“Agatha Christie: Queen of Many Crimes” (by François Bloemhof)

South African thriller writer François Bloemhof’s prolific career, spanning more than twenty-five years, includes novels for adults, teenagers, and children, his most recent adult “noir” novels being 2016’s Double Echo and 2017’s Feeding Time. He has received numerous awards and is credited with several “firsts”: He wrote the first novel to be published with an original CD soundtrack composed by the author, the first book with its own computer game, and the first e-book in Afrikaans. His first short story for EQMM, “Proof,” appears in our July/August issue, on sale June 19. The tale was translated from Afrikaans by Josh Pachter, but François also writes in English, and as you’ll see from this post, he cut his teeth on British crime fiction, and particularly on the work of Agatha Christie. —Janet Hutchings

At an early age it became clear that I was bound to turn my talents to crime one day. While still at school, I shied away from our prescribed books to devour instead the Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazines as well as the novels of Agatha Christie.

I felt an instant connection with that author, and not only because we were born on the same day (though, I hasten to add, not in the same year). What I appreciated most about her approach to “puzzle writing” was a strong sense of logic combined with a playfulness, a craftiness, a darned delight in deception that was gratifying to recognize even when you had to admit she’d pulled the wool over your eyes once again. You may have been angry at yourself for being duped, but at the same time couldn’t help but applaud the sleight of hand by which it had been accomplished. But next time, with the next book, you’d swear, things would be different.

Granted, a few of the patterns she tended to fall back on grew familiar over time and she could on occasion be second-guessed. As I read more of the books that mostly starred her eccentric and egocentric mustached Belgian detective and that deceptively fragile, knitting spinster from St. Mary’s Mead, signs and signals accumulated that might lead to the correct conclusion before the detective arrived at it.

In any event, having received the best tuition possible for developing a criminal mindset, I decided to write crime rather than to practice it. However, the problem we crime writers are faced with time and again is that as soon as you think you’ve come up with a great twist  . . . it’s been done. Dame Agatha has been there decades ago and the most you can do is to modernize some of her examples. The wheel has been invented, and then she re-invented it a few times for good measure. Now you should just roll with it.

The answer to her puzzles often lay in the past; the more seemingly innocent the mention of something that happened a long time ago, the more bearing it had on the present. Those little references to events of yesteryear couldn’t possibly have something to do with the present investigation, could they? Of course they could, and they would.

Due to her knowledge of medicine, which she acquired while serving in a hospital during the First World War and working as a pharmacist’s assistant later on, Dame Agatha also loved administering various poisons to her fictional victims.

Apart from her “regular mysteries” in which the guilty party was unmasked after all the suspects had been interviewed twice and then grouped together in a drawing room like errant sheep, there were a few novels so audacious in their approach and ultimate solution that they would influence other detective stories for decades to come. She may not have invented all of these twists, but having perfected them and being the author they are associated with, she might as well have.

Major spoilers on the way. . . .

The narrator did it. If you’ve watched a few films recently, you will almost certainly have encountered this “surprise” element: The person you’re supposed to trust most is in fact the guilty party. Or (yawn) the victim and the perpetrator will actually be the same person. But when The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd was published in 1926, having the first-person narrator—our point of entry into the mystery—turn out to be the murderer was a spectacular conceit. Some critics complained about Christie having cheated by having the misdeeds take place “offstage” and Dr. James Sheppard simply not accounting for his whereabouts at the time, nor reflecting on his murderous actions. However, they were probably angrier at themselves for being caught out and not having thought of it themselves. In 2013 this book was voted the best crime novel ever by 600 fellow writers of the Crime Writers’ Association.

They all did it. Pertinent clues are provided in a very sporting way in Murder On The Orient Express. There are a certain number of stab wounds. There are a certain number of suspects, all behaving suspiciously enough that one character is led to exclaim after each of them has been interviewed: “He did it!” or “She did it!” Of course. Exactly. That will prove to be the case. He did it. And she did it. Along with all the others.

A dead person did it. Or, all right, the murderer wasn’t really dead, or at least wasn’t at the time he was assumed to be. And he had help. And the person who assisted him in his subterfuge was next to get the chop. And Then There Were None proved, just in case there was any doubt, that Dame Agatha could put aside those sly patterns she’d perfected for a while and think outside of the box. Way out of it; she ventured into territory beyond the realms of detective fiction. It was an audacious coup that would make this novel her best seller ever, having by now shipped 100 million copies and counting. It has been filmed a number of times, which had the side effect of Christie inventing and laying the ground rules for what would come to be known as the slasher movie—without the buckets of gore we nowadays expect from such films, and with characters that were rotten to the core. What she also created here was a detective story without a detective. And more yet: a crime story without a hero or heroine.

The supposed victim did it. In order to commit a crime, someone didn’t have to go so far as to fake his or her own death as in the above example—a presumed attack would do the trick, as when Magdala “Nick” Buckley is (we believe) almost shot dead at the start of Peril at End House. If someone indeed wanted to kill Nick, who would be the least suspicious candidate? The poor shot-at girl herself. That bullet hole in Nick’s sun hat is guaranteed to divert the reader’s suspicions and when she isn’t the one to die soon after, naturally we seek those guilty of that crime elsewhere.

Someone did it in foreign climes. The author travelled extensively with her archeologist second husband, Sir Max Mallowan. While he set about his kind of digging, she kept herself busy by unearthing plots brimming with malice and genteel mayhem. The countries in question, mostly in the Middle East, provided backdrops for dastardly doings that maybe at that point would have started to feel slightly run-of-the-mill in yet another English countryside setting. In an exotic milieu, they were fresh and new. Everywhere she travelled, Christie found Evil Under The Sun. In any country, she knew, the stage was already set for an Appointment With Death. A few other cases in point are Murder in Mesopotamia, They Came To Baghdad and Death On The Nile.

Someone did it centuries ago. Set in Thebes in 2000 BC, one can only imagine how much research must have gone into Death Comes as the End. Despite all the convincing details of daily household life in Egypt 4000 years ago, it never turns into a dry, informative read, rather veering towards a brutal entertainment, featuring so many deaths that it rivals And Then There Were None in that regard. Contributors to the market in historical thrillers may not even realize what a debt they owe Agatha Christie.

The Queen of Crime ruled more than OK, and still does. Not only will her clever puzzles continue to delight new generations of readers, but future mystery writers will also keep on paying homage—knowingly or unknowingly, whether they intend to or not.

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