Agatha Christie didn’t actually invent the murder mystery genre, but she may as well have done. No one before her had brought homicide so insidiously yet vividly into the sanctity of people’s homes. A vase of waxed flowers ever so slightly moved, a torn fragment of newsprint in an old suitcase, a picked rose, a terrier’s favourite tennis ball, a pot of salmon sandwich paste – the menace in Christie’s books could be coiled and lurking in the most quotidian of domestic objects.
The stories may have become clichéd, been routinely derided by literary arbiters and massively superseded in sophistication and style – but Christie’s mystery books remain deathless money-spinners. They have dated, but never go out of fashion. The Queen’s Jubilee production of Christie’s 60-year-old play The Mousetrap, which has just opened in Wellington, is an especially apt choice to help celebrate the monarchy. Both institutions are, on paper, long past their use-by date, yet both retain mass-market affection and fascination.
And like the royals, Christie’s oeuvre can take any amount of updating. Few entertainment franchises are cooler than television’s Dr Who, which devoted a whole episode to recreating, with the help of a giant wasp from outer-space borrowed and embellished from Christie’s 1935 novel Death in the Clouds, the mystery of Christie’s own 1926 disappearance after discovering her first husband was unfaithful. The Dr Who re-imagining of the still-unexplained vanishing act was scarcely less fanciful than many others that have been promulgated over the decades. Christie herself never explained. But as the Doctor noted in that homage programme, Christie’s books went on to outsell all other fiction, so living well is the best revenge for pestilential extraterrestrial insects and faithless husbands alike.
AS BIG AS THE BIBLE AND THE BARD
By most publishing-industry reckonings, Christie’s books are in the same bracket as the Bible and Shakespeare in terms of sustained global sales. In cinema their history has been patchy, but they have proved endless profit- and ratings-boosters for the BBC and ITV. Most of the Miss Marple books have been adapted and readapted since the 1970s, and longtime Poirot actor David Suchet last year predicted that the handful of Poirot stories not already made into tele-movies would be adapted in the next few years.
The more modern the adaptation, the more liberties have been taken: lesbian affairs, enslavement, drug addictions and other details Christie herself would not recognise. Most cheekily, ITV has given Miss Marple a fiancé who died in the war. But the basic whodunnit narratives Christie devised, in seemingly infinite guess-stumping variety, seem able to take any amount of updating. And as her body of work is regularly reconsidered by biographers and academics, with a recent resurgence of her reflective non-thriller books written as Mary Westmacott, it’s no longer considered sound to dismiss her as a read for the nana and grandad market. Christie was, slyly, an early social commentator.
Despite the superficial aura of an ordered British class system, cosily stocked with tea-drinking vicars, knitting spinsters, ingenuous debutantes and dashing rakes, the key to the stories’ success has always been a subversive underlining of the falseness and thinness of that societal veneer. Cruelty, brutality, long brooded-on secrets, sly poisonings, heartless parents and – not infrequently – even homicidal children populated these stories, the message being that the social order was not necessarily to be relied upon. “She was a tough old lady,” English thriller writer PD James has remarked. “She’s perhaps the only writer who would have a child a murderer, and quite happy to have a child murdered. Most of us would shy away from that.”
TO THE MANNER BORN
Born into a reasonably privileged family, Christie was, if measured by modern sensibilities, a bit of a snob, and although highly intelligent, was given to the occasional casually pejorative reference to ethnicity. Her very best-seller, And Then There Were None, was initially and even in 1939 controversially entitled Ten Little Niggers. She deplored the fuss about the namechange. Her books contain wince-inducing references to African and Jewish characters.
Yet her stories often had at their base a questioning of social oppression, fanaticism and prejudice. As biographer Laura Thompson catalogues, her books tackled the big social questions of the day, albeit without commentary from her. No one who read Taken at the Flood, The 4.50 From Paddington and A Murder Is Announced could help but consider that despite the prevailing “stiff upper lip/carry on” ethos, there were some war-afflicted people who kept secret terrible emotional disfigurement. One Two Buckle My Shoe, Destination and The Clocks raised unsettling possibilities about the stealth and purpose of some political activist movements. They Do It with Mirrors concerned social engineering and prisoner rehabilitation; The Third Girl drug culture.
“She did not draw attention to the fact that she was writing about these things,” Thompson says in Agatha Christie, an English Mystery. “Nor did she agree with much contemporary thinking, even though she engaged with it. She was still, at root, a late Victorian who believed in God and the human spirit rather than ‘ideas’.”
Christie stocked her books with impressions from a well-travelled life. Her second husband was a leading archaeologist with whom she spent much time on excavations in Iraq. With her first husband, she travelled the world, including to New Zealand, as part of a goodwill “Empire Tour” organised for advance promotion of the British Empire Exhibition of 1924. She wrote that she thought Wellington harbour was the most beautiful she had ever seen, and New Zealand the most beautiful country – although she did say that about a lot of places. However, the observations are given a degree of authenticity by her additional comment, “We were in Wellington on a perfect day, something which, I gathered from its inhabitants, seldom happened.”
NOT WITHOUT COLOUR
Her 1922 journals, recently annotated into Agatha Christie: The Grand Tour, contain more colour than she generally allowed herself in her novels. En route to Wellington by ship, she describes the retired major superintending the empire tour as by turns entertaining and congenial, but also “rude, overbearing, bullying, inconsiderate and mean in curiously small matters. “When he was going to be in a bad temper one always knew because he began to swell up slowly and go red in the face like a turkey cock.”
The major was a prototype for many a “type” in her books, the first of which had been published two years earlier. Although she enjoyed writing her puzzles, the fiction also enslaved her, to a degree, in that complications that arose from having both British and American earnings made it hard for her to stay even one step ahead of the taxman for most of her life. Christie spared little mercy even for her good guys. In later life, she admitted Poirot was a “creep” who had begun to irritate her. She killed him off – but allowed him to solve one last murder from his deathbed. But not even with his “little grey cells” could he have deduced that her stage play, The Mousetrap, a fun little story devised originally in the 1940s as an amusement for Queen Mary, would join her books as a record-beater – and reign for as long as Queen Elizabeth II.