Q&A with Paul Fry: Whodunit? Why Agatha Christie’s legacy is still going strong

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It wouldn’t take the sleuthing skills of world-famous detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple to solve the mystery of why their creator Agatha Christie is still so popular 125 years after her birth.

The famed crime novelist, playwright, and short story writer was born on Sept. 15, 1890. Christie’s books have sold about 2 billion copies, and she is listed in the “Guinness Book of World Records” as the best-selling novelist of all times. “And Then There Were None” — Christie’s most popular novel, with 100 million sales to date — is one of the world’s best-selling mysteries ever, and one of the best-selling books of all time. Christie’s stage play, “The Mousetrap,” is the longest-running stage production in history. Many of her works have been adapted for television and film.

The British whodunit author rose to fame during what is known as the “Golden Age” of detective fiction, the period between World War I and II, an era of classic murder mystery novels written by authors who all followed a similar style.

YaleNews recently spoke to Paul Fry, the William Lampson Professor of English, who has taught at Yale about crime fiction. He talked about the importance of teaching the crime fiction genre, how “maddeningly elusive” her plots are, and whether or not he himself is able to solve the mysteries in Christie’s novels. The following is an edited version of that conversation.

Why is it important to teach students about crime fiction?

Crime fiction engages every part of the curriculum: problem-solving, forensic evidence, social science, regional knowledge, visual and auditory perceptiveness, and reading comprehension.

Why has Agatha Christie remained so popular today?

I think Christie appeals specifically to the problem-solving dimension of crime fiction. Her books are puzzles — pared down yet still maddeningly elusive — an advanced form of the perennially popular board game, Clue.

How is Agatha Christie’s influence felt in the world of crime fiction writing today?

Her influence is passed on through the tradition of Ellery Queen, a fictional mystery writer and amateur detective who is the main character in books that announce to the reader on a certain page: “You now have all the clues you need to solve this puzzle.” Writers whose chief interest is puzzles keep her popularity going. There is a sophisticated offshoot of her work, the so-called “closed room mystery,” where, with all the windows and doors locked, the perpetrator manages to sneak in and out.

What is Agatha Christie most criticized for?

She is most criticized for the banality of her characterizations. They really are like the characters in Clue: Miss Scarlett, Colonel Mustard, and so on. But I think that’s a mistaken criticism. It’s Christie’s genius to make you think you can guess the criminal because he’s a “type.” She gives you all the types, then she fools you, making you realize that it’s you, not she, who’s been stereotyping. She’s better at that game than anyone in history, including her predecessors Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Who is Agatha Christie’s greatest detective?

I prefer Miss Marple because I find her more amusing than Hercule Poirot (the hero of her two greatest “trick” novels, “Murder on the Orient Express” and “Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”), but there’s an important point to be made about the difference between these two. They represent two traditions: Poirot, the cerebral use of “little gray cells” in the tradition of Poe’s Dupin and Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes; and Marple, the use of intuition and the empathic understanding of human weakness (with perhaps a hint of spiritual guidance) in the tradition of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown.

Part of Christie’s achievement is to have done such justice to both possibilities. But if you read her plots carefully, I think you’ll see that the distinction is finally an illusion. To solve any crime her detectives use both logic and intuition, and when it comes to their grand final explanation — with all the suspects gathered in the room and the police waiting at the door — they unfold their reasoning processes in exactly the same ways. To me, the tea-cosy fun of the Marple world (carried on in “light” mystery series today where the detective is a cat, etc.) has a nostalgic appeal. Yet Christie does reserve her most labyrinthine and ambitious plots for Poirot — her most memorable titles star Poirot — and she herself would probably say Poirot was her greatest.

Are you always able to guess the murderer in the works of Agatha Christie?

Absolutely not. I’m fooled more often than I care to admit. There’s nobody better at that. And nobody better, ever, than Christie, at playing fair with the reader.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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Bess Connolly: elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu, 203-432-1324