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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 September 2005, 10:34 GMT 11:34 UK
The mystery of Agatha Christie
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot
A campaign is under way to champion the work of British crime writer Agatha Christie. But with two billion books sold worldwide, why bother?

JK who?

The best-selling fiction author of all time, named as such in the Guinness Book of Records, should need no publicity push.

But fans of whodunit expert Agatha Christie say she has never fully gained the respect of her native country, where the view persists in some quarters that she's not actually that good.

Novelist Anthony Burgess, for example, accused her of flimsy characterisation and cliché, and the Oxford Companion to English Literature notes her "undistinguished style" and "slight characterisation".

Agatha Christie in 1956
Born in Torquay in 1890
She published 66 novels, 154 short stories and 20 plays
Her books have been translated into over 70 languages
The Mousetrap, which opened in London in 1952, is the longest continuously running play in theatrical history
She wrote six romantic novels under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott.

No such criticism in other parts of the world, including France, where literary giants Roland Barthes and Umberto Eco have praised aspects of her work. In recent years, sales of Christie's books in France have outstripped those in the UK by four to one, while US schoolchildren study her work.

But on the 75th anniversary of one of her most famous creations, Miss Marple, the Devon-born novelist and playwright, who died in 1976, is being relaunched in the UK by Chorion, which owns her brand and estate.

A week of Agatha Christie celebrations is under way with a debate on her legacy at the British Library and a campaign to include her on the national curriculum. New television and theatre adaptations are in production.

But is this inflating the importance of what some consider merely a good read? What can modern readers learn from a world where an eccentric private detective unmasks a killer, in a genteel society with a sinister underbelly?


They can be thrilled, challenged and educated, says Tamsen Harward, crime business manager at Chorion. The aim of the campaign, she says, is not to add to the two billion worldwide book sales but to challenge misconceptions about her worth.

"How come this British woman, whose stories are excellent at gripping the reader, motivating reluctant readers and suitably challenging precocious readers, is not studied in the UK?" she says.

Joan Hickson as Miss Marple
A genteel world with a violent underbelly
"The way she crafts her novels, leaving so much to the imagination but laying out a puzzle, a challenge for the reader to engage with, is still relevant today for readers of any age.

"Also, she's writing about your next-door neighbour, who appears to be a very respectable woman but who is actually writing poisoned pen letters and plotting a murder. You only have to read the newspapers today to see this still goes on."

Themes of greed, passion and what motivates usually sane people to kill are just as compelling now as when they were written, she adds. And the vulnerability of modern detectives such as Morse owes much to the original outsider, Hercule Poirot.

"We're not suggesting that Agatha Christie is Shakespeare but she's a good book to read as a class project or summer reading," says Ms Harward. "She's an author worthy of recognition by her nation."

Lack of artistry

Christie may be a great writer but having her studied in schools is taking it too far, says crime writer Robert Barnard.

"I'm dubious about this. We have been fleeing from the 19th and early 20th Century texts in education. Christie is a fine read. Read her when you're 13 but then forget about her and read Great Expectations. She doesn't stretch them as far as language or psychological complexity is concerned."

We have a desire to believe the world is an English village
Johann Hari
A crime novel will never rival Rushdie or McEwan because it doesn't have the depth but Christie's lack of artistry makes the reader trust her like a newspaper report, he says. And the "beautiful simplicity" of the characters means they are more easily identifiable in other countries.

Columnist and avid Christie fan Johann Hari offers another theory to explain her enduring popularity, which he says even reached Buchenwald concentration camp, where Jewish inmates performed And Then There Were None, and remote Uruguay, where the Tupamaros guerrillas adopted Miss Marple as their honorary leader.

"Christie offers us a world of perfect order and only wicked and evil people disturb that perfect order but they are invariably captured. That's why people in Buchenwald read her - we have a desire to believe the world is an English village."

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