Murder, She Wrote: An inside look at Agatha Christie's pop culture reign, 100 years after her first book
Lovely place, awful crime, splendid people, dark secrets. Agatha Christie’s many book titles offer lavish getaways (on the Orient Express, on the Nile, in the Caribbean) with dark itineraries (Murder, Death, Mystery). Among her plots, corpses turn up on a holiday steamship, a beach, the edge of a golf course. Country manors across the British Isles become crime scenes. One pictures Christie on an expensive vacation, dining with an earl, a duchess, some Ruritanian princeling, and a wealthy widow. The author looks around the dinner table, wondering: How might these fine people kill one another?
This fall marks 100 years since the publication of Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, wherein twice-married matriarch Emily Inglethorp gets poisoned and no one knows whether the strychnine was in her coffee or her evening cup of cocoa (along with its regular dash of medicinal rum). Since then, the author’s novels often arrived twice yearly until her death in 1976, and estimates of book sales require the word “billion,” nay, “billions.” Her play The Mousetrap has run on stage in London for nearly the entire reign of Queen Elizabeth II, starting in 1952 and only breaking on March 16 of this year due to COVID-19, the knave.
It has been a century of undimmed popularity. And the film business has mined Christie’s work for raw material for practically as long as there has been a film business. The first of her stories adapted for the big screen, The Passing of Mr. Quin, came out in 1928. The movies were still silent — and Angela Lansbury was just two years old. Half a century later, she was glamorous, sozzled, and doomed in 1978’s Death on the Nile. She also played Miss Marple, one of Christie’s most iconic characters, in The Mirror Crack’d.
Getting cast in multiple Christie mysteries is a rite of passage for Brits looking for the promise of steady work, especially after the blockbuster success of 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express. The film earned Albert Finney an Oscar nomination as the Belgian super sleuth Hercule Poirot, and just imagine the murderous dinner party one could host with the other acting titans who’ve played Poirot — Charles Laughton (1928’s play Alibi, based on The Murder of Roger Ackroyd) and Peter Ustinov (six different times in films and made-for-TV movies), among them. David Suchet was Poirot on television from 1989 through 2013 (ITV’s series of the same name), and then Kenneth Branagh donned the mustache in his 2017 Orient Express film adaptation. Now Branagh has directed a new Death on the Nile (coming this winter), an act of sequelizing that looks like a semi-quixotic effort to produce a franchise for moviegoers tired of superheroes and space fights.
Direct adaptations of her books don’t have a monopoly on Christie’s influence — 2019’s Knives Out updated the mansion-murder setting with a new world of undocumented labor and alt-right nephews. After Miss Marple, Lansbury was another savvy elder solving quaintly nasty crimes on Murder, She Wrote for 12 years. Although Marple and Poirot weren’t the first cerebral crime solvers, their curious particularities form the DNA of eccentric sleuths across the genre. “I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound” is how the narrator of Styles introduces the reader to Poirot. He could be talking about Tony Shalhoub’s Monk or Emily Deschanel’s Bones — unconventional investigators who pop up wherever quirk is chic. Meanwhile, And Then There Were None, the world’s best-selling murder mystery, directly influenced the Saw franchise, and probably any gleefully nihilist horror story about a serial killer proffering morality.
Do these adaptations and homages really do Christie justice? Her best works present lifestyle tourism with a touch of class-conscious schadenfreude. You enjoy the beautiful aristocrats with their luscious finery — and you get to watch them destroy each other, while perilously underrating the proto-misfit investigators who will ultimately reveal all their secrets. Knives Out (starring Daniel Craig in the funny-accent clue-finder role) forefronted that burn-the-rich sensibility, but that wasn’t exactly a feat, because today’s wealthy don’t pretend to be noble.
Dame Agatha, the socialist? Not quite — a witness for the prosecution needn’t dig deep for offensive material to point to the contrary. Styles casually reveals that one of the titular estate’s lovable inhabitants played Blackface at dress-up night. And Then There Were None has two other titles that are unprintable in this magazine. Christie’s sheer popularity could render her un-cancellable, but it’s inevitable that the bestselling novelist of a planet this large would, at some point, offend several continents. Branagh’s Death on the Nile puts Sophie Okonedo in the role of Salome Otterbourne (formerly held by Lansbury), an imaginative bit of casting that suggests a move toward greater diversity in the Christie brand’s second century.
Certainly, every actor who’s interested should get their shot at Christie on the big screen. Her whodunits might have a familiar (by now) formula, but they offer so much: wonderful costumes, delicious characters, the chance to play seemingly innocent and potentially guilty all at once. She defined the mystery genre with her tone of cozy cynicism, welcoming us to a teatime at which everyone is just suspicious enough to be a suspect. “Every murderer is probably somebody’s old friend,” Poirot says in Styles. Like an old friend, Agatha Christie kills us every time. —Darren Franich
Kenneth Branagh's Essential Christie
Three novels the director says it would be a crime not to read
Death on the Nile
“It contains some of the best writing about primal, lust-driven human behavior.”
The Murder at the Vicarage
“The story makes the English village seem lethal.”
4.50 From Paddington
“Another [Miss] Marple story. It’s brilliantly specific.There’s no guff.”
And Then There Was One: How Kenneth Branagh Became Christie's Biggest Modern Evangelist
Kenneth Branagh wants you to take Agatha Christie seriously. The filmmaker, who helmed 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, delights in the dark side of his source material. “I associate Agatha Christie not with safe drama but with something edgy,” he says. “[Take] the plot of And Then There Were None — it’s almost like Friday the 13th.”
The Belfast-born star is best known for his work on Shakespearean adaptations but has been a fan of Christie’s since childhood, coming to her initially not through novels but the big screen (including the 1945 version). A young Branagh then began to consume her more ghoulish reads, like 1969’s Hallowe’en Party: “She has no problem killing children in that story — her taste never stayed safe.”
Branagh emphasized Christie’s edginess in the stylishly violent Orient Express (which made $353 million worldwide) and does so again with the upcoming Nile, which finds his Hercule Poirot investigating the fatal fallout of a love triangle played by Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, and Emma Mackey. (Branagh calls the book “very lusty.”)
He also teases the prospect of a third Christie film, with Poirot teaming up with Miss Marple (last played on screen by Julia McKenzie in 2013), the author’s other iconic sleuth: “All I’ll say is, it’s a notion that has not gone unconsidered — there is something delicious about the possibility.” —Clark Collis
Agatha Christie's Golden Century
1920: The Mysterious Affair at Styles hits shelves.
1926: The author goes missing for 11 days; her time away is never fully accounted for.
1945: The film And Then There Were None debuts.
1974: Orient Express nabs six Oscar noms.
1976: Christie passes away.
1989: Agatha Christie’s Poirot premieres on ITV.
2020: The Mousetrap pauses its its 68-year theater run.