Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Agatha Christie: Still the Reigning Queen of Crime

Last month I discovered a box filled to the brim with my Agatha Christie novels that had been languishing in storage. Delighted at this reunion, I proceeded to blaze through five novels over a week and came to the conclusion that Agatha Christie still has my vote for the best mystery novelist of all time.

The problem with modern mysteries is the advent of technology. Solving a crime in the digital age has largely become a matter of electronic surveillance, CSI minutiae, and paperwork. It's hard to build up suspense when the lead detectives are just waiting for the lab technicians to compare DNA fragments or analyze gunpowder residues. The best mysteries tend to be the ones where the protagonist is trapped in some remote location without access to all these technological conveniences and has to rely on instinct and intelligence alone. Perhaps that could explain the recent popularity of Scandinavian mystery novelists like Jo Nesbo or Stieg Larsson. After all, you can't get much more remote than Norway or Sweden.

However, when Agatha Christie started writing novels in the 1920s, old-fashioned police work was very much the norm. Doctors could examine the body and give you a pretty accurate time and cause of death, but if you found a hair at the crime scene, all that could tell you was the color of the murderer's hair. Footprints and fingerprints were the most impressive clues you could find and usually Christie refused to provide these. Instead, her detectives had to rely on their "little gray cells" and employ deductive feats of genius. Rather than strewing her crime scenes with a host of clues, Christie's mysteries were utterly character-driven, where understanding the suspects' motives and relationships was the only way you could hope to solve the crime.

The first Christie novel I ever read was Sad Cypress, starring her famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. The novel ends in the courtroom with witnesses providing disparate items of evidence that gradually piece together an incredibly ingenious plot. I was hooked after that one book, and I subsequently spent years buying every Christie novel I could lay my hands on. If you're not much of a reader, the film and TV adaptations of her novels are always entertaining, although some are more faithful to the books than others. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find a single British actor who has not appeared in a Christie adaptation at some point in their career. Movies like Death on the Nile or Murder on the Orient Express had all-star casts in the 1970s and they still hold up today as thoroughly suspenseful and compelling stories.

Agatha Christie wrote 66 novels that ranged widely in terms of settings, characters, and tone. None of her novels feel like a repetition of another and I am always amazed by the creativity and complexity of her plots. If you've never read an Agatha Christie novel, I might suggest starting with her first Poirot novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. You can follow it up with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which has a truly insane and mind-boggling twist. But really, just pick up any Christie novel you can get your hands on. They all showcase the superb craft of the one and only Queen of Crime.

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