Rhys Bowen: Why is Agatha Christie so loved?


I’ve often wondered what it was about Agatha Christie that made her books so popular. She has sold more books than any other author. And yet nobody can say that she is a great writer if you compare her to Hemingway, Shakespeare or Dickens, for example. It tells a good story, but it doesn’t touch our feelings or our soul. In the library one does not weep for the corpse.

Her prose is sparse, her settings simple and her characters mostly one-dimensional. They can be summarized briefly: the good-for-nothing son, the nosy spinster, the bitterly ignored daughter, the bullying father. Hercule Poirot, her most famous creation, is really a caricature. We know he’s Belgian (despite acting like French), with a domed head, lush mustaches, and superior little gray cells. He is vain and boastful.

Otherwise we know nothing – about his origins, his loved ones, his losses, what makes him cry. He treats Hastings vilely and delights in constantly racking up points against mere mortals. Not the nicest guy.

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But then we come to Miss Marple, Christie’s other enduring character. This lady has inspired several theatrical incarnations, from the hearty Margaret Rutherford to the perfectly reserved Joan Hickson. And now she’s caught the eye of a group of best-selling authors, each trying their hand at a Miss Marple story in an anthology called Marple (William Morrow, September 13). The illustrious group includes Kate Mosse and Val McDermid, Elly Griffith, Lucy Foley and Ruth Ware. Each author captures Christie – and Marple – perfectly while showing a bit of her own unique twist. Feminist author Naomi Alderman, for example, describes a pompous male character with a voice that “roared from the bottom of his beard.” He is later found face down in his plate of venison, dead of an overdose.

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So what does Marple have that Poirot doesn’t? First, it is relatable. They want to invite Miss Marple to tea. She is perhaps one of Christie’s few real and fleshed out characters: the accomplished English maid living in a typical English village with its gossip and intrigue. Indeed, Marple represents an entire generation of women whose hopes of marriage were dashed by the loss of over a million young men on the battlefields of World War I. A young woman of good family, at the time she was being brought up to make a good match and not equipped for much more. She clearly has an excellent brain. At other times she might have gone to college and found a lucrative career. Instead, she must be content with her garden and good works around the church. No wonder she uses her brilliant brain and keen powers of observation to solve crimes.

The big advantage of a spinster is that she is invisible. No one thinks she matters when she’s sitting in the foyer of a grand hotel in her knitwear. And so she listens in, observes and notices little things that the police miss: the wrong girl’s chewed fingernails, the atypical behavior. And she draws comparisons with characters from her own village: the triumphant gleam in a con man’s eyes reminds her of the choirboy’s face as he pocketed the collection. That grin that no one noticed. But of course she had.

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Miss Marple may appear frail and inconsequential, but she is no wimp. In fact, she demonstrates a calm demeanor, as if confronting a millionaire and declaring, “I am Nemesis.” And a persistence with the police that eventually wears down even the most resilient of them. She also embodies what Hercule Poirot seems to lack: compassion and understanding of human weaknesses coupled with a keen sense of justice. Agatha Christie clearly understood. While Poirot was simply her version of Holmes and Watson, a vehicle for solving a mystery, Miss Marple had one purpose: to be a person whose job it was to right a wrong in her universe.

It is interesting that in the story The Tuesday Night Club (later published in The Thirteen Problems), Miss Marple appears at the very time when Agatha Christie was going through a crisis in her own life. Her beloved husband wanted a divorce. Christie staged her dramatic disappearance a year before this book appeared in Royal Magazine, presumably while it was being written. So perhaps Miss Marple was expressing how Christie felt at the time: a powerless, overlooked, invisible woman yearning for justice. Christie herself was obviously of good mind and was allowed to work in a pharmacy during the war. But then she too was limited to the role of housewife stuck at home while Archie Christie flirted on the golf course. No wonder she wanted a character who could do everything right with the world.

In the new book “Marple” nobody tried to show the detective as a bright young woman who might do something daring in the First World War. In each story she is as we know her – noble, frail, aged and wise. she knits She sparkles a lot, which I don’t recall the real Miss Marple doing much. Some of the stories are set in Miss Marple’s home village of St Mary Mead or similar English village settings, while some locations are more exotic. Alyssa Cole takes her to New York, Jean Kwok to Hong Kong and Elly Griffiths performs her delightful play in southern Italy. All of the stories are amusing and intriguing, but I have to say that in most of them I got a crime guess, which I certainly couldn’t do in a real Christie novel.

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That’s part of the appeal, of course – finding out the killer before the end of the book. Another reason Christie remains so popular is that her stories are safely removed from our reality in time and place. Their village is what we dream of, where everyone knows everyone, meets for tea in the vicarage or downstairs in the pub: a place where you belong. Their crimes are never brutal; You are smart, all violence is carried out from the side, and Miss Marple sometimes has great sympathy for the perpetrator. And in the end everything is done right. The crime solved, the killer brought to justice, calm returns to this universe. Isn’t that what we’re all longing for right now? A place where we feel at home, safe and quiet?

I have to admit, when I’m stressed, the first thing I do is reach for an Agatha Christie novel (I own everything she’s written) and pray I don’t recall the mystery too quickly. Let’s hope this new and entertaining collection from some of our favorite authors will introduce a new group of readers to the stunning Miss Marple.

Rhys Bowen is the author of two historical mystery series and several historical novels, the most recent of which is The Venice Sketchbook. A resettled British woman, she divides her time between California and Arizona.

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