The Christie Completists Transcript

Caroline: Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. I talk a lot on this show about the work of Agatha Christie. I mean, how could I not? She’s the best known writer of whodunnits and published her first book in 1920, right around the beginning of the period known as the golden Age of detective Fiction that I cover on this podcast. Over the course of her long life, she published 66 detective novels and numerous short story collections, many of which will be well-known to listeners, I’m sure.

But although I think I’ve read all of her works now, I’ve done so haphazardly over the 20 years or so that I’ve been engaged with her writing. My first Christie was one that I found on a shelf at a bed and breakfast while on holiday, and I picked up others at random as I came across them in charity shops or in libraries before I eventually started collecting them for myself. What I’ve never done is read them all in order. I’ve never had the experience of observing how her work matured and changed over the decades that she was publishing, nor seeing how her whodunnits gradually documented the changes in life and attitudes from the 1920s to the 1970s. But as it happens, I know two people who have done this Catherine Brobeck and Kemper Donovan, hosts of the All About Agatha podcast. And since 2016, they’ve been reading their way through Agatha Christie’s bibliography in order episode by episode. I’m delighted to welcome them to Shedunnit today to share some of what they’ve learnt about the Queen of Crime on the way, the good and the bad.

Caroline: What drew you to Agatha Christie in the first place?

Kemper: I was always an avid reader when I was younger, and we’ve actually joked about this quite a bit on the podcast that Agatha Christie is an author that a lot of avid readers find quite early on, almost using as a bridge from children’s literature, so to speak, to more adult things, because Agatha Christie is very much not children’s literature. She was actually very adamant about that. She did not like when people called her books, you know, juvenilia or Y.A. or anything like that. But I think that a lot of younger readers who are, you know, really keen on just reading do find her because she’s so available. And I suppose that’s why I just, you know, initially gravitated toward these texts and started reading them. And then I found them as irresistible as two billion people apparently have. And the rest is history.

Caroline: Catherine, what was your Christie origin story? What was your first one?

Catherine: My mother loves Agatha Christie and also she loved PBS, so our public television station in the United States. And so as a very, very little girl, I would sit on her lap and watch Poirot. And so I was a pretty early reader. And so I read a lot of Nancy Drew. And when I could graduate from that, I graduated to my mother’s massive collection of like 1970s paperback copies of Christie.

Caroline: And do you remember which was the first one was or was it more of a general immersion?

Catherine: It was probably something quite bad, to be completely honest, Caroline. It was probably, you know, something from that 60s period. It was probably like an Elephants Can Remember kind of situation.

Caroline: Yes, that’s often the case I find with people who come to it very young because obviously you’ve got no prior information to tell you where to go. And also by that point, she was so famous that those were kind of the most ubiquitous books because they were printing so many of them.

Catherine: Right. And so, of course, they were copies of them. And so I’m sure I’m sure it was something. It was that or maybe, um, maybe Hallowe’en Party. I mean, something like that was definitely one of the earliest ones. And I just literally pulled them off the bookshelf. I mean, there was no order in mind, which makes our project especially odd, given that I don’t think either company or I read them in any particular order whatsoever.

Caroline: So as you alluded to there, Catherine, you know, your project of reading everything Christie wrote in order, when did that first come to mind and how did you decide to embark on it?

Catherine: We know exactly where we were. That’s the funniest thing about it. It’s not just some harebrained scheme. Like, I bet you I could describe what we were eating. Don’t you think Kemper?

Kemper: Yes, absolutely.

Catherine: We were sitting in a restaurant in Beverly Hills and I had been noting to Kemper that I would like to start a podcast and he didn’t want to do the topic that I had wanted. But he was very keen on the notion sort of based around it, which is, again, a transitional reading. And what is really influential to you when you’re young. And for both of us and we know that it’s Christie. And so Kamper basically said, well, I don’t want to do your idea, but we could do Christie.

Kemper: I remember it a little bit differently, actually. I remember talking about the fact that I was telling Catherine that she should do a podcast, because I think that Katherine has a fantastic and distinctive voice. And I remember her saying, well, you know, maybe but I don’t even know what I would do it on. And then we were sort of and we had obviously developed this little like side pocket part of our relationship in which we would talk about how good the Christie and mysteries end and that I kind of grew organically from there. So somewhere in between those two origin stories.

Caroline: And so the idea of Christie was established. And where did the idea of reading her in order come from?

Catherine: Well, start at the very beginning. It’s a very good place to start.

Caroline: For sure. And as you’ve been doing it for years now, is there a sense that you’re getting to know Christie differently than you had prior to this project?

Kemper: Oh, yes, absolutely. And a lot of different ways, yeah.

Catherine: I mean, I find no I don’t know, we’ve talked about this, obviously, and, you know, there’s no bigger fan of Christie’s autobiography than Kemper Donovan. But I would say that I have found it. This is probably going to sound a little bit silly, but as a woman I have found it really interesting to read her in order because there is a sort of hopeful joie de vivre at the beginning, especially in some of the short stories, in Tommy and Tuppence and even in something like The Secret of Chimney’s, and that ends up vanishing, you know.

Caroline: Yes, I suppose that’s right. She does, her characters anyway, become more world weary, perhaps, and experienced as she did herself.

Catherine: Mm hmm. Don’t you think, Kemper?

Kemper: No, I do. I think that in general, because so many people experience Christie in this one off sort of a way where, you know, you pick up a book at random or nearly at random, you read it, you enjoy it, you put it down. Then maybe a few months or a few years later, you pick up another book. You might not even be aware of where it is in the chronology. That’s certainly how I read Christie before doing the podcast and doing it in any sort of systematic way. I think for that reason there’s often a sort of static or even flattened nature to Christie settings, or at least that’s how they’re perceived by a lot of readers. And I think the other major reason that that happens is a lot of people experience Christie first, if not foremost, through the at the many, many adaptations of her novels that exist. And many of those adaptations are very purposely set in a static time period. We talk a lot about this on our podcast, but the David Suchet series, which is quite beloved by us and so many others, you know, is set pretty much in 1936 or thereabouts for the entire series. And when you read Christie in order, as opposed to just picking up a novel here and there, you really, I think, gain an appreciation for how much her novels are not set in a, you know, a pretend sort of place that doesn’t exist, which again is a sort of popular conception, but they’re very much set in the real world. And because of that, her settings do change. And the tone of the books changes very much from the bubbly 1920s. You know that it’s such a contrast, those books, when you’re comparing the post-war but the post-World War Two books are just remarkable for how much she’s really commenting on the erosion of the servant class. And this notion that the well-ordered lifestyle in which every neighbour knew every other neighbour is just gone, and she leaves that into the very mysteries that she is telling, which is, you know, so brilliant. So I’m constantly struck as we’re reading them in order by just how anchored Agatha Christie’s books, in fact, are in the real world. And I think that’s something that’s a statement that I think would shock a lot of a lot of true fans of Christie, because if you’re not reading it that way, that that just may not come across.

Caroline: That makes a lot of sense. Yeah, I definitely remember I think it’s A Murder is Announced that really triggered that for me. When it’s all about before the war, we would have known everybody who lived in this village because we would have known that parents and grandparents and now people just arrive and they don’t bring letters of introduction from other people that we’ve known and who who knows if anyone is who they say they are. That’s the that’s the big one that I think does it most brilliantly.

Kemper: Also Taken at the Flood.

Catherine: Yeah, no, I think that you really see that and there but I think that when you read them chronologically, you get something like a comparison that can be made between a Peril at End House and Hickory Dickory Dock and her viewpoint becomes so odd by Hickory Dickory Dock. I mean odd from our perspective in 2020. I think that she was trying to be inclusive and perhaps not doing it so well. But there is a notion also of the bright young things having sort of fallen apart, you know.

Caroline: Yeah, that’s something else I wanted to ask you about as well, actually, because I think from having done this, reading through in order, you’re very well placed to comment on Christie’s prejudices and her description of prejudice and how that’s changed as well. I know this is something that you cover a lot on the podcast as well, but tell me a bit about that.

Kemper: Well, yeah, I mean, I think it’s impossible if you’re going to read Christie in 2020 and do any sort of a thorough analysis of what that experience is like not to address the sometimes jarring experience of of reading Christie when it comes to depictions of race, class, sexual orientation, gender, nationality, religion, et cetera, et cetera. And for that reason we really don’t shy away from it. And when when we’re ranking the books, which is, you know, more just supposed to be a fun exercise than anything else, because we do realise what a subjective sort of thing this is. But when we, too, are ranking the books, we do sometimes deduct points from books if those elements, which we call “stuck in its time” elements, mar the reading experience. And sometimes they really do. Sometimes they don’t. Actually, it really depends on the book. But, you know, one thing I would say is that I think the reason why those elements are often there is that Christie actually was grappling with a lot of different themes and interests beyond just the murder plot that she was telling. So I think, you know, it’s important to give her credit for the fact that she was actually biting off a lot in these books and more than she is often given credit for. And sometimes she quits herself better than others. And then, of course, there’s also just the fact that it’s very unusual to have, you know, written books as long ago as she did, but still but to still be, as you know, vigorously and vibrantly in print as she is and to be as widely read as she is, I think there are a ton of other authors who simply just aren’t read who were writing exactly as she did in her time. And she’s the one that we get to judge because we still read her books.

Catherine: I mean, I think that if you make a point about the largest read mystery novelists say you can also look at Arthur Conan Doyle, obviously, and he has a much lesser breadth of work than Christie did over a much shorter amount of time, and it’s much more contained. So she is writing about social aspects that don’t necessarily come up in other works. And she is trying to cover, I think, an expansive space that obviously lasted, you know, decades. And clearly people’s viewpoints change. I mean, I think that we can even acknowledge that about ourselves. And, you know, I I think that part of the pleasure of reading them chronologically, as we’ve done, is to explore that because it gives you a better understanding about how perceptions change over time and about how that also might impact your own reading.

Caroline: I’m really interested in what you said there about how sometimes those stuck in their time elements really marred the reading experience and sometimes they don’t. I wonder if you could give us an example of when that’s been true and when it hasn’t?

Kemper: Well, I think Hickory Dickory Dock as an easy example of a mystery in which stuck in its time elements mar the read. I mean, as Catherine alluded to, I think she really actually was. I think there are good intentions behind Hickory Dickory Dock. I think that, you know, this was Christie setting a mystery in what we, at least in the States, would call a student hostel, a sort of a short term living space in which college age or university age or slightly older people live a little bit more communally perhaps than full fledged adults, which is a great space in which to have a mystery because there are a lot of, you know, intricacies amongst the relationships that would exist in such a space. That’s great. And Christie didn’t shy away from the fact that within these hostels in the 50s, there were a lot of non-white people. A lot of these students came from abroad, they came from Africa, they came from India. And she includes a lot of those characters in the novel. But she does so in a way that reads problematically, I think, to a typical 21st century reader in that she often focuses almost obsessively on their appearance. There’s a lot of joking that happens not just amongst the characters, but even from the narrator as to some of the beliefs and and just the the kind of habits and mores of these characters, that just feels a little, you know, kind of what’s what’s the word I’m looking for, Catherine?

Catherine: Well, it feels a little bit reductive. And like one of the things Caroline, I don’t know how it was in the U.K. exactly, but we had a trend probably when I was in high school ish about multiculturalism. As in that should be the raison in learning and it’s all obviously fallen out of popularity because it was reductive. And I think that you see that where she’s trying, it’s like there are a bunch of boxes being ticked and none of them are being ticked very well. And so instead, you get this sort of mishmash of Christie’s version of England as she knows it, and then trying to pop in these other characters and it doesn’t really work honestly.

Kemper: It feels as though those characters are being belittled. And I think if we wanted to make an even stronger statement, you could even say that there’s it almost feels as though there’s a little bit of kind of contempt in the way that they are being portrayed. And I don’t think that that is intentional at all. But I do think it’s because there’s a bit of a superficial aspect to the way that those characters are created as opposed to the white characters in the mystery. And we are constantly talking about the fact that even though some will claim that Christie created cardboard characters or they were just stock types and they didn’t actually have any depth to them, you know, I will deny that to my dying day. I mean, I think if you read the text, it’s just not true. In some of the novels. It’s true. There are some novels that are better than others. But in some of the some of her best, she has characters that are just as three dimensional as characters in any literary novel you you could pick up. So she can do it. It just it it felt as if this was an exercise and one in which she she just wasn’t giving the same space and depth and breath to the those characters. And the overall experience is just definitely disturbing.

Catherine: And it’s ironic because if you think of her most well-known creation is one Hercule Poirot who is Belgian, he is a refugee. He is kind of has mysterious past. You know, we get bits and pieces of it over the course of all the novels. And he’s uttered in a particular way. Right. Because he you know, and it’s to his benefit at some level to a greater degree. You get it with her understanding of ageism, Miss Marple. And they’re both sort of operating outside of systems because they are othered. And so, I mean, I think that if you’re reading that, there’s some actually very kind of progressive ideas happening there, but then you put them in context of, you know, again, I feel so bad for Hickory Dickory Dock because we don’t like it very much and we use it as the go to.

Kemper: Flogging horse.

Catherine: Yes.

Caroline: Well, let’s switch to what would you say is a book or a story where you get one of those sort of stuck in time moments, but it doesn’t affect your enjoyment of it?

Kemper: Well, I think there are a lot of books actually in which the stuck in its time elements are throwaway, for lack of a better word. You know, there are some novels and like a Hickory Dickory Dock in which it really just is, you know, it subsumes the book. It’s present in such a thoroughgoing way that it’s impossible to escape to a certain extent. A novel that we just covered, Ordeal by Innocence, has a similar kind of issue, you know, in that its preoccupations with blood ties.

Catherine: I find that Kemper to be almost more offensive, you know?

Kemper: Oh, no, no, no. I’m saying that yeah, that’s what I’m saying. Like, I think that the Ordeal by Innocence, with this obsession with blood ties and, you know, like the viability of adoption as a way of creating a family is another one where it’s inescapable. And yeah, I mean, I actually find even though I think Ordeal by Innocence is a much better mystery and just a much better overall novel than Hickory Dickory Dock, I find it every bit as disturbing in terms of the stuck in its time elements as Hickory Dickory Dock. It’s easier, I think, to use Hickory Dickory Dock because it’s also just not as strong of a mystery. So it’s kind of just firing on no cylinders, so to speak. But there are a lot of books, a lot of her books in which you might get a you know, I guess Lord Edgware Dies is one that comes to mind where there are moments of anti-Semitism in it that are searing in the moment in the in, you know, down to the sentence in which you read it. So it feels like a pinprick almost as you reading where you’re like, oh, oh, that was awful. But it doesn’t you know, it doesn’t colour the overall read in the overall sense of the mystery or the reading experience.

Catherine: Well, I mean, I think that the worst example, which we rank very highly and which I think both of us love and which we’ve obviously just mentioned, is Peril at End House, because it is like this wonderfully rendered depiction of these. It’s like it’s a little bit A Secret History sort of thing long, long before Donna Tartt wrote that. And it really, really falls in line with the changing sort of views of the world on society, whatever, you know. Long story short, the very end of the novel is basically like, oh, I’m also, you know, this Jewish character cheated everybody out of a bunch of money on paintings else. And it’s just it’s terrible because you read the entire thing and the very end of it is that.

Caroline: It’s like the little throwaway gag at the end, isn’t it? It’s like a kind of if it was a television show, it would be like the little smile before the credits.

Kemper: And I think some of it obviously I mean, this is a pretty obvious thing to say. But some of it also comes down to, of course, what your own personal experience and biases are. As a reader, you know, neither Catherine nor myself is Jewish. So perhaps some of those, you know, novels in which there are even what we would term throw away anti-Semitic references, maybe they don’t seem to throw away to someone, you know, who who might be affected by them more than we I you know, we talked a bit in our Ordeal by Innocence episode why we particularly and personally were as affected as we were by, you know, some of the stuff in his time element in that novel.

Caroline: After the break, which is the best Agatha Christie, really?

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Caroline: I wanted to ask you, can you tell me about your ranking system, because this fascinates me and I think it’s so interesting.

Kemper: It’s a bit rudimentary, I’m always, for some reason, a little embarrassed when we actually have to talk about our, you know, our ranking categories, because I think they’re pretty basic. But, you know, we essentially break down each of the novels into some pretty standard, you know, sort of aspects of writing and reading a book. So there are there are five of them. And the first two have to do with plot. Plot is obviously key to mysteries and then to Christie. And our first is just plot mechanics. So it’s kind of, you know, the workings of the plot. How elaborate is it? Does she pull it off? Is everything sort of are the loose ends tied up or is it all is it all kind of working the way that it should? You know, often Christi’s plots are just absolutely brilliant. Sometimes they’re a little bit less. So she wrote 66 novels. So there’s going to be some variation there. The next category is, is plot credibility, which is where we tend to be able to do our nit picking that I think Mr. Mystery readers love to do in which we talk about whether or not this mystery plot would actually happen in real life. And, you know, I we do realise that verisimilitude is not necessarily what a mystery writer and especially a mystery writer like Christie is going for. Sometimes half the fun is that this never would have actually happened in real life. And, you know, the mechanisms of the plot.

Catherine: Are you saying are you saying no. That not a bunch of random strangers would travel to an offshore island via a random strangers request? Is that not typical with normal life? Because I’ve been doing things I’ve been doing things wrong, clearly, if that’s the case.

Kemper: Well, funnily enough, I believe I don’t have the grid in front of me, but I believe that on plot credibility And Then There Were None actually did quite well because this isn’t really spoiling anything but the the murderer in that novel is a psychopath and it’s this outlandish psychopathic scheme. And, yes, it’s quite believable that the murderer would have come up with this plot and actually even been able to enact it and and kind of orchestrate matters to get everyone on to that island. So, yeah, I mean, we were often kind of, I think, approaching that category with a little bit of a wink. But it is kind of fun to just suss out whether or how the plot would have would have actually happened within real life.

Then we have two character categories. The first is series long characters. So that’s often our detective character, especially if it’s a Poirot or a Marple or a Tommy and Tuppence or a Superintendent Battle or a Colonel Race. They’re actually more serious long characters in Christie than just Poirot and Marple. And then our second character category just has to do with characters within that specific book. And we’re just in those categories talking about the strength of characterisation. And again, I think Christie gets a bad rap for her character work. And quite often I think she is superb in how she creates characters and not only just creating characters on the page, but using character as a means of creating obfuscation and then ultimately solving a mystery. And I think in her very best mysteries, that’s something that I think I’ve been able to clarify as a result of this project we’re doing. That is something that I think is often happening in the very best of her mysteries. Character is integral to the solving of the mystery. It’s certainly the case in Five Little Pigs, for example, Evil under the Sun is another one I often use as an example.

Catherine: I think also we also just like randomly like we love Sad Cypress. And that’s one I think that she’s doing something truly original with with character, work and structure and does not get enough credit, right?

Kemper: Absolutely.

Caroline: So Five Little Pigs, Sad Cypress, Evil under the Sun. What are the novels of hers have come highly in the system so far?

Kemper: Well, we I mean, our top 10 is consists of and then there are Five Little Pigs, And Then There Were None, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The Hollow, Death on the Nile is is right up there. Orient Express, obviously, Murder on the Orient Express, The Murder at the Vicarage, as well as actually another another favourite, I think, of both of ours.

Caroline: It’s interesting because I think there is also a tendency as a stereotype about Christie to think that most of the good ones came quite early on and that what happened from sort of the fifties onwards was just a sort of steady decline. But your ranking would suggest that that’s not entirely the case.

Kemper: Yeah, it’s funny. When I was thinking about what we were going to talk about when you said, oh, I want to you know, I want to ask you about what’s your experience reading Christie as completists. I think the most obvious answer is that there’s this narrative, this sort of meta narrative built up amongst Christie readers that, yeah, she was she was brilliant. She was pretty much a genius. But then she really had a decline that started somewhere in the 50s through until the early 70s, which was when she stopped writing original material, you know, and then passing away in 1976. And it’s just not true. I think that, again, obviously our experience of the novels is subjective, but I’ve been struck by the fact that in every single decade there are gems of novels and stinkers of novels.

So she’ll often crank out a masterpiece followed by a clunker, followed by a masterpiece, followed by a clunker. All relatively speaking, of course, we cherish even the clunkers within the Christie canon. But yeah, and I mean, I could point to good and bad novels in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and we haven’t gotten to the 60s yet. But, you know, I can say that I’m very much looking forward to The Pale Horse, Endless Night. You know, those are two novels that are in the 60s that I think are just wonderful.

Caroline: Before we leave rankings, one last thing I want to ask you was what’s wrong with The Secret at Chimneys?

Catherine: So funny. So funny you should ask. It’s funny you should ask. Kemper hates it more than me, which is funny because I had one of the worst experiences writing it. I was like in a particularly bad work position at the time and had an awful time reading it. Just awful. It was one of those things Caroline like I would have, you know, rather bash my head against a wall than keep reading it and Kemper somehow in that context somehow dislikes it more than me.

Caroline: So Kemper?

Kemper: It’s well, you know what, The Secret of Chimneys for me is one of those books where the stuck in his time element significantly mar the read because it is an extremely xenophobic anti and anti Semitic book and it is meant to be light-hearted and frolic some and frivolous and fun. And I find that contrast to be really distasteful. So I think that that’s one area in which the book, I’m sure, worked a lot better when it was published, because I think, you know, the the depictions wouldn’t have, you know, obviously wouldn’t have jarred as much for a contemporary reading audience.

And otherwise, it’s the thing I think that also a lot of people forget when it comes to Christie is that she didn’t just write mysteries. She also wrote these thrillers. Right. And they really are peppered throughout her career. I mean, she did she was doing thrillers even in the 50s. We covered They Came to Baghdad and Destination Unknown, those were both written in the 50s and in the 60s. Well, we’ll have one or two as well. But she wrote a lot of them in the 20s early on, and one of them is actually one of our favourites. We it’s become just a running joke on our podcast that we are the biggest Man in the Brown Suit stans. We just can’t get enough of it. We just want to talk about it all the time like we love Anne Bedingfield she’s our jam. But Secret of Chimneys just just doesn’t work for me in the same way. And I think with those kinds of, you know, linearly constructed thrillers, either the story really works for you or it really doesn’t. There’s not a whole lot to, you know, sort of hold on to is there sometimes is in mysteries where you can at least point to, oh, well, I really like that clue because that was so clever or the twist didn’t work for me. On the way there, everything about the resolution, you know, I was very gripping, et cetera, et cetera. I think it just either sometimes it’s a little bit more black and white and that’s just one word. The Secret of Chimneys just does not work for me. And I just found it to be a miserable reading experience, but not not the most miserable reading experience out of any Christie.

Caroline: And I want to ask you as well about the perspective of reading these books as Americans, because I think they will, you know, hit different people differently wherever they are and whoever they are, but specifically from your perspective on the other side of the Atlantic, how does Agatha Christie strike you?

Catherine: Um, I think both of us have, like, basically been brought up reading. British novels. And so I actually find that a little bit hard to even parse because I think that, you know, I just think of even like Jane Austen as part of my DNA, like if I’m going to think about something, I’m going to, like, bring up a reference to Šamaš or, you know, understandability ability. And and so Christie falls under the same camp. It’s just part of my DNA. And I don’t know that, um. I mean, society wise, of course, there’s a difference between America and the U.K., but I don’t think. I don’t think that changes my reading at all. I don’t know. What do you think?

Kemper: No, I think we’re definitely both Anglophiles. So it’s true that we we’ve grown up. And I think I think actually, again, this this kind of dovetails with your first question or at least my answer to your first question in that I think a lot of readers of Christie in the US specifically are readers who tend to read a lot of literature that comes out of the U.K. And I think there is there’s a you know, there’s just a danger with any sort of love from afar of potentially fetishising or misperceiving elements of a culture that you’re not a part of.

But that’s not Christie specific, you know. And again, I think because Christie is so widely read, perhaps it happens for more people vis a vis Christie than other authors simply because they’re reading her more. But, you know, I think as we’ve been discussing these these novels a little bit more deeply and thoroughly on the podcast, we do often have to remind ourselves that when it comes to elements of race or class, there’s just a different history and a different kind of, you know, cultural standpoint from which Christie and anyone within the U.K. is attacking those those topics than in the U.S., which has its own extremely specific context for race and for class, especially for race. Right. It’s very difficult to talk about race for race between, you know, from as an American about race in general. And and just to not specify, well, where is this happening and who is involved and what you know, you really if you don’t get specific, I think the conversation loses a lot of its value. So, you know, we often just have to remind ourselves of that and get specific.

Catherine: You know, we had we had a joke. We were interviewing our dear friend, Sophie Hannah. And this was about a year ago, I guess. And she had said the denoumoent of her last book in Florida. And we had to explain to her the concept of the Florida man and why Florida is a problem in the United States. And it’s so specific. But like any American would know that immediately. And, you know, there are elements of that, right. That it’s a specific regionalism that you would not fully necessarily understand. Like, I don’t think Kemper and I can fully comprehend the nuances of Devon.

Caroline: No, true, and Cornwall as opposed to Devon and so on.

Kemper: Exactly right.

Caroline: And yeah. So I think that that comes up and, you know, colonialism. Well, the United States is certainly responsible for its own share of foreign exploits. It’s not the same history as, you know, Britain. And so that comes with a different context that we can’t quite probably understand.

Caroline: And there are sort of smaller and more light-hearted examples as well. I will never forget the hundreds and thousands.

Catherine: Nobody, Caroline, nobody will ever forget that.

Caroline: Well, yeah, we should explain for listeners, this was to do with a short story in the Thirteen Problems. Yes. And hundreds and thousands are a well-known British sort of confectionery item. Turns out they’re not very well known on the other side of the Atlantic.

Kemper: Not not by that name. They’re not.

Caroline: What do you call them?

Kemper: Sprinkles. That is probably our you know, our our most commented on.

Catherine: It’s our bete noire. Sometimes we get new listeners and they’ll just be trying to be very helpful.

Caroline: And they’re still telling you about it.

Kemper: Oh, always. Because you have people are constantly discovering the podcast and they’re working their way through our back catalogue. And we’ll we’ll get Facebook posts, we’ll get tweets, direct messages, emails. We’ve had people you know, we’ve we’ve seen so many pictures of little bottles of hundreds and thousands from the U.K. We now know that fairy bread is a very specific children’s birthday party treat that is served in Australia, which involves basically like Wonder Bread, like cheap white bread with butter, and then hundreds and thousands sprinkled on it. It looks fantastic. I don’t know exactly how good that would taste, but, you know, no, judgement.

Caroline: My mother is a South African. That’s the thing in South Africa as well. She used to do that when we were children. It does not taste good. I don’t like it.

Catherine: Why would it why would it taste good? It’s a wonder bread and basically flavourless like sugar drop flavourless sugar mixed with lard.

Kemper: We also one of my favourites. I mean, at this point, I just whenever I have to pronounce any proper noun, like any place, name or or non obvious person’s name on the podcast, I’m just going to mention Rattle that I that I mispronounce it. No, well, I bought it. I mean, two things. We also spend an entire episode. There’s an Agatha Christie short story titled Death on the Nile, actually, which is a Parker Pyne short story, not the more much more famous novel Poirot novel. And there she mentions Bovril in that story. And we spent our entire episode pronouncing it Bovril because the derivation of the word has to do with like like cow bovine. I think it makes perfect sense that it would be pronounced Bovril. So many people also, you know, let us know, like, it’s driving me insane, you say it like fifty times in the episode and it’s so wrong.

Caroline: You’re right. That does make perfect sense in terms of pronunciation. But when has good sense ever got in the way of how British people talk?

Kemper: Of how just the English language in general, when when has the English language ever made any sort of sense?

Catherine: I love the Rathole one because we kept joking the entire episode about a place called a rat hole in Cornwall and Cornish pronunciation. Right. Kind of like slurs down the letters. And so people, it’s not a real place, but there are other places that are similarly named, right. And so people just kept massaging us over and over and over again. Oh, I’m sure it’s called Rattle, you know.

Kemper: On the light-hearted front, when you’re an American and you read Christie, at least I always noticed the fact that when she does have American characters, they tend to have really outlandish, elaborate names like their first name is something super weird, like not super weird, but just like kind of, you know, grandiose sounding and often has a van in front of it. So it will be like Cyrus Van Helsing, you know, or just the names are just often ridiculous and they’re nine times out of ten extremely rich as well.

Catherine: And it’s also like Caroline have you seen the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off?

Caroline: Yes.

Catherine: Where he says he’s Abe Frommer the sausage king of Chicago? I figure every single American character in the Christie novel is basically Abe Frommer the sausage king of Chicago.

Caroline: Yes. Yeah, you’re right. That is definitely it. They’re always described as being, you know, big in wheat or big in oil or something like that.

Kemper: One of them is a it was a rare Christie reference to California. He was the cucumber king from California. That was a favourite.

Caroline: That is excellent. I don’t even know how you are a cucumber king.

Catherine: You know, I have to imagine it’s a little bit rare.

Caroline: So, yes, also, you’re right, no one of any other nationality is ever a king or.

Catherine: You get quite a number of like Russian ballerinas.

Caroline: Yes, definitely. We might be undermining all of Kemper’s good points about how Christie doesn’t do stock characters.

Kemper: Well, that’s the great thing about Christie, though. I mean, it’s kind of the joy of our podcast. But just I think her readership in general, when you write as much as she did, it’s sort of like the Bible. The Bible’s really long. There’s a lot to pick and choose from. So if you want to make a point or you want to prove, you know, a certain hypothesis or something, you can cherry pick whatever you want. And if you pretty much want to make any point about Christie, you can because there’s something there in the text. So if you want to find an example of a character poorly drawn, of course you can find that. But you certainly can find many examples of the opposite as well.

Caroline: And just to finish up, I wanted to ask, would you recommend this chronological and completist approach to Agatha Christie’s work?

Catherine: I don’t think I don’t think that the recommendation to be made you should read books for pleasure. And unless you are doing something as a grand scale project, I don’t think it necessarily matters, especially because she does not have a serialised detective or really I mean, Poirot and Marple, you could read them out of order and it would be fine, you know, I mean, I guess at the end of the day, like reading should be both for, you know, illumination and education in some ways, but also to just be for joy, and if you want to just pick up, you know, some. By the 60s, you know, again, like Hallowe’en Party or something, let’s not not bad per say, but, you know, if you just want to pick that up, if you’ve never read a single other one, I’m sure you would actually just enjoy it. You don’t have to be pedantic about it. And I don’t think that’s necessary at all.

Kemper: I think that the important point to make is that it’s not necessary to enjoy and appreciate Christie to read it, to read Christie the way that we are. So I certainly have gotten a lot more out of my readers on Christie doing what we’ve done. But what we’re doing is also a little insane and a little obsessive. So it’s not something that I think, you know, we would expect a lot of other readers to do. I think you do gain a much deeper insight into what she’s doing and in particular, the kind of writer that she was. So that, you know, the fact that she did create characters with a ton of depth and complexity and the fact that even though in some of these novels, she is essentially recycling the same plot but but seeing and gaining an appreciation for the fact that she what she was able to do there was create an entirely different world and an entirely different setting with an entirely different feel and tone to it. Like for me, that gives an appreciation that this is someone who did more than just create complex and intricate plots. She’s so much more than that. So it gives me, you know, I think a deep sense of satisfaction to be able to point to that as the reason why I love Christie as much as I as I do, because I think that’s also at the heart of why we’re doing this. We love Christie so much that it’s almost that itself is a mystery. Like why is this this one author and her novels? Why do I love them as much as I do? Because I really love them so much more than other mysteries. And I love mysteries in general. But there’s something about Christie specifically. Nothing gives me as much comfort and pleasure and satisfaction as Christie. And why is that? Because it’s not obvious. You know, it’s not obvious. And I think because it’s not obvious. A lot of people just kind of shrug their shoulders and say, I don’t know, I guess, you know, and then they think up answers that aren’t really based on textual evidence where they say, well, I guess it’s because she said everything and dreamy, faraway places that don’t really exist. So this is just wish fulfilment and escapism and that’s it. And, you know, that’s not really true. So I think for for us, you know, our experience of Christie has certainly been greatly enhanced by by the project and perhaps for other people, because I think a lot of people feel that way about Christie that that it is Christie in particular that who who speaks to them? You know, these texts speak to them somehow, especially at times like what we’re going through a hard year, like 20, 20. So to that extent, I you know, I would recommend doing this. But I think that to appreciate Christie the way most people do, you can certainly just pick up a book, you know, at at pretty much.

Catherine: Right. I mean, I think that you also they’re just part of that is that they’re just easier to read because they’re immensely readable. That’s not that’s not condescending at all. I think it’s a massive skill that she has to make book that eminently readable, you know, but it’s it’s like you could pick up Great expectations and not read David Copperfield right or not read Bleak House. That doesn’t matter. And it shouldn’t particularly matter with christie, unless you’re looking at a really comprehensive viewpoint and actually, frankly, we’re probably taking less time to read a giant chunk of Christie than it would to read Bleak House.

Caroline: Very true. Well, it has been absolutely brilliant to talk to you both. Thank you very much, Kemper and Catherine, for talking to me today. You can find their podcast All About Agatha in all of the places that you already listen to this one.

Kemper: Thank you so much, Caroline. It was a pleasure speaking with you.

Catherine: A pleasure. And we love Shedunnit.

Kemper: Big, big, obviously big fans of your podcast ourselves.

Caroline: This episode was done, it was hosted by me, Caroline Crampton and edited by Euan MacAleece. Thank you very much to Kemper and Catherine for joining me. You can find shownotes at where there will be links to their work and further reading suggestions on the topics that we covered. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast to find them at Thanks for listening and I’ll be back next week with another episode.

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