Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Thirteen Problems: Agatha Christie

I wanted to start 2007 on a light note, so I went back to one of my childhood regulars, Agatha Christie.

The Thirteen Problems, in terms of structure, is not unlike Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron and more recently, Arthur C Clarke’s Tales from the White Hart. One of Christie’s other books, The Labours of Hercules also followed a somewhat similar structure, if I am not mistaken.

A group of six people assemble at Miss Jane Marple’s house, and one of the guests suggests that they form a club “to meet every week, and each member in turn has to propound a problem. Some mystery of which they have personal knowledge, and to which, of course, they know the answer.” As is Agatha Christie’s wont, most of the stories deal with murder, except for one speculative diversion, The Affair at the Bungalow.

There are three reasons The Thirteen Problems did not work for me.

The short story format does not give Christie enough space to define the characters and thus set a reasonable challenge for the reader. This is a pattern you may be able to discern in other short story collections of Christie as well. She is perhaps more suited to the longer version.

A second reason is possibly a personal thing with me – I am not particularly fond of Miss Marple. Sitting in a cosy house in the small village of St. Mary Mead and solving problems purely by listening to people and deriving logic out of it is not my style of crime fiction. Crime is as much about setting, atmosphere, and clues as it is about people.

The third, and perhaps the most significant reason is that there is no life in these stories. In other words, the stories are narratives of past events and the detection process is more like solving a puzzle than cracking a case. To that extent, there is no suspense, there is no excitement, there is no tension, there are no counter-moves… there is just no action.

Notwithstanding this, the book may be worth reading if you approach it from a perspective of solving puzzles rather than reading crime fiction. And there is a wry sense of humor in the odd philosophical statements about crime, about human nature, about village life, and about women – very Brit and typical Christie.

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