Monday, July 18, 2011

Body of Knowledge

One of the biggest laughs I’ve had in recent days came when I was watching a DVD of Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library, the version with Joan Hickson as Miss Marple*. After opening the downstairs curtains to start the new day, the maid rushes upstairs to her mistress’ bedroom, knocks on the door, and after perfunctory invitation to enter, announces, “There’s a body in the library.” What a delicious send-up, I thought, of the artificiality of the upper-class countryside world in which Christie’s murder mysteries take place.

My delight in Christie’s self-parody (for such is what I thought it) continued with the reaction of the master of the house to the news of the corpse:

(Quoting the novel itself here) “Do you mean to tell me,” demanded Colonel Bantry, “that there’s a dead body in my library—my library!”

The butler coughed.

“Perhaps, sir, you would like to see for yourself.”


“It’s frightfully awkward, Mater, but I’m afraid there’s a

dead body in the library.”

“Not now, Blotto. We have guests.”

Such is the beginning of Blotto, Twinks and the Ex-King’s Daughter, Simon Brett’s spoof of the Christie-esque genre of British gentry murder and adventure novels. The scene ends with aristocratic twit Blotto addressing the butler:

“Bit of bother in the library.”

“What kind of bother?”

“Dead body.”

“I will deal with it at once, milord.”


In a previous blog entry, “In Character” (February, 2011), I discussed the rigidity of character that allows others to type us and to laugh at us. Not just a rigidity of character, but also a rigidity of style is open to the laughter of others. And since as the 18th Century French author Georges Leclerc, Comte De Buffon declared, Le style est l'homme même” (“The style is the man himself”), the laughter directed at a rigidity of style is ultimately laughter against the person himself.

Simon Brett’s parody of Christie interests me less than what I took to be Christie’s self-parody. That is because deliberate self-parody implies self-knowledge. Engraved on a pillar at the entrance to the Oracle of Delphi was the admonition “Know Thyself.” And perhaps there is no greater way of demonstrating self-knowledge than deliberate self-parody.

As time has moved on, I have had increasing doubts that the self-parody was deliberate. But I really hope that it was, and that Christie had the self-awareness (at least in one novel) to laugh at herself.


*Avoid the more recent dramatic version of the novel starring Geraldine McEwan, who is totally miscast as Jane Marple. To see McEwan at her best, check out The Barchester Chronicles, which also features great acting by Donald Pleasance, Clive Swift, and especially Alan Rickman as the shifty-eyed Mr. Slope.