A Week to Remember: Agatha Christie | Los Angeles Public Library
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A Week to Remember: Agatha Christie

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Central Library,
Photo of Agatha Christie and a quote: "time is the best killer"

On September 15, 1890, Agatha Christie was born. The popularity of Christie's murder mysteries is record-breaking. She is the most-translated author in history, with books published in more than 100 languages. Her novels have sold 2 billion copies; only Shakespeare and the Bible have sold more.

In 1955, Christie was the first recipient of the Grand Master Award, the highest honor given by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2013, the equivalent British group, the Crime Writers' Assocation, voted The Murder of Roger Ackroyd the best crime novel ever written. Most of Christie's 66 crime novels have been adapted for film, radio, or television; and some have been adapted as comics and video games.

Christie's career began in 1920 with The Mysterious Affair at Styles, featuring one of Christie's main series characters, Hercule Poirot. Poirot is a retired Belgian police officer with a large egg-shaped head and an impressive mustache, and he prides himself on his ability to solve crime using his "little grey cells."  Poirot is the central character in more than 30 novels and about 50 short stories.

Christie's other major character is Jane Marple, an elderly amateur detective living in a small English village. Miss Marple is featured in a dozen novels, the first of which is The Murder at the Vicarage. Miss Marple is particularly skilled at tying together the threads of passing comments to find the answer to a mystery.

Christie preferred Marple to Poirot, saying that over time, she grew tired of Poirot's ego and pompous nature. She believed, however, that her job as an author was to entertain her readers, and she never gave in to the temptation to kill off Poirot, as Arthur Conan Doyle had done with Sherlock Holmes. She did, however, refuse to pair Poirot and Marple in a story, saying that Poirot would never stand for being outdone, or even equalled, by an elderly civilian.

During the height of Christie's popularity, in the 1940s, she wrote final novels for Marple and Poirot, planning to publish them at the end of her life. The day after the 1975 publication of Curtain, the last Hercule Poirot novel, The New York Times published an obituary for Poirot, the only time it has done so for a fictional character.

Christie introduced or refined techniques and motifs that are now standard in murder mysteries – the colorful array of suspects, the series of increasingly shocking revelations, the gathering of the suspects as the detective explains how he identified the guilty party. She was capable of surprising innovations, occasionally upsetting readers who thought she'd broken the rules by having the narrator be the killer, or by revealing that all of the many suspects had teamed up to kill the victim. (Telling you which books feature those twists would spoil the fun, don't you think?)

To the modern reader, Christie is occasionally guilty of offensive ethnic or national stereotyping; her descriptions of Jewish characters are particularly hard to accept. On the other hand, her foreign characters rarely turn out to be the culprits, and sometimes suffer unjustified abuse at the hands of more evil English characters.

Agatha Christie's book covers

Most of Christie's 66 crime novels are available as e-books and e-audios at OverDrive, or in print. Following are links to some of the key titles in her career:

  • The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) – the first Poirot novel
    e-book | e-audio | print
  • The Secret Adversary (1922) – first of four novels starring newlywed amateur detectives Tommy and Tuppence
    e-book | e-audio | print
  • The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) – one of Poirot's most baffling cases
    e-book | e-audio | print
  • The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) – the first Miss Marple novel
    e-book | e-audio | print
  • Murder on the Orient Express (1934) – a new film version of this Poirot classic will be released in November
    e-book | e-audio | print; Albert Finney plays Poirot in the 1974 film version, available on DVD
  • And Then There Were None (1939) – the best-selling mystery novel of all time
    e-book | e-audio | print; the 2015 BBC TV miniseries is available on DVD

Also This Week

  • September 11, 1940: Brian De Palma is born. The director is known for his psychological suspense and crime films. Margot Kidder and Charles Durning star in 1973's Sisters, in which a newspaper reporter can't convince anyone that she's witnessed a murder; it's available for streaming at Kanopy.
  • September 17, 1967: Ed Sullivan bans The Doors from his TV show. The group was asked to edit the line "girl, we couldn't get much higher" in the song "Light My Fire" because he was uncomfortable with the drug reference. Jim Morrison changed it to "get much better" in rehearsal, but sang the lyric as written during the live performance. "Light My Fire" is on the band's first album, The Doors, available for streaming at Hoopla.
  • September 11, 1977: Ludacris is born. He's a rapper and actor who has released nine albums since 2000. As an actor, he's usually billed as Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, and his best known movies are the Fast and the Furious series. Most of Ludacris's albums are available for streaming at Hoopla.
  • September 12, 1992: Mae Jemison becomes the first African-American woman in space, as a Mission Specialist on the Space Shuttle Endeavour. Jemison is one of several pioneering American women profiled in the documentary Women in Space, available for streaming at Kanopy.