Why Agatha Christie Remains the Queen of Mystery (by Autumn Doerr)

This week we have a post from a reader of this blog who was inspired to submit an essay to us by some earlier posts on this site. She’s a mystery writer as well as a reader. We’re pleased to introduce you to Autumn Doerr, who has some worthwhile reminders of what mystery writers owe to Agatha Christie.  —Janet Hutchings

Why is Agatha Christie the best-selling author of all time (if you don’t count the Bible)? Copious amounts of ink have been spilled answering that question. With your indulgence, I will add some digital words to the topic, from the perspective of a mystery reader and writer.

Christie’s genius was to advance her stories through misdirection, the foundation of a good mystery. For her, this foundation stone included: sleuths who are often underestimated and even dismissed; the weaving in of crimes other than the murder in order to distract from the truth; including messages both written and verbal that can have more than one meaning and can be (and are often) misinterpreted; and perhaps most importantly, giving her characters secrets that drive their behavior.

These are all familiar strategies used by mystery writers, but Christie was the virtuoso when employing them in her work. When I start to write a new mystery, I revisit each form of misdirection as a reminder of how to get the reader to “look over there.”

All of the forms of misdirection I’ve mentioned are used in most of Christie’s books. I’ll give some examples of each.

Let’s begin with Christie’s crime fighters, particularly Miss Jane Marple. She is often ignored, underestimated, misjudged, and even dismissed, which fools characters trying desperately to hide malfeasance. Miss Marple is so well drawn a character—an outwardly harmless old lady with her heart-shaped spyglass and knitting needles—that her mild-mannered countenance leads others to miss that she’s as sharp as a tack. So adept are her detecting skills that in The Murder at the Vicarage she’s able to solve the murder while nursing a sprained ankle and without leaving the confines of her cozy home in St. Mary Mead. Overlook this old lady at your peril. Her entire character is an elaborate case of misdirection through underestimation.

Another of the tricks Christie used to deceive was to include among the suspects criminals who are thieves, adulterers, blackmailers, embezzlers, or drug addicts. This is a clever ways to bury information and hide the identity of the killer, because stacking up what turn out to be unrelated crimes obfuscates the true motive of the killer. The characters in Christie’s stories are fully fleshed out and explored to the point that many could have a novel of their own. An example of Christie’s use of completely unrelated criminal activity to throw us off the scent is in the book At Bertram’s Hotel. There are thieves with elaborate schemes, a priest and his doppelganger, and a will reading that bring suspects to the hotel. None of these distractions has anything to do with the murder of Mickey Gorman. Christie’s use of multiple motives, misdirection, and the development of each of the characters and their secrets is so satisfying that when the killer is revealed it takes some time to process who has done what to whom. When Miss Marple eliminates all of the distracting storylines and cuts through the misdirection, the murderer is identified but the killer is just one piece of an elaborate puzzle.

We find another clever form of misdirection in Christie novels when characters misinterpret a written message that leads to a misunderstanding. One example is the phrase, “I can’t go on . . .” in The Moving Finger. This device is also used in the Tommy and Tuppence mystery By the Pricking of My Thumbs. A note reads, “Mrs. Lancaster is not safe.” In each case, the message is plausibly misunderstood. Similarly, one of the witnesses to a shooting in A Murder is Announced says, “She wasn’t there.” The inflection and which “she” is being referred to are only later revealed to be crucial clues.

As stated above, probably the most effective way to keep a story moving using misdirection is to provide characters with the need to protect a secret. Since nearly all of Christie’s characters have secrets to keep, the motives behind their secrets become part of the misdirection and take our attention away from the murder at the heart of the story. When all of the misdirection, in the form of characters with secrets to keep, common misunderstandings, and criminal behavior, is ultimately stripped away, a killer is revealed. In The Moving Finger and other novels, Miss Marple observes that the only relevant fact when you strip away the interesting yet irrelevant side stories is that there has been a murder. She says that all that matters is “that Mrs. Symmington died.”

Part of the pleasure of reading Agatha Christie, for me, as a mystery writer, is dissecting how a master such as Christie does it. I’m not just reading to discover whodunit but observing how they planned and executed the crime, and, in the end, get caught, all while throwing us off track. This is at the heart of a satisfying mystery. When I get stuck with my own mystery writing, I always go back to the basics. It was Agatha Christie who turned those basics into an art form.

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