The Case Of The Author Who Won’t Stay Dead

Reading & Writing, The Arts


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.

Death on the Nile

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.

9 comments on “The Case Of The Author Who Won’t Stay Dead”

  1. Wayne #1 says:

    I agree, we always get the same stories over and over. There are so many more that could be bought to life, why do we always get the same handful?

  2. David Ronaldson says:

    The biggest issue in the endless recycling of familiar stories is, of course, that these are Whodunnits and so it has to be a pretty good production to maintain the viewer’s interest when the principal point of interest is already null and void. That said, my love of stories set on trains will guarantee Sir Ken and co this particular viewer.

  3. Vivienne says:

    Recently heard that the forensic pathologist working on the death of Georgi Markov was talking to his wife, describing the symptoms and saying he was baffled. She said ‘You don’t read enough Agatha Christie – it sounds like ricin’ and she was right. Christie did her homework.

  4. Brian Evans says:

    The whole point of reading a murder mystery is to find out whodunit. So what is the point of remaking say “Murder on the Orient Express” when even young people have seen it on the telly and know the answer? There is only any point
    if someone else is exposed as the murderer, and I’ve a horrible feeling some whizz-kid executive might just do that.

    Mind you, at least a remake won’t include the hilarious miscasting of Albert Finney as Poirot.

  5. Adam says:

    I’m pretty sure that the BBC ‘Miss Marple’ and ITVs less formally titled ‘Marple’ and ‘Poirot’ have covered most if not all of the written stories of these characters. They are very entertaining as well; my eleven year old daughter loves them (which makes a refreshing change from ‘Dance Moms’ and the musicly (sic) app that seem to dominate most of her free time).

  6. snowy says:

    Why do they keep going back to the same stories? They could be the only good ones?

    Some Christie stories are locked into a very specific time period, some are bound by societal conventions that we now find not just laughably quaint, but completely baffling. And since these conventions are the ‘motor’ that drives the story, we would regard the actions and reactions of the protagonists as utterly nonsensical.

    However having a good story is not enough, it has to be able to be ‘translatable’ from the page to the screen. Anything with lots of interior dialogue is a real problem, there is no direct visual analogue. The usual fudge is to use ‘a voice-over’, prologue, epilogue, bit dull, but gets you in and out. Constantly bringing everything to a grinding halt so we ‘hear’ someones thoughts while nothing happens on-screen becomes very dull, very fast. Trying to force thoughts into dialogue gets enormously tangled, you almost have to invent an additional character just to act as a listener. Noir films get away with it by making this ‘problem’ the ‘form’.

    But if you can find a plot, that can be made, just remaking it isn’t enough. Who wants to see exactly the same film again? There has to be some difference. And so the story has to have some layer of interpretation placed upon it. But if you change too much, you lose the story and part of the reason people want to see it.

    What you need is a story that is the equivalent of boiled rice, just enough structure and texture to be satisfying, but just as a ‘platform’ for whatever ‘flavours’ you wish to add on top.

    ‘Death on the Nile’ came about to coat-tail onto the success of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’. But neither of them are really about the story, they are just an excuse to put together an all-star cast as a box-office draw. In DotN the story is as secondary as it is contrived. If you doubt quite how contrived it is, run an eye over the plot synopsis; ……It’s…..utterly…..bonkers.

    [If you watch it, it quickly dawns that it is just a glorious bitch-off between the characters.]

    Speaking of bonkers, the Rutherford ‘Marples’ as much fun as they certainly are, have virtually nothing to do with the original stories, bar a character name and a premise.

    [I’m going to stop, before I start wibbling on about the various incarnations of a certain Mr Holmes, that would go on and on and on, the BBC would have finished the next episode before I dried up.]

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Yes, I watched all the series shown here. The problem of already knowing who dunnit doesn’t really arise if you put it away as soon as you’ve read or watched it. I have problems remembering the solution except in really complex ones like the Orient Express and the Nile. Even the Dorothy Sayers list, which is much shorter, is susceptible to the same thing.
    Would it be possible to set the stories in a different period? So many of the assumptions in the stories belong to the twenties and thirties but could they be moved up to, say, the sixties, with a shift in the backgrounds of some of the characters? There wouldn’t be quite so many retired colonels and majors and more businessmen, perhaps a few professional women. The income levels could be lowered, too, with increased general income. It would be tricky, though.

  8. admin says:

    Well Christie was never good at psychology – it took Ruth Rendell, Charlotte Armstrong and others to add that element.

  9. Brooke says:

    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… you just explained why I cannot stand reading or watching anything Christie. Boring…

Comments are closed.