Agatha Christie's "Curtain" commanded the nation's attention as
a best-seller in the mid 1970's, however, the novel's success
almost certainly had more to do with its author's reputation and
past accomplishment than with the quality of this most recent
story. We learn from such a success story, that conditions
beyond a work's literary value contribute significantly to its
reception and longevity in or out of the limelight. "Curtain"
hardly addresses significant moral or social issues, but rather
avoids them altogether. It certainly does not develop characters
nor does it dissect a personality or chart mind. However, it did
rest atop the bestseller's list for many weeks, and, like many
of Christie's other novels, remains in print well beyond its
release. As Russell H. Fitzgibbon points out, "What other
authors, in any genre, could present a sustained productive
career of more than half a century?" (ix).
"Curtain" is about dying, but dying on many different levels.
Within the text, during the writing, and the time of its release
each contribute to this novel's sense of finality. The novel
boasts "Poirot's last case" and was written during the Second
World War. Similarly, its release represented nest-egg and gift
that Christie hoped to provide for her family (perhaps in death).
In essence, the events surrounding the composition and
publication of "Curtain" explain much about its popularity, and
more so, perhaps, than does its quality as a mystery novel.
First, an enormous amount of mystery surrounds a novel that
has been locked away for decades only later to be released
for unknown reasons. Readers could find themselves enticed
by the novels potential representation of an author's final
testament, as a work written by an individual surrounded by
the destruction of World War II. Again those readers might find
themselves enthralled by the idea of a novel written in the
forties yet released in the seventies: does this suggest
timelessness or greatness? And finally, as the last novel in a
series of Poirot stories, "Curtain" represents the culmination
of a history which many had followed from the detectives
beginning. These circumstances embody a publishing fantasy
world: a combination of free press, rumors, and loyal patronage
all surrounding the single publication of a novel by an already
intensely accomplished author.
One of the more important aspects of "Curtain" is its role as
the closing escapade of one Hercule Poirot. People want closure,
and "Curtain" provided this. Christie herself had grown tired
of the character by the time she wrote of his death, but in the
beginning she adored him, her writing reflected it, and so did
the readers' love him. His character, however, did not embody
and individual to be emulated or imitated: he was not Sherlock
Holmes nor did Christie aspire him to be. However, this does
not explain this novels life-span as a part of a lengthy literary
history. Closure, by definition, is very finite.
"Curtain's" existence as a product of World War II resulted in
an intriguing insight into the workings of a best-seller. In
fact, a serious aspect of this novel's success has to do with
its birthplace and time frame. Christie expected to die in the
London Raids, and her novel could have embodied her final
literary expression. The populace to whom she wrote found
themselves intrigued by the idea of a living, breathing,
fictional will of sorts. However, the novel did not reflect
the war itself nor the living conditions under which she lived
during that period. Instead, she allowed the death of Poirot
to embody her symbolic expression. He was, for all intensive
purposes, a human being. Certainly this persona helped to
solidify the "Curtain's" success, but his death did this even
more so. Celia Fremlin describes the success of Christie and
her character, in an account of Poirot's death: "? a sigh of
dismay all over the world - [Poirot] actually died. But he
triumphed in death with newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic
printing mock obituaries, a unique tribute to a fictional
detective and his creator" (120). This returns us to this
notion of death and rebirth. Written about death by an author
expecting death, "Curtain" catered to an audience that was
infatuated with the idea of the novel independent of its content.
However, it is inescapable that the success of Christie and her
novels is "closely intertwined" with the character, Poirot
We see then that this character represents yet another reason
for "Curtain's" fantastic success. Certainly, to receive such a
response, mandates an affection and a following for Poirot and
his escapades. As described by Gillian Gill, Poirot's character
draws in audiences. He is, save for a small amount of character
and a certain degree of individual oddity, "a principle of
detection in the novel which the reader seeks to emulate" (55).
It is not the character reader's seek to become here, but rather
that character does not assert himself. He allows others to join
him, including the reader. The decades during which "Curtain"
was most popular were notably dominated by what we can refer to
as "the ME" generation. Christie has managed to tap that
resource: to feed the selfish drive of a culture intent upon
self-servitude and self-dependence. The domination of a
Sherlock Holmes has no place in the lives of an individual
tired of being oppressed, disappointed, or passed up.
Christie's hero was the reader. No, better: Christie's hero
was not as tall, intelligent, handsome or anything as the
reader could imagine him or herself to be. And yet, Poirot
was adored for being meek and anti-assertive, yet painlessly
successful and humble at that.
The persona of Christie herself seemed to endear individuals to
her writing and to her lifestyle. Sticking with this notion of
death and dying, Christie's attitude towards her own potential
demise seems to be fitting here.
I cannot see why people are always so embarrassed
by having to discuss anything to do with death ?
But really the question of death is so important
nowadays that one has to discuss it. As far as I
could make out from what lawyers and tax people
told me about death duties - very little of which
I ever understood - my demise was going to be an
unparalleled disaster for all my relations and their
only hope was to keep me alive for as long as possible!
Her humility and her seeming lack of understanding of her own
importance in others' lives creates for readers and even
publishers an odd situation where one did not know entirely how
to act or proceed. Her humility was unbounded, and this
persona stuck readers and listeners as you would expect. On a
speech she had to give at a dinner party, Christie remembers
being unable to think of anything good to say. "I knew any
speech I made that night would be bad" (504), and yet she felt
it did her good, curbing what she described as vanity.
Christie's shy attitude and endearing softness was reflected in
her murder mysteries as well, with limited violence and
bloodshed. He novels were the most chivalrous and courteous
murders ever to be written. And in so doing, her stories
maintained their universal readability for any ages, as well
as maintain a degree of refinement and maturity that adults and
intellectuals could enjoy.
Reviews, on the other hand, seemed to vacillate between feelings
of appreciation and discontentment when dealing with "Curtain."
Some critics were delighted with the finale of the Poirot
mysteries, however, I speculate that such feelings of approval
were more of a tribute to the author as opposed to the work.
Julian Symons describes "Curtain" as one of Christie's "most
dazzling performances" (35). Still others said that "she not
only bridges national and generational gaps; she seems to
appeal equally to all classes and intelligence brackets"
(Barnard, 13). However, these reviews are certainly relative
to the conditions of individuals reading her novels. Christie
was certainly, and is still a middle class author writing for
the middle class. There were not gaps to bridge nor classes to
de-solidify. Barnard also depicts common criticisms of
Christie's work, referencing her stock characters performing
their usual, rudimentary actions in each scene (13). What we
see here is a reading culture searching for entertainment and
enlightenment at the same time, in the same place. Certainly
Shakespeare falls into such a category, combining brilliantly
the comedy, tragedy, and drama of life into an imitation.
However, individuals seeking such a lofty project do not turn
to Christie and herein lies the critics' error. People read
Christie because she withheld information from them, stimulated
curiosity, provided them with clues, and dazzled them with the
character who pieced together the puzzle. Critics, as
representatives of a society searching for a single entity
containing life's truths, sought for what was not there,
answers, and missed what was there: the entertainment of a