Agatha Christie, whose prolific output and its attendant commercial success has earned herself unchallenged fame as the Queen of Crime, is far less than a champion as the progenitor of crime in fiction and much more the repeat offender of fiction crime. Those who would deny the validity of the latter claim probably don’t realize that much of Christie’s repute is staked on the aforementioned commercial success and prolificity and not from any close critical reading or any widely disseminated comprehension of her work’s cultural significance (positive, negative or otherwise).
In How Does Your Garden Grow, Agatha Christie engages in another exercise of shallow characterization and orientalization which serves to further justify criticisms of her literary talent. Granted, How Does Your Garden Grow is a much earlier example of Christie’s work and while it may seem a little unfair to judge her without taking into account her development as a writer in succeeding works, it still remains a telling indicator of the frame of mind with which she approaches the construction of a mystery plot and the telling of it.
How Does Your Garden Grow is just one of many stories featuring Hercule Poirot, an egg-headed private detective of short stature and possessed of a fastidious temperament matched only by his infrequently seen assistant, the homely yet hyper-efficient Miss Lemon. A bilingual of Belgian descent, Poirot is drawn to discover what lies under the perplexing circumstances of an old lady’s death when he receives a letter requesting his services just days before. Christie’s prose is, to put in a charitable way, rather un-engaging.
While events unfold in a rather brisk pace, sidestepping uneventful occurrences such as the means by which characters get from point A to point B, these are told in a rather muted fashion devoid of any stylistic signature. It is commendable to some extent, because it permits the readers the relief of not having to deal with needless scene to scene transitions thereby economizing the rate at which Christie’s tale unfolds, but it also falls short in being a fully engaging read. How Does Your Garden Grow begins with Hercule Poirot receiving a request for his services by mail from one Amelia Barrowby.
The letter is rather cryptic in its lack of particulars, with nary an allusion to the matter which compels her to ask for him, but less than a week after he has Miss Lemon return correspondence, he receives word that Barrowby has passed away. Poirot asks Miss Lemon to compose an invitational feint that permits him to invite himself to the neighborhood where Barrowby lives despite a reply from one Mary Delafontaine, Barrowby’s niece, dissuading him that the matter is no longer of importance.
When Poirot arrives at the Rosebank house where Barrowby lives, he observes that the garden is curiously lined with shells, and begins to chime the nursery rhyme, “Mary Quite Contrary” to himself. Poirot presents himself to the Delafontaines and their seemingly distrustful maid Katrina, operating on the little white lie that he has been out of town to receive their dissuasive mail or word of Barrowby’s death. While Katrina regards Poirot suspiciously, he soon encounters Mary Delafontaine to be contemptuously authoritative and her husband to be a largely deferential individual.
Poirot rapidly deduces that the Delafontaines have been engaging in accounting subterfuge, embezzling money from Barrowby. According to Poirot, Barrowby had begun to suspect their financial transgressions and it is on this suspicion that she had sent for his services. On the eve of Barrowby’s demise, the Delafontaines had poisoned her with strychnine laced oysters. After discovering that in addition to having left much of her financial legacy to Katrina, Barrowby had sent for Poirot, the Delafontaines feared being discovered.
In order to conceal their deed, they had snuck the strychnine into Katrina’s room and placed the oyster shells into the garden, essentially hiding the evidence in plain sight. The Delafontaines assumed that they had solved the problem of their crime and of the displeasing notion that their aunt’s legacy be left to some fresh off the boat Russian immigrant. However, Poirot’s attention to order and detail essentially pulls back the curtain behind their subterfuge, and the story closes with the essentially unresolved image of Poirot, prepared to take Mary Delafontaine to the authorities.
Kerridge (2007) observes that those who find fault in Christie’s style have a general disdain for her refusal to portray murder in a realistic fashion. This is characterized by the generally upbeat tone by which her novels were marketed — “A Christie for Christmas” — which “suggests that there is not much in her novels to upset festive cosiness. ” In effect, her sanitization of crime renders it so blandly inoffensive as to make “the worst of crimes into a parlor game.
” How Does Your Garden Grow is no exception in this regard. In addition to exemplifying Christie’s inclination towards a narrative economy and the clipped sense of transition which she so frequently employs, it also gives little regard to the psychological or moral implications of murder. The appreciation of any mystery is contingent on the means by which it sheds light on such human dimensions, but Christie has little interest in exploring her potential in that area.
The only function which murder serves in Christie’s oeuvre is its ability to provide her protagonists, whether it is Hercule Poirot, Jane Marple or the Beresford couple, some kind of puzzle to solve. In essence, murder is nothing but a mere McGuffin that grants her tales the narrative momentum necessary to give any conventional piece of fiction a point. Christie is also dependent on the use of stereotypes and excessively ordered comprehension of the world.
Mann (2007) infers that the ‘inhibited, regulated world’ which Christie was brought up in formed the prejudices which had led her to smoothen over the bumps which did not fit in with it. While the use of stereotypes as shorthand for characterization is not exclusive to Christie — Arthur Conan Doyle is equally guilty in this regard — it is certainly symptomatic of Christie’s disposition towards her craft. How Does Your Garden Grow relies on a shifty country mistress as the wrongdoer, a kindly old spinster as the victim, and a desperate immigrant Russian as the red herring.
All the characters are essentially transparent to Poirot, which saves Christie the effort of having to bestow any nuance to them. The Russian lass is just one many examples of Christie’s exoticization and orientalization of a construed ‘Other’. In the 21st century, Christie would be writing about impoverished Afghanis without immigration papers and moneyed old widows in Queens. As it stands, perhaps the only noteworthy aspect of Christie’s career is her workman-like dedication to her prolificity.
One thing is for sure, for all her faults as a storyteller, Christie maintained satisfaction in her ability to regularly produce commercially successful light reading in an age when most women novelists were still struggling with critical validation. REFERENCES Christie, A. (2008). How does your garden grow? Handout presented in English Composition II, Upper Iowa University, Online Program. Kerridge, J. (2007, November 11) The crimes of Agatha Christie. The Telegraph. Mann, J. (2007, September 20) Taking liberties with Agatha Christie. The Telegraph.
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