I was digging through my old blog posts and was shocked to discover that I’ve never written more than a passing reference to Agatha Christie. This is unacceptable as she is my favorite author. I own every book she’s ever written and have read most of them. If you aren’t familiar with her work it’s time you got an education. (And I don’t mean that Carey Mulligan movie. More on the Oscar nominations in a future post.)
Agatha Christie is one of the most prolific and popular mystery writers in history. In her lifetime she penned 80 novels, 20 collections of short stories and a half-dozen original plays. Her books have been translated into 56 languages and she has only been outsold by one other book – the Bible. She passed away in 1976 at the age of 85.
What she is known for is detailed character studies – she was often more fascinated with the psychology of the murderer than the crime itself. But her plots were generally woven in a careful and intricate manner. Christie wasn’t an author that needed to rely on a twist ending (OK, maybe twice) – all the pieces were there for the reader. Piecing them together is the challenge (and the joy) of reading her books.
Along the way she established a few famous detectives but only two really held the interest of her readers over the years. Hercule Poirot, the round Belgian investigator appeared in her very first novel, A Mysterious Affair at Styles and would carry through her work for decades. Eventually Christie grew tired of writing about Poirot, but she kept him in many books to soothe public demand. Her other famous sleuth was the mild-mannered spinster Miss Marple, from St. Mary Mead. Marple appeared in a dozen books and many short stories.
If you’ve never read any of Christie’s books, you might be wondering – where to start? A fine question – I’m here to help. Below is a list of a few books that I think are a good place to get started – some of Christie’s best to introduce you to her work. When in doubt – stick to the work in the 1930s to mid-1940s. After that the quality became more sporadic.
- The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – The closest Christie ever got to a twist ending, this was the Poirot book that really got her noticed. Shocking in its dénouement, you’ll wonder why you didn’t see it coming.
- The Murder at the Vicarage – This is the first novel to feature Miss Marple and to my mind remains the best.
- The A.B.C. Murders – My favorite of the Poirot novels, this is the prototype for the serial killer genre so popular today.
- And Then There Were None – My all-time favorite Christie book. If you see the ending coming, I owe you $5.
Over the years there have been (far too) many attempts to adapt Agatha Chritie’s work for the stage and screen with varying degrees of success. Christie did all writing for the original plays and adapted plays herself and the greatest by far has been The Mousetrap. It is, in fact, the longest running play in history – still going on London’s West End today after 57 years.
Amongst the movie adaptations, a few were truly successful. And Then There Were None came out in 1945 and wins my personal award for Most Faithful to the Original Text. Later versions would alter the location or the ending in ways that were not great. The most famous film was 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot. Although it moved away from the original book slightly, it was still well-done and exciting, featuring a host of famous actors including Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave and Maggie Smith. It went on to be nominated for six Academy Awards and took home one of them – Ingrid Bergman for Best Supporting Actress.
After that the idea of doing a star-studded adaptation was in vogue, but the results got worse year after year. Soon they moved to TV movies which went from really bad to pretty good. Perhaps the best was Thirteen at Dinner starring Peter Ustinov as Poirot and Faye Dunaway as a famous actress.
Far better results came from (no surprise) the BBC which launched two successful TV series based on Christie’s books – Agatha Christie’s Poirot starring David Suchet and Miss Marple starring Joan Hickson. Later attempts have dipped into ludicrous territory – putting detectives in stories they never belonged in and changing major details along the way. (This transgression made its way into later episodes of the Poirot series also.)
And that’s a brief introduction to the wonderful world of Agatha Christie. I hope you’ll check out her work – it’s some of the most fun and quick reading you can get. Enjoy!