In 1971, a group of British notables, both Catholic and non-Catholic, petitioned for the retention of the Tridentine Rite in England and Wales. As the story goes, Pope Paul VI read the petition and, arriving at the name of Agatha Christie, shrugged and agreed to the request. Such are the mysterious workings of providence, as manifested in the field of cultural history. The ‘Agatha Christie Indult’ may be the only occasion of a detective novelist influencing Vatican policy, although, given the popularity of the genre, it may not. When Patriarch of Venice, Pope John Paul I addressed G.K. Chesterton as one of his illustrissimi, primarily as the creator of Father Brown, the sacred response to Sherlock Holmes.
The British journalist Johann Hari, who adapted Christie’s The Secret Adversary for the stage, wrote a perceptive article praising her intelligence and skill. Hari identified Christie as a Burkean conservative, jealous of the ‘little platoons’ and suspicious of political idealists; being on the far-left, Hari naturally dismisses these views as irrevocably antediluvian. That is a different debate, but the extraordinary aspect of Hari’s piece—the dog that didn’t bark, if you will—is his steadfast ignorance of God. Being a militant atheist, Hari finds himself in the same position as Marxist scholars; because he doesn’t believe in God, he must find another explanation for the misguided fools who do. Hari deals with this by leaving a large gap in his essay. Marxist scholarship on the subject, with its desperate contortions to avoid identifying the obvious, offers the reader hours of amusement.
The plain fact is that detective fiction is a distinctively moral genre; indeed, a distinctively theological genre. Questions of guilt and justice are inherent within even the most implausible and incredible whodunit. The world of Agatha Christie was a Christian world. The assumptions, morality, and society are Christian.
Christie was baptised into the Church of England, although her peripatetic mother dabbled in other religions, including Catholicism, and introduced Agatha to the possibilities of occult spirituality, a theme that recurs in her stories outside the classic detective genre. Nonetheless, it was her mother’s copy of the Imitation of Christ that Christie kept by her bedside, an inspiration she passed onto her detective Jane Marple, a character A.N. Wilson called “a more impressive creation than those old women such as Mrs. Moore in the novels of E.M. Forster, who are somehow meant to carry quasi-mythic weight and hidden wisdom.”
Inscribed on the flyleaf of the Imitation was a quotation from Romans, beginning “who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” At Christie’s memorial service in 1976, her publisher William Collins shared this as “a reflection of the gentle Christian spirit that resided within her.” “Agatha,” Sir William concluded, “knew what true religion meant.”
The hyperbole was understandable in the circumstances, albeit a little whimsical: a desire to preserve Latin in the Roman Church is not necessarily indicative of true religion. In fact, Agatha Christie—like her great contemporary Dorothy Sayers—remained within the Church of England, although she never took communion as a divorcee. (Her second husband, Max Mallowan, was a Catholic who was also forbidden from taking the sacrament).
Christie biographer Gillian Gill observes that, although “religion is a subject rarely discussed in Christie’s mystery novels,” it “provides the framework for all her writing.” The pseudonymous novels of Mary Westmacott express Christie’s mature spirituality. Absent in the Spring places a middle-class Englishwoman in the desert, in which “fear came upon her again—the fear of the vast empty spaces where man is alone except for God.” The Rose and the Yew Tree, as the title indicates, was an attempt to explore Eliot’s obliteration of Time within the bounds of conventional melodrama. The Burden, as Gill argues, illustrates Christie’s belief that “God and man may communicate directly at certain rare moments, and that certain people are chosen by God to speak his word.”
The very structure of a detective novel does not allow for the same degree of theological speculation, a limitation that eventually caused Sayers to abandon the genre. In her autobiography, Christie admitted that in her early works the detective story was “very much a story with a moral; in fact it was the old Everyman Morality Tale, the hunting down of Evil and the triumph of Good.” The belief that the genre remained at this monochrome morality is still prevalent, but Christie soon outpaced herself with meditations on justice in And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express.
In 1953, Christie received a letter of appreciation from a Ruth Thomas of Newport, which suggested that “the detective of fiction fills a shrine left vacant by a lost faith.” As her career progressed, the hieratic function of Christie’s detectives became steadily more apparent. The sleuth, as bringer of truth and dispenser of justice, is always to some extent an agent of God, and Poirot was given to addressing le bon Dieu with a degree of familiarity. Occasionally he was more serious, as in Cards on the Table, in which he notes that a man “imbued with the idea that he knows who ought to be allowed to live and who ought not” is “halfway to becoming the most dangerous killer there is—the arrogant criminal who kills not for profit—but for an idea. He has usurped the functions of le bon Dieu.” The murderer in One, Two, Buckle my Shoe is such a man; conventional, conservative and respectable, but also possessed with the Pride of Lucifer. It was for similar reasons that Christie was very suspicious of political Utopians.
Christie’s belief that life was sacred and not to be taken lightly was also articulated in her explicit proscription of suicide. In Towards Zero, the failed suicide insists that “I’ve got a right to do what I like with my own life.” His (Christian) nurse insists otherwise: “God may need you.” Not for any obviously heroic reason, but “it may be just by being somewhere—not doing anything—just by being in a certain place at a certain time—oh, I can’t say what I mean, but you might just—just walk along a street some day and just by doing that accomplish something terribly important—perhaps even without knowing what it was.”
From a theological perspective, the detective genre is inclined towards a Catholic interpretation in contrast to the more Protestant thriller; the former deals with the community, the latter the individual protagonist. The community has been shattered in the whodunit, usually by the primal sin of murder, and the overriding question is one of innocence and guilt. Where leftish and non-religious commentators stumble is their belief that the genre seeks to restore innocence lost; that, with the identification of the culprit, she can be expelled, punished and the innocent return to Eden.
The radical flaw at the heart of this interpretation is the failure to see that the whodunit is premised on the doctrine of Original Sin. Everybody is guilty of something; it may offer hope that the problem has a solution, but evil will not be expunged as a result. It is one problem with one solution; it is a small victory in a much larger, indeed an eternal, war. The detective novel is the world’s most Augustinian genre and not, in consequence, especially reassuring. This has been understood by P.D. James, whose detective novels operate within the same cosmology of limited, human justice achieving temporary victories within the schema of a larger, universal justice only made comprehensible by reference to a divine Absolute.
A detective novel not only can be, but usually is, written without any overt reference to God or theology. This was not Christie’s way. Such references appear throughout her work, without being overstated or didactic. The independent existence of Evil is frequently asserted. The proverb “take what you want, and pay for it, says God” recurs often. In The Moving Finger, Jerry Barton asserts that “there’s too much tendency to attribute to God the evils that man does of his own free will . . . God doesn’t really need to punish us, Miss Barton. We’re so very busy punishing ourselves.” The highbrow Sayers would applaud such an explication of Sin in operation: God permits it in the sense that he permits free will, and therefore permits the choice of Sin. Writing of the final Miss Marple novel, Nemesis, A.N. Wilson commented that Christie was “quite overt about the extent to which she is writing a redemption myth. Miss Marple is named Nemesis . . . charged with bringing justice, with scriptural words, ‘Let justice roll down like waters, / And righteousness like an everlasting stream.’”
Christie’s autobiography had not been published at the time of her Memorial Service, so it is uncertain whether William Collins knew of the following passage, in which Christie recounted the sudden interruption of a math lesson by her teacher:
“All of you,” she said, “every one of you—will pass through a time when you will face despair. If you never face despair, you will never have faced, or become, a Christian, or known a Christian life. To be a Christian you must face and accept the life that Christ faced and lived; you must enjoy things as he enjoyed things; be as happy as he was at the marriage at Cana, know the peace and happiness that it means to be at harmony with God and with God’s will. But you must also know, as he did, what it means to be alone in the Garden of Gethsemane, to feel that all your friends have forsaken you, that those you love and trust have turned away from you, and that God Himself has forsaken you. Hold on then to the belief that that is not the end. If you love, you will suffer, and if you do not love, you do not know the meaning of a Christian life. . . . years later [those words] were to come back to me and give me hope at a time when despair had me in its grip.”
Perhaps Christie did know the meaning of true religion after all.
Nick Baldock recently graduated with a PhD in History from Yale University.