How letters play a role in Agatha Christie’s best books

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Agatha Christie

The Business Optimizer team loves nothing more than a handwritten letter. We’ve explored in the past how many authors developed their craft in letters. British mystery writer Agatha Christie went further than that – letters of many kinds play important roles in some of her best books.

Agatha Christie was one of the most successful mystery writers of the twentieth century. Known as the “Queen of Crime”, Agatha Christie was a prolific writer. During her lifetime (15 September, 1890 – 12 January, 1976), she wrote 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections.

Her correspondence has been shared publicly to throw a fascinating light on her creative and commercial processes. But, not only was Agatha Christie herself a woman of letters, she used them extensively as plot devices in her novels.

We share details of how letters play a role in some of Agatha Christie’s best books.

#1. The ABC Murders

Letters are central to this ground-breaking novel featuring one of Agatha Christie’s best-loved creations, the fictional Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. A series of letters arrive at Hercule Poirot’s flat in London, mysteriously signed from A.B.C. Each letter details a crime that is to be committed very soon, which Hercule Poirot suspects will be a murder.

The ABC Murders is one of the earliest examples of the “serial killer” idea which is now seen frequently in books and on screen. It’s an example of how Agatha Christie was ahead of her time – when Agatha Christie wrote this story, the phrase “serial killer” didn’t even exist.

John Malkovich starred in a 2018 TV adaptation.

#2. The Moving Finger

Agatha Christie considered The Moving Finger to be one of her best novels. The story centers around a spate of poison pen letters which wreak havoc in an English village.

Former Air-Force pilot, Jerry Burton is recommended by his doctor to convalesce. He moves with his sister Joanne to the sleepy village of Lymstock expecting a quiet sojourn. However, they discover that someone has been sending poison pen letters to the residents of this sleepy town. They begin to investigate after receiving one themselves, claiming they are not brother and sister but lovers. When a village resident commits suicide after receiving a letter claiming that her husband is not the father of one of their two children, the police become involved.

Agatha Christie’s other famous amateur sleuth, Miss Marple, makes a late entrance in the story and is as astute as ever.

The best TV adaption has to the BBC episode starring the wonderful Joan Hickson.

#3. And Then There Were None

In And Then There Were None, the letters serve as a plot device to bring ten very different individuals together.

The ten letter-recipients are each invited to attend a gathering at a remote seaside location. As Europe teeters on the brink of war, the ten strangers head to Soldier Island, an isolated rock near the Devon coast. Cut off from the mainland, with their generous hosts Mr and Mrs U.N. Owen mysteriously absent, they are each accused of a terrible crime.

One by one, they each meet a terrible end – leaving the other recipients of the letters to try to work out who the murderer is before it is too late.

This is the story that made Agatha Christie the best-selling novelist of all time. It has been read the world over and translated into more than 50 languages.

The 2015 adaptation by the BBC is superb.

#4. Death Comes at the End

Death Comes at the End is the only one of Agatha Christie’s novels not to be set in the twentieth century and not to feature any European characters.

It was inspired by the letters of a real-life ancient Egyptian priest and landowner Heqanakhte, who wrote a series of letters during the 12th Dynasty. Heqanakhte’s letters were found in the 1920s by American archaeologists while excavating the tomb of the Middle Kingdom Vizier Ipi, near modern-day Luxor. Agatha Christie had a great love for Egypt and set a number of her murder mysteries in the country. She married British archaeologist Max Mallowan in 1930. However, her husband wasn’t happy about her collaboration with Egyptologist Stephen Glanville during WWII to write Death Comes at the End.

The story is set in Egypt in 2000 BC. The twisted body of Nofret, concubine to a Ka-priest, lies at the foot of a cliff. Renisenb, the priest’s daughter, believes that the woman’s death was not fate, but murder. Increasingly, she becomes convinced that the source of evil lurks within her own father’s household.

Sadly, this story hasn’t yet been dramatized. But all the more reason to read the book!

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