(This essay of mine was originally published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.)
Perhaps a muse should be made of more gossamer stuff.
Perhaps she should take the shape of a frolicking maiden with long, wind-whipped tresses, fine of form and ethereal in nature. Somebody, well…elfin. My own particular muse, however, was none of that. Solid, tweedy, very British, and cresting eighty by the time I first read her—such was Dame Agatha Christie.
When I was thirteen, I caught a televised version of Ten Little Indians and was reeled in by the narrative of strangers trapped on an island as some unknown murderer whittled through them. Learning that the story was but one of very many by a particular author, I promptly went out and purchased my first Agatha Christie paperback mystery. It was called Murder After Hours, and the cover artist had done a bang-up job of setting the mood. He had placed upon a window ledge a tantalizing array of objects: a golden-beamed flashlight; a crumpled, cryptic note; a floral-patterned teacup; and a revolver. If all that wasn’t enough, just outside the cracked pane a perched owl scowled at me from a dark-purple sky. I was hooked. What’s more, the illustration proved to be an accurate representation of what a Christie tale was, suggesting puzzlement, mayhem, deduction, and (via the teacup) refined civility.
While, like many a lad, I had cut my mystery teeth on (who else?) the Hardy Boys, Christie now became the first “adult’ author of my reading life. Along with the stellar John Steinbeck, she was the writer who kept calling me back throughout my teen years. In that period, I racked up about forty of her works. I still feel a shudder of nostalgia when I recall opening a particular Christmas present to discover a stack of five glistening Christie paperbacks. Well done, Mom.
I could spin you long anecdotes of how Agatha Christie has popped up time and time again in my life. I could tell the account of weeping over a potential break-up with a girlfriend in an Irish pub and how our recriminations ground to a halt as our eyes locked on the pub TV—Hercule Poirot had just squeezed his suspects into the parlor and was about to reveal the culprit! I could tell about the afternoon years later when my wife (a different lass) was jitteringly awaiting the results of a home pregnancy test while I calmed myself with the dénouement of the Christie novel I was just then finishing. Whodunit? Turns out it was me! Nine months later we had a daughter and we named her… Sorry, not Agatha. Sure, I could tell you stories, but I won’t.
In my own foray into the world of mystery writing, I’ve leaned firmly on Christie’s shoulders. All her frills and thrills—the gathering of suspects, the detective’s damning soliloquy, the cornering of the (hopefully) least likely suspect—all have I embraced warmly. My own detective, Mr. O’Nelligan, who’s appeared twice so far in these pages, owes much to Poirot and Miss Marple, Christie’s forefront sleuths. True, I made O’Nelligan Irish as befits my roots, but his spiritual godmother is definitely Dame Agatha.
Having been asked to select a Christie short story for republication in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, I happened to start my search at an unfamiliar used bookstore. After exploring the mystery section thoroughly, I was saddened to find not a single Christie title on the shelves. How the mighty have fallen, I lamented to myself. Time was when no honorable bookseller would have dared neglect the grand duchess of deduction. I sought out the proprietor to sound my concern. Following the path of his pointed finger, I turned to find myself facing a multi-tiered bookshelf stuffed with nothing but Christie books. Aha! She’d been accorded her own section.
I really needn’t have been concerned. After all, Christie’s works (a whopping127 books and 15 plays) have sold something like four billion copies worldwide, putting her and her countryman Mr. Shakespeare alone atop that particular literary plateau. Her play The Mousetrap has been running non-stop in
for fifty-eight years and counting, closing in on 24,000 performances. You’d think that by now someone would have let slip the ending, but apparently not. Some modern critics have faulted Christie for a certain quaintness of style and occasional stereotyping, and, I’ll admit, for those very reasons I eliminated a few of her tales from my consideration. Still, few connoisseurs of the mystery genre will deny her skill in constantly tricking her readers. London
One last thing concerning my connection with Agatha Christie. On the day I left my teen years and entered the realm of young adulthood—my 20th birthday, January 12, 1976—my muse left the world itself. On that very same day, at age eighty-five, the Queen of Crime slipped off forever into the dark-purple night.