Agatha Christie’s Crime de la Crime: Why The Mystery Queen Is Timeless
The Corona crisis is making us feel increasingly anxious about getting through a day and whether an apocalypse is waiting to happen tomorrow, or the day after. Following newsrooms and social media feeds through the day may not be the best ritual for your psychological health. Under the circumstances, a good read is an antidote as good as any to take your mind off all the stress. There are few genres which can keep you as hooked as crime fiction, and Dame Agatha Christie is perhaps its best exponent. Here’s a sneak peek into what makes her writing special and why you should get hold of the best of Hercule Poirot or Jane Marple, in case you have not done so already.
With over two billion books sold, The Guinness Book of World Records says that Agatha Christie is the best-selling author of all time. But that is hardly her greatest legacy. For a while it seemed that crime fiction, as a genre, could never come out of the shadow of the inimitable Sherlock Holmes. The cognitive brilliance, the comic idiosyncrasies and the ravenous energy in looking for clues that would escape the eyes of the blundering police force. The thing about dame Agatha was that she didn’t fundamentally go about changing the formula. She embellished them using her concept of the “psychological crime”.
Every whodunit was a study of human behaviour, exploring motives of crime and marrying intention with opportunity. The protagonist would think from the comfort of the armchair in deconstructing the crime rather than jump into the thick of things, magnifying glass in hand. Every time Hercule Poirot mutters: “But it is impossible, mon ami. How can it be so?” we are almost transported into the lives of the characters that Christie so brilliantly etched. Poirot still has a distinctive physical presence with his iconic moustaches, egg-shaped head and his “little grey cells” which he is fiercely proud of and uses to solve the most puzzling cases.
Every whodunit was a study of human behaviour, exploring motives of crime and marrying intention with opportunity.
Christie’s other major protagonist, the sweet old Jane Marple presents a contrasting personality. She lives a rather nondescript life in the equally unremarkable village of St Mary Mead. Miss Marple never married, has few relatives, and never had to work for a living. She’s forever unassuming and enjoys her camouflage as a harmless old woman to wreak havoc when least expected. Like Poirot, she is hardly ever seen running on Red Bull and in fact very often a minor character who may not appear for the first half of the book, and when she does appear, could be seen wrapped in a pink fuzzy woollen shawl while doing her knitting. Where she and Poirot are unmistakably similar is in their ability to delve into the minds of people and interpret it with uncanny precision. They get people to talk and reveal themselves which then becomes the modus operandi of detection. The other similarity, often unexplored, is their compassion. Both bring an extraordinary combination of razor-sharp intellect and a generosity gene that makes the reader get a peek into their human side. Christie often casts Poirot in the role of “Papa Poirot”, a benign confessor, especially to young women. Miss Marple, similarly employs a selection of maids, all young women from the nearby orphanage, training them in her Victorian way. This makes their characters relatable and their personality endearing.
Where she and Poirot are unmistakably similar is in their ability to delve into the minds of people and interpret it with uncanny precision.
While Christie is best known for her gripping plots, delicate story development and, of course, the stunning ending, I believe it is the humanness of the principal characters that have created this kind of followership for Christie’s novels. Each of her most well-known novels (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder on Orient Express, And Then There Were None, Curtain, The Moving Finger, A Murder is Announced) is a heady cocktail of all these dimensions. Christie’s detectives can magically connect dots, weaving together what appears scattered and clarify things that seem hopelessly murky. They help keep the world honest and sane. Personalities that we could do with in the madness of a Corona world!