The Dangerous Edge
Agatha Christie died early this year at the age of eighty-five, the author of as many books as she had years and the most widely read writer in the world. At least 400 million copies of her works have been sold, and The Mousetrap may well run longer than any other play ever produced. Curtain, her most recently published book, was at the top of the best-seller list for weeks.
The question “How did she write so much?” can be answered, if at all, by her biographer. The question “How did she become so popular?” can be raised here. Among writers of detective stories, many of whom wrote books much better than hers, Christie is the only household name. Her prose is commonplace at best. Her characters pretend to be no more than squiggles on a page. Her plots are famous, but only a few are particularly strong. The most obvious explanation for her popularity is that her conventionality and ordinariness are precisely the reasons for her success; but she had no corner on these markets. If someone buying a Christie in a drugstore or at an airport is comforted with knowing exactly what is in store, aren’t paperback stands in such places replete with other books offering that comfort?
Familiarity helped, of course, as it did her only rival in popularity, Erle Stanley Gardner. Christie wrote a number of books in the Twentiés and Thirties that became famous among readers of detective stories: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Ten Little Indians, Murder on the Orient Express, The ABC Murders. Thus, when paperbacks came along in the Forties, she was already familiar. She was also still writing, unlike John Dickson Carr, say, or S. S. Van Dine, and was at the top of her form, unlike Ellery Queen. Thus, when the lending library gave way to the drugstore and airport stands, Christie was well known, prolific, and as good as ever. The rest seems to have just happened. Detective story addicts might note a bad falling off in quality in the last twenty years, but her new audience, dependent now not on “the latest Christie” but on constant reprinting of old Christies, doesn’t care.
Still, when Curtain was published last year, everyone seemed to want to respond to a “new old Christie.” This is the book in which Hercule Poirot dies. Christie had written it, and another in which Miss Marple dies, in the Forties, and had left instructions for them to be published posthumously. According to Nancy Blue Wynne in An Agatha Christie Chronology, the success of the movie of Murder on the Orient Express induced Christie to consent to having Curtain published and, for the first time in her career, she had a book on top of the American best-seller lists. Presumably the Marple book will do the same when it appears.
Curtain is based on the interesting proposition that Iago murdered Desdemona, that someone can spend a lifetime inducing others to commit murders they secretly …