As part of Galaxy Quick Reads 2016 reading campaign that encourages lapsed and non readers to rediscover the pleasure of reading, Sophie Hannah has edited a collection of short Poirot stories - Agatha Christie, The Double Clue. Sophie has kindly written for Foyles to explain why she believes that Agatha Christie is ideal for new readers.
The new list of six bite-size books from well-known authors is released today, to help all adults discover the pleasure and benefits of a good read. The books are:
– The Anniversary: Ten Tempting Stories From Ten Bestselling Authors (edited by Veronica Henry)
– The Double Clue: Poirot Short Stories by Agatha Christie (edited by Sophie Hannah and John Curran)
– Too Good to be True by Ann Cleeves
– A Baby at the Beach Café by Lucy Diamond
– On the Rock by Andy McNab
– I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban (An Abridged Edition) by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb
I vividly remember my first experience of reading Agatha Christie. It was my father who introduced me to her books. He was an enthusiastic collector of cricket books, and spent a lot of his spare time at second-hand book fairs. One day, when I was twelve, he came back with a battered old paperback copy of Agatha's The Body in the Library for me, knowing how much I liked mystery and detective stories. I started to read it and was immediately hooked. I demanded that my Dad keep an eye out for other Agatha books at all future book fairs. Within a year and a half I had a full collection, and had read every word the Queen of Crime had ever published. I had become a zealous Agatha Christie fan, and remain one to this day.
Many Christie fans say that she was the first 'grown-up' author they read, or the author that first got them hooked on reading. So what is it about her work that is so perfect for new (or newly adult) readers? I think the first and most important thing has to be the gripping - some might even say addictive - quality of her writing. It is the most important talent a writer needs: the knack of ensuring that, after a reader has read the first sentence, she will want to read the second, and then the third, and by the fourth she will be completely hooked and tearing through the pages, praying there are lots more books by the same author to read after she's finished this one.
Agatha's novels are generally very short, so you can race through them not only individually, but as an oeuvre. This is encouraging, rather than intimidating to readers. Within each book, the sentences and paragraphs are generally short and simple too. There is a lot of white space around the words, which is a much more inviting prospect than long, dense chunks of text. There’s also a lot of dialogue in Christie’s books – the events unfold as much through conversation between the characters as through action. New readers, and indeed many not-so-new ones, are encouraged to see so much chatting on the page! (I’ve always had a problem with early Clint Eastwood westerns, where he rides into town to settle a score. What score? Who knows? He says nothing! If only he would stop at a café and explain to a friend what exactly he’s angry about…) Poirot and Miss Marple, by way of contrast, spend a lot of time sitting in chairs, talking to people – for fun as well as to solve mysteries. This gives Christie’s readers a sense that, when immersed in her stories, they are chatting to old friends.
The main asset of any Christie novel, though, is the story. She grabs you at the start and doesn't let you go until the end. How, though, does she do it? Well, there's always a strong plot that is mystery driven: a puzzling question that needs an answer, propelling the reader through the book. There's a strong structure too: you sense immediately that you're reading something with a beginning, a middle and an end. The resolutions of the mysteries are always satisfying in a Christie novel: surprising, neat, conclusive.
And although the battle between good and evil is always a theme of crime fiction, Agatha always managed to explore evil in her fictional world in a way that was enjoyable, fun and not too heavy for readers. She shows us, time and time again, the battle between darkness and light – but in a way that always feels safe and reassuring. Hercule Poirot is often on hand to set right the wrongs that have been done, and punish those who need punishing – though never brutally or without compassion and insight.
Glance at the pages of any Christie novel and you will see that what takes up the most space is plot. There is so much more besides – humour, wisdom, psychological and metaphysical investigation - but plot is what is most visible, and it’s what draws readers in. When you read a Christie book, it is immediately clear that telling a great, twisty story is Agatha’s top priority; she wants readers to be toppling off the edge of their seats in their desperation to solve the puzzle, or have it solved for them by Poirot or Miss Marple – recurring characters perfectly engineered to make readers crave more, and to adopt a ‘collector’ mentality. I am living proof of this: aged 44, I’m now collecting Agatha’s complete works for the second time, long after my original battered paperback set fell apart. I still haven’t quite got a full set…