understanding agatha christie
More than four million copies of Agatha Christie’s 80 whodunnits are bought around the world every year. But is she really as good as her fans say, or have they just lost the plot?
Is Agatha Christie really as good as her fans say, or have they just lost the plot?
This time, I determinedly plough my way through all the most famous ones – Death On The Nile, The Seven Dials Mystery, Murder On The Orient Express, The ABC Murders, The Body In The Library, Sparkling Cyanide – and the ones that stand as particular markers in her 56-year career. The Mysterious Affair At Styles (her first book, and the first appearance of Poirot), The Murder At The Vicarage (Miss Marple’s debut – she is, at least, less irritating a character than Poirot. She was based on Christie’s grandmother and thus evokes something of all grandmothers, which – as mine remains a beloved memory – is a point in her favour), and Christie’s two last (published) books, Curtain and Sleeping Murder, written 40 years earlier to bring a satisfactory end to Poirot’s (and, to a lesser extent, Miss Marple’s) respective careers.
It takes me a long time, though, with much inward huffing and occasional exclamations of pain (“Extract of calabar bean! What the what?!”). Further recommendations from friends – The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd (“You must! You’ll really never guess who this murderer is!”) and Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (I don’t know, and I just don’t care enough to find out) – were started but abandoned. I’m sorry.
I might add that I am not alone in my Agatha antipathy – the great PD James has objected to her “cardboard cutout characters” and likened her to “a literary conjuror ... She has her cards and she shifts them with those cunning fingers until, of course, the reader reads enough to see the kind of trickery she operates.”
The American writer Edmund Wilson also objected to her on the grounds that he liked
Agatha Christie spends more time on the plot of her stories than actually writing them. murders that happened “for a reason, rather than just to provide a body”.
But I am in a minority. Around four billion copies of her more than 100 books and short story collections have been sold since that Mysterious Affair At Styles was published in 1920. Four million copies of her books (in 103 different languages, making her the most translated author in the world) still fly out of shops around the world every year. Some 100,000 people came to see her former Devon home, Greenway in south-west England, when it opened to the public for the first time last year, after a £5.4mil (RM27.1mil) refurbishment. Her play The Mousetrap opened in November 1952 and is, famously, the longestrunning play in history (over 24,000 performances and, at St Martin’s Theatre in London’s West End, still counting).
And if you need any further proof of her enduring appeal and international fame, on her 120th birthday recently, the Google logo was changed for the day in tribute.
I didn’t see it, alas. I was in the wireless broadband-free bosom of Torquay, southwest England, at the time, attending the annual Agatha Christie festival, hoping to talk to the fans – massing, on the first day, at the village fete on the green – in an attempt to fathom her appeal. This festival is something of a period piece itself – what must be the nation’s last working set of wooden hoopla hoops are in operation, along with a splatthe-rat contest and the most courageous charlestoning by the game ladies of the local Rotary club that I have ever seen. There is a stall selling slices of the special 120th birthday cake, Delicious Death, created by Jane Asher from the recipe in Christie’s 50th novel, A Murder Is Announced. On the assumption that one of them at least must be poisoned, I decline to partake, but it looks lovely.
Also looking lovely is Poirot. Yes, all the way from Belgium comes zee leetle man wiz ze egg-shaped head full of leetle grey cells ... or at least a splendid lookalike, played by Martin Gaisford who, when not baking gently to death in a fat suit and spats under an uncharacteristically boiling September sun, is the director of Art Deco Productions, an entertainment company that specialises in putting on period murder mystery parties for corporate clients.
Smiling fans come up to him as he strolls around and ask to have their photo taken with him. “They can be any age or nationality,” he tells when we escape to the pavilion so that he can carefully mop his face without disturbing the pomaded hair or moustache. “I’ve gone a few times to the World Travel Fair as Poirot, and you can go past some really obscure country’s stall and they’ll shout out his name.”
This is, of course, a testament to the power of television – the Marple and Poirot series are broadcast everywhere, from Sweden to South Korea – rather than the books themselves. Gaisford, strictly speaking, is of course a David Suchet lookalike (“I met him, after I’d watched all the DVDs to try to get the mannerisms right,” says Gaisford. “And he was absolutely charming. Very keen to know if I was happy with the walk, because without that, it simply doesn’t work.”)
Speaking to fans over the next few days, it becomes clear they don’t particularly distinguish between the two. There is no sense that you are in any way a lesser Agatha acolyte if you have read few or even none of the books, but are au fait with every minute of your Miss Marple boxset.
Again, I have seen very few of the television adaptations (although I have naturally absorbed their essence through cultural osmosis). This is mainly because they are more redolent to me of agonisingly boring Sunday evenings sitting on the sofa with my parents, chafing inwardly at the thought that I could be out somewhere, anywhere, doing something – anything – more interesting than this if only I were older, lived elsewhere and were a totally different kind of person.
But to others, they mean much more. “My wife and I were born in England and they’re a reminder of what life was like when our parents, if not quite us, were growing up,” says Tony Walker, 59, a financial adviser from Auckland. “The motor cars, the clothes, the buildings ... it’s quite a nostalgic thing. We enjoy sitting down in New Zealand and having a little trip down memory lane. Maybe, when time permits, we’ll go back and read the books.”
Dressing for the era
It occurs to me that the books and the television series exist in an unusually profitable symbiosis, with the latter fleshing out the former, effectively adding the description and supplementing the nostalgia offered by the books. The modern reader brings perhaps more than is actually there, and so breathes new life into them.
There are a few people for whom the era is self-evidently the greatest attraction, and they are the ones in what I initially and wrongly term costume.
Emma Klausner, 24, is wearing a cloche hat, vintage jewellery, a pair of wide-legged 20sstyle trousers and a vintage silk blouse. Her eyebrows are carefully pencilled, her face carefully powdered and she looks fantastic. “My nan was a big Agatha Christie fan,” she says. “So I’ve read about 10 or 15 of the books and watched every Marple and Poirot, but I just love the 20s and 30s. It would be lovely to go back in time and see that era. It was just so elegant, so stylish.”
Alas, I do not meet Michele and Stephen Marck until a few days later, so I cannot introduce these kindred spirits. Michele is wearing