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A bloody business

On the 75th anniversary of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, what is the future of murder mysteries? Paramita Ghosh writes.

books Updated: Jan 10, 2009 23:07 IST
Paramita Ghosh
Paramita Ghosh
Hindustan Times

Twelve people board a train — it’s a journey. One of them dies — it’s a plot. The murder weapon is a knife. And the murderer is a right-handed person… and a left-handed person. The investigator is Hercule Poirot. The case is solved in Murder on the Orient Express, the Agatha Christie classic that celebrates its diamond jubilee this month.

Look around to see who’s celebrating. But trust no one. HarperCollins will promote her series under the banner ‘Chills and Thrills’. The motive: Christie has sold over 2 billion books and 3,000 copies of each of the 89 titles sell year after year n India alone, says PM Sukumar, HarperCollins India CEO. Her books were clean, non-violent mysteries where Miss Marple sleuthed while knitting her sweaters and Poirot, while enjoying creme de menthe.

But the rumour is that Eoin Colfer’s enfant terrible Artemis Fowl and Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe, the only female detective in Botswana, are emerging strong favourites.

Author Kalpana Swaminathan, whose Aunt Lalli (Cryptic Death and other stories), one strongly suspects, is Miss Marple-inspired, murders the theory. “Ramotswe is a typical European construct of an interesting but alien culture like Inspector Ghote. Like all of Kipling’s Indians, she is

a pet. And pets, you know, are perennially popular,” she says.

A twist in the tale: the murder mystery, says a source, died at the hand of Raymond Chandler, one of its best-known exponents. A single essay, ‘The Gentle Art of Murder’, he insists “did it in”. “Fundamentally, it’s the same careful grouping of suspects,” Chandler wrote in the essay. “The same utterly incomprehensible trick of how somebody stabbed Mrs Pottington Postlethwaite III with the solid platinum poniard in the presence of 15 ill-assorted guests and the good grey inspector arriving in a dogcart instead of a streamlined sedan with sirens screaming.”

Well, there’s no smoke without fire. Ajit Singh of Delhi bookstore Fact

& Fiction claims: “People aren’t seeing crime thrillers as a genre anymore.” Christie, he says, is more than a genre; it’s read for itself.

So what’s the verdict? Is the art of murder dead? Difficult to say, but its queen, who died in bed 33 years ago almost to the week, is still very much in the ring.