This article by Jess Smith, a second year Philosophy and English student, evaluates the presence of strong female characters in Agatha Christie’s crime writing. Since reading her first Agatha Christie in 2010, she has devoured the majority of her works – never working out the signature twists, and never wanting to. Despite the books being littered with the social stereotypes of the ’20s and ’30s, this article explores in more detail the extent to which Christie’s writing both embraces, and rebels against, these stereotypes.
With box-office successes like Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, BBC adaptations and long running plays – most notably The Mousetrap, which is in its 65th year – it is evident that Agatha Christie continues to remain in fashion. And indeed, why shouldn’t she? Christie is known as the ‘Queen of Crime’ for her gripping and unsolvable whodunnits, transporting readers back to the quintessential world of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Nevertheless, in Carol Ann Duffy’s poem The Long Queen, Duffy suggests that a queen should be a patron to all women[i]. Does Agatha Christie, in her privileged position of the ‘Queen of Crime’ fulfil this role?
As a person, Agatha Christie provides the perfect role model for her readership, beginning with her international success as an author; in her lifetime she wrote over a hundred novels and plays, “outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare” (2003)[ii]. In addition to this, Christie trained as a nurse during WWI, working at a hospital dispensary where she gained the in-depth knowledge of poison that gave her books an edge. With her second husband, Christie also travelled extensively and worked alongside him on his archaeological digs, restoring ancient ivory and pottery. In terms of her position as a female role model, Agatha Christie’s works have afforded her a place in the empowering series, Little People, Big Dreams, which represents the achievements of progressive women throughout history for younger readers[iii].
However, it could be argued that Christie’s characters speak a different story, confining the female characters to the stereotypical roles of the time. The women make up the positions of companion, governess, housewife and maid, whilst the males are solicitors, doctors, lawyers and police. Though this would have fitted into the gender zeitgeist, what message does it portray to 21st century readers? Similarly, the presentation of the characteristics of women are also outdated, with the superficial qualities and age being more significant in the female characters. For example, Hastings has a bias for young and pretty girls, which in his mind exempts them from suspicion. Miss Marple, protagonist of twelve Agatha Christie novels and many more short stories, is viewed as a busybody and gentle old lady despite her success in solving each case. By contrast, Hercule Poirot is perceived as an esteemed detective, lacking the modesty and humility that his female counterpart demonstrates.
A data analysis of many Agatha Christie novels, carried out by UKTV Drama, also suggests that 75% of cases where the killer is female are set in a country house and are most likely to be discovered through a domestic item[iv]. Meanwhile, male killers are shown to be described more positively throughout the book and are usually discovered through reasoning. This again demonstrates the importance of outdated gender norms in Agatha Christie’s work. However, just because the texts reinforce stereotypes doesn’t mean to say that they cannot be appreciated in the context that they are written. The fact that there are no female doctors or scientists should not be a sign of the authors fault, but rather an indication of the period that Agatha Christie was raised and wrote.
When the context of her writing is considered, beginning in 1920, Agatha Christie may still be considered a progressive author in the crime genre. As well as featuring Miss Marple, many of her other novels and plays are populated by strong, brave, intelligent and outspoken female characters. Ariadne Oliver, a disorganised but loyal companion, features alongside Hercule Poirot in many novels, with Tuppence Beresford, Bundle Brent, and Anne Beddingfield making up several other fiery and adventurous female leads. This presents a step forward from earlier crime writers like Conan Doyle, whose primary female character Irene Adler had her strength and intelligence undermined by an air of the femme fatale; this engulfing quality suggests that female empowerment is associated with their seductive qualities[v]. In addition to these positive female leads, Agatha Christie also makes space for many female murders. Within this capacity each woman is astute enough to escape detection by the police, but naturally does not evade the inspection of Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple. Indeed, Hercule Poirot must remind Hastings that woman too can be murderers, which demonstrates Agatha Christie’s progressive writing, as it verbally criticises the perceived gender stereotypes.
Therefore, although there is a clear demonstration of the limitation faced by women in terms of societal position and stereotyping, it is not to say that Agatha Christie cannot be a patron to women. Indeed, intelligent and strong female characters make up a large proportion of Christie’s novels, suggesting that the gender imbalance is a product of the times, rather than the author’s particular intentions. Thus, Agatha Christie, considering Duffy’s definition, can be considered the ‘Queen of Crime’ as her own determination and successes, paired with her representation of intelligent and multi-faceted female characters, creates a strong female role model for readers. Still, perhaps Christie’s female characters would benefit from a contemporary revival, where, like in Moffat and Gatiss’ Sherlock, they are put to work in the present day, with any past gender imbalances realigned.
[i]Duffy, Carol Ann, The Long Queen in Feminine Gospels (Picador: London, 2002) p1
[ii]Christie, Agatha, Authors biography inAnd Then There Were None (Harper Collins: London, 2003)
[iii]Sanchez Vegara, Isabel, Agatha Christie, Little People, Big Dreams (Lincoln Children’s Books: Lincoln, 2017)
[iv]UKTV Drama, Whodunnit? Here’s a formula for quickly guessing the murderer in Agatha Christie stories (2015) http://home.bt.com/news/features/whodunnit-heres-a-formula-for-quickly-guessing-the-murderer-in-agatha-christie-stories-11363995922783[Viewed on 22/08/18]
[v]Conan Doyle, Arthur, A Scandal in Bohemiain The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Random House Group: London, 2011)