In one of the more interesting periods of my life, I did some part-time broadcasting for a commercial radio station: wonderful Radio Tees (as the jingle said, “257 and 95 VHF, in stereo, stereo, stereo”). I stood in now and again for late-night DJs who were on leave, and I still have one tape, in which I try to sound more like Bob Harris than Bob Harris. However, my main job was to be part of a weekly 45 minute talk/arts programme – an arts programme on a commercial station, that’s how long ago it was. Another indication of how long ago it was can be found in my being given the job of doing Agatha Christie’s obituary (yep, January 1976).
I remember talking about the clunky prose, and the outdated social attitudes (the motivation for one murder was to avoid a family discovering that the woman their son was about to marry had a black ancestor), but also noting that the books seemed to have covered every single possibility of murder. In Murder on the Orient Express, of course, everyone did it. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the narrator did it. One ‘victim’ was in fact the murderer. In another book, no-one did it, as the ‘victim’ set up a suicide to look like murder. And so on. As the writing went on, the plots became every more tortuous, until you had to assume that the Irish housemaid was bound to be someone’s illegitimate daughter.
What I didn’t notice at the time has been brought home whilst looking at some of the David Suchet versions that are endlessly repeated on ITV4 (sponsored by Viking Cruises – whose adverts pose the question as to whether they ever go anywhere but Budapest). This is that her characters will do anything to avoid doing a job. There are some exceptions, but they prove the rule in this sense – that when the books have the occasional corrupt banker or irascible industrialist, or doctor, they are usually incompetent or failing, at best irascible, at worst evil or corrupt. The idea that no-one who does a useful job ever appears to be pleasant might be significant.
The plots usually centre on contested wills. It appears that the characters desperately need the money that the ratty industrialist or dotty aunt is leaving. The idea that they might tell their impossible relative to get lost, and go off to become a lawyer or a teacher, farmer or bank clerk or anything at all, seems not to be considered. It was once said that the plots of most Victorian novels would collapse with the presence of antibiotics and a decent divorce law. Ms Christie’s would have a hard time creating stories with today’s middle class, made up of people who went to college and got a job.