Earl F. Bargainnier’s The Gentle Art of Murder: The Detective Fiction of Agatha Christie

cover, the Gentle art of murderFaith J. Cormier wrote this review.

I have one serious problem with this book – the typeface. The main text itself is fine, but long quotations, as well as the notes, are in tiny, tiny, tiny type. Even with progressive lenses, it’s hard to read.

Apart from that, I enjoyed it.

Literary criticism is a difficult business, especially for those who have to read it. It can tend toward the precious or the pedantic, especially when the practitioner doesn’t understand that “criticism” means “evaluation” as much as it does “trashing.” Earl Bargainnier didn’t suffer from that misunderstanding.

In the preface to The Gentle Art of Murder, Bargainnier set out the parameters for his work. “This study is not a defense of either Christie or detective fiction. . . . My premises are that detective fiction is worth studying as an enormously popular genre and that Christie’s work is a significant body within that genre. . . Just as the study is not a defense, it is not a biography.”

Within these parameters, he examined Christie’s work in detail. Chapters deal with setting, characters, plot, “devices, diversions, & debits” and theme. Within the chapters, he discussed such topics as Christie’s various detectives (both those in series and those in single works), categories of victims and murderers and the settings for her works (proper English villages, the Caribbean, ancient Egypt, and a surprising number of others). He put her work into context, both historically and socially.

Most importantly, he took Agatha Christie seriously. The Gentle Art of Murder isn’t a send-up or a trashing-down of the Golden Age of detective fiction, defined as the period between the two World Wars. Bargainnier considered Christie to be a superb storyteller whose work, though very English, appeals to people of many cultures, and who had a knack for creating memorable characters. He also felt that because of the length of her career she presents a social history of England from World War I to the early 1970s.

The Gentle Art of Murder isn’t heavy academia or an easy way to find out “whodunit” in whichever of Christie’s works you haven’t read yet. It’s an accessible, unpatronizing, even-handed examination of one of the most popular authors in English of the 20th century.

There are copious endnotes, a long bibliography, an index of characters and an index of novel and short story titles.

Bargainnier, who died in 1987, was Fuller E. Callaway Professor of English Language and Literature at Wesleyan College. He edited Ten Women of Mystery (1981) Twelve Englishmen of Mystery (1984) and Comic Crime (1988). He collaborated with George Dove on Cops and Constables: American and British Fictional Policemen (1986).

(Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1980)

Gary Whitehouse

A fifth-generation Oregonian, Gary is a retired journalist and government communicator. Since the 1990s he has been covering music, books, food & drink and occasionally films, blogs and podcasts for Green Man Review. His main literary interests for GMR are science fiction, music lore, and food & cooking. A lifelong lover of music, his interests are wide ranging and include folk, folk rock, jazz, Americana, classic country, and roots based music from all over the world. He also enjoys dogs, birding, cooking, craft beer, and coffee.

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