The works of Dame Agatha Christie are still a part of popular culture. In a writing career lasting more than 55 years, she wrote 72 novels (66 mystery novels and 6 romance novels) and 15 short story collections—a body of work that remains unparalleled in any genre, except perhaps by Stephen King.
What made Agatha Christie’s stories stand out?
What made her stories stand out were, of course, the characters. She created memorable and dignified characters which any class of readers could relate to. Her most memorable and popular characters, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, are great examples of her skill to develop “high society” characters with mainstream appeal.
Agatha’s novel, “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” (published in 1920) introduced the character Hercule Poirot. Poirot, a Belgian private investigator, appeared in thirty-three novels, one play, and over 50 short stories from 1920 to 1975. Miss Marple, an elderly woman who used her amateur sleuthing skills to solve crimes, appeared in 12 of Agatha’s mystery crime novels and 22 short stories. Miss Marple often worked beside Poirot on tough crime cases.
Agatha regularly looked for “creative inspiration” by studying the people around her; however, her chosen genre, the murder mystery, stunted her writing process because it was difficult at times to put reality into fictional environments; for example, she sometimes had trouble using attributes of acquaintences to do things she couldn’t imagine them doing, like murder, and this often caused writer’s block. To overcome this obstacle, she would develop many characters from scratch. She would note physical appearances of strangers whom she saw and met in public and then would use their likeness and subtle mannerisms to develop relatable characters for her mysteries.
Agatha completed her first novel, “Snow Upon the Desert” in 1911 or 1912. She shopped it around to many publishers, only to receive rejection after rejection. Her first novel was never published. Her second novel, “The Mysterious Affair at Styles,” completed in 1919, was published several months later by The Bodley Head, an independent English publishing house.
What was Agatha good at?
Agatha was adept at combining period subject matter with delicate story development, creative plot structure, and psychology. This is evident in her novel, Curtain, her brilliant finale. Written long before her death and placed in a bank safe with instructions to be published only after her demise, Curtain is a masterpiece that utilizes the best of her talents.
The full title, “Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case” was written in 1941, thirty-five years before Agatha’s death. It was published for the first time in 1975, right before Agatha died in 1976. Her final Poirot novel, “Elephants Can Remember,” was released in 1972, succeeded by her last novel, “Postern of Fate” in 1973, after which she could no longer write due to illness. “Curtain” finally brings the Poirot character to a close—Agatha finally “kills him off.”
A common thread in many of Agatha’s novels was to develop a psychological struggle and to use topical references and brilliant characters who appeared to be crossing a stage. Her stories felt that way, as if you were sitting in an audience watching the most elegant play unfold before you. It’s not surprising that films and TV shows based directly on her works were filled with great actors playing crusty and snooty, yet relatable, desperate characters.
Guinness Book of World Records recognizes Agatha Christie as the best-selling novelist of all time. Her novels, collectively, have sold more than 4 billion copies. Her best-selling mystery novel of all time is “And Then There Were None,” which has sold over 100 million copies. Agatha is also the most translated individual author. Her novels have been translated into over 100 languages.
To avoid stagnation, Agatha developed a habit of writing more than one book at a time. Despite being raised by an affluent upper-class family in England, her language was always simple, using a writing style that every reader could understand and enjoy. Although simple in style, her intriguing plots and sub-plots challenged readers to figure out “who done it” before the story ended. Agatha cleverly paced material, allowing readers to move through stories at a steady or slow pace that enhanced the drama. She relied heavily on dialogue, a technique to vary the pacing of the story as well as to heighten suspense. The beginnings of her works are strong on description, which gradually drop off as dialogue and interaction between characters take over. With shorter sentences and sharp dialogue, she hurries readers along to what’s always a captivating conclusion.
Agatha preferred to plot her crime stories from the murder itself. First, she would plan out the mode of murder, the killer, and the purpose. Second, she would factor in the various suspects and their own intents. Third, she would concoct potential clues and diversionary tactics to pull readers in different directions. She restrained herself from including excessive misleading clues because it would stifle the plot.
Agatha devised her mysteries with intricate deceptions to manipulate readers’ thoughts and feelings and to make it more difficult for readers to solve the main mystery. She often used the same story-development formula for many of her crime novels: the main character—a detective or private investigator—either discovers the murder or a past friend, somehow associated with the murder, contacts the main character for help. As the story unfolds, the main character questions every suspect, investigates the location of the crime, and carefully jots down each clue, allowing
readers to scrutinize the clue and try to solve the mystery on their own. Just as readers build up clues and think they know who might have comitted the murder, Agatha kills off one or a few main suspects, leaving readers shocked and confused that they were wrong about the murderer’s identity. Eventually the main character gathers all of the remaining suspects at one location and reprimands the culprit, revealing numerous unconnected secrets along the way, usually lasting 20-30 pages.
Agatha Christie: An Autobiography contains her memoirs and her reflections on life, including her writing career. It is believed she began writing her autobiography in 1950 and eventually completed it in 1965. In 2012, U.S. publisher William Morrow Paperbacks re-published her 570-page autobiography as a “reprint edition.” It is available at Amazon.com.
It’s not a coincidence that Agatha’s most famous protagonist, Hercule Poirot, constantly referred to his approach to solving mysteries as using his “little gray cells,” a reference to his brain. Similarly, Agatha applied her “little gray cells” to the written page. She was an exceptionally smart and gifted writer, deftly combining sharp structure with a psychological spin that still feels fresh today. She refused to write down to her readers, but instead invited all types of readers into her stories. She left a library of work that’s both intelligent and timeless. A reader can pick up a book published decades ago and not feel any passage of time. Murder and good writing—a combination that made the “Queen of Crime” one of the best writers in history.