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The lessons of Agatha Christie


As the author of nine murder mysteries who has dared follow in the illustrious footsteps of Agatha Christie, I am struck by the fact that the whodunnit ‘formula’ she invented and polished to perfection is now 100 years old. Agatha Christie wrote her first novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1916, though it was only published in 1920. Since then her eighty-two books have never been out of print and she continues to enjoy a large and devoted international following.

She is famous of course for her plots, which are ingenious, absorbing and worked out in meticulous detail – no mean feat given that at the time she was writing, a manual Corona typewriter was the height of technological invention! Agatha Christie’s plots are unpredictable and, frequently, strikingly original. And they have a timeless appeal. Murder on the Orient Express managed to capture the popular imagination in 1934 when it was first published, then again in 1974 when the film adaptation of the book became the most successful British film ever made and, again, in 2014 when it was announced that celebrated film director Ridley Scott was planning yet another cinematic version.

Some form of deadly deception is always central to all Christie’s novels and that is linked to a single, fascinatingly clever idea which readers remember long after they have closed the book. Here are two examples of Christie’s startlingly unorthodox way of thinking. The first comes from a novel written in her floruit period, the late 1930s, the second from one of her 1960s offerings, when her powers had started declining. (I won’t give away the titles.) In the first a series of murders takes place in a picture-postcard English village: the common factor between the victims is that they are all people who have in some way upset a pompous and ridiculously self-important gentleman - however, he is not the killer. In the second a highly unpleasant young girl attending a party declares that she has witnessed a murder and soon after she is killed – but she was only repeating what another girl, the real murder witness, had told her.

Agatha Christie’s cleverness is of the kind that crosses boundaries not only of time, but of race and class as well. Over the years her admiring readers have included Ramsey MacDonald, Sigmund Freud, Queen Mary, T. S. Eliot, P. G. Wodehouse and, during the Second World War, British prisoners of war. Nowadays French intellectuals sing her praises – she is one of the most popular authors in Russia - and doesn't Alexander McCall Smith's ‘Botswanian Ma Ramotswe’ owe something to Miss Marple?!

Agatha Christie’s powers of invention were prodigious. She didn’t seem to have known the meaning of the phrase ‘writer's block’. As her alter ego Mrs Ariadne Oliver puts it in Cards on the Table, “I’m never at a loss for a plot.” Her prose, on the other hand, is simple, clear and succinct. She knew how to start a story and she knew exactly when to finish it. The average Christie novel is 190 pages – compare this to the staggering verbosity of many contemporary crime writers.

Agatha Christie is adept at raising her readers’ curiosity at the end of a chapter and making them want to read on. Here are three examples of end-of-chapter cliff-hangers:

‘He wasn’t the sort of man you’d notice ...Yes, there’s no doubt about it ...You have described the murderer!’ – The ABC Murders

‘Three motives – it is almost too much. I am inclined to believe that, after all, Ralph Paton is innocent.’ – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

‘I’ve remembered,’ said Sir Charles, ‘what struck me as odd. It was the ink-stain on the floor in the butler’s room.’ Three Act Tragedy

Agatha Christie’s masterpiece And Then There Were None not only combines mystery and suspense of the highest order, but it also succeeds in frightening the reader. As the murders on the small sinister island multiply, each according to the verses of the macabre children's poem, it gradually becomes clear that everybody is doomed – but how is that possible when it has been proven beyond doubt that there are only ten people on the island? When there are only two characters left alive, one of them starts wondering if this may not be the work of a being that ‘didn’t come from this world at all.’ Needless to say, the final explanation is rational and completely logical. Any discerning reader would notice that elements of the actual denouement are not entirely convincing – but that couldn’t matter less: this is one of those instances where it is the journey that counts.

Agatha Christie has been castigated for her poor characterisation but the fact is one does remember many of her creations – and I don’t mean only Poirot and Miss Marple. Among my personal favourites are Dr Shepherd (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd) with his dry humour and unreliable narrator’s ingenuity, the wilful, wild and totally unpredictable Lady Bess Sedgwick (At Bertram’s Hotel) and the hapless, shell-shocked, short-sighted, absurdly named Alexander Bonaparte Cust (The ABC Murders). Christie’s characters may not be detailed and developed according to the requirements of High Literature, but they are perfectly suited to the kind of book she wrote.

By R.T. Raichev

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