Agatha Christie and The Guilty Party

Charlene D’Avanzo: Agatha Christie is called the “Queen Of Crime” for very good reason. She wrote an astounding 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections, many that feature fictional detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Her murder mystery The Mousetrap is the world’s longest running play. The Guinness World Records calls her the best-selling fiction writer ever – her novels exceed two billion copies. In 1955 she was the first recipient of Mystery Writers of America’s Grand Master Award. More than 30 feature films are based on her work.

So what accounts for Christie’s absolutely astonishing record?

There were hints early on. As a child Christie was a voracious reader. She wrote her first poem when she was ten. Later, during World War II, she worked a London hospital. This accounts for her knowledge of poisons, which she put to excellent use. For example, a thallium poisoning case was solved by British medical workers who had read her novel A Pale Horse and recognized the symptoms she described.

Christie wrote her first detective novel The Mysterious Affair At Styles in 1916. The book featured Hercule Poirot, a former Belgian police officer with “magnificent moustaches” and a head “exactly the shape of an egg” who went to Britain after Germany invaded Belgium. Christie’s inspiration came from Belgian refugees and soldiers she helped to treat as a volunteer nurse during the First World War.

Christie eventually grew tired of Poirot, much as Conan Doyle did with Sherlock Holmes. By the end of the 1930s, she wrote in her diary that Poirot was “insufferable”, and by the 1960s she felt he was “an egocentric creep. Poirot became the first fictional character to have an obituary in The New York Times, which was printed on page one on 6 August 1975.

After her marriage to an archeologist in 1930 Christie spent several months each year on digs in the Middle East, and those travels informed her novels set in the Middle East (e.g. Death On The Nile). She used her experience of international train travel in her 1934 novel Murder On The Orient Express.

In her books Christie often made the unlikeliest character the guilty party. Christie said she wrote her books up to the last chapter and only then decided who the most unlikely suspect was. After that she’d go back and make the necessary changes to “frame” that person.

I’ll end with a quote Joan Acocella writing in The New Yorker: With Christie … we are dealing not so much with a literary figure as with a broad cultural phenomenon, like Barbie or the Beatles.



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4 Responses to Agatha Christie and The Guilty Party

  1. Cathy says:

    Oh, I absolutely love this article! Such marvelously illuminating facts about Agatha Christie! She really was a Marvel, wasn’t she? My favorite tidbit is the way she figured out who her least likely suspect was, then backtracked throughout the novel, inserting clues that would prove that person the culprit! I laughed out loud when I read that! 😆

  2. matthewcost says:

    I love the concept of deciding at the end who the baddie was and then going back and making the necessary edits.

  3. maggierobinsonwriter says:

    I am thrilled that Agatha and I have something in common–I never know whodunnit until I get going. I just finished something where I changed my mind at the last chapter, LOL. Wonderful post, Charlene!

  4. JUdy Alter says:

    I’ve read a couple of books about Christie but still not heard some of the things you brought out here. Fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

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