Agatha Christie is a woman with one of the best literary badges a writer could hope for: best-selling author of all time. With a career spanning over 50 years, producing 66 detective novels and two of the most enduring detectives, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot in crime fiction, she has sold over 4 billion copies and her ‘whodunit’ fiction is still widely read and discussed today.
So what is it about Christie’s writing that resonates with her readers?
Christie’s success lies in the structure of her writing and her ingenuous and cleverly designed plotting. She was fascinated by the intricacies of human nature and what drives people to commit horrendous deeds such as murder, a subject clearly intriguing to many of her readers alike. The ‘Queen of Crime’ introduced many classic plot devices, some of which have become integral to succeeding detective fiction. The ‘locked room’ mystery, red herrings and the ‘least likely’ suspect ploy, are all strategies designed to keep her readers enthralled and guessing until the very end. A typical example of the ‘least likely’ method can be seen in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the novel which established her reputation in the crime genre. Here the murderer is revealed to be the unreliable first person narrator, who the audience assume cannot be criminal. In her writing, Christie’s strategies combine together to form a complex puzzle to be solved, her audience trying, and rarely succeeding, in resolving the crimes due to her renowned plot twist endings. Strikingly original and well thought-out, her novels are beautifully crafted to form a neat, satisfactory conclusion often within a mere 200 pages, leaving no loose ends or unanswered questions.
Christie’s fiction has controversially been labelled as ‘cosy crime’, a term for the lighter sub genre of crime fiction, coined in the late 20th century, in which violence and sex are downplayed or treated humorously. This subgenre is often set in seemingly peaceful, idealistic and picturesque country villages, the latter a typical characteristic of Christie’s fiction. Indeed, it is rare that Christie’s detectives Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple ever come face to face with pain or physical danger and it is also significant that the crimes and dead bodies are infrequently depicted in highly graphic and violent terms which may be expected of a crime scene. This branch of detective fiction stands in stark contrast to the hardboiled fiction genre of gritty and morally ambiguous stories set in the big city, which feature violence and sexuality more explicitly, made popular by writers such as Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy.
Nonetheless it seems difficult to label her novels, which feature poisoning, hit and runs and countless murders, as ‘cosy’. As a genre filled with suspicion, criminality and bloody murder, which intends to unsettle its audience, many critics believe this association is problematic and diminishes the true purpose of her crime fiction. It must not be forgotten that the focus of the vast majority of Christie’s detective fiction deals with cold-blooded killing, an issue that is far from cosy. Indeed, one of the most disturbing of her plots reveals a 12 year old girl as the murderer of her wealthy grandfather because he won’t pay for her ballet lessons.
Despite the popularity of ‘cosy’ detective fiction, the past few years have been abundant with successful Agatha Christie adaptations which provide an altogether different perspective to her novels. The BBC’s adaptations of her standalone novels And Then There Were None and Witness for the Prosecution (with a third adaptation of Ordeal by Innocence due in December this year) received raving reviews. The director, Sarah Phelps, has commented on Christie’s ‘cosiness’, stating that she feels Christie’s characters, such as Poirot and Miss Marple, have become synonymous with a ‘a lovely cosy afternoon watching TV on the sofa’, with neat plots, the bad guys always getting caught and the comfort that ‘everything will be alright in the end.’ Christie herself disliked many of the past screen adaptations purely because of their fluffy, ironic nature. However, these new mini-series focus on the darker, more psychologically complex aspects of human nature and Christie’s characters, and highlight the unsettling, cruel elements of the storylines, depicting them with increasing violence. James Pritchard, Christie’s great grandson, has praised these new takes on her novels, noting the enduring nature of her literature, “Since reading Sarah’s scripts even I’ve started looking at the books slightly differently because she brings so much to them.” He continues, ‘the one thing I take away from the BBC adaptations especially is once again realising how well these stories stand up to modern treatments.’
It seems that the popularity of the author is unwavering. Christie’s fans will be treated to a shiny new cinematic adaptation of her classic 1934 Poirot novel Murder on the Orient Express in November this year, with Kenneth Branagh directing and staring as the world-renowned Belgian sleuth (other famous names include Johnny Depp as Edward Ratchett, Judi Dench as the Russian royal Princess Natalia Dragomiroff and Michelle Pfeiffer as Mrs Hubbard). Branagh has promised that his version of the story will hold “some surprises” for those who think they already know the tale: “Our goal is to try and find a new approach. That’s why classic stories are worth retelling.”
Perhaps it is the multifaceted quality of Christie’s work which allows her legacy to remain intact, and for continual reimaging of her classic titles for modern audiences and a new generation of fans.
Movie trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mq4m3yAoW8E
 ‘Lock away your grandparents: BBC’s new Agatha Christie how is no “cosy” a afternoon drama, director warns’, The Telegraph < http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/12/13/lock-away-grandparents-bbcs-new-agatha-christie-show-no-cosy/> [accessed 20 October 2017]
 ‘Agatha Christie: Why we still love her ‘cosy crime’ novels’, The Independent <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/agatha-christie-cosy-crime-novels-murder-mystery-writer-why-we-love-a7942901.html> [accessed 20 October 2017]
 Vejvoda, Jim ‘Murder on the Orient Express: How Kenneth Branagh recreated the legendary train and reimagined the Agatha Christie classic’, IGN < http://uk.ign.com/articles/2017/06/01/murder-on-the-orient-express-how-kenneth-branagh-recreated-the-legendary-train-and-reimagined-the-agatha-christie-classic> [accessed 21 October 2017]
Dr. Fiona Peters is Reader in Crime Fiction at Bath Spa University in the UK. She is a Patricia Highsmith scholar and is director of the Captivating Criminality project.