Agatha Christie on Conjuring Tricks
By Erika Ruonakoski | Image Pauliina Mäkelä
The so-called post-truth era invites us to ask ourselves why we are in such a rush to take a stand, to believe that things are this way or that. Why are we so easily deceived and why do we want to deceive ourselves? One place to start looking for answers are Agatha Christie’s detective stories.
Deception, doubt and self-deception are among the most frequently occurring themes of Agatha Christie’s novels. This is true for her detective stories but also for the stories written under the pen-name of Mary Westmacott. Christie’s interest in doubt and alienation can, up to a point, be explained by the difficult experiences that marked her childhood and early adulthood. She lost her father at the age of eleven, after which, as she describes in her autobiography, “things seemed the same but the atmosphere was different”. From now on she started to anxiously monitor the condition of her mother, who was prone to heart attacks. At night, she would sneak behind her mother’s door to hear if she was still breathing or, perhaps, dead. When Christie had already moved away to a home of her own, one she shared with her husband Archie Christie and her little daughter Rosalind, her mother finally died. While Christie was organising her mother’s estate, her husband declared that he had fallen in love with another woman.
‘‘Uncertainty and not-knowing do not have to mean the disintegration of the world or lack of trust, however. They can also be a creative state in the face of the ambiguity of life, stopping to have a closer look, finding different points of view to the world.’’
What to trust? Can anybody or anything be trusted when the world as we know it falls to pieces time and again, when our loved ones die and our life companion betrays us? Christie’s novels deal with precisely this topic: the experience of despair when the well-trodden path gives way beneath our feet and our own convictions about the world are shaken.
Christie’s novel They Do It with Mirrors (1952) discusses deception, the will to believe in a certain manner, seeing and illusions. On the surface, the novel is comic, but the comedy is created by a merciless critique of human weaknesses such as vanity, conceit, jealousy, manipulativeness, naivety and excessive will to please. Christie makes fun of a world in which the actions of individuals are motivated by a need to hide parts of themselves. Even the title of the book refers to the performance of conjuring tricks.
Most of the characters wear a kind of disguise: one chooses to appear younger than she is, another sicker, the third more benevolent and the fourth more frivolous than they are. Even Miss Marple herself participates in the masquerade. She wears her shabbiest clothes and infiltrates the huge Gothic mansion as the owner’s poor acquaintance. In the context of the detective novel she functions both as the voice of reason and as a reminder of the presence of evil. “The worst is so often true”, she says.
The state of doubt, uncertainty and utter distrust ends, when Marple finally exposes the murderer. Evil and madness are now isolated in a deviant person, and the others can continue their lives in peace.
If the question of believing and taking a stand is primarily related to whom we trust and whether we trust anyone, or whether we can trust the world and its secure existence in itself, it is no wonder that we would want to stabilise our stand as quickly as possible. We will always choose trust and belief in something – even if that something is that we can only trust ourselves – rather than the horrifying situation in which the coherence of the surrounding world seems to disintegrate. Uncertainty and not-knowing do not have to mean the disintegration of the world or lack of trust, however. They can also be a creative state in the face of the ambiguity of life, stopping to have a closer look, finding different points of view to the world.
Miss Marple has an epiphany that leads to the solving of the crimes when she realises that she has been a part of an audience, and that the audience has been seeing the events from the perspective the criminals want them to see them from. She as well as the other members of the “audience” have filled in the events in their minds in the way that seems logical to them and as they are expected to do. We all participate in a similar filling-in in relation to everything we experience. In reality, however, shifting our point of view once or grasping the limitations of our previous perspective do not generate an all-encompassing view of the world. Something always remains hidden. The investigation never ends.
The theme of deception is discussed in more detail in my research article “Innocence, Deception, and Incarnate Evil in Agatha Christie’s They Do It with Mirrors” (Literature and Aesthetics 2020, vol. 30, no 2, 55–70). The article includes spoilers from Christie’s novels.
Christie, Agatha. 1955/1952. They Do It with Mirrors. London: Collins. — 1977. An Autobiography. London: Collins.
Husserl, Edmund. 2004. Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology. Trans. W. R. Boyce Givson. London: Routledge. (Original text Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie, 1913.)
Kierkegaard, Søren. 2013. The Sickness unto Death. Merchant Books. (Original text Sygdommen til Døden, 1849.)
Miss Marple’s character
According to Agatha Christie herself, the main inspiration for the character of Miss Marple came from her grandmother’s “cronies”. There exists a kind of prototype for the character in an early work by Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926). The narrator of the story, Dr. Sheppard, has a sister, Caroline, who is an inquisitive “spinster” with an ability find out everything without ever leaving her home. When the novel was arranged for the stage and the character of Caroline was replaced by that of a young, attractive woman, Christie got irritated. As she saw it, the life of the village was reflected in her favourite character, Caroline, and now this reflective surface was cut out.
Later, a new kind of sleuth, Miss Jane Marple appeared in Christie’s short stories and novels. This elderly lady, who is interested in knitting and gardening, solves crimes with the help of associations produced by her life experience and her profound knowledge of human nature. Unlike the best-known of Christie’s detective characters, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple does not bring herself and her abilities to the foreground. In her investigations, she retreats to the background, taking advantage of the “invisibility” and assumed harmlessness of elderly women: people are likely to spill the beans, when only “a silly old fool” is present. Marple is simultaneously kind and cruel – understanding of people’s minor weaknesses but ruthless towards actual criminals. Even if she co-operates with the police, she does not represent earthly justice but an archaic, divine justice. She wages war against evil, protecting the innocent and making revenge against criminal offences possible.
Christie herself preferred Marple to the self-satisfied Poirot. Over time, however, Miss Marple’s age presented a minor problem. Even in the first stories, she was sixty-five to seventy years old, and after those, new Miss Marple stories were published for more than forty years. Most of the stories took place in the time they were written in, so in principle Marple should have been over a hundred years old in the last stories.
Miss Marple novels
1930 The Murder at the Vicarage. London: Collins.
1942 The Body in the Library. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company.
1942 The Moving Finger. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company.
1950 A Murder is Announced. London: Collins.
1952 They Do It with Mirrors. London: Collins.
1953 A Pocket Full of Rye. London: Collins.
1957 4:50 from Paddington. London: Collins.
1962 The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. London: Collins.
1964 A Caribbean Mystery. London: Collins.
1965 At Bertram’s Hotel. London: Collins.
1971 Nemesis. London: Collins.
1976 Sleeping Murder. London: Collins. Christie wrote this novel as the final Miss Marple story already in 1940 but it remained in a bank vault until her death and was published posthumously.