More than 40 years since her death, Agatha Christie, the Queen of Mystery, remains one of the most beloved authors of all time. Her long career includes more than 80 novels, short story collections, and plays.
Christie’s books have been sold more than a billion times in English and a billion in translation in 100 languages. They are outsold by only the Bible and Shakespeare. Her writing has been adapted for the screen numerous times and on November 10, a new version of her novel “Murder on the Orient Express,” starring Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp, Judy Dench, and Michelle Pfeiffer, opens in theaters. In a time when reading seems to be almost passé, why are so many still reading Agatha Christie’s novels?
In her recent essay, “Why Mystery Stories Are the Cure for What Ails Us All,” Angelina Stanford argues that readers continue to get lost in mystery novels because they provide a sense of order in the midst of our troubled world. Christie’s stories have provided justice and meaning for audiences since her first readers discovered her detective tales right after World War I.
We all need something to escape into “at a time when everything seems to be spinning out of control, where randomness and chaos and unpredictability reign, a mystery novel offers its readers the great comfort of a predictable pattern—one that we deeply long for even while we are tempted to mock it. The reader knows the author will present all the relevant facts at the beginning of the story and withhold nothing from the reader.”
Perhaps this is why the crime drama is reinvented every fall on network television. In an hour we can see from beginning to end the discovery of the evil deeds to the sentencing of judgment that provides justice. In that way, a good mystery provides what our soul is longing for: good to conquer evil. Christie’s writing does this for the reader, with an enjoyable journey to the satisfying ending.
Pay Attention Or You’ll Miss the Clues
Christie accomplishes this with straightforward, accessible prose. Her descriptions of characters are superb, and her plots are engaging as a reader tries to sort out the trail of clues she leaves along the way. Although some critics have snubbed Christie’s work for being too prolific and simplistic, she provides plenty worth a reader’s time.
In our distracted digital age, a Christie novel demands that readers pay attention and think. The trail of clues is an antidote of sorts for our self-imposed attention deficit. The careful consideration of every character as a suspect forces us to examine personalities and motives helping us pay better attention to the people around us. The answer to the mystery may be elusive until the solution is given to us, but that’s part of the fun. Christie believed that to “be part of something one doesn’t in the least understand is, I think, one of the most intriguing things about life.”
Christie’s wonder at the world led her to traverse the globe to many foreign lands. She went solo on her first Orient Express journey, but after meeting her second husband in the Middle East at an archeological dig, she traveled that route again many times with him. She left her English home for faraway places like Hawaii, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Iraq, and Syria. Her adventures provided much inspiration for her stories—not just “Murder on the Orient Express.”
But everyday life gave Christie plenty of fodder for her stories too. Her idea for a murder using poison came from her time working at a pharmacy during the war. Another story idea came when she overheard a conversation at a tea shop. In her autobiography, Christie wrote, “Plots come to me at such odd moments, when I am walking along the street, or examining a hat shop…suddenly a splendid idea comes into my head.” One of her most famous characters, the beloved detective Hercule Poirot of “Murder on the Orient Express,” was inspired by Belgian refugees who spent the war in the English countryside.
The Singular Hercule Poirot
Poirot became famous in his own right. Known for his very well-groomed, upward-curled mustache, he makes up for his small stature with a personality and reputation that precedes him. Always concerned with the psychology behind his cases, he wants to find out who had the will to commit the murder, not just who had the motive. Every clue intrigues him, and every person is a suspect.
Christie wrote more than 30 novels and short story collections featuring Poirot as the detective. He was so well-known and loved that when he died in her last novel featuring him, The New York Times gave him a full-page obituary. Christie’s final public appearance was in 1974, at the opening of Albert Finney’s performance as Poirot in “Murder on the Orient Express.” Christie thought it was a good adaptation but that “Poirot’s moustaches weren’t luxurious enough.”
In this year’s adaption of “Murder on the Orient Express,” Branagh took Poirot’s vanity seriously enough to spend nine months trying to grow “the most magnificent moustache in England,” just as Christie once described it. But “Murder on the Orient Express,” and the body of Christie’s work, isn’t just about a vain detective and his absurd facial hair.
When the Orient Express train is stranded in the middle of the Balkans due to a snow storm, detective Poirot finds himself investigating a unique murder case where all of the suspects and clues are contained within a small environment. In this setting, Christie examines personalities and human conditions. Christie forces readers to grapple with a deeper question of what justice is. In our day, when people are crying out for justice but defining it on a broad spectrum, “Murder on the Orient Express” is the sort of story we need to read and discuss from occasionally in lieu of more disheartening headlines.
Author John R. Erickson wrote, “We’ve all read novels and watched movies that didn’t find justice. What do we say about them? I would say they’re bad stories. They might succeed as history, journalism, or sociology, but they fail as stories.” Christie has given us exactly what we need: a good story that ends in order and justice.