21 days of Christmas, B and Bs, and Crime Queens


21 days,

147 hours of light,

357 hours of darkness,

5 adults,

1 bathroom,

6 pounds of Quality Street,

1 large box of Cadbury’s éclairs,

1 box of Maltesers,

1 box of Ferrero Roche,

2 orders fish and chips,

3 roast dinners,

1 entire island covered in snow,

and 72 hours of traveling later,

I survived Christmas in England. Where was I? Torquay, Devon. A place perhaps best known as the setting for the enduringly popular 1970s TV series Fawlty Towers. Fawlty Towers, based on John Cleese’s bizarre experiences at the real Torquay guesthouse The Gleneagles Hotel, featured the fractious antics of hotelier Basil Fawlty, who divided his time about equally between cringing avoidance of his wife Sybil and physical abuse of his “Spanish” waiter Manuel. Having stayed at a number of Torquay bed and breakfasts myself over the years, I can testify to the veracity of Cleese’s experiences. One, which will remain unnamed (although it is no longer operational), springs particularly to mind. Upon waking, guests were forced to endure the excessive servility of the male proprietor, clad in a frilly apron, during breakfast—“Oh, what else could I get you? Oh please let me get you something else.” As anyone who has stayed at a bed and breakfast has probably noticed, the breakfast part is generally a ritual of almost religious intensity, which suburbanizes the niceties of nineteenth-century manorial dining. You are not the lord of the house, and these are not your servants (nor do you want them to be), but they sure act like they are, forcing you into the uncomfortable role of the landed gentry stepping upon the necks of the peasants. The culinary excesses of noble cuisine (sparrow roasted inside quail roasted inside partridge roasted inside duck roasted inside swan, and the like) endure not in B and B food, which is always basically the same workaday menu, but in the flourishing way that it is served as though it were haute cuisine. At the guesthouse in question, for instance, the host brought out a small thimble-sized glass of UHT-preserved orange juice to us on a silver tray, inviting us to quaff this elixir as though it were the finest of vintage wines rather than a thoroughly utilitarian (and in fact slightly below average since it wasn’t even fresh) beverage.

Anyway, enough of that. Torquay is also the birth-place and home of the crime writer, nay the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie, who would have been 120 years old this year. As a pre-teen, I used to snort down Agatha Christie novels like they were going out of fashion (which they certainly weren’t considering she is the best-selling author of all time). But, despite spending many years vacationing in Torquay–and moaning about it a good deal–I failed to notice just how embedded Christie’s fiction is in the Devon landscape.

Christie had an interesting start for an author. Denied formal education, she had to teach herself to read, since her mother had decided that she should not learn this skill until she was eight. She apparently had a full imaginative life as a child, inventing a frightening older sibling, known as “The Elder Sister,” who was mad and lived in a cave. She had a famously failed first marriage, which was probably connected to her eleven-day disappearance in 1926, a mystery that still remains unsolved–unlike those cases tackled by her detective creations, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple.

Christie’s writing process seems to have been refreshingly un-in-your-face. Her son-in-law apparently noted that, “You never saw her writing, she never shut herself away, like other writers do.” Anyone who has read her fiction will be unsurprised to learn that it was primarily based on meticulous observation of character and daily life. Despite the sensational and improbable nature of many Christie plots, the novels always ring true because the characters and the dialogue are rooted in the everyday. In this respect Christie seems to have been a practitioner of something I have always been very fond of myself: the Miss Marple microcosmic theory of human encounter. Miss Marple is so good at solving crime, despite the fact that she is a sheltered little old lady, because the diverse communities that she briefly enters are always populated with people that reminder her of someone back at home in the village of Saint Mary Mead. She is thus able to extrapolate the causes and agents of crime by comparing character traits. Of course, on one hand, this means that Miss Marple views the world as populated by types, the total number of which does not exceed the population of a small English village (yes, this is deeply imperialistic I know). A less negative interpretation, though, might celebrate the ways that Miss Marple suggests we are all familiar to each other–if not friends, than at least acquaintances before we have even met.

–Jackie Stodnick


  1. One of my ongoing collection projects is acquiring old paperback copies of Agatha Christie’s mysteries. (My standards: It must be in good condition and originally have cost less than $1 — preferably no more than 75 cents — which in practice means at least thirty-five or forty years old.) I have about fifty of these, I think, and have read most of them.

    I still think the most memorable is the first one I read many years ago: “And Then There Were None,” in which ten people stranded on an island are being murdered by one of their number, one by one. So who’s the killer? Well … none of them … it SEEMS.

    I should note, of course, that the version of the rhyme on which the book (and the alternate title) depends — “Ten little Indians went out to dine …” — did not originally involve Indians but rather a well-known racial slur. Depending on the editing of the particular copy you read, you may find this reflected to a greater or lesser extent.

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