own visions in a way that is less evident with Sayers, who circumscribes things by telling you far too much about all that ‘well-researched background’. I track down and buy every Christie I can find, but am content to get Sayers out of the library. And I guess that’s the litmus test for any reader.

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Amanda
2022 years ago

Interesting read, thanks. As I think about it, both writers have alot of resonance for me. As a young teenager two of my biggest crushes were on Lord Peter Wimsey and Hastings, Poirot’s offsider. Actually I still have a favourite teddy bear named after Hastings, but perhaps that’s too much about my odd psychosexual development! Anyway.

I read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and 1984 in the same fortnight when I was 12 and I remember being totally knocked flat by both — my first real exposure to non-traditional narrative and no happy endings I guess.

I agree on the accessiablity thing, all those Oxbridge dons and the ice cool Harriet Vane give her a more intellectual air but Agatha was a crafty old bird and shouldn’t be underestimated.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

I remember yeas ago a friend of mine urging and urging me to read Gaudy Night and when I finally got to it I found it a real struggle – prose so dense that reading it was like hacking your way thorugh a thicket.

Have to confess I never took to Christie at all. I found her stories, characters and dialogue a bit lightweight and contrived. But I never read that many of hers so perhaps I’m doing her an injustice.

The crime writer I really liked was Ngaio Marsh. A bit too imbued with the class distinctions of her time, maybe, but very capable of creating strong, believable human characters – weak and strong – with whom one could readily empathise. Lots of interesting background, too – the theatre, fishing villages, English folk culture, London eccentrics. I also liked the understated, almost un-stated, thread of the erotic that ran though her stories.

ctd
ctd
2022 years ago

I wonder if its the old ‘if you sell you cant be good’ issue.

I think its true to say that Christie’s characters weren’t her stong point (but she never intended them to be), except perhaps for some quirky characteristics of the main detectives. The people are in her books as chess figures – the jealous husband, the playboy, the red herring, the possible red herring etc. They are clever games and enjoyable. You wouldnt get away with it today, however.

Sayers, on the other hand, made a real effort with her characters. One of her books (was it ‘Busman’s Holiday’ – its been a few years) barely had a mystery at all, it was just a romance. The mystery was more a setting for the characters. Her long winded style, however, became unfashionable when Chandler et al came along and it very noticeably dated.

However, notwithstanding the growth of the hardboiled mystery, there are a number of modern authors who, to me, are heavily influenced by the Christie/Sayers models – in particular PD James. Her Adam Dalgleish seems to be a direct (but modernised) descendent of Whimsey, there is a Harriet (Emma Lavenham) and an effort made with the characters; but James’ mysteries are drawn from Christie (the locked room murders, murders at isolated places) etc. Best of both worlds, really.

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

Rob, perhaps you should listen to Purcell while reading Agatha Christie.

I only read one PD James, Death in Holy Orders, and am in no hurry to read another. I agree that the characters were well rounded, and the atmospherics were actually suberb. My difficulty was that, having been raised on Agatha, I assumed that the murderer’s identity would be revealed only in the denoument, and it was a rude shock when we found out who he/she was about two thirds of the way through. What’s more, the truth was unearthed through the application of quite routine (though of course competent and painstaking) investigative procedures by Dalgliesh and the forensic team. What makes a Christie mystery satisfying, as with any kind of brainteaser, is the leap of intuition required to bring the threads together. What had never occurred to you, suddenly becomes inevitable and obvious.

I held on to the hope that there would be a twist at the end, but no, the last hundred pages were all chases and fisticuffs in precarious settings, of the kind one expects in a Hollywood crime thriller. Poirot and Miss Marple prevailed over their adversaries through sheer brainpower; they never had to physically overpower them.

Also, Dalgliesh is too perfect for me, too transparently designed to flatter male egos while making the women swoon. Not all readers appreciate being manipulated in this way. You respect Poirot, but he had his flaws and you were not required to idolise him.

Sophie
Sophie
2022 years ago

I do like PD James but I agree that quite often her books leave much to be desired; they run out of puff. Her best books–like The Murder Room for instance–are much more tense, but Death in Holy Orders underwhelmed me completely too..I quite agree, you respect Poirot and Miss Marple but though archetypes, they are not figures of someone’s fantasy male/female (unlike, say, Dalgliesh, or Lord Peter). They are curiously asexual in fact, esp Poirot, but they know all about the way sexual passion can make things very dangerous and lead to murder!
Ruth Rendell I think–at least in her Inspector Wexford novels, I dont much like the others, think they’re too self-indulgent–has that strong Christie element of suspense till the very end, and clear language etc–but also the Sayers thing of painstakingly building up atmosphere and background..

David Tiley
2022 years ago

Ruth Rendell physically embodies both trends because she writes under two names. The Barbara Vine books manage to be much creepier but also more muddled. For me the more modern versions of the tension you are talking about play out the distinction between detective fiction and thriller.

I have never really cared for the cross word puzzle thing about solving a detective novel because the writer by definition has all the cards. If you don’t allow the development of complex characters – and Christie dealt in cliches IMHO decorated by occasionally interesting feelings – it is just about manipulating clues.

If you do develop the character side, I suspect as a writer you start to play with thrillers. Enter Ripley, for instance. Then the lack of knowledge is just an experiential problem for the central figure, and contributes to the general fear.

If you want to see plotting carried to insane and insanely wonderful extremes, try Fruttero and Lucentini, who are Italians.

“The D. Case: Or The Truth About The Mystery Of Edwin Drood” is the famous one, but there are more.

ps – Sayers was a snob. Christie thought ill of everyone, so avoided the sin.

jen
jen
2022 years ago

I’ve not found Agatha terribly engaging, but I must say, I do think Chopper is rather a good read.

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

‘…Christie dealt in cliches IMHO decorated by occasionally interesting feelings – it is just about manipulating clues.’

No, David, there’s much more to Christie on the human side: clever plotting, and generally astute psychological observation, which together bring dramatic tension in bucketloads. You seem to be thinking of detectograms or Cluedo. And it’s a cheap shot to say she dealt in cliches. I had the same feeling when I read Tolkien until I remembered that he created the cliches.

Gaby
Gaby
2022 years ago

“Detectograms”: now James there is a blast from the past!!! I used to love reading them as a kid.

Remember getting a few collections in primary school from the “Scholastic Book Services” periodic booklist from which you could order.

Or are “detectograms” a wider genre?

Used to save my pennies for that. I wonder what happened to them?

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

‘..from the “Scholastic Book Services” periodic booklist.’

That’s ‘im. I ordered stacks, but the other one I remember fondly is The Thinking Machine by Jacques Futrell (who died on the Titanic).

David Tiley
2022 years ago

James. I will have another go at Christie now I am older and perhaps more considered…

Gaby
Gaby
2022 years ago

James, I’ve racked my brains. “Two Minute Mysteries” and “More….” were a couple weren’t they? Can’t remember the detective though.

Don’t know the Futrell. I’ll look out for it.