The Beam In His Own Eye

That Ian Rankin is no fan of Agatha Christie shouldn't be surprising - if he was, he would write a totally different kind of books. Nor should it be scandalous. As we say here in France, you can't please everybody. Still, the reasons for his "disdain" are worth closer examination as they are typical of a certain mindset quite widespread in the modern mystery establishment.

Rankin's prime objection is that the Christieverse is so remote from everyday reality:

"The world that she wrote about seems so alien to me. This pastoral, idealised vision of England, where there is this very big house in a quiet village. Someone is found poisoned in the snooker room or the library...."

A world in which the police never solve the crime.

"Some amateur detective, a little old lady or a gentleman, comes along to do that. At the end, everything is explained, and status quo returns."

Rankin, who was in India last month, admits he tried reading these stories when he was an adolescent. "But I grew up in a solidly working-class coal mining town... and that world meant nothing to me."

As it happens, I myself grew in a working-class area and Christie's pastoral world was never a problem to me - but then I was never that strange kind of reader who wants books to reflect his own life and experience. But I digress.

Rankin's depiction of the Christieverse is of course stereotypical - also, for his and the reporter's edification, Christie actually wrote some books where the police solves the case. She even made one of her detectives (admittedly less well-known and popular than Poirot or Marple) a police official. And to say that "status quo returns" at the end of And Then There Were None, Five Little Pigs or The Hollow requires an odd idea of status quo - or not being familiar with the books. But I digress once again.

To Rankin, the enduring success of Christie comes down to the comforting and unrealistic nature of her work:

"I can see why those books are successful," Rankin shoots back. "It offers this idea that human beings can solve all problems. That the world goes back to being a nice place when the killer is caught. Life ain`t like that."


He thinks it`s too far-fetched to imagine an amateur can solve a crime.

"When was the last time in real life that the little lady solved the crime that the police couldn`t solve?"

Rankin's work by contrast is blunt and unflinching in its examination of the dark realities of crime:

"The one realisation that Reebus has is that it doesn`t matter how many criminals he catches and puts in jail, there is never a vacuum. More criminals emerge. The society we created creates crime, imbalance and injustice. People will always be jealous and people will commit crime. A sense of grievance will always remain."

Besides, realism is what readers want:

He believes instead that a majority of current crime fiction readers want professionals -- pathologists or lawyers or cops -- to be solving the crime.

One might object that they're not given much choice anyway. But it would be digressing once again.

The question Rankin either carefully avoids or is not aware of is how much "realism" is possible in what remains an extremely codified genre. For all its documentation and literary and social pretensions, Rankin's work is barely more "realistic" than Christie's - Rebus in particular is a fantasy figure as remote in his own way from the average cop than Roderick Alleyn was.

If crime writers were to be really realistic, they would only write about crime as it happens in real life - something unglamorous, uncomplicated, committed and investigated by decidedly uncolourful people. Let's face it, it would be extremely boring and unlikely to make you "UK`s number 1 crime author". So crime writers prefer to write about detectives with strong personalities investigating complex cases; which accounts at best for 1% of real-life crime (but is the stuff of headlines and best-sellers) much like Christie did in her time. The difference being that Christie never pretended to give others lessons in "realism".

Wish more would follow her example.

12 commentaires:

Patrick a dit…


And personally, if a book reflected my personal life and experiences, it would be one boring book indeed! No matter how realistic you try to be, you'll never be completely realistic, so I say don't pretend otherwise.

Anonyme a dit…

Xavier - Thank you for a very thoughtful and well-written post. You make very strong arguments here. You're quite right, too, about Christie's approach to writing. Well done!

Mack a dit…

Xavier, Christie does have her detractors, doesn't she. Raymond Chandler said pretty much the same thing in his 1944 essay, The Simple Art of Murder. Still, the freshmen in the English seminar I help teach like her stories.

TomCat a dit…


An excellent response, as always, and your closing paragraph echoes what I have been saying for years. I will accept a claim that the likes of Ian Ranking pen more realistic crime stories, if one of them fills a 500 page novel with a painstaking account of the first shift of a boring, 6-hour observation of a suspect during which the cop drinks coffee and tries to decide whether to order a pizza or Chinese when he gets home – with absolutely no pay-off at the end of the story.

And the part about us readers wanting realism and what not... he speaks as if we actually had a choice were it not for the possibility to shop for books online!

Maxine Clarke a dit…

one of my favourite girlhood books was Cannery Row by John Steinbeck - I had never been outside England, I knew nothing of the homeless unemployed or any of the milieu of the book - but it spoke to me.

In short, what a silly view, that a reader can only respond to that which he/she knows. To the contrary, I'd say.

Sarah a dit…

Some really interesting comments in this post. I think Agatha Christie has always been loved by her legions of admirers for the fact that she is providing an alternative reality for her readers. I've just finished reading Virgina Nicholson's "Millions Like Us" which details women's experiences of World War II in London. There is a passage there where a woman describes going back to her flat during the blitz and reading an Agath Christie just to escape the reality of what was going on around her.

Bernadette a dit…

Great points, well made.

As an Australian kid in the 70's my world did not resemble Christie's much either but I did have an imagination...it was Christie who sparked my life-long love of travel thanks to Death on the Nile...my mother distincly remembers me reading the book and declaring I would be travelling to Egypt when I grew up...I was about 12 or 13 (it took me about 12 years to get there the first time).

The idea that I would only want to read books that refelct a similar world or experience to my own is laughable....of course I do enjoy reading crime fiction set in contemporar Australia that tackles issues familiar to me but I also like reading crime fiction set in 12th Century England or Germany during WWII or even a modern day Scotland where the police are all alcoholic loners....none of those worlds are familiar to me but if the people telling the stories do their jobs well they do become familiar after a while

The Passing Tramp a dit…

And during the Blitz a lot of other people were reading No Orchids for Miss Blandish for "escape literature." A very different book from Christie's sort, but no more fundamentally an accurate depiction of life.

I'm reading Rankin right now and the world he is portraying (urban heroin addicts, rentboys and occultists) actually is farther from my little old world than that of Agatha Christie, for what it's worth!

J F Norris a dit…

And didn't Rankin write a book where the murders were committed by a guy who thought he was a werewolf? Now that's realism!

Thanks for mentioning old Supt. Battle, Xavier. I immediately said "What about Battle?" when I read Rankin's comment about an amateur always solving the crime. Great post here.

Jon Jermey a dit…

What part of 'escapism' doesn't Rankin understand?

sergio (Tipping My Fedora) a dit…

Journalism of this kind always seems to encourage a kind of absolutism that is inimical to sensible debate - deep down one understands what Rankin is saying about a preference fro fiction more rooted in everyday reality, yet I can't imagine for a minute that he thinks one needs to quash the escapism of christie per se - surely it's more about the ingrained attitudes to class that he objects to.

The essential glamour of the pre-war crime novel and its attendant attractions, even though predicated on rigid social hierarchies, are clear and in an entertainment clearly pervasive to this day. Even an episode of NCIS, a procedural show that is great fun but patently absurd, is based on an in-built sense of loyalty and mistrust (NCIS good, everybody else probably bad).

But if you believe in social change and want to fight for it, then Christie and most of the GAD authors are clearly not the place to look. One should question what it is that can make such books and authors so successful and ensure that they are understood in context. There was once a very pernicious element that one could claim for the way they helped ingrain a sense of the Establishment that was always right - and never wrong. but that is as simplistic as Rankin's appraisal - damn!

Excellent post Xavier - bravo!


Dorte H a dit…

Each to his own, but I am glad that there are several subgenres. I like Rankin´s Rebus series, but also Miss Marple.

And as I have to read Shakespeare, Dickens, Paul Auster etc for work, I often want sheer escapism in my spare time. Hardboiled thrillers are certainly more popular in Scandinavia these years, but more realistic? No way! A bestselling debut from last year offers a scene where a bus drives into a frozen lake. A father jumps into the hole to rescue one of the people in the bus. Totally silly scene.

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