Event Recap: Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile with Sophie Hannah and John Mullan

27 May, 2015

Poirot

Last week I attended the Guardian Book Club where author Sophie Hannah and literary critic John Mullan discussed Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile.

You may not know this already but I am a huge Agatha Christie fan. I discovered her mysteries when I stumbled upon a copy of Murder on the Links hidden away on a bookshelf in my grandfather’s house in Sri Lanka one hot summer. It probably belonged to one of my aunts and uncles but I took it with me when I left. I never learnt who it belonged to but I still have my well-thumbed copy and it still remains my favourite mystery to this day.

What is it about Christie’s novels that has ensnared millions of readers? For me, it was the sheer shock of finding the murderer was not who I expected. Stunned, I can still remember wondering how she managed to fool me. And with each novel, I would make a guess and get it wrong. Sometimes I couldn’t handle the tension and would take a furtive peek at the final pages which would inevitably spoil the rest of the novel for me but I just couldn’t help myself. And so my love affair with Christie began when I was nine and I went through her entire crime oeuvre, spending hours in English bookshops in far flung Asian cities counting the titles I had and hadn’t read, waiting for the special days when I was allowed to buy a book. Admittedly I did get better at guessing the murderer as I went through her novels but it was more a gut feeling. And once I got over that, I really began to enjoy her cast of characters and unraveling her fiendish plots.

So I was excited to hear Hannah’s views on Christie. Most of you will know by now that Hannah was chosen by Christie’s estate to write the new Poirot novel, The Monogram Murders, which was published last year . I, like many, was nervous about reading it but was completely won over by her intricate plotting and handling of Poirot. And I wasn’t surprised to learn that Hannah is on her third re-reading of Christie’s crime novels. Impressive stuff. She has a great love for Christie and her work, although she admits she is not as knowledgeable as John Curran, Christie’s archivist and author of Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks and Agatha Christie’s Murder in the Making, whom she would phone with questions when writing The Monogram Murders for which he would have instant answers.

For the Guardian Book Club, Hannah chose to discuss Death on the Nile partly because she wanted something different to the usual choice which is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, probably one of Christie’s most infamous novels, but also because it is one of the few that is successful in all mediums – book, tv and film. It is also one where you meet the characters going about their daily business before the actual murder occurs.

As much as they were bestsellers, I recall most notably in an English literature class at school that Christie’s novels were considered derivative and her characters two-dimensional, criticisms which still echo in genre fiction today. As young as I was, I did wonder why books you could race through weren’t considered serious literature however well written. It didn’t stop me reading or loving her novels, and when I re-read Elephants Can Remember a few years ago, I was surprised at how dark the plot was and how tightly written the prose. Hannah does point this out saying it’s an unfair label. She believes the characters need to appear to be two dimensional at first before the unveiling of the third dimension by the detective.

Christie’s strength lies in her interest in the psychology of crime especially how we assess others. She lets the readers mislead themselves and only at the unmasking do you realise your error in judgement. And one of the devices she uses in her novels is that a large proportion of her subjects are hiding something, all are guilty of something but perhaps not the murder. No one is perfect, everyone has a flaw. Christie is unparalleled in her understanding of character, human nature and psychology.

On accusations of stereotyping and stylised settings, Hannah does acknowledge that Christie recycles setting and plot devices but her tales are so interesting that readers don’t mind. A reader pointed out that The Murder on the Nile was somewhat similar to Endless Night and Mullan clocked on to a similar echo of Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove which brought about a discussion on the limitations of plot. In some contemporary crime novels, the mystery isn’t enough to sustain the reader’s interest and so they pile on the bodies, but Christie doesn’t need to do this. However Hannah pointed out that Christie was fascinated by the possibilities of the crime novel and tried every possible permutation. She instinctively understood what every novel needed and was in total control. Christie is famous for being a meticulous planner before she put pen to paper and this can be seen in the very intricate way in which Christie manipulates her novels’ timelines. This was one aspect of the crime novel with which Hannah had difficulty and is also probably one of the reasons why she finds it so difficult to pinpoint Christie’s culprit.

For the serious mystery reader, the inability to guess the murderer is crucial. Christie overtly draws your attention to the clues, she is never sly or frugal in this, but still manages to fool you. You don’t know until the second Poirot or Miss Marple starts explaining who the murderer is. And she does this all the while increasing the tension bit by bit until you just have to know who did it.

The event ended with Hannah describing Miss Marple as a bit of a misanthrope and Poirot a romantic who liked to play cupid, often directing the attentions of a young lady away from a handsome rake to a slightly boring but more suitable man. Her favourite secondary character is Jane, Lady Edgware, in Lord Edgware Dies and one of her top ten favourite novels is After the Funeral as well as The Body in the Library which she says is flawless.

It was just a lovely evening to hear someone who loves Christie as much as I do talk about various aspects of her work and it has reawakened my urge to re-read some of Christie’s novels again as well as dip into John Curran’s books.

I hope this has whetted your appetite for Agatha Christie’s novels. If you have read them, which is your favourite mystery? And if you haven’t read any yet, which one would you like to start with?

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