In Times of Grim Headlines, Read as Our Bad News Forebears Did

They turned to Agatha Christie in a time of global misery and creeping authoritarianism. Now I see why.

By Shannon Rupp 11 Feb 2017 |

Shannon Rupp was a Tyee contributing editor. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at) 

The bright side of the world’s political swing to the right is that it has people catching up on their reading. Unfortunately, it’s misery reading.

In January, Amazon briefly sold out of George Orwell’s 1948 book about Britain as a totalitarian state, 1984. The sales boost came courtesy of all the political pundits invoking Orwell while covering Donald Trump. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is also finding new fans for the same reason. The 1932 novel was written after the British author’s first visit to the U.S., where he found a country obsessed with commerce, conformity, and drug-induced positive thinking.

Neil Postman’s excellent Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, which ties it all together for the mass media age, is also climbing the charts again. His 1985 analysis looks at the impact of TV, and he argues persuasively that while Orwell wrote an interesting story, Huxley called it right when it came to predicting the future.

I’m calling this classics revival English 498 — Directed Readings in Depressing Dystopias. Naturally, Margaret Atwood’s 1985 page-turner The Handmaid’s Tale is on the list. The scarily prescient piece of speculative fiction imagines an alternate U.S. dominated by theocrats, and the story is also coming to TV-and-streaming in April. If you make it through all of those books without sliding into the black pit of depression, you might want to join the new fans of Sinclair Lewis’s dated satirical novel It Can’t Happen Here, from 1935, about a demagogue who becomes the American answer to Hitler.

These are all worthy reads, but if your first encounter with these books comes all at once, in this political climate, it might just leave you in despair.

So I have a better idea: find a literary distraction with historical appeal. After the Trump debacle, on top of the Syria mess and the Brexit meltdown, I found myself wondering what people who lived in an era just like ours were reading to escape the headlines.

So I investigated the 20 years between the two world wars, which often looks like a rehearsal for our time. A quick review of the big stories in the 1920s and 1930s reveals a society confronting income inequality; a stock market collapse; the Depression; the Spanish Civil War (which killed about half a million people); the social impact of radio; and an international roster of dictators such as Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and Stalin. Populist politics with an authoritarian edge were all the rage in North America. The U.S. had Louisiana’s Huey Long (who inspired the novel It Can’t Happen Here); we had Bible Bill Aberhart.

Speaking of Bible Bill, he was among the first politicians trying to censor what he considered the fake news of the day. Premier William Aberhart, who ruled Alberta from 1935 to 1943, was a Christian fundamentalist who earned his nickname as a radio preacher before founding the Social Credit party. He may be forgotten outside of Alberta but he lives on in some Canadian journalists’ memory as the guy who tried to legislate government control of newspapers.

The “Accurate News and Information Act” gave the government the right to rebut any news it considered inaccurate by forcing those newspapers to publish government propaganda. The new law didn’t survive a court challenge, but Aberhart’s idea, and the repercussions, put Alberta on the map. The Edmonton Journal still likes to brag about being one of the rare non-U.S. newspapers to win a citation from the Pulitzer Prizes for its coverage of the Social Credit’s bid to censor the press.

You see what I mean about the problems of the 1920s and 1930s being our problems all over again?

So I did a little more sleuthing to see what the average person was reading in the interwar period. And sleuthing turned out to be the operative word: the so-called golden age of detective stories was in full flower, and everyone was looking to Agatha Christie for solace.

The mystery author’s Wikipedia page boasts that she is still the bestselling novelist of all time, and I don’t doubt it. Twenty years ago, I would have said her books were flat and dry but suddenly I get the appeal: when reality is this chaotic, Christie’s moral murder mysteries are a huge relief.

The stories are just clever puzzles with a literary veneer, which means the whole imaginary world makes sense. The Christie-verse is an orderly place where trains and people alike keep to schedules, which often proves crucial in spotting the culprit. The murderers all have sensible motives; their killings are not merely the random acts of lunatics.

There are no untrustworthy narrators or morally ambiguous plots to linger in your mind. We never get to know the corpses well enough to care that they’re gone, and the author thoughtfully disposes of them in a relatively bloodless manner that won’t leave us queasy.

Since these are stories of good and evil, the characters are rarely anything but a collection of stereotypes. Even her star detectives are little more than walking bundles of quirks who deliver comically cynical views on human nature. Miss Marple knits and gossips; Hercule Poirot brags about his little grey cells. What more do we need to know, other than that we are safe in this world because they always catch the killer.

Matching wits with the author to solve the riddle turns out to be remarkably soothing reading. It’s so engaging in the moment that it’s easy to ignore the outside world and the angst-ridden chatter. Which makes the books addictive. There are 66 detective novels in the Christie oeuvre, starting with Hercule Poirot’s debut in 1920 in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and I’m going through them like potato chips. At this rate, my escapist reading hobby won’t last the year.

Unfortunately, not just any mystery writer will do for escapism. In other moods, I’m a fan of Christie’s contemporary, Dorothy L. Sayers, whose books were among the first to offer the now familiar formula of a mystery plus a glimpse into some profession. But they’re too realistic to be effective as headline-escape. Sayers’ sharp views on the advertising world of that period, or feminism, have a way of snapping a reader back into reality. Her books always make me wonder why so little has changed in almost a century.

I’m already anticipating what I’ll do if the horrifying headlines outlast the Christie supply. Flush with the success of this experiment, I’ve been convinced that I will find my next distraction among the most popular hobbies of the interwar period. So I was delighted when a friend who enjoys crafting mentioned there has been a revival of the jazz age mania for brewing “white spirits” at home.

Perfect. Bathtub gin, here I come.

© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)  [Tyee]

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