Friday, October 12, 2012

Forgotten Books: A Talent to Deceive: An Appreciation of Agatha Christie -- Robert Barnard

Instead of writing about a Christie novel today, I thought I'd mention one of the first books of criticism devoted to a crime writer that I ever read.  I believe there's been a later, much revised, edition, but my copy is the first edition of 1980.  It's probably misleading to call it criticism, as I just did, because it's really just what the title says it is: an appreciation.  

Barnard meets some of the usual objections to Christie (her characters are wooden stereotypes, her writing is bland and uninteresting) and shows that while there's a bit of truth in them, the characters and writing serve her purposes well.  Writing that does that shouldn't be undervalued even if the prose doesn't rise to the level of Joyce's.  

I read quite a few of Christie's books at one time, and I still read one now and then, if only to marvel at her ability to fool me completely.  Her plotting is second to none.  There's also a bit more humor and wit in her books than most people seem to realize.  If you're like me, then you're the audience for this book.  Barnard assumes a certain amount of familiarity with the novels, and he works hard not to give away the solutions to Christie's puzzles, especially in his capsule summaries.  If, on the other hand, you've never read much of Christie, I suspect you'd want to after seeing what Barnard has to say in this book.  Check it out.


  1. Oddly enough, I wrote an FFB for today (which Patti will post as I do not have a blog) on Christie's Endless Night where I mention her "talent to deceive" (giving Barnard the credit for the phrase, of course). Some people may be unaware that Robert Barnard is also a very gifted mystery writer. I especially enjoy his series featuring police detective Charlie Peace.

  2. While I have read many Agatha Christie's novels, I have never thought of reading books by other writers on the Queen of Crime. Thanks for writing about Robert Barnard's book. And, I agree, there is definitely more wit in her fiction than we give her credit for.

  3. I've had this book on my shelf for years. Time to read it after your fine review!

  4. Anonymous1:00 PM

    The first book I read on Christie was one of the earliest (if far from the best) on a single writer, AGATHA CHRISTIE: MISTRESS OF MYSTERY by G. C. Ramsey, which I read in 1972. There was a spoiler in it I still remember that ruined two of her books I hadn't yet read at the time so I won't repeat it here.

    Anyone who thinks Christie is humorless should read her autobiographical travel book COME, TELL ME HOW YOU LIVE, published as by Agatha Christie Mallowan, in which she pokes fun at herself.

    H.R.F. Keating wrote AGATHA CHRISTIE: FIRST LADY OF MYSTERY, which I read in 1977 but do not otherwise remember.


  5. I have four books on Christie and her works: Agatha Christie – A Reader’s Companion by Wagstaff & Poole, Agatha Christie A to Z by Dawn Sova, An Agatha Christie Chronology by Nancy Blue Wynne and The Bedside, Bathtub and Armchair Companion to Agatha Christie by Riley & McAlister. I have read others, but I don't have nor have I read this one. Think I'll fix that if I can find it. Good one, Bill

  6. As a very casual reader of Christie and even moreso of work about her, as I note in my entry, I can only say not seeing Christie's humor is to willfully misread her...

  7. Barnard's book regularly comes up in bios and commentary about her. I'm doing research for an annotated version of "The Mysterious Affair at Styles," so I've been immersing myself in her world.

    In defense of those who never came across her sense of humor, it doesn't show up that often. She's not noted for the humorous quip (the one about the benefits of marrying an archaeologist -- that he becomes more interested in you as you get older -- she never said, and hated having it attributed to her.

    What does stand out is that she had a sharper, even cynical, understanding of the dark side of human nature. Miss Marple always assumed the worst about people because she was rarely proved wrong. Critics who assumed otherwise obviously never read her.

  8. Well, I'd suggest her wit wasn't actually expressed in Cerfable "quips" so much as the same sort of observation you least in the short stories I've read (and to some extent in the plays as filmed)...perhaps its less obvious in the novels I haven't read, though AND THEN THERE WERE NONE is certainly a witty construct.