Can you really have a discussion on the mystery novel without mentioning Agatha Christie? In the 21st century, we tend to think of her mysteries as “traditional” at best, “quaint” at worst. All the clichés from “the butler did it” to the gathering of the suspects in the same room for the denouement. But something can’t just become a cliché. It has to come from somewhere, and when Dame Agatha was writing her brand of mysteries, her ideas were fresh and new and interesting. The people in her drawing rooms and on her trips down the Nile were people in her social set, certainly not ours. It was definitely about a certain place and time, freeze-framed and kept inside a snowglobe of nostalgia. We don’t get tired of them. She still sells, one of the many bestselling dead people. Her detectives didn’t change, didn’t get married or decide to go back to school or go after fuller lives. They were what they were. (Of course, the exception here is Hercule Poirot when he made his final exit in Curtain, and we do mean final exit. She killed off her mustachioed detective only a year before she herself shuffled off this mortal coil.)
No matter what genre of mystery we write, we have been touched in some way by the ground she covered before us. We can’t help but compare our writing to her deceptively simple style. We may not gather our suspects together to point that accusing finger, but we are darned tempted to.
She wrote nineteen plays, one of them being The Mousetrap. I played one of the victims in this play when I was in high school. There was a reverence about doing the play, even then, when my mind was far from the possibility of writing mysteries for a living. Not only because of how venerable she was but, at that point in time, she was still alive. It was a bit like performing Shakespeare with the man standing there. (Incidentally, I gave a sterling performance. I died well.)
Recently, her grandson made a find when cleaning out one of her houses. He came across tape recordings of Dame Agatha talking about her characters and her writing, something she seldom did. They will be released for her 118th birthday. You can read more of the story here.