The other day, as my wife was loading up an episode of Poirot, she remarked, “I really feel safe with Agatha Christie stories.” I asked her what she meant, and she answered that, in most Christie stories, the murder victims tend to be the people most deserving of killing—the rich uncle who is going to cut his adopted daughter out of the will for not marrying the man of his choice, to give just one example. In fact, at the very beginning of The Murder at the Vicarage, the vicar-narrator himself remarks just how much he would not mind the widely despised Colonel Protheroe being killed, which does indeed happen. Early in an Agatha Christie or a P. D. James book, it’s fairly early to figure out the victim. He or she will simply be one of the most powerful people around, and one of the most hated. It doesn’t hold true all the time (see The Body in the Library), but as a rule, it holds for many cases.
By contrast, modern mystery/thrillers tend to focus upon the murder of helpless people—women are especially celebrated as victims, particularly if their gender can be paired with some ethnic minority or immigrant status. But, you say, this is no doubt because our sensibilities have grown so that we can now feel pity for the poor women who fall victim to remnant misogyny in our culture. Is that true? Or is this just another means of keeping women down? Historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall revolutionized the study of lynching with her book Revolt against Chivalry, which illustrated how lynching was employed to keep women from transgressing gender boundaries by reminding them of what a dangerous world it was out there—step beyond that line, be anything but a good and submissive housewife, and you make yourself prey to being raped or murdered by all those brutal black beasts. Two birds with one stone, the blacks and the broads, lynching was.
Old lynchings and modern thrillers, with their warnings for women. The point is not to bring to light the misogyny and racism that pervades modern life. The point, rather, is to eliminate sympathy for our fellow human beings. Women are warned about the boundaries upon their lives, and they are given examples of what happens to those who are helpless, those who find themselves outside the protection of the system. And then we get to feel better when some enterprising journalist or detective brings it all to light. We want to be that person, working on the side of angels. We sympathize with their struggles, not with the struggles of the victims. And in our era of pop psychology and the adoption of identity through psychiatric conditions, we can even sympathize with the crazed perpetrators of atrocities, believing that their compulsions were probably beyond their control. Hell, even Mikael Blomkvist thinks to shed a tear for serial killer Martin Vanger. But this is not the same as the sympathy that Poirot and Miss Marple feel on occasion for people who have committed murder—theirs is not a dismissal of responsibility but instead a human understanding that sometimes people can feel as they have no other solution to insurmountable problems. Poirot himself succumbs and commits murder in his last case, Curtain.
Me, I liked it better when the murderers in fiction killed rich men. For many reasons.