2022 has seen the Queen of Crime return from the dead. Martin Mullaney explores Agatha Christie mania.
2022 has, thus far, seen the release of both Death on the Nile, Kenneth Branagh’s star-studded Poirot adaptation, and See How They Run, a satirical send-up of the whodunnit centred around Agatha Christie’s famously unfilmable play, The Mousetrap. Lucy Worsley’s new biography of the author, which claims to have finally solved the real-life mystery of her much-publicised disappearance for 11 days in 1926, has seen commercial success and critical praise, as has Marple, a collection of twelve new stories about the unlikely detective. Before the year is over, the long-awaited sequel to Knives Out, the acclaimed Christie homage-cum-deconstruction, will come to Netflix. All of this begs the question: has Agatha Christie mania resurfaced, or did it ever really leave?
It doesn’t take much exercise of the little grey cells to realise that Christie’s work has been shaping culture for decades. Her well-worn tableaus of picturesque English villages beset by grisly murders, or opulent parlours in which an eclectic cast of suspects have been assembled, have become genre-defining. Her books have been no stranger to film and television translations either, with multiple popular series devoted to Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, not to mention a string of both TV and Hollywood movies. It should hardly come as a surprise that, in a film landscape where every picture seems expected to produce a gaggle of sequels and spin-offs, one of the most enduring and popular detective characters in fiction, with a bottomless catalogue of stories ripe for adaptation, should find himself the hero of one such franchise.
The Queen of Crime’s media influence can be seen as self-propagating. With each new work inspired by, and necessarily using the tropes of, her original stories, those story elements become more and more ubiquitous. Thus, not only do we have a series of adaptations of Christie’s own work, but an ever-growing list of inspired stories, be they imitations, homages, or even parodies. In other words, a fairly straight line can be drawn from The Moving Finger to Midsomer Murders to Family Guy’s And Then There Were Fewer. Make of that what you will. It is no wonder, then, that come 2022, in which the world is more interconnected and media more accessible than ever before, that Agatha Christie’s influence can truly be felt.
What, however, has made her novels so impactful to begin with? One factor is certainly her writing style. Christie doesn’t mince words, nor does she waste them. Her novels manage to feel laser-focused, yet richly inhabited. Even in her most tedious works (The Mystery of the Blue Train comes to mind, though it certainly was fighting a losing battle as a train-themed Agatha Christie mystery), her economical yet gripping style never lets the reader become truly bored.
This is emblematic of another strength that has kept Christie’s works in the zeitgeist: their consistency. Some may be weaker than others, but her books carry with them a general expectation as to the standard of writing, and, for the most part, meet or exceed it. The plots are, as many a detractor has pointed out, often consistent to a fault as well, as a list of suspects, predictably replete with affable former army men and efficient yet jealous secretaries, are carefully interviewed by the irreproachable protagonist, until the guilty party is finally revealed in a dramatic denouement. People will enjoy Poirot stories for many of the same reasons that they might enjoy a Batman comic: a hero with a set of simple, well-defined characteristics is plunged into a (albeit often superficially) new situation and must save the day. The static nature of such a hero, however, means that they can never have themselves or their worldview challenged, especially thought-provoking when it comes to Christie’s novels, where the murderers, suspects, detectives, and their friends, are almost exclusively upper class.
Poorer, uneducated people typically only exist in her novels as quickly discarded suspects, or fonts of exposition with interminable, phonetically articulated accents (Christie’s dialogue was, even her most ardent fans will admit, not her strongest suit). The world inhabited by Christie’s characters is, broadly, one in which wider social problems are ignored for the simple pleasure of solving a mystery, for good or for ill. That said, it is this consistency, both in terms of surface-level plot points and deeper subtextual issues, that makes the novels both break the mould and offer something unique. Be it in terms of plot (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd) or theme (Murder on the Orient Express) or both (And Then There Were None), they are always so very special.
So, whether you’re the kind of reader who likes to wait for the surprise, or the kind who pieces the clues together as they go along (or, in the case of Ackroyd, lie and pretend to have done so after the reveal), there will be, if this year is any indication, plenty more Agatha Christie to come.