Cracking the case of Agatha Christie

Agatha-200.jpgFirst aired on The Sunday Edition (01/02/11)

"Miss Marple insinuated herself so quietly into my life that I think I hardly noticed her arrival. I just had the idea of an old spinster lady living in a village. The sort of old lady who would have been rather like some of my grandmother's old cronies."
          - Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie is one of the giants of 20th-century literature. She is copied, envied and emulated just as often as she is dismissed as a literary lightweight — regarded as the author of books best read at the cottage or on holiday. Regardless of the latter, readers and movie-goers around the world continue to love her detectives, the frumpy Miss Marple and the fastidious Hercule Poirot.

In her 85 years, Christie was astonishingly prolific. She wrote 66 detective novels, short stories, plays and non-fiction. She even wrote six romance novels under the pen name Mary Westmacott.

Christie was famously shy about dealing with the media. She gave few interviews and generally shunned the public scrutiny that came with success. So, the discovery two years ago of 27 spools of reel-to-reel tape of Christie's musings and recollections gave the world a new and unprecedented glimpse into the writer and her characters.

Her grandson discovered the tapes, about 13 hours in total, hidden inside a dusty cardboard box in a storeroom in Christie's mansion. It was a find that especially delighted Christie biographer Laura Thompson.

Thompson is the author of Agatha Christie: An English Mystery. She spent four years researching the author and was granted unprecedented access to personal papers and archives. According to Thompson, Christie's work is more than a good beach read.

"I think she knew an enormous amount about human nature," Thompson told The Sunday Edition's Michael Enright. "Hidden within the constructs of her novels is this tremendous wisdom and knowledge about people and how they behave."

Thompson takes issue with those who dismiss Christie's detective stories as basic plot-driven reads. She says those critics are mistaking a tremendous skill in writing for simplicity. Christie's novels aren't just about the mystery or the event. They are intensely character-driven.

"There's something about human beings in those books," Thompson later said. "The person who commits the murder does it for a truly convincing reason. The person who is trying to shield someone does it for a truly convincing reason."

Judging from her popularity, those are reasons a lot of readers might just be able to relate to.

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