I just finished the last novel that Agatha Christie ever wrote, Nemesis (although it was not the last she ever published). It was published in 1971. It’s tonally very similar to Alfred Hitchock’s film from nearly the same time, Frenzy (1972 – it was his second-to-last). Even though both Hitchcock and Christie made their careers on murder, it was a reasonably refined murder. Here, at the end of their careers, the refinement drops away. The early century polish is gone, and rape and brutal murder are depicted and described with surprising openness. One gets the sense in both works that they are relieved that they can finally deal with the topic openly. One also gets the sense, however, that they are fascinated by a more open, sexual, brutal youth culture than the one they came up in, and disgusted by it as well.
It then occurred to me how similar their careers are. Both lived almost at exactly the same time – Christie (1890-1976), Hitchcock (1899-1980). Both started their careers in the early 1920s in Britain, and both made spectacular, really unparalleled success in murder most foul.
There were some differences surely. Hitchcock went off to Hollywood, whereas Christie remained quintessentially English (even if some of her books has a colonial flavor). Christie arguably peaked in the 30s and 40s, while Hitchcock arguably hit his stride in the 40s and 50s. Christie, of course, was never the critical darling that Hitchcock is, and I sincerely don’t think she ever will be. But she was, if anything, more commercially successful in her field than he was in his.
Both stuck strictly to genre fiction and did not make anything that could be called avant-garde. However, within genre fiction, both pushed the bounds of what was allowed. They played with audience expectations in a remarkably similar way. Hitchcock was willing to kill off his star a third of the way through Psycho, make a movie that felt like one take (Rope), make claustrophobic movies (Rope again, Rear Window, Lifeboat). Christie made the narrator the killer, made everyone the killer, made someone who appeared to have already died the killer. Both Christie and Hitchcock seemed to have fun doing what you were not supposed to do in a genre work. You get the sense that both enjoyed setting themselves a challenge (“see if you can do it like this!”) and then making it work.
Both, too, have something of a similar tone. Murder, suspense, yes. But also a British sense of irony and a distaste for getting too emotional or delving too deeply into character.
Surprising they aren’t thought of together more often.