Why is Pioneer Press movie critic Chris Hewitt reading every Agatha Christie mystery?

Why is Pioneer Press movie critic Chris Hewitt reading every Agatha Christie mystery?

When I was growing up aspiring to be the next Roger Ebert, Chris Hewitt was the movie critic for my local paper—the Pioneer Press of St. Paul, Minnesota, where he’s still the movie guy—so it feels cool that I now consider Chris a friend and see him regularly at movie preview screenings.

Typically, at a screening Chris will have a book open to read before the movie starts; he’s an avid reader, and over the past couple of years he’s been reading—re-reading, it turns out—every one of Agatha Christie’s 77 mystery novels and short story compilations, which he blogs about on his “Chris and Christie” Tumblr.

Since I’m also a fan of books—and specifically of big reading projects—I called Chris to talk about his Christie binge.

So how did you get started with Agatha Christie’s books?

My grandma read them. When I was, I would guess, 10 or 11, my grandma must have loaned me one or two, and I got hooked.

Before starting this project, how many of Christie’s books had you read?

I’d read them all, actually—probably in a span of a couple of years around that time, when I was 10, 11, 12. I knew I’d read them all, but I wasn’t sure if I still had them all; it turns out that I do. I must have moved with them at least five times without ever opening that box.

Why did you decide to re-read them all?

At a yard sale, my mom found this collection of three Agatha Christie novels in one volume; she bought it for like 25 cents and gave it to me. I thought, yeah, maybe I would like to read one of these—and after reading four or five pages, I thought, maybe I’d like to start at the beginning and re-read them all. Also, I was looking for a personal writing project, and I thought, this would be perfect.

How far along are you now?

This morning I started number 68—and I feel kind of sad about the fact that I’m almost at the end. It’s really been a lot of fun.

What pace have you been keeping as you’ve been reading?

I started at the beginning of May last year, and I didn’t want to only be reading Christie books—so I’ve been alternating Christie books with other books, and I guess I’ve been reading about one and a half Christie book a week, on average. One thing that makes the books so fun to read is that you can knock one out in a day, which is really the way to do it with a mystery: you’re not forgetting any of the clues.

What have you learned, or reflected on, that you hadn’t known or realized before?

It’s changed. When I started, I was thinking about 11-year-old me and what I would have been getting from the books. I think I’m attracted in general to darker, more disturbing material, and while Agatha Christie’s books aren’t particularly dark as mystery novels go—they’re the coziest murders you can imagine—you can imagine that a young boy who chose to read every one of them might have been developing a yen for the darker side of life.

Also, I’m gay, and I was looking to see what I might have been gleaning from the books when I was maybe just starting to figure out what that might mean. She does have, surprisingly early in literature, gay characters who are depicted sympathetically—and a central relationship in the books is the one between Hercule Poirot and Captain Arthur Hastings. They’re two adult men who live together, who go on vacations together, who do just about everything together; and while they’re both supposedly interested in women, there’s little evidence of that, so you can read their relationship as being potentially gay. Was I reading them that way? Who knows?

Other things about the books mean more to me now than the first time I read them. One of those things is that the books ended up being a history of England from about 1920 to 1975, and that’s fascinating because before I started re-reading the books, I thought of them as being timeless with very few contemporary references—that’s not true at all. The books begin right after World War I—Poirot was injured in that war—and the World War II years weigh heavily on the books. The bombings, the shortages—there was rationing going on well into the 1950s, which I hadn’t realized—the returning war veterans who don’t know what to do with themselves, the influx of people from other countries. It feels like I’m learning a history of England beginning in the Downton Abbey era and ending in the mid-1970s.

Another thing that surprised me is how on top of her game Agatha Christie was from the beginning. Nobody thinks of her as a leading literary figure, but from the first book—which she wrote on a dare from her sister—the character of Poirot is entirely whole. Within her first six books, she’d written one of the all-time masterpieces of mystery fiction—The Murder of Roger Ackroyd—and before long, she’d written Murder on the Orient Express. She experimented; she has a post-modern character who’s basically her, interacting with her detectives. She was endlessly inventive.

Are the requirements for a good mystery novel and a good mystery movie the same, or are they different?

I’m trying to think of a good mystery film that hadn’t been done already as a good mystery novel. Christie does have a lot of ingenious puzzles, but mysteries work best when there are a few characters you can grab on to, with distinctive psychology that makes sense. She’s good at characterization, and that has a lot to do with why her books are great. When you’re writing a mystery novel, you know you’re going to have one or two really good surprises—and then you have to figure out what to do with the other 180 pages. She was also really funny, and her sense of humor does help in the same way that it helps in Hitchcock’s movies: it balances the thrills.

Christie’s career and Hitchcock’s almost mirror each other, actually: they were working in the same period of time, and there are definitely similarities. A big one is the juxtaposition of humor and suspense, a recognition that they actually have a lot in common—they’re both about having a good setup and building to a big payoff. I also think there’s a theme of evil or wildness lurking behind the facade of everyday small-town life. When I think of Christie’s and Hitchcock’s work being similar, I think less of Psycho—which is a story Agatha Christie would never have written—and more of Shadow of a Doubt or Rope or Rear Window.

There are a lot of similarities between The Lady Vanishes and What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw: they both take place on trains, and they both have to do with disappearances. Another novel, Third Girl, has an atmosphere that reminds me a lot of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. The Swinging London setting is the same; unfortunately it’s not one of Christie’s best, but it has to do with three young women who share an apartment, and one seems to be having fantasies that have to do with dastardly events. Everyone thinks she’s lying, but maybe she’s not.

Does Agatha Christie deserve her reputation as the master of mystery?

Oh, definitely. I really am astonished by how, even at the point I’m at where she’d been doing this for half a century, she still seems engaged and interested in trying new things. The character who’s essentially her will comment on how she’s sick of her main detective, but there’s no evidence of that in Christie’s books. Somewhere she just had this endless store of ideas.

– interview by Jay Gabler