Juliet Dunlop: No mystery ... Agatha’s the best

We are all big Agatha Christie fans in our house. Okay, hands up, I am the big Agatha Christie fan in our house.
Juliet Dunlop. Picture: Ian RutherfordJuliet Dunlop. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Juliet Dunlop. Picture: Ian Rutherford

In fact, I hope you appreciate this week’s offering. I am hunched over a lukewarm laptop on a wet Wednesday night when really I should be reclining on the nearest art deco chaise longue, crème de menthe at my side, pince-nez swinging from my finger, enjoying the latest episode of Poirot, starring my old friend and all-round good egg, David Suchet. (I have not actually met David Suchet but I’m sure we’d get on. And besides, he IS Poirot, isn’t he? Peter Ustinov wasn’t bad in Death on the Nile, but Suchet lives and breathes the part and is generally marvellous, hence the “old friend” status.)

My sacrifice is all the greater because Poirot, after expertly mincing his way across our television screens for the last 24 years, is hanging up his two-sizes-too-small homburg. Mon Dieu! I don’t even want to think about next week and the final ever Poirot, in which *spoiler alert* our favourite little Belgian detective will dab his moustachioed mouth for the very last time and exit stage left.

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But while millions (and me) may mourn his TV passing, Hercule lives on – and I don’t just mean the repeats. The fussy little solver of murder mysteries who appears in no fewer than 33 books and 50 short stories – almost all of them fiendishly clever – is soon to be resurrected in print. It was recently announced that author Sophie Hannah had been commissioned to write a new Hercule Poirot novel, 38 years after Christie killed him off. The reboot follows in the footsteps of the new James Bond and Sherlock Holmes stories – a huge responsibility for any author, let alone one who inherits an audience as devoted as Christie’s.

And that’s the thing about Agatha. If you thought her dry and dusty, it’s worth remembering that her novels have sold around four billion copies. Only Shakespeare and the Bible outrank her. And not only is she popular, her fellow crime writers have just voted her the best in the business. This week, her 1926 whodunit The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, starring none other than M. Poirot, was named the best crime novel ever written.

Christie herself was named best-ever author in the poll, which was held to mark the 60th anniversary of the Crime Writers’ Association – no mean feat when you consider the competition. Christie was on a shortlist of authors which included everyone from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Raymond Chandler and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, with its unexpected plot twist and unreliable narrator, trounced both The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Big Sleep.

So why, after all these years, is Agatha Christie still the Queen of Crime? I’m certainly no crime fiction expert and I wouldn’t dream of going on a murder mystery weekend – let’s just be clear about that (well, maybe if it involved the Orient Express…) – but Christie is, I think, a bit of a genius. Yes, at times she is a terrible snob and her novels are dated – they were when they were published – but the sense of place and structure, the clipped, unsentimental dialogue and seamless plotting makes them endlessly enjoyable. It’s also true that her characters are perhaps thinly drawn and sometimes strangely lacking in emotion, but she is an acute and clever observer; her understanding of human nature, how low and wicked and greedy we all are, is as relevant today as it was in 1920, when Poirot made his first appearance.

The enduring appeal of her writing, although much is owed to the hugely successful adaptations, may also be down to the frightfully English, terribly proper, outwardly uncomplicated nature of most of the stories. There is nothing of the bleak, psychological darkness of Holmes and remarkably little blood and gore. Christie is often a poisoner, a quiet, sophisticated, dispassionate killer capable of surprising cruelty. She is also a woman.

Perhaps that explains why unlike Poirot, Christie didn’t kill off her other famous creation, Miss Marple. The old lady simply carries on. A bit like Christie, really, whose little grey cells never stopped working. It’s just a pity the little Belgian has to die next week. Au revoir, Monsieur Poirot. I’ll miss you.