It's Agatha Christie's birthday today.
She died in 1976 at the age of 86 and, staggeringly, produced 73 novels (66 murder mystery), 28 collections, 16 plays, 2 biographies and a handful of broadcast works and poems in her lifetime.
But, as prolific as she was, the quality never seemed to suffer. She is still the third most published author in human history, having sold over two billion books - a record broken only by the Bible and Shakespeare.
I've been a fan of her work for longer than I can remember. In fact, one of my earliest television memories is of seeing Rene Clair's 1945 version of And Then There Were None on a wintry weekend evening (a dark and stormy night?) with my family and being thrilled by it.
I've since read all of her crime novels and also those of her 'Golden Age' contemporaries - Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L Sayers and more. And, of course, I've read Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories too.
So, when I came to write what became first published novel, a murder mystery seemed to be the natural genre to attempt. A 30 year career in the police service helped too; I've seen more than a few homicides and hundreds of crime scenes. Throwing my knowledge of real-life policing against my love of murder mystery fiction created the delicious tension from which most of the novel's comedy is generated.
A Murder To Die For is set at a murder mystery festival weekend celebrating the life and works of crime writer Agnes Crabbe - my thinly-disguised version of Agatha Christie. Crabbe's most popular fictional detective is Miss Millicent Cutter, a younger and saucier Miss Marple, and most of the festival-goers turn up dressed as her, Then, on the first day of the festival, one of the fans is murdered. It then becomes a race between the procedurally-driven police and the murder mystery fans to solve the crime, a job made much more difficult by the fact that the victim, witnesses, and very possibly the murderer, are all dressed as Miss Cutter.
Writing a murder mystery is no easy task and, while going through the process, my respect for Christie grew exponentially. To turn out at least one new crime fiction novel every year for 66 years is a staggering feat. Admittedly, the method of killing is very similar in many of her books - having been a chemist, her knowledge of poisons was excellent - but the plots are always extremely clever and leave the reader guessing until the last page.
Writing such a novel requires an extraordinary level of planning. You need to know where every person is at any one time. You need to create back-stories and descriptions to ensure that the players don't act out of character. I even needed to create a map of my fictional village to ensure that people's movements make sense, If Christie was able to keep all of that content in her head while writing (and writing without the luxury of word processing don't forget), she must have been some kind of genius.
Luckily, she was a genius. And she was the first British woman to learn how to surf standing up.
So happy birthday Dame Agatha. And thank you for all of the entertainment, inspiration and murders most foul.
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