Agatha Christie’s Crime Canon Has Murder Mystery Staying Power

Dame Agatha Christie is one of the top mystery writers of the 20th century, and undoubtedly one of the most prolific, having produced 66 detective novels and 14 short stories. Her perennial appeal has been captured in multiple onscreen representations of her work, of which there have been at least 30 film adaptations.

Christie’s most well-known detective is Hercule Poirot, a stodgy, slow-moving Belgian sleuth with a comical mustache, made famous by Peter Ustinov in the 1980s and more recently by David Suchet on PBS. But it’s Christie’s representation of Jane Marple, the older, often underestimated “busybody” with an eye for clues who may be Christie’s most efficient creation for solving murders. Either way, it is undeniable that Christie pioneered the styling of modern-day murder mystery that is a staple of film and TV today. Imitation may be a form of flattery, but new works attempting to imitate Christie’s genius have their work cut out for them and most fall a bit short.

Recently Hulu released a show called Death and Other Details, starring Mandy Patinkin as a flashy, state-of-the-art detective with an affected British accent. In the series, Patinkin tries to help a woman discover the person who murdered her mother when the woman was a child. Coincidentally, Patinkin’s character and the woman are trapped on a boat along with a gaggle of suspicious individuals who all had motives for bringing about the homicide in question. The film brings home the importance of details, which it likely borrows from Christie, a writer who understood how solving crime requires attention to what others may ignore.

Just recall Christie’s story A Pocket Full of Rye in which a disliked businessman and patriarch of a wealthy aristocratic British family is discovered murdered. The murder victim, Rex Fortescue, is found with rye in his pocket. This seems to be a puzzling detail. The man was found dead in an office setting—not on a farm. He was not a laborer, nor did he have a penchant for eating or carrying cereal, so why the rye?

The presence of the rye, which perplexed the local constabulary, was a diversionary tactic evoking a nursery rhyme (Sing a song of sixpence a pocket full of rye, Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie. When the pie was opened the birds began to sing, Oh wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king?) The murderer cleverly employed that rhyme and placed the rye on the victim to divert suspicion.

The intended target of suspicion was a member of the MacKenzie family whose fortune Rex had stolen when he abandoned MacKenzie, Sr. to die in a mine and afterwards claimed the mine for himself. Gold turned up in that location, which was called the Blackbird Mine (hence the rhyme). Aware of this misdeed, MacKenzie’s widow vowed revenge on Rex Fortescue. Since the murderer was Fortescue’s own son Lance, however, the rye was meant to mislead those investigating the crime.

Hulu also makes use of another popular Christie plot device:  the trapped space. This is when all the suspects are confined together in a singular place (a train, boat, or remote mansion) where a murder, inevitably, takes place. Any one of the people in this space might be guilty of the crime because there is no physical escape and because all of those present turn out to have had a motive. Enclosed space plays a prominent role in Hulu’s Murder at the End of The World, in which a tech megalomaniac who bears a physical and behavioral resemblance to Elon Musk invites cultural and intellectual elites to his compound in Iceland.

A few of the guests mysteriously die, and one invitee, a modern-day Miss Marple, sets out to determine the identity of the baddie. As people begin dying, the remaining guests try their best to escape the compound, but to no avail. They’re in an isolated part of Iceland and the snow and subzero temperatures preclude their escape so the guests must stay put and hope the next murder is not their own. Similarly remote, isolated locales can be found in Christie’s Death on the Nile (which takes place on a boat) Murder on The Orient Express (which unfolds on a train) and in the long-running play, The Mousetrap, in which the action is set in a remote country manor. These settings increase the tension caused by the unknown murderer being in everyone’s midst.

In Christie’s work, these plots generally resolve themselves with the unsolicited detective (e.g., Poirot, Miss Marple) convening a communal gathering to which all the suspects come, and the detective reveals the murderer. This culminating scene will typically clarify what led the murderer to commit his or her crime.

An example of a classic Christie “reveal” can be found in the much-loved A Murder is Announced in which the culprit, Charlotte Blacklock, played brilliantly by Zoë Wanamaker in the 2004 film, is not the person everyone thinks she is. She has assumed her sister Letitia’s identity and must commit crimes to hide the fact that she has wrongfully inherited her sister’s fortune. The real Letitia died of pneumonia while accompanying Charlotte to Switzerland for a medical procedure involving the removal a goiter on Charlotte’s neck. Hoping to grab the fortune that her sister inherited, Charlotte poses as the dead woman when she returned to England.

Charlotte manages to keep her assumed identity intact, even while posting in the newspaper an announcement that a murder will happen. She then hires someone to pose as a shooter but ends up killing this decoy because he discovers what Charlotte was about. After another person begins to put things together, Charlotte disposes of this nuisance as well. At the end, with all the suspects assembled, Miss Marple exposes Charlotte by pointing out the scar from her goiter, which had been operated on.

In the popular Rian Johnson Knives Out films, Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) assumes the role of a Christie-like sleuth. Johnson, who admires Agatha Christie, furnishes a “grand reveal,” in the finale of Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. In this production, released in 2022, actor Ed Norton plays Miles Bron who invites cronies to his island for an alleged murder mystery party weekend. This event is designed as a means of ferreting out from those assembled damning evidence that could challenge Bron’s controlling interest in his tech company.

In his relentless pursuit of money and power, Christie’s favorite vice, Bron kills Cassandra (Andi), his former partner and a woman who owned the intellectual property from which Bron was extracting money. He then invites her twin sister, Helen, to the island to see what she knows of his deeds. Unbeknownst to Bron, Helen has secretly hired Benoit Blanc to solve the crime. As she gets closer to the truth, Miles attempts to kill Helen. Finally, we learn that Helen is still very much alive, and Benoit advised Helen to stay in hiding as he suspected Miles was guilty of Cassandra’s death and Helen’s attempted murder. Benoit launches his grand reveal to demonstrate Miles’ culpability. A fire ensues, but the good [enough] people make it off the island. We are left to assume that Miles serves time for his crimes.

Will there ever be another Agatha Christie? It seems unlikely. But there are plenty of wannabes. For now, I’ll stick with my BritBox membership and watch her detectives as they manage to solve murder mysteries over the decades. What is undeniable is that Christie will continue to influence mystery movies and seems destined to remain the gold standard for crime stories. If the latest BritBox Christie remake, Murder is Easy, tells us anything though, it’s that there is no replacement for Miss Marple. She really is, at least for me, the top detective.

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