Murder, She Wrote

How did Agatha Christie, who considered “married woman” her occupation, become the world’s most popular novelist ever?

01 October, 2011

WE ALL KNOW THE FEELING. Maybe the schoolhouse resembled a prison. Or the village bully was the true reincarnation of Al Capone. Then you return, 30 years older, and the school is a squat, nondescript building. The bully works at the local supermarket. As a cleaning lady, perhaps.

The same usually goes for books. I still recall spending a sleepless night as a 14-year-old after reading Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. But could she grab my attention at 40? After all, I’ve heard that in countries like France even grownup intellectuals read Christie.

The Francophone comic book publishing industry—often tapping into a talent pool of Belgian artists—made global household names of Tintin (by Georges ‘Hergé’ Rémi, a Belgian), Lucky Luke (created by another Belgian, Maurice de Bévère) and Spirou (by André Franquin, yet another Belgian). The popularity of such characters broke ground for major developments in graphic storytelling by the likes of Mœbius/Gir and Gotlib, who transformed cartoons into art. Today, the graphic novels that get talked about around the world, such as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, are usually originally published in French. So it isn’t surprising that an initiative to adapt the British crime queen’s wicked stories to colourful graphic novels is a French one.

With its selection of “Golden Age” Christie—seven adaptations each from the 1920s and 1930s—in gorgeous hardcover editions, the 18-novel package under review (Harper, `250 each) offers the morbid entertainment of seeing stiff-lipped British upper-class caricatures bump each other off between high tea and supper, using ingenious murder methods and strange paraphernalia to create fake alibis (such as dictaphones connected to alarm clocks). Bucolic English parishes come alive once again, and we visit ‘exotic’ foreign locales such as Egypt or France.

Today, when crime novels (and movies) are often full of procedural technicalities, there’s a certain nostalgia in witnessing the amateur detective take the stage, out-cop the cops and reveal the killer’s identity in a most theatrical manner. In Christie’s time and genre, detectives tended to be caricatures—murder mysteries were the outlandish hobbies of priests (GK Chesterton’s Father Brown), monocle-sporting Oxford-educated aristocrats (Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey) or the monstrously obese agoraphobiac who never even visited the crime scene (Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe). On the other hand, experts may argue that characters in detective novels are caricatures by definition because they have to be subordinated to plot requirements.

Christie’s bestsellers are therefore peopled with mechanical, humanoid stereotypes set against sketchy, postcard-deep local colour. This lackadaisical attitude towards writing requires the reader to fill in the gaps. The generality of the descriptions itself causes a sense of recognition—the stereotypical English village of some of her novels, with its trademark vicarage, manor, pub and so on, renders her stories so timeless that they may be read by anyone of any age, anywhere in the world.

In the graphic novels, this openness to interpretation has resulted in interesting side-effects. Take the iconic Hercule Poirot. Although he featured as the hero of 33 novels and more than 60 short stories, it appears that Christie never let her publishers portray the detective on the cover of any of her books. Descriptions of him were largely limited to his short stature, well-pruned moustache, grey cells and oodles of vanity. If you ask around, you’ll find that even the most avid Christie readers can’t agree on whether Poirot is hairy or bald, well-built or plain fat.

I take a childish delight in comparing various artists’ interpretations: the sturdy, brutish Poirot envisioned by Marc Piskic in one of the finest adaptations, The Mystery of the Blue Train; David Charrier’s sophisticated, continental gentleman surrounded by seductive ladies in the steamiest and hence most ‘French’ out of this selection, Five Little Pigs; or the flatly cartoonish Poirot in Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express, both drawn by Solidor (pseudonym of Jean-François Miniac, who, incidentally, took drawing lessons from Hergé). We see him, variously, as bald, with a combover, wearing a toupee; and, on a guesstimate, weighing anywhere between borderline-middleweight to severe heavyweight, with a retired boxer’s physique or reminiscent of a bloated toad.

But despite the freedom they offer for visual interpretation, these adaptations are a hit-and-miss affair. In the best cases, the clever artwork highlights the raciness of Christiean plots. Take The Mystery of the Blue Train, which Christie herself rated as her worst book. “Each time I read it again, I think it commonplace, full of clichés, with an uninteresting plot,” she noted in Agatha Christie: An Autobiography. It may well be, but it turns into an excellent adaptation thanks to the not-overly-convoluted plot and the passion that is obvious in the gritty, noirish panels.

Chandre’s Ordeal by Innocence is another hit—and based on one of Christie’s own favourites. One feasts on the lush watercolour art and delights in the blood-curdlingly sinister Swedish housekeeper. (Christie had a penchant for suspicious Swedish maids: there’s another in Murder on the Orient Express, portrayed in the 1974 movie version by Ingrid Bergman, who won an Oscar for her role.)

Other adaptations show that the Christiean core isn’t so easily isolated without spoilage. Christie favoured compact 50,000-word novels with a lot of info-dump dialogue (table conversations, interrogations, lecturing) and as little action as possible—in the climactic scene the detective typically tells the murderer to give up because he or she is surrounded by the police. The necessity to further compress these books to their bare bones (44- to 52-page graphic novels) means that relevant information must be blurted out in every speech bubble. With multiple suspects (sometimes up to 12) and the need to establish their whereabouts and activities at the time of a murder, the info-dumps get massive, rendering the stories very static. Some Christie novels simply collapse when you peel away the padding of verbose whitewash and red herring misdirection; they turn terribly confusing or even utterly moronic.

One example should suffice. The Secret of Chimneys makes zilch sense: a master thief once stole the Koh-i-noor and hid it in an English manor, perhaps inside a book in the library or under a flower in the garden—neither very safe, long-term stashes (we’re talking seven years). A bunch of old love letters—from that thief to another master thief—appears to hold the key to the mystery, but the letters are written in code. As the story proceeds, and the letters are variously stolen and repossessed, it turns out that the thieves involved this time round are the same thieves who originally stole and hid the Koh-i-noor. But if one of them is the author of the letters, shouldn’t she presumably know where she hid the Koh-i-noor? It turns out in the end that the encoded map to the secret stash isn’t in the letters but hidden in a secret basement, by which time the novel has proved itself a mindless muddle.

Despite the fact that these adaptations reveal a number of flaws, their juxtaposition of criminal evil and insulated cosiness makes it easy to see why Christie became a major 20th-century cultural phenomenon. If you go by sales, Christie isn’t just the world’s biggest crime writer; she is—with somewhere between 2.5 and 3.5 billion books sold and translated into the world’s major languages—the most popular novelist ever.

Leaves that rustle and rise from the dead,

Branches that beckon and leer in the light

(And something that walks in the wood).

Skirling and whirling, the leaves are alive!

Driven by Death in a devilish dance!

—from ‘Down in the Wood’ by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie’s blockbuster career was far from planned. Born Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller in 1890, she had an idyllic childhood. A doting mother home-schooled her and the family was reasonably well-off, so there were no childhood deprivations or traumas. As part of her training to become a lady, she was sent to France and then Egypt (the ballrooms of Cairo were very fashionable in British society). Her only experience of crime was reading Sherlock Holmes stories; she was keener, initially, on composing ballads and writing poetry than weaving mysteries.

Christie was published in the Poetry Review, worked as a nurse during World War I and assisted as a dispenser in a pharmacy, picking up firsthand knowledge of poisons along the way—83 poisonings occur in her 77 detective novels. She began writing stories out of boredom, submitting to magazines under macho pseudonyms like Mack Miller, and getting rejected. Next, she attempted to turn her Cairo experiences into a novel entitled Snow Upon the Desert.

A neighbour, novelist Eden Phillpotts (the ‘Thomas Hardy’ of Dartmoor), praised her sense of dialogue and gave her sound advice that she was to remember: “You should stick to gay natural dialogue. Try and cut all moralisations out of your novels; you are much too fond of them, and nothing is more boring to read.” Phillpotts put her in touch with his literary agent who was less encouraging: “Snow Upon the Desert. Mm, a very suggestive title, suggestive of banked fires.”

Not entirely dejected by this brush with the book trade, she started working on a detective novel in 1916. It’s likely that the plot was suggested to her by her mentor, Phillpotts, who, having been born in Rajasthan, may have taken interest in a sensational poisoning that occurred at the Savoy in Mussoorie in 1911. The story goes that a colonial doctor administered small doses of poison to his lover so that when the lady—a well-known occultist—was ultimately found dead, she was locked inside a hotel room and the doctor himself was far from the crime scene. Rudyard Kipling, another India-born novelist, had pitched the case as a possible Sherlock Holmes story to Arthur Conan Doyle who in turn was a friend of Phillpotts (they were both associated with the same magazines, such as Jerome K Jerome’s The Idler).

Changing the setting to Essex, Christie wrote the novel in three weeks, but getting it published proved tougher—after six rejections, she put it out of her mind until, four years later, she received a letter from The Bodley Head. They suggested a different denouement for the novel and got her to sign a lousy contract, giving her scant royalties and retaining for themselves the rights to her next five books.

“And so it was that I started on my long career; not that I suspected at the time that it was going to be a long career,” she noted, expecting her crime writing to be a one-off affair. This appears strange in hindsight, considering that The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), her first published novel, shows her style to be almost as good as it was going to get. Sample the opening lines:

The intense interest aroused in the public by what was known at the time as ‘The Styles Case’ has now somewhat subsided. Nevertheless, in view of the world-wide notoriety which attended it, I have been asked, both by my friend Poirot and the family themselves, to write an account of the whole story. This, we trust, will effectually silence the sensational rumours which still persist. I will therefore briefly set down the circumstances which led to my being connected with the affair.

The dialogue isn’t bad either. Early on, the narrator, the wounded, demobilised World War hero Captain Arthur Hastings (who is Poirot’s ‘Doctor Watson’), is asked by a nosy lady what profession he might like to try his hand at now that he’s no longer a soldier in active duty.

“You’ll laugh at me.”

She smiled. “Perhaps.”

“Well, I’ve always had a secret hankering to be a detective!”

“The real thing – Scotland Yard? Or Sherlock Holmes?”

“Oh, Sherlock Holmes by all means. But really, seriously, I am awfully drawn to it. I came across a man in Belgium once, a very famous detective, and he quite inflamed me. He was a marvellous little fellow...”

The Mysterious Affair at Styles was hailed as an achievement by a first-time writer; most satisfying was the praise in The Pharmaceutical Journal “for dealing with poisons in a knowledgeable way, and not with the nonsense about untraceable substances that so often happens [in detective novels]”. It sold close to 2,000 copies and earned her £25. Later in her writing career, Christie’s main regret was that she had described Poirot as a retired detective—he was, after all, to go on solving murders for another 55 years until Curtain (1975), in which he returns to Styles, arthritic and in a wheelchair, to die there at the approximate age of 137.

There was another problem with Poirot: he was too much of a caricature even for Christie, who soon started to get fed up with his mannerisms. Yet his increasing popularity made him impossible to get rid of. For a bit of variety she created other protagonists—the best known of whom is the inquisitive spinster, Miss Marple, troubleshooting in the British village idyll (introduced in The Murder at the Vicarage, 1930). As Christie herself grew older, she could identify better with Marple. A few years later she gave herself a proper fictional alter ego, the crime novelist Ariadne Oliver (Cards on the Table, 1936) who annoys Poirot by questioning his methods and solutions.

Christie’s income from writing increased steadily and she found it an enjoyable way to earn a salary of her own. The work was possible to do from home—she could write at the bedroom washstand or the dining table between meals, which was important considering that she now had a daughter. She often related her writing directly to money:

If I decided to write a story, I knew it would bring me in £60, or whatever it was. I could deduct income tax – at that time 4/- or 5/- in the pound – and therefore I knew that I had a good £45 which was mine. This stimulated my output enormously. I said to myself, ‘I should like to take the conservatory down and fit it up as a loggia in which we could sit. How much will that be?’ I got my estimate, I went to my typewriter, I sat, thought, planned, and within a week a story was formed in my mind. In due course I wrote it, and then I had my loggia.

She achieved international notoriety with her controversial seventh book, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), for audaciously breaking one of the cardinal rules of puzzle mysteries. (Those of you who have read it know what I mean, the rest can go grab the graphic novel.) A second and unexpected event boosted its sales even further—her mysterious disappearance and equally weird reappearance the same year that the novel was published, and her subsequent divorce from Archie Christie.


Afterwards, she took to travelling as a hobby, which is reflected in the many foreign locales in her novels from the 1930s onwards. Although wary of men, on a trip to the Middle East she met the archaeologist Max Mallowan. Christie was 14 years older than him; Sir Mallowan was only 26 when they married, but as far as is known she never uttered the famous words that are sometimes attributed to her: “An archaeologist is the best husband a woman can have because the older she gets the more interested he becomes in her.” Life was perfect again and they spent their winters abroad at archaeological digs until health reasons grounded them in England, where Agatha Christie, who continued writing under that name, was formally known as Lady Mallowan.

Christie didn’t view her writing as a career: “…never, when I was filling in a form and came to the line asking for Occupation, would it have occurred to me to fill it in with anything but the time-honoured ‘Married woman’. I was a married woman, that was my status, and that was my occupation. As a sideline, I wrote books.” She, however, proved to be amazingly versatile and diversified into plays, romantic novels (under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott) and spoofy espionage thrillers, assuming “the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don’t want to, don’t much like what you are writing, and aren’t writing particularly well”. A book a year was a target she felt confident about, though she did occasionally feel like a sausage factory.

Herein is the key to Christie’s enduring popularity. With no high literary aspirations—except the urge to be popular enough to make substantial amounts of money—she fine-tuned her writing to suit market requirements. “You have got something you feel you can do well and that you enjoy doing well, and you want to sell it well. If so, you must give it the dimensions and the appearance that is wanted. If you were a carpenter, it would be no good making a chair, the seat of which was five feet up from the floor. It wouldn’t be what anyone wanted to sit on. It is no good saying that you think the chair looks handsome that way.”

What were these dimensions and appearances that were so crucial to her success? With some notable exceptions (eg, And Then There Were None), Agatha Christie plots follow a perfected formula. As soon as the scene is set, a murder is committed and the remainder of the story is taken up with the investigation, during which the crime is viewed from the perspectives of different suspects. Whereas the detective is godlike, a superior being with a superior mind, pretty much everyone else is a sinner. And each has a motive for murder—a skeleton in the cupboard, an out-of-wedlock child, a misdemeanour once committed. There are an astonishing number of blackmailers and drug fiends in the Christiean world. In one of her most famous novels, we encounter 12 suspects who turn out to have committed the murder communally, the theological significance of which should be clear to all.

Christie also preferred extremely convoluted murder methods. In one book, a spooky mask, manipulated with a rope by someone on the roof, prompts the victim to open a window and look out. Then a stone is dropped in just such a way as to crush the victim’s head and at the same time propel her backwards into the room instead of forwards out the window. Additionally, the plots rely far too frequently on impossible coincidences. In contemporary crime fiction, coincidental events tend to be used as plot devices when there is no natural way to bring about a situation, or to demonstrate how Murphy’s Law botches up even a well-planned crime. More than one crucial coincidence in a crime novel would today be taken to signal severe poverty of the imagination.

By 1956, Christie’s sales were so huge that Agatha Christie Ltd was incorporated to save on taxes. As she was earning more than enough for her needs, she started donating proceeds or, as she notes in her autobiography, rather than writing out a cheque for some cause or relative, gifting stories. The play The Mousetrap was a present to her grandson on his ninth birthday—a very valuable gift, it turned out, as it went on to become the longest running play in the history of theatre, performed without a break in London since 1952 (an estimated 24,000 shows till date).

But not all readers were happy.“There is a very simple statement to be made about all these stories: they do not really come off intellectually as problems, and they do not come off artistically as fiction. They are too contrived, and too little aware of what goes on in the world,” wrote Raymond Chandler in his celebrated and fiercely critical essay ‘The Simple Art of Murder’ (TheAtlantic Monthly, December 1944), in which he savaged English puzzle mysteries. He suggested, rather ungenerously, that the ideal reader of a book like Murder on the Orient Express would be a “halfwit”.

Around the same time another assault was launched by leading American literary critic Edmund Wilson in a series of damning articles in The New Yorker, in the second of which, titled ‘Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?’ (January 1945), he stated, “[M]y final conclusion is that the reading of detective stories is simply a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere between crossword puzzles and smoking.”

From then on it has become fashionable to denounce Christie’s style of fiction as banal; over the years detractors have accused her of poor writing, contrived unrealistic plots, flat characters with no psychological depth, plus, of course, tactlessness, racism, xenophobia, class conservatism and the fact that she displays no connection with, or understanding of, prevailing social realities. Even the one thing she showed an early talent for, namely dialogue, was referred to by Peter Lennon as “tinnitus to the ear” in an acidic article in The Guardian titled ‘Getting Away With Murder’ (May 1990), which commemorated Christie’s birth centenary. He goes on to say: “The post-coital depression on finishing an Agatha Christie story is severe. With the denouement the book instantly sheds its seduction; life seeps colourlessly from it as from a bicycle tube after passing over a sharp tack. The characters corrugate, crimp and fall to the ground.”

Nevertheless, Christie’s legacy lives on. The globally popular Alexander McCall Smith, for instance, has breathed new life into the genre with his whimsical African aunties solving small, everyday mysteries. On the subcontinent, the Christiean puzzle tradition has been carried forward by popular novelists like Ibn-e-Safi (who was even more prolific than Christie), Kalpana Swaminathan (her Lalli series feature a desi Miss Marple) and Vikas Swarup, whose whodunit Six Suspects has been described as Agatha Christie meets Elmore Leonard in Delhi.

Incidentally, Christie herself never set a story in India, though she did visit twice—in 1960 she spent 10 days in the vicinity of Patna, and in 1962 she passed through Delhi. Unfortunately, despite some modest detective work of my own, I haven’t found out what she did here. But in her novels, Dame Agatha circled around the subcontinent, with the Mussoorie inspiration for The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the theft of the Koh-i-noor in The Secret of Chimneys, a short story called ‘The Rajah’s Emerald’ featuring the fabulously wealthy Rajah of Maraputna, and a devious murder weapon consisting of a chicken curry containing “enough opium to kill two men” in The Big Four.

Perhaps the last one was inspired by the Goan cook, Joseph, whom she employed during one of her stints at an archaeological site in Iraq, and who, according to Christie’s autobiography, was “mad” enough to receive commands from the Almighty which prompted him to do unaccountable things. I suppose that in Christie’s larger-than-life, cartoon world, such a thing would make eminent sense.