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Agatha Christie – A Quietly Subversive Assassin

Imagine tempting eight of the most unpleasant people in the world to an isolated house on uninhabited island. Then imagine wining and dining them into a false sense of security before methodically and mercilessly bumping them off one by rotten one as an act of poetic justice for the crimes they've escaped punishment from.

This is effectively what happens in And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie's novel long regarded as her masterpiece since it was first published in 1939. And it is a trademark set-up of her murder-mystery oeuvre, whether putting her characters in a country house drawing room for the big reveal or else decamping them to the middle of nowhere.

The allure of taking characters out of their comfort zone and throwing them to the metaphorical lions may be sated these days by the mass appeal of reality TV, but Christie got there first. More significantly, perhaps, the mind games she plays are a whole lot subtler, shot through as they are with a hardcore sense of morality.

Because beyond the period cut-glass priggishness and primness of Christie's assorted grotesques, there is something quietly radical and anarchic about her tit for tat treatment of them. With World War Two looming, it's as if Christie is not only calling to account an over-ridingly self-entitled strata of society who genuinely believe they can get away with murder. She's also attempting to wipe them out.

It is this deceptive sleight of hand that makes Christie so quietly and exquisitely subversive, even as her genius with the thriller genre occupies the mainstream in a way that gives her sizeable back catalogue a perennially universal appeal.

This is why And Then There Were None has been translated into more than forty languages, has sold more than 100 million copies worldwide and remains one of the best-selling books of all time. It is also why it has had more adaptations on stage, screen and radio than any other of Christie's works. This includes her own 1943 stage version, for which producers convinced her to graft on a feel-good ending, while later versions returned to the downbeat tone of her original.

This is also why her play The Mousetrap has run continuously on the London stage for more than sixty years, with not even the rise of social media encouraging audiences to spill the beans on who exactly done it, preferring instead to be part of a knowing conspiracy with Christie herself by way of her sainted crime fighters.

So it is with Miss Marple, one of Christie's most loved creations who featured in twelve of her novels and twenty of her short stories. A Murder is Announced was published in 1950 after being serialised over eleven instalments in the Daily Express. The book marked Marple's fourth full-length appearance in a series which had already established the notion of an elderly spinster and gimlet-eyed amateur sleuth keeping a close watch on the goings on in sleepy middle England villages.

While both And Then There Were None and the Marple stories are whodunnits, it is what lies behind each character that taps into a more vulnerable and dysfunctional society than their trappings might immediately betray. Beyond their respectable façades, Christie's creations are damaged goods, with histories which gradually unravel to leave them emotionally exposed.

Christie spares no mercy on the guilty, who are either caught red-handed by Miss Marple in A Murder is Announced, or else destroyed by some shape-shifting vigilante hiding in plain sight and seemingly as psychotic as their victims in And Then There Were None.

In a way both plays might be said to be crying out for the sort of post-modern deconstruction already afforded such familiar yarns elsewhere as The Thirty-Nine Steps and An Inspector Calls, and some of the starry TV adaptations have reinvented Christie's stories even as they retain their period setting. Onstage too there can be an archness to her work which allows actors familiar from the small-screen to have some very serious fun.

This is a tradition that goes way back, with William Templeton's 1956 small-screen adaptation of A Murder is Announced featuring singing legend Gracie Fields as Marple. With Leslie Darbon's stage version having been around since 1977, the Alan Plater scripted 1985 film featured Joan Hickson in the lead, with Geraldine McEwan defining her anew for the 2005 TV version of the story.

In the end, it is the out and out humanity of Christie's characters that appeal. They may be flawed enough to commit a crime, but as Christie makes damningly clear, it is their self-serving cowardice that will finish them.

And Then There Were None, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, October 19-24; King's Theatre, Edinburgh, October 26-31, His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen, November 2-7; A Murder is Announced, King's Theatre, Edinburgh, February 1-6 2016.

Commissioned by John Good as programme notes to accompany the 2015/2016 touring productions of And Then There Were None and A Murder is Announced, and published September 2015.

ends

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