How to write the perfect crime, according to Agatha Christie - Jamie Bernthal
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Hercule Poirot, Christie’s most famous detective, was introduced in The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), a country house mystery written and set during World War I. Drawing on her own experience as an expert chemist and volunteer nurse during the war, Christie included a particularly fiendish plot device based on the chemical properties of arsenic. The book was published to glowing reviews but, as her autobiography shows, she was proudest of one from the Pharmaceutical Journal, praising her chemical accuracy.
Poirot is an iconic detective because he is easily recognizable: even by 1945, when he starred in his own American radio series, the announcers knew they only needed to mention a “bowling hat and magnificent moustache” to leave listeners in no doubt as to who they were about to hear from. He is more than flamboyant facial hair, though: a Belgian refugee who makes his home in England, he is eccentrically ‘other’ to the people he investigates, and allows us to see the upper and middle British classes as strange and alien through his eyes.
In 1928, Christie introduced her second most beloved detective, Miss Jane Marple, a demure elderly woman who has spent her entire life in a small village but knows more about human nature than anyone else. This knowledge, gained through close observation and gossip, helps her solve mysteries: Marple’s thesis is that there are only so many types of people in the world, and she can read people because she has seen the type before, albeit in a different context. Marple is also unmarried, which some scholars have linked with the larger number of women than men in Britain following World War I, and the idea that war had offered women more opportunities to carve out lives for themselves independent of husbands, since women had taken over traditionally masculine jobs while men were fighting on the front line.
Despite the psychological interest in her detectives, though, Christie is best known as a master plotter, who was able to baffle readers with elaborate but fairly clued mysteries. She made her name with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), the twist to which caused something of a public debate because a character readers traditionally would never suspect is revealed to be the killer: some say this is cheating, while others say all the clues are in place.
Her celebrity was cemented the same year The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was published, when an eleven-day disappearance sparked headlines around the world and thousands of volunteers turned detective, seeking to recover the missing novelist. She was found in a spa hotel, suffering from memory loss, and the incident has inspired countless readers and writers to look for mystery in the ultimate mystery writer’s life.
Christie didn’t just write books; she also wrote scripts for the stage, screen, and radio. The most famous of these is undeniably The Mousetrap (1952), a play that opened in London’s West End in November 1952 and is still running today. With the longest theatrical run of all time, it, too, features a twist ending.
Despite the twists, however, the “who” was not the foremost question for Christie. Scholar John Curran has published Christie’s notebooks, revealing that she often changed the identity of the murderer even as she plotted: the setting, or the method of murder usually came first. So, while we associate Christie with “whodunnits”, her novels are more than that.
Most people agree that Christie was excellent at crafting mysteries, but whether she was a good writer is sometimes a topic of debate, especially among writers. As far back as the 1940s, Raymond Chandler was declaring that literary murders should be brought onto the “mean streets”, like in real life, not genteel upper-middle-class settings, while W.H. Auden defended classical detective stories as important registers of contemporary ethics.
The debate continues in the twenty-first century, with some writers declaring Christie “a genius” and others stating that “she doesn’t stack up against great writers”. Whether you consider her a maestro or a crowd-pleaser, though, the continued success of Agatha Christie shows that hers is a legacy most writers could only dream of.
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