Much adapted, much copied, much parodied: Agatha Christie changed detective mysteries forever. Here Justine Brooks explains her love.
It was the 1980s when my parents told me we were moving to Cairo. I was 12 and my irritation at the prospect of another move in a long series was balanced out by a certain level of interest as I was harbouring vague ambitions of becoming an archaeologist.
We moved into an apartment in the Francophile suburb of Heliopolis: at the end of the street stood the legendary Chantilly bakery. The apartment was filled with Louis XVII-style furniture and our landlady, who smelled of roses, spoke to us in French. It was a little like living in a giant dolls’ house. With profiteroles.
In true expat community style my mother was invited for coffee and presented with information about how to get by in the city, along with a box of hand-me-down books. In it there were about 10 Agatha Christie novels.
Away from the bustle of this extraordinary new city, with its noisy, dusty streets and ridiculously ancient monuments, where frustrated taxi drivers overtook on the pavements, a giant 3,000-year-old statue of the god Ramses stood in a busy city square, and my mother kept warning me to watch out for pickpockets; where people laughed and pointed and called me ‘waleed’ (boy) for my short hair, I shut myself in my room, curled up on the antique bed, put on my Walkman (Culture Club, Michael Jackson and Madness) and started to read my first ever grown-up novel.
This first was, for obvious reasons, Death on the Nile. In one sitting, interrupted only by a grudging appearance at dinner, I devoured it, fascinated by its characters and intrigued to discover the murderer.
For the first time I met Hercule Poirot, the diminutive Belgian detective with his green eyes, patent leather shoes and upturned moustache, and his assistant Arthur Hastings (his John Watson). Poirot appeared in 33 of Christie’s novels and it is said she grew to loathe him, finally finishing him off in the novel Curtain, which she wrote in 1945, but kept locked in a safe until publication in 1975, just months before her own death. In contrast, it seems she was rather fond of the charming yet steely Miss Marple.
In Death on the Nile, or Murder on the Orient Express, another of my favourites (I prefer the exotic locations to the quaint English villages), Christie populates her whodunnit formula with brilliantly concise characterisations. Like the perfect party hostess, she ensures that the reader is properly introduced to each character, giving details that may or may not be clues, sparking a race to solve each crime before those characters are all gathered together, perhaps in the drawing room of some grand country house, for the murderer (or murderers) to be exposed and arrested.
The detective formula was by no means invented by Christie, but she did perfect it, penning all-time bestsellers such as the much emulated, parodied and reproduced And Then There Were None (hell, there’s even a Quahog version), The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The ABC Murders.
Christie’s influence can be seen in every TV whodunnit from Columbo (the bumbling Lieutenant takes much from Poirot) to Magnum (with a bit of role reversal and a lot more shouting) to Morse to Hawaii 5-0. It’s a formula that introduces tragedy and then gives it a happy ending.
Thanks to Agatha Christie’s magic formula, chaos is removed from the world and order returned.2624 Views
Justine lives in beautiful north Leeds with her 12-year-old daughter and a lurcher called Lionel. She runs a PR and marketing agency and is writing a novel.