Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Belated Birthday Card for Agatha Christie

Somehow, I completely overlooked the fact that yesterday was the anniversary of Agatha Christie's birth--and that's a crime.  The Grand Dame of Murder and Mayhem would have been 120 years old and, if she hadn't died in 1976 would no doubt still be tantalizing us with impossible-to-solve puzzles.

A few years ago, I was invited to write a daily blog about Agatha Christie when publishers Black Dog & Leventhal reissued several of her classic mysteries in a set of beautiful new editions.  The following is a mash-up of two of those blog posts, reprinted here as a sort of belated birthday gift to the Queen of Crime...

The statistics are staggering, and perhaps jut a bit unbelievable.  A billion copies in the English language and another billion translated into more than 40 foreign languages.  That’s billion with a “b.”  She is the all-time best-selling author in France, with more than 40 million copies sold in French, versus 22 million for Emile Zola, the nearest contender.

Between 1920 and 1976, Agatha produced a total of 80 novels and short story collections, which included more than 100 short stories.  She also wrote more than a dozen plays like The Mousetrap, the theatrical legend which opened in London on November 25, 1952 and became the longest continuously-running play in history.  And let’s not forget the two volumes of poetry, four books of non-fiction and six romances (which she wrote under the name Mary Westmacott).

According to publishing lore, she is outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare.

Let me repeat that: God, the Bard, then the Queen of Crime.  Few other authors can touch her track record. Stephen King might eventually come close—he’s currently [as of three years ago] at a comparatively meager 300 million in sales; Louis L’Amour is eating trail dust at around 225 million copies.

Agatha’s popularity has earned her a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records.  From the get-go, with The Mysterious Affair at Styles, she hit upon a successful formula and stuck with it throughout her career.  She pretzel-twisted readers’ minds, but always left them clamoring for more.  She was the Elvis of murder and mayhem, the Michael Jordan of novelists.

This was all very uncomfortable for the shy, reticent English girl who was born Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller in Devonshire in 1890.  She reportedly got very squirmy when it came to interviews and making public speeches.  Still, I think she’d be happy to know that her popularity has hardly waned 30 years after her death and 80 years after publication of the book that shot her to fame, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

It’s pretty obvious that the woman loved to write and did so with all the speed and precision of a word-factory.  It wasn’t easy, as she points out through her literary alter ego, mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver, in Cards on the Table.  A young fan tells Mrs. Oliver that “it must be wonderful just to sit down and write off a whole book.”  To which Ariadne replies: “It doesn’t happen exactly like that.  One actually has to think, you know.  And thinking is always a bore.  And you have to plan things.  And then one gets stuck every now and then and you feel you’ll never get out of the mess—but you do!  Writing’s not particularly enjoyable.  It’s hard work like everything else.”

If so, then the perspiration rarely showed on the pages of Agatha’s books.  Her plots were intricate, Gordian knots, but her style of delivery was simple and unadorned.  Even the title of her memoirs—An Autobiography—was plain as a bowl of porridge.  She could have called it “The People I’ve Loved and Killed” or “My Bloody Life.”  But, no, simply “An Autobiography.”

She didn’t invent the “locked room mystery,” she only perfected the recipe.  Her path was paved by other writers like the equally-prolific Mary Roberts Rinehart, who published her first book more than 15 years before The Mysterious Affair at Styles and who was the source of the phrase “The butler did it.”  Of course others—including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe and G. K. Chesterton—were also towering influences in the early days of detective fiction.

Was she perfect?  Heavens, no!  I won’t sugar-glaze the fact that a few of the whodunits turn tedious before “the big reveal” and that some of her characters could be stiff and unremarkable (which is why I always appreciated it when she included a brief summary of the characters at the beginning of the book).

Like some of you, I met Agatha for the first time in a library.  Fittingly, the book was The Body in the Library.

It was sex that first caught my eye.  That particular cover of The Body in the Library featured two damsels in distress wearing slinky negligees.  The one on the left was being strangled by an otherwise nice-looking gentleman, the one on the right was posed like a Barbie doll with a come-hither look in her eyes.  Between the two ladies was a large, shadowy half-face of an elderly lady with twinkling eyes and a gentle, appealing demeanor.

Sex, violence, and old ladies.  I was hooked by the cover alone.  I opened the book and started reading.

At the time, I was a shy, shaggy-haired teenager whose voice was still on that cracking border between alto and tenor.  For years, books had been my best (and sometimes only) friends and I was constantly skulking around the library in search of new companions.  This particular library was actually a new-fangled “Media Center” in my freshly-built junior high school.  The fact that in addition to books it had “audio-visual equipment”—slide projectors, cassette tapes and a new thing called a Video Tape Recorder (a huge, clunky predecessor to the VCR)—earned it the uber-cool name of Media Center.  It was located in the center of the school: a large, open circle lined by curved bookshelves—sort of like a paper-and-ink Stonehenge.

The Media Center was new and exciting back in 1974, and so was this writer named Agatha Christie I was holding in my hands.  I’d long been a junkie for juvenile mysteries—I could quote you chapter and verse on Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, The Three Investigators and Encyclopedia Brown—but this was something different, something smart and adult.

I sat there after school that autumn day long after the final bell had rung, releasing all the groovier kids back out into the world, and read the first two chapters of The Body in the Library, absorbed by the shocking murder in the charming little English village of St. Mary Mead.
…across the old bearskin hearthrug there was sprawled something new and crude and melodramatic.  The flamboyant figure of a girl…Her thin body was dressed in a backless evening dress of white spangled satin; the face was heavily made up, the powder standing out grotesquely on its blue, swollen surface, the mascara of the lashes lying thickly on the distorted cheeks, the scarlet of the lips looking like a gash.  The fingernails were—
There was a swift, sudden tap on my shoulder.  I jumped half a foot and nearly toppled over the book Stonehenge.

It was the librarian—er, Media Center Coordinator.  “We’re closing up now.  I’m calling it a day.  Are you going to check out that book or not?”

“Y-yes, of course. I guess I lost track of the time.”

He stamped the book, giving me two weeks before I had to return it.  I knew I wouldn’t need that long.  I tucked my new friend Agatha Christie under my arm and raced home.

I finished The Body in the Library that night, then returned to the Media Center the next day and checked out every other Christie mystery the Stonehenge had to offer (sadly, only four other titles).

From that moment, right up to the present day, I have not found another mystery writer who fills me with such awe and anticipation when I reach for her books.  I always learn something from Agatha.  Usually, it’s how absolutely, utterly stupid I am when, twenty pages before the end, I’m convinced I know who done it.  Only to find out that Hercule Poirot or Jane Marple are so incredibly smarter at unknotting the pretzel.