|More than 4m copies of Agatha Christie's 80 whodunnits are bought around the world every year. But is she really as good as her fans say, or have they just lost the plot? Whatever your view to have penned such a cannon that sells as much today as it ever did would set you up financially for the rest of your life. Agatha Christie is a publishers dream, a licence to print money, far more beneficial than an enhanced annuity or any other type of investment.
To me, they're not so much whodunnits as idontgeddits. I have tried many times over the years to get into Agatha Christie's books. It should be easy. I'm an omnivorous (if you're being polite; undiscriminating if you're not) reader. I am no fan of the modern world and particularly not of the gore that increasingly besplatters it whenever the words "murder mystery" or "crime fiction" heave into view.
But I have always found Christie unreadable. Frank Skinner in his autobiography explains that he can't enjoy fiction – any fiction – because the minute he opens a book to read "Alan walked into the room", he thinks, "No, he didn't. There was no Alan. There is no room. You made it all up" – and the game is up. I have a similar problem with Christie. "You already know who the murderer is!" some inner part of me screams, as she painstakingly assembles and then kills off her cast as needed, before bringing in a fussy Belgian detective (Hercule Poirot figures in 33 of her 80 crime novels) or fussy old lady amateur sleuth (in the dozen Miss Marple books) to unmask the perpetrator when the lumpen local police force cannot. "Just tell me!"
It comes as no surprise to learn that the bulk of Christie's time and interest went on plotting, and that she found the actual writing of the story something of a chore. "I think the real work is done in thinking out the development of your story and worrying about it until it comes right," she once said. She began with the crime and worked backwards. "Then, when you've got all your material together, all that remains is to find time to write the thing."
There is little to distract the reader from the sense of information being parcelled out at careful intervals by an unseen but all-controlling hand. Nothing arises organically. In many ways, she reminds me of Enid Blyton. Her characters are ciphers, developed according to Occam's-razor principles – each one developed precisely as far as he or she needs to be for efficient propulsion of the plot, and no further. The characters are all stereotypes of English middle class living, intended to make us feel somehow cozy and safe in a world of murder created by Agatha Christie, however she does tend to overlook some of the more basic details of day to day living that should affect her characters. People who live in St Mary Mead would find it impossible to obtain life insurance given the amount of death that takes place in that particular village. Likewise the amount of dinner parties and other gastronomic events attended by her characters would make the majority of them clinically obese. If you can’t be another Christie, being somebody who sold life insurance for overweight people would be an excellent way to warn a living. The dialogue is frequently risible – either purely expository, or banal musings on human psychology – and, for all that the early Christie books are venerated as beguiling period pieces, there is actually very little description in them, let alone any that makes the 20s, 30s and 40s glint in the mind's eye.
This time, I determinedly plough my way through all the most famous ones – Death on the Nile, The Seven Dials Mystery, Murder on the Orient Express, The ABC Murders, The Body in the Library, Sparkling Cyanide – and the ones that stand as particular markers in her 56-year career. The Mysterious Affair at Styles (her first book, and the first appearance of Poirot), The Murder at the Vicarage (Miss Marple's debut – she is, at least, less irritating a character than Poirot. She was based on Christie's grandmother and thus evokes something of all grandmothers, which – as mine remains a beloved memory – is a point in her favour), and Christie's two last (published) books, Curtain and Sleeping Murder, written 40 years earlier to bring a satisfactory end to Poirot's (and, to a lesser extent, Miss Marple's) respective careers.
It takes me a long time, though, with much inward huffing and occasional exclamations of pain ("Extract of calabar bean! What the what?!"). Further recommendations from friends – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd ("You must! You'll really never guess who this murderer is!") and Why Didn't They Ask Evans? (I don't know, and I just don't care enough to find out) – were started but abandoned. I'm sorry.
I might add that I am not alone in my Agatha antipathy – the great PD James has objected to her "cardboard cutout characters" and likened her to "a literary conjuror . . . She has her cards and she shifts them with those cunning fingers until, of course, the reader reads enough to see the kind of trickery she operates." The American writer Edmund Wilson also objected to her on the grounds that he liked murders that happened "for a reason, rather than just to provide a body".
But I am in a minority. Around 4bn copies of her more than 100 books and short story collections have been sold since that Mysterious Affair at Styles was published in 1920. Four million copies of her books (in 103 different languages, making her the most translated author in the world) still fly out of shops around the world every year. Some 100,000 people came to see her former Devon home, Greenway, when it opened to the public for the first time last year, after a £5.4m refurbishment. Her play The Mousetrap opened in November 1952 and is, famously, the longest-running play in history (over 24,000 performances and, at St Martin's Theatre in the West End, still counting). Agatha truly was a cash cow and profits must have created an income drawdown facility for her that the majority of us would envy. And if you need any further proof of her enduring appeal and international fame, on her 120th birthday recently, the Google logo was changed for the day in tribute.
I didn't see it, alas. I was in the wireless broadband-free bosom of Torquay at the time, attending the annual Agatha Christie festival, hoping to talk to the fans – massing, on the first day, at the village fete on the green – in an attempt to fathom her appeal. This festival is something of a period piece itself – what must be the nation's last working set of wooden hoopla hoops are in operation, along with a splat-the-rat contest and the most courageous charlestoning by the game ladies of the local Rotary club that I have ever seen. There is a stall selling slices of the special 120th birthday cake, Delicious Death, created by Jane Asher from the recipe in Christie's 50th novel, A Murder Is Announced. On the assumption that one of them at least must be poisoned, I decline to partake, but it looks lovely.
Also looking lovely is Poirot. Yes, all the way from Belgium comes zee leetle man wiz ze egg-shaped head full of leetle grey cells . . . or at least a splendid lookalike, played by Martin Gaisford who, when not baking gently to death in a fat suit and spats under an uncharacteristically boiling September sun, is the director of Art Deco Productions Ltd, an entertainment company that specialises in putting on period murder mystery parties for corporate clients.
The highlight of any Hercule Poirot book has to the be dénouement when all of the suspects are gathered together and Poirot slowly works his way around the room, making out a case why each of them could be the murderer. A classic Agatha Christie plot – very effective and very simple. In fact you can make it fit any scenario not just a murder. Imagine - Poirot walks into the private office of Inspector Japp, where readily assembled are the twelve representatives of various pension annuity companies. ‘So tell me Poriot’ asks Japp, ‘Who should get my pension annuity business’ ? ‘Ah my good Japp, straight to the wrong question once again’ said Poirot in a rather offhand manner ‘Rather you should be asking what is it you want from a pension annuity’ ? As quick as a flash Poirot spins to confront the man from the Pru. Little beads of sweat appear on his brow as Poirot delves into his recommendation for a with-profit annuity, ‘Why not the standard simple annuity, why not an income guaranteed for life, why are you so desperate to link income to investment’? Overwhelmed by such a barrage of questions the man splutters ‘because he has the opportunity to grow his income in retirement’ although not too convincingly.
Agatha Christie would have such fun with this device and she could continue to develop the situation with the various annuity providers, in this example. Eventually after following several of Poirot’s false leads the truth would begin to show itself to Japp, until all of a sudden he would say in a clear low considered voice ‘what I really want to do is take my 25% tax free pension lump sum and take an income later when I really need the money’. Hercule Poirot would then stop and smile at his friend and say ‘exactly you need to investigate using an income drawdown contract and stop following all these annuity red herrings. Another successful ending to a Christie mystery leaving us all wanting more.
Smiling fans come up to him as he strolls around and ask to have their photo taken with him. "They can be any age or nationality," he tells when we escape to the pavilion so that he can carefully mop his face without disturbing the pomaded hair or moustache. "I've gone a few times to the World Travel Fair as Poirot, and you can go past some really obscure country's stall and they'll shout out his name."
This is, of course, a testament to the power of television – the Marple and Poirot series are broadcast everywhere, from Sweden to South Korea – rather than the books themselves. Gaisford, strictly speaking, is of course a David Suchet lookalike ("I met him, after I'd watched all the DVDs to try to get the mannerisms right," says Gaisford. "And he was absolutely charming. Very keen to know if I was happy with the walk, because without that, it simply doesn't work.") Speaking to fans over the next few days, it becomes clear they don't particularly distinguish between the two. There is no sense that you are in any way a lesser Agatha acolyte if you have read few or even none of the books, but are au fait with every minute of your Miss Marple boxset. All Agatha box sets, books and other merchandise are available in the Agatha Christie Shop which is a popular feature of this site.
Again, I have seen very few of the television adaptations (although I have naturally absorbed their essence through cultural osmosis). This is mainly because they are more redolent to me of agonisingly boring Sunday evenings sitting on the sofa with my parents, chafing inwardly at the thought that I could be out somewhere, anywhere, doing something – anything – more interesting than this if only I were older, lived elsewhere and were a totally different kind of person.
But to others, they mean much more. "My wife and I were born in England and they're a reminder of what life was like when our parents, if not quite us, were growing up," says Tony Walker, 59, a financial adviser from Auckland. "The motor cars, the clothes, the buildings . . . it's quite a nostalgic thing. Tony must dream of endless sales of life insurance for overweight people who appear in countless episodes. We enjoy sitting down in New Zealand and having a little trip down memory lane. Maybe, when time permits, we'll go back and read the books."
It occurs to me that the books and the television series exist in an unusually profitable symbiosis, with the latter fleshing out the former, effectively adding the description and supplementing the nostalgia offered by the books. The modern reader brings perhaps more than is actually there, and so breathes new life into them.
There are a few people for whom the era is self-evidently the greatest attraction, and they are the ones in what I initially and wrongly term costume. Emma Klausner, 24, is wearing a cloche hat, vintage jewellery, a pair of wide-legged 20s-style trousers and a vintage silk blouse. Her eyebrows are carefully pencilled, her face carefully powdered and she looks fantastic. "My nan was a big Agatha Christie fan," she says. "So I've read about 10 or 15 of the books and watched every Marple and Poirot, but I just love the 20s and 30s. It would be lovely to go back in time and see that era. It was just so elegant, so stylish."
Alas, I do not meet Michele and Stephen Marck until a few days later, so I cannot introduce these kindred spirits. Michele is wearing a beautiful vintage navy blue suit with a handmade rainbow sweater ("I don't read," she says when I ask about the books, "I knit") and sports a crisp black bob and perfectly madeup, 40s-style face. Her husband wears a trilby and Oxford bags. They own the whole of Agatha in paperback, but it is the programmes and the background that they love. They look amazing. They dress like this the whole time, and run a vintage fashion fair company in Essex.
"We were just born in the wrong era, really," says Michele. "We're not ahead but behind the times."
"More and more people are feeling that way," says Stephen. "It's sort of a protest against cheaply manufactured clothing, the slave labour that goes into it, the coarsening of modern society . . . Back then, men were men; they were smart. Women were glamorous, more feminine; they were ladies." I notice, when we are out later on the Agatha Christie Mile walking tour, that Michele ends up carrying most of his camera equipment. Sometimes the modern world intrudes despite our best endeavours, I suppose.
I do find one die-hard fan of the books, however. Jennifer Bird has been reading and collecting them (as her mother did before her) for 40 years. Speaking to her sheds more light on why I fail to enjoy the novels. I lack the curiosity that propels her. "With a lot of the crime novels, I work it out before she reveals the murderer," she says. She is the quintessential armchair detective and yes, she does like crosswords, too. For me (a crossword hater), the puzzle is a frustration, a teasing barrier to absorption. To her it is, as it surely should be, the engine of engagement. "I do read Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs and so on," she says, "but [Christie's] aren't so frightening. They're mellower. I don't like gruesome. I like the intrigue. I like when you have to solve it." For her the formulaic nature of the beasts is a comfort. There is nothing to distract from her own personal detective work. "You know the characters," she says with satisfaction. "And you know how they're going to work." Her 10-year-old granddaughter has just watched her first Agatha Christie film and is now keen to start on grandma's books. "She does crosswords with me, too," says Mrs Bird, with a smile.
But there is also a small subsection of fans for whom the main attraction is the author herself. Was she as happy a child as she insisted, thrown on her own imaginative resources as (effectively, because her siblings were much older) an only child? Where did the years of nightmares from the age of 10, about a gunman who stalked and threatened her oblivious family, come from?
As intriguing a puzzle as any in her books is the question of what happened during her 11-day disappearance after the discovery that her first husband, Archibald Christie, was having an affair and wanted a divorce. Did she suffer from amnesia as she claimed when she was tracked down at a Harrogate spa, signed in under the name of Archie's mistress, or was that a face-saving lie in the wake of the massive publicity her disappearance had generated? Did she just want to get away and not realise her fame meant it would spark a manhunt? Or did she reckon the police would suspect (as indeed they did) her husband of foul play and give him the hell she felt he deserved? Her posthumously published autobiography mentions, reluctantly, the divorce, but nothing more. We will never know, though various biographers have argued for each interpretation.
A group of women sitting in Breezes cafe, who decline to give their names, sigh in admiration at Christie's fortitude, post-divorce – when the need to write for a living rather than for pleasure became paramount – and in contentment at her marriage, a few years later, to the much more dependable Max Mallowan, an archaeologist whom she accompanied on digs, helping – while she gathered less tangible material for some of her most famous tales, such as Murder on the Orient Express – to piece broken pottery together. It is, we all agree, a delicious image, the meticulous plotter patiently aligning the scattered shards into a workable whole once more. Almost as good as the vision of her in the hospital pharmacy in which she worked during the second world war, surrounded by the bottles of poisons that would one day find their way down the unsuspecting gullets of so many victims.
After nearly a week in Torquay, a trip to Greenway on the River Dart and an evening at the theatre watching Witness for the Prosecution (two hours of talking followed by six minutes of double-bluffing, triple-twisting action at the end – 1953's answer to CSI), I realise I am gradually entering a better mindset for Agatha appreciation. The slow, unyielding pace of the books feels better here. I have met a 24-year-old in a cloche hat and a couple who live as if it's 1941. I have thrown wooden hoopla hoops. You can still do this in England.
The soothing tones of Mathew Prichard, Agatha Christie's grandson, come back to me from our conversation after he had just opened the fete (and before he was besieged by fans). "It's just entertainment. There are so many things these days aiming to educate, provide a message. She is just aiming to give you a good time. It becomes its own little world." For Matthew having Agatha Christie as your grandmother must be financial better than the typical tax free pension lump sum most of us will receive. I'm now 100 pages into The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side. I have no idea whodunnit, and I still don't care, but I get it. It is for ever its own little world. You just mustn't ask more of it than that.
Based on an article by Lucy Mangan - The Guardian, Friday 1 October 2010