A Christie for Christmas
I was not alive when the release of a new Agatha Christie novel was an anticipated annual event. In my lifetime, I have only known Christie as the omnipresent “Queen of Crime”; a name synonymous with mystery fiction and whose very evocation conjures up images of another world. Christie’s world is one of opulence and decadence; the shining, cultured, urbane sphere of English upper-class society thriving between the World Wars. Yet, Christie’s world is also one that is cast in shadow: her world is one where scheming servants and maid cavort below stairs; where deadly poisons are always at hand, nimbly slipped into unattended tea cups; where preposterous-looking little round men and unassuming old ladies can pierce the veil of the human unconscious and unravel a baffling crime.
If there is a season for all things, then there is something about Christmastime when I find my thoughts drifting (more than usual) to Christie. There is perhaps some historical precedent for this: By the 1940s when Christie’s literary output began to slow after her unparalleled output of the ‘30s, her books were released in the run up to the Christmas season boosting sales tremendously. This became known as A Christie for Christmas. Beyond the marketing strategy, however, the end of the year holidays make for the perfect backdrop to read a Christie novel. Many Christie readers rebel against the word cozy being used to describe her body of work, but there is something comforting in picking up a Christie novel and letting her take you on a journey as a reader. Oftentimes this could be a literal journey – an archaeological dig in Mesopotamia, the Orient Express hurtling through the Balkans, a Caribbean island – but even in the books that did not feature a globetrotting expedition, Christie’s books always relied on their forward momentum. At their core, Christie’s books are journeys toward the truth with each new clue bringing the reader closer and closer to the reveal of whodunit!
The period between the First and Second World War were turbulent times, and it is easy to underestimate the value that detective fiction had for so many readers. Someone picking up a detective novel could expect a host of eccentric characters, a unique setting, a baffling crime, and could rest assured in the knowledge that the detective would wrap it up successfully in the last chapter. Therein lies the unbeatable comfort of a classic mystery novel, and it is no wonder that readers’ tastes returned to these books over the past eighteen months as we faced an unprecedented pandemic rife with uncertainty and hardship for so many. This is not to say that Christie always played by these rules. The ending to what is arguably her most famous novel, And Then There Were None is incredibly bleak and as Christie grew as a writer she continued to challenge the conventions of the genre always to dazzling effect.
Yet, even when she did “follow the formula” few writers could match Christie for her sheer brilliance. Christie's sense of place, the way she hides the most important information amongst the seemingly innocuous, and the manner in which she manipulates space and time to deliver a brilliant solution are only a few of her many virtues as a writer. There is a reason that Christie is the best-selling novelist of all time and more so than perhaps any other writer of the Golden Age, Christie defined what a detective story is or ought to be. Her legacy is strong decades after the publication of her final stories and new legions of Christie devotees are born each day when they open up one of her books for the first time.
I don’t remember how or when I first heard of Agatha Christie. Odds are it was a passing reference in the PBS kids’ television show Arthur which - when it wasn't parodying that other PBS institution Masterpiece: Mystery - was habitually dropping the names of famous writers and their works. As a childhood fanatic of the Sherlock Holmes stories, Christie’s mysteries were the natural next step, and though my seven-year-old brain couldn’t properly fathom the concealed identities and motives in the 1974 movie version of Murder on the Orient Express (borrowed on VHS from the local library), my jaw was nonetheless on the ground when I found out who committed the murder. From that point on, I became a true Christie acolyte. I have never tired of Christie’s mysteries or the many television and film adaptations of her work. This holiday season, my celebrations will include an Agatha Christie novel. Just don’t ask me which one. I haven’t picked it out yet…
This year, my thoughts are with Christie more than usual. As a writer, it has long been my goal to write a mystery novel in the Golden Age style; Christie’s work serving as an obvious inspiration. While my attempts have been mixed to this point, today I am making my 2022 New Year’s Resolution public. In the coming year I plan to complete the first draft of a Golden Age-style mystery novel and I invite you to check back in on this blog or follow me on Twitter for updates on that process. I do not anticipate smooth sailing in the days ahead as I plot, write, and fret over writer’s block, but at the same time I am excited to begin this journey that began in earnest when I read my first Agatha Christie novel. With the undisputed Queen of Crime as a guiding light, I should have little to fear.