You don't forget the first time you read Agatha Christie. At least, I don't. I was 12 years old, and my mom had suggested I check out one of Christie’s books at the library since I had already developed an appetite for crime thrillers and murder mysteries. I blindly picked Evil Under the Sun—it was summer vacation and I loved the dramatic, sinister nature of the title. I stayed up all night furiously tearing through that book, dying to find out who had committed the murder. In all my life I had never encountered such a page-turner. From that point on I was hooked on Christie, particularly the novels starring the eccentric, mustachioed Hercule Poirot, one of Christie’s main detectives. There’s an addictive quality to Christie’s work, and I soon fell in love with all her Poirot books including Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, and a personal favorite, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
There have been countless adaptations of Christie’s novels—both in film and television—and once again, the season of Agatha Christie is in full force with a new Murder on the Orient Express movie today, November 10, an adaptation of Crooked House coming in December, and seven TV adaptations greenlit by BBC including Sarah Phelps’s Order By Innocence premiering this Christmas. The fascination behind Agatha Christie is timeless, but it’s reached a new peak with crime entertainment becoming more and more popular on the big and small screen.
The showiest production of the forthcoming Christie adaptations is, without a doubt, Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, the new, star-studded version with Johnny Depp (yikes—but at least he’s the one who gets murdered), Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom, Jr., Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz, and Branagh himself as the famed Belgian P.I., Hercule Poirot. Branagh directs the hell out of Orient Express, and on glorious 70mm no less, but just like its predecessors, the movie doesn’t do the written word of Ms. Christie justice. Maybe this particular story is especially hard to translate to film, given its setting and wordy—and therefore easily over-stuffed—climactic reveal. Sidney Lumet directed a better version of this movie in 1974, but it still doesn’t live up to the book.
Usually, though, an Agatha Christie novel isn’t that hard to solve—the whodunit portion anyway. It’s her modus operandi to give us a handful of players possibly guilty of the crime while her detectives (usually Poirot or Jane Marple, her elderly woman sleuth) sniff out the motives and identity of the killer. So yes, you could probably randomly choose a suspect and be correct in your guess; but what makes the English author’s works so brilliant is the way she pieces together the why, not the who. Edward Ratchett (Depp) was murdered on the Orient Express, and here’s who did it (gasp)—but you’ll never guess why (cue even bigger gasp). This murder-mystery structure feels familiar now, but we have Christie, the Queen of Crime, to credit. She perfected this method over 66 detective novels, and is now the best-selling author in the world—ever.
As much as there is an evergreen fascination for Christie’s stories, there's also an alluring air of mystery surrounding the woman herself. Last year, there were whispers about how Oscar winners Emma Stone and Alicia Vikander were both in talks to play Agatha Christie in two separate biopics. Sony had started eyeing Vikander for a more general picture of the English author’s life (titled Agatha Christie) whereas Paramount Pictures showed interest in Stone for Agatha, which would focus on a few strange days in the iconic woman’s life.
The latter idea is far more interesting to me, exploring the 11 days in 1926 when Christie became the subject of her own mystery—perhaps the biggest one of her entire career. There have been several written accounts of this incident, and even one film (Michael Apted’s 1979 Agatha starring Vanessa Redgrave) but for those not in the know: the crime writer was a real-life Gone Girl long before the best-selling Gillian Flynn novel or the critically-acclaimed David Fincher film that followed.
On December 3, 1926, 36-year-old Agatha Christie went missing. Her car was found next to a lake, and she had left a bag of clothes and an expired license at the scene. By then, Christie was already a high-profile writer and her disappearance roused suspicion of foul play and ignited a manhunt that included 15,000 volunteers, biplanes, and bloodhounds.
Because her disappearance happened right after the release of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, there were speculations that Christie was pulling a publicity stunt for book sales, but the more commonly accepted version (and the one I much prefer) is that the writer was getting back at her husband, Archie Christie, for taking on a mistress, Nancy Neele. Agatha is said to have wanted to punish her husband by ruining his planned weekend vacation with the young Miss Neele. For those 11 days, imagine how many people assumed Archie had murdered Agatha to get her out of the picture.
Agatha, on the other hand, didn’t do a very good job staying hidden. She checked in at the Old Swan Hotel in Yorkshire, and though she used a fake name (Teresa Neele, curiously taking her husband’s mistress’s surname), she apparently didn’t put any effort into a disguise and openly hung out at the hotel. Over a week later, two hotel customers recognized her and phoned the police. Archie reported Agatha's disappearance as amnesia—though it is hard to prove or disprove that she had indeed entered some fugue state. Soon after, in 1928, Archie filed for divorce and married his mistress.
While Agatha's intentions behind her 1926 disappearance remain a mystery, it's clear her detective novels reflect great precision and imagination. She not only did she write the prototypes of the murder-mystery genre—she perfected it. No wonder her stories continue to thrill new generations of readers.