The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie

Scan the shelves of crime fiction in any bookshop and you are likely to find many books focussed on organised crime and institutionalised corruption. The majority of today’s authors are paying homage to the Hardboiled tradition which emerged during the prohibition years (firstly in America) during the late 1920s and 30s. Many deal with society’s winners and losers; the rich and powerful at one end of a spectrum and the downtrodden scum in the foulest ghetto at the other. In this melting-pot diverse characters confront each other in a cynical, multicultural world. It’s a world where envy, ambition and greed dominate, where it’s dog eats dog and dark emotions are triggered with violence. In previous decades the likes of Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane , Raymond Chandler were the big names in this field, today authors like Lee Child, Robert B Parker and Walter Mosley have taken up the mantle.

In stark contrast you may still spot a few novels where death lurks beneath the tea-tables, where the necklace of the squire’s wife has gone missing and bobbies are still diligently pounding the beat along country lanes. Seemingly a very different world although crime is still at the heart of many such works. This style is what the Americans have recently christened as the Cozy Mystery. These novels generally shy away from excessive violence and menace and although mystery lies at the centre of many of these stories which also offer the reader humorous glimpses of a bygone age. Some may be thematic (culinary mystery, theatrical mystery, etc.). It’s a style that deals with violence, sex, and social relevance but in a more subtle way. Usually the focus is on the detection of crime rather than the gritty details of the crime itself. A solution is often achieved by intellect or intuition rather than police procedure. The stories are often populated with honorable and well-bred middle-class characters in a closed community setting where mayhem exists but where order will be restored in the end. This genre is not new but a reinvention of the Golden Age whodunit; a style dominated between the wars by writers (the majority of them women) like Dorothy L. Sayers, Josephine Tey and Elizabeth Daly.

In this genre the recognised ‘Queen of Crime’ for many decades was, Agatha Christie. Over her lifetime she wrote 66 crime novels and 15 short story collections. Next year sees the centenary of the publication of her first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Christie’s world is not a world of racketeering and thuggery but a world of thatched cottages, country houses, doctors making their daily rounds and vicars dropping in for tea because there’s still a body popped up in the vicarage library. Even those who have never picked up a Christie are familiar with this bygone world because of the numerous television dramas and films made in recent years featuring her two most famous sleuths Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Titles like, Death on the Nile, Murder on the Orient Express and Witness for the Prosecution have delighted cinema audiences since the 1930s. After 67 years The Mousetrap still pulls in the London theatre audiences every night. Therefore, with her classic work, “And Then there were None,” celebrating its 80th anniversary later this year its worth re-examining the Christie legacy and the part she played in making this genre so popular. In recent years contributors to the so-called ‘Agatha Project’ have employed computer analysis of Christie’s writings to identify what makes her so successful. Some believe they have identified the repeated use of certain innocuous phrases which they believe induce pleasure and satisfaction. Claiming this results in raised levels of serotonin and endorphins in the brains of her readers. One leading researcher, Dr Kapferer claims, “The release of these neurological opiates makes Christie’s writing literally unputdownable.” When mentioned to a local book club that I was presenting a talk entitled the “Life and Crimes of Agatha
Christie” a couple of members revealed some concerns, stating that they didn’t consider her a ‘serious enough author to be of any literary worth.’ Ah well, you can’t please everyone. Yet having struggled with some so called literary giants over the years it is no mystery to me that over forty years after her death the acknowledged ‘Queen of Crime’ has sold over 4 billion books, all her novels remain in print, her books are available in over 100 languages and she is still the only author to be outsold by the Bible and Shakespeare.

This article on the writings of Agatha Christie has been written to coincide with an illustrated talk to be given by Mark Temple. This is prior to the centenary year of her first novel (The Mysterious Affair at Styles pub. 1919) and the 80th anniversary of her classic ‘And Then There Were None’ in November, later this year.

For further information, please contact Mark Temple.

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