December 22, 2023
One of the great pleasures of retirement is that one can lie abed in the morning and read Agatha Christie without any feeling of guilt—guilt about being late for work, for example. It doesn’t matter in the least if one gets up at eleven: One hasn’t anything else important, or pseudo-important, to do. (Most importance is of the pseudo kind.)
Therefore, I was content one morning last week to lie in bed reading They Do It With Mirrors (my wife having brought me coffee). But human, or at any rate my, nature being what it is, prolonged unperturbed contentment is not of this world. Soon there were two flies in the ointment of my satisfaction.
Notwithstanding that I had nothing else pressing to do, I soon began to feel a slight and inchoate unease. At least seven-eighths of my life is now over: Should I not be spending the final eighth allotted to me in cultivating my soul (at long last) rather than idling my time away reading Agatha Christie? I remembered the line Richard speaks in Richard II:
I wasted time, and now doth time waste me…
But one of the things life teaches us is how to rationalize well. Just as Miss Marple said that there is a lot of wickedness in an English village, so there is a lot of spiritual sustenance in Agatha Christie. I do not mean by this the sustenance to be found in her convoluted plots, but rather in her shrewd observations of life, which might even be called philosophical.
In fact, a publisher once asked me to write a book about Mrs. Christie’s philosophical, social, and psychological ideas. The prospect tempted me because I could lie abed all day reading her and imagine that I was working. I also had a grand theory to propound, namely that Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple were actually themselves serial killers. Wherever they went, murder was soon to follow (in fact, there are three murders in They Do It With Mirrors alone). Almost all of these murders take place in circumstances in which you would least expect them to occur, so that the most parsimonious explanation for this extraordinary epidemic of homicide is that the two detectives themselves—the only characters, after all, present at all of them—are the killers.
This raises an interesting philosophical question: Why is the most parsimonious explanation of any phenomenon the one that we prefer? Is it because it must be true? Assuredly not, for a very elegant theory may nevertheless be false. Even less is it the case that by definition the most parsimonious theory is best. There remain two possibilities: that we prefer the most parsimonious theory for aesthetic reasons. It is more elegant than its competitors, and the achievement of beauty is one of the great aims of human existence. The other possibility is that, in practice, the most parsimonious theory will be found to be the most useful.
Be that as it may, I am rather attached to the theory that Poirot and Miss Marple were serial killers. Alas, I have not the time, patience, ingenuity, or scholarship to prove it.
In They Do It With Mirrors, Mrs. Christie makes a devastating (and profound) criticism of psychoanalysis, and indeed of all unitary theories of human psychology. It is not that such theories fail to explain anything, it is that they explain too much, too easily. The figure of the psychiatrist in the book, Dr. Maverick, is lampooned for his assumption that he understands everyone’s behavior. It brings to mind the anecdote told by the philosopher Karl Popper, who, back in Vienna just after the First World War, was initially impressed by the theories of Alfred Adler, the dissident Freudian. “How can you be sure,” Popper once asked him about a patient whom he claimed to understand thanks to his own theory, “that your explanation is the true one?” “Because,” replied Adler, “of my thousand-fold experience.” Popper replied (or said he replied): “I suppose your theory is now a thousand-and-one-fold.”
Mrs. Christie illustrated the dangers of procrusteanism (to which we are all liable) in a very light and amusing way.
In fact, I think I could write a short book on They Do It With Mirrors alone, never mind on the whole of Mrs. Christie’s oeuvre. It would include, for example, the question of arsenic poisoning raised therein. I once proposed to write a history of arsenic in the 19th century, when arsenic suffused the social world as cigarette smoke did in the 1940s and ’50s, when three-quarters of men, and half of women, smoked. The world must then have smelt like a giant ashtray. In the 19th century arsenic was everywhere, in the wallpaper, in medicines, in cosmetics; in America, it was in the banknotes so that bank tellers suffered from poisoning by it; it got into beer and chocolates. It was used to kill flies, weeds, insects, and rats—and, of course, humans, especially by wives, but also by a few doctors. It was a drug of abuse. It was mined—in Cornwall there was an English Arsenic Company that refined arsenic and left so much of it in the ground that to this day nothing grows around its workings. An interesting subject, I think.
A publisher agreed, and my first step was to buy books about arsenic. I have a very large arsenical library, including a book published in America in the 1880s, consisting of arsenic wallpapers. I had assumed that arsenic wallpapers must all have been green, but there were pink and blue ones, too.
Unfortunately, I left it too long to write the book, and another author beat me too it, writing a book that was, from my point of view, lamentably good.
I must just briefly mention the second fly in the ointment of my contentment as I lay in bed reading Agatha Christie, namely a peculiarly persistent fly, the only one in the room, that kept buzzing around me and landing on my hands and face. He was too fly for me: I kept slapping myself, but he was like a thought-reader; he seemed to know my actions in advance. One he had the temerity to land on the tip of my nose. After a while, I began to feel him landing all over me, even when he hadn’t. I began to hallucinate the tickle of his tiny feet. In a way, I admired him, for his qualities of character and intelligence; but wasn’t he supposed to be hibernating?
After a time, it was no joke. O! for a fly paper of the Victorian kind that Mrs. Maybrick soaked, allegedly to poison her husband with arsenic! Arsenic isn’t everywhere anymore, except in my mind.
Theodore Dalrymple’s latest book is Ramses: A Memoir, published by New English Review.