March 13, 2013

Agatha Christie's The Seven Dials Mystery

(cc) by Violetriga

Or, Enjoying Myself too Much to Care About the Killer

Seeing as how I don't read or write the mystery genre at all, my Mystery Classics Readings in the Genre course at SHU has been an eye-opener for me. That, and I've also determined that I'm not very good at reading mystery so far. :) As in, I'm definitely not the type of reader a mystery author would court. My priorities are all wrong!

As a genre outsider, most of what I know about mysteries is based on what I see on book covers or what I can glean from film posters and movie trailers. I never actively sought to read or watch mysteries, but at the same time, I never disliked them. I just thought they weren't for me. Mostly because there's this image of the genre (at least to me, anyway) that comes off as very dark, very somber, and very, very high stakes (nothing less than life or death!). All of which can make for exciting reading. I like dark and high-stakes, but not "somber"--so I guess I always thought mystery was too serious (and therefore too difficult) for me to enjoy or grasp.

My first pleasant surprise was reading The Hound of the Baskervilles--I expected to dislike it and I didn't. The same thing with Agatha Christie. I haven't read anything by her, or seen any of the movies or plays associated with her works. Because to me, Agatha Christie meant Old, Somber, Very, Very Serious stuff. I knew she had to be good at her craft for a reason, given how popular she is, but again, I had the presuppositions of the genre that kept me from exploring her work.

So when I read The Seven Dials Mystery, I was floored by how unbelievably fun it was. I was expecting something far more dark and sinister. And may I add, plot-based. I know the plot-based vs. character-based idea is old and somewhat disputed, but no matter how good a work of fiction is on both counts, I can still identify whether or not plot or character dominates.

I automatically assumed that the mystery genre would be entirely-plot based, considering that the big appeal of the genre is what happens, how it happens, and how to solve the case--the stories were designed to promote action, both in the plot, but also for the reader to actively participate in the story.

I got a vibe that with The Seven Dials Mystery, characterization was emphasized a teeny bit more than the plot. And if that's not Christie's intention, then I've goofed up somewhere. Because my favorite parts of the book pretty much dealt with character interactions and the incredibly fun dialogue. And I also feel like Christie was making one big eye wink to the genre (not just mysteries, but gothic intrigues and upper-class stories) as a whole, because it felt like she was playing with some tropes and then subverting them--often through humor. I much as I love the characters, they did feel like caricatures occasionally, but I feel like that's part of the appeal of the story. I love how Bundle deals with her father, and characters like MacDonald...and I loved the whole section where she's tried to fend off George Lomax's advances.

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I felt like her witty retorts to such characters weren't just about the situation as it was happening, but almost to the reader as well. There seems to be some self-awareness occurring in the text--for example, the characters remark more than once that the clues and plot resemble something out of another mystery book, or a play. There's also a couple of times where a character is referred to as either Sherlock or Watson. I think it's a way of Christie going, "Yes, you expect the story to do this, this, and this, because that's what mysteries do." I think she both honors the mystery tradition by adding these details, but again, uses reader expectations to her advantage in order to make the story and characters unpredictable.

I also feel like she's acknowledging other genres as well as cultural expectations. I think she plays with romance in that regard, especially with how the women in the book behave. First of all, Bundle is a great heroine--she's clever, funny, a bit mouthy, impulsive, and strong. Contrast that to Loraine, who more closely resembles the "ideal" female character that's been in fiction for years (as well as the expected societal depiction). I love that Bundle is suspicious of her submissiveness, but then backs off on that suspicion, only at the end to sort of mentally shake her fist for missing her role in the plot with Jimmy. Even the actress plays with stereotypes by taking on the role of the sexy Hungarian Countess. Each character defies a stereotype, and each character seems to take their love life into their own hands--there's no real arranged marriages or setups like that--the women are in charge of their minds and hearts.

So...as far as the mystery part of the story goes, I can't say that I feel fulfilled or unfulfilled in that regard. I briefly suspected Jimmy, then moved on to Bill and Pongo at different points in the story. The part that I felt the strongest about was my suspicion regarding Sir Oswald--when his wife was speaking to Jimmy in the garden, she mentioned that her husband was the wealthiest in all of England, but it was never enough for him, and he kept trying to grow in power--I thought for certain that was the mindset of a typical criminal.

I was pretty much wrong about everything, but I didn't really care. I had so much fun with this book. The characters and dialogue were so strong that even if Christie's plot wandered off into total absurdity, I would still close the book feeling fulfilled, because there was a clear resolution with each of the characters.