I am currently rereading James Zemboy’s The Detective Novels of Agatha Christie. It is more expensive than traditional books, but I highly recommend it, because it is well worth the extra price. I won’t mention the price, because it’s different in different formats, but I did pay 30 some dollars for it and I read it on Google Play on my Samsung Android tablet. Why is this book so good? It is absolutely fascinating for Christie fans. I give it 5 stars.
There are many themes that Zemboy picks up on when he discusses Christie’s 77 detective novels. But the three which I find most interesting are Christie’s view on the servant class, her feelings about the adoption of children, and
Agatha Christie felt, and she writes this in her autobiography, that when she was a child in 1890s Victorian England, servants were happy because they were viewed as professionals doing work that the people they worked for did not have the skills to do. Zemboy takes issues with this. He says that servants in reality during that time frame had to deal with ill-tempered mistresses and lecherous masters, among other problems. He asks the question that if servants were so happy and so appreciated, then why at the first opportunity did so many leave domestic jobs? Christie in her books was rather snobbish about servants and especially shopkeepers, even though in her autobiography she recounts with pleasure her own childhood experiences with the household servants at Ashfield, her beloved childhood home. Zemboy, when he reviews various books, discusses how Christie portrays servants in that particular book. It is a fascinating topic, and he handles it very well, regardless of whether you agree with him, or with Christie, or even have no opinion at all.
Another theme that Zemboy explores is Christie’s views on the adoption of child. He points out that her book Ordeal by Innocence delves into this topic in the most depth of any of her works. Christie believed that people’s personalities were dictated by nature, rather than nurture. She did not believe that servants should be educated, because she felt it distracted them from their work. And she thought that if someone was a descendant of a murderer, for example, they were more likely to be a bad person themselves. Zemboy offers the interesting hypothesis that this is because Christie felt she had failed herself at being a parent and she was rationalizing the relationship she had with her daughter. However, I am not sure if this makes sense, because as far as I know, there was nothing controversial about the life of Rosalind Christie. It is not like there was a public scandal about her, so I am not sure what Christie would have to rationalize. However, it is an intriguing possibility, and Christie’s relationship with her daughter does seem complicated, to say the least.
A third theme that Zemboy explores with regard to Christie is that of how over the course of her writing career, and life, Christie’s views on culture changed. When she began writing in the 1920s, she held a more ethnocentric view than she later espoused. Foreigners were not depicted in a flattering way in the beginning. However, as early as 1930, in the first book she wrote under the pseudonym of Mary Westmacott, Giant’s Bread, Christie displayed a sympathic rendition of Sebastian, a Jewish character. In the late 1950s, Cat Among the Pigeons offers a scene where Middle Eastern teenaged girls are favourably compared to European girls, with the former depicted as being more sophisticated than their English counterparts, for example.
These are just three examples of why Zemboy’s novel is such a treat. Christie fans will be delighted to see her works in a new light. If it sounds like Christie wasn’t perfect, well, she wasn’t. But she is still believed by millions to be the best writer who ever existed, especially of detective stories. The 77 of them discussed in Zemboy’s book become even more interesting because of his hard work and intriguing perspective.