Agatha Christie is often dismissed by literary critics as a prolific writer without merit. Yet, according to a number of sources, her books have sold more than two billion copies, making her the most widely read novelist in history. How does she do it, and why are her books so widely read?
Christie's plots seem mechanical and un-literary. Yet, there is a clarity in her work, and a shrewd understanding of the vagaries of human nature that make her books timeless. Christie is a sort of Jane Austen of the detective novel genre.
An Agatha Christie book conjures up quaint village life and a host of middle- and upper class characters. This idyllic world is disturbed by murder with a host of suspects. The reader is then invited to pit his or her wits against those of the detective, who eventually brings the case to a dramatic and unexpected denouement.
Christie's uses everyday language with accessible characters. The sheer "simplicity" of her work belies the careful pacing and structure of the narrative. Her books are also a history lesson. The novels set between the wars are particularly interesting since they offer a glimpse of a rapidly changing Britain.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), for example, if you don't know the twist, still takes your breath away. Murder at the Vicarage (1930) is a sort of comedy of manners, and Crooked House (1949) (Christie's favorite book) breaks an unspoken taboo of the whodunit genre that many readers still find shocking.
Of course, not every Christie novel is a classic. Passenger to Frankfurt (1970) and Elephants Can Remember (1972) are unworthy of the author's genius. But for those of us who want a good read, then by all means, pick up a Christie.