This week saw the 126th anniversary of Agatha Christie’s birth. Christie is the world’s best-selling novelist, 40 years after her death and the posthumous publication of her final novel. There are two reasons for her enduring appeal. The first is the quality of the books. Some are breathtakingly brilliant, simply and effective written with a strong plot and realistic characters. Twice she wrote novels from the point of view of the killer, and her other first person narrators are generally naïve. She rarely concentrates on the character of the detective or the murderer, focusing on those around them who fit in the range of normality between good and evil. This gives them a depth and realism, with enough to suggest that they may be the guilty party.
The second is the plethora of television, film and audio adaptions. Some of these bear no resemblance to the originals, keeping only her name and those of the principal characters. They pick up on the perceived image of a lost more innocent Britain full of small non-diverse communities, hiding personal secrets. Having lived in an English village I can report that such communities do not exist anymore, destroyed forever by cars, supermarkets and, ironically, television. The historical scandals of adultery and illegitimacy are no longer relevant. Moreover the nature of official detection has changed. Murder sites now are swamped by crews of forensic experts seeking clues. In Christie’s day murderers nearly succeeded in escaping by wearing gloves and telling lies.
For a writer there is no story in scientific evidence that cannot be contested. This is why traditional detective mysteries have to be set in the past, excepting the world of Midsomer Murders that seems strangely immune to modern detective methods. The drama is in the characters, in exposing their secrets and highlighting their flaws whilst still ensuring that the audience can relate to them. Agatha Christie understood this, which is why she is still read and copied.