Sunday, September 27, 2015

Drawing the 'Curtain' on a Beloved Detective

It was 40 years ago this month that Agatha Christie published her final mystery novel featuring her most popular detective, Hercule Poirot. The novel was published only a few months before Christie's death, and it really brought her lifelong odyssey with that character full circle.

Since it has been so long since the publications of "Curtain" and "Sleeping Murder," Miss Marple's last case, it is important to advise the millennial generation that, while they were the last of Christie's books to be published, they were not the last books Christie wrote. She wrote them more than 30 years earlier, during the London blitz in World War II, fearing that she would die in the daily bombing raids. She did not die, of course, and held the manuscripts in bank vaults until the mid–1970s.

As I understand it, Christie was reluctant to let either book be published, but she relented when her publisher pointed out to her that the only way to have any long–term control over her character would be to kill him off herself in print. If she didn't, some other writer might try to keep him alive — as Kingsley Amis did with James Bond after Ian Fleming's death.

I've heard it said that Christie may have had another reason for permitting "Curtain" to be published while she was still living. She always seemed to have an adversarial relationship with her beloved detective. She was irritated by the character's popularity and might have experienced considerable satisfaction from being rid of him.

I remember how excited my parents were about the publication of a new Agatha Christie novel. It was truly an event in our house, a cause for intense anticipation, and one of my parents (probably my mother) purchased a copy the day it hit our local bookstore. I don't remember now which one read it first, but one did, and then the other did, and my memory is they both liked it. (I knew they would. They were both Agatha Christie fans, and they both loved the Poirot character.)

They certainly discussed it a lot.

I guess it kind of came as a surprise to me at the time just how many Agatha Christie devotees there were. I suppose I was inclined to think of my parents' love for Christie as kind of a quirk. You know, it was a good thing they found each other and could share their passion for the same writer. That's probably how I felt about it at the time. Then I found out that there were a lot of people who shared that quirk. "Curtain" raced to the top of the best–seller lists in the United States and Great Britain and remained there for weeks.

I wanted to read it, too, but my mother told me that I would be wise to read several of Poirot's previous novels first, especially the first one, "The Mysterious Affair at Styles," which was published more than 50 years earlier and was an integral part of the plot of "Curtain." That would put everything into context, my mother told me.

So I did, but it took awhile. I was a teenager, easily distracted and didn't get around to reading those novels for awhile. When I did and I felt adequately armed to face Poirot's finale, I felt almost as if reading "Curtain" was a rite of passage — my admission to the world of adults. At least, the adults in my world.

Maybe I should have waited a few years. In hindsight, I think I would have appreciated the material more if I had waited. But you know how young people are — always in a rush to grow up.

Timing, they say, is everything, and I suppose that was never truer than it was in the case of the publication of "Curtain" and the final Miss Marple mystery. If Christie had died in those World War II bombing raids and those two books had been published in the 1940s, my guess is that Christie would be remembered as a solid mystery writer from the prewar period — although many of her books most likely would be out of print today.

Instead, most of her books remain in print the world over.

"Curtain" and "Sleeping Murder," too, might be out of print — for it was after the war that Christie, producing at least a book a year almost to the end, literally added volumes to the Poirot and Marple stories. In fact, when Christie wrote "Sleeping Murder" during those bombing raids, Miss Marple had been the subject of only three novels and one collection of short stories.

The novel that ended her career and the one that ended Poirot's career wouldn't have had the same meaning if they had been published in 1943 instead of the mid–1970s. As it was, though, they were modern literary events.