28 November 2014

Agatha Christie and Reflections on the effects of World War One.

Although Agatha Christie's first novel THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES was published post war in 1920, it is true to say that nearly all of the novels set prior to the outbreak of World War Two has a plot stemming from the days of the war, or contains reflections on the impact of the war either on the sleuths, or the British economy, English society, or subsequent world politics.

When you read the early novels for their murder mysteries, these observations are often missed.
Let us look at just a few of the early titles.

For example THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES was the first featuring Hercule Poirot. He was a Belgian refugee, and had in fact already retired as the head of Belgium's police force when the Germans
invaded Belgium and he was forced to flee to Britain.
This account of the Styles Case is penned by Captain Hastings, a war hero invalided home from the Front. He is invited down to Styles Court by his friend John Cavendish to spend some of his convalescent leave. In the village Hastings runs across his old friend Hercules Poirot, an elderly Belgian, once one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police, but now a refugee assisted by John Cavendish's mother Mrs Inglethorpe.

This novel is set towards the end of World War One, and Christie makes a number of observations about the privations of life in England during the war, rationing, and shortages, and a style of living that is fast disappearing. The house at Styles for example once had a much larger domestic, household and garden staff, but is now "making do". The Cavendish brothers have inherited money, John lives the life of a country squire, and Lawrence, the younger brother is delicate and follows literary pursuits. Other members of the family are working in "acceptable" occupations, for war time that is, a nurse, the land army, and a companion.

THE SECRET ADVERSARY was published in 1922, and saw the creation of Tommy and Tuppence.
In early May 1915 the British luxury liner Lusitania was struck by two German torpedoes and quickly sank 15km off the western coast of Ireland. The prologue of THE SECRET ADVERSARY begins with an American on the Lusitania who is carrying important papers for the American ambassador in London handing these over to a young American girl to complete his mission. Her name is Jane Finn.

The story then jumps to a chance meeting near Picadilly in London early in 1919 between Miss Prudence Cowley (Tuppence) and Major Thomas Beresford (Tommy). Both have been involved in the war effort, but the war ended in late 1918 and so did gainful employment.
Tuppence and Tommy were childhood friends and met up briefly in 1916 when Tommy was hospitalised and Tuppence was working as a nurse. Over afternoon tea they decide to form a business partnership trading under the name of the Young Adventurers.

The First World War is still very fresh in people's minds. And now in the political mix is the Russian Revolution in late 1917, the Tsar and his family executed, and the Communist Party came into power. Russia was amongst the victors of the war, and a party to the peace negotiations. The British Labour Party has a lot of sympathy with the Russian communists and is looking for anything to discredit the government. There are strikes in Britain at the end of 1918 and threats of strikes in 1919, problems with Ireland too, the period during which THE SECRET ADVERSARY is set.

In THE MAN IN THE BROWN SUIT published in1924, you can see Christie experimenting with a different style of murder mystery.

In the Prologue, in the dressing room of a Russian dancer in Paris, through a meeting she has with another Russian, we learn 3 things. Firstly neither of them are Russian. Secondly they have both been working for an arch criminal who is on the point of retirement. The "Colonel" has, even during the First World War, organised a series of "stupendous" coups including jewel robberies, forgery, espionage, assassination, and sabotage. Thirdly we learn the story of the theft of some South American diamonds before the war. The dancer knows where these diamonds are and intends to exchange them for some of the "Colonel's" accumulated wealth.

I think Agatha Christie tried to move from a murder mystery to a thriller with connections to the world of organised crime, unionism, espionage and romance. The novel introduces another sleuth in the form of Colonel Race.

So you can see where I am going with this idea. When you read the early Christie's, look for the mentions of the first World War.

Now, I'm not going to leave Miss Marple out, even though her first case is not published until 1930: THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE.
Look for mentions of the impact of the war on village society, the inability to finance the big country houses, the difficulties in getting staff, the damage to England's social structure etc.

Somewhere in the Marple titles - you might remember where, but I can't - there is mention of the personal impact of the war on Jane Marple - she had an affair with an officer who was married, but he did not come back from the war, and so she remained a spinster all her life, like so many other young women at the time who similarly lost their men in the trenches.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating post, Kerrie! Thanks

Anonymous said...

A very interesting piece. I confess I've never thought of the early Christies (I've read #1 and #3 here) in this context, and I probably should have.

Clothes In Books said...

Such an interesting take on it, Kerrie - thanks.


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