Choosing a life of crime

When Agatha Christie’s first crime novel was published in 1920 she was thirty years old.  She was a loved and loving daughter and is described as living in an ‘upper middle-class family’.

When Jane Austen’s first novel was published in 1811 she was thirty-six years old.  She too was a loved and loving daughter.  Her father received a ‘modest’ income as a Reverend, which he supplemented by farming.

Take any two writers a century apart and it is easy to note the differences, in the lives they led, as well as the stories they wrote.  But is there anything that might pinpoint why, when we consider these two authors, we find that one has chosen to write crime fiction and the other to write novels that provide social commentary and ‘highlight women’s traditional dependence on marriage to secure social standing and economic security’.

It’s not enough to say that each reflected their concern for what they saw around them.  Jane Austen could just have easily been drawn to crime fiction.  Her first novel was published sixteen years before Robert Peel’s ‘peelers’ began to patrol London streets.  Criminals were still able to go about their business, often without fear of being caught.  And barely fifty years later we first see Sherlock Holmes on the hunt for clues.

By contrast, Agatha Christie could just have easily chosen to write the twentieth century equivalent of Sense and Sensibility. She had a strong desire to meet a suitable man to marry, leading to her eventually meeting her first husband Archie Christie, someone she felt a deep and lasting connection to, throughout her life.

So, if it wasn’t their life’s experiences that led them to choose their fictional genre, when setting to pen to paper – what might it have been? 

Each of us is affected, not just by our inherited personality, our family and immediate environment, but by wider social changes – politics, the legal system, education among them. The television documentary series, ‘7 UP’ set out to determine if there is any truth in Aristotle’s famous quote:

‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man’. 

Aristotle, The Philosophy of Aristotle

Throughout the series we have seen thirteen children at seven-year intervals and we are able to reflect on the extent to which their personality held fast throughout some sixty years, or whether events altered the course of their lives. The documentary series explores the puzzle that is the nature/nurture debate – played out in front of us, without any definitive answer.

Perhaps puzzles are something to focus on. Agatha Christie’s route from first finished manuscript to first published novel was not straightforward. Like authors, artists and composers alike, she too suffered early rejection and criticism.  But also like most authors across the centuries she refused to let disappointment stop her; she continued to write.  From all that I have read about her, I get the sense that it was her love of the process that drew her to complete story after story.  Yes, she is famed for the puzzles she created in her plots, but she also created characters who live on in print, as well as on the large and small screen, nearly a hundred years after she first introduced them to her readers.

We also need to remember, that although Agatha Christie is best known for her crime novels, she wrote six novels, described by her daughter as ‘bitter-sweet stories about love,’ under the name, Mary Westmacott.  In these novels she was able to explore the characters without concerning herself with clues and criminal motives.  They may not have had criminal motives, but they had motives nevertheless. 

As a writer I am familiar with ‘the hero’s journey’; the favoured construct of countless novels where we see the protagonist reaching for their heart’s desire.  As readers we need to know what the lead character wants and then journey with him or her to overcome obstacles until they reach what we hope is a happy conclusion.

I know little of Jane Austen, but having read all I can find on the life of Agatha Christie, I am still challenged to discover why this particular author chose to focus on crime fiction for her writing.  My own experience of fiction writing doesn’t provide me with any clues. I can’t be certain if it was my personality, my family life, or my social environment that guided me to write my Sussex Crime series.  Authors are often asked where their inspiration comes from.  My own answer would be, ‘I don’t know’ and perhaps if we were able to ask Agatha she would say the same thing.

Nevertheless, for someone whose book sales approximate two billion, making her the best selling fiction writer, second only to Shakespeare, perhaps we don’t need to worry too much about why she chose to write what she wrote – but just be grateful that she did.

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