QUEEN’S ROAD: My first introduction to Agatha Christie’s work was in Class VI.
A chapter from the Murder of Roger Ackroyd was part of the curriculum. This was a good age to cut one's teeth on murder in fiction! When I did start reading more of her works subsequently, this book was the one I went back to again and again as its detailing was intensive and layered and I could not have asked for a better initiation to the world of Agatha Christie.
To dwell briefly on the book, it apparently caused an outrage when it was published and readers accused Christie of breaking the rules of mystery writing. Why? Read it. It sticks faithfully to the premise that the most improbable person is the murderer and. even then, one gets taken aback and more than a little chagrined when the truth comes out.
Here is why the grand old lady of mystery fiction continues to rule:
The plots: Dark, chillingly pre-meditated murders (Towards Zero, The ABC Murders), crimes of passion (Sleeping Murder, They Do it With Mirrors), war-time intrigue (N or M, Destination Unknown) and crimes solved in retrospect (5 Little Pigs, Elephants Can Remember) — the stories brought forth the range of emotions that human beings have to offer. Greed, anger, revenge but yet one somehow never gets repulsed. The darkest stories give us a lesson in a thoroughly entertaining way. In many of the tales, the idea of justice is not conventional yet justice is undeniably done (Murder on the Orient Express, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Crooked House).
She culled her names from nursery rhymes and Shakespeare and I gained a lot of knowledge from researching those alone, as I grew. A spot of tangential education was indulged in while learning all about poisons and methods of murder.
The settings are so real that one can see them in the mind like a film.
The setting for the book Towards Zero is so sharply vivid in my mind that I could describe it to an identi-kit artist and get a 100 per cent match. This, despite never having set foot in England.
The weapons: Ms Christie’s self acknowledged favourites were poisons as a weapon. She worked as an apothecary’s assistant during the war and he taught her a lot of what she knew.
Thus, from the simple arsenic in the soup to cyanide in coffee to strychnine in the cocktail, there was also taxine in marmalade, ricin in beer and a curare dipped dart in mid-air.
There were of course, stabbings, strangling, gun shots and bashed in heads, the traditional and time-honoured methods of yore.
Some of the spur of the moment crimes were ingenious and yet painfully simple (The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side).
The murderers: These were just faces in the crowd, most of the time. Some hardened criminals, some absolute pillars of society, a few charmers, some on the brink of carefully-hidden madness, some cold blooded, some carried away in the heat of the moment. All normal people. All within us.
The lessons on human nature being the same everywhere strike me even in life today, when I see murders, deaths, killing all over the media and in lives far removed from the time in which Christie wrote and lived.
The sleuths: Ms Christie’s characters remain endearing and enduring till date. Hercule Poirot ensures as that super-sleuth with an egg-shaped head and wonderful moustaches of which he is inordinately proud.
Synonymous with sharp intellect, a fastidious love for order and an obsession for symmetry, Poirot with his theatrics is entertaining and his affection for mon ami Captain Hastings heart-warming, notwithstanding his criticism of the latter’s lack of foresight and propensity to rush around.
Miss Marple follows with her woolly fluffiness belying her sharp mind, teaches us gently about how not to judge people too harshly based on what they look like. And of course, you can find almost all Agatha Christie characters in local contexts.
Tommy and Tuppence as the partners in crime who grow old together are incredibly loveable characters featuring in war-related stories.
Superintendent Blunt, Inspector Dermot Craddock, Ariadne Oliver, Georges, Mr Sattherwaite, Parker Pyne and the very enigmatic Harley Quin form part of the cast of Christie, each unforgettable in their own way. Superintendent Blunt for his wooden demeanour remains unforgettable. As does Ariadne and her apples. There is also Harley Quin who is not quite there but yet has a presence.
More than 50 years after being written, Agatha Christie’s books are ageless and timeless. They seem to fit right in, in today’s fast-paced, technology-driven times too.
It is the beguilingly simple narrative and style that still gets our attention along with fact that the author never fails to shock us into the realisation of how easily ordinary folks can commit extraordinary crimes.
Her narrative skills are masterful, her technique precise, her wit razor-sharp, her insight unfaltering, her style endlessly inventive and her imagination fathomless. This is a writer who will never ever become a faded memory.