Agatha Christie: The curious case of the cosy queen

No enemy can murder Agatha Christie. From India to France, her mysteries sell by the million. As crime buffs gather in Harrogate to investigate her lasting appeal, Andrew Taylor presents his defence

We know whodunnit but not how. The curious case of Agatha Christie remains the great unsolved mystery of crime fiction. It is relatively easy to understand why we continue to read the work of Edgar Allan Poe or Arthur Conan Doyle, or for that matter Wilkie Collins, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Nor is it difficult to explain their enduring influence on the genre.

But Christie? How does she do it? And, in the process, how has a shy, upper-middle class lady, born in Torquay in 1890, become (almost certainly) the most widely read novelist in the world today?

She really is the odd one out among these influential crime writers - and not just because she is the only woman among them. For a start, so many people go out of their way to make clear their dislike of her work.

Broadly speaking, her detractors fall into two camps. On the one hand, Christie has to contend with the sneers of the critics. The classic example is Edmund Wilson's essay "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd", one of his three diatribes against detective fiction that appeared in the New Yorker during the 1940s. He concludes that Agatha Christie's work is sub-literary, best considered as something between a trivial pursuit and a mildly shameful addiction.

Christie's work has also been attacked from within. Like anything else, crime fiction has its fashions. Raymond Chandler's 1944 essay, "The Simple Art of Murder", savaged the Golden Age whodunnit and its practitioners, including Christie, and praised the more realistic American pulp school of crime writing exemplified by Hammett.

Nowadays, within the genre, the currently fashionable taste is for noir - gritty and morally ambiguous stories set in the big city, whose authors aspire to tick sociological and even ethical checkboxes as well as literary ones. You rarely find someone confessing their admiration, untinged by irony, for Christie on Front Row.

For both critics and devotees, her name conjures up "Mayhem Parva" - a Home Counties village with respectful rustics and a host of middle- and upper-class characters. This enclosed, idyllic world is disturbed by a murder. There is a host of suspects, most of whom either employ servants or (in the later novels) used to do so.

The reader is invited to pit his or her wits against those of the detective, who eventually brings the case to a dramatic and unexpected denouement. The story ends at this point, so the reader rarely has to cope with the messy procedures of evidence-gathering, trial and punishment. We know without being told that one of those invaluable servants will manage to remove the bloodstain from the drawing-room carpet.

On the face of it, the formula seems to have little to do with either crime or literature. It seems narrow and mechanical, and likely to produce dull and repetitive results. So Christie's books are unreal, unfashionable, unliterary and often, by modern standards, downright snobbish. In that case, why are they so widely read?

For this is the second reason that Agatha Christie stands out among her peers. Despite the various attacks on it, her work has been, and continues to be, quite staggeringly popular. Conan Doyle himself cannot match her record or even come near it.

The statistics tell their own story. Chorion, the entertainments and leisure company that now controls Christie's copyrights, along with those of Blyton, Chandler and Simenon, reckons that Christie's books have sold more than 2 billion copies worldwide. Each time they are rejacketed - in the UK, that's about every six years - there is a surge in sales as new readers are lured to her books, and old ones rediscover them.



Today, HarperCollins, her publisher since 1926, sells a million copies a year in every country in the world where English books are sold (apart from the US, where Christie has another publisher). Christie sales have actually grown by around 50 per cent over the last ten years, completely contrary to the trend. She's now one of the top five authors in India. According to UNESCO figures, she is the world's second most translated author. The top place, incidentally, is occupied by a team of Walt Disney writers; Shakespeare comes in at number four. It's impossible to find a single reason for this continuing popularity. But several factors have undoubtedly contributed to it.

In the first place, there are the qualities that Christie shares with many other authors of traditional whodunnits. Most obviously, some of the appeal must derive from the simple fact that death is universal, and so is the deep-seated unease that murder creates; and so is the love of puzzles that have solutions.

WH Auden, a self-confessed addict of detective fiction, argued in a brief but influential essay, "The Guilty Vicarage", that the charm of the genre has nothing to do with literature: it is essentially magical, and its effect is cathartic. A whodunnit gives Genesis a happy ending: it introduces a serpent into Eden but concludes with its expulsion, leaving Adam and Eve to enjoy their restored innocence.

Put another way, the traditional whodunnit in the Christie mould works as a sort of literary analgesic. It shows us, in safely fictional terms, what we most fear, and then creates the illusion that human reason can both understand it and resolve it. So Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple fulfil functions that combine those of the shaman and the scientist.

True or not, this theory fails to explain why Agatha Christie should have done so much better than her rivals. Christie's first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, came out in 1920 and earned her £25 from her grasping publisher. But this and the novels that followed rapidly created a market for her work not only in this country but abroad. Despite their localised settings (literally parochial in many cases), despite the social attitudes they enshrine, her stories work well in other languages and cultures.

Her prose is plain, direct and effective, which makes it easy to translate. It will give pleasure even to unsophisticated readers. It's no accident that a Christie whodunnit is often the first "adult" novel that a child reads.

Similarly, the characterisation is equally straightforward. Her critics do not see this as a virtue. But it makes her characters very accessible, for the detail is so spare, and often so generalised, that readers can interpret them in their own way.

Christie's popularity also has much to with the versatility of her stories. It became clear at a very early stage that her characters and storylines could be transferred to other media. The first film of her work is a German adaptation of The Secret Adversary (Die Abenteuer GMBH), which appeared as early as 1928. There's an irrelevant but deliciously surreal story that the master reel for the film was found inside the Berlin Wall when it was pulled down.



Chorion estimates that there have been about 190 film and TV adaptations of Christie's work worldwide. The best of them – Joan Hickson's Miss Marple, for example, or David Suchet's Poirot – pay Agatha Christie the supreme compliment of aspiring to be as true as possible to the spirit of the original novels. It is no surprise that they tend to be among the most commercially successful of the adaptations. Viewers, like readers, prefer to suspend their disbelief for the duration.

Christie's stories work equally well as radio adaptations or as audiobooks. The record-breaking West End run of The Mousetrap still testifies to her skill as a dramatist. There are Christie e-books and interactive games. In France, where she is the best-selling author of all time, her work is appearing as a series of graphic novels. Her stories are like water: they fit the shape of the container that holds them.

As a crime writer, Christie's talents have much in common with those of the conjurer and the stand-up comic. She is the queen of carefully controlled narrative. Her skill as misdirecting the reader amounts at times to genius. She distracts our attention at the crucial moment; she toys with our stock responses. Her puzzles are rarely dull and over-complex - unlike those of Dorothy L Sayers and many other Golden Age crime writers. The best ofthem not only fool the reader but, afterwards, they give us the supreme pleasure of thinking that "I should have got that myself."

Agatha Christie is not a great writer, and her 66 novels vary widely in quality. But the best of her books are well worth revisiting. There is a clarity about them and a shrewd understanding of the vagaries of human nature. Christie was no fool. She's also a better writer than her reputation might lead you to expect.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), for example, if by any chance you don't know the twist, still has the power to take your breath away. And, if you do, you can admire how it's done. Murder at the Vicarage (1930) has elements of social comedy. A Murder is Announced (1950) tells us a great deal about the stresses of post-war British society. Crooked House (1949), one of Christie's own favourites, breaks an unspoken taboo of the genre that many readers still find shocking.

We will never know the precise secret of Agatha Christie's extraordinary success. But the simplest, though not the only, reason for it is this: she understood the power of story and how to exercise it on her readers.

In her recent book, Talking About Detective Fiction, PD James quotes Robert Graves's judgement: "Agatha's best work is, like PG Wodehouse and Noël Coward's best work, the most characteristic pleasure writing of this epoch and will appear one day in all decent literary histories. As writing it is not distinguished, but as story it is superb." The next best thing to a howdunnit?

Andrew Taylor's new novel, 'The Anatomy of Ghosts' (Michael Joseph), will be published on 2 September. Today at 5pm he will be taking part in an event to celebrate '120 years of Agatha Christie' at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate. Booking: 0845 130 8840

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice