Why are the novels of Agatha Christie still so popular?

Born on 15th September 1890 in Torquay, Devon, Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie (later to become Lady Mallowan, and a Dame) wrote a number of romance novels under the name Mary Westmacott, but it is her murder mysteries, particularly involving Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, for which she will always be remembered.

As The Independent newspaper once reported, Christie’s work is “…synonymous with the country house mystery, the landed gentry and Jazz Age good-time boys and girls whose ordered, privileged world is suddenly thrown into disarray by the fly in the ointment of a rather awkward corpse found in the library, or on the croquet lawn.”

If you ask her legions of fans why her work remains as popular today (famously including the long running theatre production of The Mousetrap in London, pictured above) as it was when first written between the 1920’s and 1960’s, you’ll get a variety of answers. For some it is the nostalgia of the work. Mark Aldridge, author of Agatha Christie on Screen, explains, “There’s a part of us that likes to see village greens and country houses, ships steaming up the Nile. Christie was a very visual writer and she was very well travelled and used a lot of exotic locations she had actually visited.” Though they depict a very British outlook and way of life, Christie’s novels have a cosmopolitan feel, probably inspired by her own life, which involved a great deal of travelling with her second husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan.

For others, the enjoyment comes from reading books for simple, pure entertainment. They are easy reads that provide a satisfying tale at the end of a busy day, with the guarantee of not being disappointed by the ending. For most, however, it’s about trying to solve the mysteries yourself, before the featured detective does. All the clues necessary are provided throughout the story, but very rarely are the solutions obvious. The crime genre dedicated website, CrimeReads.com, says of the writer, “… Agatha Christie was not interested in murder. She was interested in “English murder,” which is a different thing, relating to the human dynamic rather than the act of violence.”

This viewpoint is echoed throughout Christie’s work. She is often criticised for her murders being unrealistic and lacking in the blood and visceral imagery such acts often feature in more modern literature. However, she never actually claimed her work was believable herself, so it could be argued that renders such an opinion a mute point. They were written to provide fictional escapism. As CrimeReads.com states, “Why would anyone imagine that she intended these plots to be seen as credible events? They were “animated algebra,” a puzzle to be solved.”

While many esteemed writers have also objected (PD James, for one) to her “cardboard cut-out characters”, it can’t be denied that her work is loved, and will continue to be so. Almost every story she has written is now either a play, television show or film – and often all three. The 2017 film, Murder on the Orient Express, successfully delivered her work to a brand new audience, while even repeats of Poirot and Miss Marple on the television continue to rack up ratings almost as highly as when they were first aired ten to twenty years ago.

Today the novels of Agatha Christie are widely accepted to have been the original works that spawned the literary sub-genre “cosy crime.” They have inspired modern fiction, from Midsomer Murders to Death In Paradise and more. More than 4 million copies of her 66 detective novels, as well as her 14 short story collections, are purchased around the world every year. Agatha Christie’s legacy lives on.

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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