The undisputed queen of crime, Agatha Christie, has sold more books than any other writer in modern times. She famously said that “Very few of us are what we seem”. So, in order to glance beneath the surface of Christie’s own life, we had a brief chat with Barabara Sichtermann, an award-winning German writer, who published a biography about Christie this year:
Historyradio.org: You have written a book about Agatha Christie. What was it about her that interested you?
Since I have read her in my youth I was fascinated by her books. Later I wondered about her enormous success and I wanted to explain that to me and the public by writing a biography about her. And I considered her life very interesting when I read about her in her autobiography.
Historyradio.org: When and why did Agatha Christie decide to become a crime writer?
It was because of a bet between her and her elder sister Madge who was a writer as well. Madge told her that she had tried to write a crime story and failed. She added: “I think you wouldn’t make it either.” Several years she only wrote for fun. It took a long time for her to accept writing as a profession. Her self-image was that of a house wife and mother.
Historyradio.org: You have written extensively on feminism and female history, was Agatha Christie a feminist in any way?
No, she was a declared non-feminist. She thought it a higher step in civilization when women are not forced to got to work. But because of her work and success she was of course a feminist idol.
Historyradio.org: Is there a difference between what Agatha Christie said about gender equality and the message conveyed in her books?
Yes, she staged a lot of women in her books who where independent, confident and eager to get a job.
Historyradio.org: Agatha Christie is quite a brilliant plotter. Did she outline her novels down to the slightest details before she started writing?
No, she was more chaotic in the beginning and did not know where the story would carry her. Her sense of order and structure came to her later beyond the climax.
Historyradio.org: How would you describe her use of different settings?
She preferred old English country estates. But she was not dogmatic and chose also locked rooms like aeroplanes, lonely islands, snowed in hotels and trains.
Historyradio.org: If we look at the list of the world’s best selling authors on Wikipedia, Agatha Christie and Shakespeare tower far above the rest in the number of sold books. But do the two of them really have anything in common?
Yes, Agatha was strongly influenced by him and loved the theater. She herself was a successful playwright and often quoted Hamlet, Julius Cesar, Macbeth and other dramas of William Shakespeare in her work.
Historyradio.org: What sets Agatha Christie apart from the other golden age crime writers? Why has she sold billions of books, and Dorothy L. Sayers not?
She was able to hit the nerves of all generations and nations in her lifetime. She was a representative of the common sense and nevertheless unique.
Historyradio.org: There is a marked contrast between the British and American crime fiction traditions? While the British favored puzzles and plots, the Americans created their gangster and noir genre. Why do you think the two traditions turned out so different?
The British favored sophisticated plots, psychology and polite manners, Americans tended to cynical and vulgar expressions.
Historyradio.org: Would you say that Agatha Christie is a great psychologist? Some claim her characters are flat?
She was more philosopher than psychologist. Her question was “What to do with the evil in the world?” And therefore she did not need sophisticated psychology. Her most important characters are her sleuths M. Poirot and Miss Marple. But they are more ideas than characters.
Historyradio.org: If we look at Christie’s prose. It is not full of elaborate descriptions. Nor is she a stylist like Raymond Chandler. Yet, her books are quite compelling? Why?
She was able to describe complex circumstances and connections in a simple way without losing substance.
Historyradio.org: Agatha Christie saw immense success in her own lifetime? What did she do with the money?
She bought old houses with flair and renovated them. And she traveled a lot.
Historyradio.org: Which of Agatha Christie’s novels would you say is her best? Which one did she consider her best?
My favorite is Sleeping Murder (1976) . She liked best Absent in the Spring (1944), which was not a crime novel.