It is a truth universally acknowledged that as Agatha Christie approached the twilight years of her career the quality of her output dipped somewhat. And yet, as I’ve said elsewhere, what these novels appear to lack in merit from a plot perspective they arguably make up for in a kind of critical self-analysis of her own position in the firmament of crime fiction. And At Bertram’s Hotel, the tenth Miss Marple novel, provides yet more opportunity to potentially read too much into her writing from this perspective. I mean, don’t get me wrong, she’s no Douglas Hofstadter, but who’s to say this is a completely bad turn of events*?
Agatha Christie was 74 years old when she published her ninth Miss Marple novel, A Caribbean Mystery, by which time – as I said in my review of The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side – she would have known a lot about the procedures of ageing. There were still 13 books to come from her pen (well, 11 really, since the final Marple and Poirot books had famously been written some years previously) and this belief in her own abilities is echoed in the treatment of her beloved elderly spinster as, in spite of the infirmities she suffers and the attitude others take towards her, she continues to outfox murders left, right, and centre.
Christie, of course, had less to prove by now than she would have done in her younger days and so this isn’t a “We’ve Still Got It” Oldies v. Whippersnappers cage match – the Clint Eastwood movie Space Cowboys comes to mind, and can thankfully be dismissed – but is instead a moderately elegiac reflection on old age, youth, and the folly of both (contrast it with the far earlier Partners in Crime, where Bright Young Things Tommy and Tuppence prove their worth at a range of investigative styles). And since I’ve been in a bit of a reading funk for a few weeks now (which I promise I’ll not mention again) I thought I’d try a bit of a textual analysis on this theme to see if it got me anything interesting.
I’m not really a fan of the adjective ‘cosy’ (actually, being an Americanism, technically it’s ‘cozy’) when applied to classic detective fiction, but I appreciate that it serves a purpose. It paints a picture of a land far from sadistic serial killers and pulse-pounding races against time, a land inhabited by little old ladies and bloodless death where everything is resolved, or at least halted, for scones and cream at 3pm, where the unpleasant never prosper and where thuggery and what little violence is allowed are perpetrated at the severe risk of extradition. A great many classic crime authors couldn’t actually be any further from ‘cosy’ if they tried, hence my opposition to the term, but right now that’s beside the point.