On the enduring popularity of Agatha Christie’s novels

ByTeja Lele
Apr 08, 2023 02:29 PM IST

Readers continue to devour the books featuring Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple even as the work inspires a new generation of authors, dramatists and filmmakers

I read my first Agatha Christie a little late in life. In college, at a time when the internet was the preserve of a select few, books had to be bought in stores, and thrifting wasn’t a concept, I chanced upon a dog-eared copy of The ABC Murders at a ramshackle library that my cousin and I frequented every summer. Emerging only later that night, I set the book aside as the best thing I had ever read. It was the beginning of a life-long love affair.

Just the sort of lovely home in a quiet English village that turns up as the scene of a violent crime in Agatha Christie’s cosy mysteries. (Shutterstock) PREMIUM
Just the sort of lovely home in a quiet English village that turns up as the scene of a violent crime in Agatha Christie’s cosy mysteries. (Shutterstock)

Poirot hunted down a killer working his way through the alphabet! (Courtesy Amazon)
Poirot hunted down a killer working his way through the alphabet! (Courtesy Amazon)

In my opinion now, the Queen of Crime’s 13th novel featuring Belgian private detective Hercule Poirot isn’t her best work but it is unputdownable. Switching between first and third-person narration, the book is one of the earliest to explore the mind of serial killers. At a time when the phrase did not exist, Poirot hunted down a killer working his way through the alphabet: A for Mrs Ascher in Andover, B for Betty Barnard in Bexhill, C for Sir Carmichael Clarke in Churston.

I was hooked, lined, and sinkered.

Born in Torquay in 1890, Christie is listed by Guinness World Records as the best-selling fiction writer of all time with her novels selling more than two billion copies. She is best known for her 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections, featuring the moustachioed Poirot and that elderly-but-won’t-miss-nothing Miss Marple, and the world’s longest-running play, The Mousetrap.

I found out just why as summer break progressed and I steadfastly made my way through the many worlds Christie crafted: the pressure-cooker environment in Death on the Nile, Murder on the Orient Express, and Appointment with Death, the turmoil and tumult in The Hollow, Ordeal by Innocence, and Endless Night, and the deathly doings in Sleeping Murder, Cards on the Table, and 4.50 from Paddington.

Deathly doings (Courtesy Amazon)
Deathly doings (Courtesy Amazon)

Like most Christie fans, I grew to adore Poirot, he who lived for order and symmetry in his square Whitehaven Mansions’ apartment; he who believed that “if the little grey cells are not exercised, they grow the rust”.

In his first appearance, in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, he philosophically observed: “Every murderer is probably somebody’s old friend…You cannot mix up sentiment and reason.”

That was the tone that nearly every Christie mystery set. And the denouement was always satisfying unlike the many modern whodunnits and whydunnits which have a cracker buildup but a damp squib of an ending.

Christie, who also wrote six novels under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott, may have died in 1976 but her work has ensured that she has never gone away. In fact, the last few years have seen a resurgence of interest.

Vishal Bhardwaj plans to adapt this book for an OTT platform (Courtesy Amazon)
Vishal Bhardwaj plans to adapt this book for an OTT platform (Courtesy Amazon)

Last month, filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj announced plans to adapt The Sittaford Mystery as Charlie Chopra & The Mystery of Solang Valley for an OTT platform. New Zealand-based filmmaker Sridhar Kallidai is reimagining Poirot as Harkishan Purohit, a genteel detective with a distinctive moustache.

Later this year, Kenneth Branagh and his ludicrous moustache will get another fancy outing in A Haunting in Venice, which is based on Halloween Party. BBC and Britbox International have announced an adaptation of Murder is Easy.

Meanwhile, The Mousetrap, which opened in London’s West End in 1952 and ran continuously until March 2020, when stage performances were temporarily discontinued amid COVID-19, is going strong after it reopened in May 2021. 70 years on, it is now making its way to Broadway.

Christie’s influence can also be seen on the many authors who have followed in her footsteps: Sophie Hannah has been churning out new Poirot books over the last few years; Lucy Worsley released her best selling biography of Christie; Marple, a collection of short stories featuring Jane Marple by 12 best selling authors, received rave reviews, as did The Christie Affair, a mystery centred on the sensational events that led to Christie’s disappearance for 11 days in 1926.

Daniel Craig’s Knives Out, an out-and-out Christie-inspired film, and HBO Max’s See How They Run, a meta murder mystery set behind the scenes of The Mousetrap, have come in for much applause.

For me, life came full circle when my tween last week showed me the latest book she had “issued” from the school library: The ABC Murders.

At a time when murder mysteries and writers are popping out of the woodwork – I know for I have breezed through quite a few of them – there’s a reason why crime lovers return to Christie’s mysteries.

They’re, well, cosy. That may seem a strange word to describe the unravelling of a grisly murder, but Christie does it magnificently. She creates a world that’s simultaneously open and cloistered, concurrently known yet unknown.

Between the world wars, Poirot travelled across Europe and the Middle East, investigating crimes and solving murders as “wherever there is human nature, there is drama”. He may have been “probably the greatest detective in the world” (apologies Benoit Blanc), who “did not bend and measure the footprints and pick up the cigarette ends and examine the bent blades of grass”. All he had to do – whether on the Orient Express, a cruise ship, or on board a plane - was “sit back in my chair and think”.

The flashy mysteries were undoubtedly entertaining but the finest were the ones Christie set in the genteel English village, her backdrop of choice. Be it St Mary Mead, Wychwood, Sittaford, Lymstock, Chipping Cleghorn, or King’s Abbot, the thatched cottages, quiet lanes, and stately vicarages/ homes were where the usual suspects – vicars, doctors, spinsters, army officers, independent women, and never-do-well sons – were ensconced in crime, typically at evening tea or a day-long fete.

The crimes were never brutal; most occurred off the pages. We read about them, about the small, close-knit community of people who may or may not have done it. The stories were removed from our here and now, make-believe but in a setting that seemed homely and familiar.

Miss Marple, who set store by her “certain knowledge of human nature”, oft spoke about the “great deal of wickedness in village life” and the fact that “in an English village, you turn over a stone and have no idea what will crawl out”.

Naturally, Christie suspected everyone – the birdlike woman who bludgeoned a person to death for a painting, the beloved child who wasn’t quite all there and went horrifyingly off track, the elderly woman who killed her companion to keep her masquerade going, the genial doctor who killed his wife on a train to stash her body somewhere safe, the aged woman next door who turned out to be a serial killer murdering to keep her secret safe, and the magnificent collusion of all suspects to punish a child murderer.

Jane Marple tended to be dismissed due to her gender and age but used the “invisible” opportunity to solve crimes. (Courtesy Amazon)
Jane Marple tended to be dismissed due to her gender and age but used the “invisible” opportunity to solve crimes. (Courtesy Amazon)

In The Thumb Mark of St Peter, Miss Marple observes that “human nature is much the same everywhere” and it’s simply that “one has opportunities of observing it at closer quarters in a village.”

Stock characters peopled her stories, but we grew to love Poirot, who was often underestimated on account of his flamboyant foreignness, a fact that he used to great effect, and Jane Marple, the old biddy who tended to be dismissed due to her gender and age but used the “invisible” opportunity to solve crimes.

In The Traditional English Village and Its Stock Figures in Some Novels by Agatha Christie, Zlata Leibnerová writes that the core of Christie’s work lies in the village characters. “The detective stories of the Golden Age period do not usually leave any place for worked-out character analyses or complicated personal relationships. This allows the reader to concentrate solely on the resolution of the puzzle.”

People she knew or met seem to have walked off the streets and into her books. “Plots come to me at such odd moments, when I am walking along the street, or examining a hat shop... suddenly a splendid idea comes into my head,” Christie wrote in her autobiography.

The settings may have been varied, but the people were all too familiar, bringing to mind someone we may have known or heard of at some time.

The unforgettable Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s comic self-portrait endowed with “feminine intuition”, routinely wrote murder mysteries featuring Sven Hjerson, a vegetarian Finnish detective. In an article in 1956, Christie reportedly said she never took her stories from real life, “but the character of Ariadne Oliver does have a strong dash of myself”.

Sophie Hannah, who pens the Christie continuation Poirot novels, has written that she was hooked on the “keenly balanced structure and fiendish puzzles” in the novelist’s work from the age of 12, “in part because she manages to dig beneath the surface of appearances”.

“This is what good fiction does: it enlarges our views of what is possible, rather than reflecting the world of appearances,” she writes.

Author Agatha Christie (HT PHOTO)
Author Agatha Christie (HT PHOTO)

In Christie’s world, murder can happen at any time, at any place. The thrill lies in slowly revealing the many layers of people and incidents, much like peeling an onion. Poirot might have been speaking for the woman who created him in Five Little Pigs when he said: “Ah, but my dear sir, the why must never be obvious. That is the whole point.”

Captain Hastings typically looked for madness to sniff out the killer, but Poirot and Marple knew that “everyone is a potential murderer”; it all depended on the conditions and circumstances on that particular day, at that particular time.

The everyday touch and people-like-us approach that Christie employed in most of her mysteries make them appealing even today. The books may be old, but the themes and character traits, alongside her insights into the idiosyncrasies of human nature make them perennially new.

Interestingly, Christie wrote her first novel because her sister Madge bet her that she couldn’t write a “good detective story”.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published when she was 30 years old and the writer was extremely prolific in the years after that. No matter how many Christies I ferreted out, one more was always left.

Even today, when I am looking for comfort reading, I return to my Agatha Christie collection. I own every mystery she’s written, and I try my best to scout for one in which chances are high that I don’t remember whodunit. Even if I do, I rediscover the pleasure the book gave me the first time I read it.

Teja Lele is an independent editor and writes on books, travel and lifestyle

The views expressed are personal

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