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A Love Letter: in praise of Agatha Christie

For most of my life, I have been an avid reader of all types of books. As my family will confirm, from childhood, I was never without a book. As an adult, I have regularly selected coats with large pockets and bags purely on the basis that they can hold a book. As many students will attest, my answer to most academic questions is “read, read and read some more”. Despite the growth of the internet and other media, which as @drkukustr8talk has noted recently, diverts and subverts our attention and concentration, reading remains my first and truest love.

This, my third ‘Love Letter’, focuses on my favourite author, above all others, Agatha Christie. I have previously dedicated ‘Love Letters’ to poetry, and art. Both of these forms took a long time for me to develop my understanding of and my love for. This ‘Love Letter’ is slightly different.

I first discovered Christie’s novels when I was about 12, since then they have formed a regular backdrop to my life. They act as a comfort blanket when I am tired, stressed, sad or away from home. I have read and reread everything she wrote and know the stories inside and out. Despite my decades of adoration, it remains challenging to know exactly what it is that appeals to me so much about Christie’s novels.

Perhaps it is the symmetry, the fact that for Christie every crime has a solution. Conceivably, given my pacifist tendencies, it could be the absence of explicit violence within her books. Maybe it’s Christie use of stereotypical characters, who turn out to be anything but. You don’t have to look very far to find the oh-so suspicious foreigner, who turns out to be a caring father (Dr Jacob Tanois) or the shell-shocked former military man trained in violence, who metamorphosises into a rather lonely man, who suffers from epilepsy (Alexander Cust). In all these cases, and many others, Christie plays with the reader’s prejudices, whatever they might be, and with deft sleight of hand, reveals that bias as unfounded.

To be honest, until relatively recently, I did not think much about the above, reading Christie was so much part of my life, that I took it very much for granted. All that changed in 2017, when I spotted a ‘Call for Chapters’

https://jcbernthal.com/2017/02/27/call-for-chapters-agatha-christie-goes-to-war/

It seemed too good an opportunity to miss, after all I had spent a lifetime reading Christie, not to mention a decade studying war and crime. After all, what did I have to lose? I submitted an abstract, with no real expectation that someone who had never studied fiction academically, would be accepted for the volume. After all, who would expect a criminologist to be interested in the fictional writing of a woman who had died over 40 years ago? What could criminology learn from the “golden age” of “whodunnit” fiction?

Much to my surprise the abstract was accepted and I was invited to contribute a chapter. The writing came surprisingly easy, one of very few pieces of writing that I have ever done without angst. Once I got over the hurdle of forcing myself to send my writing to strangers (thank you @manosdaskalou for the positive reassurance and gentle coercion!) , what followed was a thoroughly pleasant experience. From the guidance of the volume’s editors , Drs J. C. Bernthal and Rebecca Mills, to the support from many colleagues, not mention the patience of Michelle (Academic Librarian) who patiently held restrained from strangling me whilst trying to teach me the complexities of MLA. Each of these people gave me confidence that I had something different to say, that my thinking and writing was good enough.

Last week, my copy of the book arrived. It was very strange to see my chapter in print, complete with my name and a brief biography. Even more surreal was to the read the editors’ introduction and to see my work described therein, with its contribution to the volume identified. I doubt many people will ever read my chapter, it is published in a very expensive academic book destined for academics and libraries. Nevertheless, I have left the tiniest of marks in academic literature and perhaps more importantly, publicly acknowledged my love for the writing of Agatha Christie.

The finished article:

Bowles, Paula, (2020), ‘Christie’s Wartime Hero: Peacetime Killer’ in Rebecca Mills and J. C. Bernthal, Agatha Christie Goes to War, (Abingdon: Routledge): 28-45

A little case of murder

In recent weeks a man serving in the military was arrested by the police accused of the murder of 5 women and 2 children.  At this stage this is an open investigation and the police has left the possibility that there may be more victims added to the list.

So, what do we know so far? A man using dating apps approached women using the alias “Orestes[1]” allegedly for a relationship or something serious.  The alleged date was when they were murdered never to be seen or heard of.  In two of the cases the women had children which he also murdered, in order as he testified to the police, to cover his tracks. It took the local community by storm and caused the usual true crimes sensation which in no doubt will continue as more of the story’s dimensions unfold. 

The investigation will be followed by the media in order to explain the kind of mind that led a seemingly “normal functioning” individual to do such a thing.  Murder is a crime committed with “malice aforethought”.  For the purposes of an open investigation that is the correct procedure; we explore a murderer’s motives, whereabouts, social and personal habits until we find enough evidence that allow the investigative team to connect the dots and make a compelling case that will be sent to court.   

Professionally however when we are asked to comment on cases such as this one, our perspective is quite different.  In my case, I begin asking the question of harm caused and how this happened.  Seven people went missing.  How? All women involved so far worked as domestic help and all were migrants.  At this point I shall refrain from offering more information or analysis on the women as that unfortunate psychologist who went on the media talking about the submissive nature of the Philippine women that made me sick!  One of the victims so far is from Romania so what’s what happens when experts say whatever comes to mind!

In years to come other experts will interview the murderer and ask him all sorts and test him on everything possible to ascertain what made him do it.  I shall stand on what we know.  He was a soldier, ranked officer, trained in interrogation techniques.  He was also an accomplished photographer who approached several women with the intent to photograph them for their portfolio, those who wanted a modelling career.  A person of contradictions that will fill the true crime libraries with more gruesome tales.  Of course, for one more time we shall wonder if it is necessary to train people to kill without considering the implication of such training may have in their welfare and interpersonal relations. 

What about the wider picture?  To put the whole case in some perspective.  The volume of victims (still ongoing) some of the victims have been missing for over a year, indicates an impunity that only comes from a society that fails to register those people missing.  In this case migrant women, working in low paid jobs, that the justice system failed because their disappearance did not raise any alarms.  A collective failing to ask the most basic question; where this person gone?  In previous similar cases, we have been confronted with the same issue.  The biggest accomplisher to murder is social apathy.  The murder is a crude reminder that there are groups of people in any society we care very little of.  Whether those are hire help, homeless or streetworkers.  The murderer usually produces a story that tries to justify why he chose his victims, but the painful reality is that his focus is on people or groups of people that have become invisible.  In an interesting research Dr Lasana Harris, identified that we perceptually censor our perception of homeless to stop us empathising.  In social sciences we have been aware of the social construction of dehumanising effects but now we can see that these processes can affect our own physiology.  The murderer may be caught, and the details of his deeds may scandalize some as we have since Jack the Ripper, but his accomplishes are still out there and it is all of us who become incredibly tribal in an ever-expanding global society. 

After all that talk of murder, I feel like having a cup of my favourite tea and a marron glace to take the bitterness away. 

Harris LT, Fiske ST (2018), Dehumanizing the lowest of the low: Neuroimaging responses to extreme out-groups, in Fiske S, Social Cognition; selected works of Susan Fiske, London, Routledge. 


[1] A cautionary tale…Orestes was the mythological character who murdered his mother and her lover; what’s in a name! 

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