Despite being one of the most famous authors of all time, Agatha Christie has sometimes been criticized for featuring stale gender stereotypes in her books and plays. But in fact, she fought Victorian literary conventions, which saw women painted as frivolous and focused on men, to bring the public gutsy females with great minds. Christie’s women not only kept up with the boys but also generally outplayed them. Before her cerebral women sleuths arrived on the scene, female characters in detective novels were virtually always there for decoration.
Christie’s women crime-fighters sweep in to solve murders that leave police (men) flummoxed. Read on to learn more about four of Christie’s most formidable lady detectives and a few of her greatest female villains.
Tuppence Beresford is one half of a middle-class married couple who stumbles into private detective work. Partners in Crime, imaginatively resurrected by the BBC (the latest adaptation stars Jessica Raine, (Call the Midwife) and David Walliams (Little Britain)), sees the crime-solving couple thrust into an investigation of the disappearance of a mysterious woman they meet on a train. Tuppence throws herself headlong into the mystery, which leads the pair to uncover a high-level assassination plot that has British Intelligence on high alert. From the outset, it’s clear that Tuppence has a greater sense of adventure than her occasionally befuddled husband, Tommy.
A spirited sleuth with a gift for sniffing out deception, Tuppence also has a penchant for precarious situations—not to mention a stylish hat to suit every occasion. Of course, this most recent retelling is a heavily embroidered version of Christie’s original tale and cast. Even the period has been changed from post-Great War to sometime after World War II. Still, it’s impossible to imagine the author objecting to the depiction of Tuppence—a thoroughly modern woman (often wearing trousers, no less!)—leading her homebody husband into the adventure of a lifetime.
A no-nonsense crime novelist and friend to Hercule Poirot, Ariadne Oliver is thought to be the author’s closest attempt at creating a doppelganger. “I never take my stories from real life,” said Christie in a 1956 interview. “But the character of Ariadne Oliver does have a strong dash of myself.”
Oliver, we learn, is fed up with her most famous male creation, Finnish vegetarian detective, Sven Hjerson. Similarly, Christie was well known to have grown frustrated with the “egotist” Poirot, and ended up killing him off.
It was through her depiction of Oliver that some of Christie’s “girl power” sentiments became obvious: “You men,” says Oliver in Mrs McGinty’s Dead. “Now if a woman were the head of Scotland Yard…” In the same tale, she grumbles, “Men are so slow. I’ll soon tell you who did it.” These lines may not read like particularly dynamic feminism, but for the time the story was published – 1952 – it was impressively forthright.
The elderly spinster Miss Jane Marple is the author’s most famous female sleuth—and the best in the business. Originally introduced in a book of Christie’s short stories, The Thirteen Problems, she went on to solve murders in 12 novels. And, like all Christie’s women detectives, Marple was an expert at wrapping her brain around complicated crimes brilliantly plotted by her creator.
Marple often self-deprecatingly attributes her success to female intuition. In fact, she has a Sherlock Holmes-like ability to unpick every detail of a crime and make logical links that no one else—including most readers and viewers—can fathom until they’re explained. Once she has her murderer and methodology pinned, Marple gathers the players into one place—usually a stately drawing room—and breaks everything down for them.
Lady Eileen “Bundle” Brent
“Bundle” appears in two of Christie’s mysteries: The Secret of Chimneys and The Seven Dials Mystery. A product of the Roaring 20s, Bundle is a feisty flapper who loves to drive fast (a rarity for women of the era), once causing a male character to remark that he is “terrified” of being a passenger in her car. Bundle’s gearhead tendencies may be a sly reference to Christie herself, who made a point of driving unaccompanied. In The Seven Dials Mystery, the amateur sleuth fearlessly investigates a secret society linked with two deaths.
Christie didn’t stop at her campaign to prove, via her female detectives, that women are a match for men intellectually. She also wanted you to see them as flawed and, potentially, murderous—just like their male counterparts. Often her whodunits featured a female killer. Before Christie, women in literature were rarely cold-blooded murderers – let alone smart, cunning ones. But in Murder at the Vicarage—spoiler alert—the culprit is exposed as the churchwarden’s disgruntled wife, Anne Protheroe. In Christie’s works, women are men’s equals in everything, including crime.
Protheroe wasn’t Christie’s only lady villain, as the famous Belgian detective Poirot discovers in this clip from Death on the Nile.
September 2015 marks the 125th anniversary of Agatha Christie’s birth. While some of her works may seem like relics from an era defined by manners and mansions, her portrayal of the so-called “fairer sex” was years ahead of its time. Small-screen adaptations, including Partners in Crime, continue to celebrate Christie’s women detectives, whether they solve crimes through drawing-room deductions or take a rather more physical approach like Tuppence, who uses a lovely vase to great effect in this clip:
Do you consider Agatha Christie to have been a feminist?Read More