I recently finished reading the new William Morrow edition of Agatha Christie's classic mystery novel After the Funeral. It goes without saying that there really cannot be too many editions of the Queen of Mystery's books and this particular Poirot whodunit remains one of her more satisfying efforts. After turning the last page, once again failing to name the culprit before the big reveal (yes, I used a detective's log and no it didn't work), I flipped back to the introduction I had skipped over in my haste to begin the story. (I have a horrible habit of skipping introductions. I don't want to hear what someone else thinks of a book before I even begin reading reading it. Spoilers lurk everywhere in introductions. It is a minefield to be avoided at all costs.)
This particular introduction was written by Sophie Hannah, the author who was chosen to pen the upcoming "Agatha Christie Mystery" The Monogram Murders. (If you harbor doubts about anyone else - regardless of talent - writing as Agatha Christie allow me to assure you that you're not alone. But that is a discussion for another day.) In her introduction Hannah muses that the kind of mysteries Christie wrote, "the ones with the high-concept, seemingly-impossible-yet-possible solutions, the ones that take your breath away," would not curry favor with contemporary readers whose "expectations of novels have changed." She notes that during Christie's time, readers simply expected an exciting story, while today's readers expect more realism. In some sub-genres, of course, this is true. She never explicitly says so (and I wondered if she knew it herself), but she is simply describing what is known as the different Schools of Mystery.
Agatha Christie belonged to what is known as The Golden Age of the British Detective Novel which flourished between the 1920s and the 1930s (also called Puzzle-Plots). Cleverness was the name of the game and outwitting the reader was the goal. Grisly violence, social or political commentary, and descriptive sex was all off limits because it was untidy and couldn't be resolved with a return to nice, neat British social order by the end. Our cousins across the pond do love things nice and tidy...little wonder I harbor such an affinity for them.
And who can blame the public for making these novels bestsellers? The 1920s saw Europe in tatters. World War I had just ended and everyone was still questioning the death, the carnage. For what? Order - not just social order - had been destroyed. The Lost Generation was groping it's way through the arts. Fascism was rising across the Continent. The average reader lacked an anchor...stability. The British detective novels were, if not quite solvable for the average reader, predictable in format. They provided a safe feeling that order would be restored by the end of the novel.
In 1928 a group of authors gathered together to form a club (a club which is still, by the way, still in existence today). They called it the Detection Club. The first President was C.K. Chesterton. Founding members: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, Gladys Mitchell, Miles Burton/John Rhode, Father Ronald Knox, and Freeman Wills Croft. Members of the club agreed to rigidly adhere to the following ten rules as established by Knox:
The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
No Chinaman may figure in the story.
No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
The detective must not himself commit the crime.
The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
1932 Detection Club Dinner
If the rules and format of a British Detective Novel from the Golden Age sound vaguely familiar to modern day readers, it might be because you still see their offspring in what we now refer to ascosy mysteries. I find it fascinating that the name of the sub-genre reflects the comfort that the original genre produced in it's audiences. I don't believe that to be coincidence.
The Puzzle-Plots that Agatha Christie wrote were only one of many Schools of Mystery that have made an appearance since Edgar Allan Poe first ushered in what would become an irresistible genre of reading. From hard-boiled detective fiction to locked-room mysteries; from police procedurals to psychological thrillers, the mystery genre has a variety of schools that are all worthy of study. I'm not entirely certain that they completely evolved from reader demands, but rather were simply a reflection of the times. While Sophie Hannah contends that modern day readers find Christie's plots not "plausible" enough to find commercial success, I would argue that the fact that William Morrow is publishing brand-new editions of Christie's novels refutes that argument entirely.