Agatha Christie's estate reflects on her legacy celebrating her debut novel's 100th anniversary
How many authors are we still talking about 100 years after their debut?
Agatha Christie's The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which turns 100 this year, introduced the world to beloved detective Hercule Poirot, but beyond that it set up Christie to be the best-selling fiction author of all time. Christie is routinely outsold only by Shakespeare and the Bible; she moved over 200 million copies in 2019 alone.
Decades after her death she's still a cultural force to be reckoned with, inspiring hundreds of screen adaptations, still holding the record for the West End's longest-running play, inviting hundreds of thousands of visitors to her U.K. holiday estate, and even being the subject of continuation novels for Poirot penned by Sophie Hannah.
That's quite a century's worth of accomplishments. So to raise a glass (hold the poison) to the true queen of crime fiction, we called up the CEO of Christie's estate, James Prichard, who also happens to be her great-grandson, to discuss the legacy of the Christie-verse on this centenary.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why do you think Christie's novels and characters have endured for a century?
JAMES PRICHARD: Very simply, it's the stories. She just wrote these phenomenal stories. She came up with these ingenious plots. The thing about great stories is that they last forever, and they cross boundaries. Therefore, we're still reading them, watching them, whatever it is, 100 years after the first one was published. And we're watching them and reading them all over the world in multiple languages so it just goes back to that central tenet of she was a fantastic storyteller.
Have you found over the years that interest fluctuates at all or is it pretty steady?
There's always been interest. I would say at the moment we have got perhaps more interest. My father, who's obviously been around this business longer than I have, would say he's never known more interest than we have now, but it's not as if we've come out of nowhere. We've been doing stuff forever, but I think we are at a peak interest now. Like everything really, there are peaks and troughs throughout time. Now is a particularly interesting time, but we've never gone away.
Why do you think there is this peak right now? Is it the Kenneth Branagh films or something else?
It's combination of a lot of things. In the U.K., [we have] our BBC shows that started with And Then There Were None and then we moved through Witness for the Prosecution and Ordeal by Innocence and ABC Murders, and then recently, with The Pale Horse. But I think the Branagh movie has worked on a different scale. My father would tell you that the first really big transformational piece in business was the first Murder on the Orient Express with Albert Finney in the 1970s. There is nothing to replicate the scale of a Hollywood movie. You do $350 million at the box office worldwide, it gets you more eyeballs and more recognition than anything else.
For this enduring popularity, how essential do you think Poirot is to that equation? Did his being the hero of the first novel play a role?
There's no doubt he's the key to the whole thing. He was her major character. He appears in almost half of the books. He's the only fictional character ever to have an obituary in the New York Times. [But] it goes without saying that Poirot would be nothing without her. She did invent this character who still has this place in fiction. To some extent, the two go together. But And Then There Were None is still her best-selling book, so he wasn't the only thing and Miss Marple plays a role as well.
Are there titles that are consistently the most popular?
There are four or five which stand out and always have. What is extraordinary is how it flattens off, but actually, almost everything sells to a level. Considering there are about 80 titles, it is still extraordinary that all of them sell well. And Then There Were None stands out head and shoulders above all of them, then you probably get Murder on the Orient Express and that was even before the most recent movie. Then, you get Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Death on the Nile.
How often do you see or read something and think my great-grandmother created that or they're riffing on something she did?
If you take the concept of And Then There Were None, whether subliminally or deliberately, it's the template to all sorts of movies be it Seven or even Alien. This group of golden age writers invented the crime genre; the detective club came up with a list of rules that you had to follow if you wanted to write crime fiction. I think most current crime [and mystery] writers doff their cap to that group and accept that that they set the standard. Not all of them are writing in that vein. But I think it's very difficult for crime writers to say they haven't been influenced at all, even if it was to move away from what she did.
Her legacy endures through licensing, be it screen adaptations, plays, even video games. How do you field and make your decision on those requests?
It does tend to work a little bit haphazardly. Some things come to us, sometimes we go to other people. But what we always do, is we pick our partners very carefully. Once we've picked our partners, be they the production entity, be they the writer or all those things, then we trust that. That is the key to it. I'm not a great filmmaker; I'm not a great play director. I do understand what the essence of Agatha Christie is and what it needs to be. But once we've agreed on that bit, I hope I can let people be, [let] Ken Branagh or whoever get on and do their job.
Since 2014 you've continued the Poirot stories with novels by Sophie Hannah including this fall's The Killings at Kingfisher Hall. How did that all come together?
That was a classic case of us having an idea and someone else having an idea at the same time, and it all coming together. For a long time, we'd worked on the basis that this wasn't something we were interested in. To each of our surprise both my father and I at about the same time thought actually maybe it could be quite interesting, and then we went and talked to our English language publishers about it. They said, "Well that's funny because we had Sophie Hannah's agent in last week and apparently she has an idea and was wondering if there was any chance that you'd let her do it." I feel that Sophie was meant to be. We love what she's done. She writes really interesting stories for Poirot, but it was complete serendipity.
What was it about her or her ideas that made you feel she was the right person to do this?
When you've been doing this a while, you have a feel quite quickly for someone who gets it, and understands what the essence of Agatha Christie is. Sophie is a massive Agatha Christie fan. She's a huge expert on the books. She's read them many times, but more than that she understands it. She just had an idea that seemed to work and we went with it. To some extent, it's a gut feel. What Sophie was very clear about and one of the things that we liked was she wanted to write Poirot stories, not Agatha Christie stories. That's quite an interesting nuance. She wasn't trying to write as Agatha Christie; she was trying to write a Poirot novel as Sophie Hannah. That's quite a big distinction and an important one.
Would you do it with any of the other characters besides Poirot?
I don't know. The obvious thing to do would be to do something similar with Miss Marple. I wouldn't want to leave Miss Marple out forever. I've got a renewed respect for Miss Marple, and I think she does deserve a bit more attention. Mind you, she's spent her whole life being overshadowed by Poirot so she's probably used to by now. It'd be nice to give her a moment in the sun.
Besides Sophie, is there someone writing today you think is a worthy inheritor of the legacy?
I'm not sure. There are loads of writers I admire massively. What's extraordinary about my great-grandmother is she sits head and shoulders above everyone else. She is the bestselling novelist of all time. That's not the bestselling crime novelist, bestselling female novelist, best selling British novelist, she's the best selling novelist. There's no one who sits above the whole genre in the way that she did.
There's a hunger for more biographical information on her and Greenway, her holiday home, is now a tourist attraction and National Trust property. How do you balance that public interest in her life with her penchant for privacy?
She kind of broke that by writing her autobiography. She can't have it all ways. Yes, she was a very private person and she didn't give a lot of interviews and all that, but she did write her autobiography. Toward the end of her life that was part of her coming to terms with people's interest in her and where she came from and what she did. To me, it's a privilege that people are so interested in her. And therefore, I think we should and honestly do try and answer questions if they come about and give people access to whatever it is about her. Greenway gets roughly 100,000 visitors a year. That's just extraordinary. You do get a feel for her there. There's something about it that tells you something about her.
You mentioned before how Christie is right alongside Shakespeare in terms of popularity and sales. Do you find any sort of delicious alignment in the fact that Kenneth Branagh, who was previously most associated with Shakespeare to audiences, has now taken up her mantle?
What I find delight in is the fact that a director and actor of Ken's magnitude wants to both direct and play the part of Hercule Poirot. We are therefore bracketed with Shakespeare. It is putting Poirot as a part on the same plane as Hamlet and Macbeth. We have serious people taking Agatha Christie seriously. That's incredibly humbling and rewarding.
Do you have a personal favorite book or adaptation?
I love things like Murder on the Orient Express and And Then There Were None because they're incredibly clever. They show how she could take the genre to pieces and put it back together again and make the impossible work. I was once asked what's the best written Agatha Christie novel? My answer to that is A Murder is Announced. It shows a particular time in England, and it's very much about what it was like to be alive in the 1950s, as well as being a great crime novel. I have some favorites adaptation wise. I loved And Then There Were None that we did with the BBC a few years ago. It really showed a change in what we were trying to do. It was a step in a different direction, and it changed people's perceptions of what we can do. [Writer] Sarah Phelps actually taught me about my great-grandmother's work. I read them very differently now as a result of speaking to her and reading her scripts and watching her show.
There are two particular things that she pointed out to me. One of which is actually they are serious books. She was very adamant that these were not fluffy little parlor game mysteries. She took the crime seriously; there were consequences and all that. The other thing she showed me was there is a view that Agatha Christie wrote about Agatha Christie's England in Agatha Christie's time. People think of it being late 1920s, 1930s, but actually all these books were written about the time that they were written in.
What do you wish people thought about more when it comes to Agatha Christie?
I do think she is underestimated as a person, and particularly, as a woman. She was a woman born in Torquay in England in 1890. She lived most of the 20th-century, and she achieved all these things. I don't quite think that gets the recognition it deserves. If I could leave a legacy, it'd be that she does move up the ranks of respect. For too long, people underestimated her.