The curious case of the author who would not die

The characters are cardboard, the plots rely on chance and the settings are implausible. But no one can resist an Agatha Christie, says Barry Forshaw

Britain's best-selling crime writer, Ian Rankin, was hopping mad when Tessa Jowell objected to spending money on saving the boarded-up Surrey home of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as he did not "occupy a significant enough position in the nation's consciousness". "Bullshit!" was Rankin's succinct comment to this newspaper. Would such political philistinism have come into play had Agatha Christie's holiday home, Greenway, been similarly in danger of falling into disrepair?

Fortunately, the question is academic. The house, a Georgian mansion overlooking the river Dart in the West Country, has finally reopened to the public after a National Trust restoration, and may be visited rather than just be seen on a hillside from river cruises. Perhaps Jowell might have been prepared to concede that Agatha Christie was central to the nation's consciousness. Conan Doyle, after all, was a Scot, and in many ways the Dame is the emblematic crime writer for this isle.

Whatever Christie's literary limitations, and even such admirers as P D James are more than ready to point them out, she remains the most famous of English crime writers, comfortably outselling everyone else in the field, translated into multiple languages and the subject of numerous highly successful film and TV adaptations. Chorion, the company owning the copyright to the works, has sanctioned new TV adaptations of her signature characters, Marple and Poirot. But what is the reason for Christie's continuing success? After all, surely she wrote about a never-never-land Britain, massively elitist, in which the working-class characters are in the forelock-tugging mould, and her detectives, the physically bizarre Belgian Hercule Poirot and the interfering spinster Jane Marple, are really collections of tics or eccentric physical characteristics, with nothing to match the rich portrayal of the denizen of 221B Baker Street.

For those ready to mount an attack on Agatha Christie, the ammunition is plentifully to hand. There is more than a smidgen of truth in all the previous accusations, and even her most devoted admirer would be hard-pressed to make a case for Christie as a literary stylist.

Her use of language is rudimentary and her characterisations thin. By her own admission, she spent more time working on her plots than anything else, after which, she said, the actual writing of the books was something of a chore. This attitude echoed that of another great British export, Alfred Hitchcock, who enjoyed the planning of his films far more than their actual making. And there was a time when Christie's literary heirs – British crime writers – would rather have turned in their Dagger Awards than admit to liking Christie. For these reasons and more, she had become terminally unfashionable by the 1970s, despite the fact that her books continued to sell in their millions.

Of course, this inconvenient fact was snootily dismissed by her detractors on the basis that it was the very simplicity of her writing that guaranteed her appeal to the masses. Teachers of English to foreign students recommend her books because the uncomplicated language is perfect for those who struggle with more complex sentences. In other words, what might be ideal for those with a poor grasp of the language is hardly suitable for anyone with more ambitious literary aspirations.

But very few British crime writers would write her off unequivocally. Many sheepishly admit to being devoted admirers who reread the books with pleasure at frequent intervals. They know the limitations, but disregard them. There is something of an Abba syndrome when it comes to Agatha Christie. It is now OK to mutter: yes, we know this isn't great art, but it's shamelessly enjoyable popular entertainment, isn't it? Crime readers are more than happy to descend from the slopes of Mount Parnassus and bask in the simple comfort-food pleasures that Christie affords.

But what is her secret? There are several factors. First, of course, there is the nonpareil plotting. Christie was justifiably proud of her accomplishments in this area, and regarded it as her métier. And although the machine-tooled plots of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd et al are perhaps less admired these days than they used to be, it is still immensely pleasurable to be taken by the hand and led down a series of twisting garden paths in which misdirection is all.

Yes, some of the plot revelations in Christie are absurd, but so such things were in the writer who inspired her, Conan Doyle. And, for that matter, in the writer who inspired Conan Doyle – Edgar Allan Poe. It is clearly an occupational hazard for the great masters of the genre. Anyone who has savoured Murder on the Orient Express and The Hollow, or the groundbreaking Roger Ackroyd with its audacious subversion of the conventional mystery scenario, will know just how authoritative Christie is in this area. And even though later writers such as P D James were to add a whole stratum of subtle psychological underpinnings to Christie-style material, she was the ultimate narrative technician. The books still read amazingly well, unlike other popular novelists of her day such as Dennis Wheatley and Edgar Wallace, whose appeal has evaporated.

There are the characters, too, of course. Miss Marple remains a highly unlikely protagonist – an elderly busybody whose attempts at sleuthing are welcomed by the police, rather than rebuffed as they would be in real life. And Monsieur Poirot is not really a character at all but a collection of grotesqueries. He never coalesces in the way that Holmes does, and is not allowed an organic growth in the fashion of Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey. But they are memorable, distinctive protagonists. The various film and TV incarnations over the years have helped to cement their popularity, although only Joan Hickson has managed to make a real human being out of Miss Marple by her subtle underplaying. David Suchet, for all his ability, still presents a slightly parodic pantomime turn as Poirot, as did Albert Finney. What else, after all, could he do?

Finally, though, it is the vision of England that Christie presents that has ensured her immortality, one gained from the unreal aspects that so alienated later crime writers for whom a social conscience and a more analytical view of society were necessary accoutrements.

The England Agatha Christie creates in the fictional village of St Mary Mead is very much John Major's land of warm beer and cricket grounds. There is no urban decay. Crimes are not committed by stupid, disadvantaged people for boringly quotidian reasons but to create an arcane and fascinating puzzle that the detective and the reader can attempt to solve.

One of the most devastating critiques of Christie's style was by the American writer Raymond Chandler in The Simple Art of Murder. He claimed that authors such as Dashiell Hammett rescued crime writing from the unrealities of the "body in the library" school – clearly Christie – and gave it back to people who committed murder "for a reason, rather than just to provide a body".

But a great many of us are perfectly happy to immerse ourselves in the idyllic Albion of Christie's novels. Who cares that this is not the real world? People still send letters to 221B Baker Street, and there is an equal number of foreigners whose vision of this country is conditioned by Christie's books and the TV adaptations. This, they believe, is the real Britain.

But let's not be sniffy about this. Truthfully, aren't we rather proud of the fact that Christie is such a copper-bottomed British export?

Barry Forshaw is editor of British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia

Arts & Entertainment

Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'

Arts & Entertainment
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
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 iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit