“When Agatha Christie died in January 1976, she was undoubtedly the most famous detective story writer in the world,” wrote critic Julian Symons in The Bedside, Bathtub & Armchair Companion to Agatha Christie (Riley & McAllister, p. xv). If anything, Dame Agatha is more popular in 2010 than she was when the Companion—-a compendium of articles, reviews and original prose related to Christie’s work—was first published. New productions of Christie novels and stories are currently appearing on PBS’s “Masterpiece Mystery” series. Literary scholars are attempting to analyze her success. A linguistic “code” has been attributed to Christie that purportedly hypnotizes readers into continually leafing through her books (Agatha Christie Code).
As the author of four of the Christie articles in the Companion, I was as caught up as my fellow contributors with the nuts and bolts of Christie’s popularity. How did she do it? The entire Companion was devoted to an analysis of Christie’s techniques: plot devices, character development, ingenious methods of murder. In addition, we looked at such things as the type of food served in a Christie mystery, weapons used, atmospheric settings, and even social conventions such as gossip—-in short, all the elements that could contribute to the interesting writing Christie’s books display.
The idea that Agatha Christie’s popularity is based on some kind of linguistic code doesn’t hold up, simply because movies of her works are just as engaging as her books, and these films do not follow the “code” outlines as they have been set forth (see below). At the time of her death, over 20 movies had been adapted from Christie novels and short stories—since that time more have been produced, largely for television by the BBC. The 2010 “Masterpiece Mystery” series, for example, gives viewers lavishly produced 90-minute dramas with some of Britain’s most accomplished actors in leading roles.
American audiences are probably familiar with high-profile feature films such as “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957), directed by Billy Wilder, starring Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power and Charles Laughton, and “Murder on the Orient Express (1974), directed by Sidney Lumet, with Albert Finney starring as Christie’s famous detective, Hercule Poirot. The ensemble cast of “Orient Express” included Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Vanessa Redgrave and Sean Connery, among others. These big budget films were highly successful mystery movies in their own right, because of strong plots, deft character development, and of course, a superb “twist” at the end of the story—-Christie’s trademark.
To claim that the enduring appeal of Agatha Christie is based on a linguistic code may be fascinating to our computer oriented society, but the concept seems weak in light of Christie’s genius. Elements of the “code” include word repetition (using the same word five or six times in a single paragraph), and the use of key phrases—-such as “keep an eye on this” or, “a day or two”—sprinkled throughout the story; according to The Agatha Project, which analyzed Christie’s work, phrases such as these cause excessive brain activity as well as positive mental reactions from Christie readers (BBC News).
While word repetition might be pleasing to some readers in that it allows a familiarity with the work and doesn’t distract from clues (BBC News), this does not explain the popularity of the Christie movies and the continued success of the PBS television presentations. No one watching these high-production-value, made-for-TV movies is counting the number of times the word “engagement,” for example, is used in a single block of speech—if in fact it is spoken repeatedly, which is unlikely. The same is no doubt true of Christie’s film adaptations: “Murder on the Orient Express,” to cite just one, ranks among the highest grossing British films ever produced (Riley & McAllister), and is still being shown on television. Anyone asked to comment on this film’s success would most surely mention the riveting plotline and the emotional elements of character presentation as the outstanding features in the movie.
With over two billion copies of her books sold to readers all over the world, Dame Agatha Christie remains the world’s best-selling writer (BBC News). Her appeal is based on complex plots which capture the reader’s imagination; it is enhanced by a myriad of interesting technical intricacies such as analyses of poisons, descriptions of country houses, and details of historical events. And there is an element of magic in Christie’s work that will probably never be explained by a computer program. As Julian Symons put it: “That conjurer’s sleight of hand, the infinitely various tricks of this Cleopatra of old Thames, will keep her best work fresh and fascinating to each new generation of readers as long as detective stories are read” (Riley & McAllister, p.xix ).
Maybe some mysteries…should be kept a mystery.
Agatha Christie Code (2008), Put a Ruffle on It, Retrieved September 14, 2010 from http://putaruffleonit.wordpress.com/2008/01/21/agatha-chrisite-code/
BBC News, “Linguists Study Christie’s Appeal” (2005), retrieved September 14, 2010 from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/4539956.stm
Riley, S. & McAllister, P. (1979), The Bedside, Bathtub & Armchair Companion to Agatha Christie. New York, N.Y.: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.
The Agatha Christie Code, femail.com.au (2008), Retrieved September 14, 2010 from http://www.femail.com.au/the-christie-code.htm