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

Crime Scene - - AGATHA CHRISTIE SPECIAL - By An­dre Paine

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 agath­achristiefes­ti­

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.

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