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Agatha Christie and the golden age of detective fiction
Agatha Christie and the golden age of detective fiction

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2.4 Christie’s political context

The inter-war period between 1918 and 1939 is also known as one of socially conservative, safe or ‘cosy’ settings in detective fiction. But this is a deceptive impression in relation to Christie. She does specialise in what we might characterise as the provincial, for the most part, and the crimes of the provincial middle classes, generally. But the secrets that come to light – including murder, blackmail, heroin addiction and suicide – are deeply unsettling. As Alison Light frames it, ‘Christie seems to have been uniquely audacious in always being prepared to make respectability itself suspect’ (Light, 2013, p. 94).

Despite this audacity, it is common to encounter disapproval of the apparent social conservativism expressed within Christie’s detective novels, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is no exception. Martin Priestman, for example, while noting that the relative affluence of the characters and their comfortable village community provide a ‘satisfyingly manageable’ closed setting ‘demanded by the form’, also criticises the lack of penetration of the harsh social realities of the post-war period or the hard-won rights struggles of the 1920s. It is true that the setting and context seem to be made as innocuous as possible, in political terms: ‘As a woman who had herself found a degree of independence, as a wartime hospital worker and then as a highly successful writer, Christie’, Priestman adds, ‘might at least have been expected to celebrate the increase in women’s rights accompanying the Female Suffrage of 1928’ (Priestman, 1988, p. 21). He is undoubtedly correct about the exigencies of the form. But with the remarkable care and economy involved in the structure of the narrative centred on the murder of a man in cold blood, is this a fair criticism? Did detective fiction enthusiasts look to the Christies of the world to reflect social progress or challenge lingering injustices? Can detective fiction escape political characterisation?

In fact, Roger Ackroyd, like other clue–puzzle narratives apparently striving for ‘sociopolitical neutrality’, has been seen in part as a text reacting to a turbulent moment in British history (Knight, 2004, p. 93). The golden age can be characterised as a reaction, of sorts, to the fracturing of history caused by the ‘Great War’ and the attempt, via the solving of mysteries – particularly violent ones – to enter into a collective act of reassembling what had been lost for a generation of readers (Rzepka, 2005, p. 154). Thus the act of solving a crime is an expression of the ‘ideological motivation to recover, or return to, a previous period characterised by stability and order’ (Scaggs, 2005, p. 47). The ‘domestic scale’ of the setting and events masks what critics have argued is a reaction to the trauma and horrors of the war which only occasionally surface (Horsley, 2010, p. 32). The urbane figure of Lord Wimsey, for example, conceals his own post-traumatic stress, which is only briefly alluded to in the stories (Horsley, 2010, p. 32). Susan Rowland explores the post-trauma angle in her chapter ‘The “Classical” Model of the Golden Age’, referring along the way to other valuable arguments from Gill Plain and Alison Light that detective fiction in the golden age constitutes a ‘literature of convalescence’ (Rowland, 2010). We cannot therefore discount the simplistic but powerful motivation of escapism, always on offer from a genre that seeks to confound expectations while offering a satisfying resolution within reassuringly prescribed limits.