Is Agatha Christie really that good?

This picture taken in March 1946 shows English writer Agatha Christie, in her home, Greenway House, in Devonshire. Around 4 billion copies of her more than 100 books and short story collections have been sold since her book titled Mysterious Affair at Styles was published in 1920.Picture: AFP

Sunday, October 3, 2010

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. Comedian 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 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 4 billion 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 in south-west England, 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 London's West End, still counting). 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.

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." 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.

Guardian


Feel free to comment on this article using your Facebook account. By submitting your comment, you agree to the Terms and Conditions for the use of this comments feature, as stated here.