Sunday, January 29, 2012

Agatha Christie

A blog about mystery novels has to begin with Agatha Christie, the Grand Dame of Mystery. Decades after her death, she is still widely popular, thanks to the many adaptations of her novels and short stories on television. Her iconic detectives, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, are models for many other fictional detectives. 
       I discovered Agatha Christie when my grandmother died and left me many of her books, including quite a few Christie mysteries. I was hooked. I have read and reread all of them numerous times. The thing I love about her books is they never get old---even though I know "who dunnit" I always enjoy reading them. I also like that they are not anachronistic. Even though many of her works are set in between the two world wars in England, a time and a place I am not familiar with, they never seem dated and her characters always seem relatable. 
       Although I like Miss Marple, my favorite detective is Hercule Poirot. The round little man with the enormous moustaches who relies on "the little grey cells" rather than brawn is the hero to all of us out of shape wannabe detectives, who fancy we can solve the latest mysteries from our armchairs. The fact that he is a Belgian in the notoriously xenophobic Britain of his time allows was a stroke of genius. It allows Christie to criticize many aspects of British society that she may not have had the courage to do otherwise. The "fish out of water" aspect also lends itself to some comedic moments. Hastings, the Watson to Poirot's Sherlock, provides a nice foil as the British everyman who is easily led astray, especially by "a woman with auburn hair." Their odd-couple friendship is touching and also provides for some comedy. 
        It is hard to pick a favorite Poirot mystery. Murder on the Orient Express is a favorite, as is Death on the Nile, and  Murder in Mesopotamia. Some of the weaker ones I think are Third Girl, and The Big Four
         A lesser character who is also much fun is Ariadne Oliver. A self-caricature of Christie, she has a very active imagination and is always a great believer in "women's intuition." We first meet her in Cards on the Table
         Of the actors who have portrayed Poirot, David Suchet is the most believable. He has been Poirot in the ITV produced Agatha Christie's Poirot since 1989. In terms of looks and mannerisms, no one can match him. Others, such as Peter Ustinov and Alfred Molina overemphasize his pompousness and quirks, almost making him a caricature. Suchet is very subtle and makes Poirot relatable to the audience. 
          I have not seen all of the movies and television programs based on Christie's Poirot, but there are some I like better than others. I have to admit I am a purist, and I dislike when the tv adaptations take too many liberties with the books. Murder on the Orient Express (the Suchet version) is a prime example. It includes scenes that were never in the book and makes Poirot appear sanctimonious, which he never was in the books. The adaptation of the short story The Chocolate Box, is another example. Here, Poirot is given a backstory, and we are made to believe that he regretted being a bachelor. In the books, Poirot always intimated that he was quite happy being single. 
           Miss Marple is the Christie's other great creation. Unlike Poirot, who is an entirely fictional character, she is based on a real person: Christie's grandmother. She is like Poirot in that she is an unlikely detective. She is, like Poirot, elderly, but she has an exceptional mind. She has lived all her life in St. Mary Mead village, but as she always says, that has given her an opportunity to study humankind and observe how people are much the same everywhere. She is the stereotypical spinster, butting her nose into people's business, but is never unkind or bossy. She benefits from being unobtrusive and not taken seriously. Her "sidekicks" are the Colonel and Mrs Bantry, and to some extent, her nephew Raymond West and his wife Joan. She is also friends with Sir Henry Clithering, former head of Scotland Yard, and Colonel Melchett. 
        I have not seen many of the television series about Miss Marple, so cannot really comment on them. It is rumored that Disney is planning to film a Miss Marple series, set in the contemporary United States, starring Jennifer Garner. This has the potential to be really good or really bad.
I think my favorite Miss Marple book is The Body in the Library.      
     There are several other detectives that Christie employs, such as Tommie and Tuppence and Mr. Quinn, as well as some of her novels in which none of the regular detectives appear, but cannot compare to Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, at least in my opinion. 

What do you think, readers? What  Agatha Christie books are your favorite?

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