The Case Of The Author Who Won’t Stay Dead
In 1953 Britain entered the New Elizabethan age, but in many ways it was – and continues to be – an extension of the Victorian era. Most of us still live in Victorian houses, with the same social and religious principals, the same class and value system. At the outbreak of the First World War a handful of writers attempted to break out from these restrictions, in the same way that photography had profoundly altered art and modernism would close the date-brackets over classical music.
Spearheaded (unknowingly perhaps) by Ronald Firbank, fiction sought to fracture the shackles of narrative and provide something closer to the real experience of how we hear and absorb the words of others.
However, despite poems like TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ moving literary narrative forward, one branch of the arts failed to transform itself, that of popular fiction, and we returned to our cosy Victorian nests.
One author who did at least streamline the shape of popular fiction was Agatha Christie. By stripping away all description, removing complex language, limiting words and removing character development, she boiled the bones of crime writing down into its simplest elements, turning them into art deco acrostics.
By doing so, much as Conan Doyle did, she survived by providing virtually blank canvases which could be endlessly reworked. JK Rowling has done much the same thing (although with more verbosity) and has therefore ensured her place in the hall of fame.
We like comfort reading, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that at all. Those who wish to climb literary mountains can still do so. We’ve no time for complications, and so return if not quite to Victorian times, then to the 1920s, when only the middle classes had time to read popular fiction. But what was streamlined and modern then is tired and old-hat now.
It explains why the Agatha Christie estate is now gearing up once more to reboot Christie in multiple versions. In the coming months, according to the Times, which always likes to collect separate elements into trends, we’ll be treated to;
- ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, directed by Sir Kenneth Branagh, starring Branagh, Dame Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Johnny Depp
- Witness for the Prosecution, to be directed by Ben Affleck
- And Then There Were None, in development with director Morten Tyldum (director of The Imitation Game)
- There Was A Crooked House, adapted by Julian Fellowes, starring Glenn Close, Terence Stamp and Christina Hendricks
And there’ll be various BBC TV adaptations; Witness for the Prosecution, starring Toby Jones, Andrea Riseborough and Kim Cattrall and another seven adaptations over the next four years. It has already announced that the first of these adaptations will be Ordeal by Innocence, one of Christie’s favourite novels. It is to be adapted by Sarah Phelps. Two other adaptation of the deal have been announced: Death Comes As The End which is set in Ancient Egypt, and The ABC Murders, (now described as ‘a race against time to stop a serial killer in 1930s Britain’!)
What’s so disappointing about this is not that Christie is being so heavily remade yet again but that most of the same old stories have been picked. She wrote 82 books under her own name but the same half dozen endlessly reappear, not including the inexcusable ‘Mousetrap’. Anyone wishing to seek out Christie in other formats can find perfectly serviceable versions readily available (a few, like John Guillermin’s Death on the Nile, are terrific).
But Christie is a brand and so we perpetuate the past. Perhaps the estate has loosened up in the light of And Then There Were None’s recent success on TV, and we’ll get revisionist versions, at least.
Photo at top shows a dimply-kneed Christie going surfing in Hawaii.