I don’t have to convince you of how important setting is in a novel. Setting can build tension, add to atmosphere, and play a role in the sort of story that develops. There are many novels that feature a strong sense of setting, but as this is posted, it would have been Agatha Christie’s 132nd birthday. So, to celebrate Agatha Christie, I’d like to take a look at how she used setting.
When people think of Christie’s work, they often think of the ‘village’ novel, where a small English village is the setting, and everyone knows everyone. Certainly, Christie wrote several novels like that. The Murder at the Vicarage and The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side both take place, for instance, in Miss Marple’s village of St. Mary Mead. A Murder is Announced and The Moving Finger, which also feature Miss Marple, don’t take place in St. Mary Mead, but their settings are also small English villages, with vicars, town gossips, village shops, and more.
Villages also figure strongly in some of Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels. Sad Cypress, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd are just three examples. In those novels, as well as Postern of Fate, which feature Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, we also see another important aspect of village life: hidden secrets and long memories. Christie makes use of that sense of village history to add tension, create motive, and develop characters. In that sense, you could argue that the village becomes almost a character of its own.
But Christie didn’t always write about villages. As you’ll know, she was married to an archaeologist, and spent time in the Middle East. That time must have made quite an impression on her, because several of her novels and stories take place there and evoke that setting. In Appointment With Death, Murder in Mesopotamia, The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb, and Death Comes as the End, for instance, most of the action takes place in different parts of the Middle East. Except, perhaps, for Death Comes as the End, the stories reflect Christie’s view as a foreigner, so it’s an interesting perspective from which to see that part of the world. In some ways, that perspective isn’t exactly flattering, but in some, there’s also the sense of novelty and even wonder at a very different setting and different ways of life. There’s a real feeling for the climate, the sights, and some of the customs.
Islands are also important in some of Christie’s stories. Islands can be exotic and visually stunning and restful. So, the setting can be an effective contrast to a murder story (dark doings in an idyllic place). That’s what we see, for instance, in Triangle at Rhodes and Evil Under the Sun, in which Poirot goes on an island holiday, only to end up investigating murder. Miss Marple does the same in A Caribbean Mystery. In those novels, Christie conveys the beauty of an island and its inviting climate, while at the same time using that setting to put the murder in stark relief.
Islands aren’t all paradise, though. There can also be a sense of being a bit confined. And that can add to the suspense. So can bad weather and dangerous places such as cliffs. Christie especially depicts this in And Then There Were None. In that novel, ten people are invited to a private island, only to find themselves cut off by bad weather. As if that’s not enough, someone on the island is trying to kill all of them. The island here adds greatly to the suspense, especially when the weather turns, and a storm makes it impossible to leave.
Another setting Christie conveyed is the old family house. Big old houses often take on personalities of their own. They can be interesting to explore and can contain a lot of fascinating features and history – the expression ‘If these walls could speak!’ really sums it up. But old family houses can also be eerie and, in a sense, dangerous in their own right. That ‘old house with secrets’ setting can add to the tension among the characters who live or say there. It can also hide clues. Christie adds that element in Crooked House, The Hollow, After the Funeral, Five Little Pigs, and Dead Man’s Folly, among others. Often, the history of a house is woven in with the history of the family members that live there, and Christie adds that to those novels, too.
And I wouldn’t want to write a post about Christie’s use of setting without mentioning the way she uses transportation. Trains, planes, and boats are the main settings in, respectively, Murder on the Orient Express, The Mystery of the Blue Train, Death in the Clouds, and Death on the Nile. Interestingly, these novels are set in different physical places (England, Eastern Europe, Egypt, etc..). But it’s the transportation itself that really takes the stage as the setting. Readers get a sense of the confinement people can feel on a train; there’s not really anywhere much to go while you’re on board. Planes, too, don’t offer much in the way of movement. Even cruise ships are limited. And that adds to the suspense if someone is killed on board, as happens in these stories. It also, if you will, draws a circle around a limited group of suspects. That, too, adds to the suspense.
And that’s the thing about an effective use of setting. It adds to the story. It also gives the reader a sense of a particular place. It also can add to the suspense of a story, and even become a sort of character. Christie knew that, and, although she’s perhaps best known for her plotting, she also conveyed setting clearly, too. Which are your top Christie settings?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ In My Life.