Overview of Agatha (Mary Clarissa) Christie Table of Contents:Essay
[Overview of the author's works and career.]
"Oh, I'm an incredible sausage machine," the late mystery writer Agatha Christie once jokingly claimed, speaking of her prolific output of novels, stories, and plays. Christie's many works have sold a phenomenal 2 billion copies—a record topped only by the Bible and William Shakespeare—and have been translated into 103 languages; her books still sell a reported 25 million copies a year. Her play The Mousetrap, originally written as a birthday gift for Queen Mary, is the longest running play in theatrical history. These staggering statistics testify to the enduring popularity of Christie's work. She remains, according to H. R. F. Keating in his article for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "a towering figure in the history of crime literature."
"I don't enjoy writing detective stories," Christie once told an interviewer. "I enjoy thinking of a detective story, planning it, but when the time comes to write it, it is like going to work every day, like having a job." Christie only began writing on a dare from her sister, who challenged her to "write a good detective story." Christie wrote one, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and in 1920 it was published by the English firm of Lane. Although the book only sold some two thousand copies and earned Christie seventy dollars, the publication encouraged her to continue writing mysteries. Throughout the 1920s she wrote them steadily, building a loyal following among mystery aficionados for her unfailingly clever plots.
It wasn't until the publication of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in 1926 that Christie's talent for deceptive mystery plotting caught the attention of the general reading public. The sheer audacity of the novel's plot resolution outraged, surprised, and delighted readers everywhere. "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, " wrote a New York Times reviewer, "cannot be too highly praised for its clean-cut construction, its unusually plausible explanation at the end, and its ability to stimulate the analytical faculties of the reader." "The secret [of this novel] is more than usually original and ingenious," a Nation reviewer thought, "and is a device which no other writer could have employed without mishap." William Rose Benet of Saturday Review recommended that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd "should go on the shelf with the books of first rank in its field. The detective story pure and simple has as definite limitations of form as the sonnet in poetry. Within these limitations, with admirable structured art, Miss Christie has genuinely achieved." Writing in Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story, Howard Haycraft judged the book "a tour de force in every sense of the word and one of the true classics of the literature."
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd proved to be the first in a long string of superlative and highly original mystery novels that made Christie's name synonymous with the mystery story. Such books as The A. B. C. Murders, Ten Little Indians, and Murder on the Orient Express have been especially singled out by critics as among the best of Christie's work and, indeed, among the finest novels to have been written in the mystery genre. "These books," Anthony Lejeune of Spectator believed, "are famous because each of them turns on a piece of misdirection and a solution which, in their day, were startlingly innovatory."
The best of Christie's novels are intricate puzzles presented in such a way as to misdirect the reader's attention away from the most important clues. The solution of the puzzle is invariably startling, although entirely logical and consistent with the rest of the story. "Agatha Christie at her best," Francis Wyndham of the Times Literary Supplement stated, "writes animated algebra. She dares us to solve a basic equation buried beneath a proliferation of irrelevancies. By the last page, everything should have been eliminated except for the motive and identity of the murderer; the elaborate working-out, apparently too complicated to grasp, is suddenly reduced to satisfactory simplicity. The effect is one of comfortable catharsis."
"As the genre's undisputed queen of the maze," a Time critic wrote, "Christie laid her tantalizing plots so precisely and dropped her false leads so cunningly that few—if any—readers could guess the identity of the villain." Reviewing The A. B. C. Murders for Spectator, Nicholas Blake expressed a quite common response to a Christie mystery: "One can only chalk up yet another defeat at [Christie's] hands and admit sadly that she has led one up the garden path with her usual blend of duplicity and fairness." Speaking of Ten Little Indians, Ralph Partridge of New Statesman gave a similar appraisal: "Apart from one little dubious proceeding there is no cheating; the reader is just bamboozled in a straightforward way from first to last. To show her utter superiority over our deductive faculty, from time to time Mrs. Christie even allows us to know what every character present is thinking and still we can't guess!"
Christie's ability to construct a baffling puzzle was, Emma Lathen wrote in Agatha Christie: First Lady of Crime, the strongest aspect of her writing. "Friend and foe alike," Lathen stated, "bow to the queen of the puzzle. Every Christie plot resolution had been hailed as a masterpiece of sleight-of-hand; she herself as a virtuoso of subterfuge." Julian Symons echoed this judgment in his contribution to Agatha Christie: First Lady of Crime: "Agatha Christie's claim to supremacy among the classical detective story writers of her time rests on her originality in constructing puzzles. This was her supreme skill.... Although the detective story is ephemeral literature, the puzzle which it embodies has a permanent appeal.... If her work survives it will be because she was the supreme mistress of a magical skill that is a permanent, although often secret, concern of humanity: the construction and the solution of puzzles."
Over the fifty years of Christie's writing career, other factors have been suggested for the phenomenal popularity of her books. Lejeune cited three primary factors: "The texture of her writing; a texture smooth and homely as cream, ... the ability to buttonhole a reader, to make (as Raymond Chandler put it) `each page throw the hook for the next,' ... [and] the quality of cosiness." A Times Literary Supplement reviewer offered the view that Christie "never excluded any characters from possible revelation as murderers, not the sweet young girl, the charming youth, the wise old man, not even the dear old lady."
Another important factor in Christie's popularity must lie in her ability to create charming and enduring detective characters. Undoubtedly her most popular detective has been Hercule Poirot, an eccentric and amusingly pompous Belgian detective who Christie described in The Mysterious Affair at Styles as "an extraordinary-looking little man. He was hardly more than five feet, four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg. His moustache was very still and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible. I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound."
According to David J. Grossvogel in Mystery and Its Fictions: From Oedipus to Agatha Christie, Christie "was aware of the faintly ridiculous figure cut by Poirot when she baptized him. She named him after a vegetable—the leek (poireau, which also means a wart, in French)—to which she opposed the (barely) Christian name Hercule, in such a way that each name would cast ridicule on the other." Grossvogel saw this bit of absurdity as essential to Poirot's success as a character. He believed that, in order to maintain the tension in a mystery story, there must be some doubt as to the detective's ability to solve the crime. Because Poirot is often "patronizingly dismissed" by other characters, his eventual solution of the crime is that much more entertaining. "Part of the artificial surprise of the detective story," Grossvogel observed, "is contained within the detective who triumphs, as he brings the action to a close, even over his own shortcomings."
"Few fictional sleuths," wrote Howard Haycraft, "can surpass the amazing little Belgian—with his waxed moustache and egg-shaped head, his inflated confidence in the infallibility of his `little grey cells,' his murderous attacks on the English language—either for individuality or ingenuity." "Poirot," Lejeune explained, "like a survivor from an almost extinct race of giants, is one of the last of the Great Detectives: and the mention of his name should be enough to remind us of how much pleasure Agatha Christie gave millions of people over the past fifty years."
Poirot's illustrious career came to an end in Curtain: Hercule Poirot's Last Case, published shortly before Christie's death. Written just after World War II and secreted in a bank vault, the book was originally intended to be posthumously published, but Christie decided to enjoy the ending of Poirot's career herself and published the book early. "Curtain, " wrote Peter Prescott of Newsweek, "is one of Christie's most ingenious stories, a tour de force in which the lady who had bent all the rules of the genre before bends them yet again." John Heideury of Commonweal expressed the usual bafflement when confronted with a Christie mystery: "On page 35 I had guessed the identity of the murderer, by the next page knew the victim, and on page 112 deduced the motive. (On page 41 I had changed my mind and reversed murderer and victim, but on page 69 returned steadfast to my original position.) ... I was wrong on all counts at book's end."
Christie's own favorite among her detectives was Miss Jane Marple, a spinster who lives in a small town in the English countryside. "Both Poirot and Miss Marple," wrote Ralph Tyler inSaturday Review, "are made a little bit absurd, so that we do not begrudge them their astuteness." In Agatha Christie: First Lady of Crime, Julian Symons gave Christie's own views of her two famous detectives: "Miss Marple, she said, was more fun [than Poirot], and like many aunts and grandmothers was `a splendid natural detective when it comes to observing human nature.'" In contrast to Poirot, a professional detective who attributes his successes to the use of his "little grey cells," Miss Marple is an amateur crime solver who often "owes her success," Margot Peters and Agate Nesaule Krouse wrote inSouthwest Review, "to intuition and nosiness. Operating on the theory that human nature is universal, she ferrets out the criminal by his resemblance to someone she has known in her native village of St. Mary Mead, since her knowledge of life extends little farther."
Despite what they see as Christie's sexist portrayal of female characters, Peters and Krouse concluded that "Christie is not as sexist" as some other female mystery writers. Miss Marple, for example, is "self- sufficient, possessing a zest for life depending in no way on a man's support or approval." Some observers compared Miss Marple to Christie herself, but Christie rejected the idea. "I don't have Jane Marple's guilty- till-proven-innocent attitude," she said. "But, like Jane, I don't accept surface appearances."
While her mystery novels featuring Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple have enjoyed tremendous success and established Christie as the most widely-read mystery writer of all time, her relatively small output of plays has set equally impressive records. She is the only playwright to have had three plays running simultaneously on London's West End while another of her plays was running on Broadway. Christie's The Mousetrap holds the singular distinction of being the longest-running play in theatrical history. It has been translated into 22 languages, performed in 44 countries, and seen by an estimated eight million people. Despite the success of the work, Christie received no royalties for it. She gave the rights to her 9-year-old grandson when the play first opened in 1952. The grandson, it is estimated, has since earned well over fifteen million pounds from his grandmother's gift.
Any evaluation of Christie's career must take into account the enormous influence she had on the mystery genre. Lejeune pointed out that the secret to Christie's success lies "partly in her plots.... If they seem hackneyed or contrived now or even too easily guessable, that is precisely because they left so permanent an impression on the detective story genre." "I strongly suspect," Anthony Boucher declared, "that future scholars of the simon-pure detective novel will hold that its greatest practitioner ... has been Agatha Christie."
Upon Christie's death in 1976, Max Lowenthal of the New York Times offered this summary of her work: "Dame Agatha's forte was supremely adroit plotting and sharp, believable characterization (even the names she used usually rang true). Her style and rhetoric were not remarkable; her writing was almost invariably sound and workmanlike, without pretense or flourish. Her characters were likely to be of the middle-middle class or upper-middle class, and there were certain archetypes, such as the crass American or the stuffy retired army officer now in his anecdotage. However familiar all this might be, the reader would turn the pages mesmerized as unexpected twist piled on unexpected twist until, in the end, he was taken by surprise. There was simply no outguessing Poirot or Miss Marple—or Agatha Christie."