The so-called cosy mystery is a staple of crime fiction. From Agatha Christie to M.C. Beaton, we can’t get enough of village life with the occasional body thrown in which makes it ideal for television, film and theatre adaptations. Recently, it has seen a resurgence with books such as The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle and the film Knives Out. Agatha Christie is, as ever, proving fertile ground for block buster films, with Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express and the much anticipated Death on the Nile. Many have put this rise in popularity down to the theory that when the world is in chaos we look to a simplified, cosy world with the familiar setting and the usual cast of characters. The Golden Age was born in the 1920s a time of deprivation and between wars. Turmoil, war and political upheaval are put aside. We find ourselves puzzling over a complicated set of clues with the most unlikely but loveable detectives. From Marple and Poirot, to Campion and Lord Peter Wimsey, there’s no bar to entry and no qualifications needed to be the person everyone relies on to figure out ‘whodunnit.’
Like so many readers, I have been fascinated and inspired by the Golden Age of crime for as long as I can remember. It’s that ease with which we can substitute ourselves for the ‘detective’ figure. The set is so familiar that readers of all ages all around the world can settle in from the very first page. Everything is as we expect, poised and ready for the unexpected to take place.
I was eight years old when I opened the pages of Murder on the Orient Express and was instantly transported to a train carriage full of glamorous suspects. From that moment, like millions of other readers, I was hooked. And then I discovered the Albert Finney film of Murder on the Orient Express.
I was instantly drawn to this glamorous world. The huge array of Hollywood stars, caught in this snow globe world, was magnificently portrayed. Albert Finney is not my favourite Poirot, but the setting, the costumes and the characters alongside Agatha Christie’s fiendish plot, were utterly fabulous. A new obsession had begun for me.
Like every reader, it was the puzzle that attracted me more than anything else – the need to pit my little grey cells against the clever author. The body is often almost irrelevant. It is simply the catalyst for the sleuthing to begin. Agatha Christie’s ability to present us with a ground-breaking solution, alongside the glamorous settings and the wonderfully familiar characters make these ideal books for adaptations.
And she was, of course, responsible for not one, but two of the most famous detectives in crime literature – Miss Marple and Poirot. They both present the ideal opportunity for serialisation. Once the audience has seen Poirot sleuthing his way through a train full of suspects, they cannot wait to see him travel down the Nile on a paddle boat with a new selection of would-be murderers. When I first encountered Albert Finney’s Poirot, I couldn’t wait to see how other actors interpreted the role. There followed a selection of films starring Peter Ustinov and again a whole array of famous faces and exotic locations. For Evil Under the Sun, we are not on Burgh Island in Devon but we’re transported to the Mediterranean. Again, Peter Ustinov was not my idea of Poirot but the films are wonderfully atmospheric and that glamorous by-gone world is beautifully captured.
But the real treat for Agatha Christie fans came with two of the best series of adaptations there have ever been of any crime novels. Joan Hickson took on the role of Miss Marple to almost universal acclaim. She encapsulated everything we love about the books. Agatha Christie fans took her to their hearts to such an extent that any future series have met with quite strong criticism. Marple, starring Geraldine McEwen and then Julia McKenzie, are not as loved. In fairness, that is in large part down to the fact that they stray quite a lot from the original books and in some cases are even adaptations of books that never had Miss Marple in them at all, something purists cannot forgive.
The Poirot series starring David Suchet is much more loyal to the texts and, as with Joan Hickson, he is seen by many as the very embodiment of the character. Again, though, not everyone shares this view. The final series of Poirot takes him down a much darker path and even raises the question of his religious convictions. This infuriates some aficionados, whereas others, like myself, welcome any new adaptation of Agatha Christie’s work.
Perhaps the most controversial adaptations of recent years are the Sarah Phelps’ versions. These are, largely, the standalone novels – although there is a heavily criticised version of The ABC Murders with John Malcovich playing a rather gaunt, troubled Poirot as an ex-priest. These adaptations began with the magnificently dark And Then There Were None starring Aiden Turner and Charles Dance. This is a powerful adaptation of the novel and, although there are some deviations from the original novel, it recreates that malevolent feeling of abandonment and fear that the book captures so perfectly.
However, as they went along the Sarah Phelps’ versions veered further away from the books until we are presented with a version of The Pale Horse which bears little relation to the book and is almost universally criticised amongst Agatha Christie fans.
Adapting Agatha Christie’s novels is a very controversial area. Film makers quite rightly want to present a new adaptation. However, the fans of the books are appalled when her work is changed to the point where it is barely recognisable. What is marvellous though is that these books can still attract this amount of interest and passion. I love the debate that ensues and if you’d like to see more of this, my Adapting Agatha series is available on my website.
(c) Victoria Dowd
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About Body on the Island:
An uninhabited island.
Ten stranded strangers.
No way to escape.
Ursula Smart (not her real name), realising therapy alone cannot teach her how to survive this life, is determined to make some changes. She signs herself up for a survival course — along with her mother, aunts Charlotte and Mirabelle and Bridget.
But the promised gentle weekend of foraging and camping in the Outer Hebrides swiftly turns into a desperate battle for survival.
Their boat capsizes. Washed up on an uninhabited island, the Smart women face starvation, freezing conditions and — worse — no Wi-Fi.
Then the murders begin.
Someone is killing off them one by one. Will the Smarts escape or will they be next?
Order your copy online here.