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Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie by Mark Campbell
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Since her debut in 1920 with The Mysterious Affair At Styles, Agatha Christie has become the chief proponent of the English village murder mystery. Although she created two enormously popular characters - the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, and the inquisitive elderly spinster and amateur sleuth Miss Jane Marple of St Mary Mead - it is not generally acknowledged that she wrote in many different genres: comic mysteries (Why Didn't They Ask Evans?), atmospheric whodunits (Murder On The Orient Express), espionage thrillers (N or M?), romances (under the pseudonym of Mary Westmacott), plays (The Mousetrap) and poetry. She was never afraid to break the rules either, and provoked a storm of controversy with the unorthodox resolution of The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd, now acclaimed as one of the classics of British crime fiction. Christie wrote complex whodunits in a clear, readable style, which is why her books are as popular now as they were 80 years ago. Exemplary film and TV adaptations (Peter Ustinov and David Suchet as Poirot, Margaret Rutherford and Joan Hickson as Miss Marple), have also encouraged new readers to search out her work. As well as an informed introduction to the Christie phenomenon, this book examines all her novels and short stories. The film, TV and stage adaptations are listed, and the appendices point you to books and websites where you can find out more.
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Title: Agatha Christie
Author: Mark Campbell
It was the covers that did it for me. I would peruse the crime shelves of our local Bournemouth bookshops – a scrawny tenyear- old with unruly blonde hair and National Health glasses – and drink deeply of those violent, nightmarish images: telephones dripping with blood, skulls grinning out of golf-balls, eyeballs poking from blood-spattered tennis racquets… it’s a wonder I wasn’t scarred for life. (Actually, that’s a moot point.) And each time I’d slide a book from the shelf, the name ‘Agatha Christie’ in big, bold letters would stare back at me (like that dratted eyeball).Yes, she – and Dick Francis, ugh, his covers were terrifying too – would guarantee a brief spine-chilling thrill in the bustling first floor of WH Smith, when I was probably supposed to be looking for Enid Blyton. Then a few years later I read one. It was Murder on the Orient Express.Well, all I can say is I’ve never seen such a flagrant flaunting of the Trades Description Act.Where was the dripping blood? The gouged eyeballs? The grinning skull on a mound of worm-infested earth? They were nowhere to be seen. All I got was a posh train, a load of upper-class people speaking in oldfashioned language, and a very confusing story about one person after another being accused of killing someone (in a very bloodless way, I was disappointed to find).The covers may have promised blood and guts (those ‘70s cover artists – what were they on?), but the contents couldn’t be more different – they were as gentle and dated as a pat on the shoulder from your great-aunt. So I didn’t read many more after that. (After a brief love affair with the Pan Books of Horror Stories, I turned to James Herbert and the odd Stephen King. Gouged eyeballs aplenty there.) But of course the thing I’d missed – the thing that those covers claimed in spades – was that these light, genteel murder mysteries were far more gripping precisely because they were so bloodless. Death stalked in broad daylight down some country lane, a person everyone hated would end up murdered in a conspicuous location, all the villagers would be suspected… it wasn’t the blood that was scary, it was the paranoia. And you can’t paint paranoia on a book cover. As a child, the idea of paranoia was too abstract to get my head round – it’s an adult fear really and, thankfully, most of the time it has no basis in reality (except, of course, for us writers). But it happens all the time with Agatha Christie. Pick up one of her books and you will have absolutely no idea whodunit – it could be anyone.And I mean anyone.And there’s nothing cosy about that, is there? We need reassurance, we need to tell the goodies from the baddies. It’s a strange and rather terrifying notion when we can’t, and Christie delights in denying us this privilege. She will choose who’s guilty, she will deceive with her bluff and double-bluff, she will show you just who’s in charge. And you, the reader, stumble blindly in her shadow. Paranoia goes hand-in-hand with claustrophobia, and thus Christie’s best stories are ones that make a feature of small settings and small casts. Her globetrotting thrillers automatically disappoint by moving around so much – we need to feel isolated, trapped; be it in a hotel on a desolate island or the book-lined study of a smart country house snowed up for the winter. Christie is an absolute genius at using similar ingredients over and over, and yet each time providing new thrills, new twists, new rushes of anticipation and horror. Even the worst of her books has its own unique frisson of excitement. She just can’t help it – even in her eighties, she still came up with the goods.
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