Tory Historian has never quite understood why the bien pensants otherwise known as people who never read detective stories, considering them to be inferior, but like pontificating consider Agatha Christie's novels to be particularly unrealistic. It is true that criminals are not always brought to justice (and they are not always in her novels either) but that is the premiss of that most conservative of genres, the detective story.
It is also true that she is often slapdash and cavalier about certain details, in particular dates, time spans, ages. All of that annoys Tory Historian as readers can imagine. This is so different from the silly but precise novels by Georgette Heyer. But when it comes to descriptions of life and social mores she is far more realistic and accurate than her contemporaries Ngaio Marsh or Margery Allingham.
The accusations that she wrote about large country houses and aristocratic families and parties is completely untrue. Her milieu was the middle class, her people almost entirely professionals, lawyers, doctors, clergymen, the occasional businessman, maybe members of the squierarchy like Colonel Bantry. That is why she managed to write well about changes in social life. The village in A Murder is Announced is very different from the village of Murder in the Vicarage. The people who may have had a couple of servants before the Second World War have maybe a foreign refugee, a cleaning woman or an au pair after it. The large households either disappear or are reinvented to suit some Hollywood star. All very realistic.
People who consider Raymond Chandler to be more realistic have, one assumes, read neither author but have dimly heard the expression about the man in the mean streets. Murder happens in mean streets and in well-appointed homes or flats shared by three middle-class girls. Are those convoluted, incomprehensible plots of Chandler's, full of wisecracking people truly realistic? Hardly.
So we come to Tory Historian's reading matter of the day and that is John Curran's Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks. Some interesting stuff about the way Christie developed her plots though after a while one loses interest in the minutiae of literary invention. There are also two stories that have never been published before, one called The Incident of the Dog's Ball, which, Mr Curran works out, was probably written in 1933 but never offered to Christie's agent. Readers of her novels will instantly recall one of her best, Dumb Witness, published in 1937. Mr Curran thinks the story was withheld because the author decided almost immediately to turn it into a novel. That seems a little odd. After all, Yellow Iris, which became Sparkling Cyanide, was published and Mr Curran lists several others. On the whole, Christie's novels are better than her short stories, entertaining though these often are. In that respect she is the opposite of Conan Doyle.
The Incident of the Dog's Ball is not bad but Dumb Witness is excellent if one forgets about the peculiar incident of Captain Hastings and the dog. At the beginning of the novel Hastings explains that he has just come back from Argentina, leaving his wife "Cinderella" Dulcie to manage the ranch while he deals with business matters in England. By the end of the novel he seems to have acquired a dog, settled back into English life an forgotten all about his wife, his ranch and Argentina. (Yet we know from later novels that he does go back. Most mysterious.)
The story does, however, show village life of the period in brisk and amusing fashion as is Christie's wont. In particular she destroys the myth of the wonderful food one could have in country inns and pubs back in the good old days, whenever these might have been. This is what Captain Hastings says:
Little Hemel we found to be a charming village, untouched in the miraculous way that villages can be when they are two miles from a main road. There was a hostelry called The George, and there we had lunch - a bad lunch I regret to say, as is the way at country inns.What wealth of suffering and realism lies in that last phrase.