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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 August 2007, 11:45 GMT 12:45 UK
The genre that just won't die
Murder on the Orient Express

By Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine

Comics are to be Hercule Poirot's latest incarnation. It's the latest twist to crime fiction, a genre constantly reinvented in its 170-year history.

When a story has been told and retold many times, it can wear a little threadbare. So it is with the murder mysteries penned by the original queen of crime, Agatha Christie, now associated with the genteel, sepia-tinged glow of a cosy Sunday in front of the telly.

Death on the Nile
15 Sept 1890 - 12 Jan 1976
First novel - featuring Poirot - published in 1920
66 novels, 154 short stories and 20 plays in 50-year career
Outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare
Translated into 70+ languages

Cosies - that is what such tales are known as in the crime-writing trade. But to her fans, Christie wrote about far more than murder most horrid in the drawing room. Hers are timeless stories filled with tension and deceit, not to mention richly-detailed portraits of a bygone age.

And these make her tales perfect comic book fodder, which is why her publishers of 70 years, HarperCollins, hope that Hercule Poirot et al will appeal to the same young readers who for generations have lapped up the exploits of TinTin, Asterix and more recent heroes of graphic novels - readers who might otherwise be put off the Christie cannon by dated TV repeats.

For those who prefer to use their imagination, 12 Christie novels are being given a facelift with new jackets, just six years after the last revamp. For unlike many of her contemporaries, Christie has never been out of print.

"She's an incredibly important author for us," says Julia Wisdom, HarperFiction's publishing director in charge of crime titles. "They are still very good stories and very clever. And she translates beautifully into any language - the stories are just there, they are not difficult to put across."

* indicates crime title
*1. The Savage Garden, Mark Mills
*2. Next, Michael Crichton
3. The House at Riverton, Kate Morton
4. The Memory Keeper's Daughter, Kim Edwards
*5. The Naming of the Dead, Ian Rankin
6. Getting Rid of Matthew, Jane Fallon
*7. Relentless, Simon Kernick
*8. The Last Testament, Sam Bourne
9. A Spot of Bother, Mark Haddon
10. Whitethorn Woods, Maeve Binchy
Crime fiction in general is a strong source of sales - five of the top 10 selling paperbacks are thriller titles; two are literary chillers on the Richard and Judy reading list, two are by perennial best-selling authors (Michael Crichton and Ian Rankin) and The Last Testament is a chase mystery, a genre made popular again by The da Vinci Code.

"We've also got Val McDermid in the hardback chart with a psychological thriller - quite violent, a lot of forensic detail and she's been televised with Wire in the Blood, which always lifts sales," says Ms Wisdom. McDermid's latest, Beneath the Bleeding, is one of six thrillers in the hardback top 10.

"These are very different books, and that's the key to why crime has endured - it's so adaptable, it will never go stale."

Locked room

While Sherlock Holmes remains one of the world's most famous fictional detectives 120 years after his first appearance, he was by no means the first. In 1841, Edgar Allen Poe wrote a short story titled The Murders in the Rue Morgue.

Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes
Elementary appeal
Mystery and suspense had been a staple of fiction long before this - Lynda "Prime Suspect" LaPlante is among those to credit novelists such as the Brontes and Jane Austen as skilled thriller writers - but this was the first "tale of rationation", as Poe described it, in which a fictional detective solved a crime.

What Arthur Conan Doyle did some 45 years later was to capture the public's imagination with a flawed central character using the latest techniques to puzzle out a mystery. It is a template that remains popular today, with Holmes's "deductive reasoning" replaced by psychological profiling and forensic technology.

And like Holmes, Poirot, Miss Marple and Poe's detective, C Auguste Dupin, reappeared in story after a story. "Best-sellers are always those in a series," says Ms Wisdom. "It's perfect reading for a lot of people - they just love to see a familiar character develop a personal life, happy or unhappy."

Ian Rankin
Ian Rankin says women write blood-thirsty crime fiction
In the 1980s crime writing began to splinter in all directions. Umberto Eco produced The Name of the Rose, single-handedly creating a new genre of literary historical thriller - and crime writing in translation - and Ruth Rendell, writing as Barbara Vine, invented the one-off psychological thriller with A Dark-Adapted Eye in 1986.

Then came books which shifted the action to the forensics lab, largely due to Patricia Cornwall, whose insider knowledge of forensic science provides the visceral veracity popular with crime readers.

Gone are the days when women provided virtually gore-free chillers, while men penned the darker stuff. Today women write more than half of all crime novels, a genre read by a predominantly female audience.

New direction

Among those seeking to reinterpret crime fiction is Welsh author Matt Rees. The Middle East correspondent for the Scotsman and Time magazine has turned novelist with stories of an aging Palestinian teacher turned amateur sleuth in The Bethlehem Murders. The book has just been published in the UK and United States, where it's a Quill Award nominee.

Matt Rees
People always think there are a lot of problems with their society, and there's a desire to have a character that can put that right
Matt Rees
"By far the majority of e-mails I receive about my book are from women, and on a US mystery-reader chatroom where my book was discussed, eight out of 10 contributors were women."

Rees hopes to tap into the new interest in exotic crime fiction, popularised by Alexander McCall Smith's folksy Number One Ladies' Detective Agency and the acclaimed Swedish writer Henning Mankell.

Detective stories can provide insight into an alien society, Rees says from his home in Jerusalem. "I wanted to put across the reality of Palestinians' lives in a genre that would reach a lot of people, and not be based all around politics. Crime fiction is perfect to focus on the reality of life inside someone's head, which journalism can't show."

Rees sees parallels between Palestinian society with the times Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett wrote about in their early detective stories set in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

"The cops are corrupt and the villains have a great deal of confidence, which means that the detective has to overcome his own flaws. That's what makes detective fiction so attractive - people always think there are a lot of problems with their society, and there's a desire to have a character that can put that right.

Joan Hickson as Miss Marple
Murder's about if Miss Marple's around
"Crime fiction can show you something about a society and a character that's incredibly deep, whereas so-called literary fiction is about linguistic pyrotechnics. That's why I've always been a fan of this type of writing."

Publishers, too, believe there is a lot more mileage in the genre. "Like a Greek myth, there's an awful lot writers can do with good crime stories," says Ms Wisdom.

"We like harmony and shape, and that's what a good crime novel gives you - a lovely story arc with a beginning, middle and end - and a morally acceptable outcome, which a lot of post-modern literature will not give you. It can also give you humour, absolute horror, romance, a puzzle. Crime fiction is only going to get bigger."

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