James Zemboy is the author of The Detective Novels Of Agatha Christie: A Reader’s Guide (published by the prestigious McFarland), perhaps the largest study of her work yet published. A retired teacher of French and Spanish, he lives in Detroit, Michigan. After L. J. Hurst’s review appeared on the Shots website he agreed to describe his working methods in more detail for us.
LJH:- A first brief question: why did you write your Guide?
JAMES ZEMBOY:- I wrote the book because no other writer seemed to have attempted to account for Christie's world-wide popularity. It had been a source of puzzlement to me ever since I was seventeen years old (I'm now 66) WHY I had always enjoyed reading Christie so much, while never enjoying any other crime writer. At age seventeen I read three Christie novels in rapid succession – the first crime novels I had ever read. I thought to myself, "Golly, I must be a mystery buff," and so I read a few other detective novels by other authors. I found that I had no interest in any of them at all. This went on for a couple of years and finally, in 1962, I wrote a letter to Christie, telling her that I had read most of her books and loved them, and that I had sampled a few other crime writers without enjoyment. I asked her to name a few of her own favourites. She wrote back to me with a short list of her favourite mystery writers and I read at least one or two books by each of those people, with the same result: no reading pleasure.
Eventually I realized that I was strictly an "Agatha Christie fan" and no fan at all of crime fiction in general, and it occurred to me that that must be the case with a lot of people, since Christie is so much more widely read than any other writer, and all around the world. And I realized, too, that "serious" fans of crime fiction generally don't think much of Christie, for very good reasons: unlikely events, ridiculous coincidences, Poirot and Marple often arriving at "the truth" through nothing but lucky guesses. Clearly it is not Christie's skill as a crime writer that has made her popular, and I always wondered about the real reason for her world-wide appeal. I eventually concluded that it was her amusing, recognizable characters that were most responsible for her popularity, and I decided that if I ever wrote a book about her works, I would focus on that aspect.
And so I wrote the book in order to explain Christie’s incredible world-wide popularity, and to show the uniqueness of each of her novels and the uniqueness of most of her characters.
LJH:- What did you think of the other critical works about Agatha Christie that you read? I had a quick look at my copy of Charles Osborne’s Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie before I wrote my review of your Guide.
JAMES ZEMBOY:- I did not like the book by Osborne at all. I think it's filled with facts that are interesting in themselves but unrelated to the appeal of Christie. He goes on and on about something that was happening in Christie's life when she was writing a particular book, for example, but he doesn't bother to comment very much on the book itself, or the characters, or anything that the characters suggest about Christie's thinking or what makes the book fun to read. He picks on her repeatedly for her alleged anti-Semitism, for example, and he calls Poirot's French "frightful" (which is nonsense), but he fails to note her hilarious portrayals of the exceedingly boring ex-Anglo-Indian colonel, the maddening slowness and deliberation of lawyers, the self-importance and general incompetence of politicians, the know-it-all smugness of hospital nurses, etc.
I knew that there was a lot more interesting material that could be written about every one of Christie's novels than Osborne and all the others had ever done, and that I could do it with enthusiasm and pleasure, and that I could show that every Christie novel was unique.
There has only been one book about Christie that I have ever really liked, and it was Nancy Blue Wynne's A Christie Chronology; a very short paperback that came out just after Christie died. Wynne's book is a celebration of the fun of reading Agatha Christie, and I decided that my book would also be a celebration of the fun of reading Christie, but in far greater detail, and so that's what it is.
LJH:- Were you consciously making notes, keeping records, etc, at the age of 17 when you started to read Agatha Christie? Or did the origins of the book only become manifest much later in life?
JAMES ZEMBOY:- At age 17 I was just a kid having fun reading Agatha Christie’s detective novels and being surprised that I liked her books so much, so of course I never kept records of anything, and of course I had no idea that thirty or forty years into the future I would still be reading her books and enjoying them. I didn’t even bother to keep the letter that she wrote to me. The thought of writing a book about Christie never occurred to me until I retired in the summer of 2005. The very first thing I did when I retired was to read three extra-long classic novels that I had been “putting off” for retirement. Those were The Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina, and An American Tragedy. On the day that I finished the last of these, I looked at my book shelves and asked myself “Which will I read next?” My eyes happened to fall on a couple of books about Christie, including the one by Osborne I mentioned earlier. At that moment I decided that I would write my own book about Christie, and I set about it that very day.
LJH:- How did you decide on the ultimate format of your work, the headings under which you analyse each volume, etc? It seems markedly different to any other book on Christie I know. How long would you say it had taken you?
JAMES ZEMBOY:- I began writing the book on a beautiful day in September of 2005 and it was substantially finished in March of 2007. It meant rereading all 66 of Christie’s detective novels, of course, and keeping notes. I read them chronologically, writing my notes in a spiral notebook, and then composing the chapter on that novel on the computer. At first I wrote the chapters in three parts: Story, Characters, and Discussion. After reading the first ten or twelve of Christie’s novels and writing the chapters on those, I decided to separate the Discussion into two sections: one called “Setting” in which I would present only facts and none of my own opinions and perceptions, and another called “Comments” in which I would feel free to express opinions and ramble on about any subject that I thought might be interesting to readers. I felt that, in this way, a reader who was not interested in my opinions could simply ignore my Comments sections and read only the factual Setting sections. The Setting sections, of course, explain not only the physical settings but the historical backgrounds. Finally I decided that a lot of American readers might appreciate having Hercule Poirot’s French remarks translated idiomatically within their contexts and placed in an easy-to-use section within the chapter on the novel in which they occur.
LJH:- Did you use a computer database or some other tool to help you, once you decided on a book?
JAMES ZEMBOY:- Once I had established the format of the book, I approached each new novel in the following way: If it was a novel that contained any French (usually just the Poirot novels) I took the book to the computer and glanced through it page by page to find the French expressions, which are always printed in italics, and therefore easy to spot. I typed the Chapter number and then the French expressions with their translations. Of course I translated them “within context”, which is the only correct way to translate from one language to another; a simple word like Voilà! can have many different meanings, depending on the context in which it occurs. Then I went into my library where there is a comfortable chair and ottoman and a convenient table for my tea or coffee cup, and read the novel, keeping notes in a spiral notebook, carefully noting page numbers so that I could retrieve character descriptions, quotations, remarks about geographic and historical settings, etc. easily. When I had finished that, I went back to the computer and quickly composed the Story outline. For the Characters section, I left most of the characters in their “order of appearance” in the novel, but I did group members of families together, so that husbands and wives and their children would all be together on the same page. My notes on the settings, both geographical and historical, made the Setting section a quick job. Finally I wrote the Comments section in free form.
Of course, once the book was finished I read through it carefully and found a good deal of repetition and redundancy in the Comments sections. I found that I had inadvertently repeated numerous “discussions”, and so I did an enormous amount of cutting and editing. When I did the editing, of course, it then became possible to add comments such as “For further discussion of the special importance of flower gardening in English life, see the Comments sections for The Patriotic Murders and Poirot Loses a Client,” and “For a full inventory of motherless adult female characters in Christie’s novels who seem to survive very nicely, and quite happily, without them, see the Comments section for Poirot Loses a Client.”
LJH:- You go into detail about some of Christie’s themes and idiosyncratic subjects. I had never realised the frequency with which idle gardeners appear in her books before you pointed them out. But more seriously you also describe, for instance, her unusual but recurring mother–daughter relationships. Did you notice themes and subjects such as these when you read the books originally or did they slowly occur to you as you reread the canon?
JAMES ZEMBOY:-That’s an excellent question, and the answer is no, I did not notice any of those themes and subjects when reading the books originally. It was not until I was well into the writing of my book that I became aware of them. I think I was working on Christie’s 1937 Poirot Loses a Client (British title: Dumb Witness) when it first struck me that “mothers of adult children” are singularly absent in Christie’s writing. It was when I read Miss Caroline Peabody’s remarks to Hercule Poirot about Emily Arundell’s family that I noticed that she commented extensively about Emily’s father but said absolutely nothing about her mother. I noticed, too, that Bella Tanios was rather sarcastically described as “dumpy, dowdy, and devoted to her children”. That made me sit back and think about Christie and “mothers” and “fathers” and “children”, and because I had just finished writing about Christie’s twenty-one earlier novels, all of it was fresh in my memory and I was struck by the near absence of mothers in nearly all of those books. I went back to my character descriptions of the earlier novels and noticed that all of the assertive young women in those books were “motherless” but many of them had fathers with whom they enjoyed pleasant, mutually affectionate relationships. Those included Lady Eileen Brent, Lady Frances Derwent, Tuppence Beresford, Ruth Kettering, Anne Beddingfeld, Sheila Reilly, Linnet Doyle and others. And so I kept an inventory of “adult female characters who enjoy warm relationships with their fathers but whose mothers are conveniently dead and never mentioned”, and I was amused to find that that list grew and grew as I proceeded.
Other character types recurring in Christie’s books emerged in my consciousness in the same way. “The obnoxious self-made man”, “the boring ex-Anglo-Indian colonel”, “the village gossip”, “the adenoidal – and therefore stupid – female”, “the lazy old gardener”, “the unpleasant child”, “the smug, know-it-all nurse”, all recurred from time to time and formed an amusing pattern within Christie’s character offerings.
LJH:- And you were going to say …
JAMES ZEMBOY:- In your review [for Shots Magazine] you noted that I sometimes repeat myself on certain subjects and wondered if it's because I expect my book to be "dipped into" and not read straight through. That's absolutely the case. The book is a reference book – a handbook, which I expected to be used by readers specifically looking into one novel in particular. And so I allowed myself to reintroduce the subject of “unpleasant children”, for example, two or three times whenever that subject presented itself in the discussion of a particular novel.
LJH:- I believe you originally planned a different title for the book.
JAMES ZEMBOY:- Yes. I wrote the book specifically for American readers of Agatha Christie’s detective novels, and I went to great lengths to clarify anything that might be unfamiliar to the average American reader. My original title was The Detective Novels of Agatha Christie: An American Appreciation, and that's the title it has in the United States Copyright Office. It was the publisher who insisted on changing the title to A Reader's Guide, saying that having the word "American" in the title was "not a good marketing strategy".
I did everything I could to make the publisher see that the book would be of little interest to Britons. Explanations of the British Protectorates of Iraq, Palestine and Jordan, for example, explanations of what "terraced houses" are, reminders that the "first floor" of a house in England is really the "second floor" in American terms, explanations of terms like "Pukka Sahib", etc. would all be insulting to the intelligence of British readers, not to mention translations of all of the French, etc.
To no avail. The publisher gave the book its present title and proceeded to distribute it world-wide and I have no control over that.
LJH:- Turning to Agatha Christie and her readers, how far did you feel you had to explain “England” or “Britain” to an American readership?
JAMES ZEMBOY:- A good deal. I tried to give to my readers a general sense of what is referred to in Christie's books when "a grim northern industrial town" is vaguely referred to, or when a "preposterously huge Neo-Gothic mansion built by a Victorian ironmonger" is "probably located in the Midlands" because of that region's association with industry. I suspect that most Americans’ knowledge of general world history is limited to some vague, distant memories of history classes, and I felt that some reminders of the events of the two world wars and the “Cold War”, etc. would enhance American readers’ understanding of the settings. Details such as the British custom of referring to the bedroom level of a two-storey house as the “first floor” can also be confusing to an American reader, as in The Mysterious Affair at Styles in which a drawing showing the “first floor” of the Styles Court occurs in an early chapter.
LJH:- Yes. And I think you caught well Christie’s attitude to contemporary design and architecture – her dislike of the false “Stockbroker Tudor” styles and her understated approval of modern, probably Art Deco, building. On the other hand you think that her attitudes to class were regressive.
JAMES ZEMBOY:- Yes, I do. In her Autobiography Christie makes it amply clear that she saw the demise of the servant class as a definite loss to civilization and that, when there were plenty of selfless, devoted servants, everyone – including “the servant class” – was much happier. Our friend Miss Marple, who "trained" orphan girls from St. Faith's orphanage for happy and satisfying employment polishing other people's brass door knockers, is a clear expression of Christie's personal views on that subject. Christie’s aristocratic and middle-class characters always treat their servants with great respect and all of the servants seem to be “devoted” to their masters and very content with their lives. Most of them, however, are not very bright; they are often “adenoidal-and-therefore-stupid”; they usually exhibit a ghoulish enjoyment of the gory details of the murders, etc. In at least four novels it is suggested that servant girls – as opposed to higher-class English females – respond more candidly to police officers who are handsome than to ones who are not, it being a “lower class” trait to respond affirmatively to sex. On the subject of sex and female servants in Christie novels, in several cases there is a derisive reference to an unmarried housemaid’s becoming pregnant, and in all cases the man involved in the pregnancy was also a servant, or at least “one of the local tradespeople”. Never in a Christie novel does the “gentleman” of the house impregnate a maid. That just doesn’t happen in the Christie world, because in the Christie world, servants are never exploited, sexually or otherwise. That’s a part of Christie’s fantasy world in which servants were “actively happy and appreciated”, and of course treated with great respect at all times.
On the other hand, it is also clear that Christie felt no particular reverence towards the old aristocracy. Her aristocratic characters are usually amiable people and quite often the younger ones, such as Lady Frances Derwent in The Boomerang Clue (British title: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans) are ultra modern in their thinking and feel that there is nothing special about “class” at all. Christie pokes fun, in fact, at all characters who are “devoted to” the aristocracy and even the Royal Family, such as the reactionary housekeeper Mrs Bishop in Sad Cypress and the lawyer Mr Spragge in The Boomerang Clue. And so, to Christie, there was really nothing special about being born into the aristocratic class, but it was not a nice thing to be born into the servant class.
LJH:- Do you know how well the book has been selling? Is it selling only to fans, or have, for instance, academics teaching college courses on detective stories also been reading it? Are you receiving any feedback?
JAMES ZEMBOY:-Sales of the book have been very slow, and common sense tells me that it is because of its very high price. American and Canadian municipal and university libraries have been acquiring it and the book received a very favourable review from Booklist, which is an organ of the American Library Association. A published review in Booklist is important, since Booklist only publishes its favourable reviews, and so librarians in America rely on it for purchasing decisions. The Booklist review, incidentally, is shown in the Amazon.com listing for the book. But seventy-five dollars is a lot of money to pay for a book when one can have the Osborne book in hardcover for $22.95, Wagstaff’s Agatha Christie: A Reader’s Companion in hardcover for $19.77, Fitzgibbon’s The Agatha Christie Companion in paperback for $19.95, etc. One would have to be an absolute Christie fanatic to pay $75 for a book about her novels, I think. I suppose the price has to be $75 because of the book’s ridiculous length. I did my best to make it as concise as possible, but 66 novels are a lot of novels. If I had been writing about an author who had only written a dozen or so novels, it might have been different.
As to the university libraries, I am able to check the circulation status of the book at several university libraries, through Worldcat.org, and at a number of American universities the book has been signed out for long periods (several months at a time and even for entire semesters) and that usually can only occur when professors sign the books out. This suggests to me that at least a few university professors are taking a strong interest in the book. Perhaps the book will be used as a text in a course on Agatha Christie. Wouldn’t that be pitiful? When I was in college only real literature was studied.
LJH:- This book only covers the novels. Do you think you will extend your study to the short stories? Some critics see collections such as The Labours of Hercules, published in 1947, as seminal.
JAMES ZEMBOY:- No, I will not be writing anything more about Christie. The fact is, I have never been a fan of short stories in general, and I have never cared very much for Christie’s short stories, either. I think it’s because the compactness of short stories necessarily results in very sketchy character development, and it has always been Christie’s character portrayals that have interested me the most. I did force myself to read a collection of her short stories when I began writing my book, hoping that I would take an interest in them, but I did not. And so in my Preface I stated that I would “...leave to other writers the pleasure of commenting on Christie’s ‘other’ works.”
LJH:- Perhaps they will talk to Shots Magazine in their turn. James Zemboy, thank you.