Thursday 24 September 2015


The modern taste in literature is firmly anchored in mystery, and the grand novel in the style of Dickens, Tolstoy, or Flaubert lies forgotten. But even the fabulously successful Ms Rowling and her Harry Potter books cannot compete with the popularity of Agatha Christie, whose work celebrates her 125th anniversary this year.  Her 66 books have sold over two billion copies, and have been translated into a hundred languages, a record matched only by Shakespeare and the Bible. Her play, The Mousetrap – which incidentally derives its title from Hamlet – opened in London’s West End in 1952, and continues its unparalleled run at the Ambassador Theatre over all these decades! This iconic play even interested the famous Tom Stoppard to write his own The Real Inspector Hound!
Born in 1890 to an aristocratic English mother and a rich American father, Agatha was educated at home in Torquay, a picturesque little town in Devon. As a child, her interest in mystery was kindled by Edith Nesbit’s famous children’s novel, The Railway Children, which describes the travails of children whose father is wrongly convicted of spying. Her early attempts at writing were rejected by several publishers, just like the first Harry Potter book. Her aviator husband, Archibald Christie, who incidentally had been born in India, thought her writing to be no more than a lady’s diversion.
Her first break came when she created her famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, in her book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, naming the place after her own home. The book was an instant success. But heartbreak was soon to follow, when her husband sought a divorce, having fallen in love with another woman. Agatha disappeared, and the world sought the famous writer of detective fiction, only to find her ten days later in Harrogate in Yorkshire, distraught and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Her writing and her only daughter, Rosalind, helped her recover. She found happiness again in her second marriage to the archaeologist Max Mallowan, many years her junior. With him she travelled to the Middle East, and her experiences there gave rise to a number of books based on the orient. She was to quip later that it was great to be married to an archaeologist for his interest in her grew as she got older!

Just as Conan Doyle grew tired of Sherlock Holmes, she got fed up with Hercule Poirot and his prissy little ways, and his punctilious care for himself and his waxed moustache. She created other characters, but none caught the public’s fancy except for old Miss Marple who made her first appearance in 1940 in The Murder at the Vicarage. Despite her reluctance, Albert Finney made Poirot immortal on the screen. The 1974 movie, Murder on the Orient Express, became a classic, starring an incredible cast of famous actors, including Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Sir John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, Lauran Bacall, Michael York, Anthony Perkins, to name a few. Vanessa Redgrave later played the role of Agatha in the film based on her mystery disappearance in 1926. The great character actor, Charles Laughton, also immortalised a short story of hers in the film, Witness for the Prosecution.
Agatha Christie’s most popular book though has neither Hercule Poirot nor Miss Marple in it. And Then There Were None, with no detective, remains a world favourite having been renamed, politically correctly, from its earlier unfortunate title, Ten Little Niggers. Her popularity has rested on her skills as a wordsmith, the unexpected twists she gives to her plots, and the homely little touches she gives in her descriptions of places and people as few male writers can do, and maybe not even PD James.
This month the publishing industry is marketing an Agatha Christie celebration in the port town of Torquay, and undoubtedly it will be very successful in terms of publishing and tourism. But what remains a mystery of the times is the insatiable desire of people for mystery and fantasy. The mystery novel found its birth in the 19th century with Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone – which was devoured eagerly by the teenaged Agatha – and Emile Gaboriau’s police detective, Monsieur Lecoq. It established itself in the forefront of literature with Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books, and swept into America with the exploits of Ellery Queen and Perry Mason. The public perhaps wished to be diverted from the miseries of industrialized urbanization, and their wish was soon enflamed by Hollywood which gave them classical escapist films during the Great Depression. Bollywood has not been far behind in helping us forget reality with the pipe-dreams of fantasy. Even today’s children seem to prefer the magic of Harry Potter to the real mysteries in scientific exploration.
Vithal Rajan, Hyderabad, 15 Sept, 2015