Agatha Christie has sold more books than any other author on the planet, with estimations ranging from a hundred million to two billion books sold, in at least fifty-six languages. The Guinness Book of Records has named Christie as the best-selling writer of books of all time. Only The Bible is known to have done better in terms of sales, and some conclude that she is currently the most translated individual author in the world.
What is her secret?
Christie's detective stories are mainly whodunits, situated in the English middle or upper class, where, normally, an important person is murdered, and a detective (usually Miss Marple or Poirot) is either called to the crime scene or is (miraculously) already present. All the people involved are interrogated as the story goes on, revealing the details of the murder and possible motives. Often a second and even third murder occurs, typically someone who has witnessed something about the murder, and who has tried to blackmail the murderer. Many of the characters also may have something to hide, making them suspect, but these secrets usually turn out to have nothing to do with the murders. Eventually, at the end of a conventional Christie tale, all suspects are gathered in a meeting, and the detective reveals the logic behind the investigation and finally the murderer.
Strong on psychological suspense and atmosphere, developed as all the characters’ innermost secrets are revealed, there is usually also a gradual build-up of tension before the murders actually occur.
The key factor, though, is that there is usually some ingenious piece of deception involved.
This essential mystery -Who is the murderer? and, as a corollary, How did he or she do it?- is what keeps the readers -all two billion of them- glued to the page until the end.
Similar mechanisms are used throughout fiction, with another notable best-selling example being the Harry Potter series, always built around at least one mystery for Harry and his companions to solve as the story goes from chapter to chapter.
Mystery is what engages the reader’s imagination so completely that he or she will feel compelled to read to the end to find out the answer. Readers are caught, by an effective plot mystery, on a kind of ‘recurring loop', constantly trying to figure out what, who, how, when and why. Plot mysteries can be so effective, when well done, that they seem to outrank even quality of writing in terms of captivating numbers of readers.
Why are mysteries so effective?
Writing much like a dramatist, Christie tended towards minimalism, and in a few skilful strokes presents characters and situations in such a way that the reader feels enabled to breathe his or her own life into them. Genuine, painful experiences, such as loss, guilt, adultery and betrayal play their part in intriguing the reader too.
Christie’s detectives display deduction, wisdom and intuition, but these are not particularly the factors which provide the key to her success. Crime is always punished, justice prevails -the enemy lurks within, deadly but in the end identifiable- but these elements do not especially help with understanding how the tales are constructed.
What then is the answer? How do master authors like Christie create such gripping mysteries?
The key to developing a successful plot mystery is to write it backwards.
In other words, start earlier than the beginning point of the story which is visible to the reader. The detective or problem-solving character is late on the chain of events: the real drama has taken place, almost always, years before the incidents which we as readers are being permitted to see. There has been an important, even mythic, clash between titans who may not even enter the story that we see; a cataclysmic event, usually a murder, has taken place somewhere far away in time; characters or elements which are greater in magnitude than anything that happens later have encountered each other. Then, time has passed -other, lesser events have occurred. Things have moved on and only now, as the tale begins for us, are certain clues or events manifested. We get only fleeting shadows, glimpses of something greater in the background but well-hidden.
Those fleeting shadows and glimpses of something greater in the background create a rhythmic opposition between what is happening and ‘known’, and what we can barely see or guess at. This mystery is what holds us.
Master authors like Christie then throw in masses of material to obfuscate and mystify the reader, hiding the original titanic events behind a screen of lesser, though seemingly still important, facts. Only the protagonist, a detective or other intuitive wise person -interestingly, often an older man, sometimes possessing a stick- can see through this ‘fog’ to the real incidents underlying everything. We only see the fog until the detective or hero brushes it aside to make everything clear -but these underlying causes have always been there, and must be thoroughly outlined by the master author before the first chapter is even penned.
The story tells how the detective pushes the apparent Irony of the detective story, with its recurring deaths and misery, up into the framework of an Epic, with its underlying world order and providence.
So a master author must work backwards, devising the key events which underlie his or her tale well before the tale itself begins. This gives us another principle: a master author tells a wider story than that beheld by the reader -the canvas is much larger than the tale actually told.
It is a tale that might stretch back years, even to the dawn of time (and perhaps before that, as in the Chronicles of Narnia series); it might encompass events and characters we will never see directly. What we get as readers is the small percentage of something, the distilled strands which enthral us with their suggestions of something much bigger. A plot mystery, after all, is just something which the author isn’t choosing to show completely to the reader.
The master author, like an extension of the wise old man archetype, or like the detective herself, must and should always know much more than the reader.
Christie always did. And her success at keeping that knowledge hidden until the very end of each tale is the secret of her success.