Whodunit and Why

Me at 11

When I was eleven years old, the family was on its annual holiday to Brighton and the weather was ‘mixed’. On non-beach days we trawled around The Lanes and the second-hand bookshops nearby. There we discovered piles of detective fiction in paperback, all very cheap, and bought some by ‘Agatha Christie’, whom my brother promptly re-named Swigatha Whiskey (Swigatha she has remained ever since, and her books are also known by us as swigathas).

The enthusiasm I felt when I read my first (Sparkling Cyanide) was enhanced greatly by having older brothers, who had also just read it, to discuss it with. We bought loads more that summer, all second-hand PAN and Fontana books and all for less than a shilling (5p) each.

The ‘eleven-year old’ element is very important when considering the the personal imprint of Agatha Christie books: it is just the age to start reading them. In addition to a well-told story, there are puzzles to resolve, random bits of French to translate and quotations to memorise, and usually a haunting front cover to boot. Whilst conducting research for this website, I found that loads of people had been introduced to Agatha Christie’s books at around the same age and, like me, got hooked. It is a great way to get into reading because you are always wanting to get to the next one.

I decided to re-read all of Agatha Christie’s detective fiction as an adult to see if they still grabbed me as they has as a child, at the same time seeing if I could understand why her work is still so popular.

One would expect to grow out of Agatha Christie, and in my case I moved on as a teenager to an obsession with Dostoevsky; even so, I couldn’t help noticing that all his greatest works – Crime and Punishment, The Devils, The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov – were, in essence, swigathas: whodunits or whydunits.

She has been dead for more than 40 years, and in the intervening period all her stories have been done to death, both on TV and in the cinema. Yet today you still find 11-year-olds reading Murder on the Orient Express, the BBC is still basing its Christmas schedules around adaptations of her books and Hollywood has just launched a new series of Poirot films.

Who still reads or adapts the works of any of Agatha Christie’s contemporaries? Especially abroad: of the 2 billion copies of her works so far sold, over 50% were published outside the UK. She still sells 5 million books a year. I wanted to discover the reasons for this, and they proved to be pretty obvious – great plots, iconic main characters, books that are hugely readable (especially for people learning English) and easily translatable (for people not learning English!). Her work has been translated into over 100 languages and another 100 dialects – now wonder Hollywood is still interested!

What I was not expecting to find was that, taken together, her books provide a compelling portrait of certain levels of British society, home and abroad, between 1920 and 1970. As a result, http://www.swigatha.com was created, with a page for each book, in order, rating it for readability, originality and surprise factor, but also with a section outlining the characters, their attitudes and prejudices, with quotes from the text to illustrate them.

Some of these quotes contain language that is seen as hugely offensive today, although it might not have been 90 years ago.

Because of this, there are also ‘You Can’t Say That!’ pages dedicated to each of the six decades that Agatha Christie was writing. The change in attitudes as time progresses leaps off these pages.

Alongside this website there was also a Swigatha facebook page. Well over half of its followers have English as a second language.

I am hoping to gather each of the pages together and have it published as an analysis of the world’s favourite author and her work as a refection of her time.

I was never going to try to read swigathas on a Kindle, but what I found when doing the re-read was how important it was to have the same edition of the book that I had originally read. The cover, the blurb on the back, the size of the pages – each of these creates an impression that adds to the initial impact of the text; similarly, one’s circumstances when first reading it may well sub-consciously affect one’s opinion of it when re-reading it.

Many of our old paperbacks had been lost or fallen to bits through over-use (or misuse!), so I have been collecting the 1960s PAN and Fontana editions to replace them. Those Fontana covers, usually from paintings by Tom Adams, are hugely popular, and people often buy another edition of a book they already have for its cover alone.  PAN’s editions employed photographic images, even then, but they are very distinctive and well-designed too.

Any second-hand bookshop owner will tell you that the 60s editions of Agatha Christie’s books fly off the shelves as soon as they come in; so not only are 5 million new editions of her books still sold each year, but at least ten million are read.

The paperback editions from the 1970s are not only less attractive, they also fall apart more easily and the print is often smudged. You can always tell the two apart: The 60s books have AGATHA CHRISTIE on their spines; the 70s ones have Agatha Christie.

My re-read is being as much affected by the physical book as the original read was.