by Josef Hoffmann

   The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu claimed that a literary field began to form in 19th century society that followed specific rules. These rules had to be obeyed by a writer if he wanted his literary products to be successful. Indeed, he almost had to internalise them.

   For example, an author of fiction must not directly express his political or philosophical views, as an author of factual books might, but must instead translate them into the narrative of a novel, integrated into the plot or the dialogues of the protagonists, in order to comply with the rules of novel-writing. Yet the rules of the literary field are not rigid, but are adaptable to some degree, thus allowing scope for experimentation.

   It is my theory that, at the time when Agatha Christie began to write her detective novels, a relatively independent literary field began to develop – the genre of the detective story – with its own specific rules. This was expressed in the discourse of the time on the rules of fair play between author and reader and the foundation of the Detection Club, which obliged its members to comply with certain rules.

   Agatha Christie was so successful because she mastered the rules of the genre (which were not as narrowly defined as those of the Detection Club), rules that became second nature to her.

   This becomes clear, for example, in her Miss Marple novel, The Murder at the Vicarage (1930). Almost at the beginning of the detective novel, Christie writes that the life of the parish seems to have been created for the amusement of the vicar’s young wife, and that her regular afternoon teas served the purpose of exchanging gossip. Towards the end of the novel, the vicar gives a sermon which, rather than being shaped by the Christian spirit, foams with dramatic rhetoric in order to impress the congregation.

   Despite this interweaving of criticism of the church, it would never have occurred to Christie to call her novel something like “The Church Is Dead.” Instead she chose a suitable title for a detective novel, The Murder at the Vicarage, which itself is actually outrageous, as the vicarage, the centre of the Christian parish, should be a place of devotion and the love of one’s fellow man, and not the scene of a murder.

   But this is accepted by the reader, whereas a title explicitly critical of the church would have met with rejection. In Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938), there is a murder during this festive season, despite the fact that, in the opinion of one protagonist, Christmas should be a celebration of peace and reconciliation.

   But Hercule Poirot calls Christmas a time of hypocrisy. Yet the title of the detective novel is not “A Celebration of Hypocrisy,” which would certainly have damaged the sales of the book.

   In his history of crime literature, Julian Symons finds fault with the fact that the General Strike of 1926 never took place in British detective stories of the Golden Age. But that is not quite right. Christie included the element of the General Strike in the narrative structure of the novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, from 1926. By making the narrator and assistant to the detective a murderer, she suspended the rules of fair play, quite in the manner of a general strike.

   The scope of Agatha Christie’s knowledge was broader than some literary critics would like to believe.

           Further Reading:

Pierre Bourdieu: The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field, Polity Press 1996

John Curran: Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, Harper 2011

Curtis Evans: Was Corinne’s Murder Clued?: The Detection Club and Fair Play, 1930-1953, CADS Supplement Number 14

Howard Haycraft (ed.): The Art of the Mystery Story, Carroll & Graf 1992 (Part 2: The Rules of the Game)

Julian Symons: Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel: a History, Papermac 1992.

                — Translated by Carolyn Kelly