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?

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Is Agatha Christie re­ally as good as her fans say, or have they just lost the plot?

Pro­lific writer

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

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