Dame Agatha Christie – whose novels and short story collections I’ve reviewed for this blog, as per my previous post – is the best-selling novelist of all time, having sold at least four billion copies of her novels in nearly every world language, and whose works and characters – from a sixty-year writing career – have been adapted into plays, radio plays, movies and television shows unceasingly since the 1920s . The only individual writer who rivals her for ubiquity is that paragon, Mr. William Shakespeare. In short, it’s fair to say she deserves writing about.
Born Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller in 1890 in Torquay, Christie told and wrote stories since an early age. After WWI, the young nurse – with a working knowledge of poisons and now married at home with a baby girl – began a profession writing. In 1920, The Mysterious Affair at Styles introduced the punctilious, mustachioed Belgian refugee, Hercule Poirot and his good friend – retired army Captain Arthur Hastings. Routinely joined by Inspector James Japp and Poirot’s effortlessly capable secretary Miss Felicity Lemon, the duo spent the 1920s investigating murders and petty crimes in novels and short stories. Throughout the ’20s, Christie wrote several novels but also published more than a hundred short stories in a variety of magazines and periodicals.
Quickly becoming a national sensation, Christie’s oeuvre expanded and, by the 1930s, she was a best-seller. Her other regular characters included the flapper couple, and amateur detectives, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford and the elderly, gossipy spinster of St. Mary Mead, Miss Jane Marple. Alongside this were scores of books and short stories featuring shorter-lived characters, or standing outside of series, including several thrillers, which was a format she would largely abandon after this era. At her peak, in the mid-1930s, she was publishing two novels a year as well as short stories, radio plays, and original works for the theatre.
Christie’s first marriage – to Archibald Christie – ended after a rough decade in 1926, the same year she mysteriously disappeared for several days, an incident which she refused to talk about and which remains debated as a case of amnesia or a possible publicity stunt. Her second marriage – to the archaeologist Max Mallowan – would last for forty-six years until her death, and their shared passion for archaeology and the Middle East would resonate in several of Christie’s novels.
By the 1950s, Christie was an international icon, and – although her output began to slow down – each book was lapped up by a willing public. In this era, Marple began to take over as her primary detective, while Poirot – of whom she had begun to tire – underwent something of a shift, with Hastings written out, and Miss Lemon and Japp appearing infrequently. In their place, the highly regarded detective would sometimes be joined by Ariadne Oliver, a mystery novelist of dubious talent but public esteem, who had herself tired of her quirky Finnish detective. Although she continued to write murder mysteries until the end of her career, Christie’s post-’50s output saw her experiment with different styles and structures, while her occasional anti-Semitic comments, which can be seen in some of her early novels, were thankfully absent.
Among her other works, Christie wrote volumes of poetry and Christian stories, six romances under her nom-de-plume Mary Westmacott, and an autobiography.
Christie’s works had been adapted since 1928 – which saw both a play, Alibi, based on The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and a movie adapted from The Mysterious Mr. Quin. The 1960s – an era in which Christie’s novels continued to sell well in spite of mixed critical reactions to her later output – saw Margaret Rutherford play a tougher Miss Marple in a series of films. And in 1971, Christie – already a Commander of the Order of the British Empire – became a Dame.
Dame Christie’s health began to her fail her in the 1970s, and she continued to write as long as possible – although her typical method was to dictate her stories – and the general consensus of her 1970s works is that they lack any of the cohesion or strength of the earlier novels; indeed, recent research of the linguistic changes over Christie’s sixty years of writing suggest the author was suffering from the onset of dementia. Christie died in 1976, at the age of 85, leaving behind a towering legacy. In the years immediately following her death, Christie’s works experienced a renaissance of sorts: Poirot was played on the big screen in a series of all-star films, starring first Albert Finney and then Peter Ustinov as the Belgian; Francesca Annis and James Warwick starred in a TV series based on the early Tommy and Tuppence stories; and Joan Hickson – herself in her late 70s – starred in twelve TV movies as Miss Marple, adapting all of the novels featuring the spinster detective. Christie’s final two novels – Sleeping Murder and Curtain – were in fact written in the 1940s, during the Second World War, and ended the narratives of Marple and Poirot, respectively.
In the thirty-five years since Dame Christie’s death, her works have been translated more than those of any other author, being routinely re-published and adapted for stage and screen and – more recently – graphic novels and video games. Her stage play The Mousetrap has broken all possible records, having run non-stop since November 1952.
Beginning in 1989, David Suchet starred in a critically-acclaimed performance as Hercule Poirot for the ITV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot, finishing his run in late 2013 after filming every Poirot novel and the vast majority of the short stories. The earlier seasons – primarily adapting short stories – also starred Hugh Fraser as Hastings, Philip Jackson as Japp and Pauline Moran as Miss Lemon. In accordance with the later novels, these characters gradually left the series, and Zoë Wanamaker appears as Mrs. Oliver in the later seasons.
A companion series, Agatha Christie’s Marple, has aired since 2004, starring first Geraldine McEwan and then Julia McKenzie. As of 2014, the program has adapted all of the Miss Marple novels over the course of six series, and has now largely moved on to adapting short stories or – more often – other, non-Marple novels.
While Christie’s literary merit has been debated and analysed many times over the decades, it is clear that her place in popular culture is well and truly cemented. We can only hope that – with the return of the popularity of period works, Hollywood’s growing interest in older material, and hopefully more seasons of Marple to polish off some of those never-before filmed short stories – further appreciation of her works is to come.