Agatha Christie: genius or hack? Crime writers pass judgment and pick favourites
John Banville, Sinead Crowley, Liz Nugent, Sophie Hannah, Val McDermid, Christie scholar John Curran and more crime writers give their take on the Queen of Crime
Sizing up: Agatha Christie is measured for her wax statue at Madame Tussaud’s. “All of us who write crime fiction owe her as great a debt as we do the inventor of the printing press,” said Linwod Barclay. Photograph: Getty
I used to think of my early teenage addiction to the works of Agatha Christie as the literary equivalent of pool-hall prowess, the sign of a mis-spent youth. Looking back on it now, it seems clear that Enid Blyton was the gateway drug: the Famous Five and the Secret Seven gave me a craving that soon only Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple could satisfy.
Apart from the most famous plots, the details have long since faded, save the odd motive for murder (passing on German measles!); weird clues (Lo - Hen - Grin); and peculiar words (mountebanks and anti-macassars); but what still linger in the memory are the paranoid parsing of every paragraph for that tell-tale clue; the late nights when lights out had to be disobeyed as a denouement loomed; and the satisying frustration of being outwitted time and again by a master plotter. Part of the attraction undoubtedly was that Christie was as prolific as she was talented. No matter how many you read, there was always the assurance that there were plenty more.
But where does Agatha Christie’s reputation stand today? Is she still relevant, given the current appetite for gritty realism and bloody gore? Do her books still hold up as great mystery fiction? Or is she still read more for nostalgia than anything else? To mark today’s 125th anniversary of Agatha Christie’s birth, I asked contemporary crime writers to contribute their thoughts on her work. Was she an influence, even if only as someone to react against? Were or are they still a fan and, if so, which is their favourite of her books, and why?
When it comes to the best Christie, as opposed to the most popular, my vote still goes to The Murder at the Vicarage, the novel that introduces the estimable Miss Marple. Written at the height of Christie’s powers, it’s perfectly constructed, packed with red herrings and smart sub-plots; it’s shot through with sly humour; and it’s full of characters who may be stereotypical but whose motivations and responses we recognise, often with a wry smile.
It’s possible I may be biased in my assessment, for it was The Murder at the Vicarage that made me a crime writer. As a child, I spent a lot of time in my grandparents’ house. I would always arrive with an armful of library books but more often than not, I would run out of reading material. My grandparents were not readers; they had a Bible, of course, but inexplicably, they also had a battered paperback of The Murder at the Vicarage.
Linguistic scientists tell us that a reading age of nine is sufficient to comprehend Christie, and I was a precocious reader. From the age of seven or so, The Murder at the Vicarage became my default reading, the pages I returned to when I’d finished my library stockpile. I fell in love with the complicated intersecting narratives, the recognisable claustrophobia of village life – even in a Scottish mining village, there were parallels – and the cleverness of Jane Marple herself.
When I realised that Agatha Christie had written more than one book, it became my mission to work my way through all of them. I haunted jumble sales, I discovered secondhand bookshops, I stole my mother’s library card so I could access the adult shelves. That was where it dawned on me that there were other writers who wrote detective stories. (I worked it out from the famous logo of the Collins Crime Club – a masked skull brandishing a pistol.) And I was enthralled.
We sometimes hear of cross-species adoption where orphaned animals bond with a very different creature and take on the characteristics of the adoptive animal. I think something similar happened to me with Agatha Christie. I read The Murder at the Vicarage so frequently that embedded within my brain is the notion that grown-up books have to have dead bodies in them.
The stakes are higher when it’s a matter of life and death: the adrenaline surge we get as readers is stronger. There are moments in this novel where we feel both pity and a genuine frisson of fear. Christie is often criticised for her cardboard characters and there’s some truth in that, particularly in the later work. But when she’s at her best, as she is in The Murder at the Vicarage, her characterisation is pointed, economical and often sharply satirical.
Here’s how we’re introduced to our heroine: “I … sat down between Miss Marple and Miss Wetherby. Miss Marple is a white-haired old lady with a gentle, appealing manner. Miss Wetherby is a mixture of vinegar and gush. Miss Marple is much the more dangerous.” And a few lines later, we meet Miss Hartnell who is “weatherbeaten and jolly and much dreaded by the poor”.
We can see these people, hear them and know them. For a writer starting out, that ability to nail people in a line or two was a valuable lesson to learn. The plotting too, obviously. Those interwoven story arcs, each with a set-up, development and pay-off (often an unexpected one) taught me much of what I know about the black art of narrative. It’s no exaggeration to say that The Murder at the Vicarage set me on a path I’ve been happy to follow for 30 years.
Nobody turns a plot with more skill than Christie. When I was starting out as a crime novelist, I learned a lot by unpicking her plots to see exactly how she made them work. She understood completely the arc of set-up, development and pay-off that seems to elude a lot of other writers. She was clever, cunning and original.
There is still a massive audience for so-called ‘cosy’ crime. Looks at the success of series like Midsomer Murders. The dark end of the spectrum gets most of the attention, but there are still a lot of writers who eschew violence and gore and still treat murder like a bloodless parlour game. Particularly in America, where their sleuths include cats, dogs, dry cleaners and caterers.
I think there are a dozen or so novels where she was absolutely at the peak of her powers – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder on the Orient Express, And Then There Were None, The Murder at the Vicarage, Five Little Pigs, for example – that remain satisfying and will genuinely surprise the reader. She’s a lot better at character in those books than she’s often given credit for. She is very economical but effective with her characterisation and we recognise those people as being drawn from life.
Val McDermid’s latest novel is Splinter the Silence, published by Little, Brown
My favourite Agatha Christie novel, After the Funeral, has a brilliant plot, meticulously planted clues, a memorably dysfunctional family at its centre, and a truly ingenious solution, but it also has something else that I prize highly: the non-transferable motive. Poirot is forever telling Hastings that motive is the most important feature of a crime, and I agree with him. A non-transferable motive is something that no other murderer in no other crime novel has ever had or would ever have – a motive that is unique to this character in this particular fictional situation. With a non-transferable motive, the reader should ideally think, ‘Well, although I would never commit murder for this reason, I can absolutely understand why this character did – it makes perfect sense because of their unique personality/predicament combination.’ On this score, After the Funeral works in the most superb way. It also does something else very clever on the motive front – it offers us a two-layer motive of the following sort: ‘X committed the murder(s) for reason Y. Ah, but why did X have reason Y as a motivation? Because of reason Z.’
I was hooked on the keenly balanced structure and fiendish puzzles in Agatha Christie’s work from the age of 12, in part because she manages to dig beneath the surface of appearances. This is what good fiction does: it enlarges our views of what is possible, rather than reflecting the world of appearances. Agatha Christie’s work has been a conscious and, no doubt, unconscious influence on my own crime fiction. I ended up being asked to write a continuation Poirot novel that became The Monogram Murders largely by accident, but I think I hold dear to the same sort of thinking that lay behind Agatha Christie’s storytelling. It’s necessary to answer the question of ‘who killed x?’ but this isn’t sufficient. The real mysterious hook in crime fiction is not so much whodunnit, but ‘how on earth can the apparently inexplicable be explained?’
Sophie Hannah wrote an Agatha Christie continuation Poirot novel, The Monogram Murders, which was published last September in 34 different languages and a bestseller in 20 countries.
Along with Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie was the first grown-up author I read. I can still remember the thrill of fear I felt, aged 11, when the serial killer is revealed at the end of Murder is Easy. Sparkling Cyanide, Why Didn’t They Ask Evans, I must have read a dozen or more (the beautiful Fontana covers were part of the attraction). The point being, I read her as a child; when I began to read in earnest, aged about 16, she belonged to the childish things I was keen to put away. Set against the landscapes of corruption charted by the socially and politically aware American hardboiled trinity of Hammett, Chandler and Macdonald, Christie’s genteel village mysteries seemed indeed like child’s play.
And that was how I thought, or how I stopped thinking about her, until a few years ago. Increasingly, women were writing the most interesting crime writing; less well-known female voices from the past were being rediscovered. Chandler said Hammett took murder out of the rose garden and dropped it in the alley where it belonged. Why not reread the most famous female crime writer of them all, and see if there was more going on in that rose garden than I remembered?
And there was. Not just the brilliant plotting, for which she is justly renowned. The books are concise, economically written and, at their best, deftly and subtly characterised. She has a taste for the Gothic and an ability to portray evil suddenly and convincingly; as a result, she is often a genuinely frightening writer. She may lack the big social picture, but if part of a crime writer’s remit is to provide a gloss on “Lead us not into temptation”, then Christie portrays the act of murder as transgression with searing force and often, an unexpected sympathy.
The best Christies for me are mostly those without one of her famous detectives. Endless Night, Crooked House, Murder is Easy (the end is still terrifying) and, of course, And Then There Were None all stand up very well; Endless Night in particular has a haunted, Gothic quality redolent of Daphne Du Maurier. A Murder is Announced is the best of the Miss Marples. The Hollow is another Christie in the Du Maurier vein: an intense, heightened Gothic melodrama for its first half, and then Hercule Poirot wanders on, a cartoon character in a human world, and reality is compromised. Poirot is never entirely believable, but he’s worth putting up with for one of Christie’s very best books, Five Little Pigs, and for Death on the Nile, Evil Under the Sun, Sad Cypress and Taken at the Flood. That’s my top ten; Robert Barnard’s A Talent to Deceive is probably the best critical work about her.
Declan Hughes is the author of the Ed Loy series. His latest book is All The Things You Are (Severn House).
When I was a boy, back around the close of the Stone Age, I was an avid reader of the novels of Agatha Christie. Nowadays I am with Edmund Wilson, the title of whose 1945 New Yorker essay, Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?, expresses my feelings exactly. I say ‘novels’, but I am not sure that is what these books are. They more resemble crossword puzzles, and finishing one of them, like finishing a puzzle, leaves one with the same ashen sense of futility and wasted time.
Christie is certainly a kind of genius, but one cannot help feeling she would have been better off employed in Bletchley Park as a code-breaker, or working for a manufacturer of board games. Her plots, while highly ingenious, are also wildly improbable, if for no other reason than that the characters who drive them are not characters at all, but marionettes, jerking lifelessly on the ends of their all too visible strings. Her worst fault, however, is that we never feel the slightest twitch of sympathy for, or empathy with, the victim, lying there in the library in a neat puddle of blood. Who could possibly care?
John Banville, writing as Benjamin Black, is the creator of the bestselling Quirke series of crime novels.
The first Agatha Christie novel I ever picked up – and I would have been around 12 years old at the time – was The Man in the Brown Suit. It was a Pan paperback edition, and I still recall the feel of it in my hands, how pliable it was, not that book flexibility is a major factor in deciding which novel to read. But this was a book for adults, not one of those mini-hardcover Hardy Boys or Tom Swift novels I’d been devouring up until then. This was a novel about grown-ups, committing real, grown-up crimes.
While The Man in the Brown Suit may not be one of the author’s classics, that didn’t stop me from racing through it and, once finished, looking for more Christie. I discovered Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot (his eccentricities were a nice lead-in for my next discovery, the Nero Wolfe novels by Rex Stout) and locked rooms and bodies in libraries. And Then There Were None (the edition I read was, ahem, Ten Little Indians) blew my mind. Murder on the Orient Express thrilled me. The ABC Murders captivated me.
And that’s what Agatha Christie was. Fun. She was a superb entertainer. Many writers since have taken the conventions of the mystery genre and done more with them – Ross Macdonald immediately comes to mind – by working in social commentary and psychological insights.
But who established most of those conventions? Christie was the Steve Jobs of plot twists. She invented dozens of them. Case in point: When a character dies – at sea, plunging off a cliff, in a plane crash – and you don’t actually view that corpse, well, chances are you’ve not seen the last of that character.
Does Christie still hold up today? Does it matter? All of us who write crime fiction owe her as great a debt as we do the inventor of the printing press.
Linwood Barclay’s latest novel is Broken Promise
I first came across Agatha Christie on bookshelves at home when I was about 14 years old. I’m pretty sure they belonged to my grandmother. I read and re-read the four or five tattered copies. They were all Miss Marple mysteries, and because of Granny’s connection to the books, I somehow imagined that she was leading this secret life as an amateur detective. St Mary Mead, the fictional setting for the books, was actually Skibbereen and the rector was the parish priest. When I finally saw Margaret Rutherford, and later, Joan Hickson in the role on television, I decided that the casting directors had got it all wrong. Granny was much taller than Hickson, and slimmer than Rutherford.
Agatha Christie is the undoubted Mistress of the genre. The culprit was usually revealed by process of elimination, but I quickly learned that the person who seemed the most innocent would prove to be the miscreant. Miss Marple and Monsieur Poirot took great pleasure in outwitting the local constabulary. But I feel now that these books were of their time, and class (a bit like Granny). Like Enid Byton, Christie did not hide her distaste for foreigners and ‘ruffians’. Still, I found a quote from her today, which stops me in my tracks. Agatha Christie was well-travelled. Syria was, she said: “a gentle fertile country and its simple people, who know how to laugh and how to enjoy life; who are idle and gay, and who have dignity, good manners, and a great sense of humour, and to whom death is not terrible.”
Liz Nugent is the author of Unravelling Oliver, winner of the Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards Crime Novel of the Year 2014. It has been translated into nine languages. Her second novel, Lying in Wait, will be published by Penguin in June 2016.
I first made her acquaintance at my aunt’s house in Kerry. My cousin had a superb Christie collection and, while my days were spent in Knockalougha, my evenings were spent visiting English country homes, posh London flats and even the Middle East. I was captivated.
Christie’s books provided the perfect bridge from the junior to the senior side of the library, containing many of the elements I loved in my favourite children’s books; a complicated plot, heroes and villains, a resolution – although not necessarily an uncomplicated one – and of course, the twist. To me, the ‘reveal’ is the beating heart of the crime novel and I still seek out books that will genuinely take me by surprise.
She remains influential. In the past couple of weeks alone, I’ve read two crime novels, Linwood Barclay’s Broken Promises and Andrea Carter’s Death at Whitewater Church, both of which are set in small towns, with an amateur sleuth at the centre of the action. And, where my own books are concerned, if readers tell me they didn’t guess the end, I’m happy.
It’s hard to pick a favourite Christie but I’m going to go for a Poirot, Death on the Nile. The plot is terrific, the setting superb and the solution ingenious. It also, as it happens, inspired one of the few Christie film/TV adaptations that I actually like. Most of them annoy me when they play up the ‘cosiness’ of her settings to the detriment of what can be quite vicious stories – these are murder mysteries after all! But I have a soft spot for Ustinov’s Poirot on a rainy day.
It’s 95 years since Christie’s first Poirot was published and I’ve no doubt she’ll be widely read in its centenary year, and beyond. To paraphrase Miss Marple, ‘human nature’ hasn’t changed.
Sinéad Crowley is Arts and Media Correspondent with RTÉ News. Her new book, Are You Watching Me?, the second in the DS Claire Boyle series, was published by Quercus in July
Christie’s greatest achievement is the little-discussed Five Little Pigs, in which Poirot re-opens a case of murder committed 16 years previously. Thus, his investigation depends on interpretation of character and psychology rather than physical clues. Given the right – ie the wrong – circumstances any one of the five suspects (the ‘little pigs’ of the title) could have murdered the philandering artist Amyas Crale. But which of them did?
This is Christie’s most successful marriage of detective novel and ‘straight’ novel. Under Poirot’s careful questioning five fully realised characters re-create the fatal day 16 years earlier when they were all witnesses to murder; and one of them was a killer. The book has the added interest of using Agatha Christie’s own Greenway House and garden, in Devon, as its setting. Devoted readers can now visit the Battery Garden where Amyas died and Elsa posed and Caroline visited; and where Poirot triumphs.
Christie has lasted almost 100 years and outlasted many developments in crime fiction, so there is no reason to suppose that she will ever go out of style. As long as people enjoy crosswords, jigsaws, word games, Sudoku, bridge they will read Christie‘s detective stories because they are, in essence, literary conjuring tricks and she is the ultimate conjuror.
Yes, certainly, her books invoke nostalgia for an era long past, a time perceived as civilised and elegant. But nostalgia alone does not make for world-breaking records. She still tantalises with one of the oldest questions in fiction: Whodunnit? No one ever came – or, indeed, will come – close to her for plot manipulation and mis-direction or for solving the most complex-seeming puzzle with a simple solution. She will always be the Queen of Crime.
John Curran is the author of Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks: Fifty Years of Mysteries in the Making and Tom Adams Uncovered: The Art of Agatha Christie and Beyond
Agatha Christie was my introduction to the world of crime fiction as a teenager. At the time I could not get enough of her books and remember being truly devastated when I had read all that was on offer, knowing more were not to come. Although I have not revisited her works in many, many years they still hold a special place in my heart as well as admiration for the author. Her contribution to crime fiction influenced the genre in such a momentous way in its infancy that she really laid the foundation for all that has followed. From her heyday until the present crime fiction has developed and changed, something that is unavoidable and necessary as evolution is the very basis of keeping an art form relevant and alive. Her books are therefore not to all present-day crime readers’ liking or preference; now that gore, realism, political criticism and social commentary have entered the frame. A hundred years from now the form will have adapted further and contemporary crime fiction will no longer be as relevant as now. This is inevitable and nothing to get upset about but one thing is for sure, most if not all contemporary crime writers would consider themselves lucky if their books are still in publication almost a century after they were written as is the case with Agatha Christie. There can be no doubt that her best works can be classified as great mystery fiction as a result. The votes are already in.
My favourite books of hers were the Crooked House and Endless Night, probably because of the highly surprising yet satisfying ending.
Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s novels include Ashes to Dust and I Remember You.
Agatha Christie was a fixture of the wider landscape of my childhood, like the Queen and the shipping forecast on the radio and a whole lot of other things that I didn’t question, or ascribe qualities to, because they were just there, permanent and immutable. Christie’s detective novels were some of the first ‘grown-up’ books I read. Initially, it didn’t occur to me to try and work out who the murderer might be. I just enjoyed being bamboozled, safe in the knowledge that Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple would light on the right man or woman, which, at a period when I was beginning to realise the extent to which life is neither just or fair, I found comforting – and, no matter how many Agatha Christies you read, there would always be another one waiting at the library. I didn’t appreciate, until much later on, quite how ingenious they were.
My favourite is Five Little Pigs. I think it has a claim to be considered the best of Christie’s novels – the characters have an unusual (for this author) degree of emotional depth, and she uses the time-lag (the murder has taken place in the past, and the people involved are recalling the events that led up to it for Hercule Poirot) to explore the nature of memory and how our personal concerns may lead us to misinterpret what we see and hear. In retrospect, I think that the dramatic tension created between the characters ‘then’ and the characters ‘now’ probably did have a bearing on my first novel, A Little Death, which deals, in part, with life-changing events that happened in the past.
As to whether Christie’s novels are still relevant – relevant to what, exactly? Social mores may change, but human nature doesn’t, and a fundamental part of human nature is the desire for escapism and the enjoyment of a good story.
Laura Wilson’s latest novel is The Wrong Girl (Quercus)
Agatha Christie is often thought of as the archetypical British mystery writer. People who don’t know much about her life, but read a lot of her stories, probably imagine her as a retiring, genteel, middle-class lady pecking away on a typewriter. They know from the film Agatha that she once vanished and holed up in Harrogate – and why she did that and what she did there remains a mystery, but not much else.
In fact, she was an adventurous traveller. In the early 1920s she undertook a year-long trip with her husband Archie, as part of a team to promote the Empire Exhibition. She learnt to surf in Cape Town, subsequently honing her skills in Hawaii, learning to surf standing up – apparently one of the first Brits to do that. She spent time in Egypt, and later with her archaeologist second husband, in Iraq. She also spent time in the Canary Islands, which some years ago held a festival in her honour.
So Christie loved the sun and the sea, and no doubt her curiosity about foreign people and places fuelled her fiction. But what of her settings? Indeed, most of her stories take place in England, but some of the most famous ones have exotic locations – Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, They Came to Baghdad. However, it seems that Agatha Christie’s only connection with southern Africa was her surfing visit to Cape Town, never setting any of her stories in this part of the world. More’s the pity.
Michael Stanley is the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip who write the Detective Kubu crime fiction novels set in Botswana. Their latest books, Deadly Harvest and A Death in the Family, will be released by Orenda Books in the UK as ebooks this year, and in paper next year.
Agatha Christie’s books were the reason I never imagined I’d end up as a crime writer. How can you write murder mysteries yourself if you can never work out who did it before Hercule Poirot explains?
It was a long time before I realised that some crime fiction has almost no mystery at all, and that while books may be read from beginning to end, they don’t have to be written that way. When your plot collapses in a hopeless tangle you can go back and sort it out – pausing briefly to reflect that the Queen of Crime would never have got into this mess in the first place.
Christie’s books are far more than plot, though. Her shrewd observation and economy of style are a delight. What more do we need to know of Miss Hartnell in The Murder at the Vicarage, except that she is “weather-beaten and jolly and much dreaded by the poor”?
In an age where crime fiction offers full-frontal autopsy, serial-killer paedophiles and detectives with as many problems as the criminals, there’s still a demand for the gentler world of Christie’s novels.
Our local library delivers books to housebound people. Many of those people live alone, read in bed and don’t want to be frightened out of their wits in the middle of the night (although one or two find it’s a marvellous way to pass the time). For those of us choosing the books, Agatha Christie is a godsend while we wait to gauge the level of grittiness required by a client who ticked the box marked “Mysteries”. Christie’s books are intelligently written, entertaining, and in the case of Miss Marple, celebrate the wisdom of the older woman. All of which is most welcome.
Ruth Downie’s latest novel is Tabula Rasa, the sixth in her series featuring Roman Legionary Medic Ruso and his British partner Tilla. The seventh, Vita Brevis, will be published by Bloomsbury in the spring.
It surprises me when people refer to Agatha Christie as a “cosy” writer, and I assume that anyone who shrugs her off as a lightweight has not actually read her. It is easy to focus on the ingenuity of her plot twists, but for me her lasting power is in her ruthless depiction of human nature.
Crime fiction, as a genre, is an extended attempt to explain to ourselves why people do bad things. Christie accepted from the beginning that sometimes people just do, and that perhaps figuring out “why” is not the most important consideration. We read traditional crime fiction because the restoration of order is so deeply satisfying. Agatha Christie may not have been the first author to develop that formulation, but she perfected it – and arguably, 100 years later, no one has done it better.
If I have to pick a favourite, I’ll go with Five Little Pigs, known in the US as Murder in Retrospect (1942). It’s an example of Poirot in his prime, and illustrates my point perfectly. The murderer Poirot exposes may well go unpunished, but the revelation of truth is enough for both him and his client. The punishment of the guilty is less important than the redemption of the innocent. The guilty, Miss Christie implies, are all around us. The innocents, comparatively rare, are the ones who deserve a happy ending.
Joseph Finder is the bestselling author of 12 novels, most recently The Fixer
Dror A Mishani
To me, Agatha Christie’s novels (or some of them) not just hold up today, but pose quite a few challenges to contemporary crime writers. Unlike their common image, as mere intellectual puzzles, I find in her novels deep reflection on the genre, its form and its philosophical and moral worldview.
It’s true that we tend to write more “realistic” crime novels today, and this development in the genre’s history produced and is still producing great literary works. But at the same time it brought the genre closer to all mainstream canonical realistic fiction (the difference in form and literary texture between a Mankell novel and a McEwan novel is not that great), and made us forget, in a way, how experimental, how Modernist in fact, was the literary text that was the puzzle novel in the 1920s and 1930s, a text of which Christie was probably the most important author.
Christie was the author of literary texts that didn’t exist before that. Texts that you wrote and read differently than any other, texts whose fundamental trait was suspicion: suspicion of every word you’re reading, of every sign given in the text. They were texts deeply obsessed with the fluctuation of meanings, that didn’t cease to question the possibility of having an authority over meaning, texts full of false-bottoms, in which what you saw was always hiding some deeper sense. This text of extreme suspicion was a fascinating literary experiment, and for me it’s one of the finest examples of Modernist poetics, just like the literary experiments of Dadaism or Sigmund Freud’s prose (If, for Freud, a cigar is never just a cigar, for Christie a cocoa cup is never a cocoa cup).
In addition, Christie is the best example of the worldview the genre laid out and promoted in those years: everybody, no matter how nice they seem, are potential murderers; If you’re in a room full of what seem to be innocent people you’ll soon discover that at least one of them is a killer and that the rest are guilty of something else (and maybe they’re all killers). This genre’s worldview is, to my mind, a philosophy that most contemporary crime writers inherited, sometimes without even knowing it, and I think that one of the challenges and even moral missions of crime writers today is to try and deconstruct this pessimistic worldview lying under the “cosy” detective novel.
Most of Christie’s novels are very much aware of their philosophical subtext and in fact can be also read as self-reflective and suspicious of the genre itself, its form and its ideology. But the clearest example for that, and my favourite novel of hers, is without doubt Curtain, Poirot’s last case, a novel Christie wrote in the 1940s but asked that it be published only after her death, as if knowing that it was a kind of “black box” of the whole genre, in which the detective (and the reader’s) constant suspicion is described not just as interpretative skill helpful in solving crimes, but also as a possible delusion, capable of inciting crimes, or as a crime in itself.
I like Curtain also because it’s closest to our contemporary understanding of what a good crime novel should be: its realism is stronger and Poirot is a fuller character than he is in all of her other novels, a touching character, practically on his deathbed, fluctuating between delusion and clairvoyance. I think it’s still one of the most shocking and daring crime novels written and I think every aspiring crime writer should read it before he starts his first novel, at least once, in order to understand how complicated and truly dark the genre he’s about to auusme is.
It’s hard to explain how slavishly devoted I was to reading as a semi-feral youth. Books were my friends, my companions, my retreat from the world at large; on any given day I could be found, curled up, legs resting over the back of my dog Pharaoh with my nose buried within the pages of The Famous Five, The Secret Seven or Huck Finn. Many a wet afternoon spent sifting through the countless tattered copies of ‘True Crime’ that littered our home, their gore-filled tabloid covers far removed from anything my grandmother declared – loudly – as ‘proper’ (she read the Ireland’s Own magazine).
Despite my early love of mysteries and crime fiction, I do not believe I picked Agatha Christie to read; rather I stumbled upon her by chance. Books arrived at our home in plastic bags, second and sometimes third hand, a potluck of literature so to speak. From one of these deliveries I plucked, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. This was the first Agatha Christie book I ever read, and as luck would have it, it was my introduction to the great Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot.
I fell in love immediately with this strange precise mercurial being. I admired his astounding abilities to understand the human condition from the comfort of an armchair. Suddenly my life was infinitely richer. Cycling around the village of Redcross, I looked at the homes with renewed interest. Like Poirot, I tried to use my ‘little grey cells’ to fathom what lay behind the net curtains and closed doors. I now understood that each home could contain murder, mystery and certainly treachery, for how could they not? According to Poirot nothing was ever as it first seemed. I created elaborate stories and invented the most unspeakable acts of horror.
Fortunately, for everyone, I kept them to myself.
Poirot appeared in 33 novels and 65 short stories. Years later, Agatha’s creation was brought spectacularly to life on television by David Suchet, who embodied the role of the diminutive moustached genius utterly.
So thank you Agatha Christie, thank you from the bottom of my crime-fiction loving heart for such a man as Poirot.
Arlene Hunt is the author of eight crime-fiction novels, the latest of which is The Outsider (2013). She lives and works in Dublin
Agatha Christie was one of the first “grown-up” novelists I ever read. I am guessing I was 10 or 11 and my experience with mysteries had been limited to Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown, but I’d always been curious about the Christie paperbacks on my parents’ shelves and I’d been told my first name had been plucked from one. So, my mom (now a crime novelist herself) handed me The Mysterious Affair at Styles and it began. I swallowed them whole, and even swore to my parents that I’d figured out the twist in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd before the shocker of an ending. My favorites were And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express, the latter of which gave me exciting nightmares. I remember distinctly how sophisticated I felt reading them. These were not only books shelved in the big room at the library, they were books I could talk with my parents about. I felt like I’d entered the adult world and it was a place of treachery and dark deeds – but also, ultimately, a place where resolutions could be had, even a return to order. And even though, as a writer, I may opt for less certain resolutions (and less order), I learned so much about story from these books. And even more about the relationship between writer and reader, and how much trust is involved.
I have no excuse for not returning to Christie in the many years since. A long romance, begun in my teen years, with the American hardboiled distracted me, led me to my big loves, James Ellroy to Raymond Chandler, and the dirty charms of crime novels over whodunnits. But I do know this: as much as Chandler speaks volumes about a dark strain of midcentury America, Christie offers us invaluable insight into England between the wars and after. And as a woman who writes about crime and still gets asked, endlessly, about the “maleness” of the genre, I treasure that I can point to Christie and say: There she is, the master.
Megan Abbott is the Edgar-winning author of seven novels, including The End of Everything, Dare Me, and The Fever. Her next novel, You Will Know Me, comes out in July 2016.
I could have picked any of a half-dozen titles for my favourite Agatha Christie novel, but Murder in Mesopotamia was the one I re-read – any excuse – for the sake of this piece.
The story is narrated by Amy Leatheran, who is employed by archaeologist Dr Leidner to nurse his wife Mrs Leidner, who ‘has fancies’ – ie, she fears for her life – on the Tell Yarimjah dig where her husband and his associates are excavating ‘a big Assyrian city like Nineveh’. When Mrs Leidner is discovered murdered, and the authorities are called in to investigate, Miss Leatheran is at first amused and then impressed by a certain Hercule Poirot, who just so happens to be travelling through Mesopotamia – even if he is so physically uninspiring that he pales by comparison with her favourite fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes.
The story was inspired by Agatha Christie’s own experience over two decades of digging at various sites dotted around the Middle East (she met her second husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, on one of the digs), but the wealth of detail is only one of the novel’s pleasures. Despite the exotic setting, this is a delicious example of the ‘country house’ mystery beloved of the Golden Age of British crime fiction, with a number of suspects, a surfeit of motives and the proverbial shoal of red herrings. It’s also an ingenious riff on the locked-room mystery, although its strongest suit is the psychological aspect – this is a case, Poirot tells Miss Leatheran, that he can only solve once he fully understands the complex psychology of the victim.
Some of Mrs Leidner’s personal history beggars belief, it’s true, but for the most part Murder in Mesopotamia is the very best of Agatha Christie’s oeuvre wrapped up in a concise and economical 220 pages. As for Poirot: he took off for England directly after, Miss Leatheran tells us, taking the Orient Express home – but that, as they say, is a story for another day.
Declan Burke’s latest novel is The Lost and the Blind. He is also the author of Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Writing in the Twenty-First Century and, with John Connolly, of Books to Die For.
Ian Campbell Ross
Few books remain as powerfully present to the imagination as those first read in childhood. My first Christie was Sad Cypress. I was 11 years old. Stretched out on my bed, I firmly resisted my mother’s suggestion I go out to play until (the murderer safely unmasked) I could close the book. The Collins Crime Club hardback, with its yellow ochre on petrol blue dust-jacket, was a gift from my mother to my father. The plot . . .. But the plot is irrelevant, even if Christie remains the most accomplished plotter in all detective fiction, defying her reader to skip a word. Sad Cypress introduced me to Hercule Poirot, Christie’s counterpart to earlier Great Detectives: Poe’s C Auguste Dupin and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. And it wasn’t long before I caught up with Christie’s second great creation: Miss Marple, whose success as a detective comes from the very fact that, as an elderly spinster, she is so frequently overlooked. There are better Christie novels, perhaps, and others that have more completely caught the playful imaginations of such intellectual admirers as Umberto Eco, Michel Houellebecq or Pierre Bayard. Crime fiction today is generally grittier, dirtier than Christie’s but I retain particular affection for Sad Cypress, whose closed, tidy, unreal world first allowed me to glimpse the possibility that detective fiction might not serve to reflect the messiness of life but, as Borges put it, to safeguard order in an era of disorder.
Ian Campbell Ross taught Ireland’s first university course in detective fiction at Trinity College Dublin; he recently co-edited the special number of Éire-Ireland: Irish Crime since 1921 (2014).
Agatha Christie was the first ‘grown-up’ author I read, which possibly explains a lot. We had old paperback editions with photographic covers. Murder in Mesopotamia had a lumpy mask on the front with a black leering gash for a mouth, and it haunted me. I don’t ever remember finding the content disturbing, though, maybe because Christie focused on how the crimes were committed and who was responsible, not on how the victims suffered – or why. In Christie’s world, corpses are neat and motivations are clear-cut. People kill for money, for love, out of envy or frustration, not because of childhood trauma or for sexual satisfaction. Her detectives are amateurs, wise beyond words, as implacable as the Fates and never wrong. Good is good, evil is evil and absolutely anyone could be a killer.
Everything she wrote – and she wrote a lot – demonstrates her talent for misdirection, her ingenuity and her intelligence. I have many favourites but I loved Evil Under the Sun, which features a tremendously clever fake alibi, and Sparkling Cyanide. The smell of almonds still makes me edgy.
Christie is widely acknowledged as the queen of Golden Age crime, but the stories hold up remarkably well, even if some of the minor characters are as thin as the paper they’re printed on. She had laundry marks and sharp-eyed garage attendants where we have DNA and CCTV, but the thrill of the chase is the same.
Jane Casey is an award-winning Irish crime writer. Her most recent books are After the Fire, the sixth in the Maeve Kerrigan series, and Hide and Seek (for teenagers).
I recently re-read Agatha Christie’s first novel, written almost a century ago, and it was breathtakingly good. She was a fully-formed, world-class mystery writer right from the start and authors like her don’t come along very often. I’m sure there are not very many crime novels from the 1920s that have stood the test of time as well as Christie’s best books from that decade, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder on the Links or The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the first two of which are actually among my all-time favourite Christie books. I discovered Agatha Christie’s books at the age of 12 and read every single Icelandic translation, even though I had to spend my Saturday mornings at the Icelandic National Library to read the out-of-print ones. When I had read all I could find in Icelandic, at 17, I started translating her books for her Icelandic publisher. And now, in my thirties, I’m still as big a fan as ever and regularly re-read her books. She has been a great influence on me, and probably on most other crime writers in one way or another. Her plots are so superb and surprising, yet simple when explained, and it has been said that she has used every single original idea for a twist at the end. (Annoyingly for other crime writers, that’s probably true!) She was also the master of creating a setting and atmosphere, be it the Orient Express, the Nile, a small English village, a mysterious island or a snowbound manor house. The fact that her books are still being read all over the world and that new television series based on her works are being created regularly shows us that she is as relevant as ever, and still the undisputed Queen of Crime.
Ragnar Jonasson is author of Snowblind (translated by Quentin Bates), Orenda Books
When I, as a young reader, discovered Agatha Christie, through my parents’ bookshelves, I was so fascinated by her mysteries that during the years up till I was in my twenties, I think I must have read most of her books, many of them in Norwegian translation but later on in the original version, too. I was always impressed by her plotting, the way she crafted her intrigue, and the inevitable surprise ending! I enjoy Miss Marple, but one of my favourite detectives through all times is Hercule Poirot – clever (using his ‘small, grey cells’ to search out the guilty parties, and amusingly unsympathetic!
When I wrote my first detective novel in 1975, I was clearly influenced by the Swedish writers Sjöwall & Wahlöö, as well as the American trinity Hammett, Chandler and Ross Macdonald, but in plotting I have very often looked to Christie. I reckon that she and Macdonald are some of the very best plotters in the whole of 20th-century crime fiction. I remember clearly writing the book using a Christie template: several suspicious characters, all with a reason to kill, but most of them with an alibi …
Whichis the best Christie book ofthem all? My lecturer in English literature at the University of Bergen, mystery novelist Robert Barnard, was an expert in Agatha Christie, and he called Five Little Pigs ‘the best Christie of them all’. He knew what he was talking about. Murder on the Orient Express is of course a masterpiece, too, as is And Then There Were None. In many of her books, it’s easy to forget ‘whodunnit’ and get as much pleasure re-reading them years later. In others, however, such as Murder on the Orient Express and And Then There Were None, it is impossible to forget.
As a crime writer, I have looked more closely at Ross Macdonald when I have studied how to plot a crime novel, but I was very happy when I could finish one my Varg Veum novels, still not translated into English, Bitter Flowers, with what I called a ‘Poirot ending’. In the final chapter, my private detective confronted four people in a living room, and only one of them is guilty …
I imagine that one can find some Christie influence even in my latest book published in English, We Shall Inherit the Wind. The truth is that I, like most crime writers, can’t resist the temptation to put a little Christie into our work.
Gunnar Staalesen is author of We Shall Inherit the Wind (translated by Don Bartlett), Orenda Books
Agatha Christie’s reputation as a writer of ‘cosy’ mysteries is unfortunate. It is, I think, largely a byproduct of the numerous BBC adaptations of her work set in the postwar England of retired squadron leaders, glamorous widows and intelligent spinsters. Who wouldn’t like to flit through the nostalgic world of perfectly lit Cotswolds villages and beautifully restored steam locomotives?
My experience of Christie was different from the get-go. The first book I read at the age of 11 was Murder on the Orient Express, which, if you’ll recall, is one where everyone did it. A train from Istanbul to Paris is caught in a snowstorm and a decidedly dodgy American traveller, Mr Rathchett, is killed. Hercule Poirot uncovers the fact that he is a notorious kidnapper and child murderer who escaped justice stateside. Everyone in Poirot’s carriage had a reason to get revenge on Ratchett. What I liked about the book was the cynical ending. Poirot proposes two solutions to the Yugoslavian police detective, Bouc. The first is that a stranger boarded the train and killed Ratchett, the second that it was a revenge conspiracy. Bouc knows what really happened but decides to accept the first solution.
This was the first book I’d read where the murderers got away with it and it wasn’t the first or last time Christie pulled this trick. Christie is a lot darker and a lot more interesting than the sepia-toned BBC versions would have you believe.
Adrian McKinty is the author of the Sean Duffy series, the latest of which is Gun Street Girl.
My mathematician father used to describe Agatha Christie’s novels as ‘the best literary Sudoku around, at her best as good as a Rubik Cube’. This wasn’t a put-down. He believed Christie worked her own chosen small square of ivory as expertly and imaginatively as Jane Austen had hers.
I tend to agree. Nobody goes to Christie for fine writing or convincing love stories or penetrating psychological insight into the characters described. Within the genre, however, Christie could work ingenious and imaginative twists that surprise. In part this is because her style is rarely other than serviceable but mostly because the turns remain genuinely clever in upsetting expectations.
Anthony Shaffer’s play Sleuth appeared in 1970 before Christie died and included a witty scene to mock the far-fetched ingenuity that had come to characterise the traditional country house murder – in the play a character necessarily combines the skill of a ballet dancer and the strength of a weightlifter to tiptoe along a line in a tennis court and then toss a dead body into the areas that will show footprints.
Christie was better than that because her psychological insight was into her readers’ grasp of reality and observation when facing puzzles – and the attractions of a certain abstract quality. My father liked her famous stories like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Then There Were None precisely because they were puzzles, the figures or characters were moved about and a solution calculated. In her best work the solution completely upset the traditions of traditional mysteries. Forget the lack of social commentary – Agatha Christie loved to disconcert.
Since her death, her limitations have turned out to be her strength. My own favourite of her novels is Curtain, Hercules Poirot’s last case, written during the Blitz but not published until shortly before her death. It has lasted well, better than more direct efforts at elegiac comment of that grim time. In a country house she invokes Jacobean theatre instead, unsettling views on the power of suggestion and relentless logic and pressure towards an evil choice being the only one available. Her puzzles work because she has her foundation secure. She remains one of the Great Enjoyables.
Aly Monroe, author of the Peter Cotton series, is finishing a stand-alone novel, The Lure, about a female cryptographer in 1964
I am always torn between Murder on the Orient Express and Murder in Mesopotamia. I prefer the mysteries set abroad, probably because I sometimes found it difficult to relate to Christie’s England. Through a foreign prism it seems more understandable somehow. I guess I’d have to say Murder on the Orient Express if pushed – mainly because I have always loved the notion of intrigue aboard a train.
Was Christie an influence on my work? Indirectly inasmuch as my mother read copious amounts of crime fiction, including Christie, when I was a child. We had a houseful of books which I was actively encouraged to read. I took my cue from my mother and read a lot of crime from a very young age. But I never wanted to emulate Agatha Christie. What she taught me however was that women could write crime very well.
Is she still relevant? I think so. Whatever one may think of Christie’s books they are well written, absorbing and extremely entertaining. They also represent a time, known in crime fiction circles as the Golden Age. This was when people like Christie – namely Dorothy L Sayers and Josephine Tey – were also creating memorable and iconic detective fiction scenarios and characters of their own. In large part Agatha Christie and her contemporaries crafted the crime fiction genre that we know today. And, if for no other reason, that will mean that her work will always be relevant.
Do her books still hold up as great mystery fiction or are they read more for the sake of nostalgia? What I think marks Christie’s books out is the fact that she created a whole other world that, in many ways, is a lot safer and more appealing than our own. Only later on in her career did things like nuclear bombs come into being. Agatha Christie came way, way before the horrors of 9/11 and the current spate of conflicts in the Middle East that impinge upon us all. So nostalgia for a gentler age is a factor. But her plots are good – she loved plotting apparently – and they still work and remain entertaining. More importantly, time spent in Christie’s world is exciting and fun. What more could one want?
Barbara Nadel’s latest book is Enough Rope (Quercus), the fourth in my London-based Hakim and Arnold series.
My first encounter with Christie wasn’t through her books, strangely, but rather through the film adaptations which we watched as a family on Bank Holiday afternoons when I was young. Peter Ustinov as Poirot in Death on the Nile still sticks in my mind. These were the first crime films I saw and the idea that someone could solve crime using only their intellect was fascinating. The books became, in many ways, gateways into darker crime fiction. So, while my influences now are mostly American, Christie’s work was the starting point for my love for crime fiction. And irrespective of her direct influence on writers now, there is no doubt that so many of the tropes of the genre which modern writers use and attempt to subvert, were established by Christie. Like Wilkie Collins, she explored the idea that crime could happen among the upper classes as easily as the working ones and, as with Collins’ Cuff, she understood the importance of the central detective; particularly one whom others underestimate. The fads for blood and guts and serial killers ebb and flow over time, but the centrality of a fascinating character at the heart in crime fiction will never change. In that regard, Christie will always hold her place amongst the royalty of crime writing.
Brian McGilloway’s new novel, Preserve the Dead, is available now.
Karen Sullivan, publisher at Orenda Books
I don’t think any reader, or indeed, publisher of crime fiction could fail to be awed by the grande dame of the genre, and many of us cut our teeth on her novels. As a publisher, I see the hallmark of her influence in most of my authors’ works, even if it is only in the use of her characteristic ‘twist’. I began reading her books before I hit my teens, and I’m quite confident that I have read every single one of them across the years. Particular favourites include And Then There Were None, The ABC Murders and Ordeal by Innocence. As PD James once said, Christie was the master at making the ‘least likely’ culprit the guilty party! That in itself is a feat. Frankly, I think her books are as relevant as ever. Although crime fiction has grown to include a wide variety of genres, far beyond the police procedural, and often with social issues and more violence since Christie’s work was published, all readers still enjoy a fabulous story and her plotting is second to none. I would recommend her books as a starting point for any aspiring crime writer, not only to learn the tools of the craft from one of its foremost proponents, but to sink into some of the most entertaining mysteries around.
Karen Sullivan is publisher at Orenda Books
Martin Doyle is assistant literary editor