Who does not enjoy a good mystery story? Popular literature abounds with examples, raging from the controversial work of Dan Brown to the horrific work of Stephen King. This genre, rooted in the Victorian tradition of Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle, certainly has a wide following. On the beach, on the subway, people escape into the worlds of these authors. Although many female writers claim to be the “Queen of Crime Fiction”, it is really Agatha Christie against whom all others are measured. Even many years after her death, readers appreciate Agatha Christie’s novels because of her strong characters, her interesting setting and her strong morality.
Next to Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple are two of the most recognizable detectives in fiction because of their distinctive attributes. Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective, is noted for moustaches and his “egg-shaped head”. From the rather violent village of St. Mary Mead, Miss Jane Marple is known for her knitting needles. A third detective, Ariadne Oliver, is an author with a fondness for apples. Interestingly, the last character is also thought to be the Christie’s alter ego. Through her characters, Christie is able to express her own views on the social issues of her time.
Ariadne Oliver, Poirot, and Miss Marple live in a time and a world that has changed drastically and perhaps that is why the world of Agatha Christie is so interesting to us still: nostalgia. Although she is from a small village, Miss Marple seems to get around a great deal. In one adventure, she is convalescing in the Barbados when a murderer strikes in the resort where she is staying. Poirot and Ariadne Oliver can be found in small villages, London and exotic settings in the Middle East. Despite their varied locales, the common element that runs through Christie’s novels is the “closed” society. These worlds are cut off culturally, economically, or physically, as in the case of Ten Little Indians, which is set on an island of the Devon coast. Poirot’s world is largely that of the upper classes, but considering the number of bodies found in stately country homes, they could be a rather dangerous group to cross! The time is never specified, but a vague period between World War I and World War II is often favored. Indeed, when in some of Christie’s later novels like Passenger to Frankfurt or Toward Zero. Christie uses the time period of the 60’s, the novels do not quite ring true. Vintage Agatha Christie harkens back to a more innocent time, although perhaps a more murderous one!
Time and fashion may change in Christie’s world, but Christie’s moral stance stays firm. Through Christie’s novels, we can gain insight into the morality of the early 20th century, which still might have some resonance. In Christie’s world, murderers are punished by hanging. Even the gentle Miss Marple states in one novel that she feels it only right that a cold-blooded murderer should be executed. Poirot favours capital punishment as well, expressing the view that it is more humane that putting a person in a small jail cell for life. Divorce is frowned on in Christie’s novels. After Christie’s first marriage to an RAF officer ended in divorce when he left her for another woman, Christie wrote several novels in which retired air force officers tended to be the villains!
Christie’s morality, along with her settings and characters, gives her novels a staying power that has certainly not been matched by anyone writing in the genre today. In practically any bookshop, airport newsstand or train station, it is possible to buy a Christie novel. Here is a world of moral certainty: the victim will be avenged, the guilty will be punished, and in the end, the natural order of the world, upset by murder, will be restored. Perhaps it is the restoration of order that gives the modern reader such comfort in these uncertain times.