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Through some seventy mystery novels and thrillers as well as 149 short stories and more than a dozen plays, Agatha Christie helped create the form of classic detective fiction, in which a murder is committed and many are suspected. In the end, all but one of the suspects are eliminated,...

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Through some seventy mystery novels and thrillers as well as 149 short stories and more than a dozen plays, Agatha Christie helped create the form of classic detective fiction, in which a murder is committed and many are suspected. In the end, all but one of the suspects are eliminated, and the criminal dies or is arrested. Working within these conventions, Christie explored their limits through numerous variations to create her intellectual puzzles. Much of the charm of her work derives from its use of the novel-of-manners tradition, as she explores upper-middle-class life in the English village, a milieu that she made peculiarly her own.

Typical of the novel of manners, Christie’s works offer little character analysis, detailed description, or philosophy about life; as she herself noted, “Lots of my books are what I should describe as ’light-hearted thrillers.’” Simply written, demanding no arcane knowledge, requiring only careful attention to facts, her works repeatedly challenge readers to deduce from the clues they have been given the identity of the culprit before she reveals the always surprising answer.

Other Literary Forms

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Agatha Christie is acknowledged as one of the world’s most prolific writers. In addition to her shorter works, she is the author of more than fifty detective novels, including the famous Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple stories such as Curtain: Hercule Poirot’s Last Case (1975) and A Murder Is Announced (1950). Christie wrote not only fifteen plays—one of which, The Mousetrap (pr. 1952), set a world record for the longest continuous run of performances—but also romance novels, poems, autobiographical works, and a children’s book. She also published several books under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott. Immensely popular, many of her works have been adapted for stage, screen, and television. The sales of her works have been unsurpassed by any other popular author.

Achievements

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As the most popular mystery writer of all time, Agatha Christie stands alone in the annals of detective fiction. As such, she has set the standards for others of this genre to follow. Her words have been translated into every modern European language. While her autobiographical works, plays, and romantic works are certainly successful, it is with her detective novels that she excels. During the fifty-odd years that she wrote these books, her skill with plot, character, and dialogue never wavered.

Following the dicta of plot development for whodunits, Christie nevertheless created myriad variations on a theme by manipulating the settings, characters, and developments in her stories. Part of her popularity is derived from this amazing ability to change format in so many ways—all familiar in tone to the avid Christie reader yet always fresh to the most jaded reader of detective fiction. Christie’s strength, however, lies in her ability to create dialogue. Her characters’ speeches are neither stilted nor long-winded, yet they reveal much about the plot, theme, and the characters themselves. Christie’s works never rely on fantastic manipulation, on the kind of deus ex machina devices that others bring into their books. All is revealed simply and readily through her simple and elegant speeches and descriptions. She must be declared a master of the craft.

Other literary forms

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Agatha Christie published approximately thirty collections of short stories, fifteen plays, a nonfiction book (Come Tell Me How You Live, 1946), and many omnibus editions of her novels. Under the pen name Mary Westmacott, Christie published six romance novels. At least ten of her detective works have been made into motion pictures, and An Autobiography (1977) was published because, as Christie told Publishers Weekly in 1966, “If anybody writes about my life in the future, I’d rather they got the facts right.” Sources disagree on the total number of Christie’s publications because of the unusual quantity of titles, the reissue of so many novels under different titles, and especially the tendency to publish the same book under differing titles in England and the United States.

Achievements

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Among her many achievements, Agatha Christie bears one unusual distinction: She is the only writer whose main character’s death precipitated a front-page obituary in The New York Times. Christie was a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature; received the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Foreign Play of the year in 1955 for Witness for the Prosecution (which was first produced in 1953); was knighted Dame Commander, Order of the British Empire, in 1971; received the Film Daily Poll Ten Best Pictures Award in 1958 (for the film adaptation of Witness for the Prosecution, directed by Billy Wilder); and was made a doctor of literature at the University of Exeter.

Discussion Topics

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Evaluate Agatha Christie’s most famous use of an unusual point of view.

Contrast Jane Marple’s and Hercule Poirot’s aptness for detection.

People seldom reread mysteries, but Christie’s stage mystery, The Mousetrap, is the longest-running legitimate play in history. How does one account for its durability?

Christie was not what usually would be considered a stylist. Evaluate her style as to its appropriateness for her literary purposes.

Trace the influence of Miss Marple on characterizations by later writers of crime fiction.

Bibliography

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Bargainner, Earl F. The Gentle Art of Murder. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1980. With an extensive bibliography and two indexes of characters and short-story titles, this book is a boon to those searching for an elusive reference. Bargainner analyzes Christie’s works as separate achievements, each a pearl on an exquisite necklace, and he praises her ability to experiment with detective fiction “by employing elements not generally considered compatible with it.”

Barnard, Robert. A Talent to Deceive. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1980. Intended to inform and entertain the casual Christie reader, this book follows Christie’s writings as they developed in theme and plot throughout her lifetime. While there are good analyses of novels and detectives, the truly admirable features of this book are the exhaustive indices and annotated lists—including films—compiled by Barnard’s wife.

Bayard, Pierre. Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? The Mystery Behind the Agatha Christie Mystery. London: Fourth Estate, 2000. Detailed study of Christie’s unfinished final project.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Agatha Christie. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2002. Compilation of essays on Christie’s work and its place in the detective genre and in English literature by leading literary and cultural scholars. Bibliographic references and index.

Bunson, Matthew. The Complete Christie: An Agatha Christie Encyclopedia. New York: Pocket Books, 2001. Comprehensive reference volume contains alphabetical entries on all characters in Christie’s works, cross-referenced to the works in which they appear; plot synopses; listings of all film, television, and radio adaptations of Christie’s works and of documentaries about Christie; a biography; and a bibliography.

Cade, Jared. Agatha Christie and the Eleven Missing Days. London: Peter Owen, 1998. Questions Christie’s disappearance. Includes bibliographical references, a list of works, and an index.

Christie, Agatha. An Autobiography. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1977. Although published the year after her death, this book, which was written over a fifteen-year period, concludes in 1965, when the author was seventy-five years old. Although she does not explain her mysterious disappearance in the 1920’s, probably because of her desire for privacy, she provides interesting details about happier events and invaluable commentary on the creation of her works.

Christie, Agatha. Come Tell Me How You Live. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1946. Published under the name of Agatha Christie Mallowan, a lighthearted book of reminiscences about archaeological experiences with Max Mallowan, her husband, in the Middle East. Reflects the happiness of Christie’s second marriage, as well as her own sense of humor.

Dommermuth-Costa, Carol. Agatha Christie: Writer of Mystery. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 1997.

Escott, John. Agatha Christie, Woman of Mystery. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Fido, Martin. The World of Agatha Christie: The Facts and Fiction Behind the World’s Greatest Crime Writer. Holbrook, Mass.: Adams Media, 1999. An extremely critical account of Christie and her fiction.

Gerald, Michael C. The Poisonous Pen of Agatha Christie. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993.

Gill, Gillian. Agatha Christie: The Woman and Her Mysteries. New York: Free Press, 1990. Short and highly readable biography is definitely of the popular, rather than critical, variety, employing as chapter titles seven different names used at one time or another by the mystery writer (including the assumed name she used during her infamous disappearance in 1926). Still, Gill goes out of her way to emphasize Christie’s dedication to her art and the discipline of her life.

Haining, Peter. Agatha Christie’s Poirot: A Celebration of the Great Detective. London: Boxtree, 1995.

Hart, Anne. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot: The Life and Times of Hercule Poirot. London: HarperCollins, 1997.

Hart, Anne. Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple: The Life and Times of Miss Jane Marple. London: HarperCollins, 1985.

Ibarguengoitia, Jorge. “Agatha Christie: An Unlikely Obituary,” translated by F. Soicher. The Literary Review 38 (Fall, 1994): 45-46. Claims he finds Christie’s detective fiction unreadable because he either uncovers the murderer early on or else is unable to understand the detective’s explanation.

Irons, Glenwood, and Joan Warthling Roberts. “From Spinster to Hipster: The ’Suitability’ of Miss Marple and Anna Lee.” In Feminism in Women’s Detective Fiction, edited by Glenwood Irons. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 1995. Discusses Christie’s creation of Miss Marple as the archetypal British sinister detective figure in stories and novels. Analyzes Marple’s basic methodology in The Tuesday Club Murders.

Keating, H. R. F., ed. Agatha Christie: First Lady of Crime. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977. A collection of essays by several writers on topics varying from sales figures and Christie’s audience in the United States to her plays and films. Also includes interesting “portraits” of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot.

Maida, Patricia, and Nicholas B. Spornick. Murder She Wrote. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Press, 1982. Divided neatly into sections by detective, this book allows its reader to go right to a necessary section without paging through much unneeded information. The authors confirm that Christie’s characters and their “creative puzzles” gave the world a lasting gift.

Makinen, Merja. Agatha Christie: Investigating Femininity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Sets out to disprove what many critics have asserted: that Agatha Christie created her female characters to be weak and inferior to their male counterparts. Emphasizes the ways in which the female characters play vital roles outside the domestic sphere and therefore challenge traditional notions of femininity.

Mallowan, Max. Mallowan’s Memoirs. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1977. Finished just before his wife’s death, this autobiography of Mallowan is helpful both for the details concerning Christie and for the revelation of Mallowan’s own personality. Because both he and his profession were of central importance to Christie, an important source.

Makinen, Merja. Agatha Christie: Investigating Femininity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Makinen sets out to disprove what many critics before her have asserted: that Agatha Christie created her female characters to be weak and inferior to their male counterparts. She does this by emphasizing the ways in which the female characters play vital roles outside of the domestic sphere and therefore challenge traditional notions of femininity. Ultimately, Makinen succeeds in proving that Christie’s female characters are as successful and strong as her male characters.

Morgan, Janet. Agatha Christie: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.

Osborne, Charles. The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie: A Biographical Companion to the Works of Agatha Christie. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001. Presents a chronological listing of Christie’s works accompanied by biographical notes that place the writings within the context of the events of the author’s life. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Paul, Robert S. Whatever Happened to Sherlock Holmes? Detective Fiction, Popular Theology, and Society. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991. A study of detective fiction based on the general premise that detective stories mirror the morals and theological assumptions of their time. The chapter on Agatha Christie explores how her stories reflect what happens in a society when compassion is lacking.

Riley, Dick, and Pam McAllister, eds. The Bedside, Bathtub, and Armchair Companion to Agatha Christie. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1979. Containing more than two hundred illustrations, this handbook also provides plot summaries of all Christie’s novels, plays, and many of her short stories arranged chronologically by first date of publication.

Robyns, Gwen. The Mystery of Agatha Christie. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1978. Provides a well-written and well-rounded popular biography of Christie. Richly illustrated and contains an appendix with a chronological listing of all Christie’s writings. Perhaps the best place to begin a further study of Christie.

Sanders, Dennis and Len Lovallo. The Agatha Christie Companion: The Complete Guide to Agatha Christie’s Life and Work. Rev. ed. New York: Delacorte Press, 1989.

Shaw, Marion, and Sabine Vanacker. Reflecting on Miss Marple. New York: Routledge, 1991. Presents a brief chronology of Christie’s life and then devotes four chapters to one of her most memorable detectives, making a case for viewing Miss Marple as a feminist heroine. Reviews the history of women writers and the golden age of detective fiction as well as the social context of Christie’s Miss Marple books. Asserts that the spinster Miss Marple is able to solve her cases by exploiting prejudices against unmarried older women.

Shenker, Israel. “The Past Master of Mysteries, She Built a Better Mousetrap.” Smithsonian 21, no. 6 (1990): 86-95. For those who have neither the time nor the patience to wade through Christie’s An Autobiography, this article provides a concise portrait of the author. Completed in honor of the one hundredth anniversary of her birthday, this carefully written biographical article lays the necessary groundwork for any Christie researcher.

Sova, Dawn B. Agatha Christie A to Z: The Essential Reference to Her Life and Writings. New York: Facts on File, 1996. Provides information on all aspects of Christie’s life and career.

Symons, Julian. Mortal Consequences: A History from the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1972. An illuminating study which places the Christie books in a larger perspective, pointing out the later deviations from the conventions of the classic mystery.

Thompson, Laura. Agatha Christie: An English Mystery. London: Headline Review, 2007. Comprehensive biography, written with the cooperation of Christie’s family and with full access to the author’s unpublished letters and notebooks. Includes information about Christie’s eleven-day disappearance in 1926 and about the novels she wrote under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott.

Toye, Randall. The Agatha Christie Who’s Who. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1980. A fascinating reference. Traces the many appearances of characters such as Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple. Identifies minor characters. Particularly useful for the Christie enthusiast.

Wagoner, Mary S. Agatha Christie. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Scholarly but readable study of Christie and her writings. A brief biography of Christie in the first chapter is followed by analytical chapters focusing on the different genres of her works, such as short stories. Contains a good bibliography, an index, and a chronological table of Christie’s life.

York, R. A. Agatha Christie: Power and Illusion. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Reevaluates Christie’s novels, which traditionally have been described as “cozy” mysteries. Asserts that although these works may appear to depict a stable world of political conservatism, conventional sex and class roles, and clear moral choices, this world is not as safe as it appears to be. Notes how Christie’s mysteries also depict war, social mobility, ambiguous morality, violence, and, of course, murder.

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