After every five or six works of Very Serious Literary or Classic Fiction, I need a bookish palate cleanser- a book that is entertaining and plot-centered but not so badly written that it’s distracting. I’ve tried a number of palate cleanser candidates, but I always return to the same thing. My genre kryptonite is Agatha Christie.
GENRE KRYPTONITE is a regular feature about genres we have an inexplicable weak spot for. Check out previous entries here.
Hah, I hear you scoff. She’s not her own genre! I raspberry in your general direction, for I say she is! Agatha Christie is the perfector of the cozy mystery (along with being the best-selling author of all time), but her books aren’t just the touchstone for all things mysterious. They are an entirely separate entity. I like to call it The Stuffy/Fussy British Early-to-Mid-Century Whodunit Complete With Too Many Characters.
First of all, the Too Many Characters bit. Christie has this habit of introducing every suspect in the upcoming murder within the first chapter. Since the characters are often gathered at a seaside resort, at a party, or some other socially popular spot, there tend to be five or more. Christie is masterful at giving you a single-sentence identifier so you don’t have to try to keep them straight (Mr. X drinks too much and has a monocle, Miss Y has a crooked nose and is a snob, the butler has a piercing gaze and was injured in the war, etc.).
Once the murder is committed, in comes either Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot, Christie’s famous detectives. Miss Marple is an elderly woman who seems to care only about gardening and knitting. Poirot is a picky man from Belgium with excellent mustaches. In both cases, the local police and gathered suspects underestimate them (old ladies and foreigners being of somehow sub-par intelligence) and the reader gets to watch as the witty Miss Marple and the dignified Poirot make fools out of the ageist and xenophobic locals. They then take you through the clues for the rest of the novel, until the final reveal when they calmly explain how the suspect’s choice of coffee or tea showed how he and only he (or she) could have done in the victim.
The books are charmingly formulaic, but that is their beauty as a literary palate cleanser. There are no surprises- good always wins, the killer is always caught, someone is always rude to Miss Marple or Poirot much to his or her later embarrassment. If you’re feeling truly mentally lazy, you don’t even have to guess the killer.
To what genre or author do you turn in your hour of need, when you just want to take a brain vacation? Are there any Agatha Christie fans out there?