Bookish Birthdays: Agatha Christie
15th Sep 2011
Well, crime novelist Agatha Christie, would have been 121 on this day, and yesterday, my mum – the woman who introduced me to this writer – would have been 80. What better way to celebrate two great women than with this: a bookish birthday.
Christie was born in Torquay in 1890, and went on to write 66 detective novels, 14 short story collections and several plays. The Mousetrap opened in London’s West End in 1952 and is still running to this day.
True to Christie form, it involves several people who could be the now-grown child with a reason for revenge, and nearly everyone has a similar motive.
Although she wrote romantic fiction under the name Mary Westmacott, she is best known for her crime stories. The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) introduced readers to Hercule Poirot, the fussy, moustachioed Belgian private detective, always working ‘zee leetle grey cells’.
Miss Marple, the village spinster with an ambiguous past, was introduced in a short story in 1927.
The supporting cast of Chief Inspector Japp, Hastings, Tommy and Tuppence and Ariadne Oliver were peppered throughout the novels and stories, but it is Poirot and Marple who stand out, for their more detailed characterisation and sheer number of appearances.
When I was growing up on a working class council estate during the 1970s, the only books I remember in the house were by Enid Blyton (mine) and Agatha Christie (my mum’s). As I outgrew Blyton I turned to Christie, because she was there. The first few attempts were unsuccessful. The writing was staid and I didn’t get these people.
But as I grew older, and the films and dramatisations started appearing on the telly, I found myself fascinated by them and thus began an enduring relationship with crime drama.
Whatever you think about Christie’s sometimes stereotypical characterisation of the snooty upper classes and the rough-speaking common folk, you have to admit there are some ingenious plots: And Then There Were None, Death on the Nile, Murder on the Orient Express and Curtain spring to mind, with their morally complex and engaging storylines.
With one exception (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd) I’ve never been able to guess whodunnit, and was driven to distraction by my mum during our TV viewings as, ten minutes in, she would say: “Do you know who did it yet?” I could never resist reminding her that perhaps she knew whodunit because she’d read every book several times. Hers was a feat of memory, not of detection.
But this started me on the road to reading the books, delighting in the gathering of all the suspects, the focusing on one after the other as possible killers until the big reveal. A formula, yes, but that’s the pleasure of genre fiction.
It is Christie’s way with a plot that pulls you in so that every time Poirot points the finger at the disinherited son, or the cheating wife, you think ‘Yes, they did it!’ only to be disabused of that within minutes until the real killer is unmasked.
Although a different kind of fame beckoned when Christie went missing for 11 days in 1926 (the subject of Michael Apted’s 1979 film Agatha) nothing can really overshadow her success as a writer.
Her novels have sold over 4 billion copies and been translated into at least 103 languages; you can’t move on ITV3 for re-runs of the films and TV shows. And once I finish typing this I’m off to watch one.
In May 2009 I read from the first Poirot mystery at my mum’s funeral. And now it feels pretty good to be able to thank her for the gift of Christie (it just keeps on giving) and wish her and the Great Dame a very happy birthday.
So, happy birthday Agatha Christie, and happy birthday mum.