Since Agatha Christie published her first book a century ago, her crime fiction has never been out of fashion with readers – and yet her fellow writers haven’t always been so keen.
To PD James she was "such a bad writer"; Ruth Rendell said, "when I read one of her books, I don’t feel as though I have a piece of fiction worthy of the name in front of me."
Today, though, there’s an outstanding new generation of writers on the bestseller lists, and although the settings of their books are often bang up-to-date, they wisely value the traditions of the past, and proudly admit to emulating Christie’s intricately plotted whodunits.
For instance, Lucy Foley cites Christie as a key influence on her 2020 novel The Guest List (and has sold more than a million copies in the past year). "I enjoy the way in which she looks at what might drive ‘ordinary’ people to murder," says Foley. "This was something I wanted to explore in [my] books."
It was directly influenced by the island-bound murder mystery played out in Christie’s And Then There Were None (1939) – an inspiration for Ruth Ware’s recent One By One (2020), too, in which the victims being picked off by the killer are part of a corporate staff retreat at a snowed-in ski chalet.
Ware, who is from East Sussex, also claims Christie as an influence – albeit an unconscious one – on her debut novel In a Dark, Dark Wood (2015), centred on a toxic hen-party.
"It was my agent who first said it reminded her of a modern-day Christie," she says. "At first I was quite sceptical. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that what I had been striving for was the kind of pleasures that I had first experienced when reading Christie as a teen – the intricate plots, the satisfying ‘click’ of a perfect solution, the careful misdirection."
For her second novel, The Woman in Cabin 10 (2016), Ware "realised that I had the choice to either lean into the comparison or shy away from it. I chose deliberately to acknowledge the influence Christie had on me.
"Perhaps for that reason Cabin 10 is one of the most consciously Christie-ish of all my novels – from the super-luxe setting [a posh cruise on the North Sea] through to the surname of my heroine – pinched from one of my favourite Christie novels, A Murder is Announced ."
Abir Mukherjee, who grew up in Glasgow, has been enjoying huge success with his historical mysteries featuring a British policeman in India just after the First World War.
The latest in the series, Death in the East (2019), "actually started as my homage to Christie. It’s a rite of passage for a crime writer to write a locked-room mystery, although I’d been writing for five years before I finally came up with a novel way of killing somebody in a locked room".
The Icelandic writer Ragnar Jonasson, whose chilling whodunits, including Snowblind (2015) and The Mist (2020), currently have British readers firmly in their icy grip, can’t deny the debt he owes her: "When I started to write my first crime novel, I had already translated 14 Christie novels, from the age of 17."
He particularly admires her settings: "She made them practically characters in her novels – the Orient Express, the river Nile, the vicarage, the snowbound country-house.
"She has taught me much on that front, although my background is of course different, so I tend to make use of small fishing villages such as Siglufjorpur, faraway farmhouses, small and treacherous islands off the Icelandic coast."
There are many arguments as to why Christie is back in vogue as an influence. Ware observes that "some people point to the uncertainty of our times and the reassuring satisfaction derived from a well-plotted mystery".
According to Foley, "the murder mystery format is more ‘fun’ than the psychological thriller, which can tend to be a little more serious."
The Daily Telegraph