Miss Marple vs. Phillip Marlowe


Sept. 20, 2012

It almost sounds like a plot pretext for a comic spy story: As World War II was coming to a climax in 1945, the British Ministry of Information asked Agatha Christie to pen an article, "Detective Writers in England," for a magazine in the Soviet Union. (Ah, if only Graham Greene had used that setup for one of his "entertainments.") Now, more than half a century later, Christie's war effort has finally been published in the West. It is included as a foreword to a reissue of "Ask a Policeman," a 1933 novel collaboratively written by several of the authors Christie touches on in her essay, including Dorothy L. Sayers. (Christie herself is not one of the book's authors.)


It's a glib little article, and one that would likely have been baffling for Russian readers more familiar with "Crime and Punishment" than the crimes and punishments common to the golden age of British detective stories. Christie leavens the praise for her contemporaries with some catty asides about their minor prose failings. But for all the quibbles, she shows no uncertainty about the fundamental merit of her profession, even though she was at that moment under furious critical assault from across the Atlantic.


If Christie was aware of the abuse her work was taking in highbrow American magazines, she didn't let on. But the Christie essay can be seen as a cheerful, chirpy rejoinder to arguments about what detective fiction should or shouldn't be.


The first American salvo came with a December 1944 Atlantic Monthly essay by Raymond Chandler, "The Simple Art of Murder." The author of "The Big Sleep" and "Farewell, My Lovely" made the case for hard-boiled American crime novels while savaging the British idiom, with its "same old futzing around with timetables and bits of charred paper and who trampled the jolly old flowering arbutus under the library window."


Within the month, the New Yorker's Edmund Wilson published the first in a trilogy of detective-story takedowns. The core of his argument came with "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" a title mocking one of Christie's most famous novels and her whodunits generally. Wilson sparked a full-throated debate that roped in writers as diverse as Bernard DeVoto and Somerset Maugham (who praised detective stories for being just about the only sort of modern fiction that bothered with plot at all).


While Christie's sort of story was all about solving the puzzle, the hard-boiled style Chandler championed treated the case as nothing but "a perfunctory mystery element dropped in like the olive in a martini."


None of that for Christie, who in her essay argues that the discipline of "making a 'tight' detective plot is good for one's thought processes." There's a blueprint to be made, and then the dovetail carpentry of execution necessary "to make a workmanlike job of it."


It was just that kind of talk that had led Chandler to harrumph about the British school that "The grim logician has as much atmosphere as a drawing board." Besides, all those intricately woven plots, Chandler argued, were preposterous. He singled out Christie and her Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, for particular abuse. The resolution of a Poirot mystery "is guaranteed to knock the keenest mind for a loop," Chandler sneered, because "Only a half-wit could guess it."


Christie celebrates her style of detective story as "complete relaxation, an escape from the realism of everyday life." She touts the "tonic value" of the detective puzzler: "It sharpens your wits—makes you mentally alert." By contrast, Chandler's disdain for denouement could be frustrating even to his fans ( just try to follow the convoluted wrap-up of "The Big Sleep"). Christie adds—perhaps mindful that her task is to make Britain look good to the Russian reader—that detective stories are edifying: "Very very rarely is the criminal the hero of the book!" she enthuses. "Society unites to hunt him down."


Which may explain why the bureaucrats thought old Agatha's sort of crime fiction might make for good public diplomacy. They might even have been reading Edmund Wilson, for whom one problem with British detective stories, from Sherlock Holmes to Miss Marple, was the premise that crime is an anomaly. The detective uses a method—whether it is science, some other ratiocination or even intuition—to put things back to normal. For all the sinister doings, Wilson said with weariness, "Law and Order have not tottered a moment."


Such societal solidity might have been a happy thought in the last days of World War II, but Chandler was convinced detective stories should reveal a different sort of society altogether. "The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations," Chandler argued. "It is not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in."


Chandler thought that the two approaches—the classic British detective yarn and the mean-street atmospherics of American pulp—were unmixable. But are they? In the years since the midcentury dispute, writers have been trying to meld the two approaches. P.D. James may fundamentally be in the Christie camp of tight plotting, but she drapes the puzzles in dysfunctional personal relationships and the (perhaps overly) grisly reality of violence. The Wall Street Journal's crime-fiction critic, Tom Nolan, is the biographer of Ross Macdonald, and praises that novelist for bridging the divide, showing the way for the best of modern crime writers, such as Keigo Higashino, who manage to combine "puzzles of almost geometrical complexity, [with] sophisticated psychological studies."


And that may be just what is needed if we are to care a whit about who killed Roger Ackroyd.