Agatha Christie was born 125 years ago today. While there have been many authors of detective stories since the genre was first created, it is hard to argue that Mrs. Christie isn’t the most famous.
She produced mysteries for 85 years. Her 80 books (includes both full length novels and short story collections) have sold billions of copies. It is hard to research a number on exactly how many due to the many editions and translations which have been published. A number between two and four billion copies is used.
And don’t forget the plays. The Mousetrap has been running continuously on the London stage since 1952 – where I personally have seen it several times. I’ve also watched some pretty good performances of this whodunit in community theaters on this side of the Atlantic.
Agatha Christie at work. Here she is typing, but she began her career writing in long hand. Later in life she made use of a Dictaphone.
Where did Agatha Christie’s talent come from? The story of her first attempts at writing has been often told. While recovering from influenza, the young Agatha was encouraged by her mother to try writing down the stories she liked to invent. She enjoyed writing, but found it frustrating. During the next several years she persisted and eventually found her way to detective fiction.
By all accounts Agatha, an only and solitary child, was a prolific reader who had also been read the books of Charles Dickens (her favorite was Bleak House) by her mother. At the age of eight she discovered Sherlock Holmes. More than one critic has noted the parallels between Sherlock Holmes/ Dr. Watson/ Inspector Lestrade, and Christie’s characters: Hercule Poirot, Captain Hastings, and Inspector Japp.
In 1916 Christie began writing her first mystery: The Mysterious Affair At Styles, which introduced Poirot to the reading public. The novel was not published until 1921 (copyright: 1920); the manuscript had been rejected by six publishers before The Bodley Head decided to consider it.
It took eighteen months before the decision to accept the book was made by The Bodley Head and Agatha signed her first publishing contract. The terms were 1) no advance; and 2) no royalties until 2,500 copies had been sold. Also, The Bodley Head had the rights to her next five books! It is worth noting that sales of Styles did not reach the 2,500 mark, and the only money Christie received from her first published book was 25 pounds from the magazine serial sale.
The Crime Club jacket for Sparkling Cyanide (1945). When Agatha Christie signed her first publishing deal with The Bodley Head in 1921, she didn’t know how to negotiate favorable terms for herself. But in 1930 she became one of the first authors in the new Crime Club series begun by the London publisher Collins. Her first book The Murder At The Vicarage had an initial printing of 5,500 copies.
Her second book The Secret Adversary (1922) was a thriller about espionage. Christie said it was easier to write than a detective story.
But detective stories were her forte, and once she started she was prolific. A new Agatha Christie usually appeared at the end of every year, just in time for Christmas and holiday gifting. Royalties also increased with her popularity. In 1976 she was paid $1 million for the American paperback rights to Sleeping Murder, the last book in which Miss Marple appears.
Christie novels are not high brow, and their author has her critics. But the fans outweigh the fault finders, and I proudly count her as my favorite crime author. Her style of writing influenced mine, and I learned a lot about writing a mystery by dissecting her books.
I love her use of red herrings. She always has numerous suspects, and she will lead you astray from time to time in your pursuit of determining the guilty party. But she always plays fair. Everything you need to know is laid out in the story. You just have to pick out the bits that are relevant to the crime as opposed to what are the red herrings.
For example, one of her devices is to give you a clue to the murderer’s identity early in the plot. This is at a time when you, the reader, are still getting acquainted with the characters in the book. You are happily reading along, blissfully paying no notice to that key clue in the first chapter.
I draw your attention to A Murder Is Announced (1950).
Dora Bunner is the resident house guest of her childhood friend, Letitia Blacklock, whose late sister Charlotte was also a friend of Dora’s. Early in the story Letitia, whom everyone calls Letty, is addressed as Lotte by Dora. Your eyes move unwittingly over Dora’s slip of the tongue, much to your later chagrin when the killer is unmasked at the story’s end.
Actor David Suchet is one of many performers to play the role of Hercule Poirot. Agatha Christie insisted that an image Poirot not be used on her book covers.
In Cards On The Table (1936), the wealthy Mr. Shaitana is murdered in his own home by one of the guests at his dinner party. The several guests are playing bridge while he sits in a chair by the fire where he is stabbed. One of the four card players had the opportunity to murder their host while he or she was dummy in the bridge game and could get up and leave the table.
Poirot must deduce which of the bridge players is Shaitana’s killer. Again you, the reader, follow the investigation, accepting at face value the clues to the killer’s identity given in the narrative. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that the solution to this crime is much more complicated than first appears.
Peril At End House (1932) is another favorite Christie. Nick Buckley, a young woman who owns a run down seaside estate, tells Hercule Poirot that someone is trying to killer her. Poirot witnesses with his own eyes a bullet which barely misses Nick’s head and leaves a hole in her hat.
You, the reader, think you know what’s going on. Afraid not. This is another Christie plot which will confound you, but the keys to the unexpected solution are once again right there in the pages of the book.
I’ve always liked The ABC Murders (1936). Mrs. Ascher of Andover is the first of the victims in the alphabetical list of serial killings where the victims’ names and the places of their residence both begin with the same letter of the alphabet. So are these ABC murders the work of Alexander Bonaparte Cust, the traveling salesman who is conveniently in all the alphabetical cities on the same day as the murder of the alphabetical victims?
What do you think?
Remember that characters can lie.
When she began writing, Agatha Christie asked a Devon neighbor, novelist and poet Eden Phillpotts, to read one of her manuscripts. He thought she had talent and wrote her a letter with some valuable advice, which she followed her entire career:
“Try and leave your characters alone, so that they can speak for themselves, instead of always rushing in to tell them what they ought to say, or to explain to the reader what they meant by what they are saying. That is for the reader to judge for himself.”
How about you? Are you a Christie fan? I’d love to know your favorite novels and why you enjoy them.