So let me see if I’ve got this right – this brilliant detective, who solves every baffling case he encounters, just happens to take the last available berth on a sleeper train on the very same night that some fiendishly cunning plotters plan to commit an impossible-to-solve murder- and the detective ends up solving the mystery? Hmmm, I’m not sure people will find that plausible. I mean, it’s rather a coincidence, isn’t it? And the actual murder plot – it’s very clever, of course, but would readers believe that would ever happen? Would it ever happen?”
If Murder on the Orient Express had not been written by Agatha Christie when it was, and therefore did not yet exist, and if a contemporary crime writer were to pitch that very same idea to her editor, the above quote is what I imagine the reaction would be. I also suspect that pitching the plot of Christie’s And Then There Were None might, in 2013, net you an equally discouraging response. And Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? “Would someone really say, ‘Why didn’t they ask Evans?’ immediately before he died? I’m not sure readers will buy into that.”
In all these instances, the contemporary writer, after being shown the “Yes, but how likely is it really?” card, might backtrack and say, “Well, yes, come to think of it, I’ve never heard of that happening in real life. So would you rather I wrote something about a drug dealer shooting another drug dealer? And should he be caught by a fingerprint match on the database rather than by an infallible genius with a flamboyant moustache?”
Hercule Poirot – who is about to star in his 67th televisual adventure, portrayed by the wonderful David Suchet – would, I trust, say, “Non! Pas du tout.” And Christie, if so challenged by an editor, would (I firmly believe) not have backed down. I like to think she’d have looked astonished and said, “But I want to tell the best and most exciting story I can, because that’s what readers like. Bore me later with your database fingerprint matches.” (All right, I’ll concede that she probably wouldn’t have said, “Bore me later”; her good manners would have prevented it.)
When she died in 1976 at the age of 86, Christie had written 88 Poirot stories (33 novels, 54 short stories and one play). All the books will have been adapted for television by the time Suchet reaches the end of this last series. Factor in the classic films and radio adaptations, not to mention her other most famous creation Miss Marple, and it is clear the world can’t get enough of Christie.
I believe there are several reasons for Christie’s phenomenal global popularity, but the main one is that she prioritised the telling of a great and surprising story above all else, and she allowed her excitement about the possibilities of narrative to shine through in her work. It’s often said of crime fiction that its central appeal for readers is that it can be relied upon to provide gripping plots, which is true. But Christie’s work offers more than that: not merely the telling of a superb story, but, crucially, the evident relish of the telling.
When you read an Christie novel, you absolutely sense how thrilled she is by the clues she’s strewn across your path for you to misinterpret or ignore. You can sense, behind the text, that gleeful authorial, “Tee hee! You’re never going to get there before me – I’ve been too clever for you again! I’m particularly pleased with clue X or clue Y!”
Christie understood that stories are a kind of magic, and many of her plots are rather like magic tricks: something is happening, or seems to have happened, that some other known fact of the situation makes utterly impossible.
How can the impossible have occurred? Time and time again (think of 4.50 from Paddington, where a dead body simply must be on the train, and yet there is no body) Christie shows we were wrong to believe something to be impossible – we simply weren’t imaginative enough. Her plots, which are often masterpieces of outlandishness, expand our imaginative capacity and our sense of the possible. On a real train, there might be no disappearing body but instead two businessmen arguing about mobile-phone use in the Quiet coach. Much more plausible. Also much duller.
Sensibly, Christie didn’t care how likely it was that a particular plot scenario would happen in real life. Maybe it would never happen, and had never happened – all that mattered was that it could in theory. Similarly, Poirot and Miss Marple might seem unrealistically successful as detectives, solving every case they encounter, but so what? Christie understood that narrative satisfaction – the clever solution at the end of every mystery, after we’ve nearly bitten off all our nails in our desperation to find out the answer – is a more important consideration than “Would it actually happen?” Are there any real-life detectives who have a one hundred per cent success rate? No, probably not. Could there be, theoretically? Yes, of course.
And imagine, for a second, that detectives as brilliant as Poirot and Marple could never exist in real life; wouldn’t it be all the more important to invent them, in that case – to use fiction as a way of offering new narrative structures for conveying truth that mere plausible fact cannot sufficiently convey?
Christie’s tangible love of storytelling is not her only unique feature as a crime writer. She also manages to combine light and dark, without either ever detracting from the other, in a way that no other writer can. Christie’s novels are in no way cosy or twee, though some of their village settings might be; she understands the depravity, ruthlessness and dangerous weakness of human beings. She knows all about warped minds, long held grudges, agonizing need; in each of her works, a familiarity with the darkest parts of the human psyche underpins the narrative.
Yet at the same time, on the surface of her stories there is fun, lightness, warmth, a puzzle to make readers say, “Ooh, this is a good challenge!” I first got hooked on Christie’s work when I was 12, and I lapped it up without being remotely disturbed by any of the menacing undercurrents. It was only when I reread the novels as an adult that I thought, “Hm, there’s real anguish and pain here.” Yet the dark side never undermines the feel-good effect – reading or watching a Christie story is, above all else, great fun.
Since the news broke that I’ve been commissioned to write a new Hercule Poirot novel, it’s been suggested to me by several people that the only sensible way to approach such a project is to impose radical change and do something revolutionary with the character and the format. I strongly disagree. Poirot on a spaceship? Post-apocalyptic Poirot? Sacré tonnerre, as he might say. He would hate to be reinterpreted for the sake of allowing some contemporary fly-by-night to prove how interesting and innovative she is. I’m sure he’d think, as I do, that the only proper approach is for me to bring a case – the most challenging, exciting and unpredictable one I can come up with – to the Poirot we all know and love.
There’s only one kind of innovation that matters, and this is the creation of a brilliant new story; Christie understood this better than anyone, just as she understood that perfection, for readers of her fiction, was the strikingly new combined with the reassuringly familiar. Her genius was the seamless blending of opposing elements.
Her work demonstrates, in the most blissfully enjoyable way, that it’s possible and indeed vital to make the most of all life’s little pleasures, even though horror might be close at hand. Poirot spends much of his time unmasking and confronting the most ruthless and dysfunctional of killers, yet he still enjoys his tisanes, his haute cuisine, his holidays with Captain Hastings. He takes pride in his luxuriant moustaches, his pristine appearance and his little grey cells that he has every right to boast about. Surrounded by menace, he is determined to extract as much pleasure as he can from life, and he reminds us to do the same. So, yes, our nearest and dearest might secretly be out to get us, but... there are some new Christie adaptations on TV! Hooray!
Best-selling thriller author Sophie Hannah’s new Hercule Poirot novel will be published next September. Visit sophiehannah.com
Agatha Christie's Poirot, Wednesday 8:00pm, ITV