Christie's Characters: Outsiders and Observers

My summer reading often involves re-reading favorite works that help me clear my head for my own writing. In the case of Agatha Christie, I get the added benefit of learning from a master of the genre while I read.

My current Christie comfort read.

I just loaded a bunch of Christie on my Kindle, and discovered to my delight that there was a Miss Marple I'd somehow missed: 4:50 to Paddington. The "4:50" of the title is a time, and refers to a train on which a murder occurs, witnessed by an elderly lady from a passing train on the opposite tracks. The authorities, of course, chalk it up to her age and an overactive imagination, but her friend Miss Jane Marple believes her, and sets out to solve the case.

Jane Marple, like Christie's other famous detective, Hercule Poirot, is an amateur sleuth. Both tend to be one step ahead of the police, and both have a way of getting witnesses to talk to them. But here's what Christie understood so well about her two characters: they were outsiders, and as outsiders occupied a unique position--that of observer.

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot.

Among the English upper crust, Poirot is a foreigner. His slicked-back hair and waxed mustache are a joke, as is his accent. Those around him--including the various murderers he foils--don't perceive him as a threat. He's not one of them, so they ignore him. They don't reckon on the fact that nothing escapes his notice.

I'm a Miss Marple fan, but I wasn't always. As a young reader of Christie, I had no interest in an elderly lady who sits in a corner knitting, and therein lies her power. Then, as now, elderly ladies are all but invisible in society; they usually hold little power, and they are easily dismissed by others (as is the case of the woman in the book I'm reading now). But they sure as hell pay attention, something I appreciate much more as I get older. Miss Marple, with little to do except watch people, has an understanding of human behavior beyond that of the various Scotland Yard inspectors she foils.

Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple.

When I set out to create an amateur sleuth of my own, I made her a mystery writer. (In fact, Victoria's main character, Bernardo Vitali, might be considered the Italian version of Poirot.) As a writer, Vic is also an observer. She takes in the small details of physical appearance and personality that others might miss. And as a writer of mysteries, she's conversant with the why and how of murder. But unlike Poirot and Miss Marple, she makes her share of mistakes.

As does her creator. . .