20 June 2020
Dear Agatha Christie,
You wrote so many books! I know that’s a really obvious statement but I’m trying to read all the novels you ever wrote and there are a lot. 74 to be exact. I’ve read 42 so far.
Let me tell you a story. In July last year, I was in London and on my very last day I realised I had a free afternoon before I had to leave for the airport. So I went to the TKTS Booth in Leicester Square and got last minute tickets to The Play That Goes Wrong. Doesn’t that feel half a world away now. It’s a silly comedy play about a well-meaning community theatre troupe that puts on a murder mystery play but everything goes wrong. The actors forget their lines, they miss their cues, the props fall apart, the two-storey set collapses and so on. It’s all a big laugh. The murder mystery doesn’t really matter. Except, even though I was laughing, I still really wanted to know whodunit.
It made me remember how much I love murder mystery stories. The impossible scenarios, the seemingly innocent characters with their secret affairs and hidden wills, the family members stuck inside the manor because of the snowstorm outside, the constant whirring of my brain as I try to figure out who it was and the ‘of course!’ moment of how obvious it all is when the murderer is finally revealed. I love frantically trying to unravel the clues and figure it out, wishing I had more information as I turn the pages faster and faster because I need to know what the answer is.
Well, when I got back to Australia, I realised that I had carried that feeling home with me. A friend had recently recommended The Murder of Roger Ackroyd to me as your best work so I bought it for $7.99 on my Kindle.
I devoured it. I did not put it down. I absolutely had to know whodunit. It was one of those books that I read in every spare moment of my day: I read it before bed, while waiting for the bus and for my toast to pop, I read it during breakfast, lunch and dinner. I was on a break at work when I finally got to the revelation – the revelation that would define crime fiction – and it made my head buzz for hours.
So I read another and another and another and another. Really, thank God you wrote so many books because my appetite has not run out yet. How could you have written so many books in one lifetime? Every new story has a cast of new characters living new lives with new hopes and fears. Every new story is a new world for me to live in.
In terms of figuring out whodunit, I have started to notice your patterns. You like to hide your villains in plain sight. Whoever is most likely to have done it has probably done it. Don’t just pay attention to who benefits in the will but go one step further: who benefits off them? Estranged family members will be present using an alias. Never believe evidence that relies solely on the account of one witness. Never rely on the time of death. Always be suspicious of everyone, and I mean everyone. If a character says that they are the black sheep of the family, believe them. Never underestimate women. Don’t believe the saying, there hasn’t been a guilty butler yet. Pay attention to who people talk to and who they care about. Who would they die for? That is usually who they would kill for.
I say all this, but I have read 42 of your novels and I have only successfully solved 1.5 of them. The 1 is Death on the Nile, my crowning glory where I somehow got both the murderer(s) and the motive. The 0.5 is Elephants Can Remember because there were two murderers and I only got one of them right.
And I know you weren’t perfect. Let us not forget the original title of And Then There Were None or sweep aside some of the harmful stereotypes in your novels. No, I will not forget those things simply because you wrote in a different time to when I read. Your novels are not a blueprint of how we should write today. But your technique is an inspiration. Your stories usually dismiss maids, nurses and servants, but look how Knives Out told the story of an immigrant nurse caught up in a rich, self-obsessed American family. You laid the foundation and now we can use your rules to tell our stories. Someday, maybe, I will write the story of how an Asian-Australian artist/lawyer is accidentally mixed up in a murder – who knows.
Merely an amateur sleuth,
Julia Faragher is an artist, specialising in writing, photography and film. She makes films at Skybound Productions and is the former Editor-in-Chief of Woroni. She was named the Young Canberra Citizen of the Year for Arts and Multimedia 2019.