As we observed International Women’s day on 8th of this month, I felt I have to write about one lady whose books I read with same enthusiasm whenever I lay my hands on them from the last 18 years. The lady is Agatha Christie who entered the scene of crime fiction that was considered as a stronghold of men till then and was successful in an enormous way. It may be argued that her writing started out as an imitation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or the quality of her writing stands just a notch below the creator of Sherlock Holmes. But in quantity and popularity-wise Agatha Christie stands tall.
All her books are best sellers and in sales stand third only to Shakespeare plays and Bible. She is the most translated individual writer and her play The Mouse Trap holds the record for the longest running play. It is still running continuously after 50 years and has played more than 25000 times. Audience is asked not to reveal its twist ending after the play. (Quite recently I happened to watch another play that parodies the plots of detective stories generally and of this play particularly. More on that on a future post.)
Two of the great characters which Agatha Christie gifted the readers are Miss Marple, an old lady who lives alone and solves crimes in her spare time, and Hercule Poirot, the ego centric Belgian private detective who uses his “little grey cells” to enter the dark alleys of the criminal minds and expose them. The first Agatha Christie novel I read was Thirteen Problems, a Miss Marple mystery translated in Malayalam. By that time I had read a few novels of Holmes like Sign of Four and Hound of Baskerville. There was an English series aired in Doordarshan based on certain Poirot stories that I started watching. Fascinated by his antics, I started reading the novels where Poirot appears as central character, like The Mysterious affairs of Styles and The Big Four.
Agatha Christie never liked Poirot, who she felt was a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep”. But the public felt otherwise and wisely she never killed him off till her end unlike Doyle who bumped off Holmes to gain time for pursuing other interests and had to make him return from dead for the sake of public demand. Most of the Poirot books are strikingly similar to Holmes in their plotting. Like Dr Watson, there will be a narrator in majority of them who also serves as an assistant to the detective, the most repeated being Hastings. Another stock character is the police officer who starts investigation erroneously and later seeks help from him and finally takes the credit of the findings. If it is Lestrade in Holmes canon, here it is Inspector Japp.
But Mrs Marple was Agatha Christie’s favorite character. Her gentleness and other virtues may be the reason. Or it may be the stormy first marriage of Christie that caused her to like the solitary life of Miss Marple. Miss Marple novels are generally arm chair detective stories sans much action. She uses her huge experience of village life to see inside the minds of people and deduce their reasons for their deeds. There are stories which do not feature Marple or Poirot. One that I remember now is And Then There Were None. An Indian movie version (watered down) was made years before titled Gumnaam, famous for its haunting song Gumnaam hai koi… sung by Lata Mangeshkar. Recently I had one of the most comforting reading sessions in my life when, after months of reading several serious non- fiction books, I desperately wanted some light reads and found solace in an omnibus volume of four Poirot novels.