Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie remains one of the best-selling authors in history, surpassed only by William Shakespeare and the Bible. Agatha Christie neither promises to cleanse you from sin, nor has she introduced indispensable phrases and words to our everyday speech. Her works are not studied at school or university and are generally seen as secondary to serious literature. Yet, the honour of being the most-translated individual author is hers, as is the place on the shelves of any bookshop that cares to sell crime.
Why is that? What makes the works of Agatha Christie so appealing that we keep reading them, almost a century after her debut novel was published? What are their inherent flaws which prevent them from being included in The Norton Anthology? Do those flaws exist? What is that universal appeal that has film studios routinely produce adaptations of her books? (Kenneth Branagh is currently working on another version of The Murder on the Orient Express, with quite a cast. And BBC has just confirmed that seven new Agatha Christie dramas will follow their successful And Then There Were None serial, shown in late December 2015.)
Today I embark on a one-woman journey to answer those questions. The starting point is, of course, research; and my research begins with the original texts. I had previously read all of the Hercule Poirot novels and short stories, but that was mostly at the age of thirteen, prior to my tweed-clad days at the University of Helsinki and Oxford, and before I received any formal training in either literary criticism or creative writing. Boy, am I ready this time!
Perhaps, now that I have dropped his name, I should open with an explanation of who’s Hercule Poirot. Mais oui! Ecoutez-moi, s’il vous plaît.
An example of a rotten refugee and a foreigner who came over as early as 1916 to, no doubt, steal our jobs and tell flowery compliments to our women.
Agatha Christie’s first novel The Mysterious Affair in Styles was published in 1920, although written and set in 1916, in the middle of the First World War. The book introduced a number of characters that would re-appear in Christie’s works throughout the years (Captain Hastings, Inspector Japp), and gave the world one of its best-known fictional detectives, Hercule Poirot:
His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. Even if everything on his face was covered, the tips of moustache and the pink-tipped nose would be visible.
Described as a small man that ‘carried himself with great dignity’, Poirot is a private investigator who applies ‘order and method’ to solve the most mysterious of cases. Formerly employed by the Brussels police force, he enters Britain as a Belgian refugee and goes on to establish a successful private detective agency in London. Poirot pays scrupulous attention to both the details of a crime and his own attire, resulting in being almost always right while always impeccably dressed.
Agatha Christie created a few recognisable leads, including her shrewd elderly spinster Miss Marple and the adventurous couple of Tommy and Tuppence. Yet, it was Hercule Poirot who was especially popular with her readers and whose presence as a character defined Christie’s career. He appears in 33 novels and 54 short stories written in the period of 1916 to 1972, starting as a charming ‘dandified little man’ and exiting as a very lonely and ill detective who could not retire.
Not unlike Arthur Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes, whom he killed and then had to bring back to life due to popular demand, Christie grew tired of Hercule Poirot. She found him irksome in the 1930s and a ‘detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep’ by 1960. (How dare she!) Yet, the public wanted more Poirot, and so Christie obliged.
Altogether, she went on to write 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections, with the last manuscripts printed shortly after her death in 1976. The official Agatha Christie website provides this handy list of her complete works in chronological order. The list is eight pages long and suggests that I have got my work cut out for me.
As a preliminary hypothesis about the popularity of Christie’s books, I shall propose that it is partly because of their very comforting nature. In her universe you can be sure that mysteries get solved, that wrong deeds are punished, and by the last page you have intimate and secure knowledge as to what had transpired. It is ‘crime will out’ with a twist, the twist being Agatha Christie’s humour, her settings, and the ingenuity of her plots. She might also have a weakness for a happy romantic resolution.
For years, Christie produced at least two books annually, one of them released around the holiday season and marketed as ‘A Christie for Christmas’. BBC seems to be picking up that tradition with their TV adaptations, and — although now there’s the added appeal of period drama — there must be something in the style of her novels that makes people think, ‘Oh, what a wonderful story suitable for all of the family!’ As opposed to, ‘Murder, blood, gore, treason, mortality, every action is futile, is that fruit knife at all sharp?’
Let’s see if I can prove my theory right. First step, The Mysterious Affair in Styles.
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Not a Day Without an Adventure. August 24th, Day Eighty-Five: Baking.
Last time I tried my hand at baking was at the age of thirteen (that was also when I read more books than ever before or afterwards — skipping school has its perks). I made open blueberry tarts with crumbly edges and soft middle, gingerbread biscuits, and apple pies. Then I abandoned baking the way one gives up a leg if one happens to have the ability to grow their legs at will: completely and without regret.
It might be the influence of The Great British Bake Off, or the fact that now I have access to a kitchen I don’t need to share with three other people, but I feel like it’s time to bake again. I decided to start small and simple, with peanut butter cookies as described in a BBC Good Food recipe. Just four ingredients (peanut butter, sugar, salt, and egg) are needed and the whole process takes under half an hour. Win? Win.
The result turned out to be deeply satisfying, especially when accompanied by milk and an episode of American Crime Story. I ended up with 15 cookies instead of 16 because, apparently, I cannot judge the size of a cherry tomato correctly. Another lesson was, possibly, adding less sugar than suggested by the recipe.
Next time I shall try something slightly more challenging, gradually building my way to pavlovas, mille-feuilles, chocolate soufflé, and world domination.
Current album: Crystal Castles, Amnesty (I)
Current book: Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
Current TV series: Scream Queens, Series 1 (2015)