Agatha Christie died in 1976, and it is an accepted fact in the world of publishing that authors’ sales tend to slump once they are no longer producing fresh work. Yet Christie is a startling exception to the general principle. Her novels continue to dominate crime fiction shelves, just as adaptations of her stories seem to be everywhere on the TV channels, and just as “The Mousetrap” – now in its 60th record-breaking year – seems to go on forever.
What is more, interest in Christie’s life as a whole – and not just in her famous eleven-day disappearance during an emotional crisis in 1926 – seems to be greater than ever. A good example is provided by the recent publication of The Grand Tour: Letters and photographs from the British Empire Exhibition Expedition 1922. This lavishly produced volume provides an account of Christie’s ten-month voyage around the Empire with her husband Archie as part of a trade mission. The conventional image of Christie is of a very ordinary woman with an extraordinary talent for plot, but the more one learns about her life, the more evident it becomes that she was quite a remarkable woman. Amazingly – at least, to me – she and Archie left behind, with her sister, their young daughter whilst they gadded about the globe. She continued to travel extensively for most of the rest of her life, and her knowledge of the Middle East – suggested by the fact she set several stories there – was extensive. In fact, only a minority of her novels are set in the cosy, stereotypical English village settings with which she is always associated.
Christie’s enduring fame is illustrated by the fact that the National Trust now look after her former home Greenway, in Devon, where she spent many a summer. This splendid house – which stands in quite magnificent grounds, overlooking the River Dart – has rapidly become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the English Riviera. In the early summer of 2012, had the good fortune to visit Greenway in the company of John Curran, the world’s leading expert on Christie, who transcribed her private notebooks and so enabled us to gain a unique insight into the thought processes of our greatest plotsmith. John’s two books about the “secret notebooks” have earned awards as well as large sales, and have been translated into about 20 different languages. He pointed out to me the battery, which Christie fictionalised in Five Little Pigs, and the boathouse which she featured in Dead Man’s Folly, and it was abundantly clear that our party was full of people who feel a considerable devotion to Christie, perhaps as a form of gratitude for the pleasure that her unpretentious, but ingenious, fictions have provided.
During the same trip to Devon, John and I visited the Christie exhibition at Torquay Museum, and the church in delightful Churston, near Greenway, with its “Christie window”, splendid in stained glass and a reminder of Christie’s generosity.
Of course, the Christie phenomenon does, in the 21st century, owe something to shrewd and determined marketing. The Grand Tour, for instance, recycles bits of her autobiography, although it remains an appealing book in its own right. But effective promotion alone cannot explain the scale of the success that her work has enjoyed for so long – and will continue to enjoy for the foreseable future.
(This is an edited version of an article that previously appeared on www.bookdagger.com)