The Whirligig of Creation: A Comparative Study of the Creative Concerns of Agatha Christie and Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay
This article intends to study the creative-aesthetic challenges faced and subsequently solved by Agatha Christie and Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay while constructing the criminal plots of their short stories figuring the sleuths Miss Jane Marple and Byomkesh Bakshi respectively. Like many other colonial inheritances, the detective genre developing in the Orient was highly influenced by the West. When Bandyopadhyay started writing, Christie was at her zenith, and Bandyopadhyay was, admittedly, influenced by her. A comparative analysis of the creative and structural elements of their crime stories will make us understand the creative profundity and originality of both the artists, and also enable us to realise the secrets of their success and enormous popularity. It will also be interesting to study how far Christie’s influence can be perceived in Bandyopadhyay and to what extent he successfully maintains his originality.
Agatha Christie (1890-1976) and Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay (1899-1970), the respective creators of Miss Jane Marple and Byomkesh Bakshi, appeared as popular writers of crime fictions during the inter-war years, the period which is better known as the ‘Golden Age of Detective Fiction’. The writers of this period no doubt received inspiration from their nineteenth-century predecessors and to a great extent imitated them, but at the same time they improved upon the genre with newer modes of presentation, subtler and technologically more challenging methods and types of crimes and more complex forms of criminal psychology. Anne Humpherys observes:
After World War I the detective story moved in a somewhat different direction from its 19th-century predecessors, into the period that has been called the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. This ‘Golden age’ began with Agatha Christie’s first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in 1920 and includes, besides Christie, the detective novels of Margery Allingham, Dorothy Sayers, and Ngaio Marsh, as well as Michael Innes, Edmund Crispin, and others in Britain. (12)
Keeping it in mind, this paper intends to make a comparative analysis of the creative and structural elements interwoven by Christie and Bandyopadhyay in the limited canvas of short stories, taking as primary texts, the short story collections The Thirteen Problems, Miss Marple’s Final Cases and Sharadindu Omnibus (Volumes I and II).
The varieties employed by both the authors in their respective narrative techniques are worth noticing. Byomkesh, Bandyopadhyay’s fictional sleuth, appears first in “The Inquisitor” (1932) and last in “The Annihilation of Bishupal” (1970). Ajit is the first person narrator in the stories starting from “The Inquisitor” up to “The Rhythm of the Riddles” (1964). An omniscient third person narrator takes the place of Ajit from the next story, “Room Number 2” (1964), and remains present in all the stories upto “The Annihilation of Bishupal”. Significantly, Bandyopadhyay gives Ajit the maximum space in the story “The Rhythm of the Riddles” in which he (Ajit) appears as the narrator for the last time. Here, Bandyopadhyay keeps Byomkesh busy in Cuttack not only for the entire premurder period but also for a considerable time after the murder of Natobar Naskar. Thus, the major part of the story takes place in the presence of Ajit alone. “The Avenger” (1960) and “The Man in a Red Coat” (1965) have mixed narration. While the former contains a third person-narration within the first-person narration of Ajit, the latter contains the first person narration of Ashok Maity within a third person narration.
If we talk of the advantages and disadvantages of narrative techniques, we perceive, among some other differences, that a third person narration enriches the readers with more information about the story and its characters, while a first person narration more intimately connects the readers with the story. In fact, Ajit truly performs the role of the readers in a sense. The questions that might arise in the readers’ mind are posed by Ajit and answered by Byomkesh. For example, after reading everyone’s disposition over Hena Mallick’s murder in “The Magnificent” (1963), Ajit expresses his thoughts about each of the suspects which the readers find akin to their own thoughts. But in a first person narration, certain things are impossible to communicate to the readers. In the case of third person narration, we get to know many such incidents happening in the plot which only an omniscient narrator is expected to know. In “The Quills of the Porcupine” (1967), for example, we come to know some such secrets in the lives and activities of the characters – Nripoti Laha, Probal Gupta, Kharga Bahadur, Kapil, Sujon Mitra, Debashish Bhatto and his wife Dipa – that are quite impossible to be otherwise informed of. The private lives of these characters create suspense in the readers’ mind, though no clue can be gathered from such details at the initial stage. Similarly, in “The Iron Biscuits” (1969), the omniscient narrator informs the readers, that on “Saturday morning the police-picket from the residence of Kamal-babu is removed. Kamal-babu himself goes out to leave ‘Bhuto’, the dog, in a kennel. Everything is seen by the other party which, besides the police, has been keeping watch on Kamal-babu’s residence” (Bandyopadhyay, Vol. II 964). That another party (of the criminals) is also keeping watch is not known by either Byomkesh or the Police. Only an omniscient narrator can inform this to us. But it is to be admitted that narrating a story in the first-person is more difficult than doing it in the third-person. It is difficult to provide all the necessary information through the first-person narrator, since he himself has to witness or hear about the incident in order to convey it to the readers. The author’s skill, therefore, is exhibited more in the former stories.
The elements of wit and humour, defined respectively as the “capacity for inventive thought and quick understanding” or the “natural aptitude for using words and ideas in a quick and inventive way to create humour” (COD 1642), and the “quality of being amusing or comic, especially as expressed in literature or speech” (692), are usually employed by the literary authors in their narratives and they (wit and humour) play an important role in arresting the interest of the readers. Taken in the above-mentioned senses, wit and humour are evidently present throughout the Byomkesh stories. They are the source of comic laughter and fun, usually achieved through dialogues, looks and actions of certain characters in the stories. Sharadindu makes his sleuth passing humorous comments even in the most critical situations. Ajit is much the same. In “The Pristine Enemy” (1955), for instance, the way Ajit describes Nonibala Rai is highly humorous:
One who is standing outside the door must be treated as a woman as it appears from her dress and gait. But is she really a woman? More than seven feet tall, proportionately wide…bears a clear pair of moustache…When she laughed, it appeared that the lid of the harmonium has been opened. Is she a super-woman emerging out of the Ramayana or the Mahabharata? (Bandyopadhyay, Vol. II 434-435).
In the same story, Keshtobabu is referred to as ‘bhetki maachh’ (barramundi fish). Humour is also induced in Sharadindu’s naming of his characters, such as, ‘Nengti’ (tiny), ‘Chingri’ (prawn), ‘Babui’ (the weaverbird) etc in “The Magnificent”. The police officers in Bandyopadhyay are also presented sometimes in a way to give comic pleasure. The Deputy Commissioner Bidhu-babu in “Where there is a Will” (1933), for example, is a fine source of humour. The following lines about him prove the point:
Bidhu-babu used to deliver his grave suggestions to Byomkesh whenever met … In his enthusiasm of advertising his great qualities and efficiency, he inadvertently divulged many secrets of the police. So whenever Byomkesh required some information about the police, he just used to meet Bidhu-babu and listen to his lecture for some time…In his absence Bidhu-babu’s colleagues called him ‘buddhu-babu’ (‘Mr Fool’). (Vol. I 102)
So far as humour is concerned, the Miss Marple stories stand somewhat different from the Byomkesh stories. In comparison with Bandyopadhyay’s technique of the all round use of wit and humour in narration as well as in characterisation, Agatha Christie in her short stories is only rarely humorous. There is hardly any instance of humour in the naming of the characters or in the conversation with policemen in the Miss Marple stories. The only instances of humour traced in the stories are in the wonders and disbeliefs of other characters at Miss Marple’s wit and intuition, in spite of being an old woman who seldom went outside the village of St. Mary Mead. In The Thirteen Problems (1932), which is structured like a story-telling platform of six members, all the members are at the end of their wits when Miss Marple correctly solves every mystery. Similarly in Miss Marple’s Final Cases (1979), humour is provoked in the very beginning of “Strange Jest” (1941):
‘And this,’ said Jane Helier, completing her introductions, ‘is Miss Marple!’
Being an actress, she was able to make her point. It was clearly the climax, the triumphant finale! Her tone was equally compounded of reverent awe and triumph.
The odd part of it was that the object thus proudly proclaimed was merely a gentle, fussy-looking, elderly spinster. In the eyes of the two young people who had just, by Jane’s good offices, made her acquaintance, there showed incredulity and a tinge of dismay. (Christie, Final Cases 43)
In “Motive v Opportunity” (1932), again, Miss Marple recalls a humorous anecdote involving little Tommy Symonds, “‘Teacher, do you say yolk of eggs is white or yolk of eggs are white?’ And Miss Durston explained that anyone would say ‘yolks of eggs are white, or yolk of egg is white’ – and naughty Tommy said: ‘Well, I should say yolk of egg is yellow!’” (Thirteen Problems 103).
In the Byomkesh crime stories the criminals are not always punished, and there always remains a justified reason for this. For instance, in “The Phantom Client” (1959), the murderers Bijoy Biswas and his wife Hoimoboti are never found and punished. Readers may see this as a failure on the part of Byomkesh and the police department. But in another sense, it is justified because the couple murdered an even more serious criminal Manekvai Mehta (bootlegger, anti-social, and smuggler). Similarly, Bhubaneshwar and Mohini remain untraced by the police in “Thus Spoke the Poet Kalidasa” (1961). Byomkesh even tells that he will be happy if they do not get arrested. This is because the main culprit was the murdered person Pranhori Poddar, and Bhuban and Mohini were, in the true sense, his victims. Byomkesh allows Probhat a new happy life even after he murdered Anadi Halder in “The Pristine Enemy” because Probhat is naturally a gentleman while Anadi is a real crook. By these outcomes, Bandyopadhyay may also probably want to indicate that there are many cases that go unresolved and the criminals unpunished. But intriguingly, whether the criminals get punished or not, Byomkesh demystifies the crime in every case and reveals the truth, thus rightly attaining the title of a ‘truth investigator’, more than a detective. In Christie, unlike Bandopadhyay, most of the victims are innocent. Though many mysteries are initially claimed as unresolved in The Thirteen Problems, Miss Marple solves them all. But, it becomes clear that the respective narrators mostly knew the case beforehand as they reported to Miss Marple.
The art of plot construction constitutes another area of critical interest in the comparative study of the creative techniques of Bandyopadhyay and Christie. In the Byomkesh stories, the mode of introducing the story with the involvement of the sleuth remains more or less the same with only slight alterations in different stories. Byomkesh gets most of the cases from individual clients, as exemplified in stories such as “The Gramophone Pin Mystery” (1932), “The Deadly Diamond” (1936), “The Menagerie” (1953), “One and Only” (1961) and “The Iron Biscuits”; however, “Calamity Strikes” (1935) and “The Magnificent” are slightly different in the sense that Byomkesh gets involved in these cases not through a proper client but through ‘Habul’ and ‘Nengti’ respectively, the youngsters who are close acquaintances of Byomkesh. In stories such as “The Inquisitor” and “The Death of Amrito” (1959), Byomkesh helps the police and the government. “The Phantom Client” is the only story where the spirit of a dead man (Manekvai Mehta) asks Byomkesh to investigate his death. In “The Bloodstains” (1956), interestingly, the victim Satyakam himself, while still alive, gives Byomkesh the responsibility to investigate his death once he dies, resembling to what we find in Agatha Christie’s Nemesis (1971). In “The Quills of the Porcupine”, however, Sharadindu has structured the plot differently. Three murders are already committed. While Byomkesh is seen discussing the matter in his house the news of the fourth attempt to murder comes, and Byomkesh then gets connected to the case. The action in the story moves backward and forward. The main story starts at the present time (after two months of Dipa and Debashish’s marriage), then goes back to their pre-marriage time, and again returns to the present. The plots of “The Annihilation of Beni” (1968) and of the incomplete story “The Annihilation of Bishupal” also move between the past and present times.
There is less variety in the plot structure as well as in the narrative techniques of Christie’s short stories, compared to her novels featuring Miss Jane Marple. The “Queen of Crime” or “Queen of Mystery” is best known for her ingenuity in the themes and plots, as exemplified by her all-time-favourites such as A Murder is Announced (1950), The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962), Nemesis etc. But in her short stories we find comparatively less variety and only occasional glimpses of ingenuity with respect to narration and plot structure. The limited canvas of a short story in contrast with that of a novel may be, at least partially, responsible for this in Christie’s art of writing. Almost all the stories in the volume Miss Marple’s Final Cases are written in third person narration with only two exceptions. Miss Jane Marple is the first person narrator from the beginning to the end of “Miss Marple Tells a Story” (1935). The other story, “The Case of the Caretaker” (1950), is told in the third person, but the main mystery is presented in an epistolary form. One probable reason of not putting the narration in the lips of Miss Marple is that she herself admits that she has a terrible tendency of digressing. In the other volume, The Thirteen Problems, the plots are structured in a story-telling style. Thus, the main story is told by an omniscient third person narrator, within which the unsolved mystery is divulged by a member of the story-telling group. For instance, Dr Pender, Raymond West, Joyce Lempriere, Miss Marple and Dr Lloyd are the first person narrators of the unsolved mysteries within the stories “The Idol House of Astarte” (1928), “Ingots of Gold” (1928), “The Bloodstained Pavement” (1928), “The Thumb Mark of St Peter” (1928) and “The Companion” (1930) respectively. Henry Clithering and Mr. and Mrs. Bantry are the respective third person narrators of the mystery within the stories “The Tuesday Night Club” (1927) and “The Blue Geranium” (1929). In this story-telling technique of Christie, everyone guesses the cause of the crime as well as the criminal. But all others are proved wrong; only Miss Marple is always right. Thus all the other characters here play the role of the readers who, on reading the story, try to guess what might actually have happened and then finally check their assumptions with the correct solution provided by Miss Marple.
The secret of Miss Marple’s unusual capacity to demystify the mysteries is hinted in what Christie makes Miss Marple say in the story “The Bloodstained Pavement”: “I always find one thing very like another in this world” (87). According to Aunt Jane, she easily arrives at the solution of each mystery by linking the case in hand to a similar case she experienced or heard before. For instance in “Strange Jest”, Miss Marple compares the whims of Uncle Mathew of Charmian and Edward with that of her own deceased Uncle Henry. Again, in “The Tuesday Night Club”, Mr Jones’ conspiracy with the chambermaid to kill his wife reminds Aunt Jane of some old Mr Hargraves who leaves all his money to their housemaid with whom he has five children outside the knowledge of his wife.
One last point to mention is that Bandyopadhyay has given his fictional detective Byomkesh a proper chronological development in life in keeping with the expectations of the respectable Bengali middle-class milieu. In the very first story of Volume I, “The Inquisitor”, the author introduces Byomkesh through Ajit, the narrator. After the fifth story “Where there is a Will”, he gets married to Satyabati, one of the characters of the story. “The Menagerie” the last story of Volume I, informs the readers that Byomkesh and Satyabati have a son. In “Room Number 2” of Volume II, it is mentioned that Byomkesh has bought a piece of land in Keyatola and started building a house of his own. In the very next story “The Man in a Red Coat”, it is said that the three – Byomkesh, Satyabati and Ajit – have shifted from the mess on Harrison road to Keyatola house. The last story “The Annihilation of Bishupal” informs the readers that both Byomkesh and Satyabati are getting old. Byomkesh’s parents are also mentioned passingly in “The Pristine Enemy”. Thus Bandyopadhyay sketches an identifiable trajectory of Byomkesh’s life. And it will not be wrong to say that he portrays Byomkesh, at least partially, according to his own stature. Partho Chattopadhyay writes in “Porishishto (Appendix) 2” of Volume II of Sharadindu Omnibus:
‘Did you ever see anyone like him (Byomkesh), or is he half real and half imagination?’
Sharadindu-babu replies, ‘Not imagination exactly. You may call it self-projection – a portrayal of myself.’ (qtd. in Bandyopadhyay 1000)
And although Miss Marple may be similarly imagined as a projection of Agatha Christie, the author does not offer any such consistent development of her fictional sleuth. Christie presents Miss Marple as an elderly spinster of St. Mary Mead, tall and thin, aged between sixty and seventy years, most of the time found with knitting needles and yarn. The only information we get about her family is that she has her nephew Raymond West, who appears in a number of stories such as “The Tuesday Night Club” and “Ingots of Gold”. Other relatives include her great-nephews David West and Lionel West, Joan West (niece-in-law who appears in “Greenshaw’s Folly”), Mabel Denham (niece appearing in “The Thumb Mark of St Peter”), Henry (uncle), Antony (cousin), Gordon (cousin), Fanny Godfrey (cousin), Lady Ethel Merridew (cousin), Thomas (uncle), Helen (aunt) and Diana Harmon (godchild appearing in “Sanctuary”). However, both in the Byomkesh and the Miss Marple stories, several characters reappear. The mention of characters and incidents of some earlier stories gives the readers a sense of continuity.
So far as the short crime stories of Christie and Bandyopadhyay are concerned, the latter provides us with greater varieties in character portrayal, technique of crime, use of wit and humour, plot structure and narrative style. Owing to Bandyopadhyay’s wide experience of people of different parts of India having various cultural backgrounds, his stories have heterogeneous settings and a wide variety of convincing characters. The eventful socio-political perspectives of Bengal in 1930s-40s owing to the Indian Freedom Movement and the World War might also have provided Bandyopadhyay with diverse materials for his crime stories. Truly, Christie’s England at the same period had also been passing through the traumatic experiences of the First World War and the growing shadows of the imminent Second World War. But the settings of her short stories being mostly in the countryside, there is less variety and complication, and also there is hardly any direct reference to the Great Wars in her short stories.
As already mentioned in the beginning, Bandyopadhyay’s art of writing crime fiction was inspired primarily by the crime stories of the Western writers. He himself admitted in Volume II of Sharadindu Omnibus that he was a die-hard fan of the crime mysteries of Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle. This is also reflected in his stories. The fact that in the Western countries the murderers wear raincoat before killing someone so that the blood may be washed off easily is mentioned in Bandyopadhyay’s “The Annihilation of Beni”. Sanat, the criminal figure in the story, even mentions that he does not read Bengali but European thrillers. But the greatness of Bandyopadhyay as a writer is clearly evident in the fact that he has significantly Indianised the genre originating and developing in the west. A Bengali reader will hardly find anything in the stories which is alien to the Bengali culture. Bandyopadhyay thus pays tribute to his ancestors of detective fiction while maintaining his unique originality. It seems to justify T. S. Eliot’s contention in his renowned essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919) that every writer borrows something from the tradition and at the same time leaves an imprint of his originality on it. The western tradition of crime literature inspired Sharadindu’s creative art, and in return Sharadindu contributed remarkably to enrich the tradition of Bengali crime stories. In fact, as individual writers of crime fiction, Agatha Christie and Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay may and do have obvious similarities and differences, but together they have great contributions to the development of the genre of crime fiction.
1. All extracts from Sharadindu Omnibus (Volumes I and II) are translated from Bengali by me.
2. For maintaining uniformity within the paper, only the translated English titles of the Bengali stories have been used throughout. The original Bengali titles along with their English translations are given below:
i. “The Inquisitor” – “Satyanweshi”
ii. “The Annihilation of Bishupal” – “Bishupal Bodh”
iii. “The Rhythm of the Riddles” – “Henyalir Chhondo”
iv. “Room Number 2” – “Room Nombor Dui”
v. “The Avenger” – “Achin Pakhi”
vi. “The Man in a Red Coat” – “Chholonar Chhondo”
vii. “The Magnificent” – “Mognomoinak”
viii. “The Quills of the Porcupine” – “Shajarur Kanta”
ix. “The Iron Biscuits” – “Lohar Biskut”
x. “The Pristine Enemy” – “Adim Ripu”
xi. “Where there is a Will” – “Arthamanartham”
xii. “The Phantom Client” – “Shailo Rahasya”
xiii. “Thus Spoke the Poet Kalidasa” – “Kohen Kobi Kalidas”
xiv. “The Gramophone Pin Mystery” – “Pother Kanta”
xv. “The Deadly Diamond” – “Roktomukhi Neela”
xvi. “The Menagerie” – “Chiriyakhana”
xvii. “One and Only” – “Adwitiyo”
xviii. “Calamity Strikes” – “Agnibaan”
xix. “The Death of Amrito” – “Amriter Mrityu”
xx. “The Bloodstains” – “Rokter Daag”
xxi. “The Annihilation of Beni” – “Benishonghar”
Bandyopadhyay, Sharadindu. Sharadindu Omnibus Volume I. Edited by Pratul Chadra Gupta. Ananda Publishers Private Ltd, 1970.
——— Sharadindu Omnibus Volume II. Edited by Pratul Chadra Gupta. Ananda Publishers
Private Ltd, 1971.
Christie, Agatha. The Thirteen Problems. Harper and Collins, 2004.
——— Miss Marple’s Final Cases. Harper and Collins, 2004.
“Humour”. Concise Oxford Dictionary, edited by Judy Pearsall, 10th ed., Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. i-1666.
Humpherys, Anne. “British Detective Fiction in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries”.
“Wit”. Concise Oxford Dictionary, edited by Judy Pearsall, 10th ed., Oxford University Press,
1999, pp. i-1666.
Date: December 24, 2021