Maximum impact with minimum show

I can’t remember when I read my first Agatha Christie but I was not much older than twelve or thirteen, maybe even younger. Reading her books wasn’t my first introduction to her world – I had been watching the Poirot and Miss Marple TV series over my mum’s shoulder for years, enshrining Joan Hickson and David Suchet as Christie’s most famous detectives in my imagination forever. But when I finally did move onto the books, I was hooked, and raced through her best known works before moving onto the more obscure ones – the Superintendent Battle books, and the incredibly chilly standalones like Endless Night.

I’m not sure what it was that I liked so much. Was it the masterfully twisty plots, where everything clicks into place in the final chapter as neatly and satisfyingly as a completed sudoku? Was it the limpidly clear prose?

Agatha Christie’s fame doesn’t rest on her writing style, but it is clean, clear and a sort of masterclass in conveying the maximum of impact with the minimum of showy language and imagery. I briefly taught English as a foreign language and found that Christie was one of the writers most often read as an introduction to “grown up” English language texts, probably because her books are short and her prose is clean, uncluttered, and easy to decode (unlike her plots).


A clear cut kind of justice…

Or maybe it was the sense of wrongs righted, and balance regained which appealed to my teenage sense of justice – certainly as an adult I love reading the likes of Karin Fossum and Susan Hill, where the end of the book doesn’t necessarily mean the villain is bang to rights and the mystery unravelled, but as a teenager I wanted a more clear-cut kind of justice.

Whatever the appeal, I loved her – in common with a lot of other people it turns out. Apparently she has been translated into 103 languages (I’m not sure I could even list 103 languages) and And Then There Were None has sold over 100,000,000 copies making it one of the best-selling novels of all time.

Everyone’s bookshelf seems to have a dog-eared copy of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and every holiday cottage has a curling copy of Murder on the Orient Express. Agatha Christie is one of those writers who have become so much part of the landscape that it’s hard to imagine a literary world without her detective characters, almost as impossible as envisaging one without Sherlock Holmes.

It probably wasn’t surprising therefore that she should have had an effect on my first attempt at a crime novel, In a Dark, Dark Wood. I knew as I was writing that I owed Christie a debt of inspiration, and I put in Nina’s reference to And Then There Were None as a kind of tongue-in-cheek admission of that. But I didn’t realise quite how much my book owed to Christie until I had finished, and was reading it through.

It’s not that my characters are particularly similar to hers, nor is the book narrated like hers – Christie’s books are more often told in the third person, or from the point of view of a relative outsider like Captain Hastings. This helps to keep the atmosphere rather clinical, with emotion and grief held at a safe distance, and maintains the idea of detection as essentially a puzzle-solving exercise, rather than an activity steeped in gore and anguish. In a Dark, Dark Wood is more psychological thriller than crime puzzle, and emotions run high in a way that I think Christie would probably have disdained, but I couldn’t imagine side-lining the emotional fallout in quite the same way.

But the whole set up, with the closed set, the small cast of characters, and the unfolding clues is pretty much directly inspired by all the Christie novels I read as a child – and it’s a thread of inspiration that has continued with all my novels. The Woman in Cabin 10  channels the stifled luxury of her “locked room” mysteries Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile. As with The Sittaford Mystery my characters in The Death of Mrs Westway end up snow-bound, out of communication, unable to summon help. The Lying Game takes inspiration from Five Little Pigs and Sleeping Murder  to investigate a long-buried crime that threatens to surface in the present day. And, as with And Then There Were None, the diminishing cast of possible suspects gives a feeling of growing claustrophobia, both for readers and protagonists.

Later in life, Agatha Christie reportedly became disenchanted with Poirot, as Conan Doyle had become with Sherlock Holmes. Calling him “insufferable” and “an ego-centric creep” she sought relief in killing him off in the novel Curtain, the manuscript of which was sealed in a bank vault and only released after her own death. Poirot certainly is pretty insufferable at times, but it’s telling the Christie couldn’t simply let him go – she chose to give him the dignity of a proper goodbye, and it’s an almost unbearably poignant one at times, with Poirot old and wheelchair-bound, and come full circle, back to Styles Court where his first case took place. After its publication Poirot became the only fictional character (to date) to be accorded an obituary in the New York Times – a fitting feather in the cap of one of fiction’s greatest creations and one of which Poirot himself would almost certainly have been justly proud, even while considering no more than his undoubted due.

A version of this essay first appeared at