The Social Mask

Agatha Christie books have been dismissed as formulaic. The kind of criticism she commonly receives is exemplified by Professor David Grossvogel*, in his book, Mystery and its Fictions. He saw Christie’s work as caught up in nostalgia for a lost bucolic England and criticised its “controlled, cerebral puzzle-solving mentality”.


But Christie can be taken seriously as a modernist author. She wrote literature of her time.

Instead of attempting a thorough and accurate representation of reality (as in the novels of the nineteenth century) Christie’s books are essentially performative, theatrical. The characters and the action have

“a tantalising, mysterious and very deliberate artificiality.” (Birns and Birns, 1990)

Christie Fontana Carribean Mystery (1)





The mood is captured by those wonderful covers used by Fontana in the 1960s.









Doubleness and Duplicity

Christie often references theatre, games, painted and sculpted portraits, and masks.

Her books, in fact all detective fiction, can be seen meditations on doubleness and duplicity. They are concerned with the way we play roles, and put on a false front.

It’s part of the definition, isn’t it? Detective fiction explores the difference between appearance and reality.



In a way, the flatness of the characters is the point.

Christie murder orient express

“Christie’s use of the social mask, her employment of the type, of the generic rather than the specific character is not only an essential aspect of her stories of crime and detection,  but constitutes a vision of society.” (Birns and Birns)

* David Grossvogel is Professor of Comparative Literature and Romance Studies, Emeritus at Cornell University.


Birns, Nicholas and Birns, Margaret B (1990), ‘Agatha Christie: modern and modernist’, in Walker, Ronald G. and Frazer June M (eds), The cunning craft: original essays on detective fiction and contemporary literary theory, Macomb Il, Western Illinois University, pp120-134.

Grossvogel, David I (1979), Mystery and its fictions: from Oedipus to Agatha Christie, Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press.


Agatha Christie c1926  by Hulton Archive/Getty Images via BBC History Extra
Fontana covery via Deskgram
Mask via Pixabay
Murder on the Orient Express via Medium

2 thoughts on “The Social Mask

  1. When you read an Agatha Christie and similar writers it always makes me think that, they are not violent books. What we need to remember though the chances are the murderer would have been given a death sentence.


    1. Definitely. It’s a horrific thought, really. They often make it clear in the TV shows, but I don’t remember Agatha stressing it in the books, do you? Except for Five Little Pigs where someone has already been wrongly convicted and hanged. Am I remembering that correctly?


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