Photograph by Jim Zola
by Mark Temple
Scan the shelves of crime fiction in any bookshop and you are likely to find many books focused on organized crime and institutionalized corruption, paying homage to the American Hardboiled tradition which emerged during the prohibition years. Many deal with society’s winners and losers; the rich and powerful at one end of a spectrum and downtrodden scum at the other. It’s a world where envy, ambition and greed dominate, where it’s dog eats dog and dark emotions are triggered with cruelty and violence.
In previous decades the likes of Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane , and Raymond Chandler were the big names in this field, today authors like Lee Child, Robert B Parker and Walter Mosley have taken up the mantle.
In stark contrast you may still spot a few novels where death hides beneath the tea-tables, where the local squire holds sway and bobbies are still diligently pounding the beat along country lanes. Seemingly a very different world although crime is still at the heart of many such works. These novels generally shy away from excessive violence and although mystery lies at the centre of many of these stories they also offer the reader nostalgic glimpses of a bygone age.
Some may be thematic (culinary, theatrical and medical mysteries etc.). Death will probably be lurking near but the focus is on the detection of crime rather than the gritty details of the crime itself. A solution is often achieved by intellect or intuition rather than police procedure. The stories are often populated with honorable and well-bred middle-class characters with neatly coiffured hair in a close-knit community where mayhem exists but where order will be restored by the end. This genre is not new but a reinvention of the Golden Age whodunit; a style dominated between the wars by writers (the majority of them women) like Dorothy L. Sayers, Josephine Tey and Elizabeth Daly.
In this genre the recognised ‘Queen of Crime’ for many decades was, Agatha Christie. Over her lifetime she wrote 66 crime novels and 15 short story collections. This year sees the centenary of the publication of her first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Christie’s world is not so much a world of racketeering and thuggery but one of thatched cottages, country houses, doctors making their daily rounds and the rector dropping round for tea and tittle-tattle because there’s still a body popped up in his vicarage library. Even those who have never picked up a Christie are familiar with this world because of the numerous television dramas and films made in recent years featuring her two most famous sleuths Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple.
Titles like, Death on the Nile, Murder on the Orient Express and Witness for the Prosecution have delighted cinema audiences since the 1930s. After 67 years The Mousetrap still pulls in the London theatre audiences every night. Therefore, with her classic work, “And Then there were None,” celebrating its 80th anniversary last year it’s worth re-examining the Christie legacy and the part she played in making this genre so popular. In recent years contributors to the so-called ‘Agatha Project’ have employed computer analysis of Christie’s writings to identify what makes her so successful. Some believe they have identified the repeated use of certain innocuous phrases which they believe induce pleasure and satisfaction.
Claiming this results in raised levels of serotonin and endorphins in the brains of her readers. One leading researcher, Dr Kapferer claims, “The release of these neurological opiates makes Christie’s writing literally unputdownable.”
With the organisation of many of our local libraries in the U.K. being handed over to groups of volunteers I was asked recently to prepare a talk for a local readers group entitled the “Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie.” However,a couple of members revealed some concerns, stating that they didn’t consider Christie a ‘serious enough author to be of any literary worth.’
Ah well, you can’t please everyone. Yet having struggled with some so called ‘literary giants’ over the years it is no mystery to me that over forty years after her death the acknowledged ‘Queen of Crime’ has sold over 4 billion books and all her novels remain in print. Her books are available in over 100 languages and she is still the only author to be outsold by the Bible and Shakespeare.∎