A few years ago, I had the unbelievable good fortune of working on the film sets of both Poirot and Miss Marple. I stumbled into this as an unexpected consequence of my time spent as a tour guide and House deputy at the triumphantly gothic Knebworth House. The building’s uniquely turreted, gargoyled exterior has secured its position as a favourite location of televised period dramas, having played host to many a bejewelled party and fictional murder. My own role in the filming that I helped to oversee involved the stern protection of the home’s contents and architecture, with much of this dating back to the Tudor period and therefore of unimaginable value. The stately home, with its centuries-worth of aristocratic splendour, was an undoubtedly perfect setting for some of Agatha Christie’s most prodigious narrative twists.
By the time that I had my encounters with these remarkable adaptations – including a thrilling run-in with David Suchet whilst in character as Hercule Poirot – I was already an admirer of Christie’s work. Her detective fiction has accompanied more winter slumps than I can easily recall, a feature of many dark evenings spent conjuring the comfort that only an excellent book and a cup of tea can bring. Christie has long been celebrated as the queen of crime fiction – a title to which the record-setting numbers attached to sales of her works certainly attest. With 2 billion book sold, translated into 103 languages, Agatha Christie’s enviable talent has earned her the status of both the most widely selling and most translated author in history. But precisely how did a woman prohibited from formal schooling – with a mother determined to prevent her daughter learning to read until she turned 8 years old – cement her reputation as the master of the mystery genre?
October 2019 serves as perfect timing for a re-examination of Christie’s status and legacy. This month marks the 99th anniversary of the publication of Christie’s first piece of detective fiction, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the book that launched her into the literary spotlight in October 1920. The book was a remarkable accomplishment for an author who had received little in the way of formal education, taught herself to read, and previously restricted her explorations in the world of fiction writing to a handful of short stories. Although it was rejected by several publishers before its acceptance by John Lane for publication in the US, The Mysterious Affair at Styles was met with significant critical acclaim. Christie’s meticulous attention to plotting, as well as her careful revelation of key details, ensured that her entry into the world of literary crime would mark the beginning of a prolific career. The origin story behind The Mysterious Affair at Styles is itself a conundrum. Celebrated by the book’s publisher as the product of a bet in which Christie was challenged to write a piece of crime fiction in which it would be impossible for the reader to guess the killer’s identity pre-revelation, it has also been suggested that the story was the result of a challenge from Christie’s sister Madge for the author to write a novel-length piece of fiction. Whichever is true of Christie’s impressive debut, she more than fulfilled the conditions of both bets.
Over the course of her lifetime, Christie authored a total of 82 books, 66 of which were detective novels. Introducing the world to her most illustrious and lasting creations, Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple, the author’s work has been the source of inspiration for countless adaptations and a global fandom that continues to dissect Christie’s unrivalled skill. I’m a selective fan of detective fiction. Although nothing accesses my sense of satisfaction quite like a good mystery, graphic violence is something that I typically choose to avoid. In novels premised on murder or other extreme crimes, it is understandably difficult to find fiction that operates at the limits of human psychology whilst managing to avoid gratuitous detail or a reliance on stomach-churning fear. That Christie’s work deals so successfully in evil and its fundamentally human origins whilst steering clear of explicit or graphic violence is one of the reasons for her wide readership. Where violence can provide sure access to demographics intrigued by such details – in part the product of a media increasingly prepared to engage with violence in a viscerally visual way – Christie demonstrates how efficaciously it is possible to deal in violence where interest is held in the crime’s relationship to the resulting deductions, rather than in the crime itself. Christie understood that much of mystery fiction’s appeal lies in the safe assurance of the detective’s ability to reconstruct a world ripped apart by the evil of violent crime. In this sense, mystery fiction – particularly of the kind that deals in implied violence – rests on a subtle, unstated trust between reader and author. We allow the author to challenge our own sense of safety and clarity – through a premise of violence, death, and an unidentified culprit – on the understanding that we will be coached to an end in which our hero detective pieces this safety and clarity back together again. Although this certainly does not hold true for all successful, detective fiction, Christie’s work rests heavily on this dynamic and must therefore be seen as key to her lasting, global success.
Beyond her fundamental understanding of mystery fiction’s role, it is certainly upon Christie’s tremendous narrative skill that her reputation as the queen of crime fiction most rests. Her ability to misdirect the reader, whilst simultaneously leaving no stone unturned in the crime’s eventual resolution, is a testament to careful planning and the author’s unrivalled ability to play with standard mystery formulas in ways that feel eternally unique. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is an incredible demonstration of Christie’s plotting at its most riveting and memorable. The introduction of grippingly flawed detectives into this mix is one of the many ways in which Christie demonstrates her sure navigation of the mystery genre’s intersection with literary fiction. Although her characterisation can leave something to be desired – a fact that is most certainly the product of engaging with the restrictions imposed by writing a good mystery, as well as the concise length of much of Christie’s fiction – the author’s recurring characters are all impressively well-dimensioned. Beyond the moustached excellence of Poirot, Hastings, Japp, and Marple are fantastically vivacious characters, given life within the restrictive boundaries of detective fiction that typically demands a central focus on the crime, victim, and list of suspects. Through Poirot, in particular, the reader is introduced to both a wonderfully memorable character and a plethora of social issues. Christie’s willingness to engage with contemporary politics – albeit with impressive subtlety – lends her books a sense of reality that can otherwise be easily absent from detective fiction. Poirot’s position as an immigrant and the centrality of the war to both his position and relationships are threaded throughout Christie’s works with thematic consistency, further consolidated by the many stories that engage with soldiers, war, and the consequences of state-managed violence.
That Christie fully deserves her reputation as the master of detective fiction is beyond doubt. The fact that her work has transcended both geography and generations testifies to her understanding of human psychology and our shared desire to achieve a catharsis that remains exclusive to crime and the clarity of justice. Most of us are aware of our desire to engage in the murkiness of theoretical or fictional violence, particularly when this violence manifests as a crime that must be solved. Just as Christie brings clarity to her mysteries by delivering us an explanation and resolution, so too she offers safety in the sense that such acts must always have reasons. Although this may not always hold true for real-world violent crimes, it serves as a key element of Christie’s tremendous success as an author of work that manages to navigate the extremes of human violence whilst still providing the escapism of fictional unreality. 99 years on from the publication of her first piece of detective fiction, Agatha Christie’s genius has retained its profound impact through literature that accesses an intrinsically human desire to analyse, understand, and see justice done.