Subtext propels “readers beyond the plot… into the realm of what haunts the imagination: the implied, the half-visible, and the unspoken.”
— Charles Baxter, The Art of Subtext
Agatha Christie was the master.
Mistress of plot twists, mistress of puzzles, mistress of mystery.
And while I haven’t found any Christie novels that could be classified as paranormal, Murder is Easy proves Dame Agatha had a dab hand when it came to supernatural subtext.
Here’s the setup.
A retired policeman meets and old bitty on a train. She confides that she’s on her way to Scotland Yard to report a repeat murderer in her tiny village. He writes her off as harmless and overly imaginative. But when he learns she’s killed on her way to Scotland Yard, and the next man on her list of people in danger dies shortly thereafter, our hero decides to check out the village, Wychwood-under-Ashe, for himself. He poses as a writer researching local superstitions.
Here are three layers of supernatural subtext in Murder is Easy.
1. The spirit of the place.
The village of Wychwood-under-Ashe has a witchy history, and Christie layers in the surreal and magickal in her descriptions of the place. “He glanced back down the length of High Street – and he was assailed by a strong feeling of unreality… Then he lifted his eyes to the long frowning line of Ashe Ridge – and at once the unreality passed. Ashe Ridge was real – it knew strange things – witchcraft and cruelty and forgotten blood lusts and evil rites…”
A minor character worries that Wichwood is “under a spell of– of misfortune.” But Christie hints that this atmosphere is more in the hero’s head than reality, when a suspect says, “One must be mad – deliciously mad – perverted – slightly twisted – then one sees life from a new and entrancing angle.”
2. Heroine as witch.
The heroine, Bridget Conway, is frequently described in witchy terms. When we first meet her, “Her black hair was blown up off her head by the sudden gust and Luke was reminded of a picture he had once seen – Nevinson’s ‘Witch.’ The long pale delicate face, the black hair flying up to the stars. He could see this girl on a broomstick flying up to the moon.”
When Luke comes upon her in a wood, “she raised her face from her hands… She looked as though she were returning from some far-off world…” But “don’t worry,” Bridget’s tells him, “the Devil looks after his own.”
Delightfully, Bridget’s witch-like qualities are a positive, making Bridget to deceive. She’s portrayed as cold, with a “bitter tongue,” but also clear headed and honest.
3. Supernaturally threatening suspects.
Christie diverts us to a creepy antique shop owner who participates in magical rites. He’s described as a “dancing satyr,” with a greenish tint to his skin, and strangely long, vampiric hands. Another suspect is associated with the goat-headed god.
I could go on and on, but I won’t.
Murder is Easy isn’t my favorite Christie novel. Though the puzzle is strong, the characters feel flat, stale. Still, it’s a master example of spooky subtext.
What do you think about subtext? Do you use it in your writing?