Queen of Crime: Agatha Christie or Val McDermid? Legal threats are no way to treat Scots crime writing legend – Martyn McLaughlin

Every good crime novel needs drama, intrigue, and above all, an antagonist.

There are few, if any, instances where that role has been played by an intellectual property lawyer, but as the old adage goes, reality is stranger than fiction.

This week, Val McDermid, one of Scotland’s most celebrated writers, revealed she had been threatened with legal action over the use of the phrase, “Queen of Crime”, because it has been trademarked by the estate of the late Agatha Christie.

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Speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Fife novelist told of her surprise after learning her publisher had received a ‘cease and desist’ letter, warning them not to describe her in such terms.

Agatha Christie signs French editions of her books, circa 1950 (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)Agatha Christie signs French editions of her books, circa 1950 (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Agatha Christie signs French editions of her books, circa 1950 (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

As McDermid told the festival, the Christie lawyers warned of serious repercussions if their demands were not met, explaining: “They said, ‘You must cease and desist referring to Val McDermid as the Queen of Crime. We have trademarked this expression. If you call Val McDermid as the Queen of Crime, you will be in breach of copyright and this trademark.

“You may continue to quote other people calling her the Queen of Crime and obviously you cannot prevent someone calling her Queen of Crime on a platform during the event. But should you use this title elsewhere, in other ways, then you will be in breach and our lawyers will be in touch.’”

McDermid also claimed to have been sent personal correspondence from James Prichard, Christie's great-grandson and the chairman and chief executive of Agatha Christie Limited, the company that has managed the literary and media rights to Christie's works around the world since 1955.

According to McDermid, Prichard told her he was “shocked” to see a poster in Edinburgh referring to her by the sobriquet, adding: “You must understand there is nothing personal in this, but we must protect my great grandmother's legacy.”

Really? Is the legacy of Christie so fragile, that the merest mention of another so-called ‘Queen of Crime’ on a back-cover blurb or a promotional billboard risks fatally undermining it?

As well as McDermid, other writers, such as Martina Cole, have been dubbed the ‘Queen of Crime’ by fans, reviewers and publicists over the years – to no obvious detriment to Christie or her legacy.

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Val McDermid reveals ‘Queen of Crime’ legal threat from Agatha Christie estate

It is more than a century since Christie introduced the world to Hercule Poirot with the publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and 46 years have passed since her death. Yet time has not dulled her appeal, with her perfectly constructed stories and smart sub-plots inspiring countless generations of readers and writers alike.

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She remains the best selling novelist in history, with her 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections selling over a billion copies in the English language, and a billion more via translations.

The latest film adaptation of Death on the Nile opened in cinemas earlier this year with healthy box office takings and generally favourable reviews, while the first official Chinese language television adaptation of Poirot aired this month, opening up a fruitful new market.

Indeed, the latest accounts of Agatha Christie Limited reveal just how lucrative her estate remains. Despite a raft of theatre and cinema closures due to the pandemic, the company announced post-tax profits of £9.7m last year on turnover of £16.2m; Prichard and his fellow directors shared emoluments worth £625,000.

The accounts do not specify how much of that revenue has come from licensed goods sold via a raft of trademarks owned by the company, but a quick look on its website makes it clear that it does not just offer books to buy – you can also pick up official ‘Queen of Crime’ branded cushion covers, silk scarves, and even organic cotton pyjamas – a snip at £160.

Can we be absolutely sure that the purpose of legal threats issued to McDermid’s publishers is to protect Christie’s legacy, and not to ensure that the licensing cash keeps coming in? After all, time is ticking; Christie’s copyrighted works are due to enter the public domain in Britain in 2047, after which everyone will have free reign to create their own adaptations, for better or worse.

Of course, Prichard, the wider Christie family, and the shareholders of Agatha Christie Limited have every right to make hay while the sun shines. That is their prerogative. But how they go about that is another matter altogether.

McDermid has described the actions of Prichard as “astonishingly pitiful”, and it is hard to disagree with her assessment. Not only are the legal threats disproportionate; they fail to acknowledge that McDermid herself has been one of Christie’s biggest champions.

At a time when the crime writing industry has embraced darker and grittier plots, McDermid has always praised her works. Indeed, she has said it was the 1930 novel, The Murder at the Vicarage, that inspired her to become a writer.

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“It’s no exaggeration to say that it set me on a path I’ve been happy to follow for 30 years,” she explained in 2015. “Nobody turns a plot with more skill than Christie. She was clever, cunning and original.”

The legal threats are even more galling when you consider that McDermid is one of 12 writers to have contributed original short stories featuring Jane Marple for a new collection designed to introduce a new wave of readers to one of Christie’s most famous creations.

The book is due to be released next month. Given how she has been treated, McDermid would be well within her rights to forgo any publicity commitments to coincide with its release, but I suspect, and hope, that she will prove a point by continuing to celebrate Christie and the influence she has had on her.

All hail McDermid, the true Queen of Crime.