Читать онлайн «Clues to Christie: The Definitive Guide to Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot and all of Agatha Christie’s Mysteries»
Poirot owes his nationality to the presence of Belgian refugees in Torquay during World War I. Christie also endowed him with an overweening vanity and a neurotic precision, as well as magnificent moustaches and his famous little grey cells. If she could have known at the time how he would come to dominate her life, she might well have amended some of these characteristics. But he, and she, embarked on a career of singular success with little idea that almost a century later the investigations of the little Belgian would still be read in every language in the world.
While he waited for his first full-length case to follow The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Poirot solved a series of short investigations in The Sketch magazine throughout 1923 and much of 1924. In 1926, he appeared in what was to become his most famous (some might say infamous) case, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926). In many ways a typical detective story of the time—small village, wealthy landowner found dead in his study, a mysterious butler, a house full of suspects, an incompetent police investigation, all explained satisfactorily in the last chapter—this novel transformed the careers of Christie and Poirot beyond recognition. Considered by many to be the most brilliant detective novel ever written and decried by others as a shameless cheat, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd has divided opinion ever since its first appearance in May 1926. Its stunning last-chapter revelation was a unique and daring masterstroke which shot Christie straight into the upper echelon of crime writing, where she remained for the rest of her life.
For the next fifty years, Poirot solved cases throughout England, in France in The Murder on the Links (1923), in Yugoslavia in Murder on the Orient Express (1934), in Iraq in Murder in Mesopotamia (1936), in Egypt in Death on the Nile (1937), and, in the course of The Labors of Hercules (1947), in Ireland, Switzerland, Italy, and Austria. The little Belgian is the most famous export of that country and, thanks to a brilliant television portrayal by David Suchet, is now firmly fixed in the public consciousness and affection for all time.
Jane Marple made an inauspicious debut in the short story “The Tuesday Night Club,” published in December 1927. There, she is described as dressed completely in black and having “faded blue eyes, benignant and kindly” and she is knitting “something white and soft and fleecy.” Despite being overlooked by the armchair detectives gathered together in her house in St. Mary Mead to discuss unsolved mysteries, she is shown to be the most acute and observant of them all. Her unorthodox style of detection is based on her village parallels, small and seemingly insignificant events familiar to her from a lifetime of village living, which she adopts as a basis for comparison when faced with more sinister events.
Although her detective career is less extensive than Poirot, covering twelve novels and twenty short stories, Miss Marple’s status as the most famous female detective in literature is assured. There was a twelve-year gap, from 1930 to 1942, between her first and second book-length investigations, The Murder at the Vicarage and The Body in the Library. Her greatest case, A Murder Is Announced, was Agatha Christie’s fiftieth title and the occasion of a celebratory party at the Savoy Hotel in London in June 1950. Miss Marple travelled to the West Indies for her only foreign case, A Caribbean Mystery, in 1964, and to London to solve a murder At Bertram’s Hotel (1965).
Unlike Poirot, the last glimpse we have of the elderly sleuth is of her alive and well, sitting on the terrace of Torquay’s Imperial Hotel at the conclusion of Sleeping Murder, explaining, for the last time, the intricacies of murder.
Tommy and Tuppence
Tommy and Tuppence Beresford are the only Christie characters to age gradually, as they did between their first appearance in 1922, in Christie’s second published novel, to their last adventure in 1973. Beginning as bright young things in the aftermath of World War I, they track down The Secret Adversary (1922) before marrying and opening a detective agency in the short story collection Partners in Crime (1929), in which they investigate crimes in the manner of famous detectives such as Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown. Their final investigation, “The Man Who Was No. 16,” is, in a nice example of self-parody, solved in the style of that famous Belgian sleuth, Monsieur Hercule Poirot!
By the time of the WWII thriller, N or M? (1941), Tommy and Tuppence are the parents of twins (and also adopt a baby at the end of that novel), and as By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968) opens they are a middle-aged couple reminiscing about their adventurous youth and investigating a sinister retirement home. Finally, we meet them as a retired couple moving into a new house with a mysterious past in Postern of Fate (1973), the last novel Christie wrote.
Although she achieved her greatest fame as the creator of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, some of Agatha Christie’s best books are to be found among her stand-alone titles. These included traditional whodunits, domestic and international thrillers, and a few unclassifiable items. Through her life she experimented with the crime novel and, as Ellery Queen once wrote of her, “the only thing you can expect from Agatha Christie is the unexpected.”
Without doubt her most famous title, and the bestselling crime novel of all time, is And Then There Were None (1939). Part detective story and part thriller, this novel first appeared in print in the Saturday Evening Post beginning at the end of May 1939. It received rapturous reviews on both sides of the Atlantic when it was published in book form at the end of that year. The much-copied plot concerns the fate of ten characters invited to an island off the coast of southern England, where, over the course of a weekend, they are all systematically killed in line with the macabre nursery rhyme that hangs in each of their bedrooms. The Christie twist is that the killer is one of the ten. It has been brought to the screen countless times, the best version being the famous 1945 Rene Clair film.
Years before the historical murder mystery became popular, Christie published Death Comes as the End (1945), a domestic murder mystery set in Egypt in 2000 B.C. This fascinating novel of mass murder in a family consumed with greed and jealousy, living on the banks of the Nile, was written at the suggestion of an archaeologist friend of her husband Max Mallowan. In 1949, she published Crooked House, very much a typical Christie—large family living in a rambling house with a poisoner at work—until the last chapter, which propounded such a shocking solution that her publishers asked her to change it; she refused and it remains one the Christie classics. Two of her strongest and most unexpected titles appeared in the last chapter of her writing life: The Pale Horse (1961) concerns a murder-to-order venture with suggestions of black magic, while Endless Night (1967), with its stunning surprise in the last chapter, is often considered her last great novel.
Thrillers, both international—The Man in the Brown Suit (1924), They Came to Baghdad (1951), Destination Unknown (1954), Passenger to Frankfurt (1970)—and domestic—The Secret of Chimneys (1925), The Seven Dials Mystery (1929), The Boomerang Clue (1934)—appeared periodically throughout her writing life and Christie considered these a holiday from the clues-and-alibis plotting of her detective fiction. With an emphasis on physical rather than cerebral activity, these thrillers all show the Christie magic at work. Stolen jewels, missing state papers, unidentified spies, and criminal masterminds jostle for attention in plots involving organized anarchy and international terrorism. Almost all of these titles feature young women—Lady Eileen (Bundle) Brent, Lady Frances (Frankie) Derwent, Anne Beddingfeld, Victoria Jones—who are in the mold of Tuppence Beresford: brave, resourceful, enterprising, and incurably inquisitive.
Dotted throughout her classic period Christie also wrote, with enviable ease, non-Poirot and non-Marple whodunits. The Sittaford Mystery (1931) begins with a sеance accurately foretelling a murder; Murder Is Easy (1939) is regular Christie territory—a country village with a suspiciously high number of unexplained deaths; Sparkling Cyanide (1945) features subtle characterization with the personal reminiscences of the suspects involved in a poisoning drama at a fashionable nightclub. One of her most intriguing titles is Towards Zero (1944), where we are introduced to a collection of characters months before the approaching zero hour of the inevitable murder. Ordeal by Innocence (1958) is both a deeply felt exploration of the consequences of a possible miscarriage of justice and a clever whodunit.
Christie also wrote a number of short stories that achieved fame in their own right, including “Witness for the Prosecution.” First published in 1925 under the title “Traitor Hands,” almost thirty years later it became not just Christie’s best stage play, but also one of the best courtroom dramas ever. “Philomel Cottage,” also a short story from the 1920s, became the stage play and film Love from a Stranger. And, of course, before its incarnation as a play, The Mousetrap had been a short story, “Three Blind Mice.”
Christie the Dramatist
Agatha Christie is still the only crime novelist to achieve equal fame as a crime dramatist. The first stage play based on her writing was Alibi, an adaptation, but not by the author herself, of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which opened in London in 1928. That year she also adapted her 1925 novel, The Secret of Chimneys, as a three-act play but failed to have it staged. She then wrote an original script, Black Coffee (1930), in which Poirot is summoned to find a missing document vital to the country’s security, but finds himself investigating a murder at the home of Sir Claud Amory. A further adaptation of Peril at End House followed in 1940, but Christie was disappointed with adaptations of her stories by other hands. So she adapted her own novel And Then There Were None in 1943 and it had a successful run of almost a year in London’s West End, despite the destruction of its theatrical home during the height of the Blitz, and a transfer to another.
Spurred on by this success, she adapted Appointment with Death and Murder on the Nile in 1945 and 1946. Miss Marple made her stage debut in 1949 in Murder at the Vicarage. The 1950s was Christie’s golden age of theater. Beginning with The Hollow (1951), and followed by Witness for the Prosecution (1953), Spider’s Web (1954), Towards Zero (1956), Verdict (1958), and The Unexpected Guest (1958), this impressive roster of dramas contributed to her unique theatrical success. To this day, she is the only female playwright to have had three plays running simultaneously in the West End.
In 1952, the most famous stage play in the world, The Mousetrap, began its inexorable advance to the status of national institution. Originally written as a radio play to celebrate the eightieth birthday of Queen Mary, it was subsequently adapted as a novella and, finally, as the stage play that is now older than most of the UK population. This theatrical landmark celebrates its sixtieth birthday in 2012.
In 1962, another experiment, Rule of Three, debuted on the London stage. Although not well received by the critics, it remains fascinating to fans as each of the three one-act plays, totally different in style and plot, display aspects of Christie not hitherto seen on the stage. The Rats is a claustrophobic will-they-get-away-with-it? play; Afternoon at the Seaside is a very funny sketch involving missing jewelry with a surprise revelation in the last moments; and The Patient is an ingenious whodunit with an artfully concealed central clue. As late as 1972, Christie’s love of the theater is evident in Fiddlers Five, or, as it later became, Fiddlers Three. Although it did not receive a West End production and, compared to her earlier theatrical hits, is, despite its many clever ideas, disappointing, it is clear that her love of playwriting remained with Christie until the end of her life.
Interspersed with her detective fiction, Christie also experimented with noncrime material, showing an aspect of her imagination not obvious from her crime fiction alone. In 1924, she published Road of Dreams, a poetry collection, and six years later published Giant’s Bread, the first of six Mary Westmacott novels to appear over the next thirty years. Best described as bittersweet love stories, these titles show glimpses of the real Agatha Christie and mirror many situations in her own life. Giant’s Bread centers on the composer Vernon Deyre and reveals Christie’s lifelong love of music; two years later, Unfinished Portrait contains, consciously or otherwise, many elements from Christie’s own life, including a marriage, idyllic at the start but later ruined by infidelity, culminating in divorce; an unhappy wife who takes up writing; and a subsequent mother/daughter relationship. A similar theme is also explored, even more devastatingly, in the 1952 novel, A Daughter’s a Daughter. In her Autobiography, Christie describes how she wrote Absent in the Spring (1934) over a single weekend; in it, Joan Scudamore, trapped by bad weather in a remote area of Turkey, spends four days examining her life and conscience before resolving to transform herself. The Westmacott pseudonym remained a secret for many years and Christie was always very pleased that the books were accepted for publication and reviewed on their merits alone, not because they were written by a famous crime writer. The final Westmacott, The Burden (1956), explores the love between two sisters.
In 1946, she published Come Tell Me How You Live, a rambling memoir of day-to-day life on an archaeological dig written to answer the innumerable questions of friends and acquaintances. Although her publishers would have preferred a whodunit, her love of this life shines through every page of the book. In 1937, she wrote Akhnaton, a play based on the life of the doomed Egyptian king. Although it has never received a professional performance, the script was published in 1973 and proved to be a well-researched and poignant play; although essentially a noncrime title, it does feature a poisoning and the unmasking of a killer in the final scene. Star Over Bethlehem (1965) is, as the name suggests, a religious-themed collection of very short stories and poems.
Finally, the year after her death, An Autobiography was published. Christie had worked on this for over fifteen years, beginning in Baghdad in 1950 where, she explains in the foreword, she was suddenly overtaken by the urge to write down the story of her life. After her death, it fell to her daughter and an editor at Collins to reduce the vast amount of material to a manageable size, and the book was published in October 1977 to international acclaim. As easily readable as all of her writing, An Autobiography is a fascinating look at the woman who wrote the world’s bestselling books, but there is little in the way of solid information about the creation of any particular title. She does give an account of the creation of Hercule Poirot and a less detailed one for Miss Marple, but the genesis of most of her books remains as mysteriously elusive as the books themselves.
Almost forty years after her death, Agatha Christie’s name is still synonymous with the very best detective fiction. She refined an already existing template, and for over a half-century, she expanded and experimented with it to produce a body of work that continues to transcend every known border of age, sex, race, background, and level of education. Her entire output is still available in every language and she is read avidly from Melbourne to Moscow, from Iceland to India. She is enjoyed by teenagers and pensioners; she is studied by academics and linguists and social historians. Her work provides a regular source for film and TV adapters, for computer game developers, for animators, and graphic-novel artists. Quite simply, in the field of detective fiction no other writer ever did it as often, as well, or for as long. Agatha Christie remains unique and, thus far, immortal.
John Curran is the Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity award-winning author of Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks and Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making. A recognized expert on the life and works of Agatha Christie, he is a frequent speaker and contributor to programs about her. He lives in Dublin, where he is writing a doctoral thesis on Christie.
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