Agatha Christie died more than thirty years ago, but her fame is undiminished. This is not simply because of longevity or productivity. These were equally characteristics of her contemporaries, writers who were once well known, such as Patricia Wentworth – whose Miss Silver appeared even before Miss Marple – and Gladys Mitchell. Mitchell’s books could not be successfully televised – even with Diana Rigg in the lead role as her detective, Mrs Bradley.
No, the secret of Christie’s success lies in the universal nature of her appeal. Very clever plots. Simple, readable writing. Descriptions of credible patterns of human behaviour. Credible, that is, except for the consistent ingenuity of her murderers. Even Poirot murders someone in one of the books. And gets away with it.
In truth, the secret was not a secret at all. The fact that, at any time, in any social setting, human nature possesses identifiable features is a key element in the Christie canon. This is precisely why Miss Marple was such a successful detective. ‘You know what human nature is,’ she says when revealing the truth in The Murder at the Vicarage. This becomes a constant refrain. She may have spent most of her life in the small and sleepy village of St Mary Mead, but she encountered many forms of deceit and wickedness there. Fortunately, she was able to put what she had learned to the service of amateur sleuthing.
(Of course, St Mary Mead was not all that sleepy. By the end of Miss Marple’s career, the body count was shockingly high. And the dear old lady herself started travelling the globe, stumbling across murders in the Caribbean, a smart London hotel, and a coach tour of English gardens. Such is the fate of the series detective.)
A perfect illustration of this universality is provided by Death Comes As The End. Published in 1944, this was the first crime novel to be set in Ancient Egypt. The story is set around 2000 BC. Christie was very knowledgeable about the Middle East, and attended several digs there with her husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan. Yet she never drowned her tales with expertise or jargon and Death Comes as the End is a good example of the conventional ‘cosy’ mystery. It might just as easily have been set in a 20th century country house. And, although no-one realised it at the time, Christie had shown the way forward for historical mystery writers. To dismiss her as ‘cosy’ and no more, is a mistake. She had an original cast of mind, and her inventive plots, accessible style, memorable detectives, and understanding of how people the world over think and behave, made her something more than just a detective novelist, more even than a wildly successful commercial brand. She became, and remains, a cultural reference point, a legendary figure whose work continues to be devoured the world over, by young and old alike.