THE QUEEN OF CRIME
A century on from the creation of Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie is more popular than ever, with new books, TV adaptations and a Hollywood movie of Murder On The Orient Express. Crime Scene celebrates the author’s literary legacy with her grandson and th
Following her first Poirot novel, The Mysterious Affair At Styles, written in 1916 and published four years later, Agatha Christie went on to write more than 100 books over the next 60 years. While acknowledging the influence of characters like Sherlock Holmes (he’s mentioned in Styles), she set the template for the 20th century murder mystery. Crime writers today are still indebted to Christie, and there are regular TV and film adaptations around the world, including a new Hollywood movie of Murder On The Orient Express, starring Sir Kenneth Branagh (as Hercule Poirot) and set for release next year.
“It’s actually really important because it is a global release movie,” says Strong. “We have the amazing Kenneth Branagh directing – it’s a huge privilege to be working with him.” The film’s casting remains under wraps, though Charlize Theron is reportedly in the frame. “The cast that we’re looking at will appeal both to people who have always enjoyed Agatha Christie’s work, but will also pique the interest of new viewers and bring a wider audience in to see the film and hopefully bring her stories to them,” adds Strong.
Strong took over as CEO at a key point as Poirot was coming to an end on TV. “We’re very proud of the work that we did for ITV and David Suchet’s extraordinary
“I have got one of the best jobs in the world, haven’t I?” says Hilary Strong, who’s surrounded in her office by the works of Agatha Christie. She took over as CEO of the author’s estate four years ago and has almost completed reading the entire body of work. “The biggest challenge is the biggest joy – it’s reading an awful lot of books,” Strong tells Crime Scene of her role at Agatha Christie Ltd.
24 years of work as Poirot,” she says. “But it was also an opportunity to take this canon and open it up to new markets and to a new generation of people who may not have found her work before. And Then There Were None was really the first of the new Agatha Christie stories.”
The much-praised BBC One adaptation by Sarah Phelps (see page 44) had a darker tone than earlier TV versions, though felt faithful to the book. “I feel it’s the most true adaptation of And Then There Were None that’s ever been done,” says Strong. It bodes well for Phelps’ next adaptation, The Witness For The Prosecution.
In recent years, Strong says, the estate decided to “take back the creative control” for adaptations to ensure that Christie’s books were done properly, although that doesn’t mean “sticking absolutely slavishly to everything she wrote”. Strong singles out the long-running French series Les Petits Meurtres d’agatha Christie as one international success. Partners In Crime, starring David Walliams and Jessica Raine, got a more mixed reception and was not renewed for a second series by the BBC. As for future adaptations, nothing has been decided. “I think we’ve all got our favourites – I’d love to try and do [ The Murder of Roger] Ackroyd because I just think it’s such a brilliant book that’s so hard to do audio-visually,” says Strong.
While the TV and film adaptations are crucial to reaching a new audience – and there has even been a recent video game of The ABC Murders – the books are central to the work of the estate. Christie’s novels – particularly the Poirots and Miss Marples, as well as several standalones – remain hugely popular across generations and continents. Mathew Prichard, Christie’s grandson and the recently retired chairman of Agatha Christie Ltd, has a few theories about why her work is so enduring.
“Well, I suppose two marvellous characters helped, and two very different characters – one a man, one a woman, one English, one not,” he tells Crime Scene. “But I think more than anything else, the dialogue of her books is very natural. It seems to translate very easily into foreign languages, and it adapts very well into film and television. The stories themselves are usually very simple – still very ingenious, of course – and they’re perfect for train journeys and bouts of sickness.”
Christie’s achievement in the genre is extraordinary, from the fully formed talent already on show in Styles to the startling The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd (voted best crime novel ever by the Crime Writers’ Association) to the sheer terror of And Then There Were None, the best selling crime novel of all time. Christie combined her precise plots with a keen insight into human nature and characters integral to her narrative. “I suppose it’s just like making a sauce,” she once said. “Sometimes you get all the ingredients just right.”
Christie’s success is all the more surprising because she was destined to be a society lady, not a career woman. “She was doing what young women of her age and class didn’t really do,” says Strong. “People forget that when she invented Poirot, she was 26. They think of those photographs and pictures of her when she was a very famous and eminent woman. But when she was creating these extraordinary stories, she was a young woman.”
In fact, she had to become a career woman following a painful marriage break-up that left her a single parent to her daughter, Rosalind (Mathew Prichard’s mother). Her failing marriage led to a very public episode when she went missing for 11 days in 1926. She was later found in Harrogate; the official explanation was amnesia. The mysterious disappearance of the 36-year-old author was a media sensation, which left her wary of the press and publicity for the rest of her life.
Christie recovered, married again – to an archaeologist, regularly joining him on Middle Eastern digs – and focused on her novels. Fortunately, she was able to write anywhere – even in a tent in the desert. While her plots didn’t always come easily,
She was doing what young women of her age and class didn’t really do
writing was clearly an innate talent for a woman who had had little formal schooling. “I think a lot of it came from her extraordinary imagination,” Strong tells Crime Scene. “I think that was something she was just born with. You kind of get the feeling it’s always there, even in those very early books. Then she kind of fed that imagination by being this incredible adventurer. When you read things like Murder On The Orient Express, Murder In Mesopotamia and Death On The Nile, they’re stories that are clearly written out of experience.”
All those novels were written in the 1930s, when Christie was at the height of her powers. “She had a very clear view of good and evil, she had strong moral principles, and that certainly came through in her books,” says Prichard. “I think justice was an issue that was tremendously important to her.” By the 1950s, Christie was just as prolific as ever, and Prichard was often treated to a preview of the latest novel. “She used to read a couple of chapters after supper in the evening,” he says. “The one I remember best was a Miss Marple called A Pocket Full Of Rye.”
Even in her later years, Christie was still capable of writing captivating novels – the standalone Endless Night (1967) is one of her best. “It seemed to me remarkable that somebody in their late 70s could write such a meaningful book about people who were well over 50 years younger than she was,” says Prichard. “I thought it was a huge achievement. That would be my favourite.”
Since her death in 1976, Prichard has been involved in the adaptations of his grandmother’s work and has always tried to ensure that the TV shows offer an “Agatha Christie experience”. Three years ago, he visited her holiday home Greenway – a familiar scene from childhood – for the filming of David Suchet’s final scenes for Poirot. “I don’t know who wept more, me or David,” he says.
On 15 September, Prichard will mark his grandmother’s birthday at a public event in Torquay. The Royal Mail will be commemorating the centenary of Poirot with a set of stamps, while Sophie Hannah’s novel Closed Casket featuring the Belgian detective is published. “We do take the writing of these books extremely seriously, and her family are personally involved to make sure that Christie experience comes through,” says Strong. Given the success of Hannah’s Poirot, it raises the question of more cases in print for Miss Marple. “We are looking at Marple at the moment,” confirms Strong.
On the screen, the new Murder On The Orient Express and The Witness For The Prosecution are hugely anticipated adaptations. Given the success of Sherlock, might there be an opportunity in the long term for a modern TV series reboot for Christie? “We are always open to brilliant creative ideas,” says Strong. “If Steven Moffat walked through the door, I would definitely listen to him – he’s an amazing writer. There would have to be a reason for doing it – would the viewer at the end of it feel that they’d had an Agatha Christie experience? I don’t think that’s about setting it in a particular period or sticking to a character’s particular age. We are very open to change, provided that authenticity is still there.”
For details of the celebrations marking 100 years since Christie’s creation of Poirot, visit agathachristiefestival.com
Christie was at the height of her renown in the 1940s, with many classic works still to come.
Hilary Strong,ceo, Agathac hristie Ltd.
Mathew Prichard, Agatha’s grandson.
Les Petits Meurtres: a long-running success.