A mild-mannered bystander harbors a sinister motive. A carelessly tossed glove becomes a critical clue—or a frustrating red herring. The inspector calls all the assembled suspects into the drawing room, and with incisive wit and a withering glare at the culprit, sketches out the brilliant solution to the question of whodunit. These mainstays of crime fiction plotting have a creator, and her name was Agatha Christie.
Christie, who was born in Devon, England in 1890, published 66 novels under her own name and six more under a pseudonym, plus 14 short story collections and a handful of stage plays, including the London West End’s longest running show, The Mousetrap. Guinness World Records cites her as the bestselling fiction writer of all time as well as the most translated author (7,236 translations as of 2017). Her work has sold more than a billion copies in English and a billion copies total in other languages, according to Agatha Christie Ltd., which the author set up in 1955 to manage her literary and media rights. And Christie’s stories have spawned dozens of film and movie adaptations, including October’s Death on the Nile, directed by Kenneth Branagh.
This year is the 100th anniversary of Christie’s debut, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the book that introduced Hercule Poirot—or, as an ad that ran in the Nov. 6, 1920, issue of PW called him, “a new type of detective in the shape of a Belgian.” Poirot and a later Christie creation, amateur sleuth Miss Marple of fictional St. Mary’s Mead, became household names, and even a global pandemic can’t stop the grand doyenne of crime fiction. “We’re selling more than usual, even though many bookshops are closed,” says James Prichard, who is chairman and CEO of Agatha Christie Ltd. and Christie’s great-grandson. “People return to beloved childhood books in times of crisis. There’s a sense of justice in her books, and you know that things will be tied up at the end, which is reassuring.”
Christie’s fiendish puzzles, thrilling denouements, and bucolic-but-ominous settings have inspired generations of crime fiction writers. PW spoke with authors of forthcoming mysteries about her outsize influence on the genre.
The ABCs of murder
Mystery tropes that now seem inextricably baked into the category first became popular in Christie’s books. Her two main protagonists—the eccentric, Continental, dandyish Poirot, and the mild-mannered maven of human nature Marple—cemented the idea of oddball investigators in an era of mysteries solved by hard-bitten police professionals. Her cozy, pastoral settings whose few inhabitants exhibit the full range of human motivation—rage, jealousy, greed, fear—popularized the limited suspect pool. In book after book, she crafted puzzles that seem to have no humanly possible solutions, leaving readers guessing at supernatural causes. These are then solved, brilliantly, with clues that incredulous readers now see were there all along.
Many Christie fans started reading her early and were hooked for life. Some of these introductions were more dramatic than others. “I had a family member who had worked in Hollywood, who arranged for the world film premiere of Murder Most Foul to screen in our village,” says Martin Edwards, who in Mortmain Hall (Poisoned Pen, Sept.) “impressively channels Agatha Christie,” PW’s starred review said. “[Marple portrayer] Margaret Rutherford opened the event and arrived by helicopter, which made a big impression on an eight-year-old boy. I went home and found that my grandmother had many Christie books. I read Murder at the Vicarage and decided to become a detective novelist.”
Sophie Hannah, who writes the Christie-estate-sanctioned Poirot continuations—Morrow will release the fourth, The Killings at Kingfisher Hill, in September—was another young fan. “My father was a collector of secondhand books,” she says, “and he brought home a copy of The Body in the Library from a book fair. I had read all of Christie’s books by the time I was 14. Her prose style is very clear, crisp, and simple; you don’t feel as if you’re reading a book that’s too complicated or grown up. She’s a brilliant storyteller, and her books are incredibly gripping and entertaining and enthralling.”
Christie never talks down to the reader, her murders happen off page (the most common method is decorous, bloodless poison), and her protagonists, Marple and Poirot, are charmingly devoid of ulterior motives. “So much of the current crime fiction market is so gory, or are psychological thrillers,” says R.V. Raman (A Will to Kill, Agora, Oct.).“Not everyone is in love with antiheroes. It’s good to have a hero who is outstanding and honest.”
Christie’s fans appreciate that she is “scrupulously fair to the reader,” as Anthony Horowitz (Moonflower Murders, Harper, Nov.) puts it. “The joy of a Christie novel is that whether or not you solve it as you read, at the end of the book, all the clues were there in plain sight.”
Much like her books’ culprits, Christie was not what she appeared to be. “I have a view that people imagine her born old—almost a Miss Marple figure,” Prichard says. “But she was an incredibly active, adventurous, pioneering young woman who was interested in a lot of things. She surfed, and traveled, and was interested in learning.” And on one memorable occasion, she lived out a mystery just like one of those in her books.
In August 1926, Christie’s husband, a dashing WWI aviator, asked for a divorce in order to marry another woman. That December, Christie disappeared. Her car was found parked on the edge of a cliff with her clothing and other personal items inside. After 10 days and a countrywide manhunt, she was found living in a resort hotel registered under her husband’s mistress’s surname. She said she had no memory of how she had come to be there, or of the intervening time—a claim she stuck with for the rest of her days.
Marie Benedict’s The Mystery of Mrs. Christie (Sourcebooks Landmark, Jan. 2021) suggests one possible occupation during those missing days: hands-on research. Christie had just published The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which introduced the concept of an unreliable narrator to crime fiction, and her career was on the rise. Could she have been holed up, watching a real-life mystery play out? Was this a sly way of testing out a real-life large-scale police investigation? “Why would we think that this woman who is the most masterful plotter of all time would have done anything but plotted this disappearance?” Benedict asks. “She was writing herself back into her own narrative.”
After the funeral
Christie wrote during what came to be called the golden age of detective fiction, and her cohort included other big names of the day—Raymond Chandler, G.K. Chesterton, and Dorothy L. Sayers. But none of them have enjoyed either her level of commercial success or the loyal adoration of her readers. One hundred years later, what accounts for her continued popularity?
“Her books never get boring,” says Alex Pavesi (The Eighth Detective, Holt, Aug.). “You can read 50 and still enjoy reading the 51st. She is very clearly associated with the time between the wars, the last days of a certain type of British society. That nostalgia is part of the enduring appeal.”
There’s also a universality to Christie’s settings, her characters, and her villains’ motives, several authors noted. “All the themes and emotions she writes about—like hate, and envy, and inferiority complexes—are as universal now as they were when she wrote them,” Hannah says. “Her fundamental interests are human nature and human psychology: what makes people behave the way that they do?”
Murder, it would appear, knows no borders. “Her characters are very recognizable human types,” Edwards says. “If you live in India, China, Brazil, New Zealand, anywhere, you can recognize the type of character she’s talking about.”
And what strong characters they are, Horowitz says. “There’s a danger in some murder mystery books of losing humanity for the sake of the puzzle; the puzzle becomes so complicated that the engineering required to make it work renders the characters irrelevant. She never did that. The mechanism of the murder is ingenious. But what people love are the characters.”
Popularity at this level becomes self-fulfilling, and community necessarily forms around it; you can’t swing a dagger without hitting a Christie fan. “The first time I came to America for a mystery conference, I bonded on the airport bus with an Italian woman,” says Ovidia Yu (The Mimosa Tree Mystery, Constable, Sept.), who is Singaporean. “We talked the whole ride. We had nothing in common except Agatha Christie, although we’d read her in different languages on opposite sides of the world.”
Horowitz found Christie’s books everywhere. “I was 19 years old, traveling back from Australia to London overland, staying in youth hostels in all these different countries,” he says. “All the hostels had Agatha Christie books on the shelves in the lounges. I would pick one up, read it, switch it at the next place. I was even able to read in situ: Murder on the Orient Express in Istanbul, Death on the Nile in Egypt.”
In addition to being enthrallingly plotted, Christie’s books are just plain satisfying to read, especially in difficult, unpredictable times. She introduces a limited number of suspects in a limited space, ties up all her loose ends, and brings perpetrators to justice.
“Christie speaks to the human condition,” says Hannah Dennison (Death at High Tide, Minotaur, Aug.). “She’s dealing with evil in the world, but at the end goodness always comes through. It gives you the sense that even though the world, especially now, is so full of injustice and darkness, things always come right.”
Below, more on Agatha Christie.
And Then There Were More: Agatha Christie’s Influence
Seven mystery writers discuss the debt they owe the Queen of Crime.