In a previous post, I mentioned my quandary in placing Agatha Christie’s mysteries within the spectrum that places G. K. Chesterton on the one extreme and Arthur Canon Doyle on the other. Sherlock Holmes is perhaps the most famous of all detectives, and other fictional detectives often reference him, as does Chesterton himself. Christie sets herself apart from both Chesterton and Doyle, too.
Since my last post, I have finished Christie’s A Murder at the Vicarage, another mystery by a different author, and then a Poirot novel, Murder on the Links. Through not so subtle hints by Miss Marple and Hercules Poirot, I have made two observations about how Christie thinks we come to know the truth.
First observation: One and only one theory makes sense of all of the facts. We find this sentiment in both Miss Marple and Hercules Poirot. In Murder at the Vicarage, Miss Marple actually states that any good theory must account for all the facts and only one theory can explain all the facts. Poirot, likewise, in Murder on the Links, states that if a fact does not fit one’s theory, it becomes a most significant fact, so that it may change the theory itself.
I tend to disagree with Christie on this point, and I would say Chesterton does as well. On the one hand, this assertion assumes firstly that we are capable of recognizing all of the facts. Within the confines of a murder mystery, the author is omniscient, that is, she knows everything. Thus, she can plant all the right clues in the story; all the clues are knowable. In real life, however, this is not the case. We cannot handle every fact that attacks our senses at every moment of every day. Consider now as I write this. I blank out the background noises; I do not pay any attention to other sights than my computer screen and notebook. I do not feel the weight of my clothes against my skin. By our very nature, we filter our sensory perceptions of the world around us. If we didn’t, we would go mad.
Secondly, if we are not capable of knowing all the facts, we are also not able to make sense of all the facts even if we had them. Christie’s way of thinking puts a lot of pressure on the minds (the little gray cells, as Poirot calls it) of the common man. Even though we know the truth of the matter, we still have unanswered questions. This is G. K. Chesterton’s point in “The Tremendous Adventures of Major Brown.” Major Brown certainly learns much about the world at the end of his adventures, but he clearly does not understand all.
Finally, more than one theory always exists to explain the facts. The current scholarly debate over any subject demonstrates this principle. For example, two of the most intelligent scientists disagree as to the origin of life on earth. One holds to the theory of evolution, while the other believes the earth was populated by aliens. Is it not the task of the scientist to prove such theories to be either true or false, to provide evidence (more facts) in favor or against? Chesterton, in a light-hearted way, argues that many theories are capable of explaining all the known facts in “The Honour of Israel Gow.”
Second observation: The right method always results in the right interpretation of the facts. I observed this principle much more openly in Poirot that in Miss Marple, partly because their characters are quite different. Poirot constantly chides Hastings about Hastings’ lack of method, lack of observation, and for letting his emotions blind him. In one place in Murder on the Links, Poirot says this: “Method, you comprehend! Method! Arrange your facts. Arrange your ideas.” Later he demonstrates his method to Hastings.
The emphasis on method comes from the earliest modernist thinkers like Bacon and Descartes. Prior to them, the truth, or the explanation of the facts, was given to men by a higher authority, namely, the church. Even the facts of science were theologically interpreted. Even though men like Galileo set aside the authority of the church, they still believed that God had created the world orderly and that truth was still out there within their grasp. They sought the truth of things in the things themselves. Galileo knew that the moons of Saturn orbited Saturn because he saw it for himself, with his own eyes. In order to discover the truth, and to make sure truth did not become relative to the one perceiving it, the early modernists emphasized method. The right method was necessary to determine objective truth.
The scientific method, as it became known, follows a fairly simple process. Observe facts around you. Make a hypothesis that seems to explain all the facts. Perform an experiment to test the hypothesis. Observe the results of the experiment. And begin again. This is Poirot’s method of solving crimes. His hypothesis supplies a reasonable answer to who committed the crime and how. He is not satisfied until all the facts are accounted for and all the questions answered.
So, I find in Christie a very strong modernist world view. Interestingly, to me anyway, in Murder on the Links, Christie distances herself from Doyle also. Perhaps I will pursue that observation in a future post.